2x Grammy-winning producer and mix engineer Focus... (Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem) shares his personal production tips and the top 5 qualities every successful producer must have.
By David Ampong, Waves Audio
Since first signing with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label in 2001, Bernard Edwards Jr., a.k.a. Focus…, has produced major tracks featuring 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Lil Wayne, and other hip hop and R&B legends. In 2015, he worked with Dr. Dre on the acclaimed Compton album, on tracks featuring Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and more.
We caught up with Focus… to find out about his workflow and where he finds inspiration for new sounds. Read on to see his breakdown of the qualities every producer should have – and scroll all the way down to download his personal presets for two go-to Waves plugins.
Where do you do most of your work these days? At home? In the studio? Can you tell us a little bit about your setup?
I’m mostly working out of my home studio. I run a Mac Mini and work in Logic. If I do any kind of mixing, I have my Pro Tools rig. I put that in my laptop just so I can mix wherever I am. For plugins, some of my favorite ones are SoundShifter for pitch work, Vocal Rider, and also Renaissance Vox which I often use on drums. I used all of those on Dr. Dre’s Compton project.
What’s your approach to producing? Do you start with a beat? Do you start with a melody, or do you start experimenting with different sounds?
I rarely start with drums first. I’m a chord fiend. I love chords. I love textures. Sometimes I’ll start by turning on the machines, and trying plugins while just going through sounds, trying to find something that strikes my ear. The pitch of the melody is important to me. I always put my main idea down with the SoundShifter plugin on the main output to see where the song feels best. For example, when I did “Deep Water” for Kendrick Lamar with Dr. Dre on the Compton album, Soundshifter really helped the melody find it’s true pocket.
I try to start with a movement, I might start with an idea of some chords, or sounds – whatever. And then I’ll build from there. I like to build from the top to the bottom.
And what do you do when you get to the beat?
I like to use the Renaissance Vox gate on all my drums for articulation. The gate is forgiving and helps when you are looking to get the most out of your kicks and snares. But I vary my settings every time to keep the sounds diverse.
I also just got that transient joint, Smack Attack. I like it. I like the articulation it gives to the drums.
In terms of being visionary, who are your top five record producers of all time?
Not necessarily in this order: Prince, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and then DJ Premier and Dr. Dre. People who do their homework know that Stevie not only played most of the instruments, wrote all of the stuff, but also produced himself – an all-encompassing master.
Is there a difference between a producer and a beat maker in your view? How do you define a true producer? Do you have to know how to play an instrument?
For some people today, the drum programmer, the person who made the beat, is the producer. It used to be different. Back in the day, Berry Gordy [or] Quincy Jones would facilitate other people making the music. There was a core group of musicians who were actually making the music, but the producer was the one who put it all together.
But even today, I think a true producer is the person who has the vision, who is able to see the project or the composition from start to finish. If you’re able to play instruments, that’s a plus, but I don’t think it has to be part of being a producer. You need to know how to get the product accomplished from start to finish, with excellence. Whether it’s stacking chords, laying down beats, basslines, synths leads, or just sweet noise. It takes vision to develop this, put it together and deliver to the masses. And then, it takes determination to bring the musical vision to life.
What advice would you give to aspiring and upcoming producers out there as far as seeking inspiration?
If you make ‘fast food’, it will only sustain one’s hunger for so long. So many people are in it for the fast buck, the notoriety, the ascension to fame, instead of creating ‘slow-cooked meals’ for creative consumption.
I want to be one of those people mentioned with the producers who created ‘slow-cooked meals’, like Quincy Jones. He was 50 years old when he helped create Thriller. If at 50 I have Thriller, then I’ve done my job and I can bow out gracefully.
But where do you go for that kind of inspiration?
Well, try to venture off into other genres – you may learn something new. So many people deem it ‘not hip-hop’ to listen to country, or classical, or rock music. But if you listen to a lot of your favorite hip-hop records, they have those really huge, anthemic rock elements… like it’s prog rock, but with hip-hop surrounding it.
What do you do if you’re ever short on ideas? Do you know a cure for producer’s block?
I personally do not believe in creative block. Our job as creatives is to create. If you’re stuck, just do something creative other than music. Find something that’s going to expand the boundaries of your mind, creatively. And then, once you turn around and you exhaust that, go back to the music.
3. Contacts & Collaboration…
What was it about you as a music producer that caught the attention Dr. Dre? What was that track that got you to work at that level?
I don’t think it was a track I gave him. He heard one producer doing a bunch of songs, but none of them sounded the same. I think that at the end of the day, he was just open to working with somebody who was different, you know?
Yes, like your work combines electronic elements with organic instrumentation. For example, on your earlier stuff: “Riding High” – those penetrating-deep bass synths, mixed with the staccato keys and strings.
Yeah, or on [The Game’s] “Where I’m From” I used plucked guitars and a Hammond organ on top of MPC drums and a simple string sample. Or on the Compton album, “One Shot, One Kill” – electric guitar samples over Trevor’s organic drum approach…
Dr. Dre ft. Eminem – “Medicine Man”
Or “Medicine Man” – the intro, that bass glide, those luscious vocals by Candice Pillay. Keys, strings, Anderson .Paak’s delivery and layering on top of those drums. Then that switch on Eminem’s verse – those hi hats…crazy! How do you blend all these things together and make it sit so right in the mix and sound so sweet?
When you talk about some of my earlier things, like “Where I’m From”… You know, my dad [Bernard Edwards] was the bassist and co-founder of Chic, so baselines are really important to me. So I definitely try to integrate a lot of bass into as many compositions as I can.
Do you connect and collaborate with other musicians and producers?
Of course. When it comes down to newer stuff like “Medicine Man,” that was mostly produced by Dem Jointz, an amazing producer. Dr. Dre was telling him that Eminem wanted a different part for his verse. The pianos, strings and all that on the Eminem part; when it musically changed, that was my contribution.
Curt Chambers played guitar. We really wanted to give it a cinematic feel. We wanted to give Eminem the ability to just 'lose himself' on that verse.
I collaborate with Cardiak. I’ve collaborated with DJ Dahi, Dem Jointz, Seige Monstracity and plenty more. I’m not afraid to let them be them, and then add what I can to it.
My advice is to seek to work with real creative people and producers. They’re going to do things to put their own texture in it.
Well, many upcoming music producers can play their own instruments, make their own beats, mix, master. So why should someone who can do it all collaborate with others?
If I hadn’t lived, worked with and learned from other people in places like New York, L.A. and Georgia, my sound would be kind of stuck in one place. I’ve been blessed to be able to work with all these different people. That’s partly why I’m not going to make five beats that sound exactly the same. Building relationships with musicians, engineers, producers and other music professionals is essential. Sometimes you need to collaborate in order to do the very best for the project.
So how many hours a day does it take in the studio? You know, you hear people live in the studio. How do you know you’re done for the day?
I can’t really say it’s a set number of hours. I know the biggest thing in my life is my family. So I don’t try to live in the studio like I used to. I used to spend days and days in the studio, then come out and people wouldn’t recognize me!
These days, I have a designated time to work. I do the best I can with trying to spend time with my kids. And me and my wife do the best we can to spend time with each other.
Right – so juggling personal life with the music has been a challenge? Does it take practice, knowing how to balance…
Yes sir! That’s something I had to learn the hard way. I was in the studio from 2 pm to 7 am [the next day]. Every day. My goal back then was to be a legend, and that’s all I thought about. But having success in the music industry is not a sprint – it’s an uphill endurance marathon. You need to nurture your endurance and drive while keeping balance.
If you had to tell upcoming producers what’s the number one thing they should focus on – what would that be?
What you want to do is always challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things. A lot of people are so afraid because when you put your neck out on the line and the audience doesn't love it, you feel like you’re not worth anything. But then, think about how many records Prince put out that people couldn’t creatively comprehend until he created Purple Rain!
So when you sit down and make a record, you need to be thinking: How can I make the radio listen to me instead of me listening to and following the radio? Why am I letting the radio dictate how I make music? I want to be the reason people turn on the radio! You want to set the standard, you want to set the trend. That should be your focus.
Download Focus…’s personal presets for the Vocal Rider and Renaissance Vox plugins.