Andrew Coleman: Capturing Time in a Waveform
Published on Feb 8, 2017 by Stephanie Rizzo
Nearly every one of us has a memory associated with the moment we first heard a particularly meaningful song, and Recording Arts grad Andrew Coleman is no different.
“I was in Virginia working on the first N*E*R*D. record. We were recording a song called ‘Run to the Sun,’ and my wife called to tell me we were going to have a baby,” recalls Andrew. “Now, whenever I hear that song, I think of my daughter.”
Lots of Andrew’s stories start off this way, with the attachment of music to a specific moment in time. That’s because he’s spent more than 20 years working as a recording engineer, mixer, and producer for artists like Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Zac Brown Band, Bruno Mars, Snoop Dogg, Little Big Town, and more. As chief engineer for the Neptunes, the superstar production duo composed of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, Andrew won his first GRAMMY award in 2004 for his work on Justin Timberlake’s Justified. A second GRAMMY followed in 2014 for Pharrell’s album Girl. Andrew is also an accomplished guitarist, with performance credits on a slew of recordings, most recently for the likes of Ed Sheeran on his hit single “Sing.” This year, all of Andrew’s hard work will be honored with an induction into Full Sail’s Eighth Annual Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Full Sail in the mid-90’s, Andrew landed a gig as a freelance engineer at a small studio in Virginia Beach. Producers like Timbaland and Teddy Riley had moved in a few years before, and the area was an up-and-coming recording destination for hip-hop and R&B acts. Despite having a background as a rock guitarist, he found himself fitting into the scene easily.
“It was a style of music I didn’t really anticipate working on, but the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed things like program sequencing and drum sampling,” he says.
In addition to expanding Andrew’s musical horizons, that job yielded another boon in the form of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo — at the time, a couple of kids in their 20’s looking to make a record. Pharrell had worked with SWV and Noreaga, and he’d written Teddy Riley’s verse on “Rump Shaker,” back in 1992, but neither he nor Chad was anywhere near a household name at that point. The studio manager offered the project to Andrew, and he ran with it. Twenty-one years later, he’s still Chad and Pharrell’s go-to engineer. For Andrew, his many accolades and decades of experience come secondary to a desire to keep evolving in his career.
“I’d be a fool to think I know everything,” he says. “I’m still a student.”
He sees recording as an art form marrying composition and balance with spontaneous bursts of creative energy preserved in time, like an audible snapshot.
“Of all the things I do — engineering, mixing, producing — I enjoy engineering the most. You get to interact with an artist, often down to a particular instrumental or vocal. The world is going to hear that music as you captured it for perpetuity, and I find that very satisfying.”
An essential part of engineering is knowing when to recognize those rare moments, says Andrew. He remembers laying down synth tracks one night in the studio with Chad, Pharrell and Snoop Dogg. Chad was trying out new riffs on the keyboard when a repeated motif caught Andrew’s ear. Without thinking, he hit record.
“That take ended up being the synth line in ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot,’ which is probably one of the most popular synth lines out there. It was one take, just a special moment,” he says. “It’s like that. One song can change everything for me. One melody, one hook. It just takes a single moment to rekindle my fire.”
It’s always like that, whether he’s listening to radio in the car with his kids, or sharing what he’s learned over the years with Full Sail students.
“I like to think there’s some of me in a lot of the stuff I do,” he says. “Once an artist comes into that control room, the whole world shuts down. It’s just you and them. You’re capturing a sound that’s only ever going to happen once, and [it’s there] forever. Twenty years later, you hear it on the radio and you remember exactly where you were when you recorded that. It brings you back.”