Photos: Breht Gardner
A common reaction on hearing the name Bryan-Michael Cox is 'Bryan who?' One reason for this may be that he hasn't been around for very long — Cox is only 29, and his career has followed the kind of trajectory that journalists invented the word 'meteoric' for.
In 1999, as a green 21-year-old, Cox enjoyed his first production credit with the hit song 'Get Gone' by Houston band Ideal. Come 2004, Cox already had a mind-boggling 280 hit records to his name. Today it's quicker to name the R&B A-list stars Cox hasn't worked with than those that he has. To have at least a stab at the latter, Cox was (co-)responsible for Mariah Carey's 'Shake It Off', Danity Kane's 'Ride For You', LeToya's 'Obvious', Mary J Blige's 'Be Without You', and Usher's 'Burn' and 'Confessions, Part 2'.
Cox's career has also been studded with accolades. SESAC, the US performing rights organisation, declared Cox songwriter of the year in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. In the same year, Cox was named producer of the year by Billboard magazine after he broke the Beatles' long-held record for most consecutive number one hits on the Billboard 100 chart. Inevitably, Grammy nominations and awards have followed. It's a truly staggering list of achievements for someone so young.
An alternative explanation for Cox's relative obscurity is the fact that most of the above-mentioned hit records were made under the tutelage of Atlanta's big-shot hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri. As a result, many tended to give the credit to Dupri rather than Cox. 'Be Without You' is in fact Cox's first major hit without Dupri, and the enormous success of this song has raised his profile more than anything else he's done.
"Yeah, it's crazy," admits Cox about the fact that he's suddenly been discovered, adding that he's been "making hit records for a long time, also without Jermaine". It's perhaps for this reason that he sounds a bit tetchy when asked about his exact status. Various articles imply that he's been on Dupri's payroll for many years, but, stresses Cox, "I've always been independent. Even when I worked with Jermaine I had records out there that I'd done without him. Jermaine helped me to take my thing to another level, you understand? But I've always been an independent worker, and it doesn't feel any different today, you know what I'm sayin'? I was working myself to death, because I was doing stuff with Jermaine and also alone."
Bryan-Michael Cox was born in Miami, Florida in 1977. He relocated to Houston, Texas, where he attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and met producer Greg Curtis, who became his mentor and his introduction into the world of music technology. "My mum bought me an electronic keyboard when I was 14 years old, the Yamaha PSR500," recalls Cox, "which is one of those with the speakers built in. It had a function that allowed you to make your own beats. So I was doing that without knowing that I was teaching myself how to program. When I met Greg he had all this gear, like Performer and a Tascam DA88, and he taught me how to use that. I then got myself the Korg Trinity, and also an Ensoniq ASR10 and an Emu SP1200, and learned to program them as well."
Cox moved to Atlanta in 1997, because he saw this as the happening place for the R&B/hip-hop movement and his chance to break into the music industry. He majored in music at Clark University, and also began work at Noontime, an Atlanta production company that has its own studio complex. While working at the studio he met two men who would play a pivotal role in his career. Jermaine Dupri was so impressed with Cox's demos that he immediately threw him in at the deep end, writing material for top-flight artists. Meanwhile, further out of the limelight, Cox met Sam Thomas, who became his regular engineer.
Whether working with or without Dupri, Cox's output has tended to stand out from the R&B/hip-hop crowd. American urban music often features a barrage of noises and beats, often borrows its essential hook, if not its entire melodic and harmonic content, from samples, and tends to drip with digital distortion as it's brickwalled to the limit. By contrast, Cox specialises in sumptuously recorded ballads and medium-tempo numbers that may have a slight hip-hop feel in the rhythm section, but are bereft of samples and are instead high on original melodic and harmonic content. Mary J Blige's 'Be Without You' is a perfect illustration.
Moreover, on many of the songs Cox writes and produces, he's credited as playing 'all instruments'. Cox is a specimen of that very old-fashioned and endangered 21st century species, the R&B musician with serious chops: Thomas calls him "a phenomenal musician. You can listen to him playing the piano for hours and hours."
"My first instrument is the piano," confirms Cox, "and I play some percussion and guitar. I played piano in church and I listened to jazz piano and to R&B as a child. My best friend is Robert Glasper, a phenomenal jazz pianist who is signed to Blue Note Records. We grew up together. I like listening to Kenny Kirkland, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett. But I also listened to R&B. I grew up in a household where R&B was the main thing. I'm a child of R&B. I'm a product of my upbringing, and I'm of the hip-hop generation and I love hip-hop. I'm also a DJ; I love it. But I also grew up with musicians, artistic people who played drums and piano. And there's a strong gospel influence in my music. I love ballads and medium-tempo songs. They're my forté, even though I've always been successful with up-tempo records.
"It's true that sampling isn't really my thing. I'll use a sample or a loop when it's hot, but if you look at my discography, I rarely sample. Some people are great at it, and it's an art form in itself, but it's not my lane, you know what I'm sayin'? I prefer to write songs from the ground up. I may listen to some records to get a vibe, but that's usually it. I'm a keyboard player, so I'll sit at a keyboard for hours and as things come to my fingers, I'll start developing a melody. Sometimes I'll start with an idea that's ready to go. I'll have a song in my head and I'll just know how I want it to go. You can't really pinpoint the method, it's however God gave it to you."
When in Atlanta, Bryan-Michael Cox works in various studios, among them the Music Room, Silent Sound, Zac Recording, Doppler and Tree Sounds. Sam Thomas is always at this side. Thomas, a guitar player in a previous incarnation until he got fed up working in the margins and went into engineering, ran Noontime's studio complex in Atlanta at the time Cox worked there. He became the latter's personal engineer in 2001. He's still, "technically speaking", freelance, but Cox's workload means that he has "no time for other gigs". He has no cause for complaint, as he's currently beginning to make a name for himself as a mixer, and has been deeply involved in the setting up of Cox's own studio complex in Atlanta, of which more later. First Cox and Thomas elaborate about the tools of their trade.
"When I moved from Houston to Atlanta in 1997," says Cox, "I was surprised to find that no-one here used computer programming. Everyone was using the Akai MPC3000. I'd never used it, and so Jazzy Pha and Teddy Bishop [two hip-hop producers] taught me how to use it. Once I got into it, I became addicted to the MPC3000, and only last year did I go back to computer programming. I do a lot of stuff in Logic, and it's incredible. I love that program. But there's something about that drum machine. I now use the MPC4000. I initially didn't really want to adapt to it, but again, once I got into it, I grew to love it. The MPC4000 is such a great machine."
Cox's writing rig consists of the Akai MPC4000, a Korg Triton Extreme as main controller, Roland Fantom X sound module, Logic running on a 17-inch Powerbook G4 loaded with Native Instruments' Komplete, IK's Miroslav Philharmonik and Arturia's CS80V, among lots of other soft synths, plus Yamaha Motif ES, Roland V-Synth, Moog Voyager and Studio Electronics SE1X synths, Technics SL1200 turntables and mixer, and Serato's Scratch Live turntable controller.
"Bryan uses Logic as a sound module," explains Thomas. "He doesn't sequence inside of Logic, he does all his sequencing on the MPC. We use Ak*Sys [Akai's sound manager program for their samplers] to communicate between the MPC and Logic, and it allows you to actually see the MPC on your laptop. We have an amazing sound library — we take a lot of time to build it and sometimes spend two days just catching kicks and snares and hi-hats and other sounds. Or we'll take snippets from vinyl records or sounds from sample CDs. We organise sounds of all sorts of different categories and moods in different folders. Depending on what mood Bryan is in, all he has to do is take a folder of sounds and drag and drop it onto the MPC4000 and all sounds will be automatically loaded.
"The MPC has a hard drive in it, so when he's in town and uses his own machine, we can load things faster from the hard drive. But when we are out of town and rent in an MPC, loading from the laptop is the best way to do it. When we travel we only have to carry the laptop. Bryan also has an Edirol four-octave USB controller, and I just bought myself an M-Audio Axiom, just for writing when we're hanging in hotel rooms. Bryan constantly has ideas flowing through his mind, and I need to be able to catch them. So I plan ahead and I bring what he needs."
"A sound may trigger my mind," continues Cox, "and I'll have the beginning of a song and then I build from there. After I've loaded all my sounds via Ak*Sys, I'll go through them and figure out what will fit with what I'm playing. Next I'll map the song out in Pro Tools. My sounds will come out of Logic via an RME Fireface 800 interface and go analogue into Pro Tools. We could transfer internal files, but it's way easier to track things out as if the laptop with Logic is a regular module. I may track eight bars in Pro Tools, and then I'll duplicate them as long as I want the song to be. I may overdub the bridge and tweak that and do little starts and stops and put an intro on it, and so on.
"I'll do all this in Pro Tools. I only use Logic for programming when I'm on the road. Logic is for creating music, because it comes with so many soft synths. Sam argues that Logic sounds better than Pro Tools, but the new Pro Tools 7.3 is incredible. They have fixed every problem they had in the past, and HD sounds great."
Sam Thomas grudgingly agrees. "I think Pro Tools is finally coming up to the level of Logic. Of course, audio editing is much better in Pro Tools, and I wish Logic would up their game on this front. But in general I'm using Pro Tools as a tape machine, a playback medium. One advantage of Logic is that you can use any type of converter of your choosing. With Pro Tools you either have the 192 or third-party converters like Prism or Apogee that are seven grand apiece, super expensive. But the real reason I think Logic sounds better is because of its production values, all the soft synths that come with it. I'm also thinking of mixing from and to Logic. I might use Logic as my front end, and spread the mix across the console."
It Takes Two (Or Three, Or Four...)
The process of writing and producing tracks in the current hip-hop/R&B scene is more collaborative than ever. Take Bryan-Michael Cox's most successful song to date, Mary J Blige's 'Be Without You'. It was co-written by Cox with Blige, Jason Perry and Johnta Austin, and co-produced by Cox with Blige, Ron Fair and Young Smoke. Cox played all instruments, helped by Young Smoke, as well as Ron Fair, who also did the additional vocal arrangements and string arrangements. In addition, the track features three engineers and was mixed by David Pensado.
"I did the whole track," explains Cox, "and Jason co-composed the bridge with me, and Johnta wrote the lyrics and the melody. Mary came in and she and I tweaked some of the lines and tightened the record up lyrically to fit her. We threw ideas around, we talked about the track and we came up with concepts. My songs come from real-life experiences. Every record that I have been a part of comes from a conversation. I did a record called 'Bad Habit' for Destiny's Child, and I wrote the whole song, but it came from a conversation I had with Kelly [Rowland], which I translated into the record. So I gave her publishing for that.
"When Jermaine [Dupri] and I wrote 'U Got It Bad' [a US number one and UK number 5 in 2001), I came up with an eight-bar loop, and he then added the drum machine, and by the time we looked up we were done. Sometimes it just happens like that. But a lot of the times an artist is present and will do the vocals here. When I'm with an artist, I try to do a song a day. I like to keep it at that level. Regarding string arrangements, I usually incorporate synthesized strings on the track, and Ron will embellish them and make them as lush and full as he can.
"Ron is also very good with vocals. I've never heard anyone in the music industry who can produce and tune vocals like Ron Fair. He's a Melodyne pro. He's so good at embellishing the vocals and making them sound tight. I normally send him a DVD with my Pro Tools files. I'm sometimes present when Ron does his thing or when the record is mixed, and sometimes not, it depends whether I'm available. If I'm not there, we'll be on the phone and I'll be sent passes as they are doing it and it will go back and forth until we get it right."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the more melodic and traditional nature of Cox's output, he and Thomas turn out to have an old-fashioned liking for the analogue medium. "I like plug-ins, and some people can do incredible things with them," says Cox. "It depends on what sound you're going for. I've had hit records mixed in the box, and hit records mixed on a desk. It's really about your ears at the end of the day. But for me, I like to hear my instruments come through analogue."
Cox's new studio, which he hopes will open in June, is likely to feature an SSL K-series desk, and, he says, "a couple of Chandler strips, a Dangerous 2-Bus, SSL compressor strips, some Avalon stuff," and so on. "I prefer to work on an SSL, or a Neve," adds Thomas. "I like to spread things out on a desk, I'm not an in-the-box person. More and more engineers are going towards digital, but I'm more into the analogue stuff. I feel like I'm being robbed when I'm mixing in the box; you just lose a whole side of the picture. You lose the bottom end of the sound and the whole mix gets really thin. On the last mix I did, I used just three plug-ins and everything else was outboard: [Neve] 1073 or 1081 in my vocal chain, Chandler EQ, SPL, Tube-Tech and Pultec, all that old stuff that really warms up the sound. I also like to print to half-inch, because it warms the sound up even more."
Thomas acknowledges that ergonomics are an additional reason for his preference for mixing on a desk, saying "I like to touch things. If you sit clicking a mouse all day, you're not feeling the music, you're watching it, and I don't want to watch waveforms or a computer screen, I want to listen to music." The engineer's choices appear to work for him, because his mixes have been finding their way onto the albums and singles of more and more major artists, among them Toni Braxton, Mary J Blige, Joe (a Jive Records artist), and Danity Kane.
In all cases, these were recordings written by Cox and recorded and mixed by Thomas. It turns out that the engineer/mixer is benefiting from something that has established mixers tear out their hair: in Thomas's words, "people more and more fall in love with the demo. And if I'm the person mixing the demo, I need to mix the crap out of it and make sure it's great. And so my mix game is getting better and better. People ask me how I get the kicks and the bottom end bass in Bryan's records to cut through so much, and it's a matter of layering sounds, and EQ'ing them, and smashing them together — whatever it needs to make a new kick. Whatever it takes to make a new sound. People say that you're only as good as your last hit, but you're also only as good as how fresh your sounds are. You don't want to have dated sounds in your music."
Cox's and Thomas's plan for world domination appears to be progressing at an impressive pace, and the new studio in Atlanta is set to play a crucial role. Cox stresses that it'll be a place to record, rather than merely a programming and mixing studio, with proper recording areas and sound insulation. "That's imperative," he says, "I'm in the song business, not in the beat business, you know what I'm sayin'? In order to do songs, I have to have a place where I can record the songs."
Thomas fills in the details. "We'll have a couple of SSL rooms, and one of them will be my mix room, and Bryan will be producing in the other. There will also be a couple of MIDI writing rooms, lounges, a kitchen, and so on. It will be private, but we'll rent it out to people we know when we're not there. We're shooting for two SSL K-series desks, but I wouldn't mind having a G-series, because it sounds great. However, SSL have stopped making parts for it, so we'd need to buy two; one for parts. The 'G' channel strip has some dirt in it and you can push it a little harder than the 'K'. The J-series and K-series sound great, but for gritty R&B and hip-hop the G-series is perfect. Another option is the SSL Duality."
Meanwhile, Cox declares that he'd love to get into "music supervision for movies. I want to produce TV shows and continue to make good music." In addition, he has his own production company, Black Baby Inc, and has founded a record label called Beat Factory, with artists like LeToya, Q Amey, Bella and Dirty Rose. As for his writing and producing work, he's currently planning, or in the middle of, work with the likes of Whitney Houston, Jessica Simpson, Chris Brown and Karina Pasian ("she's on Def Jam, and she's incredible"), and he's preparing a new Mary J Blige album. Cox also has ambitions as a vocalist and for doing his own record, but he doesn't see when he'll have the time. "I'm so busy, it's crazy. I'm just focused on making records and being the best producer that I can possibly be."
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