Classically-trained cellist Larry Gold has spent a lifetime orchestrating pop classics. Today he’s helping bring out the soul in R&B and hip-hop.
When the elites of pop and hip hop want to express their deepest emotions, they turn to Larry Gold. He's not a shaman or a guru, he's a producer and string arranger from Philadelphia whose clients include Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. As a teenager, Gold studied cello at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, but classical music was not to be his calling.
Larry Gold: When you try to be jedi at an instrument, you really have to like commit yourself to that. It's very mono. I have to play Dvorak concerto 100 times before you're gonna kick it, you know, and feel like it's part of who you are and not just something you're doing by rote. But when you love something that much, that's all you want to do, you know? It's like I played my cello for hours, as much as I could. Most good musicians do that, that's what they do. That's your life.
AJC: You lose yourself in it.
Gold: You lose yourself in it, yeah. You lose everything in it. Unfortunately, you have to make a living, too.
And when he became a father, Gold accepted that classical music alone wasn't going to pay the bills.
Gold: So I said well here's this commercial music that I'm pretty good at. Let me get better at it, and I devoted myself to that then.
Gold joined the house band at Sigma Studios where he would play on countless hits of the 1970s and '80s. It was during this period that he learned the art of orchestration, especially how to arrange strings.
Gold: In Philadelphia, that involved making records that were pop but from a black perspective, and I learned about Gospel music and I learned about all these other things that I never knew really. I knew a little bit, but when you record them, and when you see the spirit in them, and when you understand the chordal structure, and you start getting into them, and how the bass fits with the drums and all this other kind of stuff, it was fascinating to me, you know? It held my curiosity for a long, long, long time. And it still does.
Today, Gold's unique experience and talents are still in high demand. Artists turn to him for help with turning a good song into a great song.
Gold: They're getting a depth of feeling from me. They're getting I guess an intensity.
This intensity is manifest in a massive Justin Timberlake hit produced by Timbaland.
Gold: The record's called "LoveStoned," and one of the reasons I like this record so much is because if you listen close, most of the instruments are either Timbaland's voice or Justin's voice and there's very few live instruments. The drums, I think, are sampled vocal things, as well as the bass line, and then we have the vocals. If you put strings going like this here, it would completely destroy this song. So, my concept of the strings was to make a grand appearance, which I'll show you right now. And then to stay away, and to come in and out the way, he's singing, the strings keep coming back and forth and then we meet here. And we do, which is the theme of the song.
By adding centuries old instruments to modern hits, Larry Gold brings a human touch to music that often begins life as bits and bytes.
Gold: Records are made by writers, and today the way these kids write records is all of them and a computer, basically. You know they have a keyboard, but there's a lot of it that has to do with the manipulation of sound. A lot of it has to do with the mood you create, just you and this computer.
AJC: And qualitatively, is throwing data at a computer the same as throwing notes at a page? I mean is the end result better or worse?
Gold: I can't criticize life that way. Popular culture evolves with technology, so if you refute technology you stay in the same place in popular culture.
And though successful pop records rarely open with swelling orchestral music, Gold knows that sometimes putting strings front and center can be what carries a song.
Gold: It seems to me that, when you hear strings, there's a certain urgency, you know? Especially if they're at the beginning of the record. You know the very beginning of the record, you're not sure what's happening because you're used to hearing the beat come on right now. Well she's singing "Born to Die," so it's like the strings are very sort of soulful. They're low, I love low strings you know? To me it sets the mood up. So you might have six violins, two violas, and two cellos. But she really sounds sad, you know? So it was like it lent itself to these kinds of string parts but as you can see there's not much music on this either. You know it's just… Little piano and a little drums and her vocal. Those kinds of records are the best kind of records for me because it leaves a lot of room for the strings to maneuver inside. Like I'm doing a little passing tones here you know just to… It helps the song cry a little bit.
AJC: Now well established as a go-to guy in the pop and hip hop world, the 70 year old, Gold, has recently returned to his roots.
Gold: When I don't have arranging to do I've been playing four to six hours a day, so I've really been trying to keep myself in very musical kind of, I don't know.
AJC: State of mind.
Gold: State of mind. It's become really important to me again, which is great you know? It's like I'm living life through my cello again.