The Underdogs--- Meet Hollywood's Hottest New Production Duo

02:01:04  By Chris Gill

 It's hard not to feel overwhelmed by the vast array of gold and platinum albums hanging in the halls of the Underdogs’ Hollywood recording studio. Everywhere you look are familiar album covers by the top pop and R&B artists of the last decade — Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Pink, Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston just to name a few. The duo of Harvey Mason Jr. (son of jazz drummer/Fourplay member Harvey Mason Sr.) and Damon Thomas may call themselves the Underdogs, but if their success keeps growing at its current rate, they’re going to need to change that name to the Top Dogs.

 As impressive as this display of the Underdogs’ accomplishments is, the real rewards of the duo’s success lie inside the walls of the various studios located in their facility. Each room is decked out with state-of-the-art equipment — digital mixing consoles, racks of outboard processors, and computers loaded with Pro Tools and Logic. Thomas grins as he opens the door to the main studio, revealing not only a brand new 96-channel SSL C200 digital console, but also the familiar face of studio guitarist extraordinaire Michael Thompson, who is poised over a virtual cityscape of effects pedals — blinking lights and all — like Godzilla preparing to destroy Tokyo.

 Mason and Thomas already enjoyed a successful history as musicians, songwriters, and producers before the two started working together in 2001. Thomas first made his mark producing tracks on Brandy’s debut, moving on to work with hip-hop and R&B artists such as Tupac and Babyface. Mason had a lucrative career as a studio musician, mixer, and producer, eventually landing a gig as a songwriter and engineer for Rodney Jerkins (profiled in our November 2003 issue).

 From the moment they started working together, the Underdogs made a huge impact on pop and R&B music. Their first collaborative effort was writing and producing “I Like Them Girls,” the first single from Tyrese’s debut album, which propelled the album to #10 on the Billboard charts. A steady stream of successful projects followed, including work on K-Ci & Jo Jo’s Emotional, Brian McKnight’s  U Turn, Stacie Orrico’s Stacie Orrico, and Justin Timberlake’s Justified. They also produced songs for American Idol favorites Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard.

 In August, 2003, the Underdogs signed a deal with Clive Davis and J Records to form their own label and develop artists on their own. Although the deal allows Mason and Thomas to produce other artists for different labels (such as the projects they’re currently working on with Craig David, Babyface, and Studdard), they’re already beginning to focus most of their attention to their label and newly signed artists.

 “We’re just getting started with the label,” says Mason. “We want to put out music that is going to make a difference. We’re not trying to become famous. We want our music to be the star.”

 After listening to Michael Thompson lay down some sweet rhythm guitar tracks, Mason and Thomas sat down with EQ to talk about their all-encompassing approach to songwriting and production.

What influenced the two of you to form a production team?
Damon Thomas: I met Harvey when I was meeting with Rodney Jerkins to discuss a possible collaboration. At the time we both had made decisions to do our own separate thing outside of the situations we were working in. Soon after that meeting Harvey moved to L.A., and he called me up one day to let me know that he was living here. I was really surprised and impressed that he called, so I suggested that we get together to write some songs.

Harvey Mason Jr.: I wasn’t so keen on forming a partnership, though. Damon said that he just wanted to write a couple songs and that he wasn’t interested in a partnership either. The first song we wrote, “I Like Them Girls,” got placed instantly with Tyrese and was his first single. After that we just kept working on things together.

How did you go from writing songs together to producing?
Mason: We both come from production backgrounds, so it just worked out that we ended up producing songs that we had written.

What is the key to forming a successful songwriting partnership?
Mason: First, you have to have mutual respect for each other. You can write songs together all day long but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t trust the opinion of the person you’re working with. You have to respect their ideas. When Damon and I work together we’ll tell each other if we like something or we’ll suggest something that we think will work. Each person influences the other person. The important thing is that we’re equal, which makes the partnership really work.

Thomas: There has to be some magic, too. There are a lot of songwriters and producers out there, so you have to know how to find something special. When we started working together we immediately knew it was hot. We’ve never had an argument or disagreement about a song. Both of us are very much in touch with what’s going on. I’ll be listening to Lil Jon in my car and he’ll be listening to Coldplay. We share our views on what we’re listening to and try to keep up with what’s going on. If you want to be a producer, you’ve got to be in touch with what the kids are listening to. You’ve got to watch TRL and things like that. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with their programming and how they do it — that’s what kids are buying. You have to be a businessman and not so much of a musician. Try to be creative and do what you love, but still be smart enough to know what the world wants to hear. You can’t force people to listen to something they don’t like.

What type of preparation do you do before you work with an artist?
Mason: Generally we don’t have a ton of time to do research. We’re spontaneous and creative. We’ll get with the artist and listen to where they’re coming from musically and what’s in their head. We try to figure out where they want to go and go for it. If we spent a lot of time analyzing an artist’s previous work I don’t think it would have the same excitement.

Thomas: Craig David is a good example. We couldn’t do what he did two albums ago. Music is changing so much every six months that you have you to be looking ahead or you’ll just get lost. If you put out Born To Do It today it wouldn’t sell. That’s not what kids are into. You have to focus a little bit on where he came from so you don’t lose his personality, but you also have to incorporate what’s going on now.

What is the difference between producing an inexperienced newcomer like Ruben Studdard and a more established artist like Toni Braxton?
Thomas: We try to set the new artists apart from everybody else. With an established artist like Toni Braxton you’ve got to remember who she is and be careful to make sure she sounds the way people are used to hearing her. Ruben is brand new, so you can develop an exciting new sound that will make people remember him.

You are both good musicians. What advantage does that give you as producers?
Thomas: That’s important, but you also have to be able to write lyrics and come up with a concept. We challenge each other, whether it’s playing, drum programming, or whatever. If it ain’t hot, we have no problem telling each other that.

Is it also important to know how to engineer a recording?
Thomas: We’ve been involved with that since the beginning, and you should never get to the point where you’re not involved with the engineering. A great kick and snare sound could be the one thing that makes the whole song come together, especially on a hip-hop record. You can’t always depend on an engineer to come up with the sounds you want to hear. You have to come up with it and at least know where to start.

Mason: We’ve worked with our engineer Dave Russell [see sidebar] for almost a year, so he knows what we like. The sound is a big part of a track. When we’re writing a song, we’ll tweak the EQ while we’re writing to make sure it sounds the way we hear it in our heads. That’s an important part of our writing process. When it gets to the next level, which is the preparation of the mix, that’s where our engineer is most valuable. A lot of songwriters aren’t engineers, but almost from the beginning our songs are coming out of our speakers sounding close to how it will sound on the record.

Thomas: We can’t just hand something we’ve created to some random engineer because they don’t know what we’re thinking. They don’t know why the first or second or third kick sounds the way it does. They’ll just mess with things and make it sound the way they think it should, and that’s not always right for the song.

What’s the key to getting good drum sounds?
Thomas: You have to develop an ear for drum sounds so you can choose the right ones. If you use the wrong kick and make it sound too big by EQing it to death, it’s just going to be wrong. It might not go with the bass or the guitars. You have to know how the kick and snare are going to fit with all the other elements. Sometimes the kick and snare can sound hot on their own, but when you put everything else in there it doesn’t sound so hot any more. It’s important to get a good balance of everything.

Mason: The key is to have a lot of different sounds at your disposal. You need to try things and experiment. You can’t get married to one kit and base everything around that on every song you record. We use a different kick and snare for every song. We won’t just jam the same kick into every record because we like it.

Thomas: We never go back to the same kit. And we always play around with the sounds to make them sound like our own.

Mason: We like to experiment with new things and weird stuff. With all the technology available today you can really get crazy. We use Logic to write our songs and do sequencing, and we use Pro Tools for audio recording and processing functions like EQ, sampling, resampling, and plug-ins. You can change a sound drastically with both of those.

Thomas: We’ll take an element out of Logic, throw it into Pro Tools and cut it up, mess it up, and send it back into Logic.

Mason: We like to experiment with plug-ins. We’ll use plug-ins in ways that you aren’t supposed to use them — like putting a de-esser on a snare — just to see what it sounds like. It doesn’t always sound right, but sometimes it works. We might do so many things to a sound so nobody will be able to copy it. That’s the beautiful thing about making music these days. There are so many ways to come up with your own sounds. [CMT] Bitcrusher is one of our favorite plug-ins, but we’ll try everything.

Why did you choose the SSL C200 for your main room console?
Mason: We chose everything in the studio for ease of use and sound quality. We work really quickly, and we always have a lot of different projects going on at once. We have matching Logic and Pro Tools rigs in every room. As soon as I go to work on one of Damon’s songs, he’s already starting to work on another one. I might be working on a song and he’ll be recording an artist in another room. We need to be able to transfer things back and forth easily.

Thomas: The SSL C200 has the best recall of any console. We used to have an SSL J-series, and it would take hours to recall a mix. You have to really get into the console to understand it, but once you do it really works. With everything being digital today, it doesn’t really make sense to have an analog console. It’s not necessary. There’s not a record on the radio today that hasn’t seen Pro Tools at some point. The kids buying the records can’t tell if something was recorded to tape. They hear a hit, and that’s the bottom line. When they hear Outkast singing “shake it like a Polaroid picture” they don’t care that it was analog or not. I’ve had Pro Tools since 1996 back when everybody was still using tape. Harvey has had it since 1990 when it was Sound Designer. We’re doing everything on computers. Now even using a keyboard and a drum machine is a thing of the past.

Vocals are the one thing that still exists in the analog domain. What is your approach for recording vocals?
Mason: We’ll start with certain mics to get a feel for the sound and then we’ll make adjustments. Our usual chain is a Sony C-800 microphone, an Avalon mic preamp, and a Summit compressor. We start with that and see how it fits in the track. We keep the vocals dry when we’re tracking, although we may make some EQ adjustments. It varies depending on the vocalist. Some vocalists have a rumble in their voice so you have to take that out.

How do you get vocalists to deliver their best performances in the studio?
Thomas: Everybody is different.

Mason: That’s the hardest thing, but it’s also the most important. If the writing is good and the track sounds great but the singer doesn’t pull it off, then it’s all a waste. Sometimes you have to say nice things to a singer to encourage them, but some people perform better when you get them upset. It’s the producer’s job to figure out their personality and determine what’s going to work.

Thomas: Sometimes it’s really simple, like making sure you’ve got the right snacks there when they get in.

Mason: It’s always about getting the performance. There’s a lot of psychology involved. A lot of producers will just go for it. We prefer to  really work with singers, and we don’t just jump into the studio with them. Some singers like to punch in everything, but others just like to sing. Some people will sit there and shoot the shit with you for two hours before they even begin singing. You’ve got to sit there with them and watch some TV, hang with them, and talk to them, even though you might want to go right to work. But once they’re ready, they’ll go in and knock it out. You’ve also got to be able to know when something sounds right for a song, even though it may not be technically perfect. Sometimes the singer may want to do something over, but if it feels good and sounds right you should leave it alone.

Do you have to educate newer artists how to work?
Mason: It depends. We had this 12-year-old girl come in the studio, and it seemed like she had been in the studio her whole life. Usually with new people you have to spend a little more attention to them and teach them how to work with a microphone in the studio or how to control their voice.

You use a lot of synths in your productions. Are you using a lot of soft synths?
Mason: We have a couple of Roland modules like the JV-5080, but we only use them for a few things.

Thomas: Most of our hardware has one or two sounds that we can’t live without. Everything else is soft synths.

Mason: We have almost every virtual instrument, and we’ll go through them all looking for sounds. We really like the Emagic EXS sampler, EVP-88, and Spectrasonics’ Trilogy and Stylus.

Thomas: Everything from the roota to the toota.

Mason: All of our drum sounds are on EXS. Sometimes we’ll bring drummers into the studio to play whole songs because we want that feel. But other times we’ll put things in Pro Tools and chop it up and manipulate it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a drummer, bass player, or guitar player. We fiddle around with everything to make it sound the way we want.

It seems like the Underdogs sound is always changing.
Thomas: We don’t try to lock ourselves down to one sound. What we’re doing today is going to sound different from what we’re doing tomorrow, and it won’t sound like what we’ve done before. We’re always trying to grow.

What are your goals as producers?
Thomas: We’re trying to make R&B music that kids can relate to. Kids want hip-hop today, so you can’t totally dismiss it. We love hip-hop and we love R&B. But kids don’t get much musical training these days, especially in school. We wonder where all the new musicians are going to come from. We get to work with great studio musicians like Nathan East and Michael Thompson, but there’s no one coming up behind them to take their place. We’re trying to educate a new generation and give them something to aspire to. Everything is influenced by hip-hop these days, whether it’s R&B or rock. Hip-hop is here to stay, and you’ve got to understand that as well as know how to adapt that to the music you’re making.

Mason: We really want to develop artists and help them develop creatively throughout their careers. We want our label to be known as a label that puts out great music, great records, and great songs by great artists. It’s not about trying to catch one hit with one artist and then move on to the next thing. We’re trying to write music that will last and will still be remembered 10 or 20 years from now.

Thomas: We look back at people like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They came along when the Linn Drum was the sound of hip-hop. Real musicians hated that. But Jam and Lewis combined live music and drum machines and came up with Rhythm Nation, which still sounds incredible today. We’re trying to do a similar thing by incorporating hip-hop with R&B and using computers to help us make exciting new music. A lot more kids are making tracks these days, and, thanks to computers, they sound pretty good. But they need to know how to write a song, which is more than just laying down a bunch of sounds and beats. They need to learn to play some instruments and how to sing.

Mason: You might have a great idea, but you have to know how to turn that idea into a complete song.

A DOG’S LIFE  Underdogs’ Engineer Dave Russell

 “The first time I worked with Harvey and Damon I stayed up for six days straight,” says Dave Russell, recalling his work with the Underdogs on Victoria Beckham’s (a.k.a. Posh Spice) debut album. “When they built their studio, they asked me to come work with them in L.A. I guess they liked my work ethic.”

 Russell left his London home for the sunny weather of Los Angeles about a year ago and hasn’t looked back since. But he hasn’t had much time to work on his tan, as Mason and Thomas have constantly kept him busy working in the studio as their engineer. The duo relies on Russell to see their projects through from tracking to the final mix to ensure that the finished product sounds exactly the way they envisioned it. It’s a big responsibility, but Russell’s track record with the Underdogs has proven that he has the golden (and platinum) touch that the duo requires.

 Here are some of Russell’s thoughts about his favorite studio tools and techniques.

 What do you like the most about the SSL C200 console?
 I grew up using the SSL G-series and Neve boards, but now I prefer working with the C200 because the computer is so fast, easy to use, and can recall an entire project in less than eight seconds. We worked on the SSL MT for a while, but the C200’s computer is faster and the bandwidth is a lot better — it’s 96kHz. We work on multiple projects every day, so it would be impossible for us to have an analog board. It’s too time-consuming to do recalls for each project.

 I like to mix as I go along, and keep everything I do on the board until we mix it down. With the C200, I have the luxury of a 96-channel desk with a knob for every control, and every knob movement can be automated. If Damon and Harvey want to try something out on the board, I can do it very quickly. It saves me a lot of time during mixdown, because I can save everything we do while I’m working. With the SSL you can use the old-school approach of working with two people with both hands on the board at the same time. There’s a knob per function, whereas the Euphonix boards we have in the other rooms are menu driven, which means that a single knob handles multiple functions. When you grab a knob on the SSL and turn it, something happens. I love that. The C200 also has a 9-pin jack for locking up with Pro Tools and Logic.

What is your approach for recording vocals?
 Almost 70 percent of what I do is cut vocals. I try to stick to a sonically clean sound and start with a very good vocal chain. I use Sony C-800 convertible mics, Summit compressors, and Avalon mic preamps. I’m also a big fan of the Neve and Manley gear. I use a lot of that old, hi-fi tube stuff as well. In the mix I’ll add in more tube stuff and maybe some reverb, like the TC Electronic M3000, which is fantastic. Then I’ll try to polish it as much as I can.

 Do you use any plug-ins in addition to the outboard processors?
 I try not to go into a recording with tunnel vision. I’ll A/B a lot of different compressors. Sometimes I’ll use a Pro Tools plug-in and compare it with an outboard tube processor. I’m always comparing things as I go along. Whatever sounds a little bit better will stay in the mix. I like the Bomb Factory plug-ins a lot, and [Audio Ease] Altiverb is great. I just got the API plug-in, which I’m into because I love the API EQs. I can’t wait to try it out. It really depends on what we’re going for. Sometimes we want a dirty sound, so I won’t rule out using anything. Everything has a useful sound. You just have to figure out where to use it.

 We’re tech heads so we’re always getting the latest stuff. We’re always searching the Internet for new things. We pay a lot of money for some of these toys because they’re different and they bring something to the table. My outboard rack has a lot of stuff in it, but I use all of it. This is a great job because I always get to try different things.

What are your suggestions for getting big, punchy drum sounds that don’t crowd a mix?
 I’ll use a lot of compression on drums to tighten them up. A lot of the drum sounds we’ve been using lately have been fairly trashy, so the sounds aren’t always that big. We have a great room for recording live drums, which helps. You can’t get a great live drum sound if you don’t have a good-sounding room. Plus, we always have the best session players coming through here, like Teddy Campbell. When you have great players on a session, half of the work is already done for you. To make the drums sound dirty, we’ll loop them and process them with all kinds of things like plug-ins. I don’t always have time to experiment, so a lot of times I just have to follow my instincts.