Ableton, Logic, FL Studio. Midi versus live instrumentation. To Auto-Tune or not to Auto-Tune. There are about a million options and decisions when it comes to production platforms, plug-ins and effects that inform the way music sounds in any given moment and subsequently shapes entire genres. And in every chapter of hip-hop and R&B, there are a handful of producers who drive the conversation and direction of what’s to come.
Billboard caught up with six top producers — Nascent, Jahaan Sweet, Nova Wav, Mike Hector and Malibu Babie — responsible for some of our favorite chart-dominating songs of recent years (with many more arriving in 2023), to discuss the ways they are thinking about music today, the changes they hope to usher in and the trends they hope will die out.
You may know him from: SZA’s “Good Days,” Kanye West’s “Hurricane”
Preferred production software: “When I was 14, I started [using] a program called Acid Pro,” he says. “[Now] I use Reason. For me, it works visually and for the sound I’m going for. It just clicked with me.”
Favorite plug-in of the moment: The Chicago-made producer usually opts for samples and live instruments, but is a fan of Keyscape.
Production must: “There’s certain things in my production that I do on purpose. Because it was inspired by music that I listened to, whether it be certain ambient textures, nature sounds, but pitched down [and] tucked in. You might not even notice it the first two or three times, but it’s there, making you feel something.”
Music trend he wishes would return: The art of bridges and “romantic lyrics.”
His biggest piece of business advice: “Build as much leverage as you can … Sometimes things can be too good to be true. And if it’s too early, then it probably is.”
You may know them from: Beyoncé’s “CUFF IT,” Nicki Minaj’s “MEGATRON,” Jazmine Sullivan’s “Pick Up Your Feelings”
Preferred production software: NovaWav duo member Chi started off in high school making beats on FruityLoops, now known as FL Studio. Today, she sticks to Pro Tools — after having fibbed during an internship interview in college, claiming she knew how to use the beat-making software.
Elements that define their sound: The pair defines the “core” of their music as dark and melodic. “Usually, what we’re defined by is the songwriting element,” Chi adds. “Musically, we’re not in a box.”
A genre that simultaneously scares and excites them: “Gospel,” says duo member Blu, “because people don’t really know us for that, but we do have that background and range. So I absolutely want to do gospel, [but it] makes me a little bit nervous.”
A production trend they wish would come back: “We should be reaching for the beats that are like [Clipse’s] ‘Grindin’,’ [produced by] The Neptunes, or 50 Cent type beats, Ja Rule, Jay-Z,” Chi says. “All of those beats feel free. Back in the day, they didn’t quantize. Right now we quantize and it makes it very robotic.” Blu says she’d love to see a return to stacking vocals and unique sounds. “I feel like everybody chooses the same type of chords [and sounds] all the time,” she adds.
A production trend they wish would die: “The trap R&B sound–we could retire that,” says Blu. “If we’re gonna do R&B, let’s do R&B. Why are we halfway doing it now?”
You may know him from: Doja Cat’s “Imagine,” SiR and Kendrick Lamar’s “Hair Down,” Omar Apollo’s “Killing Me”
Preferred production software: Hector has been using FL Studio since he was 16 years old and doesn’t plan on changing that anytime soon. “My brother told me [FL Studios] is the program a lot of people use,” he says, “I honestly didn’t know about any other programs until way later in my career.”
How he found his sound: “I just approach things differently. When I started, I purposely didn’t watch tutorials because I didn’t want to sound like everybody else … I figured it out completely on my own. It took me longer, but because of that, it made me stand out a bit more.”
Production quirk: Hector says that when he uses sounds, he modifies almost every single one: “I’ll do things like change the pitch, or stretch things, or use a hi-hat differently, to step out of the box instead of using things how they are meant to be used.”
Production trend he wishes would die: “I think people just need to chill on the Auto-Tune a little bit.”
Production trend he hopes will return: “Disco sounds.”
You may know him from: Taylor Swift’s “Lavender Haze,” Kendrick Lamar’s “N95,” Kali Uchis’ “fue mejor”
Preferred production platform: Like many aspiring musicians, Sweet began his production journey on GarageBand as a middle schooler. During a jazz and piano summer music program, the budding music expert was introduced to Logic Pro X. “I remember one of the teachers was like, ‘Man, if you want to get serious, you gotta get on Logic — that’s what the real people use,'” he recalls. Now, Sweet says he works between Logic and FL Studio, where he produces his drums. “Maybe like four years ago, being around Boi-1da so much and watching him create, I was like, ‘Yo, I need to learn FL Studio.'”
Elements that define his sound: “I have no clue,” Sweet shares plainly. “I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I feel like all great producers, especially the ones I look up to, all have that indicative sound or style.” When it comes to what Sweet is trying to accomplish, no matter his collaborator, it’s about simply falling in love with a song, and making sure the audio sounds clear. “You, as a producer, want to get [the song] as close to where it should be, so the mixing engineer doesn’t have to do too much.”
You may know her from: Nicki Minaj’s “Super Freaky Girl,” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Her”
Preferred production software: The rising producer began making music at the age of four on an upright piano in her parents’ basement. In college, she was introduced to Logic Pro X and now works in Ableton 11. “All of my peers were using Ableton, they jokingly and lovingly bullied me into it,” she says.
Favorite plug-in of the moment: Malibu Babie says she’s been “going back through staple plugins” lately, drawing on Serum Synthesizer, Native Instruments, Keyscape and Omnisphere. “I’ve been working more so in Serum and just going through and creating custom presets,” she says.
Production quirk: “I do have an obsession with putting in weird noises,” she says. “I have started doing it in every beat. I’ll take a game alert and make it into a percussion, or a water drop, and I’ll tuck it in. I felt like it was my personal stamp.”
Production trend she wishes would die: “No one be mad at me,” she prefaces. “The sad girl bedroom pop. I’m tired of being sad! I appreciate the artistry of it and can absolutely see the value in it, but if I didn’t hear it for a few years, I’d be totally cool.”
Production trend she wishes would return: 2008 to 2013 pop elements. “Very up-tempo pop chords, like all of the songs by Ke$ha and Katy Perry,” she explains. I don’t want to say the word bubblegum, but it was like shiny, plasticky pop chords.”