Mix engineers have a huge role to play in modern record production; but what does it take to turn a collection of raw tracks into a chart-topping single? In a major new SOS series, specialist mixers will be showing us exactly how they use the tricks of their trade.
In this new series, we'll be asking some of the biggest names in mixing to show us exactly how they applied their skills to create a hit single. And names don't come much bigger than that of R&B and hip-hop specialist David Pensado, who recently enjoyed a record-breaking three US number one hits in the same month: Mary J Blige's 'Be Without You', Beyonce's 'Check On It' and Keyshia Cole's 'Love'. Pensado has also mixed hits for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Destiny's Child, Pink, Brian McKnight, Ice Cube, Warren G & Christina, Lil' Kim and Mya. For Inside Track, he chose to spill the beans on the Pussycat Dolls' hits 'Beep' and 'Buttons', which reached numbers two and three respectively in the UK charts.
"It's about what you do with the gear, not about the gear itself," he says, "so I hope that people don't copy my settings, but see them as an inspiration and a starting point from which they can find their own way. In the end, one doesn't sell one's engineering skills: one sells one's creative skills."
Pensado, who cut his teeth in recording studios and as a live sound engineer in Atlanta in the '70s and '80s before moving to Los Angeles in 1990, emphasises that it's vital to retain an overview of the entire song. "You need to know what you're aiming for, or you're lost. Before I begin a mix, I will always have heard a rough mix that has at least the basic elements of the track and the vocal, and this gives me a direction. There's only one time to hear a song the first time, and I like to catalogue my first impressions because I trust them. So I'll begin the process by pulling out pen and paper and noting down the weaknesses and strengths of a song.
"I also like to memorise the song and all the elements of the mix — something which has, over the years, become progressively more difficult! For some songs I have 100 inputs or more on the console, and I think 'Beep' amounted to about 90 tracks! The beauty of Pro Tools is that you can see which parts are being played. Back in the old tape days you had to work a little harder at memorising the different parts."
The American, who mixes between 200 and 250 songs a year, has a residency at Larrabee Studios in Los Angeles. Pride of place in his room at Larrabee goes to an SSL console, which he laughingly says he uses mainly for "psychological reasons — it makes me feel like a big-time mixer!" Apart from the very occasional Logic session, almost all his mixes come in as Pro Tools files, including the songs for the Pussycat Dolls' first album, PCD.
"When I first heard their name I wasn't sure what to expect, but I trusted Ron Fair, who is president of their label and executive producer of the album, and who also did additional production on the album. Then I heard the rough mixes and thought 'Wow, this is really good pop music!' There's been a trend recently of white people singing over hip-hop tracks and I was getting a little bored with that, but the Pussycat Dolls tracks sounded credible. The first song off the album I mixed was the Timbaland track, 'Wait A Minute'. That gave me a vibe for the whole project, which was to take the elements from these great R&B and hip-hop producers and marry that with the girls' vocals. And you may notice that the melodies and lyrics of the songs are interesting. So when I started off with 'Beep', I already had a foundation and direction."
Writers: Will Adams, Kara DioGuardi, Jeff Lynne
Additional production, vocal production, arrangement: Ron Fair
David Pensado: "If you asked the average listener what was in that song, they would probably say vocals, drums and that obnoxious little beep sound. Ron found that tone, and I ran it through the board and cranked up the gain so that it distorted like crazy, to increase the harmonic content and obnoxify the sound... I'm using the word obnoxious in the positive sense, as something that will lodge in your brain and even though you do find it obnoxious, it makes you go out and buy the song.
"Will.i.am [of Black Eyed Peas] co-wrote and produced that song, and he paints musical pictures better than anyone else, because he has such a broad musical vocabulary. The other thing that Will does better than anybody is provide a little bit of comic relief in tragedy, in the Shakespearean sense, like that clown figure in Macbeth, the porter. The beep makes you not take the track entirely seriously, and I tried to preserve that.
"With 'Beep' I was handed the backing tracks on the first day of mixing, and I worked one and a half days on making the rhythmic foundation of the song simultaneously rhythmic and relentless, as in the old funk saying 'Like a horse you can't get off of.' Building on that foundation, I had kept a really nice spot for the other instruments, which I received the next day. Apart from the bass, they are supporting characters in the middle range, things that indicate the chord changes, and also that allowed me to keep the interest. On the third day I was given the vocals, and because I now had a track that sounded huge, my challenge was to make the vocals sound bigger than life."
Nicole Scherzinger's lead vocal EQs: Waves Linear Phase EQ into McDSP Filter Bank EQ
"On both 'Beep' and 'Buttons' I didn't want any warmth in the vocals. I wanted both songs to sound aggressive. At one stage I had a Neve 1073 on Nicole's vocal, and it just sounded too much like all the other vocals I've heard. So I started experimenting, and when I put it through Linear Phase EQ [above] it suddenly jumped out of the speaker in a neat way. I usually like to use a combination of analogue outboard gear and plug-ins, because it gives me the best of both worlds, but on these two songs, even though I did try, it never gave me what I was looking for, so I ended up with about 70 percent plug-ins. I wanted Nicole to sound as if she was in control, and give her a harder sound, and it worked by using Linear Phase to get the shape of the sound, and that signal went into the McDSP EQ [top, right], which I used for the colour of the sound. Linear Phase gave me a broader brush stroke, but in some instances I have reversed it and used the McDSP first.
"I think you get more by not trying to get everything out of one EQ. Every EQ is good for certain things. Even the cheapest EQ has a use. Don't judge gear by its cost or inherent quality; judge it on its uniqueness. One of my favorite pieces of gear is the Ibanez SRV1000, which was a little reverb unit made for guitars. I get them for $50 at eBay and they're all over the percussion on lots of things I do, as well as on vocals — I use them on everything. There's a little Boss unit called the EH50 [stereo enhancer]. It has four buttons on it: just punch button four and throw it on the background vocals, and it makes them come alive. I also get those for $50. Then you use something like Linear Phase, which is like the Rolls Royce of EQs, to give you clarity and breathiness in certain parts of the frequency range."
Lead vocal effects: Waves Supertap delay into Waves Doubler into Sound Toys Pitch Blender
"I used these three plug-ins on Nicole's vocals because I wanted to give it width, as well as a mechanical quality. Whenever I hear really tight delays on vocals, I always think of tape slap. The delays on Supertap are all very short, and what it also allowed me to do is spread the vocal wide across the stereo spectrum. In other words, instead of occupying a small spot in the middle of the mix, I could fill the whole spectrum between the speakers. The 149, 298 and 587 ms are 16th, eighth and half-note delays, and they spread and get louder from left to right. Supertap allowed me to run the vocal half a dB lower than would otherwise be required, which gave me the benefit of making the track sound more powerful without overpowering her.
"Doubler has four delays that also help to make the vocal sound bigger, wider and more powerful. I personally don't like to use a lot of reverb, and this reduced my need for it. The combination of delays and reverb in 'Buttons' and 'Beep' really helped create the image for those songs. You can see on Doubler that part of the direct sound is coming through, and Supertap and Doubler together probably created lots of delays.
"What I wanted to do with Pitch Blender was to make some of the delays a few cents flat and sharp, and continuously alter the amount of pitch change. It's a neat thing, because it messes with your ears on a subconscious level. You hear something that might for a microsecond sound a little bit off, but it moves so quickly that your brain never gets to interpret it. Your ear is nevertheless drawn towards it.
"I'd like to add that rather than copy these ideas, I would prefer if readers use the concept of not being afraid to put effect into effect into effect. I had a specific problem in my mind for this track that I tried to resolve in this way, which was to achieve bigness without using much reverb, and I probably spent 30 minutes trying different combinations of plug-ins until I got that. So experiment until you get the sound you want. I've gone six deep in chaining effects."
Lead vocal reverb: Digidesign Revibe
"Revibe [top] is really cool. I like the way it creates space differently than some of the other reverbs; it uses samples of actual spaces in its emulation process. I modified the Large Natural Plate reverb and I dipped it at 8k because it sounded a little bit too expensive.
"My all-time favourite hardware reverb is probably the Eventide 2016. I love its darkness. I have both old and new versions, and I manage to sneak them in on almost every mix. I use the stereo room preset, and I tend to use a pretty long, 16th or 32nd note, pre-delay. I roll off the top end around 5k, sometimes 4k, plus I roll off the bottom end about two numbers, starting at 300Hz. It's the reverb on those original Mariah Carey records, and I just love the sound of it."
Strings: Aphex Aural Exciter Type III
"To be honest, I've never really liked the sound of strings, which is weird because I love the violin. But strings are often a little sharp and tend to play behind the beat, and they remind me of syrupy ballads from the '40s. I will often manipulate the hell out of strings to keep them from bogging me down. A lot of the time I will put a Harmoniser on the strings and add some Sansamp distortion — whatever it takes to make them sound more like a synthesizer, rather than live strings.
"On 'Beep' there is, of course, that ELO string sample, which came in stereo, and Ron had doubled that with real strings, which allowed me to put it more 'in your face'. The strings also add harmony content, and I love Ron's arrangements. He'll use a 30-piece to 60-piece orchestra, and because he knows what he wants, he'll combine them for me, so I'll get a stereo room, stereo violins, stereo violas, stereo celli, and if there's a double bass, stereo that. For the 'Beep' track, I added the Exciter, because it made the strings sound a little bit less expensive. The Null Fill setting adds a little bit of depth to the track. I like the Harmonics and Timbre knobs in the odd side for strings, and on the even side for guitars. When things are on the even side I feel more pleasant, and when they're on the odd side I feel more edgy.
"There's also an electric violin on the track, which I wanted to sound haunting, non-traditional, as if some young cat in blue jeans was playing it in a sweaty jazz club in New York. The electric violin was just one stereo track, which I put through a new Waves plug-in called Amp. I set it to a Marshall head with Marshall 4 x 12 cabinet setting, and mixed that with the original sound."
Bass and 808 kick: Waves Maxx Bass
"I felt that with 'Beep' all my credibility was from 200 cycles down, all the energy and meaning and power of the song were between 200Hz and 3kHz, and all my poppiness was above 3kHz. If you listen to these three sections alone, you'll understand how each contributed to the feeling and emotion you get from the song. Many people want the bass to be really loud, but if it's too loud, the apparent level of your mix will be lower on the radio. If you put in too much bass, every time the 808 hits the vocal level sounds like it's dropping by 3dB. Over the course of time I have found ways of tricking the radio compressor to make it sound as if there's more low end than there actually is. It took me 15 years to figure out, and is not something you explain in one sentence, but I've basically tried to do this with the two settings on Maxx Bass, one for the 808 and the other for the bass [screens on previous page]. Think of it as a room in your house and you want to fill it all with music, but nothing can be louder than the ceiling. In 'Beep' I wanted to have the 808 and the bass and the vocals all near the ceiling, and Maxx Bass allowed me to do that.
"I have to say that I never liked compression. I started out playing in little dives and honky tonks in the South, and one major weapon we had at our disposal to keep the audience interested was dynamics. This has always stayed with me in terms of mixing. I've always liked dynamics and I love expanding and exaggerating the dynamics on my mixes. I get criticised by my peers sometimes, but to me it's the way it should be. If you listen to some of my Christina Aguilera mixes, I allow her to get loud. Because when a compressor trips these notes, it makes changes to the pitch, to the timbre, and so you lose the power of those great singers."
"It's better to sound new than to sound good," is one of David Pensado's favorite slogans. "Old guys spending their time trying to sound good have become irrelevant," he adds. "We only ever see them at the Grammys when they receive bullshit awards for things that don't matter any more."
Pensado then turns his guns on high-resolution digital formats. "I disagree thoroughly that 44.1/16 sounds inferior," he opines. "The mathematics behind that idea may be solid, but there are ways around it. You just have to work a little harder. You show me a guy who doesn't like a particular format and I will show you a guy who does not know how to use it. The reason many old guys are complaining about the digital stuff is that they have not taken the same amount of time to figure out what to do with digital gear as they have learning about analogue when they were young."
He has plenty more controversial opinions, among them the claim that plug-ins now sound as good as outboard gear, and that the former offer more options and more precision. He also enthuses that digital has revolutionised music, claiming that "the music of today is the best ever", because cheap recording means that are many more musicians recording and releasing music. Because of the law of averages, this means more quality music — as well as more dross.
David Pensado also has no hesitation in breaking another industry taboo. Under the motto "Trying to guard one's trade secrets is as useless as Ernest Hemingway trying to hide his verbs," he happily spills any beans he possesses [check out his YouTube channel: Pensado's Place]. The reasoning is simple: his settings only represent 25 percent of his work, and in any case they will only work in the environment for which they were created; for instance, the reverb settings on Mary J Blige's vocal for 'Be Without You' will only work for the vocal in that track.
Writers: Sean Garrett, Jamal Jones, Jason Perry, Nicole Scherzinger
Producers: Sean Garrett, Ron Fair, Polow Da Don.
Co-producers: Tal Herzberg & Young Smoke.
Additional and vocal production: Ron Fair
David Pensado: "The thing about 'Buttons' is that for big chunks of the song, it's just vocals and drums. If you want to find the hook in the song, there's nothing to hide it. It's a work of genius, because it's a pop song reduced to its most basic elements: hook and groove. Polow Da Don played a big part in creating this song, and for this track he'd made up a little drum loop, with just kick drum, handclaps and tom, which is the foundation, and my first focus was to get that loop exactly like it needed to be."
Drum loop transient processing: Waves Trans-X Multi
"Like 'Beep', 'Buttons' was handed to me in different stages. It is Polow's loop that gives the song its bouncy feeling, and I used the Trans-X Multi plug-in to give it more transients. Trans-X [top, right] is a really cool plug-in for creating more attack, and you can split it up in different bands. You can see that I've split it from 0 to 91 cycles, then 91 to 561, and so on, and the two sections where I really tried to restore the punch are low mid-range and the very top end. I suppose Trans-X is the plug-in equivalent of the SPL Transient Designer 4.
"Trans-X is a great plug-in that I also use on vocals. It can also act as a parametric equaliser. Some young girls are not gifted with a lot of high-frequency information, and when they hit a high note, it's all 3kHz and nothing above. So I use Trans-X to get some high-end back. I prefer to use Trans-X as opposed to a regular EQ, because it also gives me harmonics and doesn't just adjust the frequencies.
"Harmonics are probably one of the most important aspects of music — another word for them is distortion. The human ear loves to hear overtones, and the human voice can create complex harmonics. A lot of the Class-A outboard gear tends to be rich in harmonics, and there are very few plug-ins that emulate that. When people criticise plug-ins, it's usually the lack of added harmonics that they're hearing. A couple of plug-in manufacturers have begun making efforts to address this. The Waves SSL Bundle has a button called 'Analogue' and this basically introduces the natural harmonic distortion that SSL gear generated. I think this is the future."
"This is another example of adding distortion [above], in this case to give Nicole's voice more edge. In the lyrics of the song she's in control, she's sexy, she's demanding, and I wanted to add more authority to the sound of the voice. I probably didn't think about this consciously while doing it, but added distortion to make it sound as if she's yelling or screaming into the microphone, and that's a great subconscious image in this song. The wow and flutter are pretty high too, so there's movement in the effect as well."
Lead vocal delay: Telray Variable Delay
"This plug-in was designed as a guitar delay, but I like it because it sounds so dark. If you have too much top end on a delay it tends to sound like candy. Dark delays on women's voices sound better, especially in up-tempo songs. The delay here is probably in the 16th-note range."
Lead vocal effects: Waves Metaflanger
"In 'Buttons', all the effects on the lead vocal are in parallel. If you look at the stereo image [see screen, top right], the speakers are quite close together, so it's not spread out too much, and the mix button is only set to 21, so I'm not using a lot of effect. I just wanted to give the vocals a chorus-like sound, a bit of movement. Songs on which there are a lot of quarter or half notes lend themselves well to this; if there are more faster notes, the flanger doesn't have time to be heard."
Middle Eastern vocal section effects: Digidesign Reverb One into Waves Metaflanger
"This is a serious reverb, 11.5 seconds long! I called it 'Enya Reverb' [right], purely as a way of remembering it. To me, long reverb sounds like the Middle Eastern music I hear on TV. I rolled off the low end and boosted the mid-range. Not all the original sound is going into this. I usually put effects on a separate aux and use a send to get the information to it. I'm not a fan of putting effects directly on a track, even though I did it with the delay on Nicole's vocals. The flanger moves the reverb around. It gets a bit of a Doppler effect going, and it moves between left and right. You can see on the flanger [bottom, right] that the stereo speakers are as far apart as possible, so there's a lot of width."
David Pensado can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.