“Darkchild”: An introduction to sonic signatures in record production

By Mark Gillespie, Laval University, Quebec

In 2001 the king of pop, Michael Jackson, released his first album in over a decade, Invincible.  This album’s single, “You Rock My World,” the track that would be responsible for either making or breaking Jackson’s return to pop music, begins with the word “Darkchild.”  More specifically, the song starts as an instrumental groove; a steady pulse of electronically programmed drums and bass create the basic rhythmic texture while a syncopated synth-guitar line dances around on the offbeats.  After four consecutive bars of this pattern, Jackson’s voice enters the soundscape, delicately whispering the word "Darkchild."  Almost simultaneously, a piano part enters the musical environment, softening the harmonic bleakness of the rhythmic groove with a smooth progression of lightly accented seventh chords.
Why would Jackson choose to softly utter “Darkchild” at the beginning of the piece?  The temporal relationship between the occurrence of the word "Darkchild" and the entry of the piano is not a coincidence.  The word “Darkchild” is placed at the same time as the entry of the piano part as a reference to the track’s producer, the (then) twenty-two year old wunderkind Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins—the man responsible not only for composing and performing this piano line, but the entire instrumental track.  This placement helps establish the origin of the word “Darkchild,” as the nickname of the track’s producer, and the fact that this placement occurs in conjunction with the piano is a means of highlighting his musical contribution. However, the larger question remains: why would this reference to the record producer appear in such an abrupt context? Why would the first word heard on one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year be the name of the album’s producer, “Darkchild”?
 One answer to this question could be that Jackson sought, by calling immediate attention to the brand power of this young hit maker’s well-known nickname ("Darkchild"), to connect his music with a new generation of fans.  While these fans may have been too young to know Jackson’s work from the previous decade, they did almost certainly recognize the word "Darkchild," having heard it uttered in other hits by artists including Destiny’s Child, Brandy and Monica throughout the past year.   This intertextual connection, however, only raises a new question: why does the word “Darkchild” appear, not only in "You Rock My World," but at the beginning of other singles produced by Rodney Jerkins as well?  Why should such a sonic network exist between all these songs?  What is the significance of the word “Darkchild” in this context?  Finally, is this textual network being created intentionally?


In an attempt to shed light on these questions, the present text will explore the idea that what can be called “sonic signatures” exist in record production.  I will argue that these play an important role in mainstream North American popular music, not only at a creative level, but also in terms of how music is received and evaluated.  With regards to the case of “You Rock My World,” I would propose that an understanding of what sonic signatures are and how they work helps explain the presence of the word "Darkchild" in “You Rock My World” and why it appears in such an abrupt context at the track’s beginning.  Moreover, unlike the previous interpretation, this explanation does not depend upon knowledge of the specific extra-musical details of Michael Jackson's return, his attempt to relate to a new generation of music fans, or even the fact that Jackson is performing in this song at all.  Instead, evidenced by the connection this word makes to a larger body of Rodney Jerkins productions, the appearance of the word “Darkchild” in “You Rock My World” is not really Jackson’s choice.  Rather, the word is, at its core, part of an unchanging aesthetic that helps define Jerkins’ productions as such. The word “Darkchild” is spoken by Michael Jackson to literally sign “You Rock My World” as a track produced by Rodney Jerkins.  It is part of a sonic signature that connects this particular Rodney Jerkins production with a network of others and as such establishes at a sonic level his role as the track’s producer.
Before attempting to more clearly illustrate this point through a series of musical analyses, however, the following two questions should be first be addressed: why should sonic signatures exist in record production and what purpose do they serve musicians (producers, recording artists, and so on)?  Indeed, before beginning any examination of sonic signatures, and even before we can provide a more thorough definition of what exactly is meant by the term, it is imperative to first explain what circumstances have brought them about.  That is to say, understanding sonic signatures requires taking into account the factors that have made them become a central element within mainstream pop in recent years to such an extent that the first words of Michael Jackson’s comeback are essentially a manifestation of his producer’s sonic signature.


When considering certain shifts that have occurred within popular music over the past decade (say from roughly 1995 to the present), two clear developments stand out as having dramatically affected the form in the North American mainstream on a fundamental level.  Firstly, there has been an obvious and dramatic increase in both the amount and sophistication of recording technology used in the process of creating a musical track over the past twenty years.  The emergence of new technological tools, such as Digidesign's ProTools, advanced real-time sequencers, 24-bit samplers, and algorithmic FX processors, have reshaped the face of popular music production.  In the age of digital sound, diverse subgenres from country to rock have all benefited from these new technologies. In many areas of poplar music, these new technologies are not simply used to aid the process of recording, but have become ingrained within the very fiber of song writing and composition. While some subgenres and musical cultures have been more openly accepting of this change than others, it is safe to say that nearly all that appear within the context of the mainstream have been heavily affected. This new technological integration within songwriting can be observed in the music of punk-rock icon Avril Lavigne.  Even though Avril Lavigne’s music is meant to have the appearance of sounding rough and rooted in the punk tradition of music-making as a kind of antithesis to the polished technological sound associated with competing artists like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, in fact, her entire sound has been dramatically shaped by technological advances on the side of production.  Her first three singles, for example, were written and produced by The Matrix, a production-trio famous for developing a compositional process in which mastered mixes of their productions are created at the same time the songs are being written.   In other words, in the case of The Matrix, a series of musical processes (writing, recording, producing, mixing, mastering) all of which were once separate are here converging, both in terms of their temporal reality (when they occur) and personnel (they all involve the record producer), as a result of technological advances.
  As the example of the Matrix suggests, the traditional role of the record producer as technological mediator, the one with the recording equipment, can not help but overlap with the creative processes that were once almost exclusively the prevue of the recording artist, the songwriter, or the engineer.  North American popular music has reached a point where record production and musical composition are being difficult to separate within many genres, especially within the format of music like Lavigne’s targeted to reach the mainstream.  The technological evolution of music has reached a point where the importance of “recorded sound” in terms of composition, through the use of samplers, sequencers, and so on, has become in many cases as important to a song’s content and compositional identity as the actual notes performed. In other words, the meaning of a musical text now has as much to do with how the musical material is inscribed, as what musical material is being inscribed. Or, perhaps, that these two levels are simply no longer separable.  Since most mainstream artists do not posses the technological capacity to produce their own music, they are in a sense becoming automatically separated from the process of composition itself.  Thus, the record producer’s role is not only to “translate” information from performance to recording; rather, it is to form the very ideas and information being communicated through or in this process, and not before it.  This is what we observed in the case of The Matrix creating Avril Lavigne’s final mastered cuts out in the very act of coming up with musical ideas for her.  
From a social perspective, as a result in this shift in the record producer's function, what had once been an obscure figure that worked behind the scenes has recently come to life in the public eye.  Mainstream listeners (as will be evidenced in magazine reviews to be presented later) are not only increasingly becoming familiar with the contributions of the record producer, but are recognizing their names and even beginning to identify their work by it’s sound.  Hence, the profile of the record producer has been raised to unparalleled proportions as a result of technological advances within the field.


 Having discussed what new technological parameters have helped boost the producer’s importance in popular music, I will now address a cultural shift that has had somewhat the same effect. A second restructuring in popular music that has helped bolster the record producer’s position is related to an influx in the popularity of urban music (i.e. rap, R&B, gospel, dancehall, neo-soul, etc.).  In recent years urban music has become firmly ensconced in the center of the mainstream North American market. It could be argued that urban music even represents a new form of "coffee-table" pop from an empirical point of view insomuch as urban music has become the background texture of shopping centers, television adds, and to a large extent, the dominant force in pop radio.  What is important about this change in generic taste in relation to the record producer is that while urban music is difficult to distinctly define,  it is composed of an understood collection of styles and sub-genres in which the record producer currently assumes, and has historically assumed, a central, visible, and significant position for the musical culture.   This is because in the setting of urban music, the producer works not simply as a recorder or arranger (implying tasks traditionally associated with the record producer in, for example, rock music) but as the central creative force used operative in bringing a piece of music into existence.  The urban music producer is employed not only for the recording of vocals, but is also required from the birth of the song as a drum beat, to its midlife as fully programmed instrumental backbone (the vocals in urban music are normally written to a finished instrumental track), to its end as a radio-ready product.  This uniquely creative and comprehensive role of the producer within urban music has elevated the urban producers’ level of celebrity and recognition within the public sphere. Further, as urban music has increasingly merged into mainstream music over the past decade,  the urban producer’s central role in the music making process has had an impact on reshaping the role of the music producer in general within popular music.
The two shifts defined above help demonstrate why mainstream audiences have suddenly taken an interest in the role producers play in mainstream music production. In the context of the present study, it is important to note that these historic shifts have created a very real need for sonic signatures within record production. As the previous discussion of advances in technology suggests, the record producer has at many levels overstepped processes traditionally associated with the recording artist. While recording artists are still thought of as the main authors in popular music, evidenced by the fact that theirs are the names that appears on the spines of CDs, and the names by which record stores organize their disks, by and large, the general public is coming to recognize their underlying fundamental contribution and unite bodies of musical text according to the producer’s voice, rather then the artist’s.  This can be observed empirically very easily in the sequence of music played at discos, on the radio, and even in the personal MP3-playlists of casual music fans, where a DJ’s set may include 10 cuts from 10 different artists, and while these tracks are all grouped together because they blend well together on the sonic surface, in fact this surface itself is a function of a more important connection—a connection that the DJ may or may not even be aware of—which is that all 10 songs were produced by the same producer or production team.
The social ramifications of this new importance of the producer in popular music have been very important in helping bring about sonic signatures.  On the one hand, there has been a narrow but pronounced backlash against this sonic “takeover” by record producers, especially within so-called independent and underground music scenes, where self-productions have recently become highly valued as being “genuine” music in the sense that the artist is still in control of the sound.  By and large, however, there as been an overwhelming embracing of the record producer’s enlarged musical function.  This widespread acceptance on a cultural level, I would argue, was greatly influenced by the previously described influx of urban music within the mainstream.  Specifically, a social familiarity with this genre helped normalize the concept of “celebrity producers” within the mainstream because, as I have already pointed out, in the context of urban music the record producer has always occupied this important cultural role.  Thus, not only has the public become aware of this new situation in record production, but in fact, is coming to realize that the best way to anticipate, categorize, connect, and judge new music is to focus on the producer, rather than the artist.


This social phenomenon can be observed in transformations in the way new music is marketed in the sense that record producers are becoming a crucial element in the advertising of new singles and albums.   In the past few years, for example, citing the producer’s name in CD labeling has progressed from Whitney Houston’s My Love is Your Love (1998), where a sticker attached to the CD wrapper advised that the “tracks (were) produced by Babyface and Rodney Jerkins,” to the present day, when all track titles listed on the backside of Gwen Stefani’s Love, Angel, Music, Baby (2004) are accompanied by each corresponding producer’s name in prominent lettering.   Magazine reviews reflect similar changes in the marketing of music regarding the importance of the record producer.  An article anticipating Britney Spear’s 2003 album, In The Zone, for example, reads, “Spears says that her new album will be very different, calling it her ‘baby.’ She has reportedly worked with producers such as RedZone, Rodney Jerkins, Moby, The Matrix, P. Diddy, and others.”   These names are in fact helping lend credibility to Spears’ claim that the album will be “different.”  A similar article notes that, “Britney Spears has recruited an all-star cast to propel her new album In The Zone.  Moby has written and produced ‘Early Mornin’, R. Kelly is behind ‘Outrageous”, and additional producers include Bloodshy & Avant and Guy Sigworth.” (Cashmere, n.d.)  This information is not inserted for the benefit of hardcore industry buffs.  Rather, it is telling mainstream readers and potential audiences, increasingly familiar with producers’ names and production sounds, what to expect, what each track is going to sound like, and to whose musical tastes the album will appeal.  And for good reason: Britney Spears, produced by The Matrix, will sound more like Avril Lavigne or Lindsay Lohan, also produced by The Matrix, than Britney Spears produced by any of the other producers mentioned in these reviews.   
As an editorial on the aforementioned Spears’ album comments, “These days, high-stakes pop CD's are shopping sprees, with dozens of songwriters and producers being thrown into the cart.” (Strauss, n.d.) This comment hits at the core of what the new phenomenon of producer marketing is all about; the fact that recording artists are not only listened to but in many ways also judged according to their producers.  This is why Michael Jackson began his comeback album with the word “Darkchild”.  It is why The Backstreet Boys produced by Max Martin (Black & Blue, 2000) gets categorized on iTunes as “pop”, while The Backstreet Boys produced by John Fields (producer of Switchfoot) or Darren Hayes of Savage Garden (Never Gone, 2005) is labeled “modern rock”.  By changing producers, the music is being targeted at and will probably end up reaching a very different fan base in each case.  The above quotation also helps explain the motivation behind Justin Timberlake’s decision to break with 'Nsync’s former Swedish production team, Cheiron, and enlist hip hop producers, The Neptunes, to help authenticate his solo debut as an “urban” artist.  Finally, this also explains Britney Spears’ move to hire producer Rodney Jerkins at the eleventh hour, just weeks before releasing her 2001 single “Overprotected,” to remix the song from sugar-pop anthem to club-banger as part of a strategic image change.
In other words, it is clear that there is a real and practical motivation for pop artists to use specific producers and to credit them, or let them credit themselves, for annunciating a new direction for the artist.   It is in this context that the function of the sonic-signature as a signature begins to be understood.  It is a way of creating a production identity within the music whose success in many ways hinges on who it was produced by.  It should be pointed out, however, that while sonic signatures have become a link between perceived generic/cultural authenticity and commercial success for the artist, this is, I would argue, a secondary purpose.  The sonic signature’s fundamental purpose, I believe, is to imbed a clear production credit that is recognizable in music broadcast as sound alone.  Its task is to identify the producer and, as such, serves the producer first and foremost.  In the present age of MP3 dissemination, where artist and track name are often the only textual information attached to a track in the process of digital audio transmission, or on the radio where producers are traditionally not named, a means had to be found, given the importance of the record producer within the current musical environment, to let the listening audience know who produced a given track.  This is the basic role of the sonic signature.


Having examined the historical context that has recently created the need for sonic signatures in record production, what purposes these signatures serve, and how artists use these signatures, a clear definition of “sonic-signature” is now needed.  The notion of a sonic signature, which in itself only denotes a correlation between sound and authorship, is commonly used in the world of professional audio to mean many things, and the range and diversity of sonic signatures are quite large.  Bernd Gottinger, for example, has recently used the term to describe the sonic evidence that various recording technologies leave in music they are used to create.  According to Gottinger (2005), “recorded sound is shaped by sonic signatures which exist in sound recording technology on carious micro and macroscopic levels.”  As an example of this relation between micro and macro, Gottinger illustrates how something as small as the design of a single op-amp in the 1970s impacted the design and layout of studio mixing boards built during that period, and in turn helped shaped the aesthetics of the era.  In other words, he hears the impact of various op-amp designs in the music made using these and calls this evident alteration the sonic signature.  Even Rodney Jerkins’ own signature, “Darkchild,” is more subtle then the presence of a single word, as will be explained later in this text.

In this paper, I am using the term sonic signature to refer to the evidence that producers work into their recordings as a marker of their contribution.  This does not refer to the “traces” left in a musical text by recording technologies. Therefore, as a definition, let us consider the sonic signature to be a collection of sound material consistently worked into a body of recordings by a producer or group of producers as a way of sonically identifying themselves as the producers of these musical texts.   This definition necessarily remains imprecise because the shape and form of sonic signatures vary widely from genre to genre and from producer to producer.  In the following survey, I will attempt to illustrate this diversity.    


Sonic signatures can be communicated through discrete concrete sounds that are immediately recognizable and carry with them a strong sense of production ownership, such as the Timbaland flute, or the Timbaland “beat-box” kit, or the John Shanks “muffled piano”.   In these cases individual sounds clearly belong only to a certain producer and communicate production identity regardless of how or where they appear in a recording.  “Producer kits,” that is to say collections of instrument patches sold on the Internet to amateur producers attempting to mimic various well-known producers, speak to the existence and prevalence of sonic signatures that work at this level.  The “Timbaland kit,” for example, includes, among other obvious sound choices, a variety of signature so-called “Indian flute” samples that represent an identifiable component of Timbaland’s sonic arsenal.  Interestingly, while in some cases the flute sounds have been extracted from extant Timbaland recordings, in others they have been lifted from royalty-free sample CDs, such as Akai’s Deepest India or Abracatabla, formatted for use with Akai samplers.  However, these sample CDs in many cases do represent the actual source of Timbaland’s distinct flute and tabla sounds.  The fact that some of Timbaland’s most recognizable instrumental patches have come from commercially available sample CDs illustrates how some sounds may be appropriated from other sources and still come to be identified with individual producers.  However, as both this Timbaland example, and later instances by Kanye West, Lil Jon, and Rodney Jerkins will highlight, in order for appropriated sounds to assume production identities, the sounds must be borrowed from foreign settings and placed within a new and unique context—either historically (West’s use of 1970s record samples), culturally (Timbaland’s use of Indian tabla drums) or generically (Lil Jon’s appropriation of orchestration from European house music).

Conversely, the sonic signature may get communicated through abstract parameters. For example, particular rhythmic patterns may stand out as unique irrespective of the concrete sounds that are used to orchestrate them.  For instance, the Virginia-based production duo, The Neptunes, often accentuate a particular rhythm, or close variations thereof, between beats two and four of their drum loops, represented in the following sequencer-based notation chart.
It is noteworthy that The Neptunes’ signature rhythmic pattern (indicated above in black) is further emphasized as significant by the fact that it is never quantized in recordings.  Quantization refers to a function in digital sequencers whereby the timing of play-recorded material is regulated—either during performance or afterwards—typically by locking played material along a grid of equal metric subdivisions.  In the case of The Neptunes, however, while quantizing fundamental rhythmic instrumentation, notably the kick and snare drum, they intentionally leave auxiliary percussion parts (often sequenced as a variation of the pattern highlighted above) with the natural timing incongruence of the original play-recorded performance on the drum sequencer. As Neptunes member Chad Hugo notes, “Usually we quantize the kicks and snares, but not the hi-hats [because] we like the live feel that makes you think someone is actually playing the drums.” (Hugo, 2003) This technique helps make the above rhythmic motif stand out within a track and consequently draw attention to it as an element of The Neptunes’ sonic signature.

The fact that not quantizing certain lines has become a fundamental aspect of The Neptunes’ method of producing, becomes all the more interesting and logical when compared with producer Dr. Dre’s production aesthetic, which is defined in large part by his employment of overly rigid or “hard” quantization schemes.  In the case of Dre’s productions, instrumental material tends to be regulated, not along a sixteenth-note grid (which is normal in 90-100 BPM music) but according to a straight eighth-note quantization scheme (referred to as “hard quantization”), creating a unique and recognizable aesthetic in and of itself.   Thus, a fundamental aspect of Dre's sonic signature has to do with the quantized rhythmic rigidity that marks his instrumental tracks.

A final contrasting example of a rhythmically communicated sonic signature is found in Rodney Jerkins’ penchant for the exaggerated “groove” or de-quantization presets found in the Akai MPC 2000 sampler/sequencer.  In his productions, Jerkins will often employ a series of groove-quantization functions to shift fundamental elements, including the kick and snare drum, away from tempo grids, both ahead and behind time, by as much as 40-50 ms.  The unnatural rhythmic “wobbling” that results from this process has become a defining element of Jerkins’ distinct sound, a feature especially evident in tracks produced between the years 2000 and 2003.  The connection between the three cases highlighted above is interesting in that pre-existing technological functions and presets are either used or not used differently in each to distinguish production identity on a micro-rhythmic level: in the first case by avoiding rhythmic quantization where it would normally be used, in the second through the employment of an unnaturally rigid quantization scheme, and in the last by the exaggeration of a “lopsided” feel through heavy processing using multiple groove quantization algorithms.
For other producers, the sonic signature does not get conveyed through the use of discrete sounds or abstract rhythmic relationships (as observed above), but through broader criteria that are used to structure and organize their recordings.  This may occur with the use of specific textural arrangement or harmonic patterning, as in the case of Swedish hit-maker Max Martin.  The signature final chorus of Martin’s productions, for example, often features two previously separate vocal arrangements combined contrapuntally to create a call-and-answer “mega-refrain.”   These choruses by and large also communicate production authorship through the regimented use of specific harmonic contours, more specifically a ready-steady-go lead-in in the dominant key and a rise to the relative major (or fall to the relative minor) on bar three or in the chorus’ second stanza, depending on the example.   Interestingly, while Martin’s overall sound has been obviously (and I would argue intentionally) redefined over the past half decade (from the bubble-gum quality of his early Jive Records productions to the grungy guitar-rock coloration of recent work), his tracks have retained these structural links.   In other words, while the sound of Martin’s productions has clearly evolved to reflect trends in the field, they continue to be organized in a way that conveys a clear and recognizable sonic signature.  
In other cases, the sonic signature can be more broadly imbued within a track through the deployment of specific combinations of instruments and sounds. This is the case for producer Jonathan Smith, better known as Lil Jon, whose tracks are marked by a particular collection of patches taken from the Yamaha Motif, Novation A-Station, Roland XV-5080, Nord Lead, and E-mu Proteus and XL-1 keyboards.  Curiously, while this combination of keyboards and keyboard sounds has become a key element of Lil Jon’s sonic signature within the world of urban production, he is by no means the originator of this sound.   By his own admission, he first heard this combination of hi-fi “buzz” synthesizer patches in the house music played at strip clubs in his hometown of Atlanta.  In an interview with Scratch Magazine Jon openly acknowledged this debt to largely European dance music. (Smith, 2005) Jon’s unique stylistic contribution, and consequently what made this collection of sounds part of his unique signature as a producer, has been to simply to transpose the orchestration he heard in house music into an “urban” musical environment.  Since the culture of urban music has historical been at odds with European electronica, these sounds had never been used before within urban record production and represented a kind of aesthetic barrier.  Thus, to create a sonic signature, all Jon had to do was take the same patches and simply shift the tempo of the beats made with them from the 120 Beats Per Minute (bpm) to 95-105 bpm, the slower tempo range characteristic of hip-hop and R&B.  As part of a cultural restructuring of the sounds, he also helped transform their appearance by placing them within the context “urban” modalities like Phrygian, rather than the standard minor or minor tonalities normally found in techno.   
The resulting sound, dubbed “Crunk,” has been received as new and groundbreaking in the world of urban music, and more importantly, has been recognized as Lil Jon's own.  The producer even glossed the cover of the August 2005 edition of Source Magazine as “The King Of Crunk.” Ironically, as a review of Lil Jon’s music in the New York Times notes, “While the programmer-musicians of electronic dance music and most current hip-hop alike spend hours tweaking their patches to mask their sources, Lil' Jon's tones sound like they come straight out of the box [and] anyone might come up with the same unvarnished kazoo sounds within five minutes of sitting down at a keyboard store's display model.” (Sherburne, n.d., [1-2])  Reiterating the same point, Lil Jon himself admitted in a January 2005 interview with Remix Magazine that the most famous keyboard patch from his “crunk” sound is a basic stock precept from the Emu XL-1 synthesizer.
I was just going through sounds, and that fucking synth sound, the famous one that's on ‘Yeah,’ I was playing with it, and that just was hittin’. Just playing with sounds, that's how I got my most famous signature sound right there. Now, everybody want that sound on whatever track [I create].  (Boogie, 2005)

The above quote is suggestive within the context of this discussion of sonic signatures by the fact that Jon goes so far as to use the specific phrase “signature sound” in relation to the importance of this particular patch.  Even more tellingly, as he states in the last line, many of the artists he works with specifically ask him to use this sound in tracks he produces for them.  This illustrates a point that has already been raised and will be more thoroughly addressed later on: that sonic signatures serve a kind of second-degree function for artists insomuch as they help connect an artist to an established body of hits by other artists.   As such, artists may even overtly ask producers to use “signature sounds” within productions.   
It is clear that for some producers the sonic signature can be most apparent outside the bounds of what would normally be considered compositional identity in the traditional sense.  Producer Irv Gotti  and more recently producer Scott Storch,  both of whose productions are difficult to identify solely from orchestral palette or harmonic structure, each network their music through the use of recurring sound effects.  Specifically, both producers use “sweeps” effects in their productions (what in the case of Storch I call a “Storchdown”), most commonly at the beginning of choruses.  For example, in Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” a track co-produced by Storch and Timbaland, while beat-boxing is used throughout the first three choruses as part of Timbaland’s aforementioned sonic-signature, for the final chorus (produced almost exclusively by Storch) beat-boxing is eliminated, and the section is introduced with a “Storchdown” sweep-effect.  This change in sonic surface is not merely symbolic; it acts as a deliberate marker of production authorship inserted by Storch to help listeners recognize and distinguish his own musical contribution to the track from that of Timbaland.
In a few cases, the sonic signature may even get imbedded in a track's post-production, for instance, through the employment of specific filtering, processing, or mixing aesthetics.  One example of this level of sonic signature can be observed in the work of self-described “sample-based” producer Kanye West.   Even though West’s tracks use material that is clearly borrowed, including lengthy record samples, paradoxically, his productions are still very recognizable and can even be distinguished from those of similar sample-based producers, such as Just Blaze, who employ nearly identical processes of composition.  This is because of the distinct equalization and mixing pallet West uses, which includes, among other things, dramatically low-fidelity melodic (and to some degree percussive) material mixed well behind a hi-fidelity wall consisting of a few key percussive sounds, notably piercing claps and hi-hats that in terms of both spectrum and amplitude range can only be described as blaring.  As was the case of The Neptunes, who did not quantize their signature rhythmic motif, West further emphasizes the important signature component of this processing by panning hi-fidelity material like hi-hats from hard-left to hard-right at regular intervals (for example quarter-notes), thus isolating them both within the mix and helping the track to stand out as unique from the work of other sample-based producers, such as Just Blaze.


Lastly, and perhaps most apparently, many producers’ sonic signatures contain an element that closely resembles traditional conceptions of the signature in visual art.  The producer, in such cases, will literally join his or her name to the corpus of a work.  Such was the case in the previously discussed example of Michael Jackson whispering the word "Darkchild" at the beginning of "You Rock My World."  Similarly, a majority of the recordings produced by The Neptunes feature a kind of spoken acknowledgement by the recording artist of their role as producers.   For example, Snoop Dogg’s “Signs” (2004) begins with the rapper reciting the line, “It’s legit, you know it’s a hit, when The Neptunes and the Doggy-dog fin to spit.” Interestingly, this statement draws a parallel between The Neptunes’ production work, the appearance of “legitimacy,” and the likelihood of the song’s commercial success.  Similarly, in "I Just Wanna Luv You" (2001) we find Jay-Z rapping the line  “…get you bling like The Neptunes sound.”  The term "bling," refers to commercial success, and in this example the artist even makes a direct reference to the producer’s sonic signature: Jay-Z attempts vocally to recreate a specific synth sound unique to The Neptunes’ kit in the background as he says this line.   This example hits at the issue of genre, legitimacy, and the ways that artists use the sonic signature as a means of linking themselves with a producer’s “consecrated” position within the field.
Tracks by aforementioned producer, Timbaland, also often include verbal references, both as part of his sonic signature, and to his sonic signature.   B2k’s “What’s My Name,” for instance, which begins with Timbaland’s signature “Indian flute,” features lead singer Omarion proclaiming in the song’s introduction, “This track honestly don’t need no talking on it, but I got to do it: Big Timb.” Having already pointed out how Timbaland’s sonic signature gets communicated through individual sounds like the "Indian flute," one interpretation of Omarion’s words might be the following: The “Indian flute” sound clearly heard in this recording’s introduction already identifies the track as a Timabaland production.  However, since Timbaland’s productions also tend to feature a verbal acknowledgement as part of his sonic signature, (and since the reference to Timbaland will connect this track with an entire body of Timbaland hits) I’ll do it anyway.  This example, like the previous ones, again points to what has been hinted at throughout this discussion of sonic signatures.  That is to say it points to the important link between musical legitimacy and commercial success that a producer’s signature is seen to help initiate for artists.  However, as was true in the earlier example of Michael Jackson saying the word "Darkchild," this application has not brought about the sonic signature; rather, it only shows how artists have been able to use sonic signatures to their advantage.  In other words, the fact that music is beginning to be judged according to its production credits can be a good thing for artists if they pick the right producers and do a good job advertising their signature within the musical text.

Finally, in what might be dubbed “sonic graffiti,” some producers (especially urban producers) even use their own voices to “tag” a signature into their tracks.   Producer Jazze Pha's protocol, for example, is to open recordings with the line, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Jazze Pha production.”   Pha is by no means unique in this regard; the sound of Rodney Jerkins voice whispering the word “Darkchild,” or Lil Jon screaming out “Lil Jon” are crucial elements of their own productions as well.  Producer Missy Elliot even uses the same grammatical structure as Pha, beginning a good portion of her tracks with the line, “This is a Missy Elliot Production.”

The fact that Elliot uses the same words as Pha to sign her recordings, however, illustrates an important stylistic component that a sonic signature will contain, in addition to a literal kind of identity stamp.  Indeed, it is not simply the words and names being spoken that are important in communicating the signature in these cases, but also the quality of the vocal and phonographic staging used.   Rodney Jerkins voice, for example, is always filtered through the same “telephone effect” EQ at the beginning of the track, while Pha’s introduction features an allographic echo (or re-performance) of certain words; Lil Jon’s has to do with the intensity of performance (screaming), while Missy Elliot’s is defined by the unique register of her voice as a female producer and by the elongated timing of her phrasing (“…a.”).  It would only require hearing those words to identify the production.  Hence, while these last examples seem more apparently couched within societal understandings of “signature,” they are by no means more recognizable or more deliberate then the forms of sonic signature I have already described, beginning with Timbaland’s so-called “Indian flute.”


In this paper I have raised the idea of sonic signatures and tried present an image of the sonic signature as an important musical device within current North American mainstream record production.  The survey of contemporary record production revealed two basic functions of the sonic signature.  Firstly, it helps imbed a production credit within a musical text that allows listeners to know who has produced a given track.  As has been illustrated, this piece of information has become crucial within social context of a musical environment where tracks are evaluated not only by the musical performance of the lead singer, but by the quality of the production.  The perceived quality of production is linked to the sonic signature insomuch as the “brand” power of the producer’s sound has to do with its ability to connect to a larger body of successful productions.
At a secondary level, the previous text has helped illuminate some of the ways in which artists have tried to use this situation to their own advantage by choosing producers strategically and advertising producers’ sonic signatures within their music.  By making bold references to producers, both on CD packaging and by advertising a sonic signature within the music itself, artists are attempting to profit from the significance that a producer’s name and sound caries with it.  As an aforementioned quote from producer Lil Jon made clear, artists even specifically ask producers to use “signature” material (sounds, rhythmic patters, textures, structural devices, processing, and so on) as way of linking themselves as artists with a body of work that they can only be connected to through the producer.  As the previous text has shown, this connection helps create the appearance of cultural or generic authenticity, and accordingly is related to commercial success.
Interestingly, the aforementioned quote by Lil Jon also raises the possibility that in addition to being useful for the producers with which they are associated, sonic signatures may also serve a purpose for competing producers who attempt to copy and invoke them in their own productions.  This suggests that sonic signatures play an important role, not only for record producers in the first degree and for artists in the second degree, as we have seen, but for other producers in the third degree.  This idea of what could be called sonic signature “forgery” represents only one of many interesting facets of this subject yet to be explored.  To this extent, the present study is simply an introduction to sonic signatures; an attempt to open the door on what is increasingly becoming an all-important theme within contemporary record production.


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