Offering more than 200 original compositions available through his website, Polyphonic Music Library, he seamlessly blends elements of soul, gospel, jazz, and trap in his work. So far, his productions have been used by groundbreaking artists like H.E.R., YG, and Wale, just to name a few.
In celebration of Mario launching a new sample pack today, we recently sat down with the creator to discuss his recording and mixing process, his go-to gear for crafting authentic analog vibes, and his sample label.
How did you get started making music?
I actually didn’t get started making music until later in life, like my early twenties. I didn’t play an instrument or anything growing up. I’m all self-taught. Right after high school, I was living in Mammoth Lakes, California, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I was snowboarding at an AM level after high school and I would come home for the off-season. Over the summer, I got interested in learning how to make beats.
At the time, I was interning at Foundry Studios with Pierre Ferguson, who’s still my mentor to this day. He has an all-analog studio with this amazing Harrison Series 10B console, tons of outboard gear, and a great-sounding live room. Any time we had a session I would help him set up and ask questions like, “Why are you using this mic for that guitar amp?” or “How come you’re using two mics on the piano?” or “Why are you using this mic for the vocals?”
I worked with Pierre for five or six years, so by the time I started getting into making samples I already had a pretty good idea of what to listen for. It didn’t take me long to realize how big of a difference there was between how thin the beats I made on my laptop sounded compared to this huge sound we were getting with all of the analog equipment in his studio.
When did you decide to pursue making sample packs?
Making samples actually happened kind of by accident. At the time, I was still snowboarding and just making beats trying to get them out and heard. One week I got bored and decided to start working on melodies instead. I hadn’t started pursuing an analog sound yet. At this point, I was still just using Omnisphere and Arturia.
After I put together a pack of 10 or so melodies, I started sending them out to sites that had submission emails posted. One of those sites belonged to !LLMIND. He actually wrote me back like, “Yo, these are some of the best samples I’ve heard in a while.” I think he saw something in my work and started featuring my samples on the site. He asked me to fly out to Brooklyn to meet him in person. I stayed out there for three or four days and he just gave me a lot of advice and game on how to maneuver.
Eventually, I started giving him exclusive stuff that wasn’t available on the site, which he would make beats out of and send them to the bigger artists. At the time, I didn’t have any way to get my samples in front of big artists, but these producers that heard and liked my sound did.
!LLMIND showed me a lot of support back in the early days, especially on Twitter and Instagram. I think it was him believing in me and giving me such a huge co-sign early on that gave me the confidence to be like, “Maybe I can make something of this.”
Even back then, I knew that snowboarding wasn’t going to be my career. Like, it was cool and it kept me dipped in new clothes and it paid the rent, but I knew it wasn’t going to be something I did professionally for the rest of my life. That’s when I really started to learn as much as I could about music. Shortly after that was when the analog equipment addiction started.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have my samples used by a lot of great artists like H.E.R., YG, Chris Brown, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Pop Smoke, IDK, Wale, Tinashe, Boogie, and Ice Cold Bishop.
Tell me a little bit about your creative process.
I always start out by just jamming on the keys until I hear something I like. It might be a melody or a chord progression, anything that catches my ear. Once I record that first section, I have my guitar and bass player Jimmy James come over and we add his parts wherever we see fit. After we work out the pieces, both of us record everything live together there in my home studio.
Like, when you listen to one of my tracks, it’s not just a four-bar loop that’s on repeat. I actually write out an intro, maybe play it an octave higher than the verse. Then I’ll start to ramp up my playing a little bit as we get to the chorus. Or I might hold back because Jimmy is doing something cool on the guitar.
From there, I sit with what I have and start to write out additional parts. It might be strings, horns or whatever other sections I hear for that particular piece. It really depends on the genre. For an old-school soul vibe, there’s going to be lots of guitar, horns, definitely background vocals and stuff. But if we’re talking gospel, it’s going to be more organ, piano, and stacked vocals. Whatever the song calls for.
I record all of the keyboard parts here in my home studio. I got a Moog One from Vintage King that I use for all of my synth parts. I also have a Wurlitzer 200a and a Rhodes Mark 1 that I run through a vintage Fender Vibrosonic Reverb amp, which sounds awesome. I have a Hammond B-3 organ that I run through an original Leslie amp with the rotating speakers. I’ll also go over to Pierre’s studio to record because he’s got this amazing vintage piano in his studio. Of course, we’ll also record horns and strings as well because of the live room and anything else the track might call for.
What’s your recording process like? What sort of microphones and preamps do you use?
We lay down the foundation of each track live here at my home studio. I record everything through a pair of Heritage Audio HA73EQ Elite preamps, which are based on the Neve 1073 design, and a Teletronix LA-2A compressor.
It starts with the keys, then we layer in the guitar and bass. Once we have the arrangement down, we go to Pierre’s studio to record horns and strings. He’s got that gorgeous-sounding room and a ton of cool analog gear that complements what I have here.
I use an old 1950s RCA 44-BX ribbon mic for all of my vocals and trumpet parts to give them that warm, vintage sound. I typically use an SM57 and Royer R-121 combo on the guitar amp. Sometimes I’ll use an SM57 and an AKG C414 for a brighter sound, or my vintage Sennheiser MD-421, which sounds great. I usually stereo mic the B-3 organ with a pair of AKG C414 mics. I don’t have a huge mic locker yet, but I have enough to get the textures and colors I’m looking for.
Since I bounce around between my home studio and my mentor Pierre's studio, I get to use a good mix of gear. I have the Heritage EQs at my place and a Teletronix LA-2A compressor that sounds really fat and warm.
At Pierre’s studio, I mix everything through his Harrison 10B console. He’s also got a Universal Audio 1176 compressor, a Summit Audio EQP-200B, a Manley Variable Mu compressor, and a ton of other analog tube gear.
As for effects, I use all UAD plug-ins. I love the Capitol Chambers reverb and the EMT 140 Plate reverb. For delays, I use my vintage SPACE ECHO RE-201. I also use the MXR flanger/doubler a lot, and the Ampex ATR-102 tape emulator. Anything that helps me get that vintage vibe.
Tell me about your sample and record label, Polyphonic.
Polyphonic is actually a two-part label. There’s the Polyphonic Music Library side, which is driven by providing analog soul, gospel, jazz, and psychedelic recordings for hip-hop producers to sample.
And then there’s the Polyphonic Records side, which I haven’t really talked about much yet. But the goal with that is to eventually record and release music in the same style that labels were doing in the 1960s and 70s, similar to what Daptone Records, Colemine Records, and Big Crown Records are doing now.
It won’t be music for producers to sample, obviously that would be fine too, but we would be releasing these songs for people to listen to. I love listening to all sorts of music, but not everything I listen to would be good for sampling, you know? Like, not every track can be cut up into a four-bar loop.
The Polyphonic Music Library was inspired by classic labels like Blue Note, Decca, Staxx, Motown, Atlantic, Fame Studios, Sigma Sound, and of course the musicians that helped create the sound coming out of those studios during the late 1960s to mid 1970s.
I sat on that idea for a long time. I knew I wanted to create a label but I couldn’t come up with a name. It took me like six months. I wanted it to sound like it belonged with those classic labels, with still sounding fresh and modern, and having something to do with music. Then one day out of nowhere I saw the word polyphonic written somewhere and I was like, “That’s it!” I set up the LLC that same day.
When was the first time you felt like you had made it with your music?
I still don’t feel like I’ve made it. I’m constantly studying, learning, and practicing—whether it’s playing, recording, writing or mixing. I am forever a student. I’m just thankful I don’t have to work a regular job and I get to wake up every day and do something I love. But when I got that co-sign from !LLMIND, that was a big moment for me. That was the first time when I really felt like I could turn this into a career.
I started offering private production classes through my Instagram page about three years ago. At first, there were only a couple of students per session, but now there are like 20 or more people in each class. I’ve taught students from all over the world. I’m talking Morocco, France, Germany, UK, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, and much more. I’ve taught students from six different continents. The only continent I’ve never had a student in is Antarctica.
It’s a four-week course that I usually offer four or five times a year, just whenever I have time in my schedule. In the first week, we go over the basics of arrangement. We talk about chords, melodies that sort of stuff. In the second week, we get into business stuff like marketing, branding, split sheets, royalties and working with artists and producers.
Week three, we talk about effects and how to really achieve a sound based on an era and genre or just obscure ways to manipulate your samples into something unique. Then week four is just general questions. Anything the students want to talk about, we cover together.
What advice do you have for aspiring producers and beatmakers?
My advice for aspiring producers and beatmakers is to stay completely enveloped in the craft from every angle. You have to remain a student no matter what level you at or get to.
Mario Luciano has a new sample pack out today via Polyphonic Music Library. Click here to check out the pack, which features 12 original compositions and 10 analog drum packs created with the gear Mario mentioned in his interview.