Joshua Thompson

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow

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The sign outside still said Frederic Clements, but it would be removed shortly. Joshua Thompson was in the final stages of transforming the former Clements art gallery into the new home of Tallest Tree Music, and in a couple of days, he would be hosting the release party for George Benson's new record, Six Play, which Thompson produced and co-wrote. Benson, we found out later, even stopped into play.

Thompson just might be one of the best-kept secrets out there, with nearly 32 million records bearing his signature style as either a producer, a writer or both. While he may not sport the hip factor of The Neptunes or the flash of P. Diddy, he has the talent and the ambition to work with high-profile acts. His goal for Tallest Tree? Simple: He hopes to create an in-house orchestra of New Jersey's finest, capable of playing in any style, just as Berry Gordy did in Detroit.

Thompson, who grew up and still lives in Orange, N.J., near the Montclair home of Tallest Tree, is riding high on the contemporary R&B charts. During a 10-month period in 2001, he had written and/or produced a total of 10 Billboard chart-toppers, including Luther Vandross' single “Heaven Can Wait,” the first release off of Alicia Keys' smash album, Songs in A Minor (“Girlfriend”) and R&B songstress Olivia's Number One hit, “Bizounce.” After a nine-month slowdown, while he concentrated on studio construction, he's back and ready. When Mix caught up with him, he was putting the final touches on the Benson album, due out this month.

“Certain things are constant in record production,” Thompson says. “It all starts with the material; you have to have great songs. George is an icon. The question is, how do you get people to focus on him in a new way? It was done with Tony Bennett, and I'm sure we can do it with George. We have make him as hip as possible, but you don't want to create an overly edgy sound for him, because it could sound contrived. It's a bit of a tightrope, but that's what makes the job so interesting.”

“I'm a listener,” Benson interjects. “And you have to stay in touch with what's going on around you. To stay current, I need to speak the language that people know and understand. I knew what he was capable of, but I didn't know whether we would be compatible in the studio. Lining up minds is difficult!

“But working with Josh on this album has been a great experience,” Benson continues. “He comes up with tasty themes, and he has a fresh approach to harmony that I find challenging. We're still squeezing juices at this point; every time I listen to the songs, I hear something different. We're in the process of surrounding the vocal tracks with guitar parts, without trying to become too involved with turning the album into a guitar/vocal thing just for the sake of that goal. We have to keep asking, ‘Is this a good time to let the guitar shine or will a solo detract from the song?’ The new studio sounds great. I'm happy for him, and I think that people are going to respond to the record that we've made.”

The new four-room facility is an outgrowth of a deal with Clive Davis' J Records, whereby Thompson plans to be in constant production, focusing on signing and developing new talent for Tallest Tree/J Records.

“I have more work than I could handle at my home studio,” Thompson explains. “I can't be running around to different studios. We've just signed a local group called the Art of Soul. They come from Newark [N.J.], and all of the guys are great lead singers. Clive came to see them perform before we had any material tailored for them and signed them on the basis of their performing ability alone. We have most of their album recorded and mixed, but we're looking for the hot single. We've also started working on Olivia's second album and a new project with singer Joe. Then there's the George Benson album, and we're also developing a 16-year-old singer named Corey Williams.”

A guitar player since the age of 10, Thompson went to the Livingston campus of Rutgers University, where he studied with Kenny Barron and Frank Foster, who served a term as Count Basie's arranger. In the early '80s, Gwen Guthrie recorded one of Thompson's songs. By the end of that decade, he had worked his way up, co-penning the title track of Aretha Franklin's album, What You See Is What You Sweat.

The now defunct House of Music recording studio in New York City was a kind of post-graduate environment for Thompson. “That was a great studio,” he recalls. “Most people know that Kool & The Gang recorded ‘Celebration’ and most of their other hits there. I learned a lot about how to produce by watching Deodato work with that band. He did a great job producing their Ladies Night album. Deo had a way of sifting through the writing, finding the great melodies and grooves, and thinning out the ideas so that the best elements shined through. I saw that, with him, producing was about not overcrowding the music. Deo also knew how to build an arrangement from start to finish. A lot of producers today overlook this, and it's a critical mistake. Quincy Jones is also a master of nuance and layers. Again, though, it all starts with a great song.”

Thompson's big breakthrough came when he began writing with Joe. “Joe and I developed a level of writing chemistry back in '95 that I'd not experienced before. Joe came up in the church. He has a lot of melodic skills and innate ability. He's trained on the guitar, bass, drums and keys, and I play guitar and keys. My harmonic concept opened up some of his melodic ideas and we combined on lyric writing. Joe delivers a song so well that he makes writing easy! He can make a B song sound like an A song, like Marvin Gaye could.

“We wrote ‘All the Things Your Man Won't Do’ for a movie called Don't Be a Menace While Drinking Your Juice in the 'Hood,” he continues. “Joe didn't even have a record deal at the time, but radio stations started playing the song a lot, and Joe got with Jive Records. That track set Joe up as a solo artist. At this point, we've written about 40 songs together and have had some of them covered by Luther, Babyface and Case. Case recorded ‘Missing You,’ which was used in the film The Nutty Professor II. It spent four weeks on the pop charts last year and reached Number One on the Billboard R&B charts.”

THE TALLEST TREE


The new four-room Tallest Tree Studios was designed by Gene Lennon, whom Thompson has known for over a quarter-century. “Back in 1976, when I first started out in the business, Gene was an engineer at 9 West, a studio in Bloomfield [N.J.]. He used to give me advice. I've never forgotten the time when he told me that if you have a little bit of talent, you can win by default in this business just by staying in the game and outworking everyone else.”

Once Thompson had roughed out a design that divided the 3,300 square feet into four distinct areas, Lennon took a look and had him open up the design to allow for more square footage in the A room. “We want to track as much as possible live, at least for certain sessions, in order to get that classic R&B sound,” Thompson says. “So we eliminated some of the hallways that I had envisioned and devoted that footage to the live room.”

The facility includes a pair of writer's rooms, outfitted with Yamaha 02R consoles and PARIS workstations, and a “whisper” room (Studio C) that sits next to the main recording room. A Sony DMX-R100 console is the centerpiece of Control Room A, and prewiring has been installed in case Thompson wants to network this board with others in the facility at some point. Genelec monitors were about to be installed in rooms A and C, with sets of M-Audio BX-8 monitors used in the two writer's rooms. Four rolling PARIS rigs will be moved around as necessary.

“PARIS is a phenomenal product,” Thompson raves. “Unfortunately, the hardware may be going out of business. I've worked on Pro Tools and many other systems, but I think PARIS has the edge on them all. For one thing, it is a great value economically. It also has a gorgeous, transparent sound. Pro Tools has the plug-in advantage, and we may open up a Pro Tools room to simplify the way we interact with other studios. I currently have a four-card PARIS system running on a PC that has a souped-up Athlon processor. We get zillions of tracks out of the system: up to 96 tracks of music and vocals, for sure, with up to 40 plug-ins inline on some mixes. That's very cool!”

Thompson also runs Digital Performer in his writing rooms and manages resources by having the two systems talk to one another, exchanging audio information via Lightpipe. Interfacing with Pro Tools files is not a problem, either, as Thompson's engineer, John Roper, explains, “Generally, I use a .paf [Paris file system] to .WAV converter, which splits a stereo pair of .WAV files into .paf mono files. It's no problem to work with 24-bit Pro Tools files that way.”

Thompson and Roper hooked up when the producer was looking for an engineer who was experienced with the relatively unknown PARIS platform. Roper, who lives in Connecticut, operates his own PARIS-centric studio, Digital Dream Multimedia. Besides tracking and mixing Six Play, Roper's recent credits include songs for Joe, Tyrese and O-Town.

“We try to get the most out of all our gear; whatever tool works,” Roper says. “I like the Digital Performer MasterWorks compressor, so we'll port things over to that platform sometimes to take advantage of it. The Waves package can be run on either platform. All told, a typical track count may top out at over 128-plus tracks. I do have to do some submixing, but running 48 tracks or so with lots of plug-ins in not a problem.

“We also have a TC Electronic 6000 with a Finalizer engine and the color touchscreen controller,” he continues. “I can't imagine mixing without it! The depth and clarity of the reverbs is fantastic. I try to leave some room for the mastering engineer, so I don't go crazy with it. I park the Finalizer inline, along with our Manley Massive/Passive, as part of a mastering chain that sits on the stereo bus as an insert. As I say, I am careful to leave a little bit of headroom for the mastering engineer.

“I also love to use our Cranesong Hedd,” says Roper. “It's a handmade device that we use as our primary A-to-D converter. It has what it calls a tape knob that imparts a very distinctive analog vibe to anything you run through it, and it can simultaneously handle A-to-D and D-to-A conversions, which is very cool. This 2-channel device has an amazing sound.”

What has Roper noticed about Thompson's production style? “He's very intense, fast-paced and demanding! Josh has great ears for pitch and time. I've often heard a singer track something that Josh hears as flat or sharp, or not sitting quite in time with a track when no one else will concur. Nine out of 10 times, when he goes to the piano to check a pitch, he's absolutely correct. ‘Just make it perfect’ is a favorite saying of his, and he settles for nothing less. I think his records reflect his perfectionism.”

Thompson laughs when Roper's comments are relayed to him. “I am a vocals fanatic, it's true,” he admits. “I need them to be immaculate. But I find myself becoming more flexible in this area, believe it or not. I'm not so worried about making them as precise as I used to, as letter perfect. Our theory used to be that you could have the character and soul and be in tune. But I now feel if there's a take that has an extreme amount of character, sometimes you have to go with it, even if the pitch isn't perfect.”

At the end of the day, Thompson credits his success as a producer with simply being able to recognize a good song. “You have to know when to go back to the drawing board, when to stay with an idea and keep working it, and when to move on. Self-editing is critical. Quincy Jones used to call it polishing crap when you try to take a song that isn't great and add elements to it. It will never get good! Being a producer is all about recognizing good material. When you've got a good song, you can create a simple piano arrangement or give it to an orchestra, do a hip hop arrangement, it doesn't matter. It's hard to mess up a good song!”


Gary Eskow is a contributing editor to Mix.






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