Some mix engineers work entirely 'in the box', while others treat Pro Tools as little more than a tape recorder. Kevin 'KD' Davis employs the best of both worlds, as his work on Ne-Yo's recent hit 'Closer' shows.
The common element in all four of Ne-Yo's major solo hit singles to date is that they were co-written by him and the stellar Norwegian (but New York-based) production duo Stargate. Ne-Yo and Stargate in turn regularly employ the services of two top-flight mixers, Phil Tan (see SOS February 2007 issue) and Kevin 'KD' Davis. While the former mixed 'Sexy Love' and 'Because Of You', Davis was behind the controls for Ne-Yo's debut hit 'So Sick' and his most recent smash 'Closer'. The combination of Ne-Yo plus Stargate plus Tan or Davis appears to be a sure-fire route to commercial success.
Turning songs into hits is all grist for Kevin Davis's mill. The 35-year old has been at the top of the game since 1995, when he hit the big time with his mix of Coolio's 'Gangsta's Paradise'. Since then he's been churning out hits for Outkast, Trick Daddy, Usher, Mariah Carey, Pink, Trina & Kelly Rowland, Chris Brown, India Arie, Ne-Yo and many others, and is currently in the process of setting up his own mix room in Atlanta, Georgia.
Davis' formative years were spent working in the analogue domain, and he still likes the sound of tape, but phlegmatically observes that "nothing beats the convenience of digital". He still uses significant amounts of analogue outboard gear, and prefers to work on large mixing desks. After a decade of extensive residencies at major commercial studios in LA (Larrabee, The BoomBoom Room), Atlanta (DARP) and Miami (Circle House), Davis's brand-new facility in Atlanta is to sport an 80-channel SSL J9000, as well as tons of outboard and an Augspurger monitoring system with Bryston and BGW amplifiers.
"I just like the sound of the SSL J-series," explains Davis. "I also like the old G-series, but I prefer the computer and operational functionality of the J. I enjoy the sound of the EQ, and the summing is great. A lot of guys work in the box now, but it is hard for me to stare at a screen all day. I know Pro Tools guys who never work on the board because they say it takes them too long. It's the total opposite for me. I find it tough to have everything on the screen when I can just go and twist a knob or push a fader on a desk in a split second. I'm computer-savvy and I can do things in the box, but to me it seems sterile, because I'm more focusing on the screen as opposed to using my ears. Often when I'm mixing and my mix is almost ready, I do a lot of walking around the room and listening to the mix from different perspectives. If I hear a frequency that needs to be accentuated, I can just walk to the board and easily tweak it. I feel I have more control over the mix when it's spread on the board.
"Having said all that, I don't think one medium is by definition better than the other. I believe that you get out what you put in, and Phil Tan is the first who I think gets great work from primarily working in the box. And I also use Pro Tools' recall capacities when mixing. Basically, depending on the artist or producer I'm working with, in some cases I'll record the entire mix, track by track, from the desk back into Pro Tools. So if I have a 60-channel mix, I'll save it in Pro Tools as a 60-track file, though I may group some things like string sections, and so on. The reason is that it may take a day or two before the producer or artist or manager get back to me with comments on a mix I have done. Usually people simply want some level changes, and rather than spread everything out on the board again, I can go into Pro Tools, make the few adjustments they ask for, and then print the mix again."
'Closer' is an unusual track in two respects. First, there's the introduction, which wrong–foots, or perhaps wrong-ears, the listener twice. An echo-laden funky electric guitar riff followed by a four-to-the-floor kick suggest an out-and-out dance track, but they are soon cut off to make way for a lone finger-picked, folk-like acoustic guitar. Ne-Yo makes his entrance backed only by this acoustic guitar, and for a moment the song appears to be a ballad, until the kick comes in again, joined by an off-beat hi-hat and a little later a clap, which functions as a snare. And so the song turns out to be a dance track after all, while retaining the dreamy, ballad-like quality of the guitar part.
The other out-of-the-ordinary aspect becomes clear when looking at the Pro Tools Edit Window. Whereas songs consisting of 100-plus tracks are not uncommon these days, and 60-80 tracks is normal, 'Closer' gets by with a truly minimalistic 12 instrumental parts: four tracks of drums and percussion, one bass, three guitars, and four keyboards. This impressive economy of means is barely disturbed by the vocals, with only two main lead vocal tracks and nine backing vocal tracks.
"Stargate and Ne-Yo are top-quality producers and songwriters" says Davis, "so I know that whatever they are going to give me will be pretty close to what it needs to be. They record things well and use their sounds wisely, so there's no clean-up for me to do. It's just a matter of enhancing what they do and taking it to the next level. Files to be mixed come in on hard drive, DVD, or I download them from a server, and the first thing I do is organise the Session in the way I like, putting the drums, bass, keyboards, and so on, where I like them to be. I didn't have to do much on of this on 'Closer'. While organising the Session I'll listen to the rough mix, to get an idea where everything is and what the placements are. I pick out the spots where I think instruments need accentuating to make them jump out a little more, or where I think other things can be improved.
"The dramatic shifts at the beginning of 'Closer' weren't an issue for me. I liked them, because they give Ne-Yo the space to introduce himself. It clears the floor for him to start his verse and you pay attention to him. Breaks like that are common in hip-hop and R&B, and so I could see what Stargate were doing. I suppose this is a pop song fused with house, so it was OK for me to let Ne-Yo have his moment and then build the song from there. Towards the end of the song the rhythm becomes more R&B, and even as the tempo remains the same, it feels like it's slowing down. I like this intertwining of genres.
"The most important thing for me was that, despite the different ingredients, 'Closer' is predominantly a house record, a dance type of record. The kick had to be really prevalent. It had to be the main driving point in the song, sitting just underneath the lead vocals. So what I did was what I normally do when I mix, which is to begin with the vocals, lead and backing vocals, get them sounding great, using EQ, doing effects, and so on. It's like I'm mixing a cappella. I'll also listen again to the rough mix, and analyse how the vocals sound in that. 'Closer' was pretty much all about the vocals, because of the stacks of harmonies in the backing vocals.
"Once the vocals sound really good, I take them out and start working on the backing track. Usually I'll start with the drums, and once I'm done with them I'll bring the vocals back in, to play around with the blend. Particularly in hip-hop, the balance between the vocals and the drums is very important. I'll then take the vocals out again and bring in the most important elements of the track one by one. In the case of 'Closer' this was the Rhodes. I then continued with the guitars, starting with the acoustic guitar, then the electric guitar, and finally the rest of the keyboards. Throughout I'll be checking the track with the vocals, to make sure they continue to fit where they need to be. I make more adjustments all the time, for instance EQ the guitar, or whatever is in the frequency range of the vocals, so the vocals have the space they need, and you can still hear everything else."
- Vocals: Focusrite D2, Waves Renaissance Compressor & De-esser, URS N12, various outboard.
"Usually the lead vocals will consist of a few different audio tracks, because there will be overlapping vocal parts, or different tracks for different sections of the songs, like for the verse, the chorus and the bridge, and so on. I bus these vocal tracks to one or more auxiliary tracks, and treat them from there. In the case of 'Closer' the two main lead vocal tracks are '2 Lead' and '1 Lead,' and I bussed them to the 'LD Vox' track. My general approach with vocals is to first use Auto–Tune or Melodyne to make sure everything is in tune. In the case of Ne-Yo this was just a matter of a couple of notes here and there. I'll then clean up the low end with the Focusrite D2 or something, say below 70-80Hz, because there's not a lot going on below that vocally. Then I'll do some slight compression with the Renaissance Compressor, fast attack fast release, just to get those peaks out, and I might use a little bit of the Renaissance De-esser, depending on whether the vocal needs it. After that I'll run the vocal through a URS N12 plug-in, which has this graphic Neve-like thing. Just a little bit of EQ, not too much."
"Next, I'll bring the vocal track up on a channel on the board, and insert a Summit TLA100a tube levelling amp, or a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor, to warm the sound up and get it more in the pocket, and after that I'll have an Avalon 2055 EQ, and depending on the sound I might at the end slap on a Dbx 902 de-esser. I'll run the vocals through a lot of things, but won't do anything extreme on any of them, just a little bit of EQ here and a little bit of compression there. The outboard compressor will be more to smooth things out, so will have slow attack, slow release and very minimal compression, 2-3dB max, though in some songs the vocals need hard compression. But usually I try to let it breathe a bit. After the insert chain the signal comes back up on the board, and I may do a little bit of SSL board EQ, and then it's just a matter of doing rides. I don't tend to use the SSL compressor on vocals. Other effects on the vocals may include the Roland SDE330 spatial delay, Lexicon 480 for reverb, or the TC Electronics M3000 or the 4000 series.
"As for the backing vocals, I bussed the main chorus ones to a stereo aux track, 'BGV', and they mostly get the same treatment as the lead, though I may sometimes use the Summit DCL200 or the Focusrite Red 3 for compression. The URS N12 treatment may seem very minimal, -0.6dB on 125Hz and so on, but those plug–ins are powerful. On the Edit Window you can see six BV duplicate tracks below the BGV track, which are some 'ohs' I copied over from the original tracks and then bussed to 'BGV.dup1' for different treatment. I think I wanted to separate these from the compression I used on the main backing vocals. I then bring these duplicates onto two channels on the board and treat them some more."
- Vocal effects: Sound Toys Filter Freak, Phase Mistress & Echoboy, Waves Metaflanger & Renaissance Reverb, Digidesign D-Verb, Eventide Octavox.
"In general, I like creating separate tracks for specific effects. I created 'FX Lead' and 'FX Lead 2' to apply effects to the lead vocal in the breakdown section of 'Closer' using Sound Toys Filter Freak and Waves Metaflanger. With the Filter Freak I applied some weird envelope filter effect, and the Metaflanger made these tracks more stereo, panning one side 50 percent left and the other 50 percent right, and I was phasing things as I was panning them. I bussed the lead vocal tracks directly to these tracks. On the 'Voc EFX' track I had a Sound Toys Phase Mistress plug-in to spread out the effects I had.
"I actually have a number of effect tracks set up on Pro Tools for every mix, and I'll use them as outboard effects on the board. I'll route auxiliary sends from the console into Pro Tools and have them turn up on separate channels on the board again. So it's as if I'm feeding an outboard effect from the console, which is actually a plug-in in Pro Tools. I set up individual plug-ins on each of these auxiliary tracks, so 'KD Verb 1' has a [Digidesign] D-Verb on it and comes in on input three, 'KD Verb 2' has a [Waves] Rverb on it and is on input four, 'E Boy 1' and 'E Boy 2' both have the [Sound Toys] Echoboy on them and are on inputs 9 and 10, and 'Harmonize' has the Eventide Octavox plug-in, and is on inputs 7 and 8. I then have all these returning on my console on channels 41-48. I may not always use them but that way I have a couple of reverbs, a couple of delays and a harmoniser at my fingertips and I can tweak them according to what I need in the song. The Echoboy has some very interesting sounding delays, tape delays, digital delays, panning delays, modulating delays, a bunch of great stuff to chose from. In 'Closer' I used the 'Harmonize' track to create some more spread in the background vocals with the Octavox. It's a bit similar to the Eventide H3000."
- Drums and bass: Neve 33609, API 560A, Focusrite D2, Waves De–esser, Empirical Labs Distressor, Moog EQ, SSL EQ and compression.
"The drums consist of a 'Boom', which is, well, just a boom, that happens just twice in the song; there's a kick, a clap, and a stereo loop which contains a hi-hat and percussion. I don't know where they got that from, it may have been samples. I think I used a Drawmer gate plug-in on the kick, which had a trail on it, so it went to the board and then to the Dverb or Rverb auxiliary track in Pro Tools to add my own trail. Via the board I sent the kick through a Neve 33609 compressor, followed by an API 560A [EQ]. I did the same with the clap. The loop had a Focusrite D2 to filter out some low end, and a Waves De-esser, because some of the sounds in there were really sibilant.
"For the keyboard bass I went via the board using a Distressor, followed by a Moog EQ. The Moog is a very old and rare piece of kit. I have four of them. It's a three-band parametric EQ, with an exceptional low end that you have to hear to really appreciate. It's unlike every other EQ I have ever heard. It's an amazing sound. It has a weird effect, almost like it adds some kind of sub-bass to anything you put through it, whether a bass guitar or a kick. You put it in there and it will almost sound like an 808. This worked very well in 'Closer'. I probably also added some desk EQ and compression to the drums and bass too."
Keyboards: Focusrite D4 & D2, Waves Renaissance Compressor & Enigma, Sound Toys Phase Mistress, Line 6 Echo Farm.
"The Rhodes functioned as a musical pad or bed. The Focusrite D4 plug-in was already there, and I added some Renaissance Compressor to make it fit, and the Phase Mistress, to spread it a little bit. It makes it feel a little bit bigger than it is. There was no outboard on the Rhodes. The 'Synhook' is a synth part that goes with the chorus melody, and the 'Syn reply' is a response to this that happens in the breakdown section. Basically it acts like a delay, and I added the Focusrite D2 EQ and Renaissance Compressor to both synth sounds. 'Tec' is a very small part that occurs in the second chorus and outro. The Enigma plug-in spreads it out a little bit and gives it some weird modulation, and it has some delay from the Echo Farm plug-in."
- Guitars: Line 6 Echo Farm, SSL EQ.
"After briefly working on the Rhodes because it was an important musical ingredient, I went on to the guitars. There are only two: the 'ThreeFour' track is the most important guitar, it's an acoustic guitar loop, and the 'Guit FX' and 'guitlick' tracks are the same guitar part, just treated differently. I just added some board EQ to the 'ThreeFour' loop and maybe some reverb, I can't remember. That was it. No plug-ins. It sounded good as it was. The 'Guit FX' is the guitar right at the beginning, and at the start of the breakdown section, and it already had a lot of effects pre-printed, mainly spatial effects, to catch the attention of the listener. I didn't do much, just added some board EQ. I added Echo Farm to the 'guitlick' track to mimic the delay on the 'Guit FX', but without all the other stuff Stargate already put on that. The guitars, especially the 'ThreeFour', compete with the vocals, frequency-wise, so I added the vocals back in to make sure they all fit."
- Mix bus: Izotope Ozone, Waves L2
"I send the stereo mix back from the console to Pro Tools via inputs 1 and 2 and to an auxiliary track called 'Mix'. I'll bus that track to channels 33-34, which I have patched into the monitor matrix on the console so I can listen to this 'Mix' track. I'll have the Izotope Ozone plug-in on it, which is one of my favourite plug-ins. It's pretty inexpensive but it sounds really cool. It's basically a mastering plug-in, with mastering reverb, multi-band stereo imaging, and so on. I used it on 'Closer' for some overall EQ, trying to maximise the mix a bit. I also have the L2 on the 'Mix' track, so I can hear what the mix sounds like smashed up and brickwalled from mastering. I listen to this in my car, to hear how it sounds compared to everything else. My 'Mix' track is like my master fader, and since I can't print from an aux, I bus it directly to the track next to it, which is my audio print track, or my record channel, if you want. When I print the mix, I leave the L2 off, so mastering can do what it wants to do."
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Kevin Davis was born into a musical family. His father, Mark Davis, worked as a keyboardist and producer with the likes of Sly Stone and Natalie Cole, while his mother, Ivory Stone, was a songwriter and backing singer, among others with Smokey Robinson. Having spent most of his teenage years around musical equipment and backstage with his mother on tour, the step to enrolling at the LA Recording Workshop in 1991 was a logical one for Davis. His studio education continued as a runner and assistant engineer at various studios, among them SoundCastle in LA, after which he went independent.
Davis' career path eventually led to two Grammys, for his mixing work with Outkast and Ne-Yo, and several Grammy nominations. He fairly early on decided that mixing suited him better than engineering, because he found that he didn't have the patience for endless tracking, preferring the shorter, 1-2 days-per-song mix sessions, which also give him more freedom for creative decision making. The scope for the latter has declined in recent years, he says, because, "Many people have Pro Tools rigs at home now, and they can create their own sounds and do good rough mixes. So a lot of clients now want me to stay close to the rough mix, and if I manipulate too much, even if it may sound better, they don't like it. Many of the people I work for have a clear idea of what they're hearing in a mix, and you have to respect that."