Ace producer, songwriter, and keyboard player Teddy Riley has been there and done that. He produced his first Billboard Hot 100 hit by the time he was 20 years old, and in subsequent years formed two hit-making R&B bands—Guy and Blackstreet—charted a number 1 single (Blackstreet’s "No Diggity"), and produced hits for a long list of major artists. Along the way, he pioneered New Jack Swing, a musical genre that combines smooth R&B vocals with hip-hop and dance-pop-style production, chock full of samples, loops, and hip-hop swing beats. Many people said it couldn’t be done. Many people were wrong!
In 1991, Riley and New Jack Swing hit the jackpot: Michael Jackson, looking for a fresh sound, tapped Riley to produce half of his Dangerous album, featuring such singles as "Remember the Time," "Jam," and "In the Closet." Some 32 million sales later, New Jack Swing had its most successful album, and the Riley-Jackson connection was established. As one expects from Riley, the sound was aggressive and the beats irresistible. Although you probably can’t dance like MJ, when you hear his Dangerous tracks, you dance. If you have two broken legs, you dance in your wheelchair, but you dance.
FRESH MJ MUSIC!
Recently Sony Music Entertainment announced a major project to release as many as seven posthumous Michael Jackson albums. The first new Jackson album has already been released and is the product of multiple producers, notably including Teddy Riley. And Riley's primary tool for the project was PreSonus Studio One Pro music-production software, aided and abetted by his PreSonus FireBox interface and FaderPort control surface. In fact, Riley's entire team has switched to Studio One Pro for all of their projects.
We interviewed Riley while he and his team were creating their part of the new Michael Jackson mixes with Studio One Pro. The other producers worked independently, and according to Riley, "It’s gonna be a real crazy competition sonically because no other sound is like this sound on the album. We’re not taking shorts, we’re not taking prisoners. We are actually going to reach the sky with sound, sonically; it’s going to sound clear, clean, we’ve got the best guys, and I’m using three or four engineers so we have what we need. When we know our ears are together, that’s when the mix is finished. If we still have something to say, we’re not done."
Riley received raw tracks from Sony, removed the music, kept Jackson’s voice and some other elements, and then created a new song around that. "It’s been a lot of fun because you have a fun software," he says. "Everybody is fascinated by it because I’m creating this really quick. We did the first song of Michael in three or four hours, and we went home thinking, 'that was quick.' But the next song after that, because I know Michael is so into sounds, I had to do a lot of research to find loops and sounds that will make people go, 'wow, that was so dramatic.'"
When producing the project, Riley thought a lot about what Jackson would have liked. Sometimes he’d turn the music up loud, the way Jackson preferred it. And he knows that Jackson wanted fresh sounds that no-one has ever heard. "When I was working with [Jackson] on the Dangerous album… he was just dancing. That’s when you know he was excited. So that's what I mentally feel in my head: what he would be excited over. We did a ballad, and I feel like if he heard the string arrangements and things like that that we did, he would just hold his heart. When he feels something, he holds his heart. That’s how we know. I imagine if he was here, he'd see [Studio One] and say, 'we want to do everything on this,' because when he likes something, he likes a sound, he’s like, 'everything should be on this.' I still want great sounds. I still want it to be like no-one has ever heard."
THE JOURNEY TO STUDIO ONE
Just as Riley has journeyed far from the Harlem projects where he got his start, he has searched long and hard for his ideal DAW. Once upon a time, Riley was a big fan of CLab's Notator for the Atari computer, an ancestor of today’s Apple Logic. But he won’t use Logic today; he doesn’t like the feel and complexity. He used a well-known German DAW, left it, and then tried it again but, he says, he kept feeling that “I’m stuck, this is just not it, and I can’t do what I want to do fast enough and quick enough.” He has used Avid Pro Tools, too, but he doesn’t like the workflow or the sound. (We’ll get back to that.) So he kept looking.
"I was surfing online because I wasn't happy," says Riley. "We switched to [Cockos] Reaper, and you can change the skins—that’s pretty—so we did that for two or three weeks, and I said, 'I’m not happy.' " He kept searching, trying this software and that. "I checked out Performer, and I hated it. It was just not user friendly for me, not fast enough," he explains.
Finally, he heard about PreSonus Studio One and downloaded the demo. He liked it, so he bought Studio One Artist, then upgraded to Studio One Pro to get the additional features, such as the mastering suite (Project page) and support for VST and AU plug-ins. Relates Riley, “That’s when I called Taryll [Michael Jackson’s nephew Taryll Jackson, of the band 3T] and said, 'you won’t believe this software called Studio One, but you gotta get Studio One Pro so you can do the whole thing, get the whole kitchen sink.' He said, 'you’re going to switch in two weeks, or six months, I know you’re gonna switch.' So two months later, he calls me [and says], 'you still on Studio One?' I said, 'Yeah, I love it, I just did the whole Bad Rabbits album [scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2011] with it.'
“I did maybe 20 quick tracks," Riley continues. "We played the music for Bad Rabbits. Song after song after song, and the sound… it had the punch at home, where I have small speakers, and it sounded incredible on the big speakers [in the studio]. And I said, 'I’m done, this is my sequencer forever.' I don’t care what a sequencer looks like, I don’t care what a host looks like, you can have all the skins you want, and you can have all the bells and whistles and everything, but if you’re not user-friendly…I can’t use it."
FOCUS ON THE MUSIC
Riley wants to create quickly and naturally, without the tools getting in his way. "I was just waiting for something to come out to make me just feel free again," he says. "And that’s what Studio One does. You will never get a writers block with this software." He even compares Studio One with a good woman: "Everybody’s content [with their DAW]," he explains. "You know, you get a woman that, okay, I’m tired of her, but I’m content. [Studio One] is the girl that you wake up every morning and say 'you are so beautiful' every day. That’s how I feel about this software because I know if I got an idea, I know that idea is going to come out right. I know that she’s going to feel beautiful every day. That’s what I feel about this software because it makes me want to do something and make a bunch of music."
In fact, according to Riley, Studio One's drag-and-drop features make it so easy to use that it’s a great choice for budding musicians, as well as for professionals who are not traditional instrumentalists. "You could give this to a child, and they’d love it just fine because they can hear something. The first thing a kid wants to do when they hear a sound is they want to rap on top of it, then they want to drag-and-drop in. And you got DJs, and most of those people who are sequencing don’t play. So the first thing you introduce them to is drag-and-drop." Concludes Riley, "[Studio One] has a good feel, and everyone who uses it feels the same way."
THE TEDDY RILEY CHALLENGE
Of course, Riley demands top sound quality that retains the sound he has created right to the final product. And in his opinion, Studio One has no equal in this respect. "I would challenge anyone with this software," says Riley. "I’ll have a little laptop, you have a laptop, we can have the same exact thing. You have your controller, I have my [PreSonus] FaderPort, and we’ll take the master and go from 0 dB and keep going up, and go up to 10 dB. I’ll bet you by 8 dB, you’ll crack, you’ll have distortion. With Studio One, there’s no distortion.
"On the Michael Jackson project, we set our tempo for timestretching, in case I wanted to speed it up. We took the song from 92 bpm to 98; it still sounds the same. Speeding up everything, even Michael’s vocals, still sounds the same. Then we took away the music and created new music around Michael’s voice. As we did that, I finalized the track, and then I rendered the files and gave it to [the mix engineers] to put into Pro Tools. I wasn’t happy with the sound that was coming out of the Pro Tools box, the 192. They started mixing, and when they finished the mix, I wasn’t happy. It didn’t have that aggressiveness like when I played it for them out of the [Open Labs] Neko [with Studio One Pro], coming out of the FireBox. As they finished the mix, I said, 'Listen to this.' So we played my mix. And everyone said, 'let’s just send it to them like this.' [Sony] went crazy over the mix, they really were excited about me working on the next song, they gave me more songs to do…. and it’s this program for me.
"With Studio One," Riley continues, "if you touch the knob, touch the fader and move it up even half a dB, you feel it. [With other DAWs] if you touch [a fader], you’re not getting that volume right away, you’re getting it after 1 dB. This here, you touch [the fader] a half dB and you’re gonna feel it. It’s very aggressive when you move the faders, and [when] you turn up something, you actually feel the volume."
Riley is particularly bothered when something that sounds good in a DAW turns out to be distorted when played back in other applications. "Sometimes, when you hear something on the [Avid Pro Tools] 192, and its in the red but it sounds good, afterward when you hear it in iTunes or Windows Media Player, you hear clipping. That’s very deceiving. The same with the other [DAW] competitors. You think it sounds good and then…. But I take Studio One, and I’m plus 10 [dB], and when I play back in iTunes and Windows Media Player, it sounds just the way it sounds in the host. We don’t have to worry about where we’re at, and I know we’re at plus 12 or plus 10 [dB], but no distortion, everything sounds clean. And we all have fun. So just imagine, you can do all that, and we don’t have to worry that it's too loud. That’s not the worry now for us. There is no worry for us!"
Riley is a big fan of the PreSonus Native Effects plug-ins and virtual instruments, as well. “I think they’re incredible,” he enthuses. “The EQs and the limiter are what we use on the master. We also use the multiband compressor and it gives an aggressiveness on the vocals and even a punch on the kick. The best way to use it is while you’re in your workspace [the Arrange window]; then, when you bring it into mastering, it’s not clipping. When you do anything inside the sequencer part of Studio One, it’s very aggressive."
He also values the regular Studio One updates that PreSonus delivers. He contacted PreSonus to ask if Studio One would have a key-command editor, only to discover that one had just been added in version 1.5. (He created his own custom key-command set, while the rest of his team uses the alternative Pro Tools key-command set that is included with Studio One.) "Every time I talk about something, it’s going to be in [Studio One] next week," he says.
"You can do pretty much anything [with Studio One]," Riley states. "You can manipulate anything on this host. You can drag in pretty much anything that you want. You can drag in something from another song." Ultimately, though, says Riley, "You have to use it yourself, you have to try it yourself, to really get it. It’s starting to really spread like a disease. Everybody I introduce it to is on it."