Rapper and producer Saba talks studio skills and production processes

Chicago rapper and producer Saba has spoken to Audio Media International about his approach to production, studio skills and the challenges of staying creative through COVID.

Having established himself as a major talemt through his contributions to tracks by Chance the Rapper (‘Everybody’s Something’ in 2013 and ‘Angels’ in 2015, Saba struck out as a rapper and producer in his own right with his 2016 debut album Bucket List Project. This was followed by 2018’s Care For Me and a string of collaborative singles with Mick Jenkins, Denzel Curry, and Xavier Omär.

Since then he has also released an album with hip-hop collective Pivot Gang, which is comprised of independent rappers from Saba’s hometown of Chicago’s Austin neighbourhood.

Here, Saba, talks to AMI about how his approach to production has evolved through the years, essential kit and the influences that shaped him as a producer… 

When did you first start recording and producing your own music?
I first started recording in 2003. I had a four track cassette recorder that I would use to produce on. There were many musicians in my family so I always wanted to learn how to play instruments or rap or sing or make beats, anything really. I got in piano lessons around that time as well and that’s when I began producing. I got much more serious about it over the years when I got my own computer.

How did you set about developing your skills as a producer?
I think I developed my skills as a producer by emulation. I would sometimes remake drum patterns that I liked, or entire beats sometimes, and try to reverse engineer it to see why I liked it so much. Doing that helped me learn about swing and nudging certain drum programming. Sometimes I would try to recreate something that a real person played on a set, with my computer and that helped me learn that the human error is what makes the best groove sometimes. I would say in addition to that, creating something every day helps. Some times you are going to miss, but just working on something as much as you can and anytime you feel inspired is really helpful practice. It’s like anything else. I can’t emphasise practice enough.

Whats your approach to music production?
It’s changed over the years honestly. Changes from song to song, and sometime even from studio to studio. I like to use different gear a lot of times and that may inspire different end results. Sometimes I may sit at a synth for hours just dialling in a sound before I created anything in my DAW; sometimes I sit at the piano and try to come up with chords I like; sometimes I may play on the drum machines I have and try to come up with some interesting rhythms, some times I do everything in the computer and just leave it like that. I just try to trust what I feel inspired by in that moment without worrying too much about the end result. A lot of times the most important part for me is just starting.

What are the pieces of kit you cannot live without? And why?
I’ll be honest, most of my songs all include some form of Rhodes or Wurlitzer sound, so electric piano for me is just *chefs kiss*. Whether that is real, or on my Nord, or on a VST, that just something that I always seem to go back to. I bought an Apollo Twin in 2017 and I haven’t looked back since then. I’ve gone on to buy three more of the bigger Apollos and I can’t even think of how many Satellites I have. We use our Apollo for pretty much everything from tracking in the studio, to mixing, to even performing. We had our whole live show set up through Ableton with UAD plugins mapped to trigger at certain moments of the performance and once we did that, it’ll be hard to ever return to performing with out that type of rig. It just made it really easy for the show to sound like the record. Lastly, I’ll say my SM58 mic. Just simple, classic go to. Necessary for getting any quick ideas out.

When did you first start paying attention to music production and the sonic sensibilities of a track?
I was in a rap group when I was about 13 and I was the main producer and engineer. That time ended up teaching me a lot of the stuff that I still use every session today. That period really just made me change how I listen to music. I started listening for effects and tricks that they were doing on professional recordings to get the sounds that they wanted. I was terrible, don’t get me wrong, but that’s when I feel like my ear opened up a lot more towards everything happening in the song to make it feel the way it does.

Who were the producers/records that first turned you on to music production?
Pharrell and The Neptunes were easily my favorite producers growing up. The way they made simple ideas full and sound complex was so genius to me. A lot of the spacey synths and the types of chords that they would use is still super inspiring to me and the way I like to produce. My uncle was a big influence as a kid too. Tommy Skillfinger. He was the first person I ever seen produce really so that was an interesting time to me. He used an older Yamaha and an MPC and he was great with that stuff. I knew if I could ever land my hand on some of that equipment I would go crazy with it.

How has your approach evolved over the course of your career to date?
The most noticeable thing to me in the moment is the gear. I started with a very minimal set up in my grandparents basement and over the years I’ve put a lot of money into my creative space. I like to have as many tools as I can to keep things fun, creative, and inspiring. I enjoy the time I spend trying to learn how to use a certain piece of gear and that brings me back to being younger and not knowing what I was doing at all. It’s the same for some VSTs too. Everything is really just a tool. Plugins, synths, mics, anything can be a tool really.  Sometimes to get a new sound, you just have to use a new tool. So I’ve been experimenting with that quite a bit.

What are you currently working on? And what can you tell us about it?
I’m working on a bunch of stuff right now. Focusing a lot on new music, making as much of it I can while I’m inside. Been producing a bunch, I wanna get into working as a producer for more artists outside of myself. I’ve been trying to constantly push myself to learn new instruments and new tools around the studio as well.

How have you found making music during the pandemic?
The pandemic has made it exceptionally challenging to work on music in the same regard. I have been quarantined pretty intently so I haven’t really gone to studios at all during this time which is where a good chunk of my work would always come from. I’ve only been creating at home, it’s been fun but it’s just very different. Having to depend on myself a lot more where I would normally have a team involved in the production and recording process. I’ve been having writing sessions pretty much every other day on zoom for about the last 6 months. It was weird at first but I’ve grown very used to it, and its been a great form of practice to stay sharp. I’ve gotten much more effective with my home studio set up and made sure that during this time I have every thing that I need to be able to work from home in a serious capacity and I’m able to produce a quality that sounds professionally done.

Whats next?
The way the world is looking, who knows?

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