Check out this awesome article by emusician.com about The Neptunes back in 2003 titled Sponge Pop.
It wasn’t too long ago that a producer would be considered golden if he or she were the one person to call for a particular genre of music. Who would have imagined that two kids from Virginia Beach would be all that and more, tearing up today’s music charts with hits that range from hip-hop to pop and nu-metal to jazz. With influences ranging from Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan to AC/DC; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Queen, it starts to make sense. The Neptunes have been doing this for years without the grace of million-dollar record budgets or rich parents giving them Synclaviers at age 7. The Neptunes’ weapons are resourcefulness and enthusiasm.
Five years in the running, The Neptunes — Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams — maintain an amazing tag-team of songwriting, performing, producing and mixing talent. Between Williams’ lyrics, ad-libs and ear for a hook and Hugo’s multi-instrumental abilities, sample techniques and song sensibility, the two have created a unique partnership that has landed them a formidable percentage of today’s pop charts, including Ludacris, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Britney Spears, TLC, Sade, Toni Braxton, Justin Timberlake, Limp Bizkit and Usher. Hip-hop magazine The Source said it well: “Wanna stump The Neptunes — Ask them who they haven’t worked with?” Trade magazine Associated Press put it differently. It proclaimed that these two guys could “make even bastions of mediocrity sound good.”
To understand these chameleons of music, you have to start back in Virginia Beach, a strange little American town with a mix of luxury hotels, a glamorous beachfront, Section 8 housing and good old U.S. poverty — all within walking distance. Williams grew up with what he calls “a big melting pot of influences,” not listening to any one song style like the kids in Atlanta, Detroit or Philly. He ended up in a gifted musical program at school. And it soon became clear it that his gifts were not only instrumental and vocal but also included the ability to absorb everything going on around him in the modern music world. He began singing and writing with “any kind of keyboards, drums and piano,” Williams says, using boom boxes to record his first sets of songs.
Hugo’s childhood was much the same. At 6, his house was filled with all kinds of music. He saw kids at school break-dancing. His sister liked new wave and pop, and his brother listened to Led Zeppelin and Rush. While all this was swirling around his brain, Hugo saw something on TV that stopped him in his tracks: Stevie Wonder demonstrated a Synclavier on The Cosby Show and manipulated the kids’ voices with a keyboard. In this dawning of the era of sampling, Hugo was truly amazed by what he heard. Soon the proud owner of a Casio SK-1, he tried to figure out how to get the best sounds out of that cheap little piece of gear. And he did. A few years later, his eighth-grade science project was to turn two boom boxes into a multitrack recorder. “I’d record into the boom box, put the first track on, and then I’d play it back on my big stereo, put another tape in my boom box and record the big stereo along with me playing along with that,” he says. “I was doing 2-track recording when I was 13. That’s how I learned how to minimize the sound: have the least amount of instruments but have them do the most that they can. That’s kind of what we do now.”
Later, Hugo bought a classic Alesis HR-16 drum machine and a Sequential Circuits MultiTrack analog synth for $200 used. “I bought the Sequential keyboard through the newspaper, and I thought it sounded really cheesy,” he admits. “There was no 808 on the drum machine, so I always used a real low tom sound. But you could program these little sequences in there and switch them on the fly between four different sequence banks. I learned a lot from that keyboard I wasn’t so crazy about. I learned about EQs and how frequencies work.”
Today, The Neptunes can afford practically anything in the way of elaborate equipment, but the duo has consciously maintained a minimalist attitude. “I like the least amount of gear for my use,” Hugo says. With simplicity as its motto and a constant party vibe, The Neptunes’ latest hit may seem like something tossed off in an evening. But that’s what they say about the pros making it look easier than it is. In reality, each song is borne from a high level of intensity, dedication and hard work. “Just because music can be made quickly today doesn’t mean that it should,” Hugo says. Likewise, Hugo — who does the majority of the sampling, button-pushing and envelope-shaping — feels that a lot of the new samplers, synths and workstations have great features but deliver them in a way that is, at times, too complicated. “By the time you’ve got what you want to sample, the inspiration on how you wanted to use it has passed.” So instead of eyeballing his way through multiple screens of wave charts, he just uses his ears. “You should have music at your fingertips,” Hugo says. “That’s what technology can block sometimes.”
To pick up the story from the early days of The Neptunes, Williams and Hugo met each other at a school summer-camp program, and neither was a musical slouch. Hugo held the honor of first-chair saxophone for all-state jazz, and Williams played percussion in his high school band. The two connected and studied the acts that they considered musical greats. They listened to Led Zeppelin; Rush; Earth, Wind & Fire; Parliament; Herbie Hancock; and The Beatles, to name a few. They pored over things like album covers and images and studied how the great bands “had it all together,” Hugo says. Both felt that it was important to leave no genre of music out. For Williams, the vast majority of music has had an impact on him. “I listen to anyone under the sun,” he says. “Everything that exists matters. Learning never ends.”
Most impressive to young Hugo and Williams were bands that knew how to change with the times and always remain fresh, like The Beatles evolving from album to album or Hancock doing his Rock-It Tour as a multimedia show complete with robots, live players, break dancing and a DJ scratching. Hugo and Williams felt that they learned much of what they know from the classic acts, which is why they encourage young DJs and artists to take their time, do their homework and study the greats, too. It appears to have paid off in their case, for few other modern producers have proved as deeply influential and capable of morphing as The Neptunes have in the past few years.
For all their study of the greats, The Neptunes boys have developed some signature techniques that make their music distinguishable. A lot of it boils down to Hugo’s sense of sound manipulation and how he approaches the nuts-and-bolts recording. He likes to work with older samplers, such as the 16-bit Ensoniq ASR-10. “The thing about the ASR-10 is that it’s so simple to use,” Hugo says. “Right when you sample, it asks what key you want; you press the key; it’s there. There aren’t a lot of graphic windows where you have to put a cursor in, zoom in, look at the wave and press buttons. So you rely on your ears.”
Although Hugo says that he and Williams “rarely sample,” the two will occasionally dig for old mono records with cool drum sounds and isolate kicks, snares and hi-hats. “Sometimes, we’ll just spend a day taking drum sounds and chopping them up and just making them part of the palette,” Hugo says.
Once the pair is happy with the palette, Hugo and Williams start playing the parts. Some parts end up being purposely looser than others. “Most of the beats we do may start with the snare drum and maybe the kick drum quantized, and we round it off to the nearest beat so it sounds precise,” Hugo says. “But then other instruments — such as the hi-hat, shakers, bass lines and keyboards — we pretty much lay down live. When it’s sort of off, it gives you the feeling that there’s someone in the room playing something live. It just has this nonmechanical, not-dancing-to-a-rhythm-machine kind of feel. It gives people the illusion that, ‘Hey, I’m in the club, and I feel like someone’s playing bongos.’”
As much as The Neptunes love the saturated sound of real analog tape — “I admit that some of our best recordings were done on 8-track cassette tape,” Hugo says — using reels of tape isn’t practical. So in addition to using an SPL Machine Head rackmount to emulate the warmth of analog, Hugo likes to get a saturated sound by taking one mono synth sound, copying it to another track and slightly detuning one of them. “I detune one of the sides -10 cents, and that would give it that surrounding feel. It wouldn’t necessarily sound stereo — the signal doesn’t move — but it feels like you’re surrounded by tubes. It makes it a heavy, real grimy sound.”
Almost as famous as their longtime production project, The Neptunes’ band N*E*R*D, which includes Williams and Hugo’s friend Shay, has been a stomping ground for such experimentation. The detuning-one-side-of-a-synth method was used on N*E*R*D’s 2001 album, In Search Of … (Virgin), on the song “Things Are Getting Better.” “I wanted it to have a kind of calypso, cruise-line feel,” Hugo says. So he used a Rhodes Mark II piano sound and the Korg 01/W. “The sawtooth synth patch that I made up in the 01/W sounds like a distorted guitar sound, but it’s actually two synths slightly out of tune,” he says. The synth lead, combined with danceable rhythms and overdubs from inspired live players, created the classic, hybrid Neptunes sound.
The Neptunes can’t imagine producing without the grace of nondestructive edits and alternate mixes saved to hard drives. With the mega gigabyte space available on hard drives now, they don’t have to be so picky about what they save and what they scrap. For example, N*E*R*D’s In Search Of … project was so nice, it had to be made twice. The album was first released in Europe in its original incarnation, a more electronic-based recording. Williams and Hugo then rerecorded the album with their live band, SpyMob (soon to drop its own Weezer/Ben Folds Five/Jellyfish — styled album, Sitting Around Keeping Score, on The Neptunes’ label, Star Trak).
Williams has a hard time picking out a favorite song from In Search Of … Everything’s his favorite. However, “Rock Star,” with his classic rhyme “I’m a rock star / I’m rhyming on the top of a cop car,” gets a lot of attention. Hugo says that they were looking for an industrial feel for that track with the vocals sounding dragged-out and robotic. “I sung that track with a cold that day,” Williams admits. Then Hugo used a flange plug-in to twist the vocals in the right direction.
Although he does a lot of singing — including recent cameos with Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes — Williams doesn’t slack off when it comes to production. Hugo and Williams often work separately for maximum efficiency when producing. “We have three G4s, with one main Glyph hard drive, because we have three rooms,” Hugo says. “Now, we have it so that they’re all linked up together. So if Pharrell works on a track downstairs and wants to cut vocals with someone, and I want to add something to it, I can work on it upstairs while they cut the vocals.”
An interesting part of The Neptunes’ production process is that Williams and Hugo loop each part that they record for about six minutes (versus recording a few bars here and there), so once everything is laid down, the arrangement is solid with tracks. Then, with the Digidesign ProControl console, they begin programming mutes. So if they only want to hear a guitar part during the bridge, they program the console to mute the track until the bridge. “It’s just cool because the palette is there all the time, and you just orchestrate like a conductor,” Hugo says. That way, the Neptunes don’t get caught up in the technical part of the game, but stay focused just on songwriting. “It keeps everything flowing,” Hugo says. “Keep all the button-pushing and all the mixing stuff, leave that for later. Just lay all the parts on the table first. Frequencies and reverb, that’s just ear candy. At the end of the day, you can have great reverbs and effects and everything, but are people humming your tune?”
Given that the hooks are what make a song hummable, the lead melody lines are critical. But Hugo doesn’t lay them down right away. “I’ll wait to add any keyboard lines until after the vocals are laid down,” he says. “We’ll start with a beat, maybe a bass line. Then I’ll wait for Pharrell [or another singer] to do his vocals, and then, when I play my keyboard line, it’s usually something that leads around something he’s doing, going along with it or looping around it, like a countermelody.”
Hugo creates those lead lines with that same separation-of-church-and-state mentality that he maintains with songwriting and editing/mixing. So if an idea comes, he doesn’t labor about the actual sound at first. He’ll start with a canned preset in order to establish a part, like the Clavichord preset sound on the 01/W for Noreaga’s “Superthug,” which was later replaced with live guitar. “I just started learning how to play the guitar last year,” Hugo admits. So although it’s quicker for him to play a part on a keyboard first, he’ll later go back and work on the guitar part until it’s just right: “I’ll do as much as I can on the guitar and do several tracks until I have the same voicing, to get the right feel and the right notes in.” Eventually, each part finds its place, leaving The Neptunes with a huge blur of beats, perspiration and inspiration.
The Neptunes recently re-established a home base in Virginia by buying an existing studio and are in the process of remaking it over. Soon to be renamed Hovercraft Studios, Hugo and Williams have a huge list of projects on their to-do list and are indulging in a bit of a gear quest. “We’re looking for more cool vintage stuff,” Hugo says. “I have a lot of analog synths, but I’m getting these keyboards to get a different array of sounds. I don’t use them all at the same time. It’s not like I’m trying to be Yanni. I’ll concentrate on one keyboard.”
But it isn’t the gear that will keep The Neptunes uppermost in the hearts and minds of music fans. It’s the fact that they are creating music that sounds like it comes from an era when music was being made fresh-to-order. It’s the best of the past blended with the cutting-edge sounds of the future. “It goes back to that element of making sure that you have a good song and a good groove,” Hugo says. “The only thing that’s making it up-to-date is maybe the words you use for the song, the voice characteristics of the artist and then the sound palette you use. That’s going to make it new to the ear. But all those elements of traditional songwriting are there.”
How do The Neptunes’ Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams create their sonic makeovers on bands that might twist the brains of the average producer? “We become part of the band,” Hugo says. “We do what they would do if we were them.” So what does that mean? They sit around with the group or artist going through the song-creation process and toss out ideas. “Sometimes [the ideas] work; sometimes they don’t,” Hugo says. “Sometimes they roll their eyes. In the end, we stick with it until the track works.” The duo tries to work around what might not be happening in a group that it is producing. For instance, if the vocals are weak, they make the whole track so strong that you can’t help but dance to it. They compensate and fabricate, treating each project individually without applying formulas or a canned production approach.
THE NEPTUNES’ GEAR ESSENTIALS
- Access Virus C synth
- Akai Z8 sampler
- AKG C 12VR mic
- AKG C 414 mic
- Apple Mac G4s (3)
- Audio-Technica AT4060 mic
- Avalon sp737 preamp
- Digidesign ProControl workstation/console
- Digidesign Pro Tools
- Electro-Voice RE20 mics
- Ensoniq ASR-10
- Fender Rhodes Dyno Mark I electric piano
- Fender Stratocaster guitar
- Glyph hard drive
- Korg MicroKorg synthesizer/vocoder
- Korg O1/W keyboard
- Korg Triton keyboard
- Martin D-28 acoustic guitar
- Millenia Media preamp
- Moog Minimoog Voyager synthesizer
- Moog Liberation synthesizer
- Neumann TLM 103 mic
- Neumann U 87 mics
- Oberheim OBMx keyboard
- Pioneer CDJ-1000 digital turntable
- Pultec EQ
- Shure SM57 mics
- Technics SL-1200 turntables
- Tube-Tech preamp/EQ/compressor
- Vestax mixers
- Waldorf Wave synthesizer