For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Grammy award-winning mixing engineer Gary Noble started working in studios in 1988 when a lot of today’s greatest rap and R&B artists were children — or not yet born. Since then, he’s been in charge of making music sound good for Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill, Nas, and the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. The latter left him an indelible studio memory.
“[Left Eye] gave me the name and phone number for her doctor, Dr. Sebi. She’s the first one who ever told me about him,” Noble told REVOLT TV. “She was like, ‘Gary, if you ever get the chance, go see him. He’s a great guy. You’re going to love his energy and his spirit.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the 31-year mixing veteran explains how he made recording easier for a pregnant Lauryn Hill, Canibus’ unique recording style, and what’s a common trait all great artists have in the studio.
You worked on so many records over the last 31 years. One of them was Public Enemy’s The Greatest Misses remix album with Salaam Remi in 1992. What did you learn about Public Enemy then?
I learned Chuck D’s sound that we hear on the records is 90% him. It’s not stuff they did to his voice. That’s really his voice. I had to do what I’m doing, but leave it as natural as possible so his raw energy comes across. It’s the same thing with Flava [Flav]. That’s really their energy you’re feeling on the songs.
You also worked on The Fugees’ Blunted on Reality. It turned 25 this year. What do you remember from those sessions?
They’re an amazing talent. They have talent coming out of their fingertips. If you hear some of the outtakes, you’d be blown away. The issue was we needed to get songs done and if you give them 20 tracks and put them in the booth, they’d give you 20 different vocals (laughs). It was a lot of work. But, it was a lot of fun working with them.
They’re very dedicated. You don’t have to tell them, ‘Man, go in the booth and give us the last verse.’ They’re already in there. You have to tell, ‘Come out and listen to make sure if we’re going in the right direction.’ They’ll do vocals all day with no problems. It was a nice vibe. I still know them to this day.
Also, the hook for ‘Fu-Gee-La’ was done by Lauryn on a whim and Salaam was like, ‘Yo, make that the hook.’ They were going to use something else and someone was like, ‘Nah. That’s the hook.’ She was like, ‘No. I want to use that on another song.’ Salaam was like, ‘No, L. You have to put it on this record. That’s the hook.’
You also worked on Canibus’ debut album, Can-I-Bus. He had so much promise before this album came out.
He’s another talented dude. He didn’t write his lyrics on paper. He wrote them on his computer. When we recorded him, he’d be in the booth with the lights off and all you’d see is his face and glow from the laptop. He almost looked like an alien. I don’t think he did any punch-ins. We just took parts from different takes. He ripped it from top to bottom. He wrote his lyrics quick.
Wyclef was one of the executive producers of the album. What was his involvement in the making of it?
He was a big part of it. He had a lot of input on what was going on and how things were supposed to be. The thing with Canibus was he was so lyrical, you had to tell him, ‘Nah, we’re doing 12 bars for this verse and then you have to go come back in with the hook.’ He could freestyle a whole record. When I would test out the levels of his mic, he would freestyle an entire record. Salaam and Clef both played a role in that. It was mostly Saalam, but ‘Clef also had input on what was going on.
You also helped work on the late Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes’ first solo single, ‘Block Party.’ What do you remember about working with her?
I loved working with Lisa. She was really cool. To be honest, before we worked with her and they told us to go work with her, I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t know what to expect because of all of the media. When she came in, she was dressed down, had fatigues on, a hat on, no makeup, and was like, ‘I’m here. I’m ready. Let’s work.’ She was a prolific writer and those sessions made me realize she was the main creative force of TLC. She can sing sing, for real. People might write her off as the crazy third member, but she was actually a major creative force. I had a great time working with her.
She was very personable and cool. She was asking questions. When she first was recording, I noticed there were some sibilances and pops in her vocals. So, I adjusted the mic and she asked me, ‘Yo, why are you changing it?’ I told her it’ll help lessen the pops and sibilances. When I did it and she sang she was like, ‘Oh, this sounds a lot better.’ Instead of me doing it at the boards, I went in and adjusted the mic. It helped her still keep the presence of her vocals, but still have the blast of air from your mouth hitting the mic at an angle instead of straight on. It also made her extend her neck a little bit to help her project her voice.
She gave me the name and phone number for her doctor, Dr. Sebi. She’s the first one who ever told me about him. She was like, ‘Gary, if you ever get the chance, go see him. He’s a great guy. You’re going to love his energy and his spirit.’ When she died, she was actually down there for her annual sabbatical where she goes to get a cleansing. It was sad that she died. She was an extremely talented, personable person.
As time goes on, songs are bound to get lost in the shuffle. What are some lost songs you’ve worked on?
[Salaam and I] have done a lot of albums that got shelved and never saw the light of day. We did complete albums that got shelved and never saw the light of day (laughs). A lot of people don’t know that the Ini Kamoze album (Here Comes The Hotsteppa) he put out wasn’t...we had another album done with him. We did a whole bunch of other songs that never came out because he did a deal with Columbia, and they put him with Jermaine Dupri and a bunch of other people. That stuff would’ve taken him to the next level.
We did an album with Caron Wheeler in the ‘90s. She had the ‘Star’ single with Biz Markie. We did a whole entire album with her. I was talking to Salaam about it [days before]. I said, ‘Dude, you need to release this. You need to put it online so people can hear it.’ It still stands up to this day.
Throughout your 31-year career, what is the most interesting recording setup you’ve seen?
Lauryn [Hill] came to do the ‘Sweetest Thing (Remix)’ in 1997, and she was eight and a half months pregnant. So, she couldn’t stand for long periods of time. When she was in the booth, she was uncomfortable. When she came into the booth to listen to the tracks, she sat down behind me and the producer desk. She said, ‘Gary, is there any way I could record here? I could sit here for a while. I’m comfortable.’ So, I set up the microphone for her there. She wanted to do it there and listening back to it through the speakers. I was like, ‘How are we going to do this?’
I put on a pair of headphones, put one of the [Yamaha] NS10 speakers at her face. I would sit, listen and move the mic until the level of the speakers dropped really, really low. It didn’t cancel out completely, but it dropped so low that when we finished recording solo vocals, it sounded good. You heard the song. Her vocals were killing it. She’s Lauryn, but she was able to because she was comfortable and was able to do her thing without always adjusting and switching from leg to leg.
You’ve been in the studio with a myriad of talented artists. What’s a common trait you’ve noticed among them all?
I’ve found that the people who are super talented and really deliver, they don’t have to throw their ego or weight around to prove how bad they are because when they open their mouths to sing or say a rhyme, it just comes out. Nas is the same way. Nas doesn’t come to the studio with no attitude. He comes in like, ‘What’s up? How’s everybody? We’re good? What we’re doing?’ He listens to the music and then goes, ‘I’m feeling this. Let me go write to this. I’ll be right back.’ He sits there, writes, comes back, goes into the booth and kills it.
What is your best talent?
I like to listen to the artist and the producer, hear [what] their vision is and the concept is, and make sure when I’m mixing it, I bring their vision to life. When the song is done, it feels the way they described it to me. I work with international artists who don’t even speak English. How can you mix a song when you don’t even understand what they’re saying? I do it by getting the artist themselves, or someone on their team, to explain to me what the song is about.
I work with this guy from France, Abd Al-Malik. He’s considered the Nas of France. I was taught you have to have three eyes on your head. One eye on the artist, one eye on the producer, and the third eye is on the meters. I stay in that frame of mind all the time.