Streamlining Hip-Hop Production

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Janice Brown



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Carl Nappa moved Nelly’s portable studio from L.A. to St. Louis for Brass Knuckles.

Carl Nappa moved Nelly’s portable studio from L.A. to St. Louis for Brass Knuckles.


This past December, St. Louis-based rapper Nelly, the consummate hip-hop hit-maker, delayed the release of his highly anticipated new album, Brass Knuckles, for a few more months so he could spend more time in the studio. Nelly's engineer, Carl Nappa, expects they'll stick hard and fast to the new June 24 release date, though with 50 songs to pare down to 14, it's decision time.

Nappa, who engineered most of Nelly's last release, the 2004 double-disc Sweat and Suit, moved to St. Louis to set up and operate Nelly's recording studio, located within his label's headquarters. “This has not been a typical process for a Nelly record,” says Nappa. “In the past, he'd go into the studio, and three to four months later he'd be done. But he seems to be searching for something on this new record, which he started last January [2007] out in Los Angeles with a producer named Nef-u.”

According to Nappa, during the past few months, the album's sound has changed pretty dramatically, at least in terms of writer/producers with tracks in the running. Nelly has a history of relying on his last-minute instincts, according to Nappa. “Production on Nellyville [2002] had wrapped in time for the label's release date, but Nelly wasn't satisfied and went back into the studio, delaying the album's release, to cut the last two songs — ‘Hot In Herre’ and ‘Dilemma’ — which became the album's biggest singles.”

Making Brass Knuckles, Nelly has logged time at The Record Plant in Los Angeles and in Atlanta studios with Jermaine Dupri and Polow da Don, but the majority of the recording and mixing has happened with Nappa at Nelly's studio in St. Louis. It's not the first time Nelly has worked in his own private studio — he did so for 90 percent of Sweat and Suit in a makeshift studio Nappa set up in a Los Angeles rental. “I sold Nelly on the idea of doing the last studio in L.A. with the notion that we would bring all the equipment back here and set it up again in St. Louis,” he says.

The St. Louis studio is the base camp for Nelly and artists on his Universal imprint, Derrty Entertainment, though it's entirely portable. Nappa says, “I worked with acoustic designer Mark Donahue and builder Joe Zimmerman to build a totally modular acoustic design for this studio. All the acoustic treatments are built in modular blocks and screwed onto the wall. We can easily unscrew these panels and make the same dimension room somewhere else.”

Equipped with Pro Tools HD, Digidesign Control|24, Augspurger mains with 18-inch subs and ProAc near-fields, Nappa has recorded a good deal of Nelly's vocals and mixed nearly 20 songs in the St. Louis studio so far. Professional Audio Design's Dave Malekpour equipped and tuned the room. “The monitoring system is from the Hit Factory Studio 2, with Crown and Bryston amplification,” says Nappa. “The only thing Dave and I changed was the crossover; it had been an old BSS crossover that I could hear overloading and we changed it to the new Dolby Lake System, which is incredible.” That said, Nappa adds, “I do 90 percent of my mixing on my Avantone — the new Auratone — and ProAc speakers, but Nelly loves the big monitors.”

Right after the Sweat/Suit albums, Nappa started getting a lot of calls for indie projects and began mixing in-the-box to fit the lower budgets. Now, and for the past two years, Nappa's been mixing this way full time. “With Nelly, this style of mixing is invaluable because he'll often be out of town, and I can easily send him MP3 mixes and keep it open to production for weeks after that,” says Nappa. “We'll go back and forth — he'll change a lyric, add a vocal or request some sonic revision. I'm still tweaking stuff that I mixed months ago.”

Having Nappa at the helm of the St. Louis studio helps Nelly work as fluidly as possible, while maintaining an album producer's control over the entire catalog of material in the hopper. “As a songwriter, Nelly gets into these really prolific modes of writing,” says Nappa, “and with the studio here we can keep the production open on as many songs as we like.”

An expert melody-man, Nelly intuitively sees songs rising up around the beats, an approach that's likely to blame for the number of songs in production. “On this record, Nelly's barely written anything down,” Nappa observes. “He'll get inspired and go into the booth, work on a couple lines at a time and create as he goes. We're just filling in the pieces after that.” Nelly's vocal chain, new on this album, is a Sony C800G microphone into an Avalon AD2022 mic pre, then the AD2044 compressor and AD2055 EQ.

Those songs produced outside the St. Louis studio come into Nappa's hands in varying degrees of “produced.” When Nelly works with big-name producers, the songs come back fully mixed by their own engineers, but in cases of less-equipped writer/producers, production-oriented work falls to Nappa. “When I get the multitrack, I'll match my basic levels and panning to what the producer had on his 2-track, and from there I'll take it into the mix, compressing, EQ'ing and sculpting the low end,” Nappa describes. “Most of these songs revolve around a 4- or 8-bar loop, but since most of the producers don't come out during mixing, I'll be very involved in the arrangement — doing drops to create choruses, bridges, transitions; work that, in another genre, would be handled by the producer.”

As for mixing, Nappa says, “You really can't screw up Nelly. He's got the mic technique down so well that you put up the vocal and it's 90 percent there.” He mixes with a tried-and-true technique and his go-to plug-ins. On Nelly's vocals, typically, he applies light compression with the Waves Renaissance compressor and then — depending on the song — he'll EQ with Focusrite, Renaissance or Massenburg Design Works plugs. “If I need to do aggressive EQ'ing, I'll hit the Focusrite; if it's more of a singing part, I'll use the Renaissance,” Nappa explains. “If I need to do some dissecting, I'll use the Massenburg EQ. The last thing in my chain is the Crane Song Phoenix Dark Essence plug-in.”

Nappa runs his submixes out through an 8-channel API summing mixer into the new Dramastic Audio Obsidian TXIO stereo compressor, through the broad-stroke Manley stereo Pultec EQ, and then limits the mixes and sends them off to mastering. “I spend a lot of time mixing, and we invested a lot of money in monitoring so I would know accurately what was going on,” Nappa concludes. “So I don't leave a lot of room for mastering — 1 or 2 dBs — and I use mastering engineers that I trust.”

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