While my cover story with Dr. Dre got the most attention in the 2010 Juice issue of Vibe, buried somewhere in the back was a one-pager I did with Drake’s producers 40 and Boi-1da. Though it wasn’t the first time I’d interviewed Boi-1da (Read that interview here) it was my first time chatting with Noah “40” Shebib, so I had a lot of questions. Some of our conversation was a little too gear-heavy for the readers of Vibe so you know I had to save those jewels for the Nodfactor faithful.
With the fam at Vibe well onto their next issue I now present the full transcript of my interview with 40 where he goes into detail about how he got into engineering, production, “biting” Kanye West and what exactly he uses to make his beats sound the way they do.
“I spend a lot of time manipulating my sounds. A lot of the time people think I’m using a Pad and I’m really using a totally distorted and EQ’d, reverbed, tricked out delayed piano”- 40
Nodfactor.com: Starting from the beginning….How did you get the name 40?
40: The first major label project I did in Canada was for this artist named Jelly Stone. He was like a super gangster rapper up here. And those guys didn’t really use government names too much. I gotta nickname hanging around that project pretty quick and that was my first major label project so all of my first credits were credited as 40 and I kept it that way ever since. It’s “40 Days and 40 Nights.” Those guys used to fall asleep in the studio knocking out and wake up at ten am and I’d still be working. And they’d be “your work never stops. You work for 40 Days and 40 Nights.” Plus my name is Noah, right. So then with the Noah’s Ark (raining for 40 Days) and they named me 40.
When did you start making music professionally?
I’ve been playing piano since I was 5 years old and I’ve been into mathematics and physics my whole life. Hooking up the VCRs when I was 8 years old was my job around the house. I was a professional actor when I was young. I did a lot of American feature films when I was young. By the time I was 13 I was able to afford equipment and was self-taught. By the time I was 18…I grew up in a good neighborhood that bordered on a really bad one. I went to a school in Toronto called Trevis which is a local audio engineering school. I was there for about half a course when I realized that I was ahead of a lot of the stuff I was doing. The guy that created the curriculum there is a guy named Gadget. He’s a legendary Toronto hip-hop Godfather. He’s this tall Jamaica dude with dreds who ran the scene up here forever and I got him to mix four songs on Thank Me Later:”Light Up,”” Shut It Dwon,” “Miss Me” and “Unforgettable.”
When I was 19 or 20 Gadg was looking for an intern. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and because I had the highest marks in the school and my teacher came to me and said “I think you’re the most qualified and you actually know ProTools” do you want to do it? I said of course. So he taught me everything I know from mixing and engineering and tracking and working with artists and etiquette and the business. Gadget worked for Chris Smith, who is Nellie Furtado’s manager. Chris Smith is probably the most powerful black man in the Canadian music industry and Gadget was his A&R and his set of ears, so I came up in that company professionally working with Nellie, FEFE Dobson and Jelly Stone.
What kind of acting did you do?
I was in Sophia Copalla’s first feature film The Virgin Suicide’s. I actually got a lead in that. I shot 30 of the 31 days. My character was Parkie Denton. If you watch the Virgin Suicide’s you’ll definitely see 40. There’s a bunch of other shit but nothing notable. Not much commercial work. The Sprite commercial was the only one I’ve ever done.
I stopped acting when I was about 18 because I was too busy smoking dope before auditions and not actually giving a fuck and being more concerned with music. Plus these other kids were actually studying their lines and getting acting coaches.
Me and Drake laugh about it all the time that we’re both professional actors and that is a point of interest. I understand what he went through but I don’t think it was relevant at all in our music.
What is the secret to the Sound of 40 ?
There is a secret but I can’t tell you. Nobody’s figured it out. I don’t know why because it’s so simple. You know who else does it? There’s only one other person I’ve seen do it with my own eyes. I had their sessions and I knew what their engineer was doing. And That’s Kanye’s engineer Drew. When I got the “Find Your Love” session I said “Oh shit you guys do it too?” I hope they don’t think I’m biting them.
There are more similarities between me and Ye on 808s and So Far Gone than to Thank Me Later. Ye cussed me out one day about jacking his sound. “40 I don’t think you should be in the studio right now because you might just hear my new shit and subconsciously steal my new shit and it wouldn’t even be your fault.” I can’t even be mad at him because the last CD I listened to was 808s & Heartbrteak before I started doing So Far Gone. I swear to God I haven’t listened to a CD since other than Erykah Badu’s new album which I love. That’s it. I try not to listen to too much music because I don’t want to be subconsciously influenced and he’s 100% right about that. But at the end of the day I think that’s what music is. We take influence from different people and we put it all together the best we can. Ye has been an influence to me but not too much. Not in my drum programming or anything. I just think he hit something for me on “Say You Will” that I fell in love with. I think I’ve been running with it a little bit, I’m not afraid to admit that. But to say that I haven’t brought my own swag to it? My favorite shit is Jodeci. Ye doesn’t make fuckin slow jams. I make R&B music. Even if I do take his sound a little bit I don’t think he’s done anything that sounds like “Successful.” That’s me liking Jermaine Dupri throwback R&B records and 90s records like Ginuwine.
So what exactly do you do then?
I spend a lot of time manipulating my sounds. A lot of the time people think I’m using a Pad and I’m really using a totally distorted and EQ’d, reverbed, tricked out delayed piano. But I do use a lot of Pads. I don’t pitch my drums. That’s a misinterpretation of what I’m actually doing. I’m not really heavy on reverb. I keep Drake’s vocals dry. I don’t use arpeggiators. I play all of my arpeggiations myself. I actually have the dexterity to run up and down the piano like a jazz solo. When it comes to hitting an arpeggiator I’d rather just play myself.
I’m so unorthodox it’s not even funny. I’m a diehard Protools user. I exclusively used Pro Tools for all of my productions. I create and build all of my midi sequences in ProTools. I use a lot of soft synths. To be honest with you pretty much the only synth I use is Xpand, which is a stock ProTools plugin. “Successful,” “Houstalantavegas” “Unforgettable” came out of Xpand 2 in Pro tools 8. The point is Xpand is a very simple stock ProTools synthesizer that they give you for free with Pro Tools. But because I spend so much time editing and tweaking my sounds I’m able to get them to a [certain place.]
What’s it like mixing Boi 1da?
It’s way more fun mixing someone else’s beat. It’s much harder to mix your own material. You have your own perception of what the beat is supposed to sound like so it’s harder to take it where it needs to go. Because 1der has a lack of engineering background he gives me a lot of room to play with so I just go off on his shit. I’ve mixed a lot of his records. Me and Drake actually met for the very first time working with an artist named Divine Brown who was also on Chris Smith’s roster. I got my first gold record with her. I produced three songs on her album and we did a remix with Boi 1da and we put Drake on it. That’s the first time I met Drake.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in the studio and how did you fix it?
I’m an engineer, not a careless producer. So I’ve never made an irreversible mistake. Not recorded a vocal , never missed a take. The worst thing I ever did on this album is that I recorded vocals in a 48K session with my clock set to 44 so when I played it back it was playing way fast. So to fix that you have to do some maneuvering within ProTools as far as exporting the file at the wrong sample rate and then reimporting it back at a different sample rate to trick it and make it do the conversion. That took about 25 minutes or half and hour and I had to turn to Drake when he said “ why the fuck does this sound like that?” and I said “Chill, it’s at the wrong sample rate give me ten minutes.”
At first I was like “I need two rigs; one running at 44, one running at 48 and I’m gonna do a dump and it’s gonna match up.” But there was an easier way that I figured out. Drake is super spoiled. The bastard won’t work with anyone else. I will track him til the day I die.
How important is it for an artist to work with one engineer/producer?
First thing is that I’ve been with Drake since the very beginning of his career and I didn’t produce anything. Like on Come Back Season I didn’t produce one fucking thing except the intro. That wasn’t my role.
We started looking for this music and he was turning down hundreds of beats and I realized what sound he was going for. So I said fuck it I might as well do it. I didn’t have a reason to make beats until then. Finally I had a reason. That coupled with the fact that I control all of Drake’s music. I have all of his drives and his entire catalog from day one. No one has ever touched his sessions. So at the end of the day the responsibility of A&Ring and gathering his projects has always been mine whether I was producing it or not. So producing became an easy progression. We have a great level of trust because I’ve been doing it since day one. Most engineers suffer from artists telling them what to do though they’ve never touched a fucking EQ. We have a very different dynamic that way. Even if I don’t produce something I put a twist on it to make sure it fits. None of this was premeditated.
Have you tailored this sound for Drake?
At this point in time the only rappers I have any interest in working with outside of Drake are Wayne and Jay. And that’s from Drake’s mouth. I think Drake has been so instrumental in creating that sound that I have a commitment to him. If he doesn’t’ want me to give it away I won’t. Me and Wonda differ that way very much so. Wonder’s trying to place records and expand his reach in the world of hip-hop. But my ambitions are to stay focused with Drake and when it comes time to start developing another artist I’ll make that move at that point. But going after placements is definitely not my M.O. I don’t like that game. I haven’t signed a publishing deal yet. Every publishing company in the United States is having a nervous breakdown. What are you gonna do for me other than lend me money? And I have way too many friends in the hood that can lend me just as much and their interest rates are way better. Why am I gonna take money from you? If Universal Music publishing is already working “Successful” why do I need them to work on my side? They’re already working it. I have a very unorthodox attitude toward the whole business and even my situation.
Do you at least have a manager?
Hip-Hop since 1978 represents me. You always need management. This business is a mob. Better be part of it if you wanna win. IE Alicia Keys, please believe if G Roberson wasn’t my manager, they would have had Drake in to write and I wouldn’t have done the record. But because they represent me they said we want 40 to produce the record. I need ‘em. I need ‘em bad. Me and G and Al really see eye-to-eye musically and creatively and it’s really refreshing.
I feel blessed. I’m a kid from Toronto. I’ve been driving my mom’s station wagon for the last 8 years for real. I’m not in this for all the bullshit. I’m trying to make a career for myself and not flush it down the toilet. I’m not saying what 1da’s doing is wrong we’re just different that way. I’m cool where I’m at.