Of course the superstar producer game is still new for Hills, a self-styled beatmaster/engineer who not long ago was stuck in his room with nothing more than a Casio WK-1630, making beats for no one in particular. “The WK-1630 was the first thing I was making beats on, because it had six tracks on it,” he adds with a laugh. “But you know . . . you can only go so far with a Casio!”
Ushered into a more, shall we say, efficient studio setting where Hills began working primarily on a Korg Trinity V3, running through a Mackie CR-1604 into Cakewalk’s Sonar, the producer recalls: “I left this guy Tommy Eaton a track on his answering machine and he called me back immediately, asking me to come in to his studio. That was the first time I had ever worked with any more than 16 tracks! I had no formal training, but I was ready to attack and learn. I was like a kid in a candy store, twisting knobs until I figured it out.”
This quick step out of his bedroom and into a small project studio ended with Hills putting together the track “Why, Why” for Blackstreet. Shortly thereafter, he met up with Timbaland, his admitted “biggest influence,” looking for the chance to prove he was more than just a one hit wonder. Winning Timbaland’s affections, Hills followed the producer to Miami to work as his assistant producer — a gig that found the young engineer working with everyone from The Game to Black Eyed Peas to Nelly Furtado. Hills was officially dubbed Timbaland’s protégé, and was enlisted to assist the producer when the time came to create a follow-up to Justin Timberlake’s multi-platinum debut Justified. The rest, they say, is history: Futuresex/Lovesounds went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, garnered four Grammy nominations — including record of the year — and Hills got to take two home himself.
But with such a lightning quick rise to producing some of the country’s top-selling artists, Hills admits that he is still working on the balancing act of dealing with oftentimes stubborn performers while maintaining the sounds he knows will work best. “It’s a definite challenge,” Hills says, “but if you have a beat that’s strong, you have to keep writing before testing vocals to match [the beat]. There are tons of ways to process vocals, to make them shine, and you want to make the track solid first.”
Hills’ workflow is obviously producing something right, considering the 70-plus tracks he has produced or co-produced in the last three years, consistently blending fresh beats with addictive melodies. But he puts surprisingly little stock into the tools of his trade, save for, of course, his trusted Akai MPC-4000. “I don’t need anything but my MPC-4000, my laptop, and Sonar,” Hills assures. “Everything I do is built around that. I’ll use the Triton for strings and horns, but nowadays I’m mostly using it as MIDI controller.”
Surely a producer of Hills’ stature can afford to sample real instruments for more organic tracks, but he seems more than content using mostly canned sounds for his compositions. “A lot of my tracks are just VIs [virtual instruments]. Occasionally I may use a real piano or guitar, because it’s hard to synthesize those, but I love the challenge of making VIs sound believable.”
So what does the recording process look like for Hills? “I don’t use MIDI for much of anything, “ he says, disregarding his Triton. “I’ll get my sound and assign it to a pad, so a lot of what you’re hearing isn’t quantized. It’s just me free handing it.” This approach, Hills claims, leaves him free to concentrate on what is most important: writing beats and melodies that sound performed, not programmed. “The hook just has to pop, to keep people’s attention, to keep them intrigued. That’s all I want out of my tracks.”