Photo: Courtesy Universal Motown
Scholars, economists, lawyers and politicians may come to mind when you think of Harvard graduates, but generally not producers and musicians. But then there's Ryan Leslie. He got his degree from Harvard in 1998 at the age of 19 (he started at age 15), and in pretty short order, he has gone on to establish himself as a successful producer and music-industry entrepreneur. Now he's making a big push as an artist in his own right.
His career began to take off when he was signed to a production deal by Sean “Diddy” Combs (aka “Puffy”) in 2003, and he went on to produce a number of R&B and hip-hop artists. Leslie solidified his reputation in 2006, when he signed, produced and marketed a then-unknown singer named Cassie and helped turn her into a star.
The year before that, Tommy Mottola had signed Leslie to a recording and publishing deal. “It took me all the way to 2009 to actually get my first record out,” Leslie says, “because I was doing so well as a producer.”
But succeeding as a recording artist is clearly an important goal for Leslie. “With my own material, I can really spread my wings and experiment,” he says, “and I can create a full body of work.” So he began to steer things in that direction. In early 2009, his first album, Ryan Leslie (Universal Motown), was released. Transition (Universal Motown) followed in November. It features more live musicians and less beat-based material than was on his debut. Leslie did a lot of the songwriting and preproduction for Transition at his home studio in Harlem, but he recorded and mixed it primarily at Chung King Studios, a commercial establishment in lower Manhattan. He also tracked portions in L.A. and at studios in Holland and Germany.
I had a chance to sit down with Leslie at Chung King and talk about Transition, his gear and his production style.
Who are some of the artists you've produced?
Working with Puff, you work with anyone who comes through his studio. The first record that I worked with him on was the Bad Boys II soundtrack. I ended up with two records on that soundtrack, one for Beyoncé and one for an artist that he had at the time called Loon [who now calls himself Amir]. And then I went on to do singles for New Edition. I did a record for Britney Spears, which ended up on an international release. I did a record for another artist he had called Cheri Dennis, which was a single. And eventually, that mentor-protégé relationship [with Puff] turned into a partnership when I signed Cassie, who ended up having a really big record with “Me & U.” That was something that I not only put together from a musical standpoint, I also spearheaded the online marketing effort, and it turned out to be a really big story, because she became one of the first pop stars to be made on the Internet.
How did that end up happening?
Online marketing really was, at the time, one of the only ways that we could get her music to the world. We're talking about a new artist with no previous track record and a relatively unknown producer that was making all the stuff myself. And to get on mainstream terrestrial distribution for content, like radio and television, is challenging. So we looked to online, and I still use it to this day as a direct method of distributing content. I film everything I do, and that's what we did with Cassie. Puffy went on to use that blueprint to build the very robust online presence that he currently enjoys. And I've sort of used it as a foundation for exposing everything I do.
And how did you get Cassie's name out there, specifically? Which sites did you use?
It was a combination of search-engine optimization and search-engine marketing, meaning Google search results. We knew how to optimize her Web presence, so that when people searched for related content, she would be available as an option for them to consume, entertainment-wise. And then from a social-media standpoint, it was right in the nascent stages of MySpace. She was a top MySpace artist for a long time, and we just saw that we had a hit on our hands with “Me & U,” and a hit is a hit anywhere, not just on radio or television. It works the same online.
What year was that?
That was '05 and '06.
And now with Twitter and Facebook, there are even more online promotional outlets. Are you using those to push this album?
Yeah, I'm on Twitter; twitter.com/ryanleslie is 117,000 family members strong. I'm on Facebook and MySpace. Actually, all of those social media tools are aggregated at ryanleslie.com, which is kind of a video diary that really just recounts my day-to-day experience in the music industry, and it proved to be just a great destination for interacting with the audience that wants to consume the entertainment and music that I put together.
So we're here at Chung King, which is a full-service studio, but you also do a lot of production for the album at your home studio, right?
I actually did the whole Cassie album at home — you know, 650,000 units sold worldwide and a number-one record. And everything was done with a [Digidesign] Digi 002 system right in a one-room apartment uptown.
Ryan Leslie playing his Alesis Andromeda at New York's Chung King Studios, where most of the production for Transition took place.
You did it all on Pro Tools LE?
Yeah, did the whole thing on LE. Mixed and everything, straight out of the Digi 002 box.
What else do you have in your home studio?
I really just have that. I've got an Avalon mic pre, I've got the Neumann TLM 103 and some of my favorite boards [synths], which are transplanted to this studio.
How much ofTransitiondid you do in your studio?
I did songwriting up there and just sort of messed around. But it's like being a kid; if you can have a bigger train set, you want the biggest one you can. I don't remember the scale of the train sets; I used to know. But the big one was always the G-scale train. So you can consider [Chung King] the G-scale. You've got a Neve console, you've got the live room, you've got the three levels of monitoring, and you can get really loud without getting complaints from the neighbors. Yeah, this is sort of the home base, this room right here.
You also recorded some ofTransitionin L.A. and then some in Europe, right?
I went to a studio called Global Studios in Amsterdam, which is a much more stripped-down version of this. It's much closer to my home studio. And to a much smaller room called Tritonus Tonstudio in Berlin. But those were really sort of outliers in the process. The real process took place here. And what was cool is that I made all the records and then had a chance before the album was released to go and actually perform some of them. And the live performance of the record really inspired me to bring some players in here and put those live elements on some of the record.
How much ofTransitionwas programmed?
I would say it's very close to 40 percent live overdubs, and the other 60 percent is all me. You had records like “Never Gonna Break Up,” and that's 100 percent programmed. But the live version comes alive so much.
What is it about the live approach that you like better?
I just like the textures of having really proficient players run down something in one take. And then there are some nuances that aren't going to happen when you're just looping something.
And they're bringing their experience to the table and interpreting your material, right?
Yeah, they have their interpretation and their years of practice that they've put into making love to their instruments, and that gets poured into my records.
Do you ever feel like you had this thing in your head a certain way, and you hear someone play it and it's not like you want it?
I definitely direct it. I do have a very specific musical vision that I hear and convey to any of the players that are in. And insomuch as they do something that I like, that I didn't hear [in my head previously], that's really the magic of having them in the studio.
So you play keyboards and drums, what else?
I play around on everything. And the beauty of the studio is that I can play it over and over until we get a take that works. But from a live standpoint, I mostly stick to a lead synth or keys.
Do you use a lot of software plug-ins in your productions?
Really, I just use the out-of-the-box stuff: the DigiRack suite, Long Delay, Extra Long Delay, the compressor. Now they've got the 4-band EQ III, but I actually prefer the 4-band EQ II.
Do you use any software synths or only hardware?
Yeah [hardware only]. I like these boards because I know the sounds, but it's going to be time to adapt soon. But it's just about taking the time to get acclimated to the virtual.
So these are your three main synths: an Alesis Andromeda, an Access Virus, and what's this Korg one?
That's an R3, which I use a lot in my live performances; it's got some cool lead sounds. And this Virus is actually a one of a kind. It's called a Gold Filter, and it was made to celebrate the anniversary of Access. And I actually had to bid for it, after someone won it from Access.
When you program tracks, what are you using for drum sounds?
I have a pretty extensive library of drums. I've collected sampled sounds.
What are you triggering them from? Do you have an MPC?
I actually just program them on the grid.
So you're placing the audio files into the grid on Pro Tools.
Do you find that lets you program the intricacies of a drum part?
Yeah. Sometimes you might have a loop that's live that already has some human nuances, where it's not exactly on [timing-wise], but if you loop it, it has a vibe that you can attach a grid to. Or you might have a sound that you can nudge along the grid to make it sound a bit more human. On top of that, I'll also play a lot of drums over stuff or create my own loops, or the same thing with programming like a shaker or something from a [Yamaha] Motif or some cool drum sounds. I always do those live, never quantized.
And you've been a Pro Tools user all along?
What is it about Pro Tools that you like in particular?
Familiarity. I started out with the program in 1999 or 2000, so nine years later, it's just that level of familiarity.
When you're producing your own stuff, do you have someone else in the studio whom you can turn to and say, “Hey, is this working?”
I go with what I feel. This album is such a departure from sort of the slick production on the first album, I really had to hold my ground with my usual “ears” — the team of young interns and staff that I have who listen to everything on the radio. They didn't really get it.
Overall, what are the main differences between your first album andTransition?
This album is really song-driven, and it's really sort of inspired by the experiences of a summer. So it's just sort of three months of writing about anything that I was going through. It's really song-driven; you can play all the songs with a piano. Whereas, if you tried to play “Diamond Girl” [from the first album] on a piano, it would become almost very boring [because it's based around loops]. With these, there are a lot of changes, movement, chord changes, transition, bridges. It's very song-driven.
You said that production-wise,Transitionis less slick. Did you not have the live players on the first album?
I did. I actually had T-Bone Wolk, who plays with Carly Simon. Tommy Mottola actually played a little guitar on my first album, David Sancious on keys. I mean, yeah, we had those elements there. The records that ended up being singles, though, were the synthy, slick, club [type of tracks]. This album really lives in a different place.
From the producing and arranging side of things, were you consciously going for a different sound on the new CD, or did it just sort of work out that way?
I just wanted to express musically, with as much impact as I could, what I was going through. And what I was going through, and what I was feeling was maybe more intimate. I was actually influenced by the music she was listening to. She had a broader palate that was in her iPod. So I wanted to make music that got a response from her.
Her being the muse behind this album.
Run me through your typical production process on a song. Do you begin with an idea, then start messing around with tracks at home and then bring them into the studio?
Yeah. To this point, a lot of the records are really beat-driven. So I hear something in my head [he sings a drum beat]. And then sort of a race to find the drum sounds and pads that fit that drum sound. And then I might hear [he sings melody line], I hear that and I'm like, “Is that a guitar; is that a synth?” You know. And it's always sort of a race to actualize what I hear. But once I do that, I may hear a lyric or melody. With this album, it's a little different, because I actually had chord structures with actual songs, and then it was about, “What's the actual musical backdrop that's fitting with this thing?”
So you weren't writing from beats; you were using song structures?
How do you compare the two methods? Is one better for you than the other?
No, I like both ways, although I really feel that the beat-driven way is restrictive. Because what happens is a lot of times, especially in urban music, the beat is going and that's what people get into. And then you can sing any type of nonsense over it, because you don't want to mess up the groove of the beat. So I like the idea that you can put chord changes and B-section and a bridge. I think that may have been what threw off my staff, honestly. They're used to that four bars looping or eight bars repeating for the full duration of the song, and then when I take it to a B-section or a bridge, they're not accustomed to it.
Did you mixTransitionyourself?
Yes, I did. And that's an area where I definitely have a lot of room to grow.
Did you mix it here at Chung King?
Yes, but really, I mixed it in the box.
So you weren't using the Neve console that much on the mix?
Not really. That's what I'm saying. The next record, we're going to set everything up and run analog, with a bunch of tube mics and preamps and really make the thickest, fattest-sounding record that we can make.
You're going to track it to 2-inch and dump it into Pro Tools later?
Yes. Motown is doing this Michael Jackson remix suite, and I was able to listen to the [analog] stems from the Jacksons' records. They sound so incredible. If I have the opportunity to do it, I'm definitely going to do it that way.
Mike Levine is EM's editor and senior media producer.