The creation of Beyoncé's album 4 involved 10 studios and almost 20 producers. The one constant, apart from the singer herself, was recording engineer DJ Swivel.
Jordan Young, aka DJ Swivel, has always had a passion for music. Although by his own admission, not proficient at any instrument, he tinkered with the violin, trumpet, and played bass guitar for a few years before he began to find his niche on the turntables, whilst also working with Cubase at high school — a time which he says, looking back, "laid the foundations to his career in DJ'ing and music production”. Swivel now resides in New York City and works out of a number of major studios as a recording engineer, producer and mix engineer. For the last year or so has been working closely with Beyoncé, engineering her latest album 4, which was released worldwide last month.
"Omar Grant, who was A&R for Epic at the time, called me one day and said that Beyoncé needed a fill‑in engineer; she hadn't started the album, but she was looking to mess around with some ideas,” Swivel says. "He used to work with Destiny's Child, and of course I was interested in the project right away.”
In May 2010, Swivel started working with Beyoncé at Rock The Mic in NYC, initially recording the track 'Party' to see what kind of a working relationship might form. "I pride myself on being a fast engineer, and I was able to execute all she wanted me to do in that first session; thankfully, she liked the job, and the speed that I worked at, and we then started discussing the beginning of the record.”
Six weeks later, he got the all‑important second call, and the ball was set rolling. After just a few days at Rock The Mic, it became necessary to move to a bigger room, so they decamped to KMA Studios for a week and a half. Swivel was the first person ever to work in KMA when it opened in 2007 and, unsurprisingly, feels particularly at home there. The studio also has his favourite nearfield monitors, Genelec 1031s, which are never far from his side. "The mix room at KMA for a long time was my home away from home; and the 1031s are, in my opinion, the ultimate nearfield monitor. KMA also has Griffin main speakers, which are great; and the room is very clean and honest, which is so important. It translates really well to the real world.”
The project then moved to MSR (formerly Right Track and then Legacy), where the bulk of the work was done, although a total of 10 studios were used over the course of the album.
"Near the beginning we did a couple of days with the Fela Kuti band [from the Broadway musical] over at MSR, which involved experimenting with horns, percussion, drums, guitars and keys. We'd be taking loops, like a section of percussion — congas for example — and then using them on a completely different record; and that record might be a completely different tempo or in a different key, so we'd literally be pitching it as we went. I used Elastic Audio [in Pro Tools] to fit and stretch it. Having fun is the best way I can put it; there were no rules. OK, it's not the most orthodox way of doing things, but it was very freeing, and having the ability to do whatever you want and whatever she wants was a very cool way to start.
Although there was some travelling, the work was mostly carried out at MSR until January 2011. Then, a brand-new, state‑of‑the‑art studio opened its doors. "In January, an amazing new facility called Jungle City Studios opened in New York, and they agreed to open up a week early to accommodate us. We absolutely loved the space, so we worked there up until the record was finished, pretty much.”
Because of the need to move between studios, the project remained almost entirely 'in the box', and the only piece of outboard used was a Lexicon 960 reverb, DJ Swivel's favourite piece of gear. He worked from a Pro Tools HD8 rig at the beginning of the record, and switched to Pro Tools HD9 when it became available mid‑project. "You can't use a lot of outboard when you're changing studios all the time,” he insists. "I have presets that I like on the 960, and that's all I have to recall. The vast majority of the work has to be in the box. I have all the plug‑ins I need: the Waves bundle, the SSL bundle, Sound Toys, [Line 6] Amp Farm and Echo Farm. That covers the vast majority of what I use.
"It's all about continuity and keeping it moving along, and to ensure you have the least amount of stress or friction in your working environment, keeping it in the box is the only way that you can really do it now. Plug‑in technology is so advanced now that it's very hard to tell the difference between them and the real thing. I am sure there are audiophiles out there that claim they live by a specific piece of vintage kit, but to me, it's not about the gear. I go with what feels right and what sounds good. A vintage piece of gear doesn't make a record a hit; a hit record makes a record a hit.”
The majority of the drums were recorded at MSR. Swivel used Neve 1073 preamps as a front end for what was usually a fairly standard setup of Shure SM57s on the snare (top and bottom), Sennheiser MD421s on the toms, an AKG D112 on the kick, a Neumann KM84 on the hi‑hats, and Neumann U87s or AKG C414s on the overheads.
"We would often room-mic it differently — sometimes it might be a stereo pair and a mono, sometimes just a stereo pair, and occasionally it would be kind of an X‑Y pattern of the two mics — but that's basically the 'go‑to'. The 1073s sound great, and the EQs on them gave me a lot of freedom as far as getting the drum sound before we actually started cutting, rather than a flat sound and then EQ'ing all in the box.
"She's so fast and good at what she does that you can't afford to waste time on anything, so if we're ready to record drums, for example, we're going to work with whatever we have available right there and then. That's why we worked in such great studios, because we know they have great gear, and we don't need to worry about renting gear. Part of my job as an engineer is to make sure the sessions are not only moving along, but moving along at her pace.”
All of the guitar and bass recording on the album was done using DIs, which enabled any re‑amping to be done later on in the project. "We did a bunch of guitar and bass work. For guitars, I'd use the dry signal from the DI and blend it with some kind of Amp Farm, and occasionally a few other distortion amp plug‑ins like Guitarstack. Decapitator is also great — it's one of the Sound Toys plug‑ins.
"It was much the same deal with the bass: I get the DI signal, and that gives me the freedom for what I need to do in the box, although we did use the Focusrite Liquid Channel on one track. It has a cool vintage preset on there that gives a great sound.”
Most of the keyboard parts on the album were bounced from Logic, and the piano was miked using 414s as a spaced pair, running through API mic pres. There was also a five‑man horn section that was recorded with 414s, along with Royer 121 ribbons and RCA ribbons, and occasionally a pair of AKG C12s. Swivel says it varied depending on the studio, but each player was allocated their own mic and their own space in the room, to avoid too much bleed.
"We placed the players and the microphones as strategically as we could, and then I created a blend of all the sounds. It's all about mic positioning and the quality of signal coming in. So much of this process, to me, is about getting a clean sound, and when you have that, it's then the actual musical performance that captures people. I'll comp if I absolutely have to, but performance goes so much further than some cool piece of vintage gear, you know?”
"I didn't really know I was going to mix 'I Care' until the last minute. Luckily, during the course of the album, I had a couple of days to myself and I mixed it just because I felt like it, so the demo was already somewhat mixed, and B let me do the final mix also.”
'I Care' comprised 75 tracks in total: 35 for the music, and 40 for the vocals. Swivel says the main challenge in mixing it was hand‑aligning every single drum shot, which took time.
"It's super‑monotonous, but it's the best way I can do it. If you Beat Detective the drums to the grid, it's never perfect. Layering drums has to be right on the millisecond, so I did one kick and snare at a time. I mean, I am literally shifting things in terms of a few milliseconds to make absolutely sure that the kicks line up with the programmed drums and that there's no phase inversion. This ensures each drum punches through as strongly as the last.”
The inspiration for the main drum sound on 'I Care' came to Swivel at 4am during a mixing session. He took a large plate sound from Avid's D‑Verb plug‑in, rolled the high frequencies off at 8.6kHz, and sent it through an SSL channel strip with a gate on it, setting the release time to 0.6 seconds.
"It's a really basic plug‑in, and I used a very '80s‑sounding gated reverb. Once I had the sound, I then rolled off the bottom to take the muddiness out. It was actually double reverbed; the gated reverb is only on the snares and the toms, and the rest of the kit as a whole has another plate reverb, which came off the Lexicon 960, just to smooth it out. It actually took me just five minutes. Again, it's a little unorthodox, and I tried to refine it, but B thought it was better the way I did it originally, and in all honesty, whatever works first is usually going to work best. You end up finding something you like about it, and that's where the emotional attachment to a sound comes into play.”
When he mixes, Swivel often replaces or augments sounds with samples, trying to realise the producer's vision. "In 'I Care', for example, I added a couple of kicks underneath the original kick and pitched them down an octave, so you couldn't hear them but you could feel them on big speakers. It started with a dark, almost warehouse‑sounding kick, and I just added a little thump to it.
"I am a producer as well, so part of what I think when I am mixing is: 'What is the sound the producer was trying to achieve?' Sometimes a plug‑in won't get that sound, so I'll often take creative freedoms by doing some drum replacement, and if a producer doesn't like it, it's as simple as a mute — it's no big deal. It's never to change the sound; it's just a utilitarian thing, to help execute a sound.”
With Beyoncé's music, as you'd expect, the vocal sound is hugely important, and Swivel spent a long time getting it right. "I only put a quick EQ on the vocal at the end of a recording session if I have been cutting her, but mixing is far more particular, so I spent a lot of time dialling in the perfect frequency. For those interesting delay throws in the verses [on 'I Care'], I just sent it through a large hall reverb at 50 percent — half reverb, half clean — then through an Amp Farm plug‑in for the grittiness, and that then went through a quarter‑note delay. In the bridge, she's also matching the guitar solo vocally — that was doubled — and one of the vocal tracks has an Amp Farm on it to add to that grittiness.”
To do justice to the multitude of vocal tracks within the song, Swivel created a stereo field using some clever panning techniques and a Waves S1 Imager plug‑in. "One thing worth noting when I mix — and this is actually on all my mixes — is that I hate hard‑panned L/R. To get the right width, I pan them all differently in pairs: 40/40, 60/60, 70/70, 80/80, 90/90, and OK, maybe one is 100/100, but this process is ultimately what creates the stereo field.
"I then take a Waves S1 Imager and I spread with that; and that doesn't isolate the width. I think if something is hard‑panned, it feels much too isolated and also confuses your ears. I like smooth sound, and with B that works fine as she's so good at matching everything. I like a wall of background vocals. It's the best way of putting your vocal in every area of the stereo field: a wide sound, but you've still got something there in the middle.”
'Schoolin' Life' was mixed at Jungle City Studios, and is Swivel's favourite track on the album. "I was adamant about mixing 'Schoolin' Life'; I spent a lot of time after she left the studio tightening up the rough. In fact, I'm sure she let me mix it just because I loved the track so much! I mixed this in the fantastic penthouse room in Jungle City. This record was, of course, about the vocals — but a lot of it was about the production elements too. Everything had to be audible; there's some interesting percussion, and the hook had to feel nice and big.”
Around 100 tracks were used on 'Schoolin' Life', split roughly 50/50 between music and vocals. Swivel says that, musically, this mix was more about taking a large number of tracks and trying to create a perfect balance, so he used Waves' Metaflanger on the percussion and some of the snares, and spent some time EQ'ing.
"On the lead vocal there is a lot of parallel processing. The lead-vocal bus is multed to a second bus, and one of them is absolutely crushed. It's on a 50:1 compression ratio, totally limited and with a very low threshold. It creates a very gritty distorted sound in there, really low to taste, and it fills in the lead vocal very nicely. The crushed vocal runs quietly underneath.
"I again went for that '80s sound on the snares. They were originally very tight, so I added a gated reverb for the snap sound, a long, drawn‑out snap sound actually; and I also subbed in an additional kick underneath to add some real oomph to the bottom.”
Thanks to the work Swivel had done during production, the final mix took only a few hours. "There were a lot of tracks, but I just enjoyed it, to be honest. I knew how I wanted it to sound, and it was pretty much the last song we cut; a lot of the mixing was nailed in the production as well, which helped. Dream did a great job producing this track.”
Unlike 'I Care', 'Schoolin' Life', bar one guitar track, was entirely programmed. Even the 'live drum' section in the hook was actually done with programmed drums.
"This track absolutely had to have its own space. There are percussion elements and a few random sounds in there too, plus the nice guitar track, but certainly the main challenge was for all of these tracks to be well balanced and individually audible. It really is very easy to overlook something like that, which can potentially completely change the sound of a record.”
In all, a staggering 70+ songs were recorded over the course of the project, thanks to Beyoncé's professionalism and work ethic. The day‑to‑day production was carried out by Shea Taylor, while various other producers and writers came in to work on the album including Dream, Tricky, Babyface, Switch (from Major Laser) and Frank Ocean, but Swivel says Beyoncé was at the helm.
"B was the main producer, as every idea had to pass her approval and the bars that she set. Ideas would come in and she'd say 'OK, that's great, but let's add live drums to this part,' you know? It was her experimenting, getting her ideas out, and a great team of people around her executing those ideas. The sound of the record certainly reflects that. She makes it her own — her voice does that — but it's really an eclectic mix of things that creates the magic. 'Run The World (Girls)' is the first single, and it's more like an electronic marching drums thing, which was done with Switch, and then there are songs like '1+1', which is a really beautiful ballad. There are a lot of cool things going on in the record.
"She can knock a song out in an hour, and it will sound incredible. I remember one day we worked for 36 hours straight, and she cut six entire songs with leads, BVs and comps. I think she even managed to squeeze in a couple of business meetings too!”
When recording Beyoncé's vocals, Swivel opted for a vintage AKG C24 stereo mic, which he ran through an Avalon 737 and then a UA 1176 compressor. "The AKG C24 has two capsules — and it's not a stereo C12; the electronics sound a bit different. Beyoncé actually picked the mic — not by name as such, but I gave her six mic options and she sang through them all, then gravitated to that one. And that mic definitely gave her vocals an amazing texture. The tonality is so nice: warm, smooth and rich.
"Comping vocals, in more cases than not, is about preference rather than whether a vocal is right or wrong, and really, you can keep anything when it comes to her! It also depends on the song and her mood. I cut her [vocal] in a few different ways: sometimes we'd just get four or five takes of a whole song and comp from that — she and I would go line by line, and pick the ones she liked — and other times, we'd comp on the fly by punching necessary lines.
"Then, once we had our leads, she'd knock out the backing vocals real easy, and most of the time she does her own vocal arrangements too, figuring out her own harmonies. To be honest, recording vocals was the easiest part of this record, just because she is so good. It makes my job so much easier.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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