Jimmy Douglass and Timbaland

Unless you have been living your life mixing in a closet for the last few years, you’ve probably heard the handiwork of Jimmy Douglass — the engineer extraordinaire behind so many albums and singles on the Billboard chart lately that it’s truly impossible to keep count. Since his career transitioned gracefully from the classic rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and soul projects he worked on as staff producer at Atlantic Studios almost two decades ago, he has become Tim Mosley’s (a.k.a. Timbaland) trusted right hand man and trusted ears behind the recording console — a sonic craftsman and “behind-the-scenes” pioneer in hip-hop.

Lest anyone think Jimmy was effortlessly catapulted into such a privileged station, think again: He did his time in the trenches alongside Atlantic producer/engineer giants such as Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and others, where he was responsible for everything including duping 1/4" safeties, setting up mics, and tracking the label’s immensely talented artists. “I worked on a lot of Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway. Whatever they had in the house, I was doing. It wasn’t genre-specific; it was more like ‘Here’s what we have — make it happen!’”


As the seeds of modern hip-hop finally began to germinate in the late ’80s, Douglass found himself not only serving as an engineer to some of the top acts of the time, but also assuming the role of producer for nearly all the acts he recorded (he also engineered a large portion of Atlantic’s rock-oriented catalog during that time). But in the time that’s passed since he teamed up with Timbaland several years ago, Douglass says that the traditional role of the producer — at least in the hip-hop world — has taken a 180° turn: “Many of the traditional skills of a producer are no longer needed. Now a guy can walk in with a few beats, hand it to the songwriter, and when an artist is done, call himself a producer. In my day, this guy was called a programmer. He supplied that part on which the song would be built.”

The kind of relationship Timbaland and Douglass share is exceptional by most accounts, with Timbaland bringing to bear the new school traditions, and Douglass the old school. “We have a relationship where Timbaland can create these incredible beats and he can pass the ball to an old school producer, so whether he’s there for the vocals or not, he’s got it covered. He is the quarterback and I’m taking the ball and doing the parts I can do and we’re always going to finish. If he doesn’t finish, I’ll finish.”


The fruits of their labors, along with producer Nate Hills, can be found on Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album, which if you haven’t noticed has been ravaging the album charts since late last year. Douglass recalls the genesis of the FutureSex/LoveSounds project: “Justin came to Timbaland, wanting to continue what was achieved on his previous album. We had done ‘Cry Me a River,’ which essentially came to be an epic song. The new album that he had planned was going to have a totally different flavor.”

The timing of the project’s beginning couldn’t have been better, as Timbaland and Douglass had just finished construction on a brand new, 5,000 square foot WSDG/John Storyk designed facility in Virginia Beach. It was ready to go, complete with a Neve VR 72 large format console, two control rooms, and a generously-sized live room. “Justin loved the studio, because when you see it, it really is a spectacularly comfortable place. For John Storyk, our studio was a project of love. For me, it was a practical project: The culmination of everything I’ve ever learned about what a studio should be.”

The room’s design seemed to complement their working style. “We had a separate room where Timbaland could be doing his beats, while I could be working in the main control room. We were able to do the album very quickly and very efficiently and there was nothing we needed or wanted for — everything was right there.”


One of the more interesting aspects of FutureSex/LoveSounds is the method behind which it was built — perhaps a familiar process for producers already working in hip-hop, but a distinctly different approach from that used in other genres. Douglass walks us through the process: “Timbaland lays down a beat for a couple of hours before Justin says, ‘I like it.’ Then Justin writes the song in the studio for three or four hours before he begins doing the parts. I work on the parts with Justin, and though he really needs no guidance, I’m invited to act as both a vocal ear and the producer that I am. Once three, four, five hours go by of adding parts, hopefully we have a whole song finished.”

He confesses that this process is not what he learned in the old school: “The adage that I had heard back in the day was ‘You never write in the studio!’ But thanks to the technological advances in the digital world, when you’re writing the stuff you might as well be printing it on tape. You don’t have to do it again — there is no such thing as ‘demo-ing‘ it!”

Douglass also points out that as time goes by, more and more of record production is “in the box”: “Previously, producers would have to find a musician to play the parts, then find an engineer to pull all the parts together on the board. Now, a producer can literally reach into a box, pull out the sounds and play the parts he wants to play. He doesn’t have to go get anybody. You’re looking at one mind that can create an intricate soundscape.”

Still, one cannot minimize the extraordinary gifts of a producer like Timbaland: “He sees the whole vision and has his finger on the pulse of what modern people want to hear,” Douglass says. “These days, a good producer brings the savvy to find the right sounds that will draw the people.” A good example of this, Douglass says, is the Roland TR-808, a piece of gear that experienced a massive resurgence in hip-hop and R&B long after its initial demise in popularity. “We passed on after it had its day — now, somebody looks at it and says, ‘Hey, this is really cool. The kids would like this!’ Suddenly it’s on every other record in hip-hop and R&B. A good producer brings that sensibility — that’s why you hire him,” says Douglass.


When the time came to track vocals for FutureSex/LoveSounds, Douglass recorded Timberlake in the new live room, accompanied by some home-made gobos he put together: “I went to Home Depot, bought a couple of doors, bought a couple of packing blankets from U-Haul, and I put those doors and packing blankets up in the space and made a booth. I put a [Neumann] U87 in front of Justin and it worked.” While Douglass concedes the vocal is all in the performance, he says he often puts a little EQ on the vocal to add brightness and dimension, or compression if he’s looking for better clarity or punch.

On “Losing My Way,” the second to last track on the album, Douglass was charged with recording a 30-piece choir. Timberlake’s strong preference was to have the choir members record their respective parts separately, then layer them. While this approach ended up working well, it ran contrary to how Douglass might have done it: “I would have used the old school approach, where you have everybody sing the different notes together to get a nice blend. This way you can get the harmonics to give a solid, fat sound.”

Douglass and crew took a break of about a month before mixing commenced in Virginia Beach — by this time, it was all about refining and enhancing the vision that had already been established all along. “The producer already has a blend in mind, even before he gives it to me. I pretty much just put up the faders and go for that blend,” Douglass observes. For Douglass, mixing is a time for refining and enhancing — and sometimes experimentation when necessary: “If you’re living in a room and you see the color green for a month or two, the next day you come in and it’s a dark, dark green, it’s like ‘Wait, what happened? I was getting used to that green!’ Once you change any parts of the core, you gotta be careful you don’t lose the essence of the song.”

Throughout the production of FutureSex/LoveSounds, Douglass, Timbaland, Hills, and Timberlake all appreciated that there was no pressure coming from a record label because Timberlake financed the record himself. “Justin was like, ‘Here’s the record, take it or leave it.’ This was a great way to work, as the label wasn’t around saying ‘change this, change that.’ After all, the record company’s job is to keep the artist happy and keep selling those records — not to tell you how to create it!”