Located in a nondescript building in Toronto's Moss Park neighbourhood is where you'll find Site Sound Studios. A few years ago, the Weeknd recorded much of his House of Balloons mixtape here, but tonight hip-hop producer Arthur McArthur is in residence, working on some future projects.
"I worked on OB O'Brien's project a bit in this room," he says, referring to the MC currently signed to Drake's OVO label, while standing in the main studio. "In the room upstairs, I did a Kevin Gates song." That said, McArthur readily admits to not having used much of the equipment in the studios, due to his own portable approach to making music.
"I'm really contained in the box. I don't really use a lot of outboard. It's fun for me to do it sometimes, like if I have access to some really nice keyboards I'll do it. So when OB was here, we brought out a Korg Polysix and we were playing around with that. But I'm primarily in the box with a controller. Then some live instruments too, like live guitar, live bass and piano."
In addition to creating beats, McArthur also plays keyboards and guitar, the latter the result of a briefly held dalliance with becoming the new Jimi Hendrix. The producer and instrumentalist isn't in town much these days, as he's mainly based in LA, but he tries to come back to Toronto for about a week every month. It was on his way back to Toronto that he found out he'd received a Grammy nomination for producing a track on Wiz Khalifa's Blacc Hollywood album, which was included in the Best Rap Album category.
"That news just came out of nowhere. I didn't expect it at all and it was an awesome thing to fly back to Toronto with that news on my wings almost," says McArthur.
McArthur's career initially took flight because of his breakthrough co-producing "Uptown" with Boi-1da, a track from Drake's So Far Gone mixtape that featured Lil Wayne and Bun B. But his career wasn't exactly on a smooth trajectory immediately after that. McArthur, who studied classical piano for ten years as a child, was taking jazz piano classes and helming hip-hop recording sessions in his dorm room at Humber College when So Far Gone was released.
When the mixtape dropped, he dropped out. He rented a studio in downtown Toronto and was "grinding it out" for a while, sleeping overnight in the studio, walking miles to sneak into hotel gyms to shower, while working on his music career with various local Toronto artists. He realized quickly he would need a change of scenery to realize his goals. To McArthur, Los Angeles seemed the next logical step.
"It was just born of a realization that I needed to be out there," says McArthur. "Just the conversations I was having with people and my management, I always assumed that New York would be the place where I'd end up. That's what it looked like, but the more I talked to people, the more I realized that L.A. was actually where everybody was. And I knew I wanted to do it; I knew I had to be there, so I sought out a publishing deal with the purpose of I'm going to get the publishing deal and I'm gonna use that advance to go to L.A. and network. So yeah, that was pretty much it. I signed my publishing deal in 2012 with Warner Chappell and that gave me the means to move out there and start working in L.A."
While in L.A., he's been able to amass a resume, working with acts such as Big Boi, Rick Ross, Big Sean, Tyga, Kelly Rowland, Pusha T, Logic and Chris Brown. More recently, he's contributed to sessions for Wale's upcoming The Album About Nothing, B.o.B. and projects for Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label.
Still, McArthur feels it is necessary to occasionally come back home to Toronto to recharge his creative batteries, using the piano he grew up playing. "It's kind of out of tune now and has this sort of grimy sound to it," says McArthur. "It's not pristine at all and it's got this tough action to it and it's really resonant and I love recording on it. When I'm at home in Toronto I'm always recording ideas on my iPhone and chopping them up and putting them on tracks and using that."
McArthur likes to add different analog emulations, crackles and pops and digital noise into the sounds he records for a grimy effect and has a penchant for distortion. "The iPhone is actually awesome for that because it does this weird compression thing and it's not the best quality, it's not the best microphone at all, but it gives it that hip-hop sound that we've all come to expect from guys taking 30- or 40-year-old records, sampling them into 12-bit sampling machines and y'know — we're talking Pete Rock and Primo and these guys a creating these sounds that y'know if you walk into a grand piano that's a Steinway and you're recording it through a [Neumann] U87 mic, it's just gonna be too clean for that stuff."
McArthur's track for Khalifa's song "The Sleaze" is indicative of his fondness for a grimy sound. In many ways McArthur prefers these imperfections to digital precision. "I don't have an acoustic piano [in L.A,]," says McArthur. "I have a weighted 88-key controller, but it's such a difference. Y'know the difference between being able to play an acoustic instrument and being able to feel the reverberations through your body, it's incomparable to triggering samples. It can sound good. It can sound pretty. But it doesn't give you the same feeling of connection with the instrument when you actually play the real thing. So when I'm at home and I'm not in the studio I can just focus on improv and writing as opposed to being like 'OK well we gotta bang out these tracks because I've got 15 million different things to work on, let's go' kinda thing. So it's a bit of a break, y'know, it's like a music sanctuary where I can just get away and write."
While McArthur has a preferred method to his production, he's not really interested in creating an instantly identifiable sound. "Part of what gives me joy is the variety of working on different things, " says McArthur. "Working on an '80s inspired R&B song one day and then doing trap the next day and then doing something that sounds like a Beatles song the following day, it's just more fun. It doesn't get repetitive. It allows a need to express myself in different ways. Certain people have found streams within what you do. 'This is another thing that you do' and 'This is another thing that you do.' I never want to be defined for only doing one thing."
That being said, you can detect a fondness for sweeping organ and keyboard sounds in McArthur's work on tracks like Khalifa's "The Sleaze" and Drake's "Uptown."
"It's so much fun to play," says McArthur about playing an organ. "It's a really dynamic keyboard instrument which is what I think draws me to it. And the piano is obviously the most expressive, but the organ has opportunities for volume swells and speed changes and real drastic tonal changes between the drawbars." For the sake of convenience, McArthur uses a digital approach, but still prefers the real thing and occasionally rents out organs to studios in L.A. when he feels it is necessary.
"I've definitely been using B4, which is a Native Instruments plug-in. I've used that a lot on songs. Lately I've been way more enamoured with the real thing and actually getting a Hammond B3 organ and a Leslie speaker because it's just incomparable. The way that the Leslie tears up when you start driving it, the way it starts distorting, nit sounds so cool. And you just can't get that digitally. And now at this point I know the sound of the plug in so when I hear it on a song, I almost think it's like cheating. It's like using the stock plug in at this point, because I've used it so much, so I'm always seeking out new tones for similar instruments to do the same things. And one of those things was to try to go to the real thing as much as possible."
Another strain in McArthur's approach is the sinewy soul sound that directly contrasts the trap-tinged bombast of some of his other productions and can be heard on efforts like the McArthur-helmed Big Boi's "Raspberries" from his 2012 solo album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours and Tyga's "King and Queens."
McArthur attributes this specific sound to the future aims for his production process. "I basically try to produce until I've overproduced and then I cut everything back," says McArthur. "That's part of my process too. Get to the point where I like it. And then add more things. And then take away kinda everything at one time and just see what the actual best parts of the track are. What I'm trying to get to now is a more simple sound where it's literally the bare essentials. Like how can I evoke a mood with the fewest amount of sounds. How can I do that? That's something I go for. It's not everything that I'm going for now, but something I'm working towards is a more minimalistic approach to production."