Photo: Keith Martin
You may not know his name, but you have undoubtedly heard his music. A four-time Grammy-Award winner whose pristine productions are sourced by R&B's elite performers, Bryan-Michael Cox is among a new breed of producers hailing from the South.
Cox's career is as star-studded as the acts for which he has supplied multiple hits. SESAC named Cox songwriter of the year in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Billboard named him producer of the year after he broke The Beatles' record for most consecutive No. 1 hits. Equally surprising is Cox's humble nature. Though nearly impossible to track down, Cox is heartfelt and warm — once you find him.
As comfortable programming Native Instruments Kore as flipping it old school with an MPC, Cox is also an accomplished piano player whose church roots keep him grounded. Currently working from Atlanta, Cox learned the basics in Houston's Assemblies of God and Church of Christ congregations, playing alongside such heavyweight jazz musicians as pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran. Cox often accompanies many a soul or pop star on his Rhodes Suitcase (as he did for forthcoming tracks with Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Monica and Rihanna; previously with Mary J Blige and Usher), and while you'd never mistake him for Herbie Hancock, a jazzlike architecture and a clarity of line marks Cox's million-selling productions.
“That is harder to do than you might think,” the 30-year-old replies when asked about his simple but extremely direct productions. “I learned with Puff [Cox made regular appearances on MTV's Making the Band] and Jermaine Dupri that people want to be able to feel what you are saying and feel the music. I don't want to fill my music up. I don't want to throw random sounds in there. Creating a track and writing a song is a journey. Understand where your destination is and find the quickest and most effective way to get to that destination.”
Mary J Blige's “Be Without You”; Mariah Carey's “Don't Forget About Us” and “Shake It Off”; Destiny Child's “Bad Habit”; and Usher's “Burn,” “Confessions, Pt. 2” and “U Got It Bad,” as well as tracks from Dupri, Amerie and Ginuwine have all benefited from Cox's touch. Cox can as easily create a skeletal production template in Logic as he can a vamp on the keys (if Mary J or old friend Beyoncé is in a crooning mood), but truth be told, his favorite software is Native Instruments Kore. He used Kore on upcoming productions for Rihanna, Mariah Carey and Monica, and he understands its ins and outs like the back of his hand.
KULT OF KORE
“For the most part, I use Kore as a sound generator,” Cox explains from Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank while working on new material for Trey Songz. “I use Logic as my sequencer; I never realized Kore was a sequencer until after I had it for a year and a half. I basically use Kore to enrich my sounds. I definitely love the way it allows me to layer and mix and match sounds you might not normally use in that way.”
Working in Kore 2 with Komplete Bundle 5, Cox approaches its software in similar fashion to his keyboard exploits. He will open the browser, choose from among Massive, Pro-53, Reaktor 5 or FM8 soft synths, and fool around until something strikes him.
“I usually go right to the different presets 'cause they have some pretty dope presets in there,” he admits. “I figure out which sounds move me on that particular day. If I am in the middle of a production and I need something different that people don't use as much, I will use Kore to mix and match sounds to create a new sound. That is the beautiful thing about soft synths; certain sounds inspire me to create a new melody that is hot. Outside of what I use in the box, the only hardware that I use is an SE-1, or a Moog Little Phatty or Voyager. I have a Motif and I use that and Fantom to death. When I'm within the box, I use Kore 'cause it lets me create new sounds. You will never go through all those sounds in Kore. There are no limits.”
Regarding Cox's Kore experiments, he typically combines presets as he did for Trey Songz' “The Last Time.” He also enjoys NI's seemingly endless layering possibilities.
“That melody from Kore is actually the anchor of the record,” Cox says. “It's a direct reflection of me mixing different synth sounds to create a mono kind of Moog-y sounding synth. You're basically pulling and pulling 'til you create something hot. For ‘The Last Time,'' I laid a chord progression down and tried to find the perfect synth line. I went through all my equipment, all the presets, all of the sources I had. It wasn't working. I opened Kore, started diddling around with it, put a couple of leads together, and that dope sound came. It's not like a horn; it's like a wah-wah sound. It goes up and closes at the end. I was looking for the most synthetic-sounding texture I could find.
“Layering in Kore is similar,” Cox continues. “Basically, I go to the browser and find different textures; then I will just drag-and-drop in. From a layering standpoint, Kore organizes all the sounds that are in Native Instruments. I will go to sounds I am familiar with from Massive, Pro-53, Reaktor or FM8 and basically build a sound. There's a sound I love in FM8 called EW7 Lead Sound; it's almost like a synth flute with a little delay on it. When you are in Kore, a list pops up with the different instruments. So I will maybe select EW7 and then find something a little grittier to go under it. ‘The Last Time'' has the EW7 on top; then there is a rougher, edgier thing at the bottom that I got from the Massive library. Then I balanced it off with another sound from Pro-53. The problem is that I can never get the exact same sound [because] I didn't save the preset. I learned a valuable lesson. Every time I make a preset like that now, I have to save it! But basically, the browser comes up, I click what I like and whatever happens, happens.”
KEEPING IT CLEAN
Maybe it's his gospel roots, his instrumental chops, or perhaps it's just part of his personality, but Cox's best tracks are usually his most simple productions. Toni Braxton's “Just Be a Man About It,” Usher's “U Got It Bad” and Monica's “U Should've Known Better” and “Still Standing” are composed of the barest elements, well-balanced and tastefully effected. It almost sounds like anyone could do it, but Cox claims his productions are purpose-made for the vocalists who love his tracks.
“That is because I am singer by nature,” he explains. “I wouldn't want to sing against a whole lot of craziness. How often have you heard a song that you really liked that had only had a few elements? Or how many times have you heard a track that you couldn't really get into because it was too overpowering? It's harder to make a simple production because as a musician you want to throw everything and the kitchen sink in there. But people have to be able to digest and feel your music.”
Even with his approach confidently locked down, Cox deals with production writing blocks like anyone else. Working in his The Black Room studio where he has written many hits, his methods are probably similar to yours.
“Some days I play with synths for 10 hours and nothing comes of it. Other days I make three tracks in a day. I will do three or four ideas, break them down, do my little drops and breaks and bridges until I develop a song. Then I will embellish more once the song is on there. I may add some depth that makes it heavier without complicating it. Just different sounds to make it thicker.”
Cox began as an engineer, working in Atlanta with Noontime productions and the artist Jagged Edge, who introduced him to Jermaine Dupri, with whom he scored his initial hits. From his earliest days attending the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston (where he befriended a young Beyoncé Knowles), Cox has been a self-described “gear fanatic.”
“I have all kinds of shit in my studio,” he says with a laugh. “It's ridiculous. I have four MPCs, all tricked out. I began on Performer and a Mac back in '96. That was my first time understanding samples and hard drives and waveforms. I eventually went with Logic because I have always been intrigued by programming. When I moved to Atlanta in '97, no one was using Digital Performer; they all used MPC. Once I got hip to the MPC, I was so on it I knew it like the back of my hand. I got into Logic because Teddy Riley told me about it in 2000. I thought it would complicate my production. I was scared of it. Then I got into computers. A rep from Logic and my engineer really got me into the Logic game. I used Pro Tools and Reason, but once I got into Logic, it pulled me in.”
But when it comes to making beats, Cox alternates between working with Logic and with his arsenal of MPCs. “I flip-flop,” he says. “Some days I will be in the box and program it all in Logic. Other days I will be back on my MPC4000 and use Logic more as a module so I can use all my soft synths and sequence it in my 4000. I did Mary J Blige's “Stay Down” and “If You Love Me?” all in Logic. Sometimes when you are in the box but you come from that old school, you might creatively hit a wall. You might want to grab the turntable and plug it into the MPC and do it, DJ Premier-style. That can help your creativity. Granted, Logic sounds better, it's cleaner — there is no outboard buzz. But it is really about what makes me more creative. Some days I am all about Logic, my juices are flowing. And I use the Apogee Rosetta 800 for my interface, which is great. The Apogee gives me enough grit and strength; it makes the sounds out of my laptop sound ridiculous. In my studio in Atlanta, I run Logic on my iMac, and I travel with my laptop and the Apogee Duet.”
HOW TO MAKE A HIT
At the end of the day, Cox's Grammys look good on the mantel, but they don't guarantee further success. Only his talent and mad working skills can do that. But Cox has a few tips for those times when talent and skill aren't matched by good manners.
“Stay humble,” he warns. “Don't tell me you're the bomb and then you don't even have a record out. Come to me with some humble shit, and I might think we have some potential to work together. You've got to be humble. I have been in this business for 10 years, I have hit records and Grammys, and I am still humble and have a lot to learn. I am urgently trying to understand the full meaning of how to make a hit record. Other than that, you have to understand your competition and at least match it. Then you can outdo it.”
The Black Room Studio
Computers, DAW/recording software and hardware
Apple iMac, Logic Pro 8, MacBook Pro
Apogee Duet interface, Rosetta 200 A/D converter
Fender Rhodes Suitcase
Ibanez electric guitar
Takamine acoustic guitar
Mic, mic preamp
Chandler Limited Germanium preamp
Neumann U 87 mic
Korg Radias, Triton
Moog Little Phatty, Voyager
Roland Fantom-XR, V-Synth
Studio Electronics SE-1X
Yamaha Motif ES
Image Line FL Studio Slayer
GForce Minimonsta: Melohman
IK Multimedia Philharmonic Miroslav
Native Instruments Komplete 5, Kore 2
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer
Akai MPC3000, MPC4000
(2) Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables,
SH-MZ1200 4-channel DJ mixer
KV2 Audio EX12 Extreme Resolution Active Speaker System
Sony MDR-7506 headphones
Yamaha NS10 monitors