While the Middle East live events industry is booming, the regional music production scene remains something of an enigma. John Parnell recently caught up with UAE music producer Q to discuss digital production techniques and how the local recording industry compared to those in more established markets.
How do you develop the concept for a particular song?
For commercial work, a client will present you with their concept for a particular project. Recently, I've been producing music for advertisements promoting [sports apparel manufacturer] Adidas in the UK. In this case, I've had to focus on what kind of music the company's target market would listen to, which is faster, edgier stuff like house, and drum and bass. If Adidas US had come to me, I would have developed a bass-heavy hip-hop-style track, which wouldn't work so well in the UK. The key is to clearly identify your target market.
Ultimately, the track we developed is hip-hop-based but we made it pretty synth-laden similarly to a house or electro track, which balanced it out. Basically, it sounds very European.
What's your favourite piece of music production software?
Recently, I've been using SampleTank XL and Sonik Synth, which are two programmes manufactured by IK Multimedia.
I use a Cubase music sequencer with the software, which is a perfect match. I also use Battery drum machine software developed by Native Instruments. I'm also a big fan of the ES2 synthesiser application in Apple's Logic Pro 8 software programme.
You have a Mac and a PC. Which do you use more often?
Many VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments are only available on the Windows platform as is Cubase, although Apple is lifting its game. The Mac is a stable platform for Pro Tools but I don't use it because it's designed for mixing applications. Again, Logic Pro 8 is an amazing piece of software, and for US$400 it's a bargain. It's easily one of the best music software programmes available at the moment.
How do UAE-based recording facilities compare internationally?
My own recording facility [based at Dubai's Creative Kingdom studios] is world-class. I recently watched a video profile about Jus Blaze, who is the top producer at Def Jam records and Roc-a-fella, which is Jay-Z's label.
He was talking about his studio and I was really surprised to learn that my own facility boasts more software applications than his.
In terms of hardware, I've got a Yamaha MOTIF module, Roland synths and Phantom modules, among others. The Phantom is a really great sounding module. The Roland Sonic synth is a bit dated now but it's got a classic sound. I also have a full-bundled version of Native Instruments' ni4.
When I first came to Creative Kingdom two years ago I talked to management about what technology I would need to get on top of the latest production trends. Music production technology and creative trends are developing so quickly you can't afford to fall behind.
How do other studios in the region compare to Creative Kingdom?
I have visited a few studios in the region and typically the owners spend a lot of money on the building and sound proofing to the detriment of recording equipment and instruments.
Ninety-nine percent of the studios in the Middle East use Korg's Triton keyboard and as a result a huge amount of Arabic music is recorded using the system. Literally hundreds of Arabic albums in the past few years have been composed and recorded using this one piece of equipment.
In the US, instead of a synthesiser, most producers use an Akai MPC (Music Production Centre), which is basically a sampler.
However, I've found that by using SampleTank and Battery you can achieve a similar result as MPC, but only better. Because they are software-based, it's easier to transfer your work between systems. People are just stuck in that frame of mind; if you're producing hip-hop records you should use an MPC, if you're working on Arabic records you should employ a Korg Triton.
To what extent does technology shape the sound of a particular piece of music you are working on?
Generally, you'll know how you'll want a particular tune to sound, but technology still has the ability to surprise when it comes to recording the track. Suffice to say, the more technology you have access to the greater number of options you have when it comes to recording. The VST instrument scene is incredible in this respect. Give me a Windows-based PC and put me up against any orchestra in the UAE, I'll take them down! The technology provides that much of an edge.
How difficult is it to source the latest technology in the Middle East?
The region is now on par with other markets worldwide in terms of what's available. I never thought there would be retailers in Dubai that stocked VST instruments. Most didn't even know what VST stood for a couple of years ago and now there are around a dozen retailers that stock a comprehensive range of products.
Cubase 4 was available locally just a few days after it was released worldwide.
Is the GCC hip-hop scene heavily influenced by Western trends or does it have its own unique voice?
It's a bit of a fusion. I've been working with an Arab act who sing in Arabic and have a lot of traditional Arab influences in their compositions, but the production style is quite Westernised.
A number of Egyptian acts tried a similar approach in the past but did it poorly. They used the Triton for everything, including drum tracks, so it sounded weak.
A number of local artists and producers have also melded house beats with Arabic tracks, which works really well because both genres have similar tempos.
The newly launched MTV Arabia has promised to turn the spotlight on the region's burgeoning hip-hop scene. How big an impact do you think this will have on the industry commercially?
The launch of MTV Arabia is a positive development for the local hip-hop scene, as it will likely draw a bigger audience than other music channels based in the region.
MTV International also seems very committed to this project, given the fact that it brought international identities including Snoop Dogg's producer, Ludacris, and Akon over from the US for the launch in Dubai. The more hip-hop is promoted here the greater number of opportunities I will get to work with talented and high profile singers and musicians, which is only a good thing.
What is the market for hip-hop like in the Middle East at present?
It's definitely attracting more of a buzz, which is the reason why so many hip-hop stars are touring the region these days. But it's not just the music - it's hip-hop culture that is attracting interest.
Look at West Coast Customs (the workshop behind Pimp My Ride) opening an outlet in Dubai. They recognise the popularity of the scene here. I don't believe hip-hop will ever overtake Arabic as the most popular music genre, but I reckon in three or four years it should eclipse house as the most popular Western-style genre.