Photo: Keith Munyon
Did you know that one of the keys to writing an international hit song is to make it easy to sing? So says producer and songwriter RedOne. “It has to be melodic and memorable,” he explains, “and those who don''t speak English have to be able to sing [along] with it.” A hit is more likely “if it''s easy, if it''s hooky, and has something that you can grab.”
He should know about international pop hits. In his relatively short career, RedOne has had quite a few, both as a producer and a songwriter. He''s best known as the man behind megastar Lady Gaga''s melodic, electronic pop sound.
A relative unknown in 2006, RedOne''s career has moved very quickly. He was the number one producer on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart for 2009, and the number three songwriter (behind Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga).
Born Nadir Khayat in Morocco, RedOne came to the United States via Sweden, where he had moved to at age 18 to pursue a career as a rock guitar player and singer. He later discovered that his real passion was producing and writing pop songs, and he transitioned his career in that direction. After some initial successes in Sweden, he moved to the United States where his career really took off. He has worked with artists such as Akon, the Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias, and Sean Kingston, but Lady Gaga is by far his biggest success story. He produced and co-wrote many of the songs on her first two albums: The Fame (Interscope, 2008) and the more recent The Fame Monster (Interscope, 2009; see Fig. 1).
RedOne received five Grammy nominations for his work with Gaga, and won for two of them: Best Dance Recording (“Poker Face”) and Best Electronic/Dance Album (The Fame). In 2009 he worked with Michael Jackson on material for what would have been the late superstar''s next album. And in early 2010, he produced the star-studded new version of “We Are the World,” which was used to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims.
Without a lot of fanfare, RedOne has become one of the top producers in pop. I recently had the opportunity to speak to him about his career, his production methods, and much more.
How did you develop your chops as a producer?
It was years of nonstop work. That''s the only way, I think. To perfect and to master what you do, you have to spend so many hours, and in my case I spent years. So it took a little while, but you just get better and better, and just listen to how everybody is sounding, listen to all the styles, and try to master it, to find out why it should sound a specific way for a specific sound. So you''ve got to study that. That''s what I was doing, studying.
Early in your production career, were you doing any engineering?
No, I was more of a songwriter, sitting together with the producer, who was my friend. I was contributing ideas, but he could make it sound real, and then I was learning, watching, but I was mainly a songwriter. After awhile, he gave me a little instruction, and he was like, “Okay, try it yourself.” So I was spending many hours trying to do what I heard in my head, but it was not sounding the way I wanted it to. So I had a lot of pressure on me to be better, better, and better. And then I was just studying and trying to make it sound as good as other people did. That''s before you find your own stuff. Because my head is full of ideas. But to make them sound [good], you''ve got to really know what you''re doing, so that whenever you want to do something it sounds the way you have it in your head. It took me a little while, but that''s how it happened.
So when you''re working with an artist and you kind of envision how a track is going to sound, you know what needs to be done to make that sound happen.
Yes. It''s like painting something that doesn''t exist. But I''ve been doing it for a little while, so I combine my ideas and the other person''s influences and all of that. And that''s the beauty of it, because every artist has something that''s unique or different.
A lot of times there''s a tension between producers and artists in terms of who''s controlling the artistic direction. It sounds like you''re not trying to force your will on them, but instead to work with what they''re giving you and kind of go with that.
Absolutely. To me, all of this new music is about enjoying what you do. And if that doesn''t exist, if any tension is in the music, then it''s not going to come out right, for me. I''m talking about myself only. If the artist has problems or the producer has problems with the artist, then the music is not going to come out well. And I always try to make the artist feel good because that''s the only way I''m going to get the best out of them. The artist is the artist, and you can''t be the artist when you''re the producer. You''ve just got to get the best out of them, inspire them, and respect them the way they are. And the process makes the artist happy because you''re really respecting what they''re about. And suddenly, you give them advice or ideas, and they''ll be like, “Absolutely!”
So I guess a lot of producing is a psychological thing?
Yes. To me, that''s a big part of it. Besides the knowledge of the music and all of that, it has to go a lot with the spirit. Because it''s very emotional, and if the emotion is not existing [in the music], then you don''t get the best results.
FIG. 1: RedOne has played a major production and songwriting role in both of Lady Gaga''s albums, including the most recent, The Fame Monster.
Do you have any techniques that you use to get artists to relax and get into the flow?
Honestly, I don''t have a [particular] technique. I''m just behaving the way I do with everybody. My personality has always been—in my life—trying to make the other person comfortable. When I have a situation that could be awkward, I try to make it easier. And that''s maybe one thing that I added into my production skills, and it''s working. I remember before I was this successful, people said that I had to have more of an “attitude” to get respect—you''ve got to work a certain way. I was like, “No, I''m me.” And that''s the way it is.
When you''re working with vocalists, what do you do as a producer to try to make them sound their best?
I always listen to the artist and try to find out what''s special with them. What''s special about the voice, the tone? On what register they''re best at, how they shine. A lot of times, whether or not a song becomes a hit—even if it''s a good song—has to do with the right key or the right emotion, or the right production. So if you find those qualities that can make an artist shine, that''s what I always focus on, and that''s one of the key things to getting a good result.
Take Lady Gaga for example: What were the qualities that you found in her music that you were able to accentuate?
I remember telling her that I love that when she sings out, she gets this ''80s voice that''s powerful, which she was using less of before we met. It''s hard for me to show you what it is. But like on “Poker Face,” on the chords, you hear the detail, and when she sings, “Can''t read my, can''t read my”—that kind of voice. I really felt like I brought that out of her. It''s not like my thing; she had it. I just love that tone, and you start adding more and more of those situations where she would sing like that, and it would sound perfect there. I think that''s one of the qualities. And there are still some parts where you think that she needs to go with this crazy attitude. You add them together, and it gives a whole personality to her. Not to take anything from her creativity either.
Do you have a recording setup at home? Do you do any of your songwriting from there? Or preproduction?
Of course. I''ve got a portable studio with me wherever we go. [Gaga and myself] wrote “Bad Romance” in a bus, on our way from one country to another.
What does your setup contain?
It''s a computer—a Mac, and [Apple Logic Pro 9], samples, and headphones.
Do you also use Logic in the studio when you''re doing the big sessions, or is it Digidesign Pro Tools?
No, only Logic.
What is it about Logic that you like?
It''s easy. It''s very quick to me. I''ve been working with Logic since ''95 or something like that. Before it became Apple, when it was Emagic and all of that. And it''s become easier and easier. To me, Logic is very logical.
Do you use the Logic plug-ins or do you use a lot of third-party ones?
I use the Logic plug-ins.
For compression and other effects?
Yeah, compression, effects, delays; I love the delays in Logic. Everything is beautiful.
So when you''re working in a big studio, you''re still running Logic rather than Pro Tools?
Yes. If you think about all the hits I did with Gaga, honestly, it was a funny thing. We were working in big rooms, but we were using my equipment. Like my Apple studio speakers, and we were working from my laptop most of the time.
Do you use Logic on top of TDM hardware or just native in the computer?
I use Logic inside the computer. [To read more about his use of Logic, read “RedOne Redux.”]
Do you get involved in the mixing side of things?
I have my guy who mixes for me, but what I love about him is he doesn''t change my mix. When I''m done with my production, it sounds almost [finished].
So you mix it as you go?
If it doesn''t sound right, it''s wrong. That''s how I feel. The whole sound is what I''m creating because I''m mixing a certain way. So that''s why it''s taken me awhile to find the right mixer who is going to respect exactly what I''ve done and just take it to a better level.
Who is your mix engineer?
When you''re doing your mixes in Logic as you''re producing this stuff, have you built the whole track from the ground up? Do you typically bring in a lot of musicians, or is it just programmed, or what?
I play everything myself, you know. Unless I need something that I can''t do myself, like strings.
In addition to having worked very hard to develop his craft, RedOne attributes a lot of his success as a producer to treating artists with respect.
Photo: Keith Munyon
Are the drums mostly programmed?
They''re programmed, yes, but they''re all live sounds [samples].
How do you usually program your drum parts—sitting at a keyboard?
Yes, that''s how I do it. I just sit down and start building and making it sound better and better.
What software instruments do you like to use a lot?
A lot of them are in Logic.
You''re using the Logic synths and Ultrabeat, and all of those?
The role of the producer, even the meaning of the word producer, is different for certain types of music. Like in hip-hop and pop, where you have different producers on the same album doing different songs. Whereas in a rock project, it''s usually one person controlling the creative vision for the whole album. Do you mind being in a situation where you''re not doing all the songs on an album, or is that not a big deal to you?
Almost every situation I''ve been in, I''m not the only producer. But I''m trying to do less of that. I''m a little bit more focused on trying to work on my own artists.
How much did you do on the two Gaga albums?
On both, I did the majority. Honestly, that kind of sound was created when I was with Gaga. So after that, the other producers had to adjust to that. You know?
Her sound has to be a certain way?
When there are different producers working on different songs on the same album, do they get really competitive with each other?
The thing is, whenever I do something, I never feel like, “Oh, it''s a competition.” But I always feel like I want to do the best I can, and that''s all I can do. You get the best out of me, and hopefully I''ll get the singles. Well, I mean with Gaga, thank God it felt like my songs made a difference to her career, and, honestly, in a big way. So, yes, I felt like it was a competition, but it wasn''t like I felt like the competition was affecting me in a certain way. I just try to do the best I can do, every time. Honestly, when I did “Just Dance,” to me, in my head, I tried to top another song that I did with Gaga, which is called “Boys Boys Boys”—the first song we ever did together. And in my head, I was like, “Ah, I''ve got to do better,” because everyone was talking about “Boys Boys Boys.” And I remember a friend of mine kind of joked with me, “I don''t think you can do a better song than ‘Boys Boys Boys'' with those big drums.” I was like, “Yeah, okay.” And I used almost those same big drums and made them sound better.
Gaga''s music is very melodic and hooky, as opposed to some electronic music, which is not as melodically pleasing and more repetitive. Now obviously, you''re a song-writer, so that''s a big part of it what you bring to it, right?
Absolutely. Because to me, of course the cool beats and cool production [are important], but it has to be a song. It has to be a songwriter''s song—almost like you feel you want to play it on a guitar and it will still sound good. Thank God, a lot of people are doing covers, doing different versions of the songs we''ve done.
There''s been a lot of artists, in pop music especially, who get very heavily edited—a lot of cutting stuff up and moving it around; a lot of pitch and beat correction. What are your thoughts on the subject?
The greater the artist is, the less you have to fix. So, to me, you only want to be associated with those kind of artists that you don''t have to fix a lot. Because all the big stars—The Beatles or the Rolling Stones or The Who—they didn''t have fixes like that, they didn''t have Auto-Tune. All due respect for everyone who is using Auto-Tune for different reasons, but for those who need massive pitch correction because they can''t sing, I would prefer to not work [with them]. I am not against tuning, I''m not against Auto-Tune, I''m not against anything like that. But I would only prefer to work with artists who I would have to fix less.
Part of the problem is that because so many records are heavily tuned, the public''s ears get accustomed to a certain level of that. Is that maybe a bad thing overall?
Yeah, honestly, because the more tuning you do, the less character the artist gets. So I believe in the character more than the tuning.
So you might fix a note that''s really out, as opposed to one that''s just a little bit off.
Yeah, exactly. But a little bit off is beautiful. That''s what makes the whole thing. Because if everything is 100-percent perfect, then you lose what''s real. And with Gaga, I almost have to fix nothing.
She really nails it.
She nails it, and we do it old school. If she does it wrong, she re-records it until we get it right. Instead of, “It''s alright, just do it and we''ll fix it.” No.
So you don''t end up having to comp too much?
No, honestly, I comp. But it''s her singing it; I''m not fixing tuning. I''m using her time in the best way because she''s now big, and she''s very busy. When she comes [to the studio,] I have her do a few verses and then I''ll comp the best of the takes, and then she''ll listen to it, and say, “I can do this better,” and boom, it''s good.
Do you use the comping feature in Logic?
Yes, I love it. It''s unbelievable. I love the loops.
You mean the loop-record feature?
[Yes]. The artist doesn''t think about one word or one line to get nervous about. I just say, “Let''s do this verse and just get into it.” If I hear something that''s so wrong, I''ll stop it, and say, “Focus on this and this and this a little bit more. Okay, perfect.” And then just get into it, get into it, get into it, and then you have many beautiful takes that are alive. Then you comp.
Talk about working with Michael Jackson. What were you doing with him?
I was working on a lot of [song] ideas.
So you were in preproduction with him?
Yeah, on a lot of stuff, a lot of ideas. We were just moving from one idea to another one. And we were about to go back and revisit everything and take the best ones out of everything. And then, unfortunately…
What was he like in the studio? Was he really fast at getting things right?
Yes, he was incredible. It was easy to work with him. He had incredible experience, and he had incredible knowledge about every aspect of music. From production to the sonics of his voice, to how the video should be. Incredible.
What projects do you have coming up?
I have a really, really good song with Mary J. Blige on her album; it''s going to be a single. I''m finishing up this song, it looks like it''s going to be the second single for Oriente; it''s a rock song. I have mixing for Lady Gaga, and I''m working on my artist called Mohombi—that''s coming out really soon.
What kind of music?
It''s very, very global—dance—but it''s global. Rhythmic, very rhythmic.
Finally, you were the number one producer on Billboard''s Hot 100 chart for 2009. What did that feel like?
It was amazing. I mean, what else, what''s bigger? If Billboard gives you producer of the year, what''s better? That''s a recognition forever.
It must feel great.
Absolutely, it feels very emotional. You know, it''s like the reality is on paper, it''s there. Of course, I won two Grammys, too. So it''s like incredible.
Produced “We Are the World” remake for Haitian earthquake relief, featuring a star-studded group of vocalists. The song debuted at #2 on theBillboard Hot 100 Singles Chart and stayed at #1 on the iTunes Music Chart for two weeks.
Wrote and produced “Takin'' Back My Love” for Enrique Iglesias and Ciara. It reached Top 10 in 11 counties and #3 on the Euro Chart 100 Singles.
Wrote and produced Lady Gaga''s “Poker Face.” The song reached #1 in 17 countries, was at #1 on the Pan European Chart for 13 weeks, and went Platinum or multi-Platinum in eight countries.
Produced Sean Kingston''s “Fire Burning,” which reached the Top 10 in seven countries.
Produced “Remedy” by Little Boots. The song got to #6 on the U.K. Singles chart and the Top 5 in Ireland.
Co-wrote and produced “Love Game” by Lady Gaga, which hit Top 10 in 12 countries while garnering Platinum sales in Australia and double-Platinum in Canada.
Produced This Is Us by the Backstreet Boys, which debuted in the Top 10 in the United States and Japan.
Wrote and produced “About a Girl” by Sugababes. The song became a Top 10 single.
Co-wrote and produced “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, which reached #1 in three countries and was in the Top 10 in 17 others.
Produced “Run the Show” by Kat DeLuna featuring Busta Rhymes. The song climbed to #2 on Billboard Dance Club Play chart and was in the Top 10 in six European countries.
Produced seven songs on The Block by New Kids on the Block. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Pop Album chart, #2 on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart, and #1 in Canada.
Produced Freedom by Akon, which sold 600,000 copies in the United States.
Co-wrote and produced “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga. The song made it to #1 in seven countries and hit the Top 10 in 11 others.
Produced “Whine Up” by Kat DeLuna featuring Elephant Man, which hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Club Play Chart and #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Latin Songs Chart.
Produced “Bamboo,” which was chosen as the official melody of the FIFA World Cup and was used as the featured song for FIFA television broadcasts, advertising campaigns, and branded cross-promotions.
Co-wrote and produced “Step Up” by Swedish artist Darin. The song debuted at #1 on the Swedish Singles Chart.
RedOne Redux In this part of my interview with producer/songwriter RedOne, he talks about some of the sounds and features he likes in Apple Logic Pro 9, and how he got his name.
I wanted to ask you about getting bass sounds, because you got some really cool ones on the Gaga albums. Were those Logic synths?
I always mix sounds together, so if I find a nice sound in Logic [I''ll mix it with another]. And I have one specific bass sound that I use in almost every song. Like a sub, a nice warm bass that gives that kind of body to every sound.
And that''s a Logic sound?
Yeah, it''s a 100 percent Logic sound.
Can you tell us what it is? [Laughs.]
I don''t remember it exactly, but I always call it a RedOne Sub, sub bass. I''ve had this preset for years. I don''t remember what the sound''s name is exactly, but it''s the same sound that I''m using on every song, combined with whatever. If it''s live bass—and I play live bass—I double it. If I have distortion, like an aggressive synth bass, I double it with it. On every song.
Do you have Logic really customized?
Everything is a preset to me.
Do you have templates for every song?
No, it''s not that I have a template, but I know, if I want to reach a specific sound, I know which of my other songs that I''ve done before that sound the closest. So I open that arrangement, and I end up changing just about everything, but at least something that was about that keeps that kind of sound that I do.
Are you really fast with the key commands and all that?
No, I''m not that incredible with that. Not like—I know some people who are incredibly fast with that. I''m good, I know a lot of stuff, but it''s not like these genius people where everything is key commands. No.
You were a guitar player. I guess your music doesn''t have a ton of guitars in it, but sometimes, right?
Do you use the new Logic amp models?
Yeah, I love them. They''re really, really good. Absolutely. I love that.
Will you use that rather than a real amp sometimes?
It depends on the song, and the sonics. If you''re going for a specific sound, you use an amp—you know something like that. What I love is that it goes quicker to find something.
It''s nice to be able to change the amp tone later.
Yeah, you go click, click, click, click. “Oh that''s better.” Like that.
It''s like changing sounds on a MIDI instrument, almost.
Exactly. It''s just getting better and better.
You don''t go by any other name, just RedOne, that''s it?
It''s like one word, capital R, and capital O.
Is there a story behind that name?
Yes, it''s like actually my best friend''s name: Redouan.
Is that a Moroccan name?
Yeah, a Moroccan name. I just took it because I had [been using] “The One.” The One Productions. And another friend of mine said, “It sounds pretty weird to say, ‘My name is The One.''” And he said, “Your best friend is Redouan, why don''t you use ‘RedOne.” And I said, “Oh yeah, actually, that''s smart.”
Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.