Cover Story 3.2004

 

Hip-Hop Royale
Jimmy Douglass on Producing Tracks with Missy Elliott and Pro Tools

      

By Stephanie Jorgl

"Pro Tools is perfect for someone like Missy Elliott, because she tends to write about five or six songs on the same track," says engineer/mixer/producer Jimmy Douglass, an industry icon who regularly works with Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Timbaland, Lil' Kim, and other platinum-level hip-hop acts. "She'll say, 'Turn that chorus off, I don't want to use that chorus.' And then she'll do some other chorus lines, double or triple them, then do some harmonies and go, 'Wait. I don't like that line. Hold that line for a minute.'"

Pro Tools helps keep the tracks straight and the session moving, says Douglass. "I used to record her to analog tape," he recalls. "I'd just hide the tracks as we went along, turning them off on the board. But you can do that really easily with Pro Tools — so now we work entirely in Pro Tools."


The Changing Face of the Producer

Douglass started out engineering and mixing rock and classic R&B, but his experience and discography now spans several genres of music, including funk, jazz, rock, rap, and hip-hop records. "I've done a lot of different stuff," he says. "But I just happened to lock into the hip-hop world, because I'm offering them something that isn't always offered to them."

He adds, "These days I do a lot of engineering. Back in the day, I did a lot of producing. The interesting thing is how the word 'producer' has changed over the years. In hip-hop, now they call the guy who does the beat 'the producer.' Or the guy writing the song is now called 'the producer.' But I still produce the same way that I've always produced — I'm not really doing anything different than I've ever done."

    

Jimmy Douglass
 
   

Still, some things about making music have definitely changed. "With the advent of digital recording, and technology making it so accessible, it's now really easy to hear your vision in an instant," says Douglass. "Back in the day, you had to think about it, organize it, get the musicians, go to a studio — and all the while, you had to keep the vision alive. You had to have imagination about what the vision could turn into. But today you can open up a little box, find a sample, play a loop, and your vision can be realized in about ten seconds. Then you can either develop it, or move on. It's very nice, but it's also made it so that nobody spends much time on music anymore. You can literally go buy a box today, go home and make a record. It's really given us immediate gratification."

But Douglass feels there are still inventive ways to make the whole process creative. "If you look at a digital medium like Pro Tools, you can do different things with the type of instant gratification that it provides," he says. "The aspect that makes it interesting to me now is the way guys are using the medium and reshaping the product that's given to them, resulting in a spiffier, slicker, high-tech end product."

From Led Zeppelin to Missy E.
The self-taught audiophile started out as a musician, first playing bass and piano, then picking up keyboards and guitar, which helped to build a foundation for his later exploits as a producer. He cut early studio chops at Atlantic Records' recording studio, where he worked on tracks for Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, AC|DC, Foreigner, Hall and Oates, and other bands.

After producing several platinum and gold records with the funk band Slave, Douglass started engineering, mixing, and producing for a wide variety of bands, from Gang of Four and Sister Sledge to Odyssey. Eventually his talents brought him to a cushy, respected space in the upper tiers of hip-hop royalty, working with artists like Elliott, Timbaland, Snoop Dogg, Ginuwine, Jay-Z, Lil' Kim, and Aaliyah.

Fresh off Missy Elliott's new album and mixing N.E.R.D.'s new single, Douglass is now working with Brandi, LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and Freeform Five, a London-based electronic group.

Today, Douglass splits his work between several Pro Tools studios. "They've got an HD system at the studio I use in New York at Manhattan Center Studios, and I just bought an HD system for my home studio," he says. "I've also purchased two HD systems for the studio that Timbaland and I are building in Virginia Beach."

Plugging into Pro Tools Plug-ins
     

"The Universal Audio stuff is really hot, as well as the Neve and API EQs from Unique Recording Software..."
Understandably, Douglass still relies on his vintage outboard processors, but he also loves the plug-ins that Pro Tools lets him tap into. "The Universal Audio stuff is really hot, as well as the Neve and API EQs from Unique Recording Software [the URS N and URS A Series]. And, of course, we all use Auto-Tune," says Douglass. "I also use Line 6's Amp Farm and Echo Farm quite a bit. In fact, most of the time, I don't even bother to mic amps any more. I just ride in on Amp Farm, add a little compression, add a little EQ, add a little squash and distortion, and that's it. But when I do use mics, I tend to use Neumann U 87s. I love them."

And when he goes out on the road, Douglass always takes his home Pro Tools rig with him, just to make sure he doesn't miss out on any of his favorite plug-ins.

Getting Virtual in Pro Tools
Until recently, Douglass never used the MIDI side of Pro Tools, preferring to record synths and sounds straight in as audio tracks. However, he recently changed his tune.

"You're looking at a person who's finally given in to the new," he says. "I'm like the last holdout, the last diehard 'hang on to analog' type of guy. There's definitely a beauty to the old analog stuff. But more recently, I'm seeing guys do things in the studio a whole lot quicker than I could the old way. So that's when I jumped in. I have a bunch of virtual instruments, and I'm getting myself ramped up to speed on them."

Douglass explains, "I'm reinventing myself. I'm going ahead and dropping all that I once knew. I'm throwing caution to the wind. But I'm not dropping all my outboard processing gear — I'm still using those as inserts. But I'm gonna find a better way to do it. The virtual synths have gotten really good, and there's a whole world of samples and stuff out there. Nowadays you've gotta 'think inside the box.' That's where it is, and that's where I'm at."

The New Secret Weapon: Mbox
    
 
The new accessibility of home recording technology means that records are now coming together in new ways. And one way, Douglass says, is to go through the Mbox, the Digi 001, or the Digi 002.

"I've been collecting Mboxes lately," he confides. "Honestly, I have about four of them at home. There's a portability about them that I really like. And lately, I get a lot of stuff from people recording at home with an Mbox. So I'll take their tracks, break them out and turn them into a nice-sounding, fluffy thing — something they couldn't do at home."

Tips for Successful Session Work
As an old-school engineer, Douglass learned some valuable lessons that he now applies to his Pro Tools sessions. "I learned at a time where you couldn't screw up or you'd be fired — or worse yet, you'd lose somebody's performance," he recalls. "Nowadays, when you're in an indestructible world, you tend to think that you can't screw up. But the truth is, you still can."

According to Douglass, "If you can lend your years of expertise doing it the hard way to the new technology, then you can come up with something really special. I've had Pro Tools in my life for ten years — originally using it as an effects and compilation machine, then using it to add a couple more tracks to my analog recorder, then using it to fly vocals, and now, finally, I'm fully there. But having gone through that process, there are a lot of things I've learned, just in the way I think through the process, that people just starting out might never think about."


"Nowadays you've gotta 'think inside the box.' That's where it is, and that's where I'm at."
     
Experience has taught Douglass to cover himself. So when he's working in Pro Tools, he always saves multiple versions of the session that he's working on. "If you save this way, then it's like book markers — every time a major decision is made, you'll be able to return to that point. But if you don't, you'll be in hell trying to backtrack. So you can't fall into the mindset that just because it's Pro Tools, you won't have to save backup copies. You never want to have to reinvent the wheel, so if you just take precautions and save multiple sessions, that will save you later on," he advises.

Another carryover from the old school is Douglass' appreciation of leaving a certain level of imperfection in the mix. "One great thing about the disposability of digital recording and editing is that you can get done a lot quicker and move onto the next thing," he says. "You don't have to worry, because you can always come back to it. But, on the other side, if you keep working on the same thing over and over and make things too 'right,' then there's no life left to it. And I think that carries over to the listeners — they know!"

The Present State of Music
"It's a really interesting time," says Douglass. "Sure, the changes in the industry affect me greatly, in that everybody can do their own recording now. But the one thing that many people can't do is have the savvy of knowing how to put it all together. They can have their ideas and know how to record them, but they still won't know how to mix the track right. So professionals like myself will still be called upon to provide a service in helping those home recording artists bring their ideas to fruition."


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