The sign outside still said Frederic Clements, but it would beremoved shortly. Joshua Thompson was in the final stages oftransforming the former Clements art gallery into the new home ofTallest Tree Music, and in a couple of days, he would be hosting therelease party for George Benson's new record, Six Play, whichThompson produced and co-wrote. Benson, we found out later, evenstopped into play.
Thompson just might be one of the best-kept secrets out there, withnearly 32 million records bearing his signature style as either aproducer, a writer or both. While he may not sport the hip factor ofThe Neptunes or the flash of P. Diddy, he has the talent and theambition to work with high-profile acts. His goal for Tallest Tree?Simple: He hopes to create an in-house orchestra of New Jersey'sfinest, capable of playing in any style, just as Berry Gordy did inDetroit.
Thompson, who grew up and still lives in Orange, N.J., near theMontclair home of Tallest Tree, is riding high on the contemporaryR&B charts. During a 10-month period in 2001, he had written and/orproduced a total of 10 Billboard chart-toppers, including LutherVandross' single “Heaven Can Wait,” the first release offof Alicia Keys' smash album, Songs in A Minor(“Girlfriend”) and R&B songstress Olivia's Number Onehit, “Bizounce.” After a nine-month slowdown, while heconcentrated on studio construction, he's back and ready. WhenMix caught up with him, he was putting the final touches on theBenson album, due out this month.
“Certain things are constant in record production,”Thompson says. “It all starts with the material; you have to havegreat songs. George is an icon. The question is, how do you get peopleto focus on him in a new way? It was done with Tony Bennett, and I'msure we can do it with George. We have make him as hip as possible, butyou don't want to create an overly edgy sound for him, because it couldsound contrived. It's a bit of a tightrope, but that's what makes thejob so interesting.”
“I'm a listener,” Benson interjects. “And you haveto stay in touch with what's going on around you. To stay current, Ineed to speak the language that people know and understand. I knew whathe was capable of, but I didn't know whether we would be compatible inthe studio. Lining up minds is difficult!
“But working with Josh on this album has been a greatexperience,” Benson continues. “He comes up with tastythemes, and he has a fresh approach to harmony that I find challenging.We're still squeezing juices at this point; every time I listen to thesongs, I hear something different. We're in the process of surroundingthe vocal tracks with guitar parts, without trying to become tooinvolved with turning the album into a guitar/vocal thing just for thesake of that goal. We have to keep asking, ‘Is this a good timeto let the guitar shine or will a solo detract from the song?’The new studio sounds great. I'm happy for him, and I think that peopleare going to respond to the record that we've made.”
The new four-room facility is an outgrowth of a deal with CliveDavis' J Records, whereby Thompson plans to be in constant production,focusing on signing and developing new talent for Tallest Tree/JRecords.
“I have more work than I could handle at my homestudio,” Thompson explains. “I can't be running around todifferent studios. We've just signed a local group called the Art ofSoul. They come from Newark [N.J.], and all of the guys are great leadsingers. Clive came to see them perform before we had any materialtailored for them and signed them on the basis of their performingability alone. We have most of their album recorded and mixed, butwe're looking for the hot single. We've also started working onOlivia's second album and a new project with singer Joe. Then there'sthe George Benson album, and we're also developing a 16-year-old singernamed Corey Williams.”
A guitar player since the age of 10, Thompson went to the Livingstoncampus of Rutgers University, where he studied with Kenny Barron andFrank Foster, who served a term as Count Basie's arranger. In the early'80s, Gwen Guthrie recorded one of Thompson's songs. By the end of thatdecade, he had worked his way up, co-penning the title track of ArethaFranklin's album, What You See Is What You Sweat.
The now defunct House of Music recording studio in New York City wasa kind of post-graduate environment for Thompson. “That was agreat studio,” he recalls. “Most people know that Kool& The Gang recorded ‘Celebration’ and most of theirother hits there. I learned a lot about how to produce by watchingDeodato work with that band. He did a great job producing theirLadies Night album. Deo had a way of sifting through thewriting, finding the great melodies and grooves, and thinning out theideas so that the best elements shined through. I saw that, with him,producing was about not overcrowding the music. Deo also knew how tobuild an arrangement from start to finish. A lot of producers todayoverlook this, and it's a critical mistake. Quincy Jones is also amaster of nuance and layers. Again, though, it all starts with a greatsong.”
Thompson's big breakthrough came when he began writing with Joe.“Joe and I developed a level of writing chemistry back in '95that I'd not experienced before. Joe came up in the church. He has alot of melodic skills and innate ability. He's trained on the guitar,bass, drums and keys, and I play guitar and keys. My harmonic conceptopened up some of his melodic ideas and we combined on lyric writing.Joe delivers a song so well that he makes writing easy! He can make a Bsong sound like an A song, like Marvin Gaye could.
“We wrote ‘All the Things Your Man Won't Do’ for amovie called Don't Be a Menace While Drinking Your Juice in the'Hood,” he continues. “Joe didn't even have a recorddeal at the time, but radio stations started playing the song a lot,and Joe got with Jive Records. That track set Joe up as a solo artist.At this point, we've written about 40 songs together and have had someof them covered by Luther, Babyface and Case. Case recorded‘Missing You,’ which was used in the film The NuttyProfessor II. It spent four weeks on the pop charts last year andreached Number One on the Billboard R&B charts.”
THE TALLEST TREE
The new four-room Tallest Tree Studios was designed by Gene Lennon,whom Thompson has known for over a quarter-century. “Back in1976, when I first started out in the business, Gene was an engineer at9 West, a studio in Bloomfield [N.J.]. He used to give me advice. I'venever forgotten the time when he told me that if you have a little bitof talent, you can win by default in this business just by staying inthe game and outworking everyone else.”
Once Thompson had roughed out a design that divided the 3,300 squarefeet into four distinct areas, Lennon took a look and had him open upthe design to allow for more square footage in the A room. “Wewant to track as much as possible live, at least for certain sessions,in order to get that classic R&B sound,” Thompson says.“So we eliminated some of the hallways that I had envisioned anddevoted that footage to the live room.”
The facility includes a pair of writer's rooms, outfitted withYamaha 02R consoles and PARIS workstations, and a “whisper”room (Studio C) that sits next to the main recording room. A SonyDMX-R100 console is the centerpiece of Control Room A, and prewiringhas been installed in case Thompson wants to network this board withothers in the facility at some point. Genelec monitors were about to beinstalled in rooms A and C, with sets of M-Audio BX-8 monitors used inthe two writer's rooms. Four rolling PARIS rigs will be moved around asnecessary.
“PARIS is a phenomenal product,” Thompson raves.“Unfortunately, the hardware may be going out of business. I'veworked on Pro Tools and many other systems, but I think PARIS has theedge on them all. For one thing, it is a great value economically. Italso has a gorgeous, transparent sound. Pro Tools has the plug-inadvantage, and we may open up a Pro Tools room to simplify the way weinteract with other studios. I currently have a four-card PARIS systemrunning on a PC that has a souped-up Athlon processor. We get zillionsof tracks out of the system: up to 96 tracks of music and vocals, forsure, with up to 40 plug-ins inline on some mixes. That's verycool!”
Thompson also runs Digital Performer in his writing rooms andmanages resources by having the two systems talk to one another,exchanging audio information via Lightpipe. Interfacing with Pro Toolsfiles is not a problem, either, as Thompson's engineer, John Roper,explains, “Generally, I use a .paf [Paris file system] to .WAVconverter, which splits a stereo pair of .WAV files into .paf monofiles. It's no problem to work with 24-bit Pro Tools files thatway.”
Thompson and Roper hooked up when the producer was looking for anengineer who was experienced with the relatively unknown PARISplatform. Roper, who lives in Connecticut, operates his ownPARIS-centric studio, Digital Dream Multimedia. Besides tracking andmixing Six Play, Roper's recent credits include songs for Joe,Tyrese and O-Town.
“We try to get the most out of all our gear; whatever toolworks,” Roper says. “I like the Digital PerformerMasterWorks compressor, so we'll port things over to that platformsometimes to take advantage of it. The Waves package can be run oneither platform. All told, a typical track count may top out at over128-plus tracks. I do have to do some submixing, but running 48 tracksor so with lots of plug-ins in not a problem.
“We also have a TC Electronic 6000 with a Finalizer engine andthe color touchscreen controller,” he continues. “I can'timagine mixing without it! The depth and clarity of the reverbs isfantastic. I try to leave some room for the mastering engineer, so Idon't go crazy with it. I park the Finalizer inline, along with ourManley Massive/Passive, as part of a mastering chain that sits on thestereo bus as an insert. As I say, I am careful to leave a little bitof headroom for the mastering engineer.
“I also love to use our Cranesong Hedd,” says Roper.“It's a handmade device that we use as our primary A-to-Dconverter. It has what it calls a tape knob that imparts a verydistinctive analog vibe to anything you run through it, and it cansimultaneously handle A-to-D and D-to-A conversions, which is verycool. This 2-channel device has an amazing sound.”
What has Roper noticed about Thompson's production style?“He's very intense, fast-paced and demanding! Josh has great earsfor pitch and time. I've often heard a singer track something that Joshhears as flat or sharp, or not sitting quite in time with a track whenno one else will concur. Nine out of 10 times, when he goes to thepiano to check a pitch, he's absolutely correct. ‘Just make itperfect’ is a favorite saying of his, and he settles for nothingless. I think his records reflect his perfectionism.”
Thompson laughs when Roper's comments are relayed to him. “Iam a vocals fanatic, it's true,” he admits. “I need them tobe immaculate. But I find myself becoming more flexible in this area,believe it or not. I'm not so worried about making them as precise as Iused to, as letter perfect. Our theory used to be that you could havethe character and soul and be in tune. But I now feel if there's a takethat has an extreme amount of character, sometimes you have to go withit, even if the pitch isn't perfect.”
At the end of the day, Thompson credits his success as a producerwith simply being able to recognize a good song. “You have toknow when to go back to the drawing board, when to stay with an ideaand keep working it, and when to move on. Self-editing is critical.Quincy Jones used to call it polishing crap when you try to take a songthat isn't great and add elements to it. It will never get good! Beinga producer is all about recognizing good material. When you've got agood song, you can create a simple piano arrangement or give it to anorchestra, do a hip hop arrangement, it doesn't matter. It's hard tomess up a good song!”
Gary Eskow is a contributing editor to Mix.