After having randomly bumped into him at the Vintage King store in LA, I became acquainted with Troy Johnson, aka R8DIO, a producer and mixer. Having grown up around Motown legends and later worked with 90s acts like Solange and Kelly Rowland, his background piqued my interest. After becoming more familiar with one another, we decided to meet up later for an interview about his history, production work, and the music business.
Hi Troy. How did you get your start in music?
I’ve been in music my whole life. My father was the lead singer and guitar player of a 70s duo called The Brothers Johnson. So I was always around studios and knew that I would do something musical, though I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be. But I was a nerd about everything music-related, and once I became old enough to understand who my dad was in the music world, I figured I should get into it as well.
Did the pro audio side of things start for you in your dad’s studio?
From what I’m told, my first word was “tape”, so yeah, studio gear was something I was always aware of. I would be in the studio a lot with my dad, and there was a time in my childhood when he wanted to introduce me to Quincy Jones, who he was working with at the time. He was like, “Troy, I want to introduce you to someone who’s a pretty big deal “, but I just waived my hand and said “Hi Quincy“, and walked back to the guy who was operating the Studer tape machine (laughs). The technical side of things was more interesting to me at that time than meeting important people in the music world.
My dad had his own home studio when I was young, with a Tascam MS16 tape machine, and I used to punch him in when he was laying down his guitar parts for his last album, “Kickin“. I even got my credit for that, as a second engineer, though I was still in kindergarten.
As you got older, what were some of the first tracks that you worked on that put you on the map?
I got my industry start thanks to my former partner, Brycyn Evans. I used to take my MPC over to his house and we’d make music together. We even did a remix for Shaggy and that became my first major credit for production. We ended up signing with Quincy Jones III (QD3), whom Brycyn knew. Brycyn was working on some Tupac tracks for the “All Eyez On Me“, like “Hellrazor” and “Gettin Money” which he collaborated with QD3 on. Jay Brown was our manager at the time, who worked at Elektra Records. Through that, I was able to produce music for T-Boz from TLC for the Backstage: A Hard Knock Life soundtrack album. I remember T-Boz laughing at me when we couldn’t work past 11:30pm, because I had to go to school the next morning (laughs).
And following that, you also had some success in the mid to late 2000s, right?
Yeah, the T-Boz thing was in 1999, and moving on from that we got some placements with some other urban artists. I ended up working with people like Missy Elliot, and had my own artists that Brycyn and I had signed. But then Brycyn passed away, which left me to keep working on our projects. So I ended up meeting Solange and her dad through my first publisher, Valerie Bisharat, who was like a second mom to me. Solange and I wrote a bunch of songs together that ended up on her first album, and I also ended up doing the title-track to Kelly Roland’s first album and I had a track on Michelle Williams’ first album too. Following that, I got to work on Jada Pinket Smith’s first rock album, and through that I got to engineer and produce majority of Will Smith’s last rap album, “Lost and Found“, which was an amazing experience.
Do you remember what your first hit was?
Sure. A good friend of mine, Andre Merritt called me one day and said “I’m in the studio with Chris Brown. Why don’t you come by? “. So I went by, and I walked in on them writing “Disturbia“, which was interesting because Chris was still solely an RnB artist at the time, and I didn’t know he was about to cross over to pop. I remember thinking, “I wonder what this is for? “, and of course it went on to become a huge Rihanna hit. But I ended up playing him a CD of beats that had 30 tracks on it, nearly all RnB, and liked the last one, which had a pop vibe, and it ended up being “Dreamer“, which was featured on the 2008 Summer Olympic campaign and became my first hit.
As someone who had their beginnings in the analog domain of the 80s, how was the process like for you to transition into today’s digital realm?
My first digital experience was with Pro Tools, and I later tried things like Reason, Studio One and Logic, but eventually settled on Ableton Live. I was primarily using a DA-88, but after Brycyn’s death I switched over to a Pro Tools setup because I moved out of QD3’s studio. But Quincy helped me get setup with Pro Tools and hired a technician to hook it up for me. The guy was like, “Here’s the record button, here’s stop, here’s how to arm a track, your inputs and outputs are here…Have fun “. That was all the training I ever received for Pro Tools, and the rest I learned on my own through experimentation. That was during the beginning of the Pro Tools revolution when everyone was switching to it.
I can see that your home setup incorporates a lot from both the analog and digital worlds. What have you found to be the ideal analog-digital setup for you?
It’s all been about personal taste. I have a two-track Studer B67 tape machine, which has pre-amps and an EQ curve that affect the mix of a track. Nowadays I’ll do an A-B pass where I hit tape first, and then hit only the amplifiers, because the tape has a very specific EQ curve that cuts off some of the low-end. Then I compare which sound works better for the music I’m working on. It would sound different if I cut out low-end with just a plugin.
At this year’s NAMM Show, I spoke with one of the lead engineers who works on Universal Audio’s plugins, and he was telling me how because of the advancement of smartphones and smaller chips, he looks forward to being able to harness the power of the new micro processors that are coming out. The ideas he has in his head can’t be realized with current technology, which shows that the future has more to offer.
I still sum out-of-the-box. I have a sixteen-channel SSL X-Desk. I used to master exclusively out-of-the-box, but now I have an API 2500 that I hit in limiter mode, and then I use the Fabfilter Pro L after that. For EQs, I have two Neve 1073s in 500 format. I’ve found that EQ’s in the plugin worlds don’t produce the same kind of low-end as analog ones. I can hit my hardware EQ’s harder and get a bigger sound, which is due to the infinite algorithm in the analog domain, as opposed to the calculated algorithm in the digital domain. But you might not always need that kind of bass-heavy vibe. The song I’m working on today has a 60s throwback vibe to it, so that works great for my tape machine, and losing the low-end wouldn’t bother me at all. In fact, it glues things together even more. And there are different ways I can use the tape machine too. I can switch between seven, fifteen and thirty inches per second as a tape speed. When I’m tracking individual instruments, I’ll use a slower speed for low-frequency sounds, but for mastering or mixing, I’ll speed it back up to 30 ips.
Can you contrast being a music professional in the 90s and early 2000s versus today?
Imagine being booked for a session with someone, and actually getting paid the first half of your fee before even stepping into the studio (laughs). It was like that for everyone back then because there was enough money to go around, and more records were being sold than now. Previously, you had more people being involved on a lot of different levels in a project, and they would get paid to do that since there was a budget for it. Now that budgets are reduced, everyone is forced to wear more hats, and you have to achieve more before you get to that high stage as a producer, unless you start off with a built-in crew of people.
How do you think the recent bedroom producer phenomena has fared and will look like in the future?
Funnily enough, I consider myself a bedroom producer; my setup is very bedroom-like, and my room is extremely incorrect. It’s an extra room in the back of my house that’s made out of metal tin. I share it with my kids, so it’s a play-room and a studio, which is crazy. But I do mixing here anyway. Knowing my equipment, and using different headphones helps me achieve what I want. As bedroom producers, we all need to take musical responsibility and do our diligence. If I run into a mixing in problem, I’ll just Google an answer, like how to get rid of the 500 Hz that’s dominating my mix.
With anything that becomes accessible to the masses, there’s an initial shock of “Oh, I can do this “, which causes a flood of creative irresponsibility because people aren’t paying attention to things. After that, people start thinking more about being unique, which is why we’re seeing the current analog revolution of synths and hybrid setups. I think the preset sounds of digital synths and plugins became an issue for a lot of people. But I think things will get better and that people are taking more accountability for their music, whether it’s through research or by recreating certain musical sounds themselves.
I think things in the future will move more towards supporting the creators of music. When Queen was recording back in the day, it was never about the tape machine. They had two 40-track Stephens tape machines that were linked together, which was state-of-the-art at the time. But the only purpose of the machine was to capture the music; the machines were cool, but it was more about the recording. As long as the engineers and company’s continue that legacy, instead of getting lost in pushing their products with excess hype and marketing, we’ll be good.
What advice might you have for someone who doesn’t have access to the kind of analog gear you have, and has to make use of sample packs? A lot of people seem to get stuck on using Vengeance samples nowadays for example.
The beauty of it is that even if plugins don’t give the exact same thing as analog, they’re still an option. I think the whole purpose of initially using EQ and compression was to correct audio that was captured incorrectly. Nowadays, we tend to purposely alter things or mess them up. So you don’t need hardware to make something incorrect, or to create what you like. I use analog gear for specific characteristic reasons. But on the plugin side, I recently fell in love with the Fabfilter stuff, though I was a bit late on that. I use the Pro-Q for all kind of Mid-Side processing. Fabfilter’s multi-band compressor, Pro MB, is amazing too. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use it, and I use it a lot for processing of specific frequencies in vocals. Then I might shoot those vocals off to an auxiliary channel with another MB for some overall adjustment, and if I need some more compression, I’ll use the UAD 1176 in parallel. And if there’s any additional compression that’s needed, I’ll turn to the Fabfilter Pro L, which I think is very transparent, or the Waves R Compressor.
It’s important to be unique. For example, Timbaland is considered to be the holy grail of drum sounds for his generation of producers. I’ve heard that he collects a lot of his sounds on stereo field recorders, and then takes them to his studio to process and make them sound fatter. Pharrell is notorious for using ordinary buckets and drumsticks to make sounds. So you shouldn’t be afraid to use what you have. For the teenage producers, you can combine the Vengeance samples with your own sounds to make something new. The reason why Vengeance sounds good is because they have their own process for making stuff. Those aren’t regular sounds, and they’ve been processed to death to sound that way.
What would you say is your forte as a producer?
In general, I look at myself like a chameleon, since I work in different genres and play different instruments. So I can be comfortable in a modest bedroom or in a large studio environment. Years ago I worked as an in-house songwriter and producer for Will Smith at the Boom Boom Room in Burbank, California, which had everything. The B-Room had tons of gear, and the A-Room had an SSL J series. So I had the chance to work on both small stuff and big stuff.
Tell me a bit about what you have here in your home studio.
I have a pair of NS-10s that were my dad’s from back in the day. I tried using the HS-8s, but they didn’t work well in my room, so I went back to the NS-10s. I also have a pair of Avantone speakers. Because my room isn’t a treated studio, they help me hear what I need to correct in the midrange.
For my controllers, I have a white Axiom Pro 61 and an Ableton Push. My computer is a 2008 Mac Pro. I used to have the first generation Pro Tools HD System, and then I switched out when that technology became archaic. So I use the Native system now, with an SSL Alpha Link as my I/O, since I’m familiar with SSL from my time at the Boom Boom Room.
I have the SSL X-Rack fitted with SSL EQs and the SSL Bus Compressor, as well as a 500 series rack with my Neve 1073 mic pres and EQs, a dbx 160XT and a pair of dbx 166As. I might replace them with Distressors though, because I can drive those pretty hard.
You’ve mentioned a lot of SSL stuff. What is it that you’ve come to like about that brand of gear?
For analog gear, it’s more about sonic colors than brand names, I think. After all, I use Neve EQs too. When I got my SSL stuff, it had more to do with it being one of my few high-end options when I left the Boom Boom Room. I wanted a compact option that could deliver a high-end sound for my price range. Later on, Neve released their own summing mixer. But I like the way the summing sounds on the X-Desk.
Wrapping up, can you tell me about what you’re working on now, and what are your hopes for the future?
I worked on Jesse McCartney’s new album “In Technicolor“, which is out now. I have three tracks on there: “Punch Drunk Recreation“, “Checkmate” and “Euphoria“. I’m also working with some up-and-coming artists that are new on the scene.
To be honest, I’ve spent a lot of my years chasing the big hit record, which tends to happen when you want to be successful, but now I’m looking forward to keep doing what I’ve been doing for the past six months, which is working on my own stuff and experimenting more. I want to find new inspiration and get back to why I started doing this in the first place. I think success can come to you, but you need to first invest in yourself by practicing your craft and instrument. If you need to drag out your old MPC to remind yourself why you started doing this, and then combine that with new stuff, then do that. I’m using my MPC Renaissance the way I did with my MPC60, by slaving it to Ableton. So I’m looking forward to buying the stuff I want on Craigslist, getting those Distressors, and continuing to make music.