NF's The Search has revitalised hip-hop with its cinematic textures and arrangements. Longstanding producer Tommee Profitt was at the controls...
Hip-hop production has become increasingly sparse in recent years, with some trap beats consisting of little else but an 808, some hi-hats, the occasional snare, and a couple of synth tracks. The latest rap album to top the US charts, NF's The Search, couldn't be more different. High drama is created by orchestras, choirs, big drums and cinematic sound effects, while NF himself creates intensity with rapid-fire rapping.
In another break with recent hip–hop and pop practice, where dozens of beatmakers tend to be involved in the creation of an album, NF also works almost exclusively with one beatmaker/producer. Tommee Profitt was involved in the making of 16 of The Search's 19 songs, and wrote and produced 10 of them alone with NF, aka Nate Feuerstein. Profitt also mixed all the tracks he was involved in.
"Nate's music is very musical and dynamic," agrees Profitt, "and we often talk about how it contrasts with other hip-hop. Nate also sings, and there are not many artists who can rap the way he does and sing the way he does. And there is a lot of musical development in Nate's music, which is kind of rare in hip-hop. It is not just a sample that loops over and over. The entire musical bed is almost like a movie score. My main thing is cinematic music. I do movie trailers, and TV promos and stuff like that, and video-game trailers, and it is really fun to bring that world to a hip-hop artist production, and blend the two, and kind of create a genre that not a lot of people are doing."
According to Profitt's website, his "cinematic productions" have been used by the likes of ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, ESPN, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA Sports, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, MTV, VH1, HBO, CW, OWN, GOLF, Freeform, Showtime, Starz, Mountain Dew, Finish Line, Under Armour and more. The producer elaborates on how his cinematic work has a direct impact on the way he approaches pop and hip–hop in general, and NF in particular. "I use many trailer samples for impact, for example things they call 'whooshbangs' to make songs really hit hard when the chorus comes in. These sounds rise up with a whoosh, followed by a big impact. Many companies, like KeepForest, Hybrid Two, Heavyocity and Ava, make trailer sound libraries, and I have thousands and thousands and thousands of these trailer sound effects. For NF and for trailer music I want impact sounds that sound and feel like they are a big meteor hitting the earth. You want big, massive gongs, big tubular bells with lots of low end, and so on. They really bring an organic big feel to tracks. By contrast, I think many hip-hop samples are rather small-sounding, with an impact that is like flicking a piece of paper."
For those not in the know, movie trailers often don't feature the actual soundtrack from the movie they're trailing, as the trailers tend to be made well before the soundtrack is finished. As a result, an entire industry has emerged that supplies trailer music, which tends to be full of sound-designed 'whooshbangs' and so on, as well as dramatic orchestral and choir arrangements, all to maximise the instant impact that's the essence of a good trailer. Trailer-like samples also are regularly used in EDM, with its risers and big crashes, but their appearance in pop and hip-hop has so far been limited. The breakthrough success of NF's The Search may alter this, particularly as it is proving to be career changing for the protagonists.
"It's definitely a crazy moment for us," explains Profitt. "Nate's previous album also went to number one, but it did not go up against any other major album, and sold perhaps 50,000. But with this album, there was quite a lot of big-name competition, so it means a lot more. It sold 84,000 albums and 130,000 units in the first week! Nate and I worked almost five months non–stop on the album. We poured so much passion into it, I don't think I have ever felt so fried afterwards. We are incredibly proud of it."
Profitt and Feuerstein's long journey to the top of the Billboard charts started 10 years ago when they first met in their native Michigan. Profitt was already a proficient piano player, who toured the US with his own group, the Tommee Profitt Band, and had a college degree in audio production. Profitt and Feuerstein hit it off, and started working together. They signed in 2014 to Capitol Christian Music Group, and The Search is NF's fourth major-label album.
Profitt played a key role on all four of NF's albums, and he explains that he was attracted to film music from a young age. "Playing piano gave me a very good knowledge of music and music theory, and when I was in high school, I'd listen to movie scores and trailer music in my car. I totally fell in love with cinematic music and started creating it myself. Because of my keyboard skills, it was fun for me to play every violin part, every viola part, every cello part and so on, and create chords and build up tracks that way in the studio. I learned doing orchestral arrangement by trial and error. I did a lot of things wrong in those early days, for example making instruments play higher or lower than their range. But now libraries limit the samples to the range of the instrument, so that helped me a lot to learn where these instruments sit."
Playing piano gave me a very good knowledge of music and music theory, and when I was in high school, I'd listen to movie scores and trailer music in my car. I totally fell in love with cinematic music and started creating it myself.
Success in the cinematic music world happened in 2015, soon after Profitt signed his publishing deal with Capitol CMG/Universal. "The first TV and film song that I ever did was a song called 'Soldier', with my friend Fleurie, and we ended up landing a huge Will Smith movie trailer [for Concussion] with that song, and a month later it was placed in another big show, and a month later it was placed in another commercial. That song kept placing over and over, probably 15 times in various TV and film promos. I love the surprise of seeing my songs used in different trailers. It's an awesome feeling, and I ended up growing a brand for myself in the world of cinematic production. Now, a lot of the time when I work with artists they want that cinematic influence in their music. It is like: 'Hey, do your string thing!' They love the raw, emotional feel of that music."
Tommee Profitt moved to Nashville in 2017, because his publisher is based there, as are many of the companies and singers he works with. The producer releases many of his cinematic productions through his very active YouTube channel, which has 317,000 subscribers, and also in album form, under the title Cinematic Songs — the sixth instalment was released in August. He currently works from his home in Nashville, where he has an acoustically treated studio above his garage. It was here that Feuerstein and Profitt spent the first half of 2019 working on The Search.
"My setup is entirely in the box now, but until two years ago I still had a whole bunch of outboard gear. I used to record live drums and a band and stuff like that, but wasn't doing that any more, so I didn't need 16 channels of inputs. I actually did a shoot-out comparing hardware gear like the Tube-Tech CL1B and Neve 1073 with the software equivalents, so that was a case of comparing gear that costs $5000 with $200 per plug-in, and I thought the plug-ins sounded great. I could hardly tell the difference. Most of the stuff I recorded using outboard I tweak with plug–ins afterwards anyway. So I scrapped the outboard and went 100 percent in the box.
"My setup now consists of a Mac Pro with Pro Tools, the UAD Apollo Twin, the Manley Black Reference Cardioid mic, and ADAM A7 monitors with a KRK sub. The UAD Console has Unison technology, and I use the API Vision Channel Strip [plug-in] as an input pre, and the signal then goes through two UAD Teletronix LA2A compressors. The API sounds awesome, and I hit the signal pretty hard with the LA2As. Because I print the signal, I obviously have to make sure I set the compressors correctly. The Manley is an incredible microphone, and after I've run it through the UAD Console, I put more plug-ins on the vocal, and it ends up sounding really good."
Work on The Search began at the very end of 2018. "Nate and I like to start everything together in the room," said Profitt. "Our favourite thing is opening a brand-new Pro Tools session and just going through sounds, to find sounds that inspire us. We usually get a main signature sound and the feel for the track, and the sound may inspire some melodies. I literally have millions of sounds and loops, folders and folders of them. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I don't even know where to start! But new sounds help me to stay inspired and play differently, and make something new and fresh that does not sound like the last track that I just did. This is really important for me as a producer and a creative being. If I had only three libraries, I would lose inspiration pretty quickly. I am very organised with my libraries and my sounds. You have to be.
"Once Nate and I have the mood and foundation for the track, they will inspire him to start writing his verses. The majority of the time we first get some basic sounds, and then I build up the track while he sits behind me on the couch, writing. He will usually stay in my studio until late, and sometimes he takes the track home and writes there. Nate is very particular, and knows what he likes and doesn't like in terms of production, and he's very involved in the creation of the backing tracks, probably more than most artists I work with. It's fun for both of us to be in a room and collaborate. After having done four albums with him I can predict what chords he'll like and what voicings and what sounds. That helps us to move more quickly through the process."
Two notable songs on The Search are the title song, one of the most dramatic orchestral tracks on the album, and the closer, 'Trauma', a sparsely arranged melancholy ballad, sung by NF. Profitt elaborates on the genesis of both. "'Trauma' came together in just 20 minutes. Nate wanted a song with just piano and strings and him singing. I came up with the piano part while lying in bed, and when I played it for him the next day he thought it was perfect, and he went on the microphone and sang a scratch melody. We kept that melody almost exactly like that, and even kept some of the lyrics of when he was freestyling. Melodies and lyrics come out of him really fast.
"'The Search' is one of the last songs we did for the album. Nate has always had intro tracks on his album, and felt we didn't have a big opening track yet, so I pulled up some staccato strings, because we had never done something with strings like that, and I played the main melody. Nate was like: 'Dude, record that, now!' I built the track up to make it really big-sounding, and Nate started writing to it, and then there are the hip-hop drums coming halfway. We felt that it was going to be crazy and unique. It still fits the NF brand, but it feels fresh and new as well."
Tommee Profitt: "In general I prefer using EQs to cut, because in these large cinematic sessions you need dynamics and builds, and you don't want things to get muddy or parts to overpower each other."
In addition to deriving inspiration from new sounds, Profitt also likes to have "millions" of them because he layers sounds. "The string sound on 'The Search'," he says, "comes from four string libraries: Berlin Strings by Orchestral Tools, LA Scoring Strings, Novo by Heavyocity and a little bit of Spitfire Audio Strings. Berlin Strings is my favourite string library. I think they are the most realistic and incredible string sounds made. I'll have all four libraries set to MIDI channel 1, and when I play the keyboard, all of them sound at the same time. All libraries play in Native Instruments Kontakt. There are tons of cinematic libraries for Kontakt out there, and I obsessively collect all of them.
"I spend a lot of time trying to make the strings sound as realistic as possible, particularly with longer, legato string sounds and parts that are very exposed, so you can hear them well. You don't want it to sound like MIDI strings, because that can ruin everything. I'll use the mod wheel while playing, for expression, and I will then open up the MIDI window and really dial in the velocities of the notes that are played, and how they connect to the next notes. To get realistic-sounding strings you need to dive into the MIDI editing and work on that for a long time. I'll quantise fast, on–the-beat strings, but sometimes it's good not to quantise and to keep the feel of playing the strings on the keyboard, to get a more real and human feel. On 'Trauma' we also had a string player adding live strings. Because the song is so raw and naked, we wanted to get more of a human element, and make it sound like a human played the strings. It's the first time we did that. In the end we layered the live and the programmed strings, to get the right mix.
"I built the arrangement of 'The Search' up really fast, and after doing the strings I added the choir from 8dio Requiem Professional, some brass from Berlin Brass and CineBrass Pro, and some tubular bells hits, I can't recall where I got them from. For the drums I will often use a random hip-hop pack, or samples from Splice or IndustryKits, or wherever. Splice has some really good, hard-hitting drum samples. While I have some drum kits that I play on the keyboard, and in the past used to work with drums in MIDI, I now usually drag drum samples straight onto the timeline."
The final aspect of production involves recording NF's vocals. "For the most part we have one vocal take in each song," explains Profitt. "He just does it, and if he messes up a section, he will redo it really fast, as in 'Let's punch in there.' Every once in a while he will say: 'Keep that one, and let me do a second take, so we can compare.' But we never have more than two alternate takes. Most of the time he just does one take and it's perfect. He's that good. If required, I tune in Melodyne, because of the control it gives you, and it feels more natural. It takes longer to do this by hand, but the results are so much better. But Nate is a great singer, so I don't have to do much on him."