Studio Dupri in Hotlandia

An Interview with Engineers Phil Tan and John Horesco IV.

Working With an Icon

 

- By Randy Alberts

You don’t evolve from dancer to rapper to label owner to Grammy-winning, multi-platinum producer without knowing what sounds good—really good.

Jermaine Dupri, who accomplished all of this by his 18th birthday in 1991, knows exactly what he wants to hear. So do all the major hip-hop, rap, R&B, pop, and soul artists who have relied on Dupri’s ears since then—artists such as TLC, Usher, Mariah Carey, Run-D.M.C., Lionel Richie, and Nelly.

Dupri stays on top of the digital audio game with the help of engineers Phil Tan and John Horesco IV. Tan is an in-demand independent contractor who has been Dupri’s main mix man since 1992 and still mixes every track he releases. Besides his work with Dupri, Tan’s credits include Aaliyah, Aretha Franklin, Destiny’s Child, Faith Evans, a new album by Anthony Hamilton, and a fresh movie soundtrack called Idelwild by fellow Atlantans OutKast.

Horesco, a New York-turned-Atlanta native since joining Team Dupri in 1999, does most of the studio’s tracking and editing, and occasionally finishes a Tan mix. Having started out as “the young Pro Tools guy,” he now works exclusively on Dupri’s productions.

In addition to these two skilled engineers, Dupri now has another edge as well: His audio team recently installed a Digidesign ICON integrated console in his 14,000-square-foot Atlanta studio, replacing a large format analog console.

Seamless Integration: ICON and Pro Tools

“It’s really all about the integration of the plug-ins with ICON,” explains Tan. “The plug-ins, the automation, and ICON’s total integration with Pro Tools|HD are everything to us. Being able to adjust everything manually, with dedicated controls, is very important—instead of typing in numbers or using a mouse to click and drag.”

Horesco says, “Another reason we have the ICON is because of the way people work today with Pro Tools. Most artists and labels these days wait until the last minute to make final overdub and mix decisions. Often they need a bunch of changes to the mix the day before mastering—so we need that perfect instant recall that only the ICON and Pro Tools|HD can provide.”

For the past five years—until the ICON moved in a few months ago—Horesco and Tan had been doing everything with Pro Tools, a large-format “glorified analog monitoring” console, and a mouse. According to Horesco, the ICON system has definitely sped up the studio’s workflow, especially when it comes to
cutting vocals.

“I can now ride the vocals, do background blends, and edit plug-ins without skipping a beat,” he says. “Before, I’d have to make 30 different changes one mouse click at a time—it was a drag. The ICON keeps the session flowing better, which in turn helps the artists’ performances.”

The ICON also makes it possible to quickly switch gears, says Horesco. “Jermaine is always writing with different artists across all genres, and we also do lots of remixes for Virgin, So So Def [Dupri’s label], and other projects. On any day, we might switch from tracking a hip-hop song to editing a mix to producing a television spot or the weekly Atlanta radio show I do with Jermaine. You can’t have a big analog console and racks of outboard gear and expect to move seamlessly like that from one session to another.”

Studio Dupri in Hotlanta

Jermaine likes to edit and arrange his tracks in the most comfortable environment possible. His personal Pro Tools|HD preproduction suite is where you’ll usually find him when he’s not on the road or in the main ICON mix room. That is, unless he’s shootin’ hoops with Nelly and friends between sessions on the studio’s 3/4-size hardwood basketball court. A third rehearsal area, just off the fully equipped game room, will soon be upgraded to “Studio 3” status. But when it comes to final mixes and critical listening, there are just two places to be: sitting in the main ICON room’s sweet spot, or in Dupri’s Mercedes S500.

“We conceived Jermaine’s studio in 1998 as a place to accommodate all the types of projects we’ve wanted to do over the years,” says Tan. “Working with our new console is not a whole lot different than working with our old console. That’s the nice thing about the ICON: So far we’ve mixed songs on it for Lionel Richie, T.I., Reverend Run [of Run-D.M.C.], and Chingy. We have the Waves SSL 4000 Collection bundle now, plug-ins that emulate the SSL 4000 Series console. They do quite a good job of adding that analog sound to the mix. I use a ProControl at home for my other projects, but when it comes to critical listening I always come here to Jermaine’s place and the ICON.”

Tan also says that the ICON is already enhancing his use of—and trust in—automation.

“I didn’t like the automation on our old analog console,” he says. “It wasn’t always terribly precise. It’s time code–based, so it didn’t always grab as quickly as I’d like it to. There was a little bit of a delay. And over time, the motors in the VCAs got out of whack—they needed to be recalibrated once or twice a year. Using the automation on a traditional large format console, you almost never quite get back what you thought you had on the initial pass. Now, with Pro Tools|HD and the ICON, one of the biggest positives is recall—everything comes back exactly the same way, every time.”

ICON: Extending the Life of Fingers and Wrists

After years of dedicated DAW use, Tan is not shy about admitting his physical challenge: carpal tunnel syndrome. He began working in the ’80s and early ’90s as “an old-school, large-console kind of guy” who has always preferred physical audio controllers to a mouse and QWERTY keyboard.

According to Horesco, this was one of the many reasons they decided to switch to the ICON. “I didn’t mix on a mouse 24/7 like Phil did before the ICON arrived,” he says. “That was a huge challenge, though: If you’re riding edits and mixes like he did before the ICON, that’s literally hundreds and hundreds of extra mouse clicks for every track. And when you consider how many mixes in a given day Phil works on, well, that would burn out anyone’s hands and fingers—especially if you’re as meticulous as Phil is with an edit or mix.”

“It’s a huge thing for me, especially with my carpal tunnel,” says Tan. “Part of the reason we decided to go with the ICON is that I’m getting a little older and starting to develop these issues. I needed to stop mousing around. The ICON, of course, has all the dedicated controllers to all the different Pro Tools and plug-in functions, so that really helps. I used the ProControl here before, and still do in my home studio, but there
are way more functions integrated between Pro Tools and the ICON. Everything is a lot more seamless now. It seems like the two really belong together.”

The head-and-neck issues associated with gazing up, or down, at a computer monitor are also a factor. “The whole point of the ICON is to not have to look at a monitor screen once you get to the mix,” Tan observes. “The ICON allows us to keep the flow of a session going, and to make decisions based on how we hear and feel things, not on how we see them onscreen.”

Making the Ears Say Yes

“Jermaine is not an engineer, per se,” says Tan, who knows Dupri’s sound inside and out. “He knows how to get his ICON faders and monitor levels just right, but he leaves the rest of it to John and me. Our job is to make sure that what comes out of the speakers is pleasing to Jermaine’s ears, as well as the ears of the artists, the labels, and all the other people involved in the process of making a record. We’ve done this for a long time now, so we know exactly where to go with his sound inside Pro Tools.”

Tan outlines the basic audio approval process with Dupri: Horesco tracks and edits, Tan mixes, and Dupri comes in frequently during these sessions to listen. Once a mix sounds good, they’ll burn a reference CD. From there on, it’s pure hip-hop, pop, rap, and R&B magic.

“Jermaine doesn’t sit down and physically mix a lot,” Horesco says. “His main role in the mix process is to make a couple of changes in the ICON mix room with Phil. Then Phil burns a reference copy for Jermaine to take out to his listening car. It used to be a Range Rover, but now he has a Mercedes S500. He’ll sometimes drive around in it to listen, but mostly he sits inside it, out in the garage or the parking lot, and just feels the mix. Man, he just blasts it!”

Dupri is the easiest person in the world to work for, adds Horesco, because he trusts his team to be on top of their audio game. “I love working with Jermaine. He is completely open to us trying out new plug-ins and trying new ways to get new sounds in Pro Tools|HD. In the end, we’re here to make the song sound the best it can be.”

For more about Jermaine Dupri, visit www.jermainedupri.com.