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Technicolor Hip-Hop — Marco Polo Adds Character and Dimension with UAD

Technicolor Hip-Hop

Marco Polo Adds Character and Dimension with UAD

Brooklyn-based hip-hop producer and beat-maker extraordinaire Marco Polo (born Marco Bruno, in Toronto in 1979) has been making joyful noise since he first moved to New York City 20 years ago. After a stint engineering in various studios, Polo began contributing beat landscapes for underground giants like Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Rakim, Large Professor, and many more. Eventually, he landed two influential albums of his own — 2007’s Port Authority and 2010’s The Stupendous Adventures of Marco Polo.

Notable for the tough, sepia-toned, vinyl-approved character of his custom-built beats and drum sounds, Polo is as unassuming about his technical acumen as he is effortless and passionate about his chosen craft. A devotee of Apollo and UAD plug-ins, Polo’s deep dive into UAD began in an effort to get his beats and breaks into ever more character-rich turf, as evidenced on his latest collaboration with Masta Ace, last year’s stunning A Breukelen Story.

Who are the artists and producers that inspired you?

Before I even started making my own beats, I studied the greats: DJ Premier, Pete Rock, RZA, Large Professor — all these guys digging for records, making music out of multiple sources in different keys — that was fascinating to me.

But after I began to learn which records they were using, and could do it myself, it became apparent on the business side of things, using samples from records meant you made less money.

So that led me down the road of sound design — creating my own beats and instrumental parts from scratch — and making them sound like they were sampled from old records.

So no more crate digging?

I mean, I still buy records all over the world when I’m on tour, and I’m still sampling from records. But more and more I’m creating my own beats, and processing them to sound like something I would have sampled from old vinyl.

"The Neve 1073 is definitely one of my go-to EQs for drums." — Marco Polo

How do you process your beats and instruments to get that "old record" vibe?

In hip-hop it’s really all about the drums — the kick, the snare. Drums are the most important element in hip-hop, period. And sometimes those stock sampled drum sounds are cool, but they’re not quite there in terms of sound design.

So to that end, UAD tape plug-ins like the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder, Oxide Tape Recorder, and Ampex ATR-102 not only add character, and glue, they also burnish the low end and help me get my own beats and parts to sound like I dug them out of the crate.

I certainly come from the school of “the drums are in the front, always.”
– Marco Polo

What's a good example of your approach?

The track, “American Me” with Masta Ace from A Breukelen Story, is a perfect example.

On my master fader, I’ve got the UAD Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder, which is really important to how the drums sound, as well as for the overall mix. I used the “Warmth” preset, which is pretty aggressive, but man, I love what it did to my beat.

"American Me," by Masta Ace & Marco Polo from the album, A Breukelen Story.

What did you use specifically for the drum bus?

I have the Studer A800 on the drum bus, with the “Drum Buss” preset. I’m very aggressive with the tape plug-ins, and sometimes people I work with will say, “Hey, you can’t do that!” But it’s all about the feel of the tracks, and I just work through my process of trial and error until I get it where it feels right and sounds right.

Do you start the processing during the creation stage, rather than waiting until mix down?

Absolutely. The thing is, the Ampex ATR-102 plug-in didn’t just improve and define the sound of the drums, it also changed the direction of the composition. So instead of building on top of a "pretty good" beat, the Ampex pug-in gave me a hugely inspiring beat that had all the power and vibe the original sounds were missing — the glue, the warmth, the low-end.

So you start from a preset, and tweak from there?

Yes. In fact the "Sunbaked Cassette," preset is killer, and I often start there. It's definitely aggressive, so I’ll dial it back just a little bit, maybe take out some of the noise.

Do you have a go-to EQ for drums?

I use the UAD Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ plug-in all the time. Even with just the default setting on it you can hear the difference — the extra bite and depth — in whatever your source material is. In fact, sometimes on the drums, I place the 1073 after the tape plug-ins, to add back a little more low end.

"Apollo interfaces and UAD tape plug-ins have been total game-changers for me." — Marco Polo

How do you approach compression when it comes to beats?

I’m very careful when it comes to drums and compression, because sometimes a compressor can take the life out of my stuff. When I first got the UAD plug-ins, I was definitely over-compressing everything, because I loved the sound, but I realized that the “knock,” which is what hip-hop is all about, was being killed.

So it’s always an art for me to find that sweet spot where I can dial in just a little bit of compression and EQ, and still have life to the drum sound. Generally, I like to add saturation to the drums, rather than compression. I’m trying to bring out the richness of the sound that’s already there, as opposed to clamping it down.

You've also been using Apollo interfaces lately?

Yes! So, I still use the MPC 2000XL, which is a very old school sampler, and I dump my beats from that into Pro Tools eight tracks at a time, so the Apollo x8p has been perfect for me in my studio. And I also use an Apollo Twin on the road, so I still have access to my UAD plug‑ins.

When I’m creating the beats on the MPC, I just send a stereo out to Apollo, and in the Console app I'll bring the sounds to life as I create, auditioning different sounds. I often use the UAD Shadow Hills Mastering plug-in on the “Medium Mastering” preset. If there are drum sounds I’m unsure of, I’ll often put the UAD Oxide on them just to see where they end up.

"UAD tape plug-ins like the Studer A800, Ampex ATR-102, and Oxide Tape Recorder help me get my own beats and parts to sound like I dug them out of the crate."
– Marco Polo

You’re also known for your fat bass parts, which never overwhelm the mix. What’s your source material for that?

Over the years, I’ve had quite a few live bass players come in and play a variety of long notes, plucky sounds, short hits, you name it. So I have a good library of live electric bass. I’ll also pull in sounds from other sources and filter them down in the MPC.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with the UAD Fatso Jr/Sr and the UAD Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Compressor plug-inson my bass sounds. Again, while I love the sounds of those plug-ins, I want to be judicious, because I still want the sounds to breathe and to feel “live” from note to note.

For plug-ins, I often use the UAD Teletronix LA-2A "Gray" compressor on bass. It's one of my favorites. It depends on what I’m going for, but the LA-2A is great at bringing out the life in a more midrange-rich electric bass sound.

"If the drums aren’t knocking, it’s not happening," says Marco Polo.

You’ve worked with some great rappers and vocalists. What does your vocal chain look like?

Well, I can tell you that I will never record vocals again without using the UAD Neve 1073 in Console with Unison technology! Never! I’ll also add a little UAD LA-2A "Gray" compression, and then once it’s tracked, the UAD Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip, the UAD Pultec EQs, and sometimes the Oxide Tape Recorder plug-in will find their way in there. That’s officially my current vocal chain.

I record all the vocals here in my apartment with an inexpensive Rode NTK microphone. People would laugh if they saw the room I record vocals in. It’s not treated, but I’ve been doing it in there for 13 years. I get the sound that I want, which for vocals is a good clean signal that’s not distorted, that’s warm, and sure, maybe I’ll go back in once it’s tracked and spice it up with some effects, including the UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator plug-in — it's an absolute beast.

Finally, I love the little skits between songs on A Breukelen Story, where people are portraying your parents, making sure you have enough pasta when you move to New York.

That’s actually my real father and mother on the album! Both my parents are from Southern Italy — my Dad’s from Calabria, and my Mom is from Napoli. My grandparents migrated the family to Canada years ago, where I was born, and I moved to New York about 20 years ago. And yes, they’re still always worried about me eating enough — typical Italians!

— James Rotondi

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