Bruno Mars is the year's hottest pop star, and one‑third of ace production team the Smeezingtons. Fellow Smeezington Ari Levine reveals how they created his hit album in a modest LA studio.
Bruno Mars shot to the top of the international charts in the summer of 2010 with his song 'Just The Way You Are'. This, followed a few months later by the worldwide smash hit 'Grenade', made sure that his debut album, Doo‑Wops & Hooligans, also sold like hotcakes. The singer's first mainstream exposure had come earlier in the same year, with performances on B.o.B.'s mega hit 'Nothin' On You' and Travie McCoy's 'Billionaire', both co‑written by Mars and produced by production trio the Smeezingtons, of which Mars is a part.
Critics have assumed that Mars' appearance on these two songs was a producer's vanity effort, but in fact his ambition from day one has been to become a pop star; he developed a parallel career as a producer purely because, well, the path towards stardom tends to be of the long and winding variety. As part of his journey, Mars combined forces in 2008 with fellow‑singer Philip Lawrence and musician/songwriter/engineer Ari Levine, and began the Smeezingtons. Mars and Lawrence had already tasted the big time with Flo Rida's super hit 'Right Round', but they'd co‑written it with a posse of other writers, and didn't co‑produce. Levine's instrumental and production talents proved a perfect complement for the two singers' focus on melody and lyrics, and their first joint writing and production effort, 'Get Sexy' by the Sugababes, was a UK number two. 'Nothin' On You' and 'Billionaire' then put the Smeezingtons into the hit parade stratosphere, as did Mars' solo album and two other major hits the team co‑wrote and (co‑)produced: Cee Lo Green's 'Fuck You' and Far East Movement's 'Rocketeer'. At the time of writing, the Smeezingtons have produced three American and four UK chart‑toppers, and have received five Grammy nominations. Given that the team isn't yet three years old, this is exceptional.
All this is more than enough reason for SOS to track down the trio's tech‑head and main instrumentalist, Ari Levine, at the Smeezingtons' Levcon studios in Los Angeles, which Ari co‑owns with his manager and brother Josh. Levcon contains a strikingly minimal amount of gear — little more than a decent home studio — and whether there's a direct connection between these two things is hard to say, but Ari Levine proves as economical with his words as with his gear. He rarely gives answers that extend beyond two or three lines, prompting continued repeated questioning:
"What are you working on there at Levcon, Ari?”
"I have an Akai MPC4000, Roland Fantom S88, V‑Synth GT, a regular V‑Synth, Korg R3, MicroKorg, Novation Ultranova, Dave Smith Mopho, and two Virus TIs.”
"Do you use soft synths?”
"Yeah, I use a few.”
"What do you have in terms of recording gear?”
"I have a Yamaha 02R, Pro Tools HD, a Manley Langevin Dual Vocal Combo pre/compressor/EQ, a Neumann U87 and Event SP8 speakers with an 18‑inch Mackie sub, and that's it.”
"That setup is probably not much more advanced than that of many of our readers.”
"Yes, it's a very simple setup. Anyone could have this exact same setup. People come in here and they go like: you did all these hits on this?”
"So do you record and mix everything there, or do you go to other studios?”
"We do everything here. Some of the mixing has been outsourced, but I mixed 'Nothin' On You' and 'Billionaire' here.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that when asked why he doesn't join Mars and Lawrence on tour and stays alone in his studio, Levine replies "I don't want to be famous or on stage. I just want to make music.” It's something that the 26‑year old appears to have had in his sights since he began playing drums and piano as a child, while growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey. At the age of 16, he persuaded his parents to allow him to drop out of school to do an internship at a small New York demo studio. Levine continues the story:
"It was at Mother West Studios, a small facility that records indie bands and so on. Not long afterwards, I moved to Los Angeles, where I went to the Los Angeles Recording School, and after that I got an internship in another studio here. I basically worked as a recording engineer, and bought gear from whatever money I could set aside. I then went freelance and took clients with me to different studios, and I'd make friends with a bunch of different people, including studio owners. One studio owner had a small extra room, and I convinced him to let me put my gear in there and work there. After one and a half years, my brother and I had enough equipment to start our own small studio in Hollywood, which is Levcon. We started that about six years ago. Initially, I was just making tracks and sending them to songwriters to add top lines to, but once I began working with Bruno and Phil, writing became more organic. We now start all songs we write from scratch, and don't use pre‑made tracks or loops any more.”
With a bit of coaxing and encouragement, Ari Levine gradually spills the beans on exactly how Mars, Lawrence and he constructed the songs for Doo‑Wops & Hooligans. Whereas minimalism is clearly Levine's style when it comes to words and equipment, writing and recording songs is not such a simple process. The songs for the album took three years to write, even though the actual production and recording period was compressed into three months. Levine explains: "We can spend months writing one song. 'Grenade' took several months to write, regardless even of doing the actual production. We had the first and second line of the chorus, and then we found the third line, and after that we had to figure out how to make the music change, write the verse and keep it interesting, and end it. That was months of sitting in the studio and losing sleep over how we were going to make the song work. We knew that we had something awesome, but we weren't always confident that it would work.
"There's not really a set way in which we write tracks, although Bruno and Phil tend to do the top lines, and Bruno also plays guitar and piano. But sometimes I'll have a drum loop going that I've programmed in the MPC, using some of the thousands of sounds I have collected, or using Storm Drum or Addictive Drums software. Then Bruno will go to the piano or pick up a guitar and will come up with a few chords, and he'll be singing a melody, or Phil will be singing a melody, and we'll go from there. Sometimes we'll begin with a chord idea, and we'll figure out the right tempo and I'll build drums underneath that. We had many song ideas lying around for a long time, and then we really finished them and began recording, three months before we were due to hand in the album.
"'Grenade' was definitely one of the more difficult songs on the album to write, but I wouldn't say any of them were easy. They were all hard work! On top, 'Grenade' was initially produced in a different way. We had recorded the song with a more guitar‑based arrangement that was 15bpm faster. Bruno played the song slower live, and the label was like, 'Oh, that's incredible.' So we had to reproduce it in the way you hear it now on the radio, two days before the album was supposed to be handed in. There was quite a bit of deadline stress involved in that. We completely rearranged and re‑recorded the song, including the vocals. The drums in 'Grenade' came from a combination of my MPC and some software drums, and I created the piano sound in the Fantom. The rest of the synth sounds came from the Virus, and I use the V‑synth and the MicroKorg on pretty much everything. Bruno and I played the keyboards and Brody Brown played the bass. He's an incredible musician who has a great feel and he can play everything. He played on a few tracks on the album, but he's not a member of the Smeezingtons.”
Although Levine asserts that the Smeezingtons begin all their tracks from scratch, the production team do also follow current industry protocol for writing pop/R&B music, in that they often co‑write with others and/or use a track constructed by others. 'Just The Way You Are' for example, was co‑written and co‑produced with Needlz, a hip‑hop producer who has also worked with 50 Cent and Lupe Fiasco. Levine explains: "Needlz had a track with a melody idea by Khalil Walton that was presented to us by one of the A&R guys. Bruno and Phil came up with the chorus, and then Needlz sent us the files and we replaced a bunch of sounds with our sounds and I programmed drums in the MPC, and we wrote the rest of the song. I never met Needlz or Walton. It was the same with the two tracks we did with Supa Dups: [we] were just sending files to and fro. We had actually finished those tracks, but we were looking for a dub sound and could just not nail it and so we asked him to finish them.”
The two tracks treated by the Jamaica‑based Supa Dups are 'Our First Time' and 'Liquor Store Blues'. The slightly more experimental 'The Other Side', featuring Cee Lo Green and B.o.B., has had a lot of critical acclaim, and was co‑written by a whole swathe of people (Mars, Lawrence, Levine, Brody Brown, Mike Caren, Patrick Stump, Kaveh Rastegar, John Wicks, Jeremy Ruzumna, Joshua Lopez, Bobby Simmons Jr.), but was produced by the Smeezingtons alone. Levine explains that "'The Other Side' was also written to somebody else's track. We redid the sounds and then added things on top of it. Then we found out that there were all these writers on the track, and we went OMG! In general, we find it easier to write songs to an existing track. We approach writing songs almost like remixes: anything can change at any point in time. There's nothing set in stone.
"'Talking To The Moon' is one of my favourite songs on the album. We only had the first verse and the horns, but we knew that it was great. We then had three different bridges and we spent a lot of time trying to find out which one was the best. Jeff Bhasker is a fantastic musician, and he helped write that track. I think we tried to arrange and produce this in four different ways, mostly trying to figure out what kind of drums to put on. 'The Lazy Song', was also a very tough song to write, even though it is so simple. That song began one day when we were hanging around the studio and hadn't written a song for a few days and we were kind of burnt out and didn't feel like working. We felt lazy. K'naan was in the studio with us, and the four of us suddenly came up with this idea. After that we had a really hard time getting the groove and the drums to sit right. Once you have one piece of the puzzle, like when you realise that a drum track is good, you can add other things in after that.”
As well as synths and samplers, the Smeezingtons use a fair amount of conventional instruments such as basses, acoustic and electric guitars. But with only one mic and one mic preamp in Levcon, surely Levine's minimalism doesn't extend to recording everything with just that? Apparently it does. "Yeah,” exclaims Levine, "the acoustics and vocals are all recorded with the 87 and the Manley, the basses and electric guitars via DI. Actually, the acoustic guitar that we use is a $150 cheap Fender. For us, it really is all about the songs, so we don't focus much on the gear and we don't feel we need more stuff. I do think a blend of the analogue and digital works well, so you get the crispy cleanness of digital and a little bit of the warmth from analogue. For this reason, I run most of the keyboards and the MPC through the 02R, just for the preamps, which helps to give a bit of an analogue effect. The 02R is better than a Behringer or a Mackie, and without going crazy and getting a Neve, it serves us well. The Manley stuff goes directly into Pro Tools, and doesn't touch the 02R. When I mix, I use the 02R purely for monitoring. Plus I have one of these Mackie Big Knobs as an interface. I don't print my mixes via the 02R.”
Laborious songwriting processes apart, Ari Levine's penchant for keeping things simple runs through everything. One wonders whether his minimal setup has been the result of pre‑hit budget restrictions, and now that the royalties are rolling in, most producers would be tempted to splash out. Not so the Smeezingtons. "No, as I said, we like the studio as it is. We're not planning to change anything. The studio is not too big, so there is not much room to expand. And we don't want to go somewhere else. This place has a lot of character. It has a really great work vibe — we are here to work, not to sit around and watch TV and eat candy. Maybe I'll buy a Minimoog, because I love it, and there aren't any really good soft‑synth alternatives. Our studio is very good for doing work, and while I like working with Pro Tools, I don't really think it matters what program you use, they all do the same thing. I know people who have made hits on Fruity Loops. It's about the person controlling the software. I've also never had a problem with [the oft‑criticised implementation of] MIDI in Pro Tools. In fact, I don't use MIDI that intensively. We're not making dance songs, so we don't need the synths to do all kinds of crazy stuff. And I fairly quickly render MIDI tracks to audio in Pro Tools.”
In short, Ari Levine is happy doing what he's doing, working where and with what he has, and not seeking to change anything. And when asked what's next for him, unsurprisingly, it comes down to 'more of the same'. "I'll join Bruno and Phil for a couple of weeks of their US tour, and we'll spend some time writing. I'll then come back here and will finish up these tracks. I also just did a song with Taio Cruz, I'm working with a band called the Rescues, and I just did four songs with an artist named John West. So I do a lot of production here in my studio, on my own. As I said, I have no desire to go on stage or be famous. I simply plan to continue working with the Smeezingtons and work by myself as a producer.”
Ari Levine explains that he mixes at Levcon despite the fact that the studio has had no acoustic treatment. Though he also uses a few plug‑ins, his commitment to minimalism also extends into this domain. "Yeah, the studio is pretty ghetto. I mixed 'Nothin' On You' here, for example. I do a lot of mixes here, and it works well. However, the tracks on Doo‑Wops & Hooligans were mixed by Manny Marroquin, because we were making the album so quickly that I did not have the time to mix. It's also easier to have someone else mix your songs, because sometimes they have a better perspective. I write and I play and I engineer, so it gets quite intense, and it can be hard for me to mix as well, even though our sessions aren't normally too complicated. It's rare that we end up with a hundred‑plus tracks in a session. We may have 40 tracks in a session, and that'll be it. The sounds are all doing their own job, and Bruno's vocal performances are amazing, so we don't need to stack and comp. Usually each session has a single track for the lead vocals.
"I don't use any outboard when I mix. To my ears, the difference in sound quality between plug‑ins and outboard is so minimal that you can't really tell. I am not going to rush out and buy an 1176. In fact, I don't even like the 1176. In any case, today the plug‑ins do pretty much the same thing. It also depends on the kind of song. If you're doing a dance song that's all digital, running it through a lot of analogue gear doesn't match the feel. If I was recording a live band, I might hire an analogue studio and use a lot of analogue equipment, like preamplifiers and compressors. But for me in my studio, that doesn't match. So I use only plug‑ins, and my favourites are the McDSP FilterBank for my EQ, the Waves Rvox and Renaissance Compressor as my compressors, the [Waves limiter] L2, and my favourite reverb is [Avid's venerable plug‑in] D‑Verb. I also use [Line 6] Echo Farm, Sound Toys Echoboy, and, well that's pretty much it. I have many plug‑ins, but I don't really use them. All you need in any case is EQ, compression, delay and reverb, and the D‑Verb is good enough. I've tried convolution reverbs, but they don't really work. They sound cheap. The idea is that they sample a room, but they don't sound anything like that room, but rather like a crummy digital version of it. The [Avid algorithmic reverb] Reverb One sounds way better than Altiverb to me. I've worked in some of the studios they sample, and the studios sound great, but the convolution reverb doesn't sound anything like it.”