In the mid-‘90s, Desmond Child was having a hard time convincing people that the future of recorded music lay in a single hard disk.
Rattled by the Northridge earthquake that hit Los Angeles in 1994, the multi-Platinum producer and his husband moved from California to Miami, where he bought a small, cheap house — “a little Scarface compound,” he tells Billboard — to use as his home studio. Though it was big enough to be traversed via golf cart, the space was still smaller than his Santa Monica setup, so Child began looking into other recording options.
“Right at that time they had started developing Pro Tools,” he says, “and I went all in. We said, ‘We’re going to make records that are completely in the box.’ Everybody was telling me I was crazy.”
Just five years later, Child — whose sterling C.V. also includes a wide array of ’80s rock smashes like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” and Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” — would mastermind Ricky Martin’s global sensation “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in that box. In doing so, the writer/producer opened the door for the Latin pop explosion of the turn of the century, and led studios across the country to ditch music engineering equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for a piece of software. Though some of song’s signature sounds were recorded live — that Dick Dale-style guitar lick, those zesty trumpets in the pre-chorus — “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 20 years ago this week, was the first No. 1 on the chart to be recorded, mixed and mastered entirely in Pro Tools.
Though Child’s Miami studio, the Gentleman’s Club, was reportedly the first studio to do everything on Pro Tools, the program had actually been around in various iterations for a while. In 1984, software company Digidesign (now Avid) introduced Sound Design, a product that could chop up samples from iconic 1970s synthesizers the Fairlight and Synclavier and, later, the Akai S900 and Emu Emulator.
Next, Digidesign released Sound Tools, a simple but functional computer-based recording and editing tool that debuted at the 1989 National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM). Two years later, it unveiled much more sophisticated version, called Pro Tools. It was one of the first DAWs (digital audio workstations), which today include programs like GarageBand, Logic, Ableton, and Fruity Loops. For the first time, instead of painstakingly cutting and pasting analog tape if they wanted to tweak recordings, engineers and producers could rearrange bits of songs with the click of a mouse.
The technology was revolutionary — if still very much in beta. “We had to come up with our own language,” says Child, referring to issues that would come up as he used the earliest versions. “Sometimes things would sound like they were going thrup, so we called it ‘thrupping.’ There was some glitching. Sometimes, it would just stop. It would not work. That’s when we called it ‘Slow Tools.’”
He maintained a troubleshooting back-and-forth with Digidesign, who kept “coming up with upgrades, upgrades, upgrades to where right now it’s like the gold standard of recording.” By the late ‘90s, Child had used Pro Tools to record a pair of U.K. top 5 hits, Billie Myers’ “Kiss the Rain” and Robbie Williams’ “Old Before I Die.” Still, there was concern that they might not be getting as rich a sonic texture with a Macintosh as they would on analog tape — so he crowd-tested Pro Tools drum sounds with a kit recorded at legendary local studio Criteria. “No one could tell the difference,” says Child. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it. We’ve crossed the threshold in recording history.’”
Child’s next goal was to revolutionize Latin music — which except for Selena hadn’t seen a true crossover star since Gloria Estefan’s mid- to late-‘80s run with Miami Sound Machine. His mother was the late Cuban songwriter and poet Elena Casals, and he had grown up in Miami’s Cuban exile community. After years of working in pop and rock, he wanted to “rediscover” his Latin roots. That’s when he happened to see a video of Ricky Martin performing “María” for a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Buenos Aires, and became determined to work with him.
“I said, ‘He needs stadium music for Latin music,’” recounts Child, who co-founded the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008. “I brought everything I had learned working with Kiss, Bon Jovi, and Aerosmith to Latin music.”
So he brought Martin and his former Menudo bandmate, Draco (AKA Robi) Rosa, who’s credited as a co-producer on “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” to the Gentleman’s Club. The song is a Frankenstein of sorts that wouldn’t necessarily have been possible — at least, not without much more tedious manual studio wizardry — without Pro Tools. According to engineer Charles Dye, the trumpets that blare throughout the song had actually just been recorded once. As he worked on the song, the decision was made to sprinkle them elsewhere, like hot sauce, to make it spicier.
“I essentially harvested horn licks from the end of the song,” he tells Billboard. “So the horns that you hear in the choruses are literally because we had the ability to so easily just pop them in places, thanks to Pro Tools’ bars and beats editing.”
Other elements are a bit subtler. Arranger and composer Randy Cantor overdubbed three different gong sounds to produce the one golden tone that blooms during the second verse after the lyrics, “Woke up in New York City / In a funky cheap hotel.” “I want it to feel like you’re walking through beaded curtains in Chinatown,” Child recalls telling him. “I saw a Madame Woo kind of thing.”
Cantor is also responsible for the ride cymbal that chugs in the background through the entirety of “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which he felt was so crucial to the vibe that when it was removed from a dance remix, Child wouldn’t approve the remix until it was put back in. “This thing’s gotta have the ride cymbal,” he says. “It was the glue that held the whole song together.” Once the final touches were added, it was sent off to Sony Music Label Group chairman Don Ienner, who approved but said there needed to be an English-language version, even though the only Spanish words are “la vida loca”; hence, why some versions of the song feature “(Livin’ the Crazy Life)” in the title.
No matter what language it was in, “La Vida Loca” was a bona fide hit. When Billboard’s charts department called Dye to verify the equipment used in the recording of the track, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” became the first No. 1 song on the Hot 100 to list “Pro Tools” under all of the categories that needed to be filled out per song, including mixing console, multitrack tape machine, and recording and mixdown DACs (digital analog converters, which essentially translate digital recording data into an analog signal that actually sounds like music to our ears). “Usually it would say an SSL console and an Otari tape machine, and it was mixed down on a Sony DAC, and then in the next column it said, we mixed it on a Neve, etc.,” says Dye. “Now, for the first time in history, that chart had the same device and manufacturer and just literally said six times across, ‘Pro Tools’.”
Shortly thereafter, music industry professionals across the board had become converts, and many formerly analog studios were outfitted with Pro Tools. Child remembers his friend and producer Mark Bright, who has worked with artists like Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood, saying at the time, “This will never fly in Nashville.” “I’m telling you, within two years, no one was using anything else,” Child says. This is likely mostly due to the emergence of mp3s and file-sharing at the turn of the new millennium, which cratered recorded music revenues and artists’ income. A home studio setup — aided and abetted by Pro Tools — provided a much easier, more economically feasible option than renting studio space and time with a professional engineer.
Plus, Child allows, “Maybe ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ and how far we got with it that way kind of gave people the sense that it was unlimited. That it’s unstoppable.”