Hit-Making DJ/Producer and Original NWA Member Arabian Prince Creates Custom Sounds with UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins

December 23, 2009 11:12:11 AM PST
Arabian Prince
DJ/Producer Arabian Prince

Veteran hip-hop/electronic producer Arabian Prince has enjoyed a steady career of hits spanning 25 years, and he’s not stopping now. An original member of NWA, along with future stars Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, Arabian’s sound reflects both the early West Coast hip-hop scene and a deep Euro-electro influence. More recently, Arabian has been involved with remixes, and music for animation and video games. I caught up with him between several plane trips and studio projects.

You started out when your dad worked at a radio station, and you got to go in there and make mix tapes. How did you progress from there? Was the next step spinning records?

Yeah, that was it. I started off in the studio with my father while he was doing the radio thing. From there, I became a DJ at a lot of the local school dances back in the early '80s. That’s what sparked my musical career. My father was into music, doing radio, and my mother was actually a pianist, and music teacher. So I had a lot of influence on the music side, growing up.

In school, it was just a good progression to think, hey, maybe I can DJ on the school dances. So I started doing that, and that grew very, very quickly on the west coast. Back in the early '80s, we went from doing small schools to neighborhood community centers to bigger halls, to the convention center, to actually doing 10,000 people at the [LA] Sports Arena, once a month. And not even a concert; we're talking about just four DJs and 10,000 people. It grew that big.

That's what triggered my career in music, because we figured if we could bring 10,000 people to one location just to watch us DJ, then let’s make our own music. We started messing around with drum machines, and synthesizers, and that was the beginning of my musical career.

When computer-based recording and editing came along, was that a big boost to you?

Yeah, in a sense it was, because I was always a techie guy, growing up. Taking apart stuff, learning how it worked. When I got into the music thing, and I found out about sequencers and drum machines early on, that was the way to go. I had every keyboard you can think of, and every sequencer and drum machine. Every piece of outboard gear you can think of — from compressors to reverbs and gates and all that stuff. So I owned it all in a studio. Then when everything turned digital, I was one of the first ones on the bandwagon. Like, "Oh, this is great. I can use my computer to do this now? I don't have to mess with tape anymore?" So I was the first to jump on a lot of the earlier digital audio systems.

Then I was ecstatic to find out that a lot of the outboard gear that I used had also jumped to digital. We used to use the old analog boards back in the day. And now, I can [get the sound of] old analog boards in software, and I love it.

Album Covers
I know you really like a lot of the electro-clash that's borrowing a lot from that '80s sound.

Oh, yeah. Definitely. Because we created that sound, back in the '80s. My friend Egyptian Lover, and Dr. Dre and me, we created that electro-funk stuff back on the west coast. Now we've moved it to digital. I've actually bet people. They've told me, "Oh, there's no way that you'd be able to make that same type of music, or create that same sound, only using computers and not doing it analog." Needless to say, I've won many of those bets. It's all about how you use your gear, and how you use your software, to get that sound that you want. So definitely, I love doing the old-school sound stuff..

What's your main digital audio workstation?

Right now, in my studio, I actually have a Pro Tools setup, with the D Command console.

Nice board.

It is. Plus I probably own every other piece of software. Besides Pro Tools, I also use Cubase, Logic, Reason and Live. It depends on what we're working on, and whom we're working with in the actual studio. It allows me to be flexible. I've never been one to just use one piece of gear. I figure, back in the day, when they were creating music with no computers at all, they would use whatever they could find. A hammer, a trashcan, or whatever [laughs]. So I envision this the same way. I use whatever piece of gear I can get my hands on.

You've been using the UAD-2 plug-ins. Do you have any favorites?

One of my favorites is the new Trident A-Range plug-in because that was the board that we used in all of our early music. There was a studio in Torrance called Audio Achievements, and that's where we did all the NWA stuff. That's where we did a lot of the early electro stuff as well. That's my favorite board.

At one point in time, I was actually looking to purchase that board. They're old, and they're very hard to come by. Anybody who actually owns that board is not going to give it up. They're not getting rid of those boards whatsoever. I actually had a couple of Trident preamps, outboard preamps. But you always have to get those things repaired. I used to have to tweak them all the time.

So when I found out that I could get my hands on a digital version of the Trident, now I mix 24 tracks or 32 tracks through the Trident [A-Range plug-in] if I can. [Laughs] Every single track, I mix through the Trident, to get that sound that I had back in the day.

And it's damn accurate, as well.

What is it about the Trident sound?

It's very warm. And the bass, I mean, you can crank the bass on that thing, with no distortion. That was something that we were known for back in the day, is the big bass sound. We used a lot of [Roland] 808 drum machines, which has that big boom, that long boom sound.

A lot of other consoles, and a lot of other outboard gear, really couldn't handle that sound without distorting it or breaking it up. With a Trident board—we could push it and punch it as much as we wanted to, and that thing would still sound good.

Have you used it on any projects that you can talk about yet?

Oh yeah. I'm actually producing an artist that's signed to Cash Money Records, which is Lil' Wayne's label. Her name is T. Lopez, she's their new pop artist. Her new single, that should be coming out at the beginning of the year some time, “Everybody Loves Bass.” That’s an appropriate title anyway. [Laughs] We did that single using a lot of the UAD plug-ins.

Early NWA (L to R): Ice Cube, Easy-E, Dr. Dre, Arabian Prince
What other plug-ins do you like?

Of course I like the Neve stuff. Who wouldn't like the Neve stuff? I use a lot of the FATSO Jr., here and there. The [UAD 4K] buss compressor is very, very good. A lot of the multiband stuff I use, as well.

I do a lot of tweaking of sounds. I'm a big proponent of not using stock sound. I'll load up a bunch of sounds or drums that I plan on using, and I'll kind of pre-mix the drums. I'll take snares in, and I'll run them through some of the plug-ins, and change them up, compress them, EQ them, then spit them back out and re-save them as a new sample. I do that with a lot of my sounds.

So now, when I bring them in, I can do double effects. I've already pre-effected it, and pre-EQ'd it, and made it sound really, really good. Then I can bring it back in and run it through a Neve or a plate or something like that, make it sound even better.

So you prepare a unique sound, or a unique set of drums, before you start working on the track, so that everything has its own sound?

Oh, yeah, definitely. I do that because everybody has all the plug-ins now, everybody has all the drums. So what makes my music sound different than the next guy's music is the fact that I take time, and I create unique sounds for everything.

I remember back in the day, no two drum sets sounded alike. Yeah, they may have been made by the same company, but it depended on how they were stretched, how they were tuned. Everybody had his or her own sound. But nowadays, everybody has drum machines, samplers and sequencers. Everything sounds the same.

So unless you go back and say hey, I'm going to create my own sound, you're going to be just like everybody else.

"[W]hat I try to do is find a root sample, and run that through like a FATSO Jr. Or I'll run it through my Trident A-Range. Just to beef it up a little bit. Give it some EQ, give it a little bit of something like that."

Are you mostly using drum machines and libraries, or do you bring a live drummer in sometimes?

Personally, I very rarely bring a live drummer in, because I'm always on the road doing stuff. I've always been a drum-machine person. I love 808s, I love 909s, and the old drum machines. It depends on who I'm working with. If I'm doing like a dance song, I'm definitely using drum machines. If I'm doing something that's more of an R&B-type track, then I'll bring in a live drummer.

What I will do, though, is I will bring in a percussionist to do fills over the top of a lot of the stuff that I've done digitally.

And you have keyboard chops yourself?

I can play. Not as good as my mother though. She tried to teach me, when I was younger, and I kick myself for not learning to read music like she reads. But I can play. I play by ear, and I can play pretty well.

I would think that you would be into the Roland family of plug-ins. Like the Dimension-D and the Space Echo. Have you messed with those very much?

Definitely. I'm actually working on another project as Professor X, in the more European electro scene. They know me as Arabian Prince, but I'm also known as Professor X for the more Kraftwerk-type electro, I guess you'd call it. More computerized electro music.

Which is so much bigger in Europe than it is here.

It's huge over there. So I do that style of music, and I use a lot of Roland plug-ins for that. They’re perfect for that. It gives it that old, box-reverb sound, or that old, gritty delay sound. It just really makes it sound really, really good, and computerized.

I just heard this new, hot indie band called ColdCave, and I thought they sounded so low-fi. Then I heard an interview with them, and the guy just said that he was using an old Casio keyboard. And I realized, oh yeah, that's what that sound is.

Yeah. But it's amazing, though, huh?

You know, it's funny you mention that. I just did a speech for the Musicians Institute. They brought me in to talk to the students, and I talked about that. I said that today, we take for granted that you can just go to the store, and pretty much buy a recording studio for 300 bucks. Seriously. You can just go, spend 300 bucks, 500 bucks, buy a recording studio, and put it in your laptop, and you're doing music.

Arabian Prince UAD
DJ/Producer Arabian Prince & UAD Powered Plug-Ins

But you've got to remember that there are hit records out there that were made with nothing. Sweet Dreams [Eurythmics] was made on a Casio, and that's one of the biggest records of all time. Still to this day if you play that record in a club, people lose their minds. And it was done on a Casio — the little one that has a battery in it! [Laughs.] It's amazing.

When you're DJ'ing, are you spinning records, or are you bringing in mixes that you've crafted in the studio?

A little bit of both. I like to make my own mash-ups. So I’ll create some before hand, then I'll load them in. I use vinyl only when I'm local. But I travel a lot internationally, so I use Tractor, Scratch, and Serato sometimes, to do my sets. It’s easier for me to load up mash-ups and stuff like that, as well. It makes it cool. I can take a song I like to play and add drums, or cut it up, or change it up.

I would assume you use a lot of virtual instruments.

A lot of virtual instruments. A lot of virtual drums.

Could you give a little primer to other Universal Audio customers? Like what plug-ins to use to get a killer bass sound.

Sure. This is just how I work, but the first thing I would do is take whatever my primary bass sound is going to be and find the root sample of it, if it is a sample. If it's not a sample, then I'll just have to go ahead and effect it in the track. But what I try to do is find a root sample, and run that through like a FATSO Jr. Or I'll run it through my Trident A-Range. Just to beef it up a little bit. Give it some EQ, give it a little bit of something like that.

Then, depending on what I'm working on, if I'm working on some of my electro stuff, then I'm running it through the Roland stuff as well, just to freak it out a little bit. Once that's done, I re-save it as a separate sample, and I will actually run the original sample with the new one together. Then I slightly offset it, a millisecond or so off, so that they don't really phase out. It just gives it a beefier sound.

And it actually sounds old, because old keyboards, they never play on time all the time. That's the thing about sequencers today, everything is so perfect. You want something that just has a little feel to it. Just a little bit off here and there, to make it sound funky, and make it sound human. I always try to put that human factor back into my music.

Once I've done that, then I'll run it back through maybe a Neve, or I'll put a little DreamVerb on there, or something like that.

"[W]ith a UAD card, you can go out and spend a very small amount of money, and be sitting on millions of dollars worth of gear, in the studio, and use it any time you want. Period. That's why I love it."

What about the 1176LN plug-in? Are you using that?

Oh yeah. I definitely use that as well. I use that toward the end. I'll use that as a little sweetener on my whole mix, once I get toward the end.

Are you a big fan of compression?

Yes, definitely a fan of compression. It depends on what I'm doing. Certain things you can't compress. Like an 808 drum. It's very hard to compress an 808 drum, because if you compress it, it'll cut off that resonance from that drum. But a lot of other stuff, like my claps and my snares, and a lot of other parts, definitely I'm a fan of compression, for sure.

Is there anything you wish I'd asked you?

You forgot to ask me like why I love the plug-ins so much! It’s because they're easy to come by, and for the price of the plug-ins that you get from the UAD-2—I mean, sitting on my hard drive, I've got millions of dollars of gear, just sitting there. I didn't have to go out and bribe somebody 250 grand for that Trident A Range console, or an old Neve. I probably couldn't find a Dimension D anywhere on the planet.

And the Pultecs and the Fairchild. These things are just really, really rare pieces of gear. But you just can't find that stuff anymore. And if you did, it might not be in the shape that you would want to get it in to use it in the studio. So, with a UAD card, you can go out and spend a very small amount of money, and be sitting on millions of dollars worth of gear, in the studio, and use it any time you want. Period. That's why I love it.

We couldn’t have said it any better. Thanks, Arabian.

— Marsha Vdovin