From left: Quad assistant engineer Stuart White, engineer Kamel Abdo and producer Harold Lilly
Love it or hate it,
is a popular phenomenon, attracting millions of viewers and turning its winners into instant stars. Producer Harold Lilly and engineer Kamel Abdo are two music biz types who definitely do not despise
American Idol. An experienced production team, Lilly and Abdo understand first-hand the high-speed pressures and rewards in creating a winning song for
winners — Ruben Studdard in 2003, and Fantasia Barrino this year — and their legendary label head, J Records' Clive Davis.
“New artists don't usually have fan bases,” points out Lilly as he relaxes in one of his favorite studios, Quad Recording's Studio A in New York City. “But if you're working with American Idol, you're working with a celebrity who hasn't sold one record yet — that's the difference. As a producer, writer, engineer — whatever the case — you want to get on this project because it's going to sell albums — guaranteed. They have a fan base already, and J Records doesn't really have to do promotions: It's been done — 20 million people a day are watching. You're going into the studio with someone who's guaranteed to go Platinum.”
A busy freelance engineer constantly navigating the maze of New York City's hip hop and R&B scene, Abdo first linked up on a Studdard track with Lilly, a fast-emerging talent whose production/songwriting credits include Alicia Keys and Monica. The two quickly realized that together they could work with the particular blend of speed, quality and style needed to stand up to the massive expectations of an Idol winner. “We had chemistry,” Abdo says. “When Harold comes to New York City, if he has a choice, he calls me. Since then, we have the same flow, same people, same vibe.
“I like working with Kamel because most engineers don't have an opinion,” Lilly adds. “They just do what you tell them to do. Kamel is like a second ear in the room, creatively.”
The seeds for the three-day Quad record/mix session with Barrino were sown in Lilly's L.A. home base, where he successfully demo'd the track, a moving R&B song about young single mothers called “Baby Mama,” to Davis. “I met with Clive, he heard it and loved it,” says Lilly. “Fantasia's a single parent, and she told us she got a lot of flack for being a single parent. People told her that an American Idol shouldn't be a single mom, but in my community, there's a lot of single parents. Gay people have anthems, hustlers have their anthems, wives have their anthems, but this was an R&B version of a single mom anthem. She is one, and nobody else could have done this song.
“With Fantasia, seeing that she's a true artist and a true singer,” Lilly continues, “I said, ‘Instead of Pro Tools, let's do 2-inch.’”
With the instrumental tracks already completed from Lilly's L.A.-brewed demo, complete with ultra-soulful background vocals by his twin sister, Allison Lilly, Abdo could focus on printing Barrino's all-important lead vocal to tape. “For the vocal chain, I always use a Sony C800,” he states. “It's a good pop mic. It's bright and it captures a lot of singers with a pristine amount of detail — you can capture a well-sung R&B vocal on it. We try to use the same mic on all these people we've recorded.”
From the C800, Barrino's vocals went through a Neve 1073 module and on to a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor before hitting Quad's Studer A827 24-track. “On the Tube-Tech,” says Abdo, “I would just suggest a fast attack with a faster release, because I don't like to overcompress stuff on the way in. You try to control it without squashing it, and you get at most 5 dB in gain reduction. But most of the time, you're not compressing a lot. As the song progresses, the singer really belts and that's when you want to compress a little bit. Most of the time, however, you try not to overprocess.”
According to Lilly, Barrino's voice is one thing you definitely don't want to over-process. “It's really passionate, it's raw, full of emotion,” he says. “The reason I wanted to go to analog was because you've got perfection on one extreme and passion on the other. A lot of people go for perfection sonically — coming in on the right spots, singing the right notes — but the closer you go there, the further you get from passion.
“With analog, you're going on the passion end, and Fantasia's voice fit perfectly for that approach. What you hear is exactly what it is — like a mirror with the passion side of it. We set her up in a gobo booth. I didn't want her in an iso booth because I didn't want her to feel restricted. Sometimes, because you're in a booth and you've closed the door, the line of sight is gone. You can't see anybody and you're by yourself. I like being in an open space where I can see her. I think it's important to have eye contact when you're doing vocals.”
Barrino's relative lack of experience in big studios was rendered a non-issue by her talent as she recorded the expressive lead for “Baby Mama” at Quad. “She's just a natural,” Abdo says. “She takes incredible direction. The energy was great. Harold has a knack for connecting with people on a different level. J Records said they never had a performance like this yet. That's Harold and the chemistry — he spends hours just shooting the shit. He spoke to her to see what she's going through at that time, and that makes it easier for her to sing it, close her eyes and really belt, because she's going through that. If you do that, you can get a good vocal in an hour.
“It's a high-pressure situation, but it doesn't feel high pressure,” Abdo continues, “because that will kill the performance. Clive has to hear it at the end of the day, but you're not sweating. We like to keep it comfortable, and it's good for the singer to be with a group of like-minded people with good energy.”
Once the vocal track is laid down, Abdo and Lilly send a rough mix to Davis and can expect almost immediate feedback. “We send it to Clive and he says ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on the record,” Lilly explains. “If he wants changes, you book the artist to come back in and change it. I welcome constructive criticism because it really helps me as a producer and a writer. One thing with Clive is he loves his vocals up: He just likes them sitting out there, and he loves lyric sheets. He's a song guy, line for line looking at the words.”
Lilly may be a relative newcomer to the scene, but this savvy producer/songwriter has nice advice for those who think that working with Davis and his American Idols would be a good thing. “Be original and don't be afraid to try new things,” he counsels. “Take direction and welcome criticism, but trust yourself and trust your instincts. That's the main part.”
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