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Oak Felder’s Mega Hits And Happy Accidents

Grammy-Winning Producer on His Work with Alessia Cara, Niki Minaj & More

If you’re tuned in to the Top 40, you’ve heard Warren “Oak” Felder’s work. As part of the Pop & Oak songwriting and production duo with partner Andrew “Pop” Wansel (son of Gamble and Huff staff songriter/producer Dexter Wansel), Felder has helmed blockbuster hits by Alessia Cara, Nicki Minaj, Kehlani, Elle Varner, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, Tamia, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Miguel, and Monica.

He’s earned Grammy Awards for Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire and Usher’s “Good Kisser,” and he was honored with a Top Producer Award at the 2013 BMI R&B/Hip-Hop Awards. Last fall, he wrote and produced “How Far I’ll Go” with Alessia Cara, for Disney’s Moana.

Mix caught up with Felder in his home base of Atlanta, to get his perspective on capturing killer vocals, and re-imagining classic tracks.

How deep do you dig into production, as far as tracking and mixing?

I am very hands-on. I don’t use a recording engineer; I track myself. As a producer, a vocal producer, when I’m tracking a vocal, I’ve found that the lag of time that it takes from me having an idea to relaying it to the artist to relaying it to the engineer on how exactly to record it, sort of destroys the potential for the right feel that I want.

When you’re working with vocalists, are you doing a lot of comping to get that final track that you want?

I’m not one of those guys who likes to take certain sections and punch in a bunch of times, because you don’t get as natural a performance. So I’ll put the artist in the booth and tell them to go for what they know, and give them as much room as possible to naturally perform.

As time goes on I’ll try to get them to zero in on certain aspects of their performance, but for the most part, I’m like a large net: I’m catching everything that they’re doing; I’m recording everything.

Do you take that same approach whether you’re working in rap, pop or hip-hop?

Certain pop vocalists don’t lean too heavily on the vocal side; it’s more about the sound of the song. For instance, I worked with Kehlani recently, and the approach to doing her vocal was a lot more focused. She’s doing runs and she’s adding a whole bunch of harmonies, and she’s doing different versions of choruses, and chorus leads. It’s so many intricate parts that you only really have one option: You can record the entire thing in the most natural way that you can, and after, you can go back in and focus on certain sections.

Do you have a go-to signal chain for vocalists? When I listen to Alessia Cara, her vocal has such an interesting, raw quality; what’s your setup?

On Alessia Cara’s vocals, we used a Telefunken ELA M 251 and a Teletronix LA-2A, and that simple combination made her voice sound so magical. And to be fair, it’s not hard to get an amazing tone out of Alessia Cara—but I found that combination was more transparent than anything, because I really wanted to get the true tone of her voice vs. coloring it. We also used the Slate Digital virtual console. It emulates the feel of having your vocal pass through an SSL console or even an old-school EMI console. It made her vocal pop off the track.

Are you doing all of your production in the box?

Every once in a while we’ll go out to an SSL, depending on which studio we’re in. But I find that a lot of the modern emulation plug-ins get close enough to not make much of a difference, especially in pop music. It’s not that we shouldn’t focus on sonics, because that’s the craft, but at the end of the day, not a huge percentage of the audience is hearing it the way we intended.

What monitors do you use?

I monitor on a pair of KRK Rokit 8s. At first it started off as a monetary issue; I couldn’t afford anything more. But then when my career started to progress and I started to make more money, and bought the more expensive, high-end stuff—the Barefoot monitors are another pair that I have, and I love those—but I tend to go back to the KRKs more often because I find that you have to work to make those things sound great, but if mixes sound great on the KRKs, they’re going to sound great everywhere else.

Tell me what else you have in your studio.

For my interface, I have an Apogee Quartet and the Apollo. I don’t use a lot of UA plug-ins; I like the Apollo because it’s a thunderbolt interface. My setup is literally my Macbook Pro. And that plugs into three screen monitors, and connects to my interface, which connects to everything else in my studio via one USB3 cable. That way, if I travel to another studio, I’m not going to use their system. They’re not going to have the plug-ins I have, they’re not going to have the setup that I have. I track all of my vocals through Logic X.

Could you describe your collaboration with Nicki Minaj?

Every record that we’ve ever done with her has literally been us tracking out and sending her the beat, and she returns with what she wants to do with it. She’s one of the few artists that I haven’t vocal-produced. Although we have a great relationship with her, she knows exactly what she wants to do.

How is your work with her different on pop vs. rap styles?

Honestly, the more pop stuff there hasn’t been an approach; it’s always been a mistake. The song we did, “Your Love,” my partner, Pop, sent her the track by mistake; it was from a previous attachment that he meant to send to someone else. And she responded like, “Yo, this is crazy, this is dope; I’m gonna write for this tonight.”

This was the track with Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s”?

Exactly. A few days later, Pop gets a copy of the song, and she’s singing on the record. A few months later, the song leaked. And it charted on the Hot 100. Shortly after it charted, the label determined that this could be a good song, so let’s clear the samples. So they went to Annie Lennox and asked her to clear her master, and she didn’t want to clear it. Then we found out that the master was owned by her, but the holder of the publishing was Jimmy Iovine. We said, let’s get permission to release the song, and re-create the master.

We set about re-creating that intro to “No More I Love You’s.” It took a day-and-a-half; it was very intricate. I researched exactly which synths were used in the original version—I think there was an Oberheim SE6, I know there was a Proteus and they had a Moog of some sort; I don’t know what it was, but I had a Voyager, so I used that. They had a modular synth, and I didn’t have one but I had an emulator that sounded close enough. We re-created a minute of the original record just to sample that section.

How about the notion of interpolations in pop and hip-hop: Alessia Cara’s “Here,” for example, has such a distinct sound with that Isaac Hayes sample.

That was a happy coincidence. Growing up in the ’90s, I was a huge Portishead fan; their song “Glory Box” samples Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap II.” I was very familiar with that loop, although I wasn’t as familiar with the fact that it was an Isaac Hayes sample. My partner, Pop, grew up in Philadelphia, and his father was a producer; he grew up with all of these vinyls of soul artists.

“Here” was partially written before it got to us, and one thing that was similar [to the sample] was the chord progression and the hook. [Alessia Cara] and Sebastian Kole started playing it, and Pop and I look at each other, and in my mind, I’m thinking, I know the perfect sample to put to this: Portishead “Glory Box.” And in his mind, he’s thinking, “Ike’s Rap II.”

I think the reason that sample works so well, and why sampling in general works so well, is because you have an audience that’s already familiar with the original sample, so that automatically endears them to the song. So let’s go back and grab those songs and write new songs to them. It’s sort of a continuation of the hip hop tradition of taking the break and loop from “Good Times” and writing the record that Sugar Hill Gang did over it. You’re pulling from the past to add to it.