Artist Interviews

 

UnderwoodFrom playing jazz with Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Scott Henderson and Billy Childs to supporting pop divas like Whitney Houston, Cristina Aguilera and Missy Elliot, Underwood (aka Michael Baker) has worked with some of the world's most renowned artists across a variety of music genres. While working as Music Director for Whitney Houston, Underwood was introduced to Sony/BMG Italian pop artist, Giorgia, and subsequently produced and wrote material for her CD, Senza Ali, which went platinum. Underwood went on to produce two more CDs with Giorgia, as well as producing several other Italian artists - most recently rapper Sony/BMG artist Tormento (scheduled for release in May 2007).

What is your musical background?

I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, and started playing drums at age seven while living in Japan. After moving back to the States, I focused only on drums. I played in a rock band for the most part while living in Duluth, and was accepted to North Texas State University as a composition major where I studied drums and composition.

How and when did you start working with computer-based instruments and software in general?

I learned the hard way after being so broke when there was no more studio drumming and I refused to keep up with the times - the industry changed but I wouldn't change with it. Now I don't let anything pass me by. Technology is here to stay, so one might as well keep up with the program or get left out. I have always been interested in music and how it all comes together, and being a singer as well as a drummer, I was always writing songs on piano. So I just started learning about sequencing and computers, starting with the MPC 60.

What is your history with E-MU and what products are you using now?

I have been using E-MU products for the past 15 years - it all started with the drum pads and triggering sounds from samplers. At the time I was touring around the world with Whitney Houston, and the E-MU sound was always my favorite because it was an honest sound - very full and they never became thin or washed out when you put on effects. I must admit that it was very hard for me to stop using my old E-MU E4XT's because they have been with me since the beginning and they are very easy to use. I really don't like to spend a lot of time trying to get to know samplers and technology because I like to spend more time creating - the old E4XT and the E5000 let me do that. So when Ichi (E-MU Product Manager) showed me the new EX2 software sampler I really didn't want to know about it - but it only took 10 minutes and I was a complete believer. The sounds are amazing and the possibilities are endless.

The EX2's pitch stretching is great and so easy to use. I recently took an old Janet Jackson song and pitched it up in order to use it as a part of a beat that I had created. It was so easy and I just saved it as a sample in the sample library, but put the song away because I didn't like where it was going. After some time I decided to work on it again, but needed to add some more parts of the Janet song to it. So I went back to the CD and the tempo was all wrong - I had totally forgotten that I had pitched it up to fit the beat that I initially created it for. So I went into the EX2 and there it was - all saved and ready to go. Nothing had changed and it was like I never left the project. I also use the Z-Plane filters - they work really great and adds some dimension to loops, synth parts, anything.

I also use the USB Xboards. I was recently trying to find a keyboard that I could position beneath my computer screens and I went into the store to look around. The only one that worked was the Xboard. I like the feel of it, it's very user-friendly and it's out of the way of the music - a very beautiful instrument.

How does Emulator X2 fit into your work flow?

UnderwoodMy cousin Megadon and I both use the EX2 sampler and he lives in LA, but we work like we live in the same city. Emulator X2 makes it possible to do that because we are able to access the same sounds and use the exact same sound technology when we send beats over the internet. This is how we work. Megadon sends files with certain beats, and I can always access the sounds by using the same library that he has. And the work is very consistent - sometimes people don't believe that they're computer-based beats.

For the recent Tormento CD, I did a lot of preproduction at my home in Minnesota before flying to Italy, and much of that work, if not all, was done using the EX2. Because of the travel situation in the world right now, it was very important that I do many things at home first and then bring the beats with me, as my PC is a desktop with the EX2 sampler. I used the Street Kits (E-MU sound library) a lot in this new production.

You've worked extensively with Italian diva, Giorgia - what are some of the more memorable moments working together?

The Giorgia CD Senza Ali was actually my first attempt at producing, and when I finished it, I swore to myself that I would never produce again. It almost killed me, because I did most of it myself - I really should have gotten more help. I used Ricky Peterson a lot (keyboardist with David Sanborn, George Benson, Prince and many more), and if it weren't for Ricky, the CD would have not sounded so good. I wrote many of the songs on the CD, using an MPC 60 for sequencing and put the whole CD on a Roland 16-channel digital recorder. Then Ricky came in and I just left him in there with the tracks. I actually used my old E4's on the CD for every sound that you can think of, including all of the strings. One song that I am very proud of featured Herbie Hancock on piano. Herbie came in and played for 20 minutes and it was done. My assistant, Peter Anderson, sampled some old Tony Williams/Ron Carter rhythms (check out Miles Davis' On the Corner) with the E4's. Adi Yeshiya did the strings, and that was magic. Giorgia and I have been friends for a long time and we have loved and hated each other for a long time. From project to project many things happened in each of our personal lives. While I was producing her first Greatest Hits CD, her ex-boyfriend died and she was not in the studio much, and I was getting a divorce during the same time. By the third CD we really weren't talking at all ... that's progress I guess!

Tell me about the latest project with Tormento - how did that come about and how did you work with him on deciding the direction of the music?

UnderwoodI live in Italy as well as America, and I had been producing one of their biggest artists, Giorgia. The Tormento project came as a result of my relationship with Tormento's manager, Dalessandro e' Galli. The management wanted Tormento to be produced like a retro style R&B Artist, but when he came to me he was playing all this heavy rap stuff like T.I., 50, Cameron, Dipset, Lloyd Banks, and he knew so much history it was clear where he was at. Basically, we lived together for about four months in order to personalize his sound. Megadon and I worked remotely by uploading and downloading beats, ideas and sounds, probably putting together 40 different beats and then deciding on what ended up on the project.

I think each artist has their ideas of who they are. A producer's job is to give them that freedom just to be, and to show them options and ideas without losing the artistry. If you have an artist who doesn't know who they are, then that can be fun too. It can give you, as producer, a vehicle to explore new ideas in production and songwriting - much like painting on a new canvas. For me producing is great, because every time I hear some music that I like I want to be a part of it. Though it's not always possible, producing lets me be a part of different worlds of music. At least if music is a woman, then let's say producing gives me a chance to fall in love many times....