Anyone who has kids under the age of fifteen (and basic cable) has heard the music: sunny, sincere blasts of pop music overflowing with youthful energy. Hannah Montana (as portrayed by Miley Cyrus), along with label mates Aly & AJ, have taken the world of kid pop by storm, helped along by popular shows on the Disney Channel. When I succumbed to the pressure from my nine-year-old daughter to buy the records, I was pleasantly surprised. What I heard was a solid collection of songs, well recorded, and not all that offensive to my indie-snob ears. Many of the songs were produced and co-written by the team of Antonina Armato and Tim James, and engineered by Ross Hogarth (Tape Op #50). I spoke with Tim James on the phone from his home studio in Santa Monica, California.
How did you get started working on these projects?
I was a pop artist on Columbia records and [songwriter] Antonina Armato, who is now my partner, was put in touch with me to collaborate. We wrote a bunch of songs and started making records for me as an artist, and then we started having success with an artist named Hoku [H?k? Christian Ho] whom we were developing on the side. She had a couple hits like "Another Dumb Blonde" and "Perfect Day". Antonina's had a lot of hits and is a very accomplished writer — Barbra Streisand and Mariah Carey have recorded her songs. We started a label, Rock Mafia Records, with Paul Palmer, which is what started this whole Disney thing. We owned the masters to this band called Hope 7, which we licensed to the first The Cheetah Girls soundtrack. And at the time Disney didn't think they could sell a lot of records; there wasn't a model yet. They had Hilary Duff, but the idea of Disney Channel soundtrack albums selling millions of copies was not in their minds. That was an unexpected double platinum record, and since we licensed the song as a label we got a lot more than the normal producer points. I think Disney was like, "Instead of licensing masters from you, let's bring you in and have you work with us."
Can you describe the process, starting when the artist first comes in to work with you?
I know a lot of people in the game out here. They have the pre-recorded beats, pre-recorded ideas. The collaboration becomes this sort of "add a word, get a third" kind of thing. We're totally different. I like to say when an artist comes in that, "I have nothing." I like to see what happens in the room. It's all about spontaneity. Sometimes the songs turn out shitty because of that, but for the most part I think spontaneity helps customize the song around the artist and what the artist wants to say or what their vibe is. It's almost like a karaoke song, if you have a preconceived track and you're putting them in.
Once you've got the song mostly written, do you demo it?
We used to, but we don't anymore because everything's turning into a record. We always have to keep in mind that when we're writing it's the basic blueprint of the record. Where we used to demo and then fix, now we're really building from the ground up. We're batting .900, where nine out ten things we do winds up on a record, a soundtrack or finds some type of home. At that point you're always making records.
When Aly & AJ or Miley Cyrus come in, do they have a drum beat in mind or is that something that you usually provide?
The Aly & AJ stuff is written mostly with acoustic guitars — we sit around and write songs. There's one called "Like Whoa", which is a Euro-pop kind of track on the record, but it was written on an acoustic and we were trying to be like AC/DC with six string guitars. It wasn't until we stepped back and said, "What do we do with this?" There was an idea to make it like a No Doubt song, but what ended up winning the girls' enthusiasm was when I sped it up by eight BPM and they said, "That's the vibe. Let's go!"
Do you start with a drum machine or do you have loops?
It's so different from song to song. Sometimes it's me with some whistles and clapping on the microphone — beat boxing. Other times we're using our MachFive [MOTU's looper/sampler] libraries. [Propellerhead's] Reason plays a big part for members of my team. I've got guys who make beats: Devrim Karao?lu uses [Apple's] Logic. Nigel Lundemo is a Reason and [Digidesign] Pro Tools guru. Nigel's my main engineer, my right-hand guy, as far as making sure the vocals sound great. He looks at the phase relation of all our songs so that the harmonics rub together. That's what we use Pro Tools for, basically nudging stuff into the groove. Nigel and I usually spend a half-day prior to mixing just listening/looking at the phase relation. We pick the elements, usually the kick and snare, that we say are the official 1234 of the bar, and then we move all the other music around it. I found that "tabbing to transient" doesn't really work. It's okay to use as a starting place, but the idea that all transients should be hitting on the grid at the same time just doesn't work for us. It feels constrained and sounds thin. We didn't come up with this on our own. The pioneer of this is Tal Herzberg [Black Eyed Peas, U2, Pussycat Dolls]. He really has been at the forefront of the idea that you need to be vigilant with all of the transients in a recording. I am so grateful to have worked with him, and we still keep in touch to this day. There is no set method, just TLC. It's all ears and the goal is to achieve harmonic glue that feels and sounds great. I love Pro Tools and I really believe that without digital recording I probably wouldn't have gotten so involved in producing records. I would've primarily stayed a songwriter.
A lot of this stuff has live drums. Do you record those later in the process?
I usually use live drums, but for this particular record [Insomniatic] with Aly & AJ, we had a live drummer play the entire record. We then replaced the live drum sounds with sampled sounds. We have the feel of a live drummer with sampled pop drum sounds.
Let's say you've got a vocal that feels really good, but there are a few rough spots. Will you automatically fix it or will you get them to sing it again?
No, we fix it. These girls are busy — they work 365 days a year — and a lot of times we get just three hours to do a song. I would say the majority of songs take three to four hours of them singing. I wish we could spend more time, but the deadlines are like nothing else. At a label like Interscope, the deadline doesn't occur until the artist gets it right; there's no pressure to get product out. At Disney it's the opposite, so we turn music over really fast. We recently did 37 tracks in 12 weeks.
That's a lot of music.
It is fast. The challenge is to get it done on time.
At what stage are the main vox recorded?
We're tracking it like we care from the minute we're writing. With Miley [Cyrus/Hannah Montana] there's a song I think will be on the next record — it's a really beautiful ballad — and that vocal is take one or two.
I'm so glad these kids are actually doing it and not just faking it.
No. You take Miley, Aly & AJ or Vanessa Hudgens — those girls are on fire as far as their talent.
A lot of these kids have a touring band. Do you ever try to get them [the touring musicians] in to the studio to have more of a live feel?
No, I have my guys. I love the A-Team out here: Tim Pierce on guitars, Dorian Crozier on drums, Paul Bushnell or Sean Hurley on bass. I mean, I use the guys. Yes, the artists have bands, but a lot of the time it's after the fact. We make the music, they go rehearse it, and then they play it. I saw Aly & AJ at the House of Blues and I watched what their musical director did to a couple things; I looked at their manager and said, "I wish I would have had that idea," because they're bringing a whole other life to it on the road.
What does your partner, Antonina Armato, bring to the recording process?
She tracks all the vocals. Quincy Jones mentored her, so you know she's had tons of experience tracking, and she brings all that expertise. For me, because I'm mixing the records, I will sit there for the vocal sound. I want it to be very particular to what I'm looking for. As far as putting it all together into one performance, that's Antonina and she's amazing.
You work with engineer Ross Hogarth a lot. How did that come about?
He's such an amazing engineer! Every time he records for me I learn so much. He understands depth, so his work on Aly & AJ was really important. We were recording at 96 kHz, which I'd never done before, and he was able to tell me the different transients we could get now and why he was using different microphones. He's a guru. I'm privileged to work with him.
I think of him as a big guitar expert.
Super guitar guy, but his understanding of live drums... I've never heard anyone do it like him and it's unbelievable. There's no compression and it sounds unbelievable. I love it because I've gotta squash the shit anyway, so it's better if I don't have to squash the drums through the buss and I can use it on the master. I've gotta make it sound like a pop record, but the less I'm choking the air with the compressor, the more vibrant the record's going to sound.
How much does Rock Mafia Records take of your time?
We try to put half of our time into that because it's an amazing business to be in — to be working with great artists and to be part of the development process. The stuff with Disney, ya know, those guys come in and they're already professionals. By the time they get to us I can't believe it. I mean I can't believe how young they are — it freaks me out.
What do you think feeds into these kids being so good at such a young age?
You know what's funny? Nigel, Antonina and I laugh when we're working on records because these kids sing and it sounds like [Antares] Auto-Tune is already on their voices. I think that's because they've grown up singing along with records and hearing that sound. The majority of people we work with have amazing pitch. We fix it, obviously, if it needs it, but really it's amazing [how good they are].
Do you ever feel competition with the other writer/producer teams?
We're very competitive. Everybody is. I think the people I feel in competition with wouldn't consider me in their league as of yet because we haven't really arrived. I'm always looking upward at Ron Fair, will.i.am or The Neptunes [Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo]. I'm always looking at them and thinking, "Wow, they're so good," and striving to hit that mark.
It seems like you're trying to do something that's going to last a while in this pop-oriented genre.
I don't know if music has become more disposable. I would love to have songs that last forever, but in the mainstream market the songs are like "blips of good feeling" and everyone wants to cling onto that good feeling. Then they throw it away and want to feel the next good feeling. I remember getting lost in Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and just loving it for the album it was. Right now it's just "feed the machine." I struggle with that for sure, because I definitely want to make stuff that has a lot more artistic merit than what we're hearing. But we're all in the game; we're just trying to make it feel good for three minutes.
What do you think is going to be the next big wave of pop?
I think that what Antonina and I are doing is eventually going to be in the mainstream market. I think the music is something that moms and their daughters enjoy, and I think that's a good thing for the radio audience. I do feel "grass roots" in that when we're making music with these younger artists there's a palpable energy to it that a lot of mainstream artists don't necessarily have. They have a different energy; I'm betting on these younger artists coming into the pop mainstream and making their mark.
It sounds like these are the songs kids really want to be singing.
That's the biggest compliment I could hear. That's how I feel too. I want everyone to feel great when we're working and writing. It's really cool when it works. For instance, "Potential Breakup Song" [by Aly & AJ] has sold 700,000 downloads. That's unbelievable to me.