THE HIP, THE HOP, & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN - EMusician

THE HIP, THE HOP, & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Look under “unsung rap engineering and production pioneer” and you’re likely to find Ivan “Doc” Rodriguez. Listen to the radio, and you’re likely to hear his hits. Read this article and you’ll learn how he did them.
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Those who engineered most of the edgier hip-hop and rap recordings of the last 20 years? Arguably, more anonymous than not. The genres’ lack of overt craft — who needs to know where to place a kick drum mic when all the drums are sampled? — has made them relatively overlooked both in the audio trade mags and the culture pubs like Vibe. And given the strong personalities characteristic to hip-hop and rap, any guy behind the console would have been hard put to outshine P. Diddy or Dr. Dre.

But Ivan “Doc” Rodriguez became a luminary, at least within the community, with his work with seminal hip-hop figures including KRS-1/Boogie Down Productions, Grandmaster Flash, Spoonie G, T-LaRock, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Redman, The Fugees, Will Smith, and Alicia Keys. And the awards speak for themselves: five consecutive gold LPs for his work with EPMD and more gold with the Fugees and Boogie Down Productions, platinum with Eric B & Rakim, and double-platinum with LL Cool J. And it’s hardly a comprehensive list. He is, as DJ and Urban culture maven Bobbito Garcia described him in a recent tribute, “a very rare piece.”

And like many kids who came out of Manhattan’s Hells Kitchen with music on their minds, Rodriguez started out as a DJ and a musician. But a chance encounter with producer Spyder D in the early 1980s at Power Play Studios, just over the Queensborough Bridge from Manhattan and one of the first audio epicenters of rap in New York, introduced him to the tech side of the life. After a one-year stint at the Center for the Media Arts in between touring as a DJ with KRS-1 and assisting at the studio, the San Juan, PR, native was named chief engineer in 1987. There, he engineered two of the New York scene’s most influential rap records, Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full and KRS-1’s Criminal Minded.

TRADE TRICKS
When you’re helping midwife an emerging art form, you go less to the textbooks than to the bag of tricks, and Rodriguez created plenty of them. His early looping work involved the use of half-inch 2-track tape that he would use to record longer samples than the 1-second capacity of most devices in the early 1980s allowed. To achieve longer samples on tape, he would loop it around the tape heads and capstans as he held the slack of an extended tape path away from the machine with a pencil.

Rodriguez moved forward as sampler technology did. The Emulator 1 keyboard offered about five seconds; as did the Linn 9000 and the SP-12; the SP-1200 had 10 seconds. When samples required more than 10 seconds, Rodriguez relied on the classic Publison Infernal Machine, a sampler with a 20-second capacity. “The way to make a loop out of a sample before that was to lay down a quarter-note click track from an SP-12/1200 drum machine, then bus the click track to the analog input of the Publison and manually release the click to trigger the loop,” he explains. Ultimately, he found a way to use console automation to program the release of the trigger and create the loop hand’s free. “That was the way we did the main loops on Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full, EPMD’s five LPs, and BDP’s first three LPs,” he says.

Another old-school trick when samplers had extremely limited memory was to play a cut from a 33-1/3rd LP at 78 rpm and sample it at the higher speed, then use a lower-octave key on an Emulator keyboard to play it back at the correct speed, which also served to time-stretch the sample from one second to three.

Rodriguez combined his DJ and engineering chops on KRS-1/Boogie Down Productions’ famous “Stop the Violence” single. The reverse scratching intro came about when he flipped the two-inch master upside down, backed it up 40 seconds from the intro, and played a turntable groove on to an open track.

“Also, there simply wasn’t as much stuff going on on a record then, not as many sources of sound,” Rodriguez says. “So I did a lot of panning. I tried to make a record sound like a storm. Crazy panning can really add to the excitement of a record. If KRS was in a good mood, we’d do some really crazy panning.”

When it came to drum machines, the Roland TR-808 was a benchmark. “The 808 was a real turning point, because you could tune the sound on the machine itself,” Rodriguez says. But as memorable as the 808’s kick drum was, Rodriguez figured out a way to recreate it, driven by the kind of necessity that characterized the early rap recording process. “At Power Play, we had three rooms but only one 808,” he says. “So I would use the oscillator on the SSL console to send a 50Hz tone to an Eventide H3000 and I would sample that and give it a sloping top and tail and tune it to the bass line on the track. Instant kick drum, and you could make the duration of the sound as long as you wanted.”

“Poor Georgie” was a career record for MC Lyte at the time, and Rodriguez fashioned what would become a hit track from an idea Lyte had recorded to a TASCAM PortaStudio 4-track cassette multitrack dumped to a Sony multitrack and ultimately mixed on an SSL G Series console. “I did the same thing with EMPD’s ‘Rap Is Outta Control,’ only that was just a stereo cassette,” he says. “The whole thing was that the artists had gotten a groove they wanted on a cassette and no matter what you did in the studio with a ton of professional stuff, they couldn’t get that flow again. So they would give me the cassette. What I would do is patch the left and right outputs from the cassette deck into the patch bay, then use a mult from each one and spread it out over six channels: Channels 1 and 2 were the original with the low end amped up, channels 3 and 4 were phase reversed, and 5 and 6 had the high end boosted. I would use the filter at the top of the channel strips to dial out the hiss, add heavy limiting and it sounds like a record.”

And when you ask Rodriguez about vocals, you get an interesting response, and it has nothing to do with which microphone you pick. “I remember when we were doing vocals for the ‘Self Destruction’ record, which was the first time the East Coast and West Coast rappers were in the studio together. It was produced by Hank Shocklee and KRS-1 and I co-produced it and mixed it. It was all egos all over the place. Some guys, like Kool Moe Dee, didn’t show up because they didn’t want to be seen with another guy. Just Ice was there and he had a ‘thug’ reputation. He wanted to be on the record but he wasn’t on the Jive Records A&R list because they hadn’t gotten clearance from his label, Sleeping Bag Records. So he called up Willie Sokoloff at the label and said, ‘If you don’t give me that clearance I’m gonna kill you.’ And he meant it. I once saw him lift up and trash a soda machine because it took his quarter.”

Rodriguez did get the vocals, ultimately, using a combination of either a Neumann U-87 or U-47, and a live-type mic such as a Shure SM-48.

MIXING MAGIC
Rodriguez’ mixing approach is similar to that of the stem-based approach used in film audio post. “When preparing to mix a song, I always mix the instrumental first,” he explains. “That way I have a slamming track to start off with and much more control over the entire process. I do the same for vocals and keys. I assign these individual parts to sub-master faders and treat the track as if it were more than one song — an instrumental, an a capella, and a [music-minus] track all in one. Eight sub-master faders control all main faders — as few as two or as many as a hundred. It’s like mixing cake batter — one ingredient at a time until it tastes just right. When done this way there are less automation issues with the vocal parts and the readjusting process is so much simpler.”

Hip-hop mixes are often truly plural — the “clean” and “street” mixes of each song. “A great way to achieve ‘clean’ radio vocal mixes is by using a DAW,” says Rodriguez. “Once you have completed the vocal recording, create a virtual (or physical) copy of all censored vocals and edit out the profanity and other unwanted material. Once I have my ‘street’ mix, all I need to do is swap the vox faders. The automated mix is exactly the same and there’s no need to create cuts/drops to eliminate unwanted words. Automation can also create clean radio mixes, [but] it takes much more time to complete. Often automated cuts in a mix may be a little off here and there and then have to be [re-programmed], which is time consuming. When you actually clean the material before you begin mixing, clean radio vocal results are always guaranteed.”

But tricks aside, Rodriguez remains proud of having to invent solutions to studio challenges or engineer his way around them. Instead of a plug-in, he’ll still slide a copy of a vocal track on Pro Tools to another track and play it back with a few milliseconds’ delay, creating a digital version of the rockabilly tape slapback effect. Once tapped to play semi-pro basketball in Puerto Rico and with a nickname derived from his favorite sports star, Julius Erving, Rodriguez is not at a loss for an analogy. “If you cannot hit the jump, ain’t no sneaker on earth gonna save you,” he says.

Doc Rodriguez may have been largely off the scene for a few years, but he’s never completely left. In the last seven years he’s taken part in a few projects, including Chilean hip-hoppers Tiro de Gracias’ Decisión debut album. “Hard work, self-respect, and discipline are the ingredients in my recipe. When I no longer feel that way I will no longer make records, but I believe that it will be a very long time before that happens.”

Rodriguez's Rules of Order
by Ivan "Doc" Rodriguez

Preproduction:
When preparing your project for professional multitrack recording, use a studio standard Akai MPC, Roland MV, or Korg Triton MIDI workstation to create your song(s) so you’ll have the option of sampling audio and sequencing synthesized sounds in the same unit. If you decide to use a software application (Propellerhead/TASCAM/IK Multimedia/Apple), follow the same process. To program your sequences (or full programming in software applications) you will need a keyboard controller (M-Audio/Roland) with MIDI and USB connections.

When sampling audio (for drum kits/groove loops/bass sounds/special effects) make sure not to breech 0dB in the samplers input stage; you’re recording binary numbers (not audio) and will end up with nasty digital errors. Record your samples at –8dB (rms) for a clean result. Great samples begin at the source so find the cleanest possible source available. Unless you are feeding audio into the sampler via a digital (spdif/coax/toslink) input you are probably using some sort of small (often DJ type) mixer to amplify the signal. Keep in mind that sub-par mixers will introduce noise into the signal path. Keep it clean! If instead you are sampling into a software application (Propellerhead/TASCAM/IK Multimedia) I recommend that you run all audio through an Avalon VT-747sp (or other reasonable grade) tube preamp to your soundcard and then record your samples. This process will add warmth to your digital samples. (If sampling from pre-recorded sources, you should write down any necessary publishing information per sample for future sample clearance issues.)

Once you have sampled all necessary elements take the time to edit the front and tail of your samples; this will be helpful in creating a tighter rhythmic feel and will make your overall programming process easier. When you have edited your samples and assigned them to pads (or MIDI notes on a keyboard controller), you can begin to sequence your groove. Experiment with time corrections (1/4th 1/8th 1/16th 1/16th triplets) to get your personal feel. If your track is sounding a bit too mechanical, make adjustments to the swing mode setting in your sequencer, it will give your tracks a slightly more natural feel.

When sequencing synthesizers/tone modules (Korg Tritons/Roland XVs/Nord Leads) you will need to keep close track of your MIDI channels. You get a total of 16 MIDI channels per MIDI output. Some sequencers (Akai MPC 3000/4000) offer up to four MIDI outputs (64 MIDI channels) and others (Digidesign 002/Akai MPC 1000/2000) offer only two (32 MIDI channels). While both sequencers serve the same purpose there are some substantial differences. If you have an MPC and four tone modules you simply dedicate one MIDI output to each tone module and move on to sequencing. However if you have a Digidesign 002 and four tone modules you will have to daisy chain two tone modules to each MIDI out (002 MIDI out feeds Module 1 MIDI in and MIDI out of that module feeds MIDI in of module 2) of the 002. In order to use both tone modules you will have to split MIDI channels (if you don’t split your MIDI channels you will have two tone modules playing the same note sequence). When using a software application to sequence (only) soft synths, you gain better sequencing resolution and eliminate many of these MIDI issues but you also lose the quality of external tone modules (a choice you as a producer will have to make) and the sequencing feels that you get from an MPC (more so a Roger Linn MPC). You can, of course, use both.

Once the MIDI madness is conquered you can move on to sequencing your parts. Make sure to give each part an individual track and MIDI number. Whether using hardware or software you should still notate your MIDI channels/assignments on paper. While most popular soft synths and tone modules will do well for basic synthesized sounds I recommend using analog modules (vintage Roland/Oberheim/Novation) for sequencing bass sounds.

If you do decide to produce with hardware, always leave a blank 2 bar sequence in front of your song. If you use a studio with limited inputs, you will have to synchronize your gear and make several passes to record all of your material. Viable sync options are SMPTE and MIDI timecode.

Once your preproduction is complete make sure that all equipment output assignments and parameters are set and stored.

Tracking:
1st Session. Begin by recording the basics to your song(s). All the musical elements should be tracked before you record vocals. If your project consists of more than one song, then dedicate your time to tracking the music to all your songs before you move on to vocals.

If you plan to record to an analog format (2" multitrack tape) you will have the option of recording very hot signals (often done for saturation effects) on most of your tracks. I don’t recommend recording high freq signals (hi-hats, cymbals) at hot levels because they will bleed into other tracks and make mixing (of a capellas/drop mixes/solos) somewhat difficult. Substantial gating will be required to reduce noise.

If you plan to record to a digital format (Hard Disk/Pro Tools/ Logic) you will not have the option to record signals to achieve saturation. You will be recording binary numbers (not audio) and will end up with digital errors. Record audio at –4dB (rms) for good results. With digital recording you can record everything at the same average levels (including high freq signals like hi-hats, cymbals) because you will not get any bleeding.

When recording samples (to multi) I recommend that you run all sampled material (individually) through an Avalon VT-747sp (or other reasonable grade tube preamplifier) and then to the multitrack (2" analog tape/hard disk recorder/Pro Tools/Cakewalk) master. This will add warmth to your samples while retaining the samples’ original character. If you like the tube process you might want to try it when tracking synthesizers as well.

When tracking vocals I recommend a two microphone set-up (to two mono tracks), one Neumann U87 (or AKG 414) in the cardioid pattern running through an Avalon AD2002 (or Focusrite ISA 430/Presonus ADL 600/or other reasonable grade) mic preamp and a Shure SM58 (or other very basic stage mic) running through any basic mic pre (or console pre) stacked in an “L” pattern facing the vocalist. The U87 will always give you a wonderful result, the SM58 will give you a gritty type of sound that may be very useful in the mix. I do not recommend the use of compression when recording vocals (unless your vocals are erratic and even then I’d rather work you through a few takes until I get a feel for your style and cadence). Worst case scenario I’ll insert a Tube Tech CL2A or Universal Audio LA-2A in the signal path at a very light setting (2:1). I’d much rather compress during the mix. What the heck, if you’re going to record vocals you might as well record with two mics, you might never repeat that one hot take again and end up regretting the fact that you didn’t get an optional mic track.

Other than the aforementioned tube process I do not recommend processing tracks when recording to the multitrack master. If you happen to over process (compress, limit, EQ) a signal when recording your basic tracks you will not be able to remove the process without re-recording those tracks. Always record your basic tracks flat.

Once you have completed this 1st session ask the engineer (or assistant engineer) to run off a rough-draft mix, one instrumental and one with vocals (if you got to record them). Take this home for review. And if you’re lucky, you’ve already hired me and so it’s already great. If not, well hope for the best and maybe that’s what you’ll get.