Interview: Producer Carter Lang on Making SZA's "Ctrl" and His "MacGyver" Home Studio

If you're in Chicago and at all interested in hip-hop or R&B, you've likely heard references to a "Chicago Scene," "Chicago Renaissance," or another loose term that encompasses much of the music being created in the city. A particular artistic movement has blossomed in recent years that includes artists like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Jamila Woods, and other writers coming out of the city's youth poetry scene. The music has a soulful, homegrown hip-hop production style that builds upon the soul music-sampling of early Kanye West albums, which served as foundational influences to many musicians and producers working today.

SZA - Ctrl

Carter Lang—a Chicago-based producer, bassist, and multi-instrumentalist—was already invested in the scene as a high school student, playing in The O'My's with rapper Zack Wicks and trumpet player Nico Segal (who'd later work closely with Chance and form The Social Experiment) before heading off to college in New Orleans. Upon Carter's return, Chance's Acid Rap and Vic Mensa's Innanetape dropped. Carter jumped headlong back into the mix, running back-and-forth between studios (both in Chicago and Los Angeles), working at times with Towkio, Saba, Joey Purp, Vic, and producers Cam O'bi and Peter Cottontale.

It was during this time that he met SZA, a hip-hop-influenced R&B artist signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (home, most famously, to Kendrick Lamar). The two soon began a fruitful creative partnership. Carter would end up co-writing and co-producing eight of the 14 tracks on her breakthrough 2017 album, Ctrl, a record that sat near the top of many of that year's best-of lists, was soon certified platinum and spurred five Grammy Award nominations.

In between touring with SZA since the album's release, Carter has also put a lot of work into his home studio. Reverb's Michael Green—a friend and former high-school bandmate of Carter's—recently sat down with him to learn the ins-and-outs of his gear, his production techniques, and his creative process.

What would be the pinnacle piece of gear that changed the way you thought about music?

The first piece of gear that really changed the way I thought about music was my MPC1000. I made music in the MPC1000. I made the beats in there, arranged them, loaded samples in there. That's why I got Logic, that's why I started producing. But I had that for awhile, and I went through school with that stuff and never got into analog synths or whatever, because dubstep was cool and shit, and that was not the wave.

As soon as I got back to Chicago, I started to realign myself. I met Cam O'bi, a producer who's done a lot of stuff for Chance and Vic and is a really dope dude. His research and knowledge was similar to Zack Wicks' to me, in that he was just always spouting information about stuff. He sent me YouTube videos about synthesis, but I never really got into those. I just figured it out on my own with a vintage Roland SH series synth.

So, I'm in Chicago after college. I got the Roland, I got the MPC and the turntable, and my bass and my guitar. And then the next piece of gear I got was Knox Fortune's [Roland] JX-8P poly synthesizer—which I bought for like 250 bucks. Whatever it is, it turns shit up, because now I had a mono- and a polysynth and they're both analog. I still have them, and I still use them. I programmed a sound into the JX-8P that I called Moonbaby, and I used that sound for the "Love Galore" track for SZA when we made that shit. I also used a Moog Voyager on that, because they're so tight.

SZA ft. Travis Scott - "Love Galore"

What do you think it is that drew you to having such a passion for vintage gear and hunting it out? Digital stuff is getting better and better—it's very accessible. Why get something that is more expensive, is breakable...

It sounds like too competitive of a word for it, but it's the edge, the sonic edge, that you get from it. I know that they're emulating the circuitry with the software, but I don't know. I want it to feel like music that I like to listen to, and I know that the classic music was done through classic material.

Plus, because it started off as this sort of recording edge that I wanted, and I had to go through buying synths to now buying rack gear, I'm careful. I sit there, and I look and watch it for awhile and understand and research it, and I try to find all the best options of a certain thing. Like right now, I am looking for more reverb. I have the coolest, dirtiest spring reverb, but I want another reverb that has stereo capabilities—I want to be able to do more sonically. But yes, that is just where I am at now. I am bugging out about circuitry and I don't know even half the shit about that.

Could talk about the drum set you have and how long you have had it, where that came from?

Dude, the drum set came from—well—our old band, but it came from a buddy, Chris Partridge, that had a band called Robert when we were, what, freshmen in high school? He left it in my basement because we all played in this band together, Cosmophonics... was it called Cosmophonics?

It started as Hallucinogenius, and then we switched it to Cosmophonics.

I cannot believe that name.

Yes, you came up with Cosmophonics.

Whatever, it's a shitty old drum set, a TKO. I have a cymbal stand made out of four different mic and cymbal components and a sock and ping pong ball cut in half—and that's how it is, sitting on top of the cymbal stand. But I just started to get into drum mic'ing a little bit. I got this pair of Sennheisers for the toms, which is cool, but I want to change that up.

Carter Lang

What Sennheisers are you using for the toms?

The 421s. I got a pair of those, I think, off Reverb. I just was mic'ing around the top, but now I am mic'ing the top and the bottom because I just watched a video of Ringo recording them on the bottom... I'm testing out mono-summing the drums, and it honestly sounds better when they're at the bottom right now. And I just realized that the 421s have bass rolloff rings. I'm an idiot, so I just figured those out and dialed them down one notch so that there's not too much low noise in this sum. But what else?

I got this crazy Magnasync/Synchronous recording amplifier, which is something I found not on Reverb but at Rock N Roll Vintage. Sometimes I have to scour, but apparently only the volume meter was broken. I'm sure there might be maybe one tube busted or something, but for right now, it sounds fucking amazing. It makes everything sound super old and kind of crushed, and it's very volatile.

I just found this crazy compressor on Reverb that apparently is a Federal Instrument Corp compressor, but it doesn't really have anything on it to say it. But it is some old-ass shit and it's tested, and I'm about to see what it does. The man is only selling it for 500 bucks, and you know what? I'm sitting there in these late hours—and you have to do your research, and I did my research, and it's official—I'm going to fuck with it.

One thing I wanted to say about how the gear thing all started, too, is that some people have left some gear in my possession and that's been important. Like when the MPC was first given to me, when Chris Partridge left the TKO drums in the basement for us to practice with, or when Knox left his Ensoniq ESQ-1 with me, right? Nick Hennessey [from The O'My's] left a Behringer bass amp that I never used, but it's there, right?

He also left this dope-ass '80s drum machine, the Yamaha drum machine that I use all the time—I love that shit. Will Flynn left some congas that I don't use, but I put the glockenspiels on top, so I can suspend them and mic them conveniently. So the congas are just there—they're important just to be there in my setup, because everything in my setup, in this coach house situation, has to fit like Tetris, like seamlessly.

But now I am adding stuff that I can rack up into things and I am about to rack up this dumbass Federal Corp compressor. There's also other stuff. I was in a band with this dude who left me a Fender bass, a great guy. Thank God for him.

Could you elaborate a little bit more on this coach house situation and your home studio?

I have an undisclosed house behind a house. It's in a small attic, basically next to my room—there are skylights and it is cozy. It's not a moldy, spider-webby attic. I have an L Desk in one corner and the drums in the other corner, and it just kind of works right now, but things are also falling apart slowly. Today my Echoplex finally overheated. It still passes signal as an amplifier, but the motor doesn't run anymore, so I have to take it to somebody fancy that can fix an Echoplex, because apparently it is tougher than I think it is, because I think everything should just be easy. But it's not, and it takes some time.

With those vintages pieces, there's not a lot of people that know how to fix those anymore.

Another thing that I got that I like is this Radial Engineering re-amper. The Radial EXTC is tight, because I can blend the clean signal and the effected signal together or I can run the effected signal out into a separate channel mixer, and I am good to go. I got it because I started moving all my effects gear in one corner and started consolidating stuff so I could run a massive chain, but I wanted to cancel out some of the noise that I was getting and I also wanted the ability to get clean signals as well.

So I thought so long and hard about how I was going to do it, because I have all these external mixers running different things, and everything in my studio is actually plug-and-play, ready to go. You just have to switch one XLR cable in the Radial re-amper and you're golden.

You can do an effects send on some other analog mixer. I should be able to do it on my Onyx mixer, but I'm done with the Onyx mixer. I'm about ready to get this API 10-channel and just go clean APIs with a stereo compressor at the end and the Lunchbox and an EQ in the Lunchbox, and maybe one other thing if I have enough space. Definitely the API 10 because it also has XLR outs and XLR ins instead of the adapter that you need for the API 8. Then it's time to get golden and then I've really got good signal.

Because right now, some of these older preamps that I've invested in—the preamp that's in this reverb or the preamp that's in this summing mixer or the Magnasync—if I crank those enough, I can bypass the digital preamps that are in my Onyx and I just got clean, fat signal, and that is the full edge, without sacrifice, you know what I mean? I'm just trying to cut as much noise as possible, so I'm definitely running into a few Radial DIs and not to be like Doctor Radial, but it's important to just try get some good signal.

Also another favorite piece of equipment I got are these speakers that, which are okay, the Adam A7Xs. They have these two little subs at the bottoms of them, and now that I have clean, fat signal, and I have these new speakers, my roommate's getting on my case at midnight, which has not been the case.

Are these the speakers you've used when you've been working on the big projects that you've done?

No, I just got these. I was actually using one KRK 5 and one Fostex 4" for about six years—two mismatched speakers. And I was probably cranking my Onyx pres and thinning the signal out. No offense to Onyx, but it's just not really what I'm going for at this time. If I'm not going to get a Langevin board, I have to find a way to get some things to give me that fat signal one channel at a time.

Carter Lang at Truth Studios, California

I think you have given us a really good impression of your gear, but how do you use this stuff? What is your process like? Are you looking for a beat? Are you chasing samples?

Sometimes I listen to a piece for inspiration and play along with it. But… the best thing to do for me is just to open up an instrument—my intuition is not to start jamming, it's hit a button and make sure it has the right signal. I start to clean up the signal and take care of it, and then once I like how it sounds, then anything I play sounds good, but then it's coming up with a cool rhythm.

Honestly I can never decide what I want to keep and what I want to play, especially to start off with something, to convince myself is so tough. I usually kind of fall into a pattern of genre and I go with that. I was really inspired by the Mount Kimbie album, so I was doing a lot of Mount Kimbie stuff. And now that I have this crazy drum summer and spring reverb and stuff, I've been listening and emulating traditional reggae dub music.

I just like to plug in an instrument. I go in. I just get in the combo and I like to try different things. I'll think about what I'm driving, like, What if I go home and I plug in the spring reverb directly into the tube mixers? Like, Oh, shit, why wouldn't I do that in the first place?

For example, this morning, I woke up. I had some stuff I had to do musically. Did I take care of that? Not necessarily, because I thought about mic'ing the toms under the toms, started a new jam. Do I like the jam? Not really, because I don't like a lot of stuff I do. Are there cool sections? Yes. Did I also do it just to test it out? Yes. A lot of times when I record, when I'm on my own, it's just kind of to just test something out, unless I really find a cool inspiration point in that.

Joey Purp - "ESCAPE," co-produced by Carter Lang

Then I'll go back, isolate that little recording, open it up in a new session and I start recording other instruments on top. As soon as another instrument goes on top of drums or drums go on top of another instrument or whatever, then it becomes an idea that I might use. But when it's one thing, unless it is super cool—I have so many sessions of just tests and drums and cool stuff and, yeah, it could be sampled a million times—just catacombs of shit. But the stuff that really turns into stuff is when there's one instrument layered on top, and then another one, and then it is time to keep going.

Or I also have my studio set up so I can get a jam going and it sounds good. So I have to turn my monitors down a little bit, but I can get a full jam going with all my analog gear going into dope shit. I'll have Knox Fortune or I had my buddy Will Miller from Whitney [Young, a local high school] yesterday and we were jamming and I was playing the drums, and we listened to the recording after, and we must have hung out for like an hour just listening to the same part because it was so fucking tight and we were pumped about it.

On "Drew Barrymore," your guitar tone has a swirling Leslie sound. How did you achieve that?

Honestly, it's probably Logic, because when we made "Drew Barrymore" Ty [Tyran "Scum Donaldson] had a drum break that he found and we made something around the drum break, took the drum break out, then I laid drums on Kontakt—like some stupid Kontakt drums that are still in the song, which is crazy.

The guitar—I was sitting on the couch just hoping for an idea to come into the mind, and boom, there came an idea. Usually when you have a second person, there's someone that can be like, "That's cool, let's work with that," because they're ready to go in, too. But when I'm on my own, it's like, you don't take your turn if you're yourself—you just go forever. It's tough.

We did the "Drew Barrymore" thing—we did the guitar and I did the bass, all that stuff kind of based off the original feel that Ty found, and then Ty book-ended the music situation. Ty's one of my recording partners with SZA and stuff, we're producing partners. He's the man, and we both are gear heads now, to a degree. Not super snobby gear heads but we're our own little aficionados. Just researchers and take our time with each piece of gear and understanding it, and understanding what we need based off being put in these crazy recording situations for SZA's stuff and being in LA.

SZA - "Drew Barrymore," performed live with Carter Lang on guitar

Can you talk about that a little more about all the different spots you worked in? I know you recorded the vocals for "Drew Barrymore" here, and "Love Galore," at your Michigan house, writing there together.

Michigan, outside of Chicago, the family home there, and I brought a bunch of gear with me from my studio in Chicago and we just made shit there. It was dope. Now I have too much shit—it's not even worth bringing these things. If anything it'd be just some sort of random set up just to casually make music because I'm not doing the drums there and all that different stuff even though there's plenty of space there.

How's the sound in that house?

It's a cavernous space. It might be cool, actually. You could definitely do an echo chamber downstairs if you had an amp. It'd be fun. We did it in different places, and also I did it remotely, too. Sometimes I wouldn't be in LA and I'd just be hitting Ty up or hitting SZA up, like, "I've got these beats" and this and that. Now it's time to get back into that world, because I've been touring with her since August and we just finished up—after we performed at the Grammys we did one more leg of touring and a few other spotted dates.

I've had no real time in the studio, but what I do is I usually get something so when I come back from my breaks with the touring I have a piece of gear I can work with in my studio. That's what I did this week and I'm still doing it, waiting on that compressor, stupid big, I'm waiting on this Fairchild noise gate, which I would like another one to do for the kick and the snare.

Carter Lang at Truth Studios, California

Where did you mix? Were you working on a lot of those songs here in your coach house?

A lot of the songs, the pre-mixes were made, but we did some mixing in Michigan, too. We had an engineer with us the second time—Chris, who has Classick Studios in Chicago, which is a dope spot. It's where I met SZA. It's really just the more I surround myself with a few different pieces, the more I'm able to color the tone of the music. And yeah, there's a little bit more maintenance that needs to be done, but the quality is important to me, so I want to keep pushing that envelope for myself. I'm still in a MacGyver situation, my awesome MacGyver studio, but I'm not happy with it.

What are you looking to change?

I want to make it not MacGyver. I don't need all these Radial DIs and external mixers. It's cool, but I need to figure out the right way to do it, and I need to see where I'm thinning out my signal. There's no studio doctor that you can call. I always think about that—the studio doctor in my head needs to be like, "That is not official, dude."

You're saying you want to do things the right way. But—when listening to Ctrl—don't you think part of the quality of your sound is doing it your own way?

I'm just starting to get into Joe Meek and now I'm about to not exist. Because if you dive into Joe Meek world then it's time to start getting really old radio compressors and broadcasting gear that runs you 14,000 dollars. But, I am a very, very meticulous researcher at this point. I've found myself to be spending far more hours doing this stuff. It's like my television at the end of the night. Instead of watching Parks and Rec or Curb Your Enthusiasm I'll just go upstairs and I'll start the search with one piece of gear and I'll do some research about it. I'll find in the same paragraph that they talk about another piece of gear. I'll open another window in Reverb or eBay or whatever, because you've got to compare and see where they're at, and boom, then it sprouts another thing.

Vic Mensa - "Say I Didn't," co-produced by Carter Lang

Getting back to your style, I feel like you have a really unique sound. the vast majority of hip-hop is very bottom heavy. Your textures tend to use a lot more organic instruments. They're a lot sparser. Like "Drew Barrymore"—the main beat on a hip-hop/R&B song doesn't come in for the first 45 seconds.

That's because we arranged for the song.

What really influenced this sparse approach?

I always did too much. I had my time. I played so many notes on the bass. I did too much. And I learned how to scale it back, because the people around me helped guide me to being a better active listener. Now the crazy thing is I don't know what I'm playing and I don't know what I'm going to play. While I've learned theory and I know what an interval is, and I know the modes, and all these different foundational, theoretical components. Unfortunately—this is not a great thing—I'm not thinking about the relationship between rhythms and tempos and notes and chords or anything like that. I'm just an active listener.

Yeah, I've trained myself in my brain and my muscle to activate my body to play certain patterns and to play certain notes that sound pleasing to myself. And I know how to shift my fingers and move my body in ways to reflect those things. But I'm never really thinking about what I'm actually doing. I'm just an active listener. When you're an active listener, quote unquote, you allow yourself space to listen between what you're playing. And if you're really good, you can listen really quickly. Your brain can have a faster sample rate, you know what I mean?

Carter Lang and Cam O'bi at Truth Studios, California

I can play quick and you can listen in between everything, but it takes time. That's why you start slow, that's why when you're learning something you have to take time and you play a chord a new way and you start to get frustrated when you try and cram everything, because you haven't trained your brain to be at that fast of a sample rate.

Because I perform all the time with SZA and I play guitar, bass, and Moog synth for her, switching off live, and then I come back to Chicago and I play all the different instruments here. So, eventually you just train your brain to have a higher sample rate of understanding what you're playing, and the music comes out more fluid and more connected to what you imagined in your brain. It's crazy.

You could just picture something in your brain and just draw it. That's the same sort of feeling. You're not calling the colors what they are, you're not saying a tree is a tree, just imagining it. That's exactly what's happening musically.

I wonder when I'm going to feel like I have time to take a vacation to learn more about music, because I'm just going deeper down away from music theory, songwriting stuff, but what I'm doing actually is letting my natural intuition picture a good song in my brain and letting it happen. And it's cool.

SZA - "Go Gina" (Stripped), with Carter Lang on bass

Can you talk a little about how the collaboration worked between you and SZA. It seems more like a songwriting relationship. It's not somebody coming up with a beat and writing a song for a bunch of people to record. It's very collaborative.

Exactly. That was the case and that's why the Ctrl record turned out the way it did too. We had so much material together, we were always pushing each other and growing together.

We trusted each other and also there's just so many ways of getting music and different things to people and information to people that sometimes you have to turn that off and go through life and be more present with the people that you're actually with. I think that's what we were doing with each other, and the music that we were making was a reflection of our mutual understanding of each other. We were present.

When we were making music and we were together, there was a vibe, and we weren't thinking about being stars or her being this or that or whatever it was. We knew that she kicked ass, we liked hanging with her, she understood us, she fucked with us, and she's a unique friend. Like, you have a spot in my life. There's so many artists out there in this world and the fact that she's an artist is crazy to me, because really she came into my life more like a friend. Like, carve out some spot in your life, because I'm about to be your friend. And we're also about to make music.

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