11.01.03:Elianne Halbersberg talks to the folks at Underdog Entertainment, an L.A.-based recording facility with a Motown-like, all in-house vibe.
When your client list includes artists such as Toni Braxton, Craig
David and Brian McKnight, two factors come into play: You'd better be
good - very good - and you'd better have the right equipment. For the
Platinum songwriting/production team of Harvey Mason jr. and Damon
Thomas - better known as the Underdogs - and their engineer/mixer, Dave
Russell, getting the job done requires a Solid State Logic C200 Digital
Underdog Entertainment is based in Los Angeles, where its state-of-the-art faciilities make hit records from the ground up. Mason and Thomas recently inked a deal with Clive Davis' J Records, for whom they will sign artists, in addition to continued recording, production and mixes. Thanks to the C200, this process will now be a matter of total recall.
"Damon and I work on two or three projects at the same time and we need to switch gears quickly," says Mason of choosing the C200. "In our previous studio, we used the SSL MT. We needed to be able to recall the board with one push of a button. The way we write, pace is important so as to get back to where we left a song, do the track and vocals, move on to another instrument, song or artist, and come back in three days exactly the way we left it, with the same creative magic. And the singer has to be comfortable with the way it sounds. With the C200, it always comes up the same when we pull it up. We use Logic software, so it's the same output, volume, pitch, velocity and EQ everytime. When we start mixes, which are all done in-house, we can just punch it in and not start from scratch."
Russell, who has worked the The Underdogs for two years, is a veteran of SSL consoles. The C200, he says, has made a world of difference in ease and time management.
"I've always worked on SSL's" he says. "I've used the K series, G series and J series - I'm a big fan of the J series. A real bonus with (the C200) new computer is that it's a lot faster than the MT and it shines when we get to the mix because it cuts down on a lot of time.
"I can program it, lock up ProTools and Logic, and go from the start to the end of the mix with the press of one button. The old SSL's are a bit more antiquated and you have to type things in. Here, I can do things easiily. It's very intuitive. There's nothing like when the producer wants to hear something and you spend a couple of seconds instead of minutes finding it for him.
"It's one knob/one button per function. I can see the control services. I'm old school and I like analog, but it becomes very easy to do something creative with the C200, whereas when something becomes hard to do you sort of lose the vibe.
"We do a lot of mixing as we go along because the board is instantly recordable. When the guys are writing we begin balances, or we'll EQ bits and get a few effects, and we're able to pull the project up in a matter of seven or eight seconds, work on it,save it, close the project and reopen another song. We work on four or five songs a day, and on some we might do drums, and on some a bit of bass or vocals. We tweak and balance and mix as we go and capture ideas creatively, so speed is a really, really big factor. I think there's only one board that's in contention for what we do, sonically and ergonomically: This board has 96 channels on a 48 frame board, and to have a computer that I love, there's only one frontrunner and that's this board."
Mason and Thomas met when they were working as successful songwriters/producers for Rodney Jerkins and Kenneth "Babyface" edmonds, respectively. After each each decided to move on, Thomas called Mason and suggested forming their own team. Mason resisted, but agreed to a songwriting session. The result was "I Like them Girls", which became a hit for Tyrese and the start of a partnership and friendship.
"It was so much fun that we kept going and there was no chance of not doing it, because of the success of the first song", says Mason. "That's how the Underdogs name was created: We were always someone else's backseat drivers, quiet and out of the way, and when we came together we felt wew could do good things, prove a point, and stay simple and humble."
He compares Underdog Entertainment to "the beginning stages of Motown, where it's all in-house. We have a pretty big staff, including myself, Damon and a couple and a couple of writers for lyrics, track ideas, guitar, whatever it is. It's five or six people working on the common goal of makin a great record.
"Workdays are pretty standard. I get in around noon or 1:00, handle business and calls, artists come in around 3:00 or 4:00 and we go until we drop-whether it's 1 a.m. or 5 a.m., depending what stage we're at on the record and where the inspiration is. there's so much business to take care of during the day, trying to run the label, and by 4:00 or 5:00 and factory gets cranked up. It's like this seven days a week. What's different about us is that we write songs specifically for each artist. We know who their audience is, their sound, where they want to go with their record. when artists come here, they know that everything is specifically designed for them."
"Our goal is to be the next important production team, period", says Thomas. "The gear is very important, and with the C200 we can get things done a lot faster and therefore more work can get done. It's the greatest console because of the recall time
The C200 stands out, says Russell, because of its much faster computer. Citing a "very pleasant learning curve", he remarks, "The new LEDs on the meters are great. I can see everything that's coming into the desk. If you've got noise or are trying to find something, it's easy to do. I can assign meters on a separate little user interface and look at all of ProTools and Logic on the board. we have 12 sends and returns on this board, which is a great function - most boards only have eith - and they all recall correctly. I can automate everyting - my small faders, EQ, reverb, throws or spins. And the fact that it's layered makes real sense. SSL is doing a lot of nice little tricks with the board, and we're doing some interesting development stuff as well."
With the exception of the C200, Underdog Entertainment has identically equipped rooms. "All of the equipment has to be consistent with quality", says Mason. "We have four of the same Sony mics, Summit Audio compressors, Avalon pre-amps and Avalon 2055 EQ in every room. Sequencing and programming is Logic on Macs - same sound, same hard drive libraries. We have ProTools in every room with the same plug-ins for vocals. All laptops are linked for shared folders and audio files."
"The whole studio is a one-stop shop for people to completely finish a record here, from recording to overdubs to mixing," says Russell. "That's the ideal scenario. The board helps up push the boundaries and sound as best as we can. It's a really nice mix room with great monitoring, and it's good to have a home and a base and a reference to do stuff in. we're trying to achieve something that gets on a CD and sonically competes with everything else out there. As far as that's concerned, we use the best outboard gear, the best desks and the best monitoring."
Mason and Thomas launced their company with very clear goals in mind: "To make music that is relevant to what is on the radio, and to offer an alternative to what's out there," says Mason. "We're musicians and songwriters; we know harmonies and melodies. We wanted to get great songs on the radio and make singers sing performances, not chopped-up vocals. "We want to leave our mark on the industry and have people like and respect us. We come from successful camps, and we have the work ethic to hit the home run, shoot for greatness on every song, and make songs that last.