His wife Christine had received a job offer from USAA that required a move to the Alamo City, and the offer was too tempting to pass up. Brown did his best to be supportive. “Actually, it wasn’t that bad,” says Brown, a 28-year-old bassist who has helped to engineer sessions by the Neptunes and their large roster of artists. “I was a little upset for a week and then we started making plans.”
Those plans included an upgrade of his Pro Tools recording studio, and a decision to set it up in their new home, a luxurious, two-story house in a gated community on San Antonio’s Northwest side. For Brown, a thin, stubble-faced, soft-spoken studio savant, the low overhead of working from home allows him to pick his projects carefully, slowly connecting with the local music scene whle doing audio work on videos for several Virginia business clients.
Brown is the best kind of studio engineer, because he combines an innate grasp of technology with the creative instincts of a musician. Growing up in Virginia Beach, he got his first taste of serious recording at the age of 16, when his band decided to record an album at the highly regarded Master Sound Studios.
“As soon as I set foot in there, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Brown recalls. “By default, I ended up co-producing the album with the studio’s engineer, Rob Walsh.
“Rob and I bonded pretty well. I guess he recognized that I had a natural talent for analyzing music and making production calls, so he opened his eyes to nurturing that and when I called back and said, ‘How do I go about doing this?,’ he asked me to come and sit in on some sessions.”
Brown says he spent two or three years as a “fly on the wall” at Master Sound, learning the essentials of engineering by watching Walsh handle everything from jazz to gospel to hip-hop to rock.
“I learned by submerging myself in it and absorbing the process,” he says. “I think, honestly, that’s probably the best way to do it. After just four or five years of just experiencing it, I was training guys who’d spent all kinds of money going to the best engineering schools in the country.”
Along the way, Brown became acquainted with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, who used Master Sound as their home base for recording projects, and eventually bought the studio.
“They’d been there for quite a while before I even realized it,” Brown says. “Most of the stuff I was doing was local. My specialty is acoustic instruments, so I wasn’t even that interested in the hip-hop side, because everything is electronically generated. So it was a while before I even realized that those guys were bringing in major, major clients on days when I wasn’t there.”
Those major clients included Justin Timberlake, Nelly, Kelis, and Michael Jackson. Brown often worked as the second engineer at Neptunes sessions, and when the group was out on tour, he tracked the remix vocals for Clipse’s monster 2002 hit “Grindin’.” He also met Lil’ Kim at Master Sound, and worked a particularly memorable session with Busta Rhymes:
“His session started on Friday at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and I left there on Sunday at 10 a.m.,” Brown recalls. “And we maybe did half an hour or an hour of recording that whole time. Basically it was a big party. And I don’t even think Busta was feeling good that day. He was kinda sick. I’d hate to see him on a good day.”
While establishing his name as an audio engineer in Virginia Beach, Brown also became a major presence as a musician, playing bass for the band Pedestal.
Featuring the (recently married) couple of guitarist John Conkle and singer Jenn Severo, Pedestal drew comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins, Evanescence, and Rush, and demonstrated a solid grasp of studio production and pop melody. With their 2005 album Replenishment attracting positive notices and record labels knocking on their door, the band seemed on the cusp of bigger things when Brown relocated to San Antonio in January. Conkle and Severo have since moved to Northern California, but even with the quartet scattered along three coasts, Brown says they have no plans to disband. In fact, Conkle, Severo, and drummer Chidori Matsumoto plan to come to San Antonio next month to record their next CD at Brown’s studio.
What really excites Brown is their plan to form a production company, utilizing Conkle’s production talents and experience composing for film with Brown’s engineering background and Severo’s graphic-design skills to create a full-service media operation.
Brown has also begun to work with a couple of local bands, and hopes to gradually lend his aesthetic to the local music community. It’s an approach based on a blending of acoustic and electronic instruments, developed from years of playing in rock bands while working in the studio with hip-hop and R&B artists.
“A lot of engineers who are musicians, whatever their instrument is, it directly affects what they do as an engineer,” Brown says. “If they’re a guitar player, the guitars are way up loud and get tweaked to death, and the drums and vocals and all that suffer as a result.
“From my early years of playing bass, I liked Les Claypool and all that stuff. But I was also interested in guitar, in piano, and I love drums. So when I approach the music now, I’m thinking big picture. Whatever suits the song, that’s great.”