Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix EngineersPeople + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Fabian Marasciullo's mixes for the latest Lil Wayne album were so valuable he had to guard them at gunpoint.
Fabian Marasciullo.Fabian Marasciullo.
Top urban mix engineer Fabian Marasciullo first featured in Inside Track in August 2008 (/sos/aug08/articles/insidetrack_0808.htm), when he discussed his mix of Flo Rida and T-Pain's mega-hit 'Low'. As he repeatedly emphasises, much has changed since then. Marasciullo has moved from Miami to Los Angeles, although he continues to divide his time between the two cities, mixing in the Hit Factory Criteria's Studio A and Record Plant Studio 2 or 4; he's currently building his own studio in LA. More importantly, for this article at least, he asserts that both the context in which he mixes and his approach to mixing itself have changed dramatically.
Three years ago, Marasciullo asserted that mixing was "all about frequencies and pockets and spacing. I am very scientific when I mix, and I don't even listen to the song. I break things down to ones and zeros.” Today, he remarks, "Times have changed, man, and this relates directly to my technical delivery. My work has gone from people waiting in line to get their stuff mixed to the projects for which we are getting full rates being far and few between. In general I'm not being paid like I used to, and this means that I'm much more selective about the kind of projects that I mix. Three years ago I'd mix anything that came my way, but now I only do the stuff that I love and that really want to do. That means that I now have a whole different outlook on mixing. In picking and choosing what I'm going to work on, my work is much less like a factory churning things out, and much more about passion and creativity.”
Budgetary constraints mean that top mixers are being used more sparingly by labels. "I have guys at the record labels telling me, 'We're not mixing albums any more, we're just mixing singles.' One of the best-selling artists I have worked with, who has sold millions, has been told by his record company that they won't release albums by him any more, only singles. This means that the labels can get away with investing much less in people. On top, the next week there will be someone else who they have found on the Internet. But the public likes albums, if you give them great albums to listen to. Look at the success of Adele's albums. An album is a body of work, which will retain value for many years. But the labels don't think of what will happen in five years. Modern technology has also made labels and A&R people and even artists confused about what exactly engineers and mixers do. With Pro Tools getting cheaper and cheaper, suddenly everybody is an engineer, even a kid who is quick with a computer. And the labels' latest theory is: 'Nobody can hear the fucking difference anyway!' With the loudness wars and MP3 and the quality of people's stereos having gone down, this is, to some degree, correct. But I still think that if you record and mix something at 100 percent and then cut it down to 50 percent, it's still far better than recording at 60 percent and cutting down to 30 percent.”
2: This composite screen capture shows the entire Pro Tools Session for 'How To Love', cropped to remove a large area of blank space to the right of the Edit window! 2: This composite screen capture shows the entire Pro Tools Session for 'How To Love', cropped to remove a large area of blank space to the right of the Edit window!
Marasciullo's work on Lil Wayne's best-selling album Tha Carter IV suggests that when labels do dare to invest in albums rather than just singles, the results can be very worthwhile. Marasciullo mixed all but one of the 21 tracks that make up the album, and he and Wayne pulled out all the stops to deliver an album with the best possible sonic quality. Whether this is a direct result or not is up for debate, but Tha Carter IV sold close to a million in the first week after its release at the end of August, while its first single, '6 Foot 7 Foot', went double platinum, and the more recent single, 'How To Love', went platinum in a week.
'How To Love' marks quite a dramatic change of direction for Lil Wayne, being predominantly an acoustic guitar/vocal track with the rapper singing, accompanied by some very deep, spacy drums, and some synths mixed very low. With Wayne currently being hip-hop's leading artist, Marasciullo is certain that it marks a new trend in urban music in general. "Wayne called me and was really enthusiastic, saying, 'I got the record, we are going to win Grammys!' When I went over, he played the song to me, and was performing it in the room, his arms up in the air, singing at the top of his lungs. It was an inspiring moment. When listening, I immediately thought: 'This is a really different record for him.' It's very organic, earthy, musical, and the way I mixed it, it has a lot of top end in it. Until now it wasn't really OK for a hip-hop record to have that much high end. But not everything has to be centred around an 808! This song allowed me to use a lot of the techniques I learned in my early career, like when I worked with Bruce Swedien on Michael Jackson's Invincible and with Britney Spears, all these pop things. Wayne is the biggest rapper in the US and he's a trendsetter, and him releasing a song like this will allow other artists and labels to put songs like these out. The face of hip-hop is changing; it does not have to be a set thing any more. I promise you that you'll see a lot of 'How To Loves' pop up next year!”
Tha Carter Family
Marasciullo first worked with Wayne on his hit single 'Go DJ' from the rapper's fourth album Tha Carter (2004), and claims a small part in steering Wayne to the staggering success he currently enjoys. "He comes from the South, where it was common to have loads of vocal tracks on urban tracks. He'd have 10 or 12 tracks of screaming lead vocals, which could sound messy. So during the mix of 'Go DJ' we turned that down to one lead vocal, more in the New York style, and after that his career started going crazy. It was a good example of what a creative mix can do for an artist.”
Since then, Marasciullo has mixed a lot of Lil Wayne's stuff, including most of his best-selling album to date, the three-times-platinum Tha Carter III (2008), and the five-times-platinum single 'Lollipop', which won the pair a Grammy award each.
As is common in urban music, both Tha Carter III and IV employed a large collection of producers: Maestro, DJ Infamous, Bangladesh, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Cool & Dre, The Alchemist, Deezle and Jim Jonsin on III, and again Bangladesh and Cool & Dre, plus T-Minus, Willy Will, Polow da Don and more on IV. What's unusual is the reliance on a single mix engineer: Marasciullo. "Wayne is a very smart guy, and he understands the basics of putting an album together, top to bottom, including the importance of the mix. Wayne likes to work with a small, close circle of people around him. He records his vocals alone, with one engineer, Michael 'Banger' Cadahia, and he wanted me to mix all the songs. We are very close. He is the kind of artist who has the power to say: 'I have a picture in my head and I need Fabian to mix everything.' Luckily all the producers were cool with it. I actually mixed records before for most of them anyway, but there were a few for who I had never mixed, and they basically did not have a choice if they wanted their song on the album.
"Recordings for the album started a couple of years ago, but then Wayne had to go to jail [March 2010] and he continued work on it when he came out [November 2010]. We began mixing in May 2011 and continued until two weeks before the album was released [29 August, 2011]. If we'd had another two weeks, we'd have mixed for another two! Wayne was still not 100 percent satisfied with his performances, but it was time to turn it in. I mixed 27-28 songs in total. I had mixed Tha Carter III in the box, because we were going for an all-new sound, but the sound of IV as a whole is more organic, so I thought: 'Let's do it on the Neve at the Hit Factory Studio 1.' We had continuity, in that everything was mixed in that room, and I'd print stems of my mixes, and then I'd print the stereo mix to analogue tape. We did stuff that people don't really do any more, and I believe that you can hear it in the music. Also, with the studio culture dying on its feet, there are certain projects that have the budget to keep the lights on in studios for the rest of the year, and that's one consideration I had in going to a studio. I'm old school! But mainly this was a project in which we could really show what we can do, and do something different.”
Brighten The Load
Mixing Tha Carter IV in general, and 'How To Love' in particular, Marasciullo's working methods differed from those of three years ago, when he tended to begin a mix by working with the vocals and the producers' stereo roughs, and worked in the individual instrumental tracks later. "This time,” explains Marasciullo, "there was no set method, but in most cases I'd work with the whole session from the beginning. The main complication was that Wayne likes to challenge himself and always tries to do more and better. So even while I was mixing he wanted structures of songs changed and/or to add or replace vocals. This was one reason why the mixing took three and a half months [which averages about four days per song]. We were also always jumping between tracks. This was the challenging aspect of mixing on a board, because the Neve I was using doesn't even have recall. So I worked with stems, and my assistants kept it all together. Elizabeth Gallardo did most of that, and she really was the glue for the whole thing!
"When I began a mix, Wayne gave me his vocals, which he has recorded to the producer's two-track, and the producers would send me their full sessions. One issue that I'm increasingly dealing with these days is that I will get the sessions zero-ed out, meaning that all the effects are taken off. It aggravates me, because what am I going to do? Recreate what they did and then mix that? They've spent months putting effects on the track, and the artist has been living with this, so I prefer to start where they leave off. The engineer's job is to record and do a rough mix, and my job is to start with the rough mix, and then 'Go!' They come to me because of what I do, but I think it's super-important that I can start with what they have been hearing, whether it's right or wrong. If I can start with that they did and clean it up and then mix it, it saves me a lot of time.
"In the case of 'How To Love', Wayne had already done his vocals, and he didn't change them during the mix. He'd worked on this track a lot, it really was his baby, and his work was done. The producer [Noel 'Detail' Fisher] then sent me a file with all the individual tracks, and a rough mix which was very urban, very dark and muddy. But I saw it differently, and Wayne did too. In talking with him, I felt that he had a picture in his head of him sitting on stage with an acoustic guitar. It's not a rap record. I don't want to say that I wanted to do a pop mix, because that's a cliché, but I did want to make it as poppy as I could, while still making sure it would be respected when it's playing in the clubs. Spike Stent is one of my favourite mixers, and I love his top end, and so in a way I was aiming for a similar top end as he gets in his mixes. It's a different song for Wayne, and it works and is doing well on the radio. It is him being creative and he really is a rock star with this song. That's the direction he's going in.”
'How To Love'
Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's 'How To Love'
Written by Lil Wayne, Noel Fisher, LaMar Seymour, LaNelle Seymour, Preyan, Marcus Boyd.
Produced by Noel Fisher and Drum Up.
"This track took only two days to mix, mainly because Wayne didn't make any changes to his vocals during the mix. My mix centred around two things: I wanted to capture the essence of Wayne with an acoustic guitar, which are the two most important things in the track, and I wanted to brighten the track, and get away from the darkness of the original mix, which had a lot of information between 800 and 1500Hz — even the guitar sounded very heavy. It was almost like they put a low-pass filter at 7500Hz. It was really dark, and they wanted it that way, even though the track doesn't have a bass guitar; the bass information comes from sustained 808 notes.
"Normally I begin my mixes by working on the drums, and then the vocals, but in this case I began with the guitar and the vocals. The whole thing was about making these two talk to each other and making sure they weren't getting in each other's way. I wanted them both to have equal impact, and had to do a lot of ducking on Wayne's vocals to make him fit with the guitar. They had chosen a very airy guitar and Wayne's vocal is in exactly the same range, so I did a lot of subtractive EQ, as well as adding some high end. Again, I had the image of Wayne performing alone with an acoustic guitar, and in my mind I could picture him at the VMA Awards, standing with a guitar and singing.
"Working on the backing track involved taking out a lot of lower-mid frequencies and adding high end. The final record has many extreme high and extreme low frequencies. After I'd balanced the vocals and the guitar, I brought the synth strings in. My challenge was to make them sound really big when they come in at the end, and for the song still to be about the vocal and the guitar. After I'd brought in the strings, I muted everything, and worked on the drums. Regardless of whether it's a pop record or not, Wayne's stuff will still be played in the clubs, so I went right to work on the 808 and the kick drum and the snares. When I'd done the drums, I brought in the other synth tracks, and that was basically the whole record.
"I laid everything out on the Neve desk, but only used it for balancing and EQ. The Neve basically acted like a hybrid summing amp, because I had all the faders at zero. All the level adjustments were done in Pro Tools. All the tracks were stereo and had been panned hard and left in Pro Tools, so there was no need for panning on the desk either. Another thing I want to mention, because it is really important to me, is the Burl B2 Bomber A-D converter. For a long time I had the Lavry Gold 8000 converter, but people alerted me to the B2, and I fell in love with it. A lot of the sound of the album has to do with this particular piece of equipment and it's one of the key things for 'How To Love', as well. As I mix through the Neve, the mix comes back into Pro Tools via the B2, and I print to stems. And then I mix the stems again. For some reason, everything appears to sound better when it's printed back.”
Drums: Desk EQ, Digirack Compressor & Lo-Fi, Focusrite D2, Waves TransX, SSL Channel & Renaissance Reverb, UAD SPL Transient Designer & Neve 31102.
3: The first of many kick-drum tracks received bandwidth-limiting EQ from Focusrite's D2, light compression from the Digirack Compressor and transient shaping from Waves' TransX.3: The first of many kick-drum tracks received bandwidth-limiting EQ from Focusrite's D2, light compression from the Digirack Compressor and transient shaping from Waves' TransX.Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's 'How To Love'Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's 'How To Love'
"In the screen shots [see screen 2], you can see that there are seven kick-drum tracks, starting at the top, 10 snare tracks, beginning at 'Molin7701/MO01' with an Aux 2 in the middle, a snap, a palm clap, a tom track and two hi-hat tracks ['Inst10_b01' and 'Inst52-b01']. These are all machine drums, so when balancing I didn't need to worry about the levels changing leading up to the chorus or towards the end. The drums are very intricate, and a lot of the treatments involved using compressors to keep things in place and subtractive EQ to filter specific frequencies out and make sure everything fit together. One thing that was surprising to me about this track is that the producers actually had things together with the phasing. Often when I get a track with loads of kicks, they are out of phase and I spend a lot of time cleaning things up. But in this case this wasn't necessary. Basically I began with the kicks, making sure they worked well with the sub kicks and getting the speakers cracking, and then I added in the snares and made sure that had the same amount of intensity. After that, I added the percussive stuff, like toms and hi-hats.
"The two first kick tracks at the top are the same 808 sound. The top one has the body filtered out of it and has a sharper attack. I EQ'ed it heavily on the board, around 90Hz and 230Hz. In the box I used the Digirack Compressor/limiter on that, the Focusrite D2 to take out extreme bottom and high end, and then the Waves TransX Wide to get more punch. The second one has a more natural 808 sound, and again has the Digirack Compressor/limiter and the D2, and then it has the Lo-Fi, which is one of my favourite plug-ins. It is what gives me my bottom end, at the very setting I gave you. It's a saturation thing, and it makes it sound as if you're hitting tape. You wouldn't believe what that particular setting does to an 808. You close your eyes, and it's mixed. From the Lo-Fi it goes to a UAD Neve, just to add a little bottom at 80Hz.
"The third kick track is 'OSK', or 'OpenSubKick', and is a normal kick sample with a very round sound. It has the same signal path as the 808 next to it: Digirack Compressor/limiter to D2 to Lo-Fi to Neve 31102, with slightly different settings. 'FO01/ForatD01' is a low-mid kick and has the UAD SPL Transient Designer. I love the UAD stuff. I use it on many things and I think it is amazing. The 'ThckBtmK1' has a higher punch, maybe between 1500Hz and 2k. The 'SharpPunchKick' only comes in once in a while, and sounds a bit like an 808 tom sound. It doesn't hit at the same time as the other kicks, and functions almost like a backbeat.
"Regarding the 12 tracks of snares, the first two tracks, '7701' and '7710', are claps, which I sharpened with the TransX Wide plug-in and the Transient Designer. Then there's an 808 snare and a whole bunch of snares to which I did very little: they just filled in the middle, all the way down to the snap track. Aux 2 has the RVerb with a short room reverb, to give the snap some space and vibe, because everything had been sounding very hard until this point. The main snare is next to the Aux, and next to that is the 'ThunkSnare', which actually was the most prominent one — it sounded like a wooden block. The other snare tracks were more fillers. I used the Waves SSL Channel plug-in on the Thunk Snare, with which I fed the UAD SPL Transient Designer. I added a lot of low end, because the SPL was kind of pulling that out, since it was making it a straight attack, and I wanted a heavy attack. The way it is now, it would probably hit a subwoofer, but it also has plenty of high-end crack.
"Aux 1 also had the RVerb, but on a plate setting, with a decay time that's a little bit longer than the room. A couple of the snares went to that. Everything has its own place, with some of them more to the front and others further back in the room. I'm bored with only having one reverb, and when you have 12 snares, what are you going to do with them? So I decided to give each one its own place. The rest of the drum tracks consist of the 'Gangster Toms', which were 808 toms, on which I had the Waves SSL Channel and the Digirack Compressor/Limiter, and the two hi-hat tracks. The first one was an open hat and the second one a closed hat, and I didn't do anything with them, other than some EQ on the board.”
Keyboards: Desk EQ, UAD Harrison EQ, Waves CLA Unplugged and Mondo Mod.
"There are 10 keyboard/sample tracks, six above the guitar and its aux track, and four below. '8989', 'BA01' and 'CLO01' are a kind of tremolo string sound, on which I added the Harrison32 and the Chris Lord-Alge Unplugged suite. When I worked with Bruce Swedien on Invincible, he talked a lot about the old Harrison stuff. When I saw this plug-in, I wanted to use it, and it's really cool. I did suggest that we replace these tracks with live strings, but they wanted to keep it like this. Towards the end I tried to make them as big as I could, and what you don't see here is that I did a lot of volume automation on the strings, as well as some of the other tracks, particularly the vocals. You may notice that the tracks look very contiguous and well-organised. That's because at this stage they have already been worked on a lot, with levels set, and then consolidated. I did a lot of pre-mixing and riding of the vocals and the strings — as I mentioned, I like to mix and print, and mix more and print again. Next to the strings are some brass tracks, and to the right of Aux 4, more keyboard tracks, with 'Big Club' being an analogue synth sound, then there's a lead sound, and the 'EgM1/2' tracks have a weird, wide bell sound, with the Waves Mondo Mod on them, which were put on by the producer, set to a tempo-based pan. Like the drums, mixing the instruments was a matter of level and EQ to make everything fit. They sounded good and worked well together, but apart from the strings I did keep them relatively far at the back.”
Guitar: Waves Renaissance EQ, SSL Channel, Renaissance Compressor and CLA Guitars, UAD Roland Dimension D.
4: Apart from Lil Wayne's vocals, the most important element of the track was the acoustic guitar. To shape it to fit, Marasciullo used four Waves plug-ins: Renaissance Compressor, SSL E-Channel, Renaissance EQ and CLA Guitars. 4: Apart from Lil Wayne's vocals, the most important element of the track was the acoustic guitar. To shape it to fit, Marasciullo used four Waves plug-ins: Renaissance Compressor, SSL E-Channel, Renaissance EQ and CLA Guitars. Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's 'How To Love'Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's
'How To Love'Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's 'How To Love'
"Again, my main challenge was to get the guitar and Wayne's voice talking to each other and working well together, and I mainly used EQ and compression for that. I had a Waves REQ on the guitar, taking out around 55Hz and 496Hz and adding top end around 11.5k, and that went into the Waves SSL Channel, then the RCompressor, not hitting it very hard, because the main compression came from the Chris Lord-Alge Guitars plug-in on a 'Push' setting. It's really cool, it brings the sound up front without squashing it. It works. The Chris Lord-Alge stuff is so good, man, that I feel like I'm cheating when I'm using it! There are three different settings for the bass, for the treble, compression, reverb, delay and pitch, and these presets work great. I had the reverb set to Arena and the pitch thing to Stereo. Next to the guitar is an Aux 4 track, on which I had the UAD Dimension D plug-in, which has the best chorus ever. I couldn't live without it. Aux 4 was purely there for the guitar.”
Vocals: McDSP Analog Channel, Waves De-esser, Renaissance EQ, Renaissance Compressor and C1, UAD Studer A800 and Empirical Labs Fatso, Dolby 740.
5: This screenshot shows all eight of the plug-ins used to process Lil Wayne's lead vocal. Three of these — McDSP's Analog Channel and the UAD Studer A800 and Fatso — are providing analogue-style warmth and saturation; there are also two Waves De-essers, a Renaissance EQ and two Waves compressors.5: This screenshot shows all eight of the plug-ins used to process Lil Wayne's lead vocal. Three of these — McDSP's Analog Channel and the UAD Studer A800 and Fatso — are providing analogue-style warmth and saturation; there are also two Waves De-essers, a Renaissance EQ and two Waves compressors.
"The vocals consist of three 'Fixed' tracks that are fed to 'Wayne Vox', which really is an Aux track. Yes, there are a lot of plug-ins on the vocals! On the 'Fixed' channels, I have the McDSP Analog Channel to put some air in there at the top — I use the 30ips setting, bias at -10.4, nothing crazy — and the Waves De-esser, taking out what to my ears are low-mids. I do that even before I EQ anything. The signal chain on Wayne Vox begins with the REQ6, and the curve you see — cutting everything below 84Hz, dipping at 533Hz and adding high-mid and high end — is all about making it sit with the guitar. Then it's the RCompressor to control the overall level, and after that there's another de-esser, because a frequency around 13k was really bothering me, and the final insert is the Waves C1 compressor, which is automated, and comes in when he's singing louder. I use the de-essers strictly as a form of EQ. Wayne's esses aren't overbearing, so it's more a matter of me being very sensitive to specific frequencies, and taking them out any way I can. Finally there's a send to an Aux track on which I have the UAD Studer A800 and Empirical Labs Fatso plug-ins. The Studer plug-in kind of glues everything together. I really love it. The Fatso has a Tranny setting on it, and it allowed me to grab the 240Hz frequency and compress it. I love the way I control the low-mids with the Fatso.
"Underneath the 'Wayne Vox' track are several Aux tracks with delays and reverbs. I choose the reverbs, but Wayne does the delays. He's very particular about the delays on his voice and knows exactly on which words he wants repeat delays, and he sends these to me already done. So I don't touch them. You can see that there are two sets of the same thing, and three of them are muted. Basically it's because of the way I'm gating. I run all my vocals through the Dolby 740, which comes up on an effects track called 'Master 17'. The Dolby is a piece of outboard that I love. Every time one comes up on eBay, I buy it, so I now have 12 of them! I haven't found anything that can do what it does, which is giving me a particular shimmer on the vocals. It acts like a compressor, but it's actually an EQ. You can set it so that when the vocals are louder, they sound a bit brighter. The only issue is that they're very noisy, so I have to gate them. So for the delays to ring out cleanly at the end, I had to put the repeats on another output.”
Final mix: GML 8200, UAD Manley Massive Passive.
6: The UAD Manley Massive Passive EQ plug-in was the only one used on the master bus.6: The UAD Manley Massive Passive EQ plug-in was the only one used on the master bus.
"The only other piece of outboard that I used, in addition to the 740, was the GML 8200 EQ, which went across the stereo bus. I monitor the stereo output of the Neve on the Aux 3 track. The signal goes out of the desk, through the GML, through the Burl B2, and via AES back into Pro Tools. I also have a UAD Manley Massive Passive on the insert of Aux 3. Underneath that is my print track, so Aux 3 feeds HTL2, on which I record all my mix passes, stems, and so on. I'll then open up a new session, load in these stem tracks and will continue working from there. Sometimes the stem session can be almost like a new mix, allowing me to free up the DSP on my computer and re-evaluate what more needs to be done. It gives me another layer of control. I don't normally go through the desk again for these stem mixes. But you know what? On this particular session, all the stems came back to zero, so I didn't do anything more with them.
"The session was in 24-bit/44.1kHz, and I printed the final stereo mix to an Ampex 350 tape machine, on GP9 tape, calibration +6/185. I was lucky, because the Hit Factory at one point bought all the remaining stock of GP9 tape. The signal went out of Pro Tools onto the Ampex, using the Antelope Isochrone Trinity clock, and then via the Burl 2 into another computer with a Pro Tools session. I had the second computer set to 96k to make sure that the element of tape was fully captured when going back into Pro Tools. We sent that 24/96 file to mastering, which was done by my friend Brian Gardner. He only did some minor tweaks, related to the ongoing volume wars. Brian and I split the difference between staying true to my mix and making sure that the tracks could compete with what's on the radio. Brian added more level, which means you have to take out bottom end. It's not 100 percent of what I wanted, but for me it was a happy compromise.” .
Florida: Wild Frontier
Fabian Marasciullo: Recording Lil Wayne's 'How To Love'
The making of The Carter IV was complicated by a number of extra-musical factors, including Lil Wayne's prison experience. "After he came out of jail,” recalls Fabian Marasciullo, "he immediately went on tour. It was like: 'Rockstar time!' He was ready to go out and live a little bit. He had been sitting down for more than half a year and didn't want to be inside any more, and certainly not in a windowless room, like a studio. This made life very difficult for Banger [Michael Cadahia], his tracking engineer, because he had to record a lot of the material in the tour bus or in his hotel or in whatever studio they could find in the town they happened to be in. The tour bus didn't have a real studio in it, so it was all makeshift and very improvised, which made it very challenging to have continuity while recording the album. It was a worst-case scenario to get some hi-fi stuff going!
"As I mentioned before, Wayne likes to work by himself, with his engineer, and do his own thing. The producers are rarely there while he is recording. Timbaland was an exception, he's very particular about his stuff, so Wayne and he spent a few days at The Hit Factory. Wayne tends to do his stuff over two-track MP3 mixes that the producers send him, and the funny thing is that he tends to edit these so much that when the producers later hear it, they're asking why he's rapping over the bridge part and the verse music has become the outro, or why two bars from the hook have become part of the verse, and so on. He's very hands-on and asks Banger to do the actual edits for him. With regards to the guest performers, T-Pain and John Legend came to the studio to record stuff there while Wayne was there too, but it's not the kind of collaboration where you picture everybody sitting in the studio together, with the producer there and, say, John Legend playing piano and Wayne doing his thing.
"Wayne's unwillingness to spend much time inside also created an interesting scenario for my work, because I could not get him to come to the studio to listen to my mixes! Normally I would have sent him my mixes via email, but Tha Carter III had been leaked four times, which led to a situation where I had to put the drives in a safe, with me being the only one with the key. They ended up really annoyed, because at the end of the project I went to Italy on honeymoon, with the key in my pocket, and so they had no access the drives! With the new album, there were no digital transfers — most of the producers didn't hear the tracks until after everything was mixed and ready to be released. Wayne would either take a break from touring to come into the studio, or we used iChat. In the studio my assistants were laughing, because I had a dummy drive there with nothing on it, marked 'Carter IV', as well as some drives marked 'Jazz Now', which made people think that they contained jazz compilations. In reality, I had the mix drives with me all the time, they never left my side. If something would have happened to me, Wayne would have lost all his mixes. But like everyone in Florida, I'm an avid gun carrier! It really is like the Wild West.”
Monday, May 25, 2015
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix EngineersPeople + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Tony Bennett's continuing success showcases the value of old-school recording techniques — and the talents of his engineer son Dae.
Tony Bennett recording his first number one album, at the age of 85!Tony Bennett recording his first number one album, at the age of 85!Photo: Josh Cheuse
It is never too late to have a first number one. Tony Bennett recently managed the feat at the tender age of 85, when his album Duets II topped the US Billboard album charts in the Autumn of 2011. Even more impressively, the album also made it to the top five in almost every other Anglo-Saxon nation, including the UK, and reached the higher regions of the charts in two dozen other countries.
Not only is Bennett the oldest living artist to have a number one album, but he's achieved it with a style of music — the pre-WW2 popular song crooned in jazz band, big band and/or orchestral settings — that was, for several decades considered a relic of the past. Bennett first achieved success during the '50s and early '60s, before undergoing a resurgence in the late '80s, flanked by his sons Danny and Dae, respectively his manager and recording engineer. His career has been on an upward curve ever since, as has classic big-band and orchestral vocal music, so the success of Bennett's Duets, An American Classic, released in 2006 to celebrate his 80th birthday, was not altogether surprising. Produced by the legendary Phil Ramone, it featured an A-list cast of guest singers, including Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, Elton John, Michael Bublé, Sting, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall and more.
Duets II has proved even more successful, and features another cast of top guest singers, among them Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, John Mayer, Aretha Franklin, Michael Bublé, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, KD Lang and many more. Duets II was co-produced by Ramone and Dae Bennett, and the latter also recorded and mixed both Duets albums. The 56-year old describes how the two Duets albums came into being: "When my brother called me in 2005 saying that my Dad and he were thinking of doing a duets album, I wasn't into it, because these type of records can sound so canned and artificial. I thought about it for a bit, and called him back and suggested that we make a feature out of doing it live. The hardest thing to happen on a recording is something spontaneous, but if you can get something spontaneous to happen, it always is the best stuff. Plus my Dad always records live. He hates headphones, and if you put these on him, and/or put him in a booth, you'd be taking him out of his element and you wouldn't get the best out of him. We have always recorded him live in the studio. So we decided to make the duet albums in such a way that they cannot be but spontaneous and exciting.”
Like its predecessor, Duets II was recorded and mixed by Tony Bennett's son Dae Bennett (right).Like its predecessor, Duets II was recorded and mixed by Tony Bennett's son Dae Bennett (right).
Dae Bennett and Phil Ramone's method was to record Tony Bennett and each of the guest singers with a jazz quartet — drums, double bass, piano and guitar — in that most old-fashioned of ways: live in the studio, with no separation or click track. The other trick that appeared to have worked well for the first Duets album was not to tell the guest singers that this was the modus operandi (by the time the second album came round, most stars had presumably wised up to the ploy!). Dae Bennett: "With the first album, many of the artists arrived at the studio thinking they were going to sing to a backing track, and when they came in and saw Tony and the quartet and all the mics set up, they were like, 'Jeez!' We always had a headphone station set up, ready to go, if they really wanted it, but everyone settled for not using them. So instead we had two Red monitors on either side of them, with the quartet semi-circular in front of the singers. The Red monitors are very directional, and more like sidefills than floor wedges. My Dad also uses them in live performances.
"When the Dixie Chicks came in [during the recordings of the first album], one of them, Emily Robison, sat down next to me at the console and through the side of her mouth whispered to me: 'You know what? We never record this way! We're really nervous about doing this.' They were doing 'Lullaby Of Broadway' with an Andrews Sisters-type vocal arrangement, and I said to them: 'Don't worry about it.' My Dad is also very good at putting people at ease, and of course, they are really talented. By the end of the session, they were all very happy and doing high fives and so on. Almost all the sessions turned out that way, with artists coming in nervous and by the end being very happy. Michael Bublé sang on the first Duets album, and when he came in for his session for the second album he said: 'I do all my sessions like this now.' John Mayer was probably the most nervous of the artists who participated in the making of Duets II, and said that he really wasn't sure about the phrasing and stuff. Many artists think that they have to phrase like Tony, but I explained to him that we just wanted him to do his thing, that our idea was for everyone to be themselves. I said to him: 'It's a blues tune, and you play blues guitar, don't you?' And he was like 'Oh, yeah,' and he got it. After that, everything started to flow. We got that a lot during the sessions. I always do my best to keep everything relaxed, and my Dad is a very mellow guy, so we made sure everyone was feeling comfortable. That's how you get the best takes.”
A Spare Half Hour
Tony Bennett in discussion with the album's co-producer, Phil Ramone.Tony Bennett in discussion with the album's co-producer, Phil Ramone.Photo: Kelsey Bennett
Most of the recordings of the quartet and the vocalists for the first Duets album had taken place at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and at Dae's own Bennett Music Studios (see box). It was the same for Duets II, with the addition of Ben Folds' studio in Nashville and Avatar Studios in New York. Bennett: "Ben's studio is the old RCA room, and we recorded Willie Nelson, Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Alejandro Sanz and John Mayer there. The main problem with a project like this, with many big-name acts, is scheduling, which was my brother's job as executive producer. What worked well with the first record, so we also did this for the second, was to book Capitol Studios during the Grammy week, when a lot of artists are in town anyway. There were also two groupings of sessions at Bennett Studios, but some artists' schedules were so tight that we also did a day of sessions at Avatar, where we recorded Lady Gaga, Sheryl Crow and Aretha Franklin. We had Lady Gaga for two hours, and Aretha Franklin for maybe 90 minutes, and Bennett Studios, being as close to Manhattan as it is, still adds another half-hour travel time, so it was easier for everyone to grab a cab and go to Avatar. It was hairy at times!
"In addition, we flew to London to record Paul McCartney for the first album, and Amy Winehouse for the second one, which was apparently her last-ever session before she died. The video of her and Tony singing that you can see on the Internet shows the actual vocal recordings! We also went to Italy to record Andrea Bocelli at his house, and we recorded Mariah Carey in her bedroom: she was pregnant with twins and wasn't going anywhere! The sessions at Capitol, Bennett Studios and Ben Folds' studio were with the live quartet, and we also took the quartet with us to London when recording Paul McCartney, but for the other sessions we had recorded the quartet in advance, and Tony and the guest singer were singing to a two-track mix of the quartet. I then edited the quartet and vocal recordings, and I gave what I call the 'locked edits' to the video people — the whole thing was being filmed at the same time — as well as the big-band and string arrangers. The big-band recordings took place on one day at Bennett Studios, while the orchestra was recorded over two days on the seventh floor of the Manhattan Centre, in the Hammerstein Ballroom. I later mixed everything at Bennett Studios.”
Spilling The Beans
John Mayer with Tony Bennett.John Mayer with Tony Bennett.Photo: Josh Cheuse
In view of how the recording sessions were handled, it's no surprise that Dae Bennett's screen shots from the Amy Winehouse duet, 'Body And Soul' and the John Mayer duet, 'One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)' look highly unusual by today's standards. Just seven drum tracks and a total of five tracks for the bass, guitar and piano is positively minimal in an era when 100-plus tracks in a session are not unusual.
The lack of separation is also apparent from simply looking at the waveforms, which show significant amounts of spill when the singer isn't singing, and an enormous dynamic range. Given how much Tony Bennett moves around on the session videos — in the clip with Lady Gaga, both of them seem practically oblivious to the existence of the mics — it's amazing that there's level at all in some places. Yet the wealth of vertical lines on the screenshots indicates that a significant amount of editing took place. Taken altogether, the screens suggest a very unusual marriage of 21st Century and old-school approaches. So what exactly was going on? Dae Bennett takes things from the beginning, starting with the mics and signal chains he used.
"My vocal setup for the recordings with the quartet consisted of two Audio-Technica AT4047 mics, going into a Neve 1073 and then a [Urei] 1176. I normally like to use the classic Neumann U47 for recording vocals, but they would have picked up too much of the room. The AT4047s have a tighter cardioid pattern and also sound very good. In the sessions when the vocalists sang to the locked two-track edits, I did use two Neumann U47 mics. My drum mics were pretty standard: a Neumann FET 47 on the kick, Shure SM57 on the snare, [Audio-Technica] AT4080s for the overheads, [Neumann] KM184 on the hi-hat and Sennheiser 421 on the toms. All the mics were placed very close.Most of the album tracks were recorded with a jazz quartet playing in the same room as Tony Bennett and the guest singers, so mics were positioned fairly close to the sources to cut down spill. This photo shows part of Dae Bennett's drum miking setup, with two Audio-Technica AT4080s as overheads; also visible is the Neumann KM184 on hi-hat. Most of the album tracks were recorded with a jazz quartet playing in the same room as Tony Bennett and the guest singers, so mics were positioned fairly close to the sources to cut down spill. This photo shows part of Dae Bennett's drum miking setup, with two Audio-Technica AT4080s as overheads; also visible is the Neumann KM184 on hi-hat. The double bass was recorded with a DI and a Neumann U47, which I may have run through an [Teletronix] LA2A to add some presence, the guitar with an AEA R84 ribbon, right on the speaker, and the piano with two AKG C414s, placed close to the strings, with the lid closed. All the mics went through Neve 1073 mic pres — I'm a big fan of them.
"Before coming into the studio, the band had worked out an arrangement for each track, while Tony, Phil and I had worked out the duet distribution, ie. who sings what, and where harmonies would be sung, and where we wanted improvising.Tony and Dae Bennett and Phil Ramone created lyric sheets showing the distribution of lines between Tony and his guests (right); these were used by Dae and Phil Ramone to 'score' individual phrases, which could then be edited together to make master vocal recordings.Tony and Dae Bennett and Phil Ramone created lyric sheets showing the distribution of lines between Tony and his guests (right); these were used by Dae and Phil Ramone to 'score' individual phrases, which could then be edited together to make master vocal recordings. Some people sing harmonies better than others, and we didn't go for a lot of harmony singing, because it makes the sessions more complex. We also didn't do any pre-recording rehearsals, because we wanted to keep everything simple and spontaneous. The singers would come in, we'd work through the vocal parts and harmonies with them, and then we'd do takes. We recorded four to six takes of each song on average. Phil and I each had a lyric sheet with a grid, and we made notes as things went down of what was great, or just good, and what was not so good. Over the years I've found that these notes have become surprisingly accurate, and they certainly saved us hours and hours of time during editing, because you know where the things are that you want to use.
"I did the editing based on the vocal performances, so I began editing by compiling the best vocal performances and making a rough cut of them. For the most part, because of the spill, when I cut the vocal tracks, I had to cut the quartet with them. On the screenshots you can see vertical lines going all the way through the quartet and vocal tracks, which was me cutting the takes as if I was cutting two-inch tape with a razor blade. I would then also cut inside of these takes and tracks, so you get thinner lines, and because of the way Pro Tools names these regions or snippets, the numbering may not line up vertically. Sometimes the edit lines are staggered, ie. they don't line up vertically. One of my favourite things with Pro Tools is that you can stagger crossing points. I may have done this, for example, because Tony sang a brief pickup just before an edit point, so I have to open the new edit sooner than the band. In other cases I may need to let the vocal hang over a little bit longer, going into the incoming quartet edit. With his phrasing, Tony may come in early or later, or there may be other surprises. We always say that Tony never sings something the same way once! [laughs]The complete Pro Tools Edit window for the duet between Tony Bennett and John Mayer, 'One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)'. The two large, edited tracks in the centre are the vocal comps; above them are the tracks for the jazz quartet, and below them the big band that was added later. Note how many of the edits were made across both the quartet and the vocal tracks. Spill from the other instruments is clearly visible on the vocal parts.The complete Pro Tools Edit window for the duet between Tony Bennett and John Mayer, 'One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)'. The two large, edited tracks in the centre are the vocal comps; above them are the tracks for the jazz quartet, and below them the big band that was added later. Note how many of the edits were made across both the quartet and the vocal tracks. Spill from the other instruments is clearly visible on the vocal parts.
"The main issue with the edits was that you can't lose the sound of the room, so there was not a lot of space to move tracks around or drop in individual words. Also, doing global edits required a lot of attention, because we hadn't recorded to click track. It's all in-space editing, just musical. This would, of course, not have been possible if my father wasn't working with this incredible quartet. I'm a drummer, and I had a little flashing metronome with me in the control room, to make sure the tempos didn't go crazy. The musicians are pretty much playing the same thing every take, as there was an arrangement, but they are jazz guys, so there were variations. You can see some mutes in some tracks, and this was where I had some leakage issue at a particular moment. If I muted the vocals at some points, something may have happened in the quartet that I wanted to edit out. Of course, you want to keep the room tone consistent, and muting one mic can affect this, but if I could get away with it, I would do it. I've done a lot of on-location recording, and I guess I'm used to working with spill. Leakage simply is part of the sound. It may come across as a nightmare, but I think it greatly adds to the live sound of this record.
"Once I'd edited the quartet and vocal recordings, I'd send these edits out for approval. Everybody involved might have some comments, and I'd make adjustment to incorporate those, and then I'd send out the next version for final approval. When I had that, I bounced that edit to a stereo file. As I mentioned before, I called that the locked edit, and I'd send it with the timecode EDL [edit decision list] and take numbers to the video guys, so they knew what to use, as well as to the arrangers.
"For the big-band sessions after that, we had five saxes, recorded with [Neumann] U87 mics, four trombones, recorded with [Neumann] TLM103s, and four trumpets recorded with two Coles 4038 mics and two AT4080 mics.The setup for big-band recording, with Coles 4038s for trumpets (front), Neumann TLM103s for trombones (rear) and Neumann U87s for saxophones (left). The setup for big-band recording, with Coles 4038s for trumpets (front), Neumann TLM103s for trombones (rear) and Neumann U87s for saxophones (left). Mic pres were again the 1073s, or Focusrite ISAs. We had a 60-piece orchestra at the Hammerstein Ballroom, recorded over two days. I had extensive miking on the orchestra, with stereo pairs on each string section, so there was a stereo pair on the first violins, a stereo pair on the second violins, a stereo pair on the violas; cellos, brass and woodwinds were recorded with individual mics, and for percussion I had overheads with some additional spot mics. But 90 percent of the sound you're hearing comes from the two overhead mics, which were two AT4080s. The original studio arrangement of the orchestra was done before there was electricity, so the orchestral setup is the mix, and if you have a good-sounding space and a couple of good overhead mics, you get a pretty good balance.”
'One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)'
Dae Bennett: Recording Tony Bennett's 'One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)'Written by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer.Produced by Phil Ramone & Dae Bennett.
"I did all the mixes at Bennett Studios, on the SSL G+ series desk. After I was done, Phil [Ramone] came in and we finalised the mixes together. The mixes were mainly a question of balancing and EQ and adding some AMS reverb and occasionally some chamber reverb from a Lexicon 480. I used hardly any plug-ins or effects. All the compression I intended to use was added during recording, and in any case, I was not creating a sonic fantasy, but simply trying to make real live recordings sound as good as possible. I'm not some kind of audiophile minimalist or something, I just think that keeping it simple is what sounds best. If I think it needs a plug-in or some outboard processing, I'll go for that. I've worked with all kinds of music and I like different types of music, so the perspective I have from that is not to have any rules. I keep an open mind.
"Because everything on these sessions was close-miked, there wasn't a lot of variation between the sound, in terms of in what place we had recorded the quartet and the vocals. So I spent the first two, maybe three, days of the mix sessions creating templates for the mixes of all the songs, for the quartet, and for the big band, and for the orchestra. This meant laying everything out on the desk, and patching things in, and creating EQ and reverb settings. The main thing with a project like this is to attain consistency throughout the whole album. There may have been some tweaking here and there because of a U47 in one place sounding different than one we used somewhere else, but once the console was set up, I tried to maintain continuity over the mix of 18 songs. On finishing a mix, I A/B'ed it with a previous mix to check for consistency.
"So after I had spent these two or three days creating templates, it was mainly a matter of using desk volume automation to get the balance right for each song. I added some AMS reverb to the vocals, and very occasionally a plug-in or real 1176 to keep things in check, and to get some more presence. On some tracks, Tony was more sure of the lyrics than on others, and I also had to compensate for him moving around while singing. I did that by riding the automation. I'm a real believer in A/B'ing things, and so I also would listen to CDs of each of the guest artists, to hear how they like their voice to sound — assuming that that is the way they like to hear themselves! I tried to get them as close as possible, while at the same time keeping the continuity of the album. Normally it was very straightforward to make them sound very close to their own records. If I was running a dozen patch cables it was a lot.
"The whole Session was done in 48kHz/24-bit, and I mixed back into the same Session. I ran the mixes through the compressor in the centre section of the SSL desk and then through a Manley Massive Passive EQ and then back into Pro Tools. Towards the end of the mix sessions, I A/B'ed later mixes with earlier ones, again to make sure that there was consistency throughout the whole album. In short, the mixes were very straightforward. As I said before, the real interesting stuff happened during the recordings, and particularly in the dynamics between Tony and the different guest singers!” .
Dae Bennett and Bennett Studios
Tony Bennett's 56-year old son Daegal began his musical career many years ago as a rock drummer, with an early interest in recording. He recalls, "Our family grew up in here in Englewood [New Jersey, close to northern Manhattan], and one reason why so many jazz musicians were out here was because Rudy van Gelder had his studio here. When my parents had a house built, they asked Rudy to set up a small studio in the basement, which had an old Ampex two-track tape machine. Of course, with my father being on the road all the time, my brother and I were in there a lot of the time! So my brother and I grew up with gear, and it's something that was always in the background for me, even when I was working as a musician.”
Still in his teenager years, Dae and his older brother D'Andrea (Danny), a bassist, founded the country-rock band Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends in the early 1970s, which also featured the now well-known guitarist/violist David Mansfield. The group recorded one big-budget album, Media Push (1974) — says Dae, "I celebrated my 18th birthday in a studio in Boston” — but was otherwise short-lived. Dae Bennett continued to work as a drummer, but "woke up one morning and realised that I was trying to be a rock drummer in a disco era, and so I decided to switch to Plan B”, which involved exploiting his skills as an engineer. He began building his own studio in 1980, and opened it as Hillside Studios in Englewood in 1982. He ended up experimenting with the emerging new music technologies, like computers, sequencing, and MIDI, and the corresponding new music styles, mostly hip-hop, in part due to the influence of Sugarhill Records, which was also based in Englewood, and which recorded a lot of its artists at Hillside. Dae Bennett worked, for example, on Rob Base's pioneering 'It Takes Two' ("one of the first records to use an entirely sampled rhythm section”) and with Naughty By Nature and Teddy Riley.
In 2000 he started Bennett Music Studios, also in Englewood, in part to cater for the recording needs of his father. Until its closure in September last year, it had become one of the most successful studio facilities on the American East Coast, with 18 albums recorded there that won Grammy Awards. Yet despite its success, Bennett — like so many other top studios — was recently forced to close its doors.
Bennett: "My previous studio, Hillside, was a small place where we could at most record trios and quartets, but if we wanted to record a big band we had to go to another studio. So I set up Bennett Studios, which was located in an old train station in the centre of town and had several huge recording spaces. All the acoustics were done by Andy Munro, and they were perfect: not too live, not too dead. Moreover, there was a 1400-seat theatre down the road and we literally dug a trench down the street from the studio to the theatre, and put a pipe in it for fibre-optic cables with a 64-input splitter at the back of the theatre stage. This made it possible for us to record a lot of TV and live shows, and we also used the theatre as a big surround or echo chamber.
"Bennett Music Studios was a great space with many facilities, and if someone had told me at the beginning that we'd record 18 albums there during the next 10 years that had won 18 Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award, I would have signed up for that. So we did really well and I'm really proud of what we did.
"But it came to a crossroads recently, with me needing to invest in the studio, and I felt that there was just too much uncertainty to justify doing that. The Neve VR needed refurbishing, the Digidesign and other computer stuff needed updating, the SSL G+ also needed work, and it would have cost half a million bucks or so! I'd rather have a root canal than maintain a Neve VR! Maintaining them is like painting the Washington Bridge: by the time you've finished one end, you have to start at the other end again. I did not see this as a worthwhile investment, given the state of the music industry. But the studio is still there, and there are some people looking into buying the gear, and some people interested in buying the entire business, because it's a beautiful place. It'd be a shame to see it go, but I'm not holding my breath.
"I'm now working again as a freelance engineer. I have always done a lot of on-location and posting work, and I really enjoy live recording, as well as mixing. I've just finished creating a setup at my home, where I now have a nice small editing suite with a DAW.”
Amy Winehouse's Final Session
Tony Bennett with Amy Winehouse.Tony Bennett with Amy Winehouse.Photo: Kelsey Bennett
On March 23rd 2011, Tony and Dae Bennett met with Amy Winehouse at Abbey Road Studio 3 for what was to be the British singer's last recording session, exactly four months before her death on July 23rd. They recorded the classic song 'Body And Soul', which had been written in 1930, was performed by legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, and became a jazz standard following saxophonist Coleman Hawkins' timeless 1939 version. Dae Bennett recounts the history of the Winehouse-Bennett version:
"We had already recorded the quartet at Bennett Studios. We had done a few takes, but I liked one take all the way through, so we used that. It's the reason why the quartet recordings in the Edit window don't have any edit lines. We set Tony and Amy up with playback speakers and two [Neumann] U47 mics, and what you see in the video are the actual vocal takes that I selected for my edit. The signal chains were the same: Neve 1073 and then an 1176 and then going into Pro Tools. I recall that they did about five or six takes. You can see some mutes in the vocal takes, which is where there may have been too much leakage or too much of the sound of the room. But in general I left the spill. The string arrangement was added later.Amy Winehouse's last recorded performance, as captured in Pro Tools. Here, the two singers were performing to 'locked' backing tracks, so there are no edits to the quartet recordings.Amy Winehouse's last recorded performance, as captured in Pro Tools. Here, the two singers were performing to 'locked' backing tracks, so there are no edits to the quartet recordings.
"The most interesting stuff always happens in the dynamics between the artists. Amy was another person who was very nervous when she came in. She seemed a little awestruck. But as soon as my father said that she reminded him of Dinah Washington, the floodgates opened. She relaxed and she was off. It was a great session, and the result was everyone's favourite track on the album. We were really devastated when we heard she had died, because we were really impressed with her and the depth of her talent.”
Bennett and Winehouse's version of 'Body And Soul' was released on September 14, to commemorate what would have been Winehouse's 28th birthday. The day also marked the launch of the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which was set up to support organisations that help young adults with problems such as ill health, disability, ﬁnancial disadvantage or addiction. Proceeds from 'Body And Soul' go to the foundation. For their work on the recording, Bennett and Winehouse were nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category.
Friday, May 22, 2015
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Drake's atmospheric, brooding sound has revitalised hip-hop, selling millions in the process. The man behind that sound is Noah '40' Shebib.
Noah '40' Shebib.Noah '40' Shebib.Photo: Ruben Rivera
Canadians are prone to giving their own, unique slant to North American culture, and rapper Drake is a case in point, having scored major commercial success with a message, delivery and sound all his own. The 25-year-old sings and raps about self-doubt, melancholy, angst and the trappings of life, over sparse, ambient, slow-jam-like tracks dominated by brooding synths, minimalist piano or guitar parts, stripped-down, often muffled drums, and cinematic atmospheric treatments.
In fact, Drake's backing tracks have such a strong identity that the man responsible is becoming known in his own right. His name is Noah '40' Shebib, and on the phone from his native Toronto, he recalls how Drake and he were sweating profusely when they self-released their first collaboration, the mixtape So Far Gone, in February 2009 (it had a big-label release in a slightly altered form as an EP in September of that year). "I started out as Drake's engineer, and I wasn't there to produce or give creative input,” explains 40. "I was there to track and mix. But when he was working on So Far Gone, I saw how frustrated he became looking for music. He had worked with producers from everywhere in the world, and there was nothing that they came up with that he was happy with. At that point, it became clear to me what he was looking for and I simply started to produce it. We didn't set out with a deliberate ambition to completely break the rules and have singing and rapping and motion and melody. Instead it was more a matter of Drake asking for the drums to be taken out of a track, or for me to 'lo-fi' an entire song, and me initially saying, 'You can't take the drums out, the record won't move,' or 'You can't take all the top end out' — and then me realising that I could, and that it would give a unique perspective on his message.
"In an R&B song there are four sentences per verse, but in a rap song there are four sentences per bar. There are so many more words that I experimented with how to frame them, and that developed into something new. Instead of simply going for the 'bang pow wow' factor, we explored all kinds of things in the arrangements and in the music, and were in a situation where it was fun to be breaking rules and crossing boundaries. We were making music in a very different way. This turned out to work in our favour. When we first put out So Far Gone, we were really scared, but the reactions were so good that we decided to embrace doing things differently. It gave us the courage to continue. We'll still put out records that are obviously commercial and foolproof in hitting the charts. But then a song like 'Marvin's Room' has so much bottom end, you'll be hard-pressed to find a sound system that's not going to be destroyed by it. It was a matter of us wanting to have fun and make a record that would make a whole club shake. I wanted something that would be very dark and quiet and muddy and with the vocals cutting through like a razor. It was done at a studio in LA that had previously belonged to Marvin Gaye, and I made the beat one day, we turned it into a song the next, I mixed it the third day, and 48 hours later we released it on a blog on the Internet, and then the record went global and sold 500,000 copies! And we never even meant for it to be an official single!”
'Marvin's Room' was released on October's Very Own, a blog site created by Drake, 40 and Oliver El-Khatib, on June 9, 2011. It was meant to be a 'teaser' for the rapper's second full album, Take Care, which was released in November and sold 631,000 copies in the first week after its release, reached number one in the US and number five in the UK, and has by now sold 1.5 million copies worldwide. The official lead single from the album and the main subject of this article, 'Headlines', was released in July 31, also on October's Very Own, and sold in similar quantities to 'Marvin's Room'.
Drake studies the console at Metalworks Studios, where 'Headlines' was mixed.Drake studies the console at Metalworks Studios, where 'Headlines' was mixed.
While the majority of the tracks on Take Care were created by Drake and 40, the rapper's albums also feature other big-name producers like Boi-1da, T-Minus, Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz, Needlz, Kanye West and Timbaland. 40 is adamant that these were chosen by him and Drake, without record-company involvement, "Of course. We haven't spoken to an A&R man, ever. No questions, nothing. The record company just said, 'This is great, make it happen.' It's a mind-blowing situation, really, for us to step in and be in full control, and be able to put our own material out on the Internet the day after recording and mixing it.”
The duo write and record almost all their own material at 40's home studio. "It's located across the street from my home in Toronto. It's literally simply an apartment in which I put up some dampening against the walls to try to get the reverb times down. It's very much a makeshift home studio. I have a main control room and a booth and a small room at the back. When you walk in, there's a huge producer's desk and console, which is the Control 24. But I don't really use it; I'm happy with just a keyboard and a mouse. The control room has a pair of Genelec nearfields and a woofer, and a pair of Sota 750 reference monitors. Sota is a legendary Canadian company that makes big reference monitors, amongst other things. I also have Bryston and Crown amps. There's a Pro Tools HD rig and all my other toys and keyboards, like a [Hammond] B3 and a Wurlitzer and my Studiologic Numa 88-key MIDI controller, which is my pride and joy. The acoustics aren't great, so I'm not going to mix in that room, but we can go in there when we want and get serious work done and it definitely cuts our cost compared to going into a real studio.
"I use both Mac and PC, and there's a very important reason for this. I am a laptop guy, because I always want to have the ability to tweak my mixes when I leave a studio, wherever I am, just with my laptop and a set of headphones. So when I'm using outboard gear, I'll always print these tracks back into my Pro Tools Sessions, retaining both wet and dry versions of each track, giving me the flexibility to choose. My PC laptop is a year and a half old, and it has a 3.3GHz, 12-core, i7 processor. It's a full-size chip, not a mobile chip, so I guess my machine is not really a laptop but more a notebook. I also need to place it on a table, as it's a bit chunky. It has 12GB of RAM, three solid-state hard drives, DVI/HDMI and so on. It's custom-made by a gentleman called Les Bateman, nicknamed Bates. He had a company called Music XPC, which was for a long time the only PC manufacturer certified for use with Pro Tools. When I bought this computer from him it cost me $6500, but you have to remember that it's still far superior to any $4000 Mac you can buy today, despite it being one and a half years old.
"I still use Mac because there are some inconsistencies between the two formats in the programming and software and sometimes updates are available on Mac but not yet for the PC and Windows. I want to be able to use anything at any given moment, so I'm constantly running two systems. My PC has an RME Babyface audio interface attached to it, while my Mac has the Apogee Duet 2 audio interface. I tend to mix at Metalworks, and when I walk in there I can simply pop the Digilink cables out of their computer, put them into my Magma chassis, which has two HDX cards and one UAD Quad, run that into my computer, plug in the screens and cables and keyboard and mouse from the studio SSL, and I'm patched into the SSL and their full-blown HD rigs.”
Sources Of Inspiration
A quick look at the credits for Take Care reveals that Drake and 40 are eager samplers. Of the 20 tracks recorded for the most recent album, half are built around samples, taken from the likes of SWV, Gil Scott-Heron, Don McLean, Juvenile, DJ Screw and others — though neither 'Marvin's Room' and 'Headlines' contain any samples. 40 explains, "When growing up in the world of hip-hop, you look at samples as a tool and an instrument. Samples give an aesthetic to a record that is difficult to achieve without one, whether you are featuring the sample prominently or have it running in the background. So for me they are a tool and I reach for them for fun. Why not? I love SWV, so when I sampled their song 'Anything' for 'Shot For Me', it is because it reminds me of a memorable good time that I miss. It's a nostalgic moment. But I don't need to use samples. I wrote 'Marvin's Room' by myself with Drake — I also gave a couple of points to Chilli Gonzales, who played piano at the end, and Adrian Ecclestone, who is our guitar player.Drake's guitarist Adrian Eccleston features on Take Care.Drake's guitarist Adrian Eccleston features on Take Care.
"In hip-hop, you must write your own raps. If someone else were to write them for you, you'd have no credibility whatsoever, and you'd be out of the window immediately. But when it comes to the music, there's not really the same pride in writing it yourself. People don't care who wrote it, or where it comes from or what the sample is, they just want the hottest beat. They just want that and then put it out in their own song. Having said that, Drake and I do take pride in writing songs together, just the two of us. We'll start in an old-school way, with me on the piano or at my Wurlitzer, finding a chord progression, and he'll start singing some melodies. I'll record the keys, usually with a [Neumann] U87, and his scratch vocals. I'll use either a Sony C800G on him or, if he's in the control room, a [Shure] SM57. The mics go through a Neve 1073 or 1081, and I'll have an [Teletronix] LA2A on his voice, not hitting that too hard. These sketches will sometimes make it to the record. I'll sometimes sample them. If you listen to the song 'Hate Sleeping Alone' [from the iTunes version of Take Care], you'll hear all sorts of bits of background vocals in the background, which sing the same melodies, but without words. It's the scratch melody of Drake singing before he had written the words.
"We work slightly differently for each song, but one thing that I always do is drag and drop Drake's vocals. I arm one track in Pro Tools to record him, and I then drag the clip down to an empty track. I never switch tracks while recording. When he says he wants to sing or rap or do an overdub, I just hit Record. I always have an open mic in the studio. Another advantage of using drag and drop is that Drake does not want to hear the playback in the headphones before I punch him in. Normally, when you do a punch-in, you'll hear the track, then you hear yourself when you punch in, and then it goes back to the track. Drake doesn't like that, he wants to hear himself live at all times, just with a bit of reverb or delay for the feel, but for the most part pretty dry.”
Another common way of writing songs in hip-hop and R&B is to use a track written by another producer as a starting point, and in the case of 'Headlines', the starting point came from fellow Toronto producer Boi-1da who, with some help from one A. Palman, provided the basic string staccatos and synth arpeggios that resulted in a slightly more full-on and energetic arrangement than is usual for Drake. 40 elaborates: "Boi-1da sent us the beat as a stereo MP3, and Drake loved it, so I popped it into Pro Tools and Drake started going to town over it. He probably spent a couple of nights writing. I added quite a lot of stuff to it, like lead lines and extra basses and pads, some 808 rides, that sort of drive the record. All these additional tracks are marked '40' in the session.
Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'
Written by Drake Graham, Matthew Samuels (Boi-1da), Noah '40' Shebib, A Palman. Produced by Boi-1da with additional production by 40.
"At some point while Drake was writing to the stereo MP3, I was calling Boi-1da, begging and demanding all the exported separate files of his session. I then swapped those for the MP3 tracks, so by the time Drake had finished writing, he was working against the separated files, which I used to arrange the record. Some of Boi-1da original parts were removed or muted. I really buried my hands in the arrangement. I recall that we took all the drums out at that point, but then decided this didn't work, so we put the kicks back in. The arrangement got changed and edited and I added my parts, thickening the bass and adding pads and the melody synths. I looked at the Boi-1da track from a mix perspective and added things that I couldn't achieve just by mixing. We also called in Divine Brown to add some vocals, because there's some male-female call-and-response in the song, so she could give the female perspective and add thickness to the chorus. This happened over three or four days of Drake and I working alone at my studio.
The full Pro Tools session for 'Headlines'.The full Pro Tools session for 'Headlines'."I am adding plug-ins and mixing and tweaking the record as I go along, but at some point, once we know the record is real and we need to step it up a level, I take sessions to Metalworks Studios for the final mix. Boi-1da and T-Minus both use Fruity Loops to do their beats, and until recently it only spat out 16-bit files, so I almost always end up putting these through the 80-input SSL 4000 G+ at Metalworks Studio 2. I also stick them through some other analogue gear, like a Pultec, or Neve 1073s or LA2As. Metalworks have a bunch of great Pultecs, and I love hitting them! It's to give these files more feel and life, and I then track them back into Pro Tools at 24/44.1. You can upgrade a 16-bit file to 24 bits in the computer, but this doesn't add anything; plus in-the-box processing will give you bit loss and degradation, and by the time you spit it out, it won't be the same. From Drake's perspective, it's also nice to go to Metalworks, because they have a big room and we can get a crowd in there that he can entertain. They have a pair of Augspurgers and subs in one room that we can really crank up!
SPL's Transient Designer plug-in was used to add 'point' to the kick drum.SPL's Transient Designer plug-in was used to add 'point' to the kick drum.40's processing chain for the sawtooth bass synth included Waves' Renaissance EQ and Bass, and Avid's Lo-Fi, a big favourite of his.40's processing chain for the sawtooth bass synth included Waves' Renaissance EQ and Bass, and Avid's Lo-Fi, a big favourite of his.Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'Unusually, a single processing chain was used for the entire lead vocal on 'Headlines', including Waves' Q10, De-esser, Renaissance EQ and Vox, Bomb Factory's Pultec EQP-1A and Avid's Smack!Unusually, a single processing chain was used for the entire lead vocal on 'Headlines', including Waves' Q10, De-esser, Renaissance EQ and Vox, Bomb Factory's Pultec EQP-1A and Avid's Smack!Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'"After running the 16-bit stuff through the analogue domain, I remained in the box for this record. As I said before, our approach is always different, so in some cases I lay everything out over the SSL, in some cases I do everything in the box, and sometimes it's a combination of the two, like in this record. But a lot of my instruments are Pro Tools-based, so why would I want to leave the box? Everything is recorded at 24-bit, at extremely high quality, so apart from the issue with upgrading 16-bit files, it's rare that I think about running stuff through old gear and risk having crackles and other headache-inducing stuff. In general, I want it as clean as humanly possible. Mixing 'Headlines' happened very quickly. Most of the plug-ins on it were opened during arranging and tracking, and because of the vocal chains we use, Drake's vocals are in pretty good shape by the time the recordings are done. In general, the records are nearly finished. Drake suddenly said, 'Hey, let's put it out tonight,' and I replied, 'OK, give me a few hours!' So I took the session to Metalworks, where I put the Boi-1da stuff through the analogue gear, tweaked the rest in the box for three hours, and before I knew it, it was done.”
The 'Headlines' session is meticulously organised, starting with a stereo track at the top containing Boi-1da's original backing, then 10 drum tracks from Boi-1da, four 40 drum tracks, four Boi-1da music tracks consisting of one low arpeggio and three string tracks, six 40 synth tracks, a drum master track, 12 Drake vocal tracks and one Divine Brown vocal track, a Drake vocal master track and the same for Divine Brown, four aux tracks, a general vocal master track and a general music master track, and the final stereo master. In total, there are only 37 audio tracks, and relatively few plug-ins, particularly on Boi-1da's drum tracks because, remarks 40, "I had passed his stuff through the SSL already and had done most of the processing I wanted during that process.” The eagle-eyed will spot the '-1380' markings in the comments box. Says 40, "I was working in full HD with TDM and then took it home to work on Pro Tools LE, and the first thing I always do is to check for latency, and I noticed that Auto-Tune was giving me 1380 samples of latency on every track it was on, so I compensated for that by hitting my great friend Alt-H, one of my favourite shortcuts in Pro Tools, and moving all the vocals 1380 samples earlier.”
Drums and bass: SSL desk EQ, SPL Transient Designer, Waves Renaissance Axe and Renaissance Bass, Avid Lo-Fi and Xpand!
"I had the SPL Transient Designer on Boi-1da's kick,Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines' to get it a little bit more snappy and pointy. There also are very few plug-ins on the drum tracks I added, including some 808 tracks, one of them being a hi-hat ride ['40808']. On the drum master track, I had a Renaissance Axe compressor, working minimally, with just a -1 setting on the threshold. Boi-1da had a 'Sawbass' track, which I hit with a bunch of stuff.Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines' Coming off the SSL I had probably given it a little bit too much bottom, so when I was mixing I wanted to push its top end a bit, and instead of having a huge, rumbling, low bass, give it a little bit more pop and harshness. I wanted to shape it a bit differently. I pulled back on some bottom end with the first EQ, while also adding some air to brighten it up. That gave me a better balance to work with, and at that point I hit it with some Renaissance Bass, to give it something under 100Hz, and I added a bit of distortion with the Lo-Fi to give it some anger. I also added a bass track, using Xpand!, which is a stock plug-in in Pro Tools, and again adding the Lo-Fi, in which I pulled the sample rate down to 4400Hz, so it's degraded a lot. I also applied EQ, ducking at 95Hz, and then a little compression to level it out. I depend on the Pro Tools Lo-Fi a lot. I can't use the Waves or Air Lo-Fi, it has to be the stock Digi one.”
Strings and keyboards: Pultec and SSL desk EQ, Avid Lo-Fi, Sansamp PSA1 and Xpand!, Waves GTR Solo.One of the main keyboard parts in the song was added by 40 using the basic Xpand! instrument in Pro Tools, routed through a Waves guitar amp simulator and the inevitable Lo-Fi plug-in.One of the main keyboard parts in the song was added by 40 using the basic Xpand! instrument in Pro Tools, routed through a Waves guitar amp simulator and the inevitable Lo-Fi plug-in.Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'Noah '40' Shebib: Recording Drake's 'Headlines'
"I had the Pultec and some drastic outboard EQ on the first marcato string part, and a mid-range EQ and some drastic top-end EQ on the second string part, but left the third string part alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Three of my five additional keyboard parts have the Lo-Fi, with, again, Sample Rate and Distortion being the buttons that I reach for. Those keyboards also have the Sansamp on them. 'Outro40lead' is my keyboard part, which is a synth lead. I used an instrument in Xpand! 2 and then the GTR Solo plug-in preset and, again, some Lo-Fi.”
Vocals: Antares Auto-Tune, Waves Q8, De-esser, Renaissance EQ, Vox Compressor and SSL EQ, Bomb Factory Pultec EQP-1A, Avid Smack!
"Nine of Drake's 12 vocal tracks, as well as Divine Brown's vocal track, had Auto-Tune on them. On this record I actually tuned the raps! Drake raps in a very melodic way, which is a conscious decision on his part. I therefore hit it with some Auto-Tune to centre the pitch a little bit. If I left it off, I'd be surprised if many people would notice. It's just a bit of pitch-correction. But you can hear that it's perfect, which is abnormal, of course. In addition to Auto-Tune I also had the Waves Q8 EQ on 'Drake 1', and the Waves De-esser, the RE6, the RVox, a Pultec plug-in and the Smack! on the Drake master vocal track. I like the sound of the Smack! compressor, it adds some more energy and anticipation. The 'Reverb', 'Delay', 'Exciter' and 'Delay2' tracks are all aux tracks associated with the vocals on this record. I treated all the vocals on this song as one, which is a little abnormal: I normally have chorus processing and verse processing and rap processing, and so on. But for me, the feel of this record was of a guy on stage singing the song, so it had to be coherent from the beginning to the end of the song. I sent all my vocals to one bus, and the drums and music to another bus, so I could balance them against each other just before I hit the stereo bus. There are three more plug-ins on that final vocal bus: the RCompressor, SSL EQ and Q8.”
The Way Out
As well as working with Drake, 40 has also contributed to the success of Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye (left), who guests on and co-wrote several songs on Take Care.As well as working with Drake, 40 has also contributed to the success of Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye (left), who guests on and co-wrote several songs on Take Care.
"There's a [Waves] Linear Phase EQ and an L2 limiter on the master bus, which I use when printing reference mixes. I take the L2 off when I send the track to mastering, though I'll leave the EQ in sometimes. This song ended up being, for my doing, a little bit thin, other than some good bottom end in the chorus from the bass lines that I added. But I love the fact that the vocal is really loud and in your face. I hate the loudness wars and that artists and critics mistake loudness for quality, and I tried to stay away from it for most of Take Care. But because 'Headlines' was a roll-out single for the album, I wanted it to jump out when it came on the radio, and part of that was not having so much bottom end, which gave me the headroom to push it a bit further. Bass and kick take up so much headroom, but this song is more snare-driven. So I did my best to make the song super-loud and more impactful on the radio. Because a song like 'Marvin's Room' has a lot of bass, I had to do quite a bit of tweaking during mastering to make the whole album fit together. But it's part of the fun Drake and I have in fighting all the boundaries and limits, whether from a mix or a musical standpoint. We're just a couple of kids making records and it has worked out pretty good for us!”
It's an unassuming, and very Canadian, approach. .
The Top 40
Noah '40' Shebib was born in Toronto in 1983 to an Irish-Lebanese father, and was a bit of a child prodigy, acting in Canadian TV series like The Mighty Jungle, Goosebumps and Wind At My Back. This experience informed his later successes as an engineer and a producer.
"I left school at age 10 to be able to act full-time. I grew up in the entertainment industry, with my family being actors and so on. I knew from a very early age what being an entertainer or creative person involves having to work every day to make sure you have an income and a career. I also preferred to be behind the screen rather than the person on the screen. I don't like the limelight too much. For those reasons, I always leaned towards the technical side — it had substance, whether you liked it or not. When I was a kid, I used the money I made from acting to rent a four-track tape deck and digital samplers, and I also had Sound Recorder on Windows 3. I used anything I could lay my hands on, whether consumer-level or entry-level pro stuff. When I was 12 years old, I had a little setup in the basement, with a Tascam four-track tape deck and a Roland SP202 sampler, and was making music. I'd already been programming DOS code as a six-year old kid, so when computers kicked into gear it was second nature to me. I worked with a program called Sonic Foundry Acid 3.0, and by age 12 or 13 I was fluent in any computer platform. I also started DJ'ing when I was 13, something that pulled me into the world of hip-hop. And I'd been playing piano since I was four years old, and also had a love of physics and mathematics. All these things pointed me towards a career in recording studios.”
They also pointed towards great things to come, but even someone as precocious as the young Noah Shebib had to pay his dues. He recalls, "At 19, I went to the Trebas Institute in Toronto to study audio engineering, but left after five months, because I felt I wasn't learning anything. At best, I was being reassured of things I already knew. I left to do an internship with Noel 'Gadget' Campbell, a well-known mixer in Toronto, who became my mentor and whom I work with to this day. Even 10 years ago, there was not much of a studio industry left, so I was very lucky to get to work with him. I was also lucky because Gadget worked me really hard; he didn't let me sleep. In being put through the wringer by him I really earned my stripes, so when I later walked into studios in New York, LA or Miami, I could do everything that the engineers there could. One night at 3am, I'd already been working non-stop for two or three days, Gadget walked into the control room and said: 'Listen.' He had a CD changer with 300 of his favourite discs, and all kinds of music, and we'd listen to music and talk about it until 1pm the next day. He then looked at me and said: 'Your ears are tuned now.' I understood that you need reference points to be able to hear music properly, and when you go back to your own music, you can hear right away what's right and what's wrong.”
Campbell ran a label with Chris Smith, called Blacksmith, which was licensed to Universal, and for which 40 engineered albums by rapper Jelleestone and R&B singer Divine Brown in 2004. 40 also produced two of the songs on Brown's album, one of which, 'Old Skool Love', became a gold record in Canada. It was during the Jelleestone recordings that he earned his nickname. "I'd always be sitting at the console, so they called me 40/40, meaning 40 days and 40 nights, because I never slept. That evolved into just 40. The Brown and Jelleestone records were my first major-label projects, and the former put me on the map. But after that I decided to focus on just engineering and mixing, and that's what I was doing when I first met Drake. I'd grown tired of making music and didn't have any reason to make beats. In working with Drake, I found my reason, so I stepped back into producing. Drake had gone through a lot of trial and error to identify his sound, and I had clear-cut ideas. I knew what it needed to sound like. Is it a Toronto sound? Well, there are tons of producers here in Toronto that inspired me when I was a youth, like Gadget, Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall, Mr Attic, Mazzaman and Agile.”