Although Steve Hodge earned his legend status as the sonic architect behind the edgy grooves and trendsetting styles of R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, his personal discography is deep, diverse and soulful, running the gamut from New Orleans roots music to rock and classic jazz.
This isn't surprising, actually. Jam and Lewis have — since 1987 and Janet Jackson's groundbreaking Control album — consistently produced massive hits. Well-known for having both musical creativity and brains, these guys wanted an engineer who had it all: technical chops, musical depth and heart. They found that in Hodge. He became their main man, as well as the chief engineer and design consultant for Flyte Tyme Studios, their multiroom Minneapolis facility. Together, the team proved one of the biggest hit-making machines in pop history, charting high not only with Janet Jackson, but also Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Sting, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, New Edition and TLC, among others.
photo: Rasma Hodge
In addition to all the Platinum, Hodge has scored four Grammy nominations and one win for the 2001 Best Dance Recording for Janet Jackson's “All for You.” A third-degree black-belt karate aficionado who also flies planes (full size and radio-controlled models), golfs and fishes, Hodge lives in Minneapolis. A changing industry forced Jam and Lewis to move to Los Angeles, and the Minneapolis Flyte Tyme facility closed in 2004, but Hodge chose to remain in Minnesota.
We caught up with him at his current home base studio, IPR (the Institute for Production and Recording). He'd just returned from Nashville and was mixing indie fave Tonic Sol-Fa's latest release, finishing up production on a new album for alt/pop group Soul Asylum and producing tracks for hard-core punkers Rise or Rust, melodic metalists Staija and 13-year-old alternative artist-to-be Adrianne for Hodge's new endeavor, Steve Hodge Productions (www.stevehodgeproductions.com).
Let's do the background. How did you become an engineer?
I was a drama major at UC Santa Barbara; one summer, I needed a job. My uncles, Ralph and Val Valentin, were both recording engineers. Val was chief engineer for MGM Records in New York. When the label moved to L.A., he built a brand-new studio for it. I got a job on the construction crew.
That's a different take on learning the business from the ground up.
I highly recommend it! You definitely learn it all. Once construction was done, I just stayed on. It was strictly apprenticeship: learning the craft on the job, starting as a runner. There was a great staff: Ed Greene, who's done so many major live broadcasts; Val, who won Grammys with Ella Fitzgerald and Humberto Gatica. MGM owned the Verve label, so we spent a lot of time making tape copies of some of the greatest jazz recordings ever done.
Eventually, I met a kid who'd talked his father into building a studio in his hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana. I went out and ran it for him, and recorded a lot of seminal Southern rock and blues artists like Professor Longhair, Clifton Chenier and Gatemouth Brown. I also did two records with the Wild Magnolias that became cult classics. I'm actually working on a remix project of that now.
What happened when you moved back to L.A.?
The other great thing — which is difficult for people starting out today to find — is that we recorded everything that made a noise. MGM was signing all the Vegas acts of the day — from Sammy Davis to Steve [Lawrence] and Eydie [Gorme] — so we got to work with classic arrangers and composers like Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Lalo Schifrin, to name a few — an amazing education.
Steve Hodge and Bill Evans (background) at Evans’ studio, Studio in the Country (Bogalusa, La.), circa 1973. Hodge is working at the Auditronics console, the forerunner to the Harrison line.
photo: Wayne Cullinen
I had to start all over as an assistant at a mix room on Wilshire that Westlake Audio had opened to demo their equipment. Then I began working at Westlake on Beverly with Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius and started Soul Train Records, which became Solar Records. I mixed most of the material released on that label for quite a while with [producer] Leon Sylvers. We had a string of pop/R&B hits with Shalamar, Lakeside, The Whispers, Klymaxx — a lot of the stuff that keeps coming around now in samples!
We began mixing at the original Larrabee, and that's where I met Jimmy and Terry, who were in [the Prince-produced group] The Time. I was working with the S.O.S. Band, and Jimmy and Terry were hired to do a couple of songs for them. That became the album On the Rise. The single “Just Be Good to Me” became a big hit. As a matter of fact, we were mixing that song the day they were fired from The Time! [Eds. note: On a break from touring with The Time, who were opening for Prince, Jam and Lewis left town to work with the S.O.S. Band. Stranded by a blizzard, they missed a show and were fired by Prince.]
I've heard that you set Jimmy and Terry up to do their own recording while you mixed in another room.
They hated having to rely on anybody else. When the mood hit, they just wanted to go in and record. It removed the extra hassle of communicating to another person and allowed them to concentrate on the music.
At Flyte Tyme, you had a cutting-edge console. How did that affect your work?
The Harrison Series 10 was the first analog console with a digital control surface and full dynamic automation of all parameters. Long before anybody imagined Pro Tools, it gave us the ability to do complex mixes with very little cross-patching, which enabled us to switch songs in 10 minutes or so. Because of how busy we were — doing more than one project at a time — that was a necessity. Also, it allowed us to start mixing the songs as soon as the basic tracks and beginning vocal were done.
Which meant you always knew where you really were in the song's development.
When you add something, it always affects what's already there. So we built the mixes that way. It also made it simpler to keep that elusive rough mix within sight as we were doing the projects.
What else was different about how you worked?
It was in the heyday of sequencing and synthesized recording, but what Jimmy and Terry never did, which surprised people — especially a lot of remixers when we sent the tracks out to them — was they never sequenced. Now they do because they often work with other programmers, but when they played everything themselves…
They'd just hit Start on the drum machine.
Jimmy would come up with a drum pattern. He'd hit Start and, as we were recording, he'd loop it manually and play the fills manually on the pad. It was pretty amazing to see. Everybody was sequencing then, except for us — and Prince — which is where I think they picked it up.
Did that make a difference musically?
Something else we did was we had a percussion room set up in the vocal booth attached to the mix room. At the very end of mixing, Jimmy and Terry would go into the percussion room and bang on a bunch of percussion stuff and cymbals — “pings and zings,” we called it — so there was a little live something over the top of the tracks. That helped keep it fresh.
You're used to dealing with all kinds of vocals, from large numbers of backgrounds with complicated harmonies to Janet's delicate voice juxtaposed with giant industrial tracks.
I had a couple of really good vocal producers over the years. Leon Sylvers, for example, had something interesting happening in the vocals in just about every bar: Lots of layered stuff, lots of answering backgrounds and parts going at the same time. I had to find sonic niches for all of it to fit in. It's very much the old masking principle that arrangers used: You can't have a big horn line over a sweet vocal moment in the arrangement. From an engineering standpoint, it's finding room, both spatially and in timbre and EQ, so each part can live together.
Steve Hodge at IPR’s ICON, where he’s worked with Soul Asylum, Tonic Sol-Fa and many other artists.
photo: Wayne Cullinen
Yes. A lot of music was getting really stiff, because in those days, drum machines didn't have any compensation for feel. Flyte Tyme's tracks had a little extra edge simply because everything wasn't all preplanned. It flowed in an organic fashion with a live feel, even though it wasn't necessarily from organic players.
You don't just mute parts to make room.
If the producer envisions a lot of parts working together, it's my job to find a way to make it happen. Something has to sit in the background so something else can come to the front. You have to use panning, EQ and reverb effects to move things around spatially.
Something that works for me is to mix with the vocals deep in the tracks and let them work their way to the front as the mixes go on. Of course, I've been fortunate enough to work with producers who enjoyed hearing the vocals work inside the context of the track! We'd wait for the A&R people to basically scream at us to turn the vocals up.
Particularly with R&B, the groove is so important. The track has to be powerful. If the vocals are too far out in front and you lose the groove, you've lost half of the record. You've got to find the place that makes the A&R folks — who always want more vocals — happy, but where the track still carries the dance message.
If you start with the vocals way back in the mix, you have to search for a sound that will help them cut through. When you find it, you don't have to work so hard to get the track to cut through. I think that makes more exciting records. There's a lot of brightness involved in making vocals fit in a space like that, but you also have to find a tonality that gives them a place to live. In some cases, a real midrange-y sound may work if nothing else is covering that part of the spectrum. If you solo that midrange-y vocal, it may sound completely wrong, but in the context of the rest of the spectrum, it sounds right.
What kind of vocal chain would you tend to use?
With Jimmy and Terry, we had standard chains where the object was to use very little or no EQ. Originally, we went through a dbx 160 set just enough to protect against distortion if the singer got crazy. We also used an Orban de-esser. That was a little risky, but I had it set way back just to catch a little bit of the sibilance. The other unusual thing I did was I had everybody record with mics set in an omnidirectional pattern.
unusual for modern R&B.
Almost everybody records in a cardioid pattern. That gives you a proximity effect, which I never liked. At Flyte Tyme, we did all our vocals with an AKG C-12 — type microphone — either the original or the AKG The Tube — set on omnidirectional. All of Janet's songs were done that way. The cardioid pattern has drawbacks: the proximity effect bump on the bottom end and a bump on the top end. I always liked a more open sound like you hear onstage. Omni facilitates that with a little bit of the room in the source recording and less proximity effect. Little things like that give you a slightly different take on things. Enough of those things put together and you create a “sound,” which is what we're all looking for.
Do you own a lot of your own gear?
No, I have one rack with all new stuff. I love the Great River products, which are made here [in Minnesota]. I have their preamps and their EQ. I've also got a dbx 160SL blue-face stereo compressor. With those things, I can do just about anything. Plus, it's completely portable.
I have a Pro Tools rig at home, and for me, it's become pretty much a virtual console on-the-screen approach these days. I do still like to get “out of the box” for mixing. Plug-ins are better and better. I love the Sony Oxford stuff and the Massenburg parametric EQ is great, but spreading out on a good console is still really nice for mixing.
What was the “Flyte Tyme sound”?
What separated Jimmy and Terry was they tried to approach every project as its own entity. While you could certainly say there was a Flyte Tyme sound, they also worked very hard to give artists their own sound.
In a conversation I had early on with Jimmy, he called [the Flyte Tyme sound] “hard-driving bottom over a melodic top.” That's it in a nutshell. Especially in the earlier stuff, you can really hear that: hard, economical bass parts that create a strong groove with a really melodic thing over the top. It's a great combination. Contrast, to me, is what makes interesting records. I always try to create it on a lot of different levels, both dynamically and melodically.
Is that something you think about intellectually or that you feel?
I think about it emotionally, but to make that happen, an intellectual process has to take place. I'll keep tweaking until the song makes me feel like I want it to make me feel.
But as a professional mixer, you also have to be detached to see both the big sonic picture and the little details. How do you do that and still keep in touch with emotions?
Most people have the same reaction the first time they sit in on a professional session: How the hell do you listen to those same eight bars over and over? But eventually, you get to the place where you can remain objective over the same piece of music for a very long time. I've always been able to appreciate a song on an emotional level until basically forever, or until I'm really, really, really sick of it! [Laughs]
You have a new home base at IPR, but after years of working in just one studio, you're also traveling a lot to different studios. What's that like?
Tom Tucker and Lance Sabin at IPR have been great; they've put together a Pro Tools room for me with an ICON console and provided me with a great assistant, Colt Leeb. But I'm also going from room to room for different projects. In a way, that's part of the fun for a mixing engineer: finding a way to work around different systems and to get the sound you want in different circumstances. You have to develop a different set of ears and become objective in a hurry. I bring my own monitors, and I bring a lot of music with me to listen to. I'm constantly A/B'ing to things in a similar genre that I like. We all do that. I've been in places and heard my stuff playing in the room next door and vice versa — where I've been playing the music of the guy next door!
Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.
For more than two decades, Steve Hodge served as the sonic mastermind behind super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Click here to read our Producer's Desk Q&A with Jimmy Jam.
To learn more about Institute of Production and Recording, based in downtown Minneapolis, Minn., click here.
Flyte Tyme's Minneapolis facility is now home to SLR Recording Studio. Click here for more info.