This past weeks on campus, we’ve been asked to achieve the Sound Exploder Project. The SOP is a project that requires a number of skills to meet the requirements. We’ve been asked to produce a cover or an original in the style of one of the producers we admire. To achieve so, I’ve been working by myself aiming towards Pharell Williams’s the Neptunes kind of production. I’ve divided my project in 4 major tasks : Research, Composition, Recording and Mixing.
Dave Turner is teaching us this unit and came up with the project brief. We could consider him as a client for this project asking for a ‘Pharell Williams Type Track’ for his business requirements. (I’ve personally chose Pharell Williams but this is totally the kind of demands we sometimes get within the industry.)
The first step on achieving a Pharell Williams alike record was to first research on the techniques of production he’s using. To achieve so, I’ve been looking around Audio Engineering reviews and articles which are already breaking down his production.
They often mention gear and engineering techniques that can be later on used or reproduced on any record.
I found a lot of informations about the studios The Neptunes were using and the way their workflow was set up. I’ve also found interviews of their main engineer discussing around the way they were producing their records.
We for example learn that they have been recording and mixing in a lot of different places and for that reason they do not have a TO GO set up especially when it comes to recording.
We also learn that their workflow consist of a patchwork of different ideas picked up through their travelling or their work within different studios and with different artists.
“Everyone winds up on everyone else’s record,” says Coleman (Neptunes’s Engineer) who worked with another engineer, Brian Garten, “to keep the wheels of a very busy machine rolling. ”
“We had a hard drive that was constantly floating from room to room.” Andrew Coleman.
These informations made me realise that their work consisted of taking elements here and there and combine it in a simplistic and ingenious way.
These informations also confirmed me that working by my self on this project isn’t a bad idea as I’ll be moving in-between different studios, picking different ideas just like Pharell and Hugo would.
There is also numbers of equipment mentioned in the articles such as ” Tube-tech CL1, Dbx 160, LA2A, Neve 9098 EQs and Summit EQ/compressors”. I would then research about their characteristics and aim for the same type of sound in the process.
The next step of my research was then to actually listen to Pharell’s and The Neptunes’s work. I’ve been listening to 3 different records and finally chose a reference to work with.
I’ve chose the song Frontin’ featuring JayZ. I felt like this song had a lot of elements I could aim for. I really liked this song as it’s simple and has a rap vibe to it.
After numbers of critical listenings on different tracks, I determined which of the elements were relevant to Pharell’s type of productions and selected a number of ‘goals’ to aim for.
- I’ve noticed that his works revolve around the drum idea.
For example, in Frontin’, the drums stay unchanged throughout the whole track.
- I’ve noticed the simplicity of each of his songs.
Only a few elements are playing at the same time completing this drum beat.
- Pharell would generally use real instrument recordings and then would have them chopped up and arranged within the track.
- It needs to be dancing/almost sexual.
It almost feel like a joke but almost every song P. Williams has been involved in has a sexual approach to it. The drums and the bass are locked together to make sure you move your butt along the track.
- Vocals are generally mixed in front and heavily harmonised.
With all these informations in mind I was in a good direction to start my composition and writing of the track.
After being guided by Dave’s advices, I decided that I needed to extract the drum groove from Frontin’ and include it within my own track. I used Ableton groove poles tools to extract the feel of his track and apply it to my own drums. I also chose to use a similar pattern to make sure I was aiming for a Pharell type beat.
I’ve selected some real recording drums samples and extracted them so i could arrange them according to my MIDI. I finally came up with a locked drum idea that would lead the track.
Then I had to figure out the chords, I came up with 4/5 different chords within the key of Bb Minor. I had to figure it first then I would know the scale I would use within my track.
The chords and the drums together finally gave me ideas for the rest of the track.
I’ve decided to use Pizzicatos as I’ve heard them a lot into Pharell’s work as well as Wurtilzers and Electric Pianos once again really present into Pharell’s music.
I had to arrange them and find the right rhythm for them that could complement the overall groove of the track.
The Bass is also one of the main elements and I’ve decided to use a Moog Bass along a Sub Bass. The Moog reminds of Pharell old sound selection and the sub bass anchors within modern productions hip hop.
Once all the elements were arranged in a proper order I really felt like the song was going into a good direction : It actually sounded like a Pharell track.
I could have completed and elaborated the instrumental track for ages but I also know that I don’t have Chad Hugo’s talent on keys neither Pharell drumming nor singing.
The track felt really chill and made me want to dance to it a bit. So I’ve decided to work my lyrics around it. They’re written in French and are mainly rap. They rap about partying and the simplicity of human needs. I’ve recorded all the rap vocals and then decided to harmonise some of the parts to get closer to Pharell type of production. I’ve included low and hight harmonies on the chorus as well as mid range harmonies all along the track.
That way, the track is lasting for 3mins and would be up for radio in such a format (maybe with a shorter intro).
As most of the instruments were MIDI or samples, I only had to record vocals. I went reading once again on Pharell’s recordings and did not find any microphone within the school that could reproduce the legendary AKG C12 sound. I’ve decided to use the C414 as the polar pattern is quite similar and I’ve already experienced good results for my own recordings. I still had the signal sent thought the Avalon 737 which Pharell is normally using. That gave me a really crisp sound that I was aiming for.
Then it was just a matter of mixing. As I already balanced the instruments within the instrumental track I’ve decided to only do some corrective EQs on the instrumental stems to make to vocal more in focus but did not mess with their levels. A lot of the sound were a bit muddy as they aren’t proper instruments but dodgy plugins or synths.
My goal was really to get these vocals as the main focus of the track and also to keep a nice low end with the sub so people could dance to the track. I’ve tried to balance the volumes and the frequencies towards Frontin’ mixing style.
I haven’t used a lot of reverbs or delays on the instruments which I could maybe have done a bit more. The vocals are mixed through Izotope Nectar 2 and are being affected by numbers of effects at the same time. Saturation was a major requirement to get closer to the Pharell sound once again.
In the end I think I came up with a nicely done original in the style of Pharell Williams.
Of course, I’m still considering that Pharell Williams would have put way more efforts into production but also has a lot more resources. I feel like this assignment really made me realize the amount of work required in EVERY single record. It also helped me understanding that engineering is a work of patience and that step by step and documented goals are an efficient way to come up with professional work that feels good to listen to.
This assignment also gave me the opportunity to answer an open-ended and non-prescriptive brief form an outside client. It first seemed like a massive challenge but now I understand that with some research and some good planning, big projects can be achieved in no time. It also lit up the importance of communication with the client to make sure you’re on the right track to achieve their goals.
I’ll now reconsider my work flow and come up with better project plans in the near future.