Inside Track: Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Chris Godbey

Published in SOS January 2014
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Two massive hit albums in a year was a pretty good return on 20 days' work for Justin Timberlake, producer Timbaland — and engineer Chris Godbey.

Paul Tingen

Justin Timberlake's album release schedule appears to be inspired by the proverbial English buses: you wait ages and then several come along at once. Before 2013, the singer had released only two albums in a decade: his 2002 debut Justified, and the follow-up Futuresex/LoveSounds in 2006. After that Timberlake became preoccupied with his acting career, though he remained an active chart presence by guesting on other people's hits, such as Madonna's '4 Minutes', TI's 'Dead And Gone', Timbaland's 'Carry Out', and Jamie Foxx's 'Winner'.

In 2013, however, Timberlake released two albums within months of each other, both called The 20/20 Experience, and scored three major hit singles: 'Suit & Tie', 'Mirrors' and 'Holy Grail'.Chris GodbeyPhoto: Catherine Li The first two songs were taken from The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2, with Jay-Z guesting on 'Suit & Tie' while 'Holy Grail', with Timberlake returning the favour, was taken from Jay-Z's album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Timberlake and his hitmaking team managed to buck the continuing slump in US album sales, because US sales alone of The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2 are approaching 2.5 million, making it the US's best-selling album of the year at the time of writing, while the album was also the fastest-selling album in iTunes' history in the week after its release in March. In addition, 'Suit & Tie' and 'Mirrors' have clocked up sales of well over six million worldwide between them.

The driving force of the team that created the music on both The 20/20 Experience albums was the legendary Timbaland, who also played a central role as co-producer and co-writer on Futuresex/LoveSounds and Magna Carta Holy Grail (he also had a hand in the making of several of the songs on Justified). Timbaland clearly enjoys working with a team around him, with Nate 'Danja' Hills his writing and production sidekick on Futuresex/LoveSounds, and Jerome 'J-Roc' Harmon fulfilling the same roles on both The 20/20 Experience albums. Timberlake's contributions on the 20/20 albums consisted of co-writing lyrics and melodies together with James Fauntleroy, singing, playing guitar and keyboards, helping out with arrangements, and keeping a close tab on the proceedings in general, resulting in a co-production credit on his 2006 and 2013 albums, plus a co-mixing credit on the two 20/20 albums.

The Gospel Of Chris

Another crucial member of Timbaland's team on the two 20/20 albums was main engineer and mixer Chris Godbey. Godbey has been Timbaland's right-hand man since 2008, and while working for the producer, he has amassed credits like Pussycat Dolls, Ashlee Simpson, Jay-Z, Timbaland, Shakira, Drake, Keri Hilson, Chris Brown and Robin Thicke. Originally from Houston, Texas, Godbey started out, he says, "as a musician, playing drums and bass and keyboards in different rock bands. I had a Korg M1 [workstation keyboard] when it first came out [1988] and an Ensoniq EPS16+ [sampler], and I always was the guy who hooked up the sound equipment. I went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in 1993 to study telecommunications, and during that time also worked in a small recording studio in the town. We initially were working with a Tascam 388, which I thought was the coolest thing ever because it had an inbuilt analogue reel-to-reel recorder and a console, all in one. Later we were using ADAT machines.

"After finishing college I had a production-type room for a while, which led to me going to work at a big studio in Dallas, called the Dallas Sound Lab. I hooked up with a gospel artist there called Kirk Franklin, and we worked together for seven years and won two Grammy Awards [for Franklin's albums Hero in 2005 and The Fight Of My Life in 2007, both in the Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album category]. Because of my connection with Franklin I recorded mainly Christian albums for many years, but around 2007 some musician friends of mine hooked me up with Timbaland, which is how I got to work with him. Since then I am wherever he is, which may be in New York, Los Angeles, Miami or his studio in Virginia Beach.”

20 Days

During his musical career, Godbey has obtained credits as composer, engineer and mastering enginer, as well as for playing synth and bass guitar, mixing, programming and producing. His work with Timbaland, however, mainly consists of engineering and mixing; a co-writing credit on one song on Thicke's Blurred Lines album is an exception. In the case of The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2 and 2 of 2, Godbey took care of almost all the engineering, apart from strings, a horn session and some guitars. As is now well known, most of the album was written and recorded in just 20 days during May and June 2012, although, as always, things are never quite what they seem. Speaking from Jungle City's Penthouse studio in New York, Godbey practices 20/20 hindsight about what exactly went on…

"The main people in the room during those first 20 days were Justin, Tim[baland], Jerome [Harmon], who plays the keyboards really well and will fill in many of the musical details and arrangements, James Fauntleroy, guitarist Elliot Ives and myself. Everybody is always in the same room: we have a party every day! We were in Studio 3 at Larrabee in Los Angeles, and we focused on writing and laying down basic tracks and vocals. Tim has some keyboards with him with loads of sounds in them, mainly the [Open Labs] Miko, which is in essence a PC with a keyboard attached to it, and for 20 percent of the time he'll use some other keyboards, mostly the Microkorg samplers, on which he also has a bunch of sounds. Tim will come up with ideas on his keyboards, and I DI him to Pro Tools, and I'll chop and edit things and he'll then give me another idea, and so on. We'll end up with loads of parts and sounds and it can sometimes be a big puzzle to line everything up later on! Tim will also come up with ideas by going into the vocal booth and doing beatbox tracks. He can easily stack eight or more beatbox tracks at a time. Justin and James will come up with the lyrics and melody lines during this stage and Justin will sing them.

"My job during this stage is to get everything into Pro Tools, and I'll be making extensive notes and I'll also be polishing the sounds in the box, using EQ and compression and so on. Many of the sounds needs some massaging to get the blends right. I generally use a Neumann M49 on Justin, and if we don't have one, a U87, going into a Neve 1073 mic pre and then a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor, going straight into Pro Tools, which was running at 44.1/24. We don't do vocal comps, because Justin knows what he wants. He listens to himself, and when he wants to touch something up, we punch him in and we move on. We don't end up with five takes of the same vocal. This makes working with him very fast and very easy.

"There were two horn sessions for the albums, and I recorded one of them, for 'Suit & Tie' using an Electro-Voice RE20 on the trombone, a Neumann U67 on the saxophone and a Royer 121 on the trumpet, all going into an AMS Neve 1073 mic pre. After that they went straight in, without compression. For Elliott Ives' electric guitar we used the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX II, which is a great unit that you can control from a laptop, and from there I took a DI into Pro Tools. For the acoustic guitar I used the Neumann KM84, sometimes two in an X-Y configuration, but because they like to stack so many guitars, for most of the time I use just one KM84. The 84 would go into a 1073 and then an Urei 1176 for some light compression and then into the box.”

Making Stems

So far, so good, except that according to Godbey, the initial writing and tracking phase was not followed by the mix stage, but by a long and involved inbetween phase, in this case all taking place at Larrabee Studio 3. This is part of Timbaland's approach to most projects. "We call it the pre-mix stage, and it's when Tim and Jerome add loads of beats and parts, and Tim added many of the lengthy outros to the songs. During this time Tim likes to have all the music routed across the console, in part because we get a good sound that way, but most of all because Tim does not liking looking at a screen. We had an 80-channel SSL K-series desk at Larrabee, and I filled all of them up and also used some of the small faders, so I had well over 80 channels in action! Laying everything out over a desk makes it possible for Tim to see what he's working with, and he likes to be able to push faders.For the 'pre-mix' stage, Chris Godbey laid out the Pro Tools sessions across the SSL desk at Larrabee Studio 3.Photo: Geoff Captain There are many stories of people having worked hard to achieve a balance that they like on the desk, and Tim coming in and in a flash radically changing everything. Usually he has a vision when he does that, but sometimes he just wants to shake things up. We then face the challenge of how to recover from that situation!

"Tim, Jerome, Elliot [Ives] and Jimmy [Douglass] and I were the main people involved in the pre-mix stage. Jimmy gave feedback on the big picture, while I would nit-pick over details with Tim. Justin had gone off to shoot a movie during the pre-mix stage, and he came back after two months, by which time we wanted to mess with his vocals and were ready for the final mixes. After Justin returned, we went in the box again, because we needed to be able to switch quickly between songs. He might suddenly want to go back to a song we did earlier and change the vocals half a dB or something. So I create stem sessions of each of the songs, by running the tracks through the desk, and then going via a nice A-D converter, the Antelope Eclipse, back into Pro Tools. The Eclipse is only two channels, so I create the stems track by track. This process really contributes to us having that analogue quality in the track, and we like the sound of that. Justin added more background vocals and wrote additional parts to what Timbaland had added or changed, and he continuously listened and gave feedback on the mix, which is why he had a co-mix credit with Jimmy and I.

"Another advantage of creating these stem sessions is that the track sessions can get so massive, it really helps to pare them down. Instead of dealing with 16 tracks of beatbox, or strings, you suddenly just have a stereo pair, and you then try to improve on that. It's more manageable and allows you to assess what you have. You consolidate that and then it's like having a clean slate from which you can take things to the next stage and improve them, even though we often go back to the original pre-stem tracks if we want to change things again. By the way, the strings were recorded at East West studios in LA, and the whole of 'Suit & Tie' was written and recorded at Jungle City in New York after we had completed the pre-mix stage in Larrabee. Timbaland, Jerome, Justin and I were there to work on Jay-Z's Holy Grail Magna Carta, and the idea was actually for Jay-Z to rap on another Timberlake song called 'Murder,' and then this whole new song suddenly came into being, so he rapped on both.”

After the initial sessions at Larrabee, further work on the albums took place in the Penthouse studio at Jungle City in New York. The same studio was also used during the making of Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, which featured a guest turn from Justin Timberlake. This photo, taken in the Penthouse during the making of Magna Carta Holy Grail, shows (from left) Jerome 'J-Roc' Harmon, producer and engineer Demo Castellon, Chris Godbey, Timothy 'Timbaland' Mosley and Big Rick Frazier.

 

Beat The Rough

All songs for The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2 and 2 of 2 were mixed by Godbey, with help from Douglass and Timberlake. They continued working in Larrabee Studio 3 for the last two weeks of the final mix stage, but despite the presence of the 80-channel SSL K desk, almost all final mixing was done 'in the box' with the occasional piece of outboard patched in. Godbey et al mostly mixed from stem tracks that had already been passed through the desk and treated with the occasional bit of outboard. In the case of 'Mirrors' they recalled pre-stem elements of the guitar and vocal sessions, to be able to work with individual tracks. Godbey stresses that he had been continuously mixing and adjusting during tracking, and also during the pre-mix stage, with Timbaland and later Timberlake changing things and adding new elements until the very last moment. For this reason writing, tracking, overdubbing and mixing all ran into each other during the entire project, making it hard to point to a specific mix stage.

"We try to have a final mix stage,” explains Godbey, "but we may be in the middle of mixing, and suddenly it's like, 'Let's change these two lines,' or 'Let's add this new idea,' and I'm recording again, and after that I match things up as best we can. Sometimes these changes can be major. These guys are funny! Basically, we're only done with the tracks once they have been released. We get some outboard going during the final mixes, like parallel compression, but I do that sparingly, because I don't really want to lay the mix out over the console again, as Tim may then come in and completely change things again. It's a delicate balance. I won't parallel compress entire groups, like a drum group, and instead I'll parallel compress just the snare, and sneak it in there without Tim noticing, so it is part of the sound.

"Also, after the tracking sessions we already had rough mixes that we loved, and Justin went home with the rough mixes of all songs we had recorded. Jimmy would then often complain when we laid everything out over the desk for the pre-mix stage, because it meant that we were unravelling everything again, making it a challenge to get our rough mixes back again, and then to go beyond them. When we lay things out over the desk it's like, 'Oh, we messed things up, now we have to start again!' Once you lay things out over the board, it's an entirely different thing.”

More Bass

Even though he was mostly working with stems at the mix, Chris Godbey ended up doing quite a bit of processing to some of them. "I had a [Empirical Labs] Distressor parallel compression chain on the drums, as well as on the beatbox tracks, plus some desk EQ and compression and a few plug-ins, like the McDSP CB2, which is my favourite compressor on drums. I didn't do much to the synth tracks, but there's a sub-bass amongst the music tracks, which I side-chained to the kick. I use the Waves Renaissance Compressor for that, because it's easy. The answer to any problem we encounter is always more bass — but the result is that there's so much bass on the sub-bass and so much on the kick that I have to work hard to keep it in check. In side-chaining the sub-bass to the kick, I dip the sub-bass just before the kick plays and then the sub takes over again. So I create this brief window each time for the kick. I also rolled off some low end on the bass with the [McDSP] Filterbank EQ.

Chris Godbey used extensive automation on Justin Timberlake's lead vocal tracks. Each of the three main vocal tracks (lower half) has level automation, which is operating prior to compression. The lead vocal bus track (top) has a send to a delay, which again is extensively automated.

"The guitar track in grey, '@HO', is the guitar stem, but when we got to the final mix we did not like the blend we had, so we got all the original guitar tracks out again and worked with them, because I wanted to be able to treat them individually. For this reason there are all these guitar tracks below the 'Aux 21' track, which is an aux for the guitars with Filterbank on it. Sometimes we stack loads of stereo guitars and I often use the McDSP compressor to dip the left channel on one track completely, and the right channel on the next track, and so on. I don't pan the stereo tracks left or right, I just want what's on the left, or on the right, and I'll then have the compressor over the remaining signal. The 'C' on the guitars is the McDSP compressor.

Chris Godbey's processing chain for the backing vocals: McDSP compressor and EQ plus Waves C4 multi-band.

"Below the guitars are Justin's lead vocals, which have quite a few plug-ins on them. When we were mixing this song and he heard what we had done he felt that something had gotten lost in translation in the stems. The outboard Urei 1176 we'd been using had added a bit too much crunch to his vocals. So, like with the guitars, we got the original pre-1176 vocals out again. I combined the three red vocal tracks on the screenshot cut out and called them 'JT Leads', and you can see that I'm using the McDSP Compressor Bank (CB1), going into the McDSP Filterbank (E6) and then the Waves C4 multi-band compressor, plus there are tons of automated level adjustments.I like to do the level adjustments pre-compression, fixing 't's and close-up things that stick out, so the compressor won't work too hard just for those short moments. If you fix these things with level automation and compress afterwards, you get a better performance from your compressor. I also had an Avid Extra Long Delay (E) and a Reverb (3) on the vocals, via Aux track 11, plus the '8' in the sends goes to an Aux track with the [Sound Toys] Echo Boy on it. During the pre-stem stage we also tune the vocals using [Celemony] Melodyne or sometimes [Antares] Auto-Tune. It's not so much to get Justin's vocals in tune, because he's right on the money when he sings, but more because using Melodyne slightly sharpens and brightens all the vocal harmonies.

"Aux tracks 3, 32, and 33 are for the backing vocals, and again have the McDSP Compressor Bank and Filterbank and the Waves C4 and the send to the Echo Boy Aux, plus below these three Aux tracks, there's a track called 'bgsdl', which has another Echo Boy or [Line 6] Echo Farm delay for the background vocals.I've been phasing Echo Farm out, because it's not compatible with Pro Tools HDX. It's very annoying. The same thing is happening with the McDSP Filterbank plug-in, which I love. They've created a new version, but it's not quite the same, plus it doesn't allow you to pull up the settings from the earlier version. So when I jump from Pro Tools 10 to 11 I lose these things. I've been going back and forward between 10 and 11 recently, to see where things are at, and HDX is awesome, but in other respects it's behind, specifically with regards to plug-in compatibility, and also HDX is not great for zero-latency tracking.

"With regards to the Outro session, we thought the song was finished, and then suddenly Tim came up with this entire end section, which we mixed down to these stems, and then Justin added to that. To have everything in one session was too much, so we kept the two sections separate. There is quite a lot of reverb in the outro, for which I used [Avid] ReVibe and maybe some outboard Lexicon 960 as well, just occasionally. The distortion on the 'You Are The Love of My Life' vocals was done with [Bomb Factory] Sansamp, which is the quickest and easiest thing to pull up when you want some distortion. The 'S' on Justin's vocals is the Sansamp and 'A' is Auto-Tune, and at the bottom of those screenshots are some Aux channels for the vocals. The effects on the lead vocal Aux tracks are similar to those on the lead vocals in the first part of the song, with Compressor Bank, Filterbank and the C4, but the sends go to the four Aux tracks below, which are all different instances of Echo Boy. Aux 4 also has the Filterbank and the [Waves] Mondo Mod.

"I mixed back into the session, and just put a bit of [Waves] L2 on the mix for referencing, and I took that off again when the song went to mastering. I don't use many plug-ins, and also use a relatively small selection of plug-ins. The thing is, I don't need to do much. The songs and sounds are already so good and so strong, my main job is not to mess that up! All the songs on the album are very sonically adventurous, so yes, you could say that this is Justin's prog rock album!”  .

Heavy Sessions

Because of the exceptionally fluid way in which Timbaland and his team work, there's no final mix screenshot that shows the entire session. Chris Godbey provided some screen shots of the 'Mirrors' recording sessions, which show that the pre-stem session for the first half of the song has nine tracks of Timbaland beatboxing, eight tracks of Timbaland Miko drums, 18 tracks of music from Harmon and two from Timbaland, 20 tracks of guitars, eight tracks of Timberlake lead vocals and 56 tracks of Timberlake backing vocals, totalling 121 tracks. Incidentally, according to an interview with Harmon, the first half of 'Mirrors' was written and in part recorded in 2009, during the sessions for Timbaland's third album Shock Value II. In 2012, the initial 'Mirrors' session was reworked, and Timbaland added a second half to the song, which comes to the fore at 5'24” and extends the song to 8'04”. This second half is underpinned by the repeating phrase "You are the love of my life”, and consists of more than 50 tracks that were laid out over the SSL and condensed to 14 stem tracks, to which Timberlake added 23 lead and backing vocal tracks.

This composite screen captures shows the stem session that was used to derive the final mix of 'Mirrors'. As well as the stems themselves, a number of individual guitar tracks and a lot of backing vocal tracks are visible.

Because of the exceptionally fluid way in which Timbaland and his team work, there's no final mix screenshot that shows the entire session. Chris Godbey provided some screen shots of the 'Mirrors' recording sessions, which show that the pre-stem session for the first half of the song has nine tracks of Timbaland beatboxing, eight tracks of Timbaland Miko drums, 18 tracks of music from Harmon and two from Timbaland, 20 tracks of guitars, eight tracks of Timberlake lead vocals and 56 tracks of Timberlake backing vocals, totalling 121 tracks. Incidentally, according to an interview with Harmon, the first half of 'Mirrors' was written and in part recorded in 2009, during the sessions for Timbaland's third album Shock Value II. In 2012, the initial 'Mirrors' session was reworked, and Timbaland added a second half to the song, which comes to the fore at 5'24” and extends the song to 8'04”. This second half is underpinned by the repeating phrase "You are the love of my life”, and consists of more than 50 tracks that were laid out over the SSL and condensed to 14 stem tracks, to which Timberlake added 23 lead and backing vocal tracks.



 

Because of the exceptionally fluid way in which Timbaland and his team work, there's no final mix screenshot that shows the entire session. Chris Godbey provided some screen shots of the 'Mirrors' recording sessions, which show that the pre-stem session for the first half of the song has nine tracks of Timbaland beatboxing, eight tracks of Timbaland Miko drums, 18 tracks of music from Harmon and two from Timbaland, 20 tracks of guitars, eight tracks of Timberlake lead vocals and 56 tracks of Timberlake backing vocals, totalling 121 tracks. Incidentally, according to an interview with Harmon, the first half of 'Mirrors' was written and in part recorded in 2009, during the sessions for Timbaland's third album Shock Value II. In 2012, the initial 'Mirrors' session was reworked, and Timbaland added a second half to the song, which comes to the fore at 5'24” and extends the song to 8'04”. This second half is underpinned by the repeating phrase "You are the love of my life”, and consists of more than 50 tracks that were laid out over the SSL and condensed to 14 stem tracks, to which Timberlake added 23 lead and backing vocal tracks.



The 'pre-stem' vocal session. The final Pro Tools mix session for the first half of the song had 12 drums and percussion stem tracks at the top (the clips in the Edit window are in blue; all stem tracks are marked '@'), and 10 music stem tracks (audio clips in purple). The stem tracks usually don't have plug-ins, as these will have been applied during the pre-stem stage. Underneath that are two aux tracks and then 12 individual non-stem guitar tracks (brown), followed by four string stem tracks, four more guitar stem tracks, lead vocals (red) and very extensive backing vocals (62 multi-coloured tracks).The original 'pre-stem' music session for 'Mirrors', with drum tracks at the top followed by other instruments.

 

Suit & Tie

As Chris Godbey mentions in the main article, the other big hit from The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2, 'Suit & Tie', was written 

Compared with the sessions for 'Mirrors', the stem session from which 'Suit & Tie' was mixed is relatively simple.

and recorded at the end of the pre-mix period, in the Penthouse studio at Jungle City in New York City, which sports an SSL Duality desk. After that session, the company returned to Larrabee Studio 3 to mix The 20/20 Experience, including 'Suit & Tie'. The Pro Tools session for this song is much more straightforward than for 'Mirrors' because, says Godbey, "once we were done with it, that was it. While 'Mirrors' was mixed, then deconstructed and then mixed again, we got the mix of 'Suit & Tie' right from the beginning and created a very comprehensive stem session, and there was no need to go back to the pre-stem sessions and re-blend vocals or guitars.”

For this reason, the stem session for 'Suit & Tie' is very transparent, with an 808 stem at the top, followed by two kick stems, a snare stem, a hi-hat stem, a percussion stem, an open hat stem, two more snare stems, a horn stem, a bass stem and so on, until the tracks for Timberlake's vocals and Jay-Z's rap at the bottom of the session. The neatly laid-out session contains 30 stem tracks and 10 non-stem vocal tracks, with one interesting aspect being that the 808, kick, snare and several other stems appear twice. When looking at the waveforms of the song the reason becomes apparent, which is that the song is split in two, with the intro section and the rap and third verse having a different group of tracks from the rest of the song. Godbey highlights some of the more significant details.

"We slowed down the beat by holding down Shift and hitting the space bar, so the session runs at half speed. Everybody likes that effect at some stage, and we did that here for the beginning and the rap and third verse sections. To illustrate what I was doing, I pulled out my treatment of the snare samples from the pre-stem session, and you can see that I'm separating the snares and the kicks by adding some low-mid to fill out the snare, using the McDSP Filterbank, and the McDSP 4030 Retro compressor. I really like to use parallel compression on the snare, but that's not always possible, so instead I used the Retro plug-in here. I can set the degree of parallel compression using the Mix control, and the UAD Neve 1073SE EQ added some Neve colour to the snare. 'JTLE' is Justin's lead vocal track, and 'LDVF' are the effects on the lead vocals, which I printed. Part of them are some Echo Farm delays, one of them adding a quarter-note delay, the other an eighth-note slap delay, plus there's a really long delay from the Digirack Mod Delay, and EQ'd heavily using the Filterbank EQ, which appears just a couple of times in the song.”


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Shahid Khan has gone from pizza delivery man to in-demand producer — with a little help from Noel Edmonds.

Inside Track: Mixing the Led Zeppelin Reunion

Alan Moulder | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

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The film of Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert was five years in the making — yet Alan Moulder had only three weeks to mix the entire soundtrack!

Peter Cobbin & Kirsty Whalley

Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers:

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Underpinning the biggest spectacle of 2012 London Olympic Games was probably the largest multitrack recording ever made. Just how do you mix a thousand-track project?

Royal Appointment

Mike Stevens: Musical Director For The Queen’s Jubilee Concert

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Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world’s biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee concert.

 

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