Drake's atmospheric, brooding sound has revitalised hip-hop, selling millions in the process. The man behind that sound is Noah '40' Shebib.
Canadians are prone to giving their own, unique slant to North American culture, and rapper Drake is a case in point, having scored major commercial success with a message, delivery and sound all his own. The 25-year-old sings and raps about self-doubt, melancholy, angst and the trappings of life, over sparse, ambient, slow-jam-like tracks dominated by brooding synths, minimalist piano or guitar parts, stripped-down, often muffled drums, and cinematic atmospheric treatments.
In fact, Drake's backing tracks have such a strong identity that the man responsible is becoming known in his own right. His name is Noah '40' Shebib, and on the phone from his native Toronto, he recalls how Drake and he were sweating profusely when they self-released their first collaboration, the mixtape So Far Gone, in February 2009 (it had a big-label release in a slightly altered form as an EP in September of that year). "I started out as Drake's engineer, and I wasn't there to produce or give creative input,” explains 40. "I was there to track and mix. But when he was working on So Far Gone, I saw how frustrated he became looking for music. He had worked with producers from everywhere in the world, and there was nothing that they came up with that he was happy with. At that point, it became clear to me what he was looking for and I simply started to produce it. We didn't set out with a deliberate ambition to completely break the rules and have singing and rapping and motion and melody. Instead it was more a matter of Drake asking for the drums to be taken out of a track, or for me to 'lo-fi' an entire song, and me initially saying, 'You can't take the drums out, the record won't move,' or 'You can't take all the top end out' — and then me realising that I could, and that it would give a unique perspective on his message.
"In an R&B song there are four sentences per verse, but in a rap song there are four sentences per bar. There are so many more words that I experimented with how to frame them, and that developed into something new. Instead of simply going for the 'bang pow wow' factor, we explored all kinds of things in the arrangements and in the music, and were in a situation where it was fun to be breaking rules and crossing boundaries. We were making music in a very different way. This turned out to work in our favour. When we first put out So Far Gone, we were really scared, but the reactions were so good that we decided to embrace doing things differently. It gave us the courage to continue. We'll still put out records that are obviously commercial and foolproof in hitting the charts. But then a song like 'Marvin's Room' has so much bottom end, you'll be hard-pressed to find a sound system that's not going to be destroyed by it. It was a matter of us wanting to have fun and make a record that would make a whole club shake. I wanted something that would be very dark and quiet and muddy and with the vocals cutting through like a razor. It was done at a studio in LA that had previously belonged to Marvin Gaye, and I made the beat one day, we turned it into a song the next, I mixed it the third day, and 48 hours later we released it on a blog on the Internet, and then the record went global and sold 500,000 copies! And we never even meant for it to be an official single!”
'Marvin's Room' was released on October's Very Own, a blog site created by Drake, 40 and Oliver El-Khatib, on June 9, 2011. It was meant to be a 'teaser' for the rapper's second full album, Take Care, which was released in November and sold 631,000 copies in the first week after its release, reached number one in the US and number five in the UK, and has by now sold 1.5 million copies worldwide. The official lead single from the album and the main subject of this article, 'Headlines', was released in July 31, also on October's Very Own, and sold in similar quantities to 'Marvin's Room'.
While the majority of the tracks on Take Care were created by Drake and 40, the rapper's albums also feature other big-name producers like Boi-1da, T-Minus, Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz, Needlz, Kanye West and Timbaland. 40 is adamant that these were chosen by him and Drake, without record-company involvement, "Of course. We haven't spoken to an A&R man, ever. No questions, nothing. The record company just said, 'This is great, make it happen.' It's a mind-blowing situation, really, for us to step in and be in full control, and be able to put our own material out on the Internet the day after recording and mixing it.”
The duo write and record almost all their own material at 40's home studio. "It's located across the street from my home in Toronto. It's literally simply an apartment in which I put up some dampening against the walls to try to get the reverb times down. It's very much a makeshift home studio. I have a main control room and a booth and a small room at the back. When you walk in, there's a huge producer's desk and console, which is the Control 24. But I don't really use it; I'm happy with just a keyboard and a mouse. The control room has a pair of Genelec nearfields and a woofer, and a pair of Sota 750 reference monitors. Sota is a legendary Canadian company that makes big reference monitors, amongst other things. I also have Bryston and Crown amps. There's a Pro Tools HD rig and all my other toys and keyboards, like a [Hammond] B3 and a Wurlitzer and my Studiologic Numa 88-key MIDI controller, which is my pride and joy. The acoustics aren't great, so I'm not going to mix in that room, but we can go in there when we want and get serious work done and it definitely cuts our cost compared to going into a real studio.
"I use both Mac and PC, and there's a very important reason for this. I am a laptop guy, because I always want to have the ability to tweak my mixes when I leave a studio, wherever I am, just with my laptop and a set of headphones. So when I'm using outboard gear, I'll always print these tracks back into my Pro Tools Sessions, retaining both wet and dry versions of each track, giving me the flexibility to choose. My PC laptop is a year and a half old, and it has a 3.3GHz, 12-core, i7 processor. It's a full-size chip, not a mobile chip, so I guess my machine is not really a laptop but more a notebook. I also need to place it on a table, as it's a bit chunky. It has 12GB of RAM, three solid-state hard drives, DVI/HDMI and so on. It's custom-made by a gentleman called Les Bateman, nicknamed Bates. He had a company called Music XPC, which was for a long time the only PC manufacturer certified for use with Pro Tools. When I bought this computer from him it cost me $6500, but you have to remember that it's still far superior to any $4000 Mac you can buy today, despite it being one and a half years old.
"I still use Mac because there are some inconsistencies between the two formats in the programming and software and sometimes updates are available on Mac but not yet for the PC and Windows. I want to be able to use anything at any given moment, so I'm constantly running two systems. My PC has an RME Babyface audio interface attached to it, while my Mac has the Apogee Duet 2 audio interface. I tend to mix at Metalworks, and when I walk in there I can simply pop the Digilink cables out of their computer, put them into my Magma chassis, which has two HDX cards and one UAD Quad, run that into my computer, plug in the screens and cables and keyboard and mouse from the studio SSL, and I'm patched into the SSL and their full-blown HD rigs.”
A quick look at the credits for Take Care reveals that Drake and 40 are eager samplers. Of the 20 tracks recorded for the most recent album, half are built around samples, taken from the likes of SWV, Gil Scott-Heron, Don McLean, Juvenile, DJ Screw and others — though neither 'Marvin's Room' and 'Headlines' contain any samples. 40 explains, "When growing up in the world of hip-hop, you look at samples as a tool and an instrument. Samples give an aesthetic to a record that is difficult to achieve without one, whether you are featuring the sample prominently or have it running in the background. So for me they are a tool and I reach for them for fun. Why not? I love SWV, so when I sampled their song 'Anything' for 'Shot For Me', it is because it reminds me of a memorable good time that I miss. It's a nostalgic moment. But I don't need to use samples. I wrote 'Marvin's Room' by myself with Drake — I also gave a couple of points to Chilli Gonzales, who played piano at the end, and Adrian Ecclestone, who is our guitar player.
"In hip-hop, you must write your own raps. If someone else were to write them for you, you'd have no credibility whatsoever, and you'd be out of the window immediately. But when it comes to the music, there's not really the same pride in writing it yourself. People don't care who wrote it, or where it comes from or what the sample is, they just want the hottest beat. They just want that and then put it out in their own song. Having said that, Drake and I do take pride in writing songs together, just the two of us. We'll start in an old-school way, with me on the piano or at my Wurlitzer, finding a chord progression, and he'll start singing some melodies. I'll record the keys, usually with a [Neumann] U87, and his scratch vocals. I'll use either a Sony C800G on him or, if he's in the control room, a [Shure] SM57. The mics go through a Neve 1073 or 1081, and I'll have an [Teletronix] LA2A on his voice, not hitting that too hard. These sketches will sometimes make it to the record. I'll sometimes sample them. If you listen to the song 'Hate Sleeping Alone' [from the iTunes version of Take Care], you'll hear all sorts of bits of background vocals in the background, which sing the same melodies, but without words. It's the scratch melody of Drake singing before he had written the words.
"We work slightly differently for each song, but one thing that I always do is drag and drop Drake's vocals. I arm one track in Pro Tools to record him, and I then drag the clip down to an empty track. I never switch tracks while recording. When he says he wants to sing or rap or do an overdub, I just hit Record. I always have an open mic in the studio. Another advantage of using drag and drop is that Drake does not want to hear the playback in the headphones before I punch him in. Normally, when you do a punch-in, you'll hear the track, then you hear yourself when you punch in, and then it goes back to the track. Drake doesn't like that, he wants to hear himself live at all times, just with a bit of reverb or delay for the feel, but for the most part pretty dry.”
Another common way of writing songs in hip-hop and R&B is to use a track written by another producer as a starting point, and in the case of 'Headlines', the starting point came from fellow Toronto producer Boi-1da who, with some help from one A. Palman, provided the basic string staccatos and synth arpeggios that resulted in a slightly more full-on and energetic arrangement than is usual for Drake. 40 elaborates: "Boi-1da sent us the beat as a stereo MP3, and Drake loved it, so I popped it into Pro Tools and Drake started going to town over it. He probably spent a couple of nights writing. I added quite a lot of stuff to it, like lead lines and extra basses and pads, some 808 rides, that sort of drive the record. All these additional tracks are marked '40' in the session.
"At some point while Drake was writing to the stereo MP3, I was calling Boi-1da, begging and demanding all the exported separate files of his session. I then swapped those for the MP3 tracks, so by the time Drake had finished writing, he was working against the separated files, which I used to arrange the record. Some of Boi-1da original parts were removed or muted. I really buried my hands in the arrangement. I recall that we took all the drums out at that point, but then decided this didn't work, so we put the kicks back in. The arrangement got changed and edited and I added my parts, thickening the bass and adding pads and the melody synths. I looked at the Boi-1da track from a mix perspective and added things that I couldn't achieve just by mixing. We also called in Divine Brown to add some vocals, because there's some male-female call-and-response in the song, so she could give the female perspective and add thickness to the chorus. This happened over three or four days of Drake and I working alone at my studio.
"I am adding plug-ins and mixing and tweaking the record as I go along, but at some point, once we know the record is real and we need to step it up a level, I take sessions to Metalworks Studios for the final mix. Boi-1da and T-Minus both use Fruity Loops to do their beats, and until recently it only spat out 16-bit files, so I almost always end up putting these through the 80-input SSL 4000 G+ at Metalworks Studio 2. I also stick them through some other analogue gear, like a Pultec, or Neve 1073s or LA2As. Metalworks have a bunch of great Pultecs, and I love hitting them! It's to give these files more feel and life, and I then track them back into Pro Tools at 24/44.1. You can upgrade a 16-bit file to 24 bits in the computer, but this doesn't add anything; plus in-the-box processing will give you bit loss and degradation, and by the time you spit it out, it won't be the same. From Drake's perspective, it's also nice to go to Metalworks, because they have a big room and we can get a crowd in there that he can entertain. They have a pair of Augspurgers and subs in one room that we can really crank up!
"After running the 16-bit stuff through the analogue domain, I remained in the box for this record. As I said before, our approach is always different, so in some cases I lay everything out over the SSL, in some cases I do everything in the box, and sometimes it's a combination of the two, like in this record. But a lot of my instruments are Pro Tools-based, so why would I want to leave the box? Everything is recorded at 24-bit, at extremely high quality, so apart from the issue with upgrading 16-bit files, it's rare that I think about running stuff through old gear and risk having crackles and other headache-inducing stuff. In general, I want it as clean as humanly possible. Mixing 'Headlines' happened very quickly. Most of the plug-ins on it were opened during arranging and tracking, and because of the vocal chains we use, Drake's vocals are in pretty good shape by the time the recordings are done. In general, the records are nearly finished. Drake suddenly said, 'Hey, let's put it out tonight,' and I replied, 'OK, give me a few hours!' So I took the session to Metalworks, where I put the Boi-1da stuff through the analogue gear, tweaked the rest in the box for three hours, and before I knew it, it was done.”
The 'Headlines' session is meticulously organised, starting with a stereo track at the top containing Boi-1da's original backing, then 10 drum tracks from Boi-1da, four 40 drum tracks, four Boi-1da music tracks consisting of one low arpeggio and three string tracks, six 40 synth tracks, a drum master track, 12 Drake vocal tracks and one Divine Brown vocal track, a Drake vocal master track and the same for Divine Brown, four aux tracks, a general vocal master track and a general music master track, and the final stereo master. In total, there are only 37 audio tracks, and relatively few plug-ins, particularly on Boi-1da's drum tracks because, remarks 40, "I had passed his stuff through the SSL already and had done most of the processing I wanted during that process.” The eagle-eyed will spot the '-1380' markings in the comments box. Says 40, "I was working in full HD with TDM and then took it home to work on Pro Tools LE, and the first thing I always do is to check for latency, and I noticed that Auto-Tune was giving me 1380 samples of latency on every track it was on, so I compensated for that by hitting my great friend Alt-H, one of my favourite shortcuts in Pro Tools, and moving all the vocals 1380 samples earlier.”
Drums and bass: SSL desk EQ, SPL Transient Designer, Waves Renaissance Axe and Renaissance Bass, Avid Lo-Fi and Xpand!
"I had the SPL Transient Designer on Boi-1da's kick, to get it a little bit more snappy and pointy. There also are very few plug-ins on the drum tracks I added, including some 808 tracks, one of them being a hi-hat ride ['40808']. On the drum master track, I had a Renaissance Axe compressor, working minimally, with just a -1 setting on the threshold. Boi-1da had a 'Sawbass' track, which I hit with a bunch of stuff. Coming off the SSL I had probably given it a little bit too much bottom, so when I was mixing I wanted to push its top end a bit, and instead of having a huge, rumbling, low bass, give it a little bit more pop and harshness. I wanted to shape it a bit differently. I pulled back on some bottom end with the first EQ, while also adding some air to brighten it up. That gave me a better balance to work with, and at that point I hit it with some Renaissance Bass, to give it something under 100Hz, and I added a bit of distortion with the Lo-Fi to give it some anger. I also added a bass track, using Xpand!, which is a stock plug-in in Pro Tools, and again adding the Lo-Fi, in which I pulled the sample rate down to 4400Hz, so it's degraded a lot. I also applied EQ, ducking at 95Hz, and then a little compression to level it out. I depend on the Pro Tools Lo-Fi a lot. I can't use the Waves or Air Lo-Fi, it has to be the stock Digi one.”
"I had the Pultec and some drastic outboard EQ on the first marcato string part, and a mid-range EQ and some drastic top-end EQ on the second string part, but left the third string part alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Three of my five additional keyboard parts have the Lo-Fi, with, again, Sample Rate and Distortion being the buttons that I reach for. Those keyboards also have the Sansamp on them. 'Outro40lead' is my keyboard part, which is a synth lead. I used an instrument in Xpand! 2 and then the GTR Solo plug-in preset and, again, some Lo-Fi.”
Vocals: Antares Auto-Tune, Waves Q8, De-esser, Renaissance EQ, Vox Compressor and SSL EQ, Bomb Factory Pultec EQP-1A, Avid Smack!
"Nine of Drake's 12 vocal tracks, as well as Divine Brown's vocal track, had Auto-Tune on them. On this record I actually tuned the raps! Drake raps in a very melodic way, which is a conscious decision on his part. I therefore hit it with some Auto-Tune to centre the pitch a little bit. If I left it off, I'd be surprised if many people would notice. It's just a bit of pitch-correction. But you can hear that it's perfect, which is abnormal, of course. In addition to Auto-Tune I also had the Waves Q8 EQ on 'Drake 1', and the Waves De-esser, the RE6, the RVox, a Pultec plug-in and the Smack! on the Drake master vocal track. I like the sound of the Smack! compressor, it adds some more energy and anticipation. The 'Reverb', 'Delay', 'Exciter' and 'Delay2' tracks are all aux tracks associated with the vocals on this record. I treated all the vocals on this song as one, which is a little abnormal: I normally have chorus processing and verse processing and rap processing, and so on. But for me, the feel of this record was of a guy on stage singing the song, so it had to be coherent from the beginning to the end of the song. I sent all my vocals to one bus, and the drums and music to another bus, so I could balance them against each other just before I hit the stereo bus. There are three more plug-ins on that final vocal bus: the RCompressor, SSL EQ and Q8.”
"There's a [Waves] Linear Phase EQ and an L2 limiter on the master bus, which I use when printing reference mixes. I take the L2 off when I send the track to mastering, though I'll leave the EQ in sometimes. This song ended up being, for my doing, a little bit thin, other than some good bottom end in the chorus from the bass lines that I added. But I love the fact that the vocal is really loud and in your face. I hate the loudness wars and that artists and critics mistake loudness for quality, and I tried to stay away from it for most of Take Care. But because 'Headlines' was a roll-out single for the album, I wanted it to jump out when it came on the radio, and part of that was not having so much bottom end, which gave me the headroom to push it a bit further. Bass and kick take up so much headroom, but this song is more snare-driven. So I did my best to make the song super-loud and more impactful on the radio. Because a song like 'Marvin's Room' has a lot of bass, I had to do quite a bit of tweaking during mastering to make the whole album fit together. But it's part of the fun Drake and I have in fighting all the boundaries and limits, whether from a mix or a musical standpoint. We're just a couple of kids making records and it has worked out pretty good for us!”
It's an unassuming, and very Canadian, approach.
Noah '40' Shebib was born in Toronto in 1983 to an Irish-Lebanese father, and was a bit of a child prodigy, acting in Canadian TV series like The Mighty Jungle, Goosebumps and Wind At My Back. This experience informed his later successes as an engineer and a producer.
"I left school at age 10 to be able to act full-time. I grew up in the entertainment industry, with my family being actors and so on. I knew from a very early age what being an entertainer or creative person involves having to work every day to make sure you have an income and a career. I also preferred to be behind the screen rather than the person on the screen. I don't like the limelight too much. For those reasons, I always leaned towards the technical side — it had substance, whether you liked it or not. When I was a kid, I used the money I made from acting to rent a four-track tape deck and digital samplers, and I also had Sound Recorder on Windows 3. I used anything I could lay my hands on, whether consumer-level or entry-level pro stuff. When I was 12 years old, I had a little setup in the basement, with a Tascam four-track tape deck and a Roland SP202 sampler, and was making music. I'd already been programming DOS code as a six-year old kid, so when computers kicked into gear it was second nature to me. I worked with a program called Sonic Foundry Acid 3.0, and by age 12 or 13 I was fluent in any computer platform. I also started DJ'ing when I was 13, something that pulled me into the world of hip-hop. And I'd been playing piano since I was four years old, and also had a love of physics and mathematics. All these things pointed me towards a career in recording studios.”
They also pointed towards great things to come, but even someone as precocious as the young Noah Shebib had to pay his dues. He recalls, "At 19, I went to the Trebas Institute in Toronto to study audio engineering, but left after five months, because I felt I wasn't learning anything. At best, I was being reassured of things I already knew. I left to do an internship with Noel 'Gadget' Campbell, a well-known mixer in Toronto, who became my mentor and whom I work with to this day. Even 10 years ago, there was not much of a studio industry left, so I was very lucky to get to work with him. I was also lucky because Gadget worked me really hard; he didn't let me sleep. In being put through the wringer by him I really earned my stripes, so when I later walked into studios in New York, LA or Miami, I could do everything that the engineers there could. One night at 3am, I'd already been working non-stop for two or three days, Gadget walked into the control room and said: 'Listen.' He had a CD changer with 300 of his favourite discs, and all kinds of music, and we'd listen to music and talk about it until 1pm the next day. He then looked at me and said: 'Your ears are tuned now.' I understood that you need reference points to be able to hear music properly, and when you go back to your own music, you can hear right away what's right and what's wrong.”
Campbell ran a label with Chris Smith, called Blacksmith, which was licensed to Universal, and for which 40 engineered albums by rapper Jelleestone and R&B singer Divine Brown in 2004. 40 also produced two of the songs on Brown's album, one of which, 'Old Skool Love', became a gold record in Canada. It was during the Jelleestone recordings that he earned his nickname. "I'd always be sitting at the console, so they called me 40/40, meaning 40 days and 40 nights, because I never slept. That evolved into just 40. The Brown and Jelleestone records were my first major-label projects, and the former put me on the map. But after that I decided to focus on just engineering and mixing, and that's what I was doing when I first met Drake. I'd grown tired of making music and didn't have any reason to make beats. In working with Drake, I found my reason, so I stepped back into producing. Drake had gone through a lot of trial and error to identify his sound, and I had clear-cut ideas. I knew what it needed to sound like. Is it a Toronto sound? Well, there are tons of producers here in Toronto that inspired me when I was a youth, like Gadget, Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall, Mr Attic, Mazzaman and Agile.”