Madonna's popularity shows no sign of flagging, thanks in part to her ability to seek out cutting-edge production talent. Producer and mixer Demo Castellon explains how he shaped her latest chart-topper.
Photo: Jeremy LewisMadonna will be 50 this year, yet she still manages to keep her finger on the pulse of the youth-orientated music market. Her recent single '4 Minutes' was a number one in more than two dozen countries around the world, and made her the artist with the most top 10 hits in the history of American music. She also broke records in the UK, where '4 Minutes' was her 61st Top 10 hit and her 13th number one.
Her continuing success has been brought about by well-chosen collaborations with musicians and producers, and for her new album, Hard Candy, she turned for several of the tracks to Timbaland, arguably the biggest hitmaker of the 21st century so far. Following the disco/dance music of Confessions On A Dance Floor (2005), Hard Candy is Madonna's take on the hip-hop/R&B wave that's been dominating the charts in recent years. '4 Minutes' features Timberland on vocals as well as the producer's trademark clattering drum programming, cheerleading vocals, and catchy minor-key synth lines.
Also involved in the making of the Timbaland tracks on Hard Candy were regular cohorts such as Nate 'Danja' Hills, Justin Timberlake, Marcella Araica (featured in February 2008's Inside Track), and Demacio 'Demo' Castellon, who has worked with Timbaland since 2002, with credits including Wyclef Jean, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Rihanna, Fergie and Nelly Furtado. While Danja and Timberlake helped out on the writing, playing and production front, Araica and Castellon engineered. Castellon's credits on the album also include programming, scratching, mixing, remixing, and additional production. He performed all but the last two duties on '4 Minutes'.
"I wasn't there for the first set of sessions for Madonna's album," says Demo, "because I was working on another project, but I was lucky enough to go in for the second set of sessions. When I arrived, about 65 percent of the song was pretty much there, everything from the drums to the basic keyboard lines. I recorded the rest, and I also did some programming, particularly in the intro and the end. But Tim is the creative force behind everything we do. To me he's the Mozart of our times. It's a different adventure every day, just sitting there watching him you can't help but think 'Damn, he's good!' It's very collaborative. I just try to add to his genius as best as I can. He's like Batman with me being Robin: I take his lead."
The recording sessions for '4 Minutes' took place at SARM Studio 3 in West London, on a 72-channel SSL 9080. "We recorded straight into Pro Tools, 44.1/24-bit," recalls Castellon. "I'm quite happy with that. I don't go by theory, I go with what sounds good to my ears. I can hear the difference between 16 and 24 bits, but I can't hear the difference between 96k and 44.1k. I don't think the average consumer can hear it either. And when you're working 96/24 the files just get ridiculously big."
At SARM, Timbaland and Danja used their trusted Akai MPC3000 and Ensoniq ASR10 sampling drum machines, Yamaha Motif workstation and several soft synths to build the backing track for '4 Minutes'. "I think the horn samples came from the Motif, but I'm not sure," explains Castellon. "There were dedicated analogue keyboards and the rest were soft synths. But we're always experimenting and we're always using whatever equipment we have in the studio we work in. We may have our preferences, but we're always into trying new things. That's why our stuff sounds different to that of everybody else. We're constantly flying around the world — I like to say that my home base is American Airlines seat 3A — and we work in many different studios. We'll use whatever mic pres are there to see what happens. And we customise the sounds we develop before they go into Pro Tools, so they sound exactly the way we want them to.
"We also don't use Pro Tools in the way most people do. We may use plug-ins here and there, but nowhere near what other people do. Most of the processing is analogue outside of the box. I like certain plug-ins and I think they can be really cool, but I stick to a small group of them, like Metaflanger and D-Verb, and almost all the Waves plug-ins. Pretty much every studio has the Waves plug–ins, and since I never know where I'm going to work, I prefer to stick to them. I think plug-ins look really cool, but the thing is, to my ears they all sound the same. They don't have a very identifiable sound. But each piece of outboard gear does have its own sound. I'm probably separating myself from the rest of the pack in saying this, because I know a lot of my peers stick to their guns when it comes to plug-ins, but to each his own. Some guys can make Pro Tools and the plug-ins sound great. Other guys still work on a cassette deck or with DATs. It's whatever works for you."
The mixing of'4 Minutes' was done
at the Hit Factory (formerly Criteria Studios) in Miami, on a 96-channel SSL J-series desk. "My favourite desk is actually the Neve VR60," comments Castellon. "I think it fits my style. I love the sound of it and the way I can hit the levels. I can overdrive it and it sounds great. But I'm not picky in what I use. I like the SSL too, there's nothing bad about it. It's definitely a Cadillac among the mixing desks and I've done a lot of mixes on them. But my favorite mixes were all done on a Neve. I'm also not a mixing-in-the-box guy. I'm from the old platter. Some guys like to do it, and I don't knock it, because they can get a great sound out of it. But I can't do it. I like touching knobs. Sitting behind a computer and messing with a mouse is not as much fun to me. When you play with a computer you can feel like you're at home doing some office work. Sitting behind a large desk is much more inspiring." "
Written by Madonna, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake & Danja
Produced by Timbaland, Danja & Justin Timberlake
'4 Minutes' Written by Madonna, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake & Danja
The backing track for '4 Minutes' consists mainly of brass, synths, and percussion. If this sounds relatively simple, the reality is different, asserts Castellon. "The Session is actually much bigger than most people would think, because Tim and Danja take a lot of pride in designing their own sounds. Sometimes what sounds like one sound is eight different sounds layered on top of each other. A lot of the background parts can be stacked several times. The drums and percussion on '4 Minutes' are 23 stereo tracks, so 46 tracks in total, there were 16 stereo tracks of brass, and so on. The whole session panned out to about 100 tracks, and I took 80 outputs from Pro Tools to the SSL, so there was some submixing in Pro Tools. But for the most part it was straight across the board.
"I did the level rides on the CM Labs Motormix controller, because I did not want to use SSL automation. I was jumping between mixes, and I did not want to worry about the SSL computer messing up my blends on a recall, which has happened to me. With some consoles, when you kick on the automation, sometimes the faders start to go haywire and mess up my blends. If I'd only been working on one song, I would have used the J-series automation, because I really like it, but in this situation it felt like playing with fire. So I used the Pro Tools automation, which is probably the easiest automation there is. I did the level rides on the small Motormix controller that I usually carry with me. It's nothing special, just a bank of eight faders, connected to Pro Tools via Ethernet.
"I then ran everything through the SSL, on which I did EQ, compression and panning. It was also important for me to use the desk, because I wanted everything to run through analogue circuitry, for summing purposes. Of course, I also connected the outboard effects to the SSL. As I said, I prefer outboard effects, so I used few plug–ins during mixing. Almost all plug-ins would have been used at the recording stage. One additional reason for this is that I didn't know where the track would be mixed, so I needed to make sure that the plug-ins I was using would be available wherever I went. It made sense for me to use very few."
Given the massive amount of backing tracks and the fact that many of the parts are very busy, it's easy to imagine that one of the main challenges in mixing '4 Minutes' was making sure that the music didn't overwhelm the vocals. Castellon readily confirms this and explains that it led him to an unusual approach. "I started with the vocals, then I added in the music, and the drums were last. That's unusual for me, even though I don't really have a set way of mixing. It all depends on the song. Sometimes I'll start with what's closest to me on the mixing desk. I will always begin a mix with cleaning up the Session, doing crossfades, making sure there's no headphone bleed, or pops. I hate pops. I spend a lot of time making sure everything is smooth and clean.
"When I opened up the session of '4 Minutes', there was so much going on that I knew right away that the hard part would be to make sure that the vocals would cut through and were right in the pocket. Beginning with working on the vocals was the only way to achieve this. After that I formed all the other parts around the vocals. The other challenge was to make sure that everything in the track sounded clear and that you could hear every instrument, every syllable, every breath. Also, I do almost always work linear in time on a track. It's easier, because when you're done, you're done. So I keep working on section after section, until I get to the end of the track and then I know the whole mix is pretty close."
"I started working with the vocals in the order in which they appeared on the track, so I began with Timbaland's intro vocals. Then I worked on Madonna's vocal, and when that sounded cool I went onto Justin's. I tried to get the vocals as close as possible to the way I wanted them in the final mix. The vocal became my point of reference, and I needed to make sure it sounded as good as possible. While working on the vocal I would occasionally put the kick drum or the horns or the synths next to them, to see how they sounded in context.
"On Tim's vocals I used desk EQ, taking out some bottom end, and light desk compression, 6:1 maximum. He sometimes got really loud, and I made sure I caught the vocal before it clipped. I also put on a small hall reverb to complement the room sound from his vocal mic. When you heard the track solo you could hear the room, and I wanted to emphasise that a little more. For this I used a Yamaha REV5 on his main intro vocals and a Roland Dimension D on his ad libs. I used the same settings on Tim's voice throughout the song.
"There's also a flanging effect from an MXR and a small slap delay coming from a Lexicon PCM42. I added a chorus effect from the Waves Metaflanger plug-in to that slap delay to give it a different sound. It's easy to use the telephone effect that we often use on Tim [coming from a "20-year old little red box", the exact nature of which Castellon refuses to divulge], but in this case I didn't want to use that. So I was messing around, and tried the PCM42, and liked it, but it wasn't distinctive enough. When I then added the Metaflanger it made it more unique. The distortion on Tim's background vocals? He did that himself. It's the way he plays with the mic. It's kind of weird, he knows how to mimic sound so good that he can create pretty much anything with his voice. So he did the vocal effects himself. I just added a little bit of the same reverb that I had used on his main vocals.
"On Madonna's vocals I added some high mids on the desk EQ, and again desk compression, 2:1 ratio, nothing serious. I didn't use any outboard EQ or compression anywhere in the track, it was all from the SSL. I added an eighth-note delay from the PCM42, and a reverb from the Eventide H3500 for the verse and the TC3000 for the hook. The delay was designed to give her voice some space. I think this was all I used. There may have been some effects when her vocal was recorded, but they would have been printed back.
"I treated Justin pretty much in the same way, with some desk EQ, taking out some low-mids, and desk compression, 4:1 ratio. In addition, I used a Lexicon PCM70 with a small chorus effect on Justin, and on the first verse, where he goes 'Oooh', I loaded his vocal onto a CD and then played it back using the Pioneer CDJ1000, transforming it like a DJ. The EQ on the vocals was used to make the transitions between the three singers smooth. The compression on all three of them was just to make sure nothing jumped out at you. Making the transition from Tim to Madonna to Justin was difficult, because they're different singers, with different styles and timbres, and one is a woman. These vocals were as different as it gets. I wanted to make sure that the transition between them was smooth and flawless. It wasn't my aim to make the three vocals sound the same, but I did want to make them sound more 'brother and sister'–like. All compression was applied on the submixes, on the groups coming back. So I also added some Waves Renaissance compressor on the THC, the hook vocal comp containing all the vocals in the hook."
"The brass was keyboard samples, probably played by Tim. There were trumpets, trombones, I think there even was a tuba. I treated all the 32 tracks individually, simply beginning with the first track on the track listing, getting it to where I wanted it, and then treating and adding the rest one by one. I didn't add reverb or any other effects, just some desk EQ, and the rest was working with levels and panning, getting the right blend. In fact, I didn't add any effects to the music at all, because if I had, I would have lost the vocals. The tracks sounded good the way they were and that made my life a lot easier.
"You can tell the difference between a great producer and an average producer by the way they create their sounds, the way they do sound design. These guys are the best, and know how to create their sounds. In the case of '4 Minutes', Tim had a vision from the beginning of how things should go, especially sonically. He's a real producer. He doesn't look only at the music, he looks at the sounds as well. He's also a great engineer and he has an incredible ear and he knows exactly how to piece things together in the stereo spectrum. He knew how he wanted things to sound, and that made it really easy for me on the sonic side of things. All I had to do was make sure that everything was clean and it all cut through.
"I call everything that's not the vocals or the brass 'miscellaneous' in my Session. There's too much stuff to keep track of, there's even a flute sample, and several synths, including the synth bass. You don't really hear all the individual keyboard parts, as many are stacked — the main thing you hear is the main keyboard line and the bass. But together with the vocals and the horns, it was a lot of material. This meant that I had to figure out the spacing. Doing this was the biggest thing in this song. I spent a lot of time on this, bringing this track up a little bit and bringing that track down a little bit, and so on. Again, there were no effects, just a little bit of mild desk EQ to make things fit. And again, these guys are the best, so the tracks sounded great as they were, I didn't need to change much. The main thing was to make sure that I left enough space for the drums and the percussion."
"What Tim and Danja do with drums and percussion is phenomenal. The only problem is maybe that it sounds too good sometimes and that I may have too much of it. So I may have to turn down things a little bit. They loop certain patterns and then they add things from there. I added just some desk EQ and also some desk compression, to get a tighter feel and make sure it all fit together. Before sending it to the desk, I added some Renaissance compression to the kick to get the level that I wanted. As I said, plug-ins don't have a sound, to my ears, so the Renaissance just helped me to keep the level in check without altering the sound.
"There's also a Focusrite D2 EQ on the kick on one place in the hook. There was one particular kick sound there that clashed with the other tracks, so Tim replaced it with another kick that had a very different note and sound. Using the D2 allowed me to match the sound of that new kick drum to the other kick drum sounds. I'm really impressed with how that came out, because I remember doing it, but listening to the track I can't tell the difference. Once the drums and percussion were added that was it. They fitted into the only space that was left. Luckily everything came together in the end. I don't think the mix would have sounded the same if I had worked in the opposite way, starting with the drums and working up towards the vocals."
"Mixing '4 Minutes' was a matter of keeping things simple," concludes Demo. "We were on a little bit of a time constraint, because Madonna had a deadline by which she wanted everything done. I therefore gave up some mix luxuries to make sure I could turn it in on time. It's one reason why I didn't plug in loads of outboard gear. This being a Madonna song, I pretty much didn't let anyone else touch it, so it was almost all me. The song took me a full day of work to mix, and after that I left it for two days, and then went back to it for some fine-tuning. A mix can take me four hours or four days, it depends on the song. In some cases it can be very finicky to make changes, and every time I listen to it I hear it in a different way. With this song the effects were easy, but the balancing was quite tough.
"I mixed back into Pro Tools, 24/44.1, and loaded WAV files up on a drive, and took them to Chris Gehringer at Sterling Sound in New York for mastering. I always try to be there for the mastering of a track I mixed. The mastering wars? Haha! Tim and I are partly to blame for that! We made some records that were clearly very loud and this became a bit of a trend-setter. Of course it can cut the dynamics on some records, and you definitely get fatigue listening to records that loud for a long time. But it's what people want to hear. Whether you want to do this depends on the kind of music. If you like that sound, then great. If you're making a jazz record you're not going to make it as loud as a pop record. You're not going to make a blues record louder than a heavy metal record. Hip-hop is the new popular music now, and pop has to be loud!"
The Pro Tools Edit window for the '4 Minutes' Session is a bit of a challenge to read. "I don't worry too much about labelling," admits Demo Castellon, "because I don't have the time for it. Usually my groups are not even labelled, and they'll just be called 'Group 1', 'Group 2', and so on. If I labelled everything, it would take me three hours for each Session, and there's no sonic benefit to be derived from it. At the same time, I don't like my tracks being called 'Audio 1', 'Audio 2', or something, so I try to give them some kind of name.
"If you look at the Edit Window, halfway down the tracks window you'll see 'Vcls' and further down 'THC'. Everything in between is the vocal tracks, with names starting with 'T' being Timbaland, 'M' for Madonna, and 'J' for Justin, of course. 'MBn' is Madonna Bounce and her different parts are 'M2B', 'M3B' and 'M4B'; 'pvD1' and 'pD2' are the PCM42 delays on Madonna's vocal that I fed back into Pro Tools. 'JTBn' is Justin Bounce and 'THC' is a subgroup for all the vocals, on which I had the Renaissance Compressor (I didn't use the E6 that's given there). 'H' or 'HK' stands for 'Hook'.
"Just underneath 'THC' is a track called 'PTE', which stands for the premix Pro Tools effects that were all printed back on that track. Marcella [Araica, who recorded most of the Session] did this at my request. Printing these effects frees up the DSP and speeds up the session. Underneath that are 'Effects Balance 1' and 'Effects Balance 2' and the rest of the effects tracks that I printed, again, to free the DSP. Everything above the 'Vcls' track is the actual music. For instance, 'C01' is Clock Bounce 01, '201' Snare 2 Bounce 01, 'T01' TD Snare Bounce 01, 'R01' Ride Bounce 01, 'B02' Bell Bounce 02, and so on."
Unlike some engineers, Demo Castellon is happy to admit to using pitch correction on Madonna's vocal on '4 Minutes', yet in the same breath, Castellon declares himself a strong opponent of vocal tuning. So what's going on? "I pride myself on rarely using tuning," states Castellon. "I fight tooth and nail against doing it. I can make anyone sound like whoever, even Frank Sinatra, but I think that it is cheating to tune vocals. Some people do lots of tuning, and I'm cool with that, but it's not the way I like to work. We pride ourselves on the way we do things. When you work with us, we have high expectations. We're not going to sit there and just let you get by. If you're a singer, you should be able to sing, and if you can't, you should not be singing. And Madonna doesn't need tuning. I'm blessed that I get to work with the best in the industry. It makes my job a lot easier.
"Madonna and Justin can sing in the pocket, whereas many singers these days don't even know what the pocket is. In the '4 Minutes' session there was some tuning on Madonna's vocals and on Justin's vocals, not because they were singing out of tune, but because Timbaland had a vision for how the track was supposed to sound. We used Auto-Tune or Melodyne because we wanted a certain seamless flow between the two singers. We were being really perfectionist about this, and decided to fix a few notes. In a couple of cases one singer dropped slightly under a note on one word and the other may have been a little over, and we wanted all the notes to flow together, and so they were tuned. Little things like this add their own style. Today I could not tell you where it is, because I don't know, and I would not be able to hear it. One of my engineers did the tuning.
"A lot of people will make singers and musicians do endless takes and then they'll comp and fix things. We don't work that way. We're much more linear. Of course there's comping going on, but it's being done while we record. Usually we do a take, and we may punch in a word or clean up a syllable, but after that we move on. If tuning is done at all, it happens just before I start mixing, and it'll be done by one of my guys."
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