Hitmakers

The Making Of A Hit Song: Jerry Wonda's Platinum Sound

Jerry Wonda i i

Jerry Wonda hard at work behind a board in Platinum Sound Recording Studio in New York City. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist
Jerry Wonda

Jerry Wonda hard at work behind a board in Platinum Sound Recording Studio in New York City.

Courtesy of the artist

Today on All Things Considered, producer Jerry Wonda leads us through the construction of a song that he thinks will be a No. 1 record when it's released. The song is called "Never Forget You," and it's planned as the second single off rapper Lupe Fiasco's forthcoming album, due in March.

These are the full credits for the song:

Written by: Jerry Duplessis, Arden Altino, Reginald Perry, John Legend and Wasalu Jaco

Published by: Te-Bass Music Inc. administered by EMI Blackwood Music (BMI), Altino Music Inc./Wonda Songs administered by EMI Blackwood Music (ASCAP), EMI April Music Inc., o/b/o itself and Reggie Perry Music (ASCAP), Cherry River Music o/b/o John Legend Publishing (BMI) and Heavy As Heaven Music/Universal Music – Careers (BMI)

Produced by: Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis for Wonda Music and Syience for StayFresh Music/Rokkworld Music Group

Co-produced by Arden Altino for Altino Music/Wonda Music

Keyboards: Arden "Keyz" Altino

Recorded by Warren Babson and Serge "Sergical" Tsai at Platinum Sound Recording Studio, N.Y.

Additional Recording in Los Angeles

Mixed by: Serge 'Sergical' Tsai at Platinum Sound Recording Studio, N.Y.

Assisted by: Warren Babson and Gabe Robles

It takes a village, although the producer is generally the first person in the long assembly line of today's pop music. "A producer's the person that really creates the foundation of a song," Wonda says. "A song infrastructure. 'Cause it's all about the sonic. In my world, that's what a producer does."

I visited Wonda at his studio, Platinum Sound, in Manhattan. I can't tell you how many times he said to me, "It's all about the sonic," and the more he repeated it, the less meaning that word held. What is the "sonic"? The sound? The effect?

It became murkier to me still when he described what he called "The Wonda Library."

"It's not books!" he yelled, though we were inches apart. "It's more sonic! The Wonda Library is really no joke. I'm very picky about what kind of snare [drum] that I use, which kick [drum] that I use, the tone that I use in my bass. Playing is one thing — but the sonic of it is very important."

Wonda is a ridiculously gifted bass player. What he's saying is that as a producer, it's not his bass-playing alone that serves him well in arranging songs. It's the way that bass sounds. SONIC = the sound of the effect.

The sonic is what separates the men from the boys. What makes songs into hits. It took some close listening for me to figure this out. The best example I found comes from deep in Wonda's musical past.

In the mid-'90s, Wonda was known to some as "the fourth Fugee." He's Wyclef Jean's cousin. He and Jean built a famous studio called Booga Basement, in Wonda's father's house in East Orange, N.J. That's where much of the material for The Fugees' classic album The Score was created. And the most classic of the classic songs on that album is this one:

I've listened to Lauryn Hill's "Killing Me Softly" hundreds of times. I've cried listening to that bridge. It's not the words — there are no words in the bridge — that make me cry when I listen. It's the sound of her voice: the sonic.

Hear the bridge of "Killing Me Softly."

Listen to how Wonda describes what they did to make the bridge as heart-wrenching as it is. It's almost scientific, the way he describes using a synth to mimic a Fender Rhodes electric piano:

Hear Jerry Wonda talk about "Killing Me Softly."

"If The Fugees come back," Wonda promises me, "I would give them a whole new sonic."

Wonda's been working with Serge Tsai, a brilliant engineer, for more than 15 years. They traveled from the Booga Basement to Manhattan's restaurant row together, where Platinum Sound is located. He gave me an amazing example of the way sonic has changed for today's ear by picking another hit song that was completely of its time. It was the second single off Michael Jackson's Thriller:

Tsai says, "You think that's drum-driven? That's nothing compared to the way drums dominate our ears right now."

Hear Serge Tsai on drums.

It's hard to imagine "Billie Jean" hard on all four beats. Maybe something like this?

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