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Chad Hugo (Neptunes) Interview: Behind the Beats

the article below appears in the December 2003 issue of "Sound & Recording," it's a little technical but it really shines some light on their creative process.
and its kinda long too.

D.O.I. - First of all, can you tell us how you got into producing?

Chad - At first, we were signed to Teddy Riley as band. (N.E.R.D.)
Back then we would just see what Teddy was doing in the studio,
while working on the songs for our band. But one day Teddy came to us
and asked if we had any songs to offer him. That's when Pharrell and I
started working together as a production team, and that's also basically
when we formed the Neptunes.

D.O.I. - When did you guys sign with Teddy Riley?

Chad - When we were about 17 or 18 years old. Right after we graduated high school.
Pharrell and I have been friends since junior high.

D.O.I. - What form of music did you guys do back then?

Chad - We started out as a high school band. Pharrell was the drummer and I
played the saxophone. Pharrell and I would experiment recording with the
two cassette decks that I had at my house. We started out with a small
Casio sampler and a drum machine that we stole from a guitar center. lol
But we returned the drum machine back to the store after we started doing
good in our careers. Pharrell used to write songs back then, and we would
record them with the equipment we had. We were also part of the marching
band in high school. Pharrell's part was the snare drum and I was the
conductor of the marching band. During the breaks between classes,
someone would always play the drums while another person rapped. lol

D.O.I. - What roles do you and Pharrell play when making music?

Chad - We really don't have a specific role, but Pharrell usually makes the drum
patterns since he was a drummer. He also makes most of the melodies for
our beats. I sometimes make the melodies as well but I never write the
lyrics. As the Neptunes, I'm sort of like a one man band. For instance,
if Pharrell comes up with the drums, I either replay the pattern with different
sources, or at some live drums to his pattern. Then I add some sounds to the
drums and arrange it for it to be mixed.

D.O.I. - Is that how you guys started out as well?

Chad - Basically yes. That's how we make our beats 80% of the time. But sometimes
it varies according to the song. Sometimes we change roles and I write the chords and program the drums.

D.O.I. - So you're not the only one who programs the songs?

Chad - Pharrell is pretty good on sequencing as well. Sometimes he creates the
basic sequence, then I add more sounds to it, or sample something to add to the
sequence.

D.O.I. - In my opinion, Noreaga's 'Superthug' played a big role on making you guys
famous. How did you guys create an eccentric beat like that?

Chad - We were trying to create new sound of Hip Hop mixed with Rock. Back then
I didn't know how to play the guitar so we used a clavichord sound for the track. In our opinions, that was the most hard hitting sound that we could use
to replace the guitar.

D.O.I. - After that song became a hit, you became one of the top production teams with
hits like Jay-Z's 'I Just Wanna Love U' and Ludacris' 'Southern Hospitality'. What other producers inspired you?

Chad - DJ Premier and Marley Marl were my favorites. JD, Timbaland, and Dr. Dre inspired me as well. Currently, I'm feeling Kanye West and Just Blaze. Oh, and Alchemist is also dope. Our music is inspired by all the music that surrounds us.

D.O.I. - How do you think you guys became such a big hit?

Chad - I'm not sure, but maybe because we have an open mind with other music genres. And we like to keep the music simple. We are fans of the artists that we work with, and we are also fans of music itself, so I guess we have a good ear as a listener as well. So please let me know if we are making wack music lol. We hope to upgrade our level and communicate with the listeners.

D.O.I. - You guys just released a new album 'Clones'. How long did you guys work on it?

Chad - Around 3 months. First we finished all the beats, then we reached out to artists to record on the tracks.

D.O.I. - What were your thoughts when working on the album?

Chad - To tell you the truth we had no plans when making the songs. We just cranked out track by track whenever we got into the mood. But we did have a DJ approach when making the album because we wanted to have different types of songs on the album to let the people know about our label Star Trak. A DJ puts the needle on a record according to the crowd and what they want to hear right? That's how we want to work. Music according to what the people want to hear. When we want to make a record, we make the beat, then contact the artist that we would like to work with, then record the track. That's how the Neuptnes work.

D.O.I. - The beats you make are very distinct with the other beats in the music industry. How do you get the ideas?

Chad - We get ideas from everyday life. Whether it be a sound we hear while walking around or a sound we hear from a record. But the most important thing is to have the "Okay I'm gonna make a beat today"mindstate when you enter the studio. First we find a sound that we wanna work with from a recording that we have done before, or from a record, or even from a preset. We never think too deeply, we just start playing the metronome and record all kinds of patterns. While doing that we come up with a dope pattern. If you have and open mind to music genres, you can experiment with a lot of things in hip hop.

D.O.I. - What kind of equipment do you use?

Chad - We basically use the same instruments that we used in the Noreaga 'Superthug' period. Korg 01/W for sequencing, Ensoniq ASR-10 for the drums, and sound modules like the Roland 1080 or the 2080. These days we have been using the Korg Triton and the Korg MicroKorg a lot. The MicroKorg is very simple. You can filter vocals through it and make dope bass lines with it. We used this for the bass and the high sound for the track 'Blaze Of Glory' with Clipse on our new album. We also use a lot of analog synthesizers. But don't think you can make good sounds just because you buy a certain equipment. These days you can make dope music with just a notebook computer.

D.O.I. - I also saw a Minimoog Voyager on your 'Clones' DVD.

Chad - We use that piece a lot. We used it for the outro melody on the song 'It Blows My Mind' with Snoop.

D.O.I. - Did you sequence everything on the Korg 01/W for this album?

Chad - Yes, we did every track on the 01/W. We used the Triton only for the sounds. The 01/W has a very simple sequencer. 16 tracks with a record and start button, a few more stuff and that's it. But we feel most comfortable with this piece so we still use it. To tell you the truth, Pharrell doesn't have time to learn how to operate a new sequencer so that's why we are still using it. lol. I sometimes use the Triton sequencer as well. But as the Neptunes, we only use the 01/W for our sequencer.

D.O.I. - Do you use the sounds in the 01/W as well?

Chad - Sometimes. The cheap sounds in the instrument are pretty fun to use. We used this piece for the 'Wing' synth sound in Ludacris' 'Southern Hospitality'.

D.O.I. - On 'Light Your Ass On Fire' there is a very interesting effect on the sound. Where did you get the idea?

Chad - That sound was just a preset from the Korg Triton lol.

D.O.I. - lol. Really? You guys didn't add a delay to the sound?

Chad - Nope. On the album version we did use a pitch shift for the vocals though. And on the extended mix version we used the MircoKorg for the vocoder. The part where you sing "Shake Your Ass". lol

D.O.I. - What analog synth did you use for the intro of this track?

Chad - Oh, that was probably the Juno-106.

D.O.I. - Roscoe P Coldchain's 'Hot' has an old school vibe to it. Do you still listen to the old school stuff?

Chad - Yes. Old school hip hop inspired us a lot. That's what we were raised with. Back then, everything was simple and we could understand all the things the MC was saying. Hip-hop was more diverse and free back then. These days, hip hop has a typical sound with a typical outfit you have to wear with it.

D.O.I. - What are some of your hip hop classics?

Chad - Eric B. & Rakim's 'Eric B. Is President' and Audio Two's 'Milk'.

D.O.I. - Clipse's 'Grindin' was one of the best hip hop tracks that I've heard in my life. What did you use for the spaced out percussion sound on the hook?

Chad - That sound is a preset on the Korg 01/W and we added a gate reverb to that sound. I like to experiment with presets by changing them with effects. Oh by the way, the drums for that track were presets from the Korg Triton lol. Pharrell sequenced the drums. Then I added the sounds for the hook and a hihat.

D.O.I. - Do you use quantize when sequencing the drums?

Chad - It depends. Usually we quantize the kicks and snares, but not the hi hats. We like the live feel that makes you think someone is actually playing the drums.

D.O.I. - What parts of the song do you start with when making music?

Chad - With 'Frontin', Pharrell came up with the chords. Then I changed the sound for the chord and added the bridge. Then Pharrell added the melody. After we record the vocals, we mute out parts of track to make the vocals stand out more.
With 'It Blows My Mind', I came up with the main melody and Pharrell suggested that we needed a breakdown because it might get too repetitive. I used the Triton for the horns. After Snoop laced the rhymes, I added a few sound effects and then Kelis recorded her vocals. The breathing sound you hear is actually my voice. lol. I added a flanger to the breathing sound and panned them out. When mixing the song, we also muted out some parts of the tracks. Since this song is about weed, we added the weird Minimoog Voyager melody at the end lol. For this song, we used a lot of delay.
When I work on a track I have a few switch modes in my head. After Pharrell comes up with something, I replay his phrase and add more sounds, then I switch to mixing engineering mode and start playing around with the sounds. The most important is to make the drums hit hard so you can feel with your whole body. Then finally, I switch to DJ mode and mute parts of the tracks when an important lyric is being said.

D.O.I. - You mentioned that you use the ASR-10 for the drums. I personally like this piece as well. What features of this instrument do you like?

Chad - It's easy to select your sources and you can listen to them while you choose. There is no graph that you need to go through or keep scrolling until you find the right starting point like the MPC.

D.O.I. - Do you mean that the ASR-10 is intuitive?

Chad - That's right. You can sample a sound and immediately assign it to the key you want. Other samplers have too many buttons, so you need to zoom in or use the dial pad. When I use those samplers, I forget what I was going to do while assigning and trimming all the samples lol. Especially the new samplers that come out these days. We also use the Ensoniq ROM sounds that come with the ASR-10. Currently, we sampled the Triton drum sounds in the ASR-10.

D.O.I. - What do you think about making tracks by sampling old soul records like DJ Premier or Pete Rock?

Chad - We also use those kind of samples to get ideas. Pharrell would sample and old record and make a loop, then I would make an impression of what Pharrell did with a keyboard. For instance, if Pharrell sampled a loop, I would replay the chords on the loop while reharmonizing it or changing the key. Then we would change the drum pattern around, and by the time we are done, we can't even recognize the original sample. We usually only use samples for ideas.

D.O.I. - Is that because you don't have to go through sample clearances or because you can get more creative?

Chad - Both actually lol.

D.O.I. - What instruments do you play?

Chad - I've played classical piano since I was young, and also played the saxophone. That's when I got into jazz. I was also the conductor for our high school marching band.

D.O.I. - Is the studio in the 'Clones' DVD your private studio?

Chad - Yes it is. We have three rooms, with each room linked to our main Digidesign Pro Tools 24 Mix Plus system.

D.O.I. - Do you guys have a console?

Chad - Not right now. In the lower room we have an old Amex but we don't use it much.

D.O.I. - Is Pro Tools your only recorder?

Chad - Yup. We use a lot of the plug in effects in Pro Tools, and an Avalon Design Mix Preamp when recording the vocals. We use the AKG C12 as our mic.

D.O.I. - How does the engineer work with you when mixing the tracks?

Chad - We work together with the engineer. First we let the engineer do his thing, then we work together and change it around a bit. Usually, we don't change the compression and vocal EQ amount that the engineer inserted. We work on the volumes of each track and add reverbs etc.

D.O.I. - What equipment do you use when mixing?

Chad - We like to use the Ausburger monitor speakers when working in the big studios. But at our studio we use a Mackie as our monitor. Some of the plug ins we use are Metric Halo Channel Strip, Line6 Amp Farm, Digidesign Lo-Fi etc.

D.O.I. - What do you use on your drums?

Chad - Not much really. Maybe the Channel Strip, but that's about it.

D.O.I. - Chris Athens at Sterling Sounds, NYC did your mastering? How did you get to work with him?

Chad - He mastered the Clipse 'Lord Willin' album and we like what he did, so from then on we started working with him.

D.O.I. - Thank you so much for the interview. Any last comments for the upcoming producers who are inspired by your music?

Chad - I hope you all come to understand the route of music. If you understand the route, then you will know which way you will go. And never let go of your passion for music. We never though we would become this famous, but we think that our love for music is what brought us here. We make music not to make money, but to make people dance. That's the most important thing. If you want your music to be felt by a lot of people, then you must find out what kind of music was felt before in the history of music. If you study and understand the history, you will find a way to make music for the future.

He comes off as a total sweetheart to me lol
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