The unique sound world created by Future and engineer Seth Firkins has brought the Atlanta rapper record-breaking success.
Future is that rare thing in the world of hip-hop: an album artist. Though he has never enjoyed a US Top 10 single, his 2014 second album Honest hit number two on the Billboard charts, and his subsequent albums have all reached the top spot. In fact, he recently made history by having successive US number one hits with two different albums, released a week apart, when his eponymously titled fifth album was knocked off the top spot by his sixth, HNDRXX (pronounced ‘Hendrix’).
His achievements are all the more impressive because his music is not obviously commercial. Although there are a few guest vocalists on HNDRXX, including the Weeknd and Rihanna, most of the time Future’s unique, Auto-Tuned rapping and singing is the only vocal content, and his lines aren’t exactly sing-along earworms. This impressionistic and atmospheric vocal approach is underpinned by trap-influenced backing tracks that tend to have an equally atmospheric vibe, and that don’t try to ram home attention-grabbing rhythms, chord changes, or instrumental hooks.
The creation of Future’s distinctive sound world owes a lot to his right-hand man in the studio, Atlanta engineer and mixer Seth Firkins. “Future and I have developed a sound over the years,” explains Firkins, from his 5X5 Studio just outside Atlanta. “Our sound is directly related to the sound I’m imparting to music in general as an independent contractor. My sound is very clean, very wide, with everything in its own space, in its own pocket. Some people want it grittier and dirtier, and I recommend that they go elsewhere. But if you want something beautiful, I can do that. Not that I won’t dirty up individual parts with a distortion plug-in sometimes, for an effect, but my overall mixes are attractive, modern, and translatable. What I am imparting to my mixes is listenability and polish.
“Future’s sound and my sound are also about having a huge dynamic range. I love big drums, but I am not willing to sacrifice the dynamic range of a song just to get a loud 808. The loudness wars mean that everyone pushes and squeezes things to get more volume, but I say: ‘Fuck it!’ Why should I be fighting other releases that don’t actually sound that good? They often don’t have any space or body. You can brickwall your mix, and it’ll sound great in a club, but I also want my mixes to sound good on headphones, in the car, on laptop speakers, and so on. I want my mixes to translate in every situation. And you can only pack so much information into a WAV or an MP3, so you have to be careful about how you reach that maximum.”
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