Bob Brockman

Apr 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY BLAIR JACKSON

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There are nearly as many different routes to becoming a music producer as there are producers. Some are born into musical families, where choosing a career in music seems like the natural and normal thing to do. Some become musicians and later find that they have a knack for production. Some attend recording schools to learn the nuts and bolts of the record-making machine. Some become engineers and mixers and later make the transition to producing. In the case of Bob Brockman, his route was choice “e”: All of the above.

Brockman is probably best known as an engineer and mixer, having worked on hundreds of albums, singles, dance sides and remixes during the past 20 years for such artists as Debbie Gibson (all of her early hits), Surface, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Craig Mack, the Notorious B.I.G., Babyface, Christina Aguilera, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, The O'Jays, Brian McKnight, Heather Nova, Jodeci, Faith Hill, Korn, Laurie Anderson, Linda Eder, Vanessa Williams, and many, many more. But through the years, he's also had the opportunity to produce a number of acts, and though he continues to be one of Manhattan's first-call mixers, he clearly relishes the opportunity to expand his production opportunities. His resumé already includes credits for producing or co-producing Black Uhuru (Mystical Truth), Kirk Franklin (the Grammy-winning Nu Nation Project), Soulive (Doin' Something), Ali (Crucial), Babyface (Face2Face bonus import), his band Brooklyn Funk Essentials (two albums), Norman Brown (Just Chillin', winner of this year's Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album), Wicked Queen and others. The past couple of years, with producer/engineer Yaron Fuchs (see sidebar, page 76), Brockman has spearheaded a production company and studio called NuMedia NY, which is developing and producing a roster of acts, including ghetto funkster G.T.O., Indian singer/songwriter Sanjay, New Yorican R&B singer Lugo, female singer Maya Azucena and budding emcee Sneakas.

“I'm really excited about producing records, because for me, that's the closest I can get to playing in a band,” Brockman says. “I'm sure you've spoken to other mixers who tell you that mixing is a lonely job. It gets to a point after a while where they send you the reels and the artist and producers don't even show up. There you are for like three weeks in a room by yourself with a tape machine. And that's not what I signed up to do when I first moved to New York to try to be a mixer. I wanted to be in the mix and involved in making records. But because the industry is so producer-driven now, it's more about the mixer than the recording engineer these days, so the talent tends to move in the direction of mixing as opposed to recording, which is the opposite of the '60s and '70s. Back then, the producer was the guy.”

Born in 1962, Brockman has been around music his entire life. “I'm from New Orleans,” he explains, though he doesn't have even a hint of an accent. “My dad was and still is a jazz pianist in the French Quarter. The first couple of years of my life, I was raised in a jazz club called the Gaslight, which my mom and dad owned. For whatever reason, the club didn't work out. I moved to the D.C. area when I was 7 with my mom. I started playing trumpet when I was 5, and then when I was 12, I started playing bass. My dad had been a trumpeter, too, but became a pianist because it was easier to make a living that way.”

Brockman excelled at the trumpet during his high school years, playing in a jazz group and entering numerous competitions. Whenever he could, he'd check out the groups that would come through the D.C. jazz club One Step Down; meanwhile, he was digging albums by jazz trumpet greats such as Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, even transcribing solos he liked. For college, he enrolled in the University of Miami's vaunted music and engineering program. “It had a lot of electrical engineering, which I hated,” he says, “but it also involved a lot of recital recording, which I loved. I did a lot of recording while I was there: Everybody's classical recitals, jazz recitals, big band. I actually won a couple of downbeat awards for recordings I submitted. There was a recording studio there, of course, and I'd sign up for late-night recording time. I remember sitting around with my buddy Jerry Placken, who had the best stereo system of anyone in school, and we used to sit and listen to Bill Schnee recordings, and Mick Guzauski and Elliot Scheiner and Roger Nichols. We'd sit there for hours trying to figure out how [Nichols] got the drum sound on [Steely Dan's] Gaucho. We had all kinds of questions on how records were made. That's how we spent most of our time: picking apart records. In addition to that, Jerry was a bad-ass drummer. So we had a little funk ensemble. I was playing trumpet, and we had various other guys who were really great players; in fact, a few of them have gone on to do big stuff.”

After college, “I came to New York,” Brockman remembers, “and although I was totally unemployable, I did have a semblance of [an idea of] what I wanted to do. I sent out 175 letters to different studios in New York, and I got like two letters back: One was from VCA Teletronics, which is a post house, and another was from Tiki [Studios] out on Long Island. I went to the Hit Factory and the Power Station and all of the big rooms, and they were all interested in putting me on as an intern for free. But I didn't have that option; I had to work. Ultimately, I ended up getting a job in Brooklyn at a studio called Ralston Recording in the heart of the ghetto. I worked for Charlie Ralston, who was a big Caribbean promoter. I went in for an interview, and he took one look at me and said, ‘You sure you want to work here?’ No white person had ever worked at that studio, and I'm not sure that many white people had even entered that neighborhood. But I wanted and needed the job, and they offered me to start that night. They offered me a hundred bucks a week, and that was my first real gig.”

Like most “runners” (the exalted euphemism for “gofer”), Brockman spent a lot of time making coffee and answering phones and doing odd errands: “They used to send me out at two in the morning for fried chicken, which was always an adventure. I was pretty much living there. I loved it. It was where I wanted to be.”

It also exposed Brockman to an entirely new universe of music. “Working there was my introduction to African music — Soca — and the other thing I learned about quickly was hip hop. Doug E. Fresh was recording there. The Fat Boys were there. Slick Rick was there. Grandmaster Flash and [;Grandmaster] Melle Mel were there. It was a very exciting time to be there, as it turned out, and I graduated from coffee boy to assistant to engineering within a matter of weeks because the studio was running 24 hours a day and they needed guys to cut sessions. I was getting bombarded, because I was working at Ralston and also hanging out at the clubs in New York. I'd never heard dance music before; I'd never heard hip hop before. Prior to that point, I was listening to Michael Brecker solo records and ECM records. But I loved it all. I was instantly impressed with rap when I heard it done by guys who could really do it.”

I ask Brockman if having received a recording education in college prepared him for the self-consciously low-fi world of early hip hop. “Yeah, it took some adjustment,” he replies. “I didn't understand why guys were showing up with an 808 drum machine and guys were taking a turntable and dropping the same bar over and over again across the groove; this is prior to samplers being common. It's amazing to trace the origin of where sampling came from, guys like Afrika Islam, who was a dear friend and sort of introduced me to the hip hop world. He used to play at Danceteria on Tuesday nights, and he would run a James Brown groove on three different turntables; while one was playing a bar, he'd be backtracking the other turntable and flip that one, so that's where you'd get these amazing rhythms. It was phenomenal to see him work with his hands back and forth. What I learned to appreciate from these guys is that there were different kinds of learning and different kinds of talent. And that it wasn't always about knowing the changes or having a European musical education. It was about building skills off of whatever you were introduced to. So, if you grew up with a turntable, these guys figured out incredibly creative things with a turntable, or in the case of Doug E. Fresh, making drum sounds with his mouth. It was another education for me. I'm still being schooled 20 years later by 18-year-old kids who come in and show me something the kids are doing now. There's a lot to be said for being around creative people.”

After about seven months of hard-schooling from Akili Walker and the crew at Ralston, Brockman moved on to Secret Sound (“It was an opportunity to work in a Manhattan studio, even as an assistant”), but still did dates at Ralston on the side. His next mentor was a mixer named Tom Gartland, who “was doing incredible things with delays, all of this wild stuff: Making the hi-hats phase and flange with each other and basically doing early versions of club remixes. I learned a lot from him. There was lots of cutting tape, dividing it up with masking tape into quarter notes, eighths and sixteenths, making parts that way — splicing things together in interesting ways. He'd be putting snare drums through a Harmonizer and all of this wild stuff you'd hear in the clubs, and you wouldn't know how they did it. Pitching vocals up and down an octave. There were no rules, and that's something that stuck with me — that impulse to be creative and not get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. That was valuable.” It was during this era, too, that Brockman got his nickname from producer/musician Randy Muller (of Brass Construction fame), who was so impressed by a bass part Brockman put down on one of his sessions that he started calling him “Bassy Bob,” which has stuck to this day.

During the late '80s, the many connections and friendships Brockman had made during his time in New York started to pay dividends in his recording career: “Fred Zarr, who had been Madonna's keyboard player, asked me to do a single for his girlfriend Betty, and I worked on it for months. [He also said], ‘I've got this 14-year-old singer/songwriter and I need somebody to do a mix on it. I'll pay you 50 bucks.’ The singer was Debbie Gibson, and the song was ‘Only in My Dreams.’ He had an MCI 600, which was the same one they had at University of Miami, and I put the mix together and printed the effects live-to-DAT. The 12-inch of that song broke out of Miami. The next thing I knew, there was a 7-inch out on the street and it was getting crazy airplay in New York as a single. I'd been in New York a year-and-a-half and I had my first hit. That was actually a Gold single. Subsequent to that, I did some of Debbie's other records. I did ‘Shake Your Love,’ which was another Gold single, and ‘Foolish Beat,’ which was a Number One pop single.

“Right around that same time, I started working with a guy named [David] ‘Pic’ Conley, who was with a group called Surface, though they hadn't signed with Columbia yet. He was working with Gwen Guthrie on a song called ‘Ain't Nothin' Goin' on But the Rent.’ And that was another situation where I was hanging out and Pic and I became friends, and then one day, he needed someone to help him out on a session, and I ended up doing that song. That became a Number One dance single; in fact, I think it was the Number One dance single of 1986.”

Brockman worked with Rob Cavicchio at Soundtrack in Manhattan for a few months and then, partly at Cavicchio's urging, became a freelance engineer and mixer, working with a variety of different artists at different studios around town — “mostly at Record Plant and Hit Factory — places that wouldn't even hire me as an intern two years ago,” he says with some satisfaction. “All of a sudden, it was, ‘Do you want a cup of coffee, Mr. Brockman?’” he laughs. “But that's the entertainment business.” When he wasn't in the studio, Brockman was gigging and recording with the group Brooklyn Funk Essentials, who were something of a New York fixture for the second half of the '90s. Brockman played trumpet, and though he loved the band, “It was never a way to pay the rent. There were 12 guys in the band, and even though we'd sell out all over New York, I'd go home with about 40 bucks, which I usually burned with cab fare and dinner.”

It was during the '90s when Brockman established himself as one of the top mixers in town, and, again, it was a case of knowing someone who introduced him to someone else who was working on something interesting, which led to some other project. More connections, but always bolstered by solid work. Working with DeVante Swing of Jodeci on a remix of an early Mary J. Blige song led to Brockman meeting Sean “Puffy” Combs, then a young A&R guy for Uptown. Brockman recalls, “I brought the mix upstairs and put it on the big speakers, and Puffy heard it and loved it. Very shortly thereafter, we started working on Biggie Smalls' record and he tossed me a mix. Once I did those two sessions, I never stopped working for something like five years. I did a lot of stuff at Soundtrack and the old Hit Factory. I pretty much lived in M1 [at the Hit Factory] with Mary for about a year on her first solo record. I was working with Biggie at that time, and Puffy had signed this kid named Craig Mack and I mixed that record. There was one song called ‘Flava in Ya Ear,’ which turned out to be one of the biggest hip hop records of all time. I was in the right place at the right time and very lucky to be involved in those records. It helped that Puffy really is a genius. He knows a hit when he hears it; he's almost never wrong. So I had some incredible songs to work on. Puffy was also the reason I started working for LaFace, which included mixing for TLC and Society of Soul and Organized Noize and all of the Atlanta stuff. I owed him a lot.”

In recent years, though, Brockman has made a conscious effort to branch out into different styles of music and move into production more. “I didn't feel boxed in to doing R&B and hip hop until I started trying to do pop gigs,” he comments. “I found that there was tremendous resistance because people thought I was a hip hop guy. So I sort of went back to square one and did some developing acts and mixing demos for free — and even doing a couple of records for free — and those started to bubble under and get the attention of some guys, and that led me to being able to do Heather Nova, Christina [Aguilera], Linda Eder, Laurie Anderson and others. It took awhile, but I think I have finally broken out of the R&B thing a bit.”

The formation of NuMedia NY with Yaron Fuchs has further expanded Brockman's possibilities. “I had known Yaron for a while,” he says. “He had a mixing studio downtown called EastSide Sound, where a lot of seminal jazz records were made. I had done some mixing there with Brooklyn Funk Essentials. He was a fan of the band and helped me out and gave me 10 days mix time when I only had like five grand to mix a whole record. Later, his building was being bought to be developed into apartments, and he knew he was going to have to get out of that studio and do something. My lease was running out where I had a MIDI production studio for about five years. We worked together on a production for an artist named Lugo, and that was really the beginning of NuMedia NY. So we looked for a space and decided to put together a mix room. We went all over the city and looked at rooms, and we knew that if we were going to sign and produce records, we needed a really cheap space. So we found a situation at the old Platinum Island, and that's where we set down roots in October of 2000.”

The NuMedia NY studio is equipped with a Harrison Series 10 console (from EastSide Sound), 48 channels of 24-bit Pro Tools, Studer multitrack and half-inch recorders, plenty of top-quality outboard gear and all of Brockman's keyboards. “We made an edit suite/production room where we can cut vocals and edit vocals and do keyboards,” he says, “in the back office. Six months after we opened the studio, we signed Lugo; he was the first artist we signed, and subsequent to that, we signed a few other artists and we have records in various stages of development. Of course, it's about the most unhealthy time to be shopping for a label deal because the record labels are in such terrible shape, but I'm optimistic about our chances. All of our artists have something to offer.”

He and Fuchs share the production duties according to each project's needs. “I do most of the mixing, because people call me for the mixing,” he notes. “Yaron has a long resumé of mix credits himself, but his passion has been more toward the rock 'n' roll world. On the stuff we've co-engineered and co-produced, we divide it up however it ends up. With Linda [Eder], I cut the orchestra stuff and some of the basic drum tracks, and Yaron did a lot of the principal recording while I was on paternity leave: He cut all the guitars, percussion and vocals. And then I came in and mixed it. It's an interesting partnership, because we can both do each other's jobs, but we don't do each other's jobs. We always do something different.”


Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.

YARON FUCHS

NUMEDIA NY'S OTHER SIDE

There are a number of parallels between Bob Brockman and his NuMedia partner, Yaron Fuchs. They were born the same year; both studied the trumpet as kids; they established themselves in the New York recording scene in the '80s; and they have remarkably similar outlooks on what a given project needs and how to best achieve it. Of course, there are many differences between them, too. Fuchs was born in Israel, spent most of his youth in suburban Palo Alto, Calif., and then served in the Israeli military for a while before moving to New York and attending Columbia University, where he got a degree in music and computers. While Brockman was working with hip hop and R&B bands, Fuchs was cutting his teeth professionally, working with New York rock, industrial and jazz bands “doing engineering, sound design, production — whatever was needed on the record.”

He opened EastSide Sound in 1990, in part because he wanted to move into production and having his own studio would give him more opportunity to work with his own acts.

“Mine was probably one of the first studios to have Pro Tools locked up to 2-inch tape machines, working the way everybody makes records now. I used to edit all of my drum tracks on a 4-track Pro Tools, locking up all sorts of invisible tracks and throwing them back in. That's how I made my records.”

He echoes Brockman's sentiments about the ease and flexibility of their partnership: “If it's a production call, we divide and conquer. Like on the [still unreleased] Wicked Queen album, he did all of the vocals and I did all of the tracks. On this punk band we're doing, called Mommy and Daddy, Bob is doing programming, while I'm working with the live band. It's really sort of like who feels like doing what. Creatively, it's really loosey-goosey. But then, on top of that, I run the business and Bob does more outside mixing than I do.

“These are tough times in the music business, and you can't ignore that,” Fuchs says. “But what we're doing is, number one, we're doing what we have to do to make our business grow. And number two, we're building our catalog for when the changes come in the business — whether music's going to be sold through downloads, through labels or through independent promotion; it doesn't matter. Music will always be bought somehow, somewhere. And we're going to keep doing what we do.”
Blair Jackson






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