Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most ambitious hip-hop albums of recent years. Derek Ali was Lamar’s right-hand man during its making.
“I’m 25, I have been doing this for only seven years, and I’m still learning. I just feel blessed to be here. But the response to Kendrick’s album has been crazy, and that people also notice the sound of the album, and therefore my work, is just amazing!”
Speaking from his Los Angeles home, Derek Ali still sounds a bit overcome by the success of Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp A Butterfly, which topped the UK and US charts and has enjoyed almost unanimous critical praise. A sprawling, intense piece of work, with 16 tracks clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, it is full of original, played and programmed music as well as samples, with the most important influences being jazz and the funk and soul music of the ’70s. Many of the tracks are stream-of-consciousness collages, which unexpectedly change musical styles, moods or tempi. The album took more than three years to make, involving multiple studios in LA, New York, Washington and St Louis, as well as Lamar’s tour bus.
Keeping everything together were relative rookie Derek ‘MixedbyAli’ Ali and Lamar himself. The two have been working together for Ali’s entire studio career: he also engineered and mixed Lamar’s first album Section.80 (2011) as well as Lamar’s commercial breakthrough and major-label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012). Ali’s rise to the very top of the American engineering and mixing world in the amazingly short time span of seven years is, by any standard, a remarkable achievement, especially as he grew up in extreme poverty, in the Gardena neighbourhood of LA.
“I never had the patience to actually learn to play an instrument or make a beat, or something like that,” recalls Ali. “But I was a curious kid, and back in my neighbourhood there were these Nextel cell phones for which people wanted custom ringtones. Growing up there was very, very hard, but I managed to buy an Audio-Technica 2025 microphone for 100 bucks and an M-Audio Solo interface and I used them to record into Fruity Loops and Cool Edit Pro in which I created personal ringtones for people. The fact that I could record somebody’s vocal and could manipulate it in all sorts of ways really intrigued me, so I started to explore engineering. The more I got into it, the more I wanted to know how the professionals did it. I did a lot of research. I tried to learn everything I could about recording, mixing and mastering techniques. Being self-taught is a great teacher. I often sat for 12-18 hours a day to hone my skills.”
To Pimp A Butterfly sounds like it had a dyed-in-the-wool engineer and mixer at the controls, not someone who very modestly claims that he’s still learning his craft. What’s more, despite his home-schooled audio background, Ali prefers to mix in the analogue domain rather than ‘in the box’.
“I didn’t really have one big break, it all came through my work with Kendrick,” explains Ali. “We’ve been working together for over seven years, and as his career built, people wanted to know who was doing all these effects on his vocals. So I was gaining people’s interest through their ears. When Kendrick signed with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), we had our own makeshift studio at the house of the company’s CEO, which was just Pro Tools with an Mbox, a PreSonus mic pre, and a cheap little mic. I became TDE’s in-house engineer and we recorded at least 12 albums for TDE at this studio! Kendrick and I later started working at Dr Dre’s studio. He is one of the greatest, and he was super hands-on with Kendrick’s M.A.A.D album.
“But Kendrick has his own sound, so when it was time to mix that album, Kendrick said that he wanted me to mix it. Dre appreciated that, because he liked a young guy who wanted to learn the art of engineering and mixing, instead of wanting to become a producer or a rapper. So he took me under his wing, and showed me a lot of techniques that you can’t learn in books and that he developed over the years, and that I then made my own. I went from Pro Tools LE with an Mbox to an SSL 4000 overnight, and just watching Dre work and how he got the drums and kick to smack and so on was an inspiration. Since then I’ve always used a board when recording and mixing.
“People look at me as if I am crazy, wondering whether desk does not take longer and eats up the budget! But I don’t care what anybody says: you can’t get that analogue sound in the box, period. You simply cannot recreate that sound with plug-ins. Second, working on the desk and with outboard gives you a hands-on feeling with the music. Kendrick’s songs have a lot of movement and changes in them, and when I am working with faders I feel like I am touching the music and am part of it. I don’t like looking at a screen for hours. It makes me feel like I am not free. I want to feel free when I am working. I want to be like an artist in a booth who can move his hands and feel free and express himself. I don’t want to feel like I am editing a movie.
“It may cost more to use a desk and outboard, but you can’t cheapskate good work. In my experience, when you are sitting in front of a computer, you’re missing out on something. Honestly, when you are looking at a screen, you are looking at numbers. Whereas when you are on a board in analogue, you are working with your ears. In digital you can turn things up or down a specific amount of decibels, or tune this or that frequency. But how useful is that? It is a bit like going to a school for engineering. You can learn many valuable things there, but the one thing that you cannot be taught is how to hear something. Nobody else can teach you your own taste and tell you what number is right. It is just a number. Instead you have to train your ear, you have to learn to notice the different frequencies and sounds, and then let your own taste decide.”
Kendrick Lamar is, by all accounts, a workaholic, who loves nothing more than spending time in the studio writing and recording. And so work on To Pimp A Butterfly began at the end of 2012, immediately after the release of and promotional tour for M.A.A.D City. Lamar and Ali spent most of their time at No Excuses in LA, with the other studios mentioned in the credits for the album used only very briefly.
“Sometimes Kendrick would do a show somewhere, and after the show he still wants to work, so we go to a local studio,” recalls Ali. “He’s also had a studio in his tour bus ever since we were on tour for the first album. If he didn’t have that, he’d be recording in GarageBand! So we made it easier for him, and set up this studio in the bus, with a simple setup, consisting of a Pro Tools HD rack, two mics, the Sony C800G and a Telefunken U47 and an Avalon mic pre. Nothing crazy, just stuff that allows us to get down ideas. But our main headquarters for the making of the album was Tom-Tom (the nickname for No Excuses Studio), which is owned by Interscope. It has Dre’s former SSL 4000 G+, the last G-series ever built, in 1991. He mixed his album The Chronic (1992) on it and Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP (1999), and lots of other famous albums, so it’s a real classic board in rap history.”
Far more live musicians and fewer samples were used than is normal on a hip-hop album. “The main guys who were there for the entire making of the album were Kendrick, myself and producers Terrace Martin, Rahki, Tae Beast and Sounwave [the latter two are members of the Digi+Phonics production collective, the main in-house producers for TDE]. That was the core personnel, and we were involved from day one until the day we finished the last mix. We consider each other brothers, and Kendrick does not look at this as purely his album. When we were in the studio he talked about it as our album. He brought everybody in and we voted on how things should sound and work. When we played what we were doing to people, many were just dumbfounded and said that they’d never heard anything like this before. For this reason the other producers had to be around and feel the energy and connect with Kendrick’s vision.
“The other producers came in when Kendrick had ideas for working with them, guys like Pharrell, Thundercat and Flying Lotus. Boi-1da is based in Toronto and he was one of the only ones who didn’t come over to the studio. The general working method in hip-hop of the producer sending over some beats didn’t work for this album. There were just a couple of songs on the album that came out of people sending us beats. Like Kendrick found this beat by Knxwledge in his e-mail, and we were like, ‘What’s this?’ It just matched the aesthetic of the album so well, and we used it for the track ‘Momma’. But A&R guys sometimes brought in producers or tracks and we’d just be sitting there looking at each other and going, ‘This has nothing to do with what we’re doing at the moment.’”
Although Dr Dre is credited as the executive producer of To Pimp A Butterfly, Ali stresses that it was Lamar’s vision that unified all the album’s disparate ingredients and contributors. “It’s almost crazy watching him, because he knows exactly what he wants. Big names mean nothing to him. He may listen to the way someone sings or plays, and if he likes it, he’ll incorporate that into his project, but in a way that fits his vision. He looks at people’s vocals as instruments. Kendrick knew what he wanted to talk about with regards to the lyrics, and from there it was a matter of piecing the music together, and making that fit with the vocals. He writes in his head, and he’ll hear a beat, or a bass line, or an instrumental or vocal melody, and he’ll build a track from there. Like Thundercat may be playing an amazing bass line in the studio lounge, and Kendrick might be having a conversation with someone else, but a moment later he’ll write something to fit that bass line, and five minutes later he’ll say, ‘Let’s record that.’ With the track ‘i’ he was literally trying to play a guitar to demonstrate what he wanted. He writes all the words, of course, but is also 100 percent involved in the writing of the music.
“We recorded 60 to 80 tracks for this album over the three years, and Kendrick tried many different concepts and approaches. The final direction began to emerge in the last year and a half or so, with most of the tracks written and played from the ground up. There were many live instruments used, and that’s why we had our core team, with guys programming drums, and playing bass, guitars and keyboards, so we could arrange the music in the studio, live. Most songs would start with drums and bass, over which Kendrick would record a rough vocal. After that we’d stack the rest of the musical instruments on top, usually layer by layer. He tends to mumble melodies or harmonies for his roughs on top of the drums and bass, and after we recorded all the music, he’d write the actual lyrics and then he’d record his vocals again. It was kind of a backwards way of working, but it was cool.”
In addition to programmed drums and electronics, the album also features acoustic instruments like violin, trumpet, guitar, double bass, saxophones, clarinet, organ, piano, as well as extensive backing vocals. “Each song had its own sound world and its own process,” explains Ali. “The opening track, ‘Wesley’s Theory’, initially did not have the Boris Gardiner sample, but was produced by Flying Lotus, with Sounwave doing the instruments. ‘King Kunta’ is bass-heavy and influenced by the West Coast hip-hop from DJ Quik, who was big in the gangsta movement of the ’90s, and who had loads of jazz and funk influences in his music. Kendrick really wanted his sound for this song, and he had started with doing a vocal to a beat by DJ Quik. Sounwave then later created a new beat to match Kendrick’s vocals.
“‘For Free?’ was produced by Terrace Martin, who is a jazz player himself, and who arranged the song for a live jazz band. The energy of that session was amazing. I had never seen anything like that ever in my life. It got me into jazz, honestly. Just tuning my ears for his album I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz albums, and I kind of fell in love with it. In fact, this album opened my ears to many different genres of music. I come from a place where there was no jazz; I was raised on gangsta rap.”
As the main engineer on To Pimp A Butterfly, Ali was responsible for keeping track of everything and organising the material, with the assistance of James Hunt and Matt Schaeffer. According to Ali, he and Lamar work in a very collaborative way, with the artist relying on Ali to supply him with sonic ideas that he then uses for inspiration.
“With Kendrick it’s all about feeling. If it doesn’t feel good, it’s not going to work for him. And what a lot of people don’t realise is that you can alter people’s emotions with certain frequencies and sonic textures. The fact that I can add delays and reverbs and other crazy effects to music or vocals and give them extra emotion is amazing to me. That’s what I do this for. Kendrick understands this, and he may be midway through recording a verse, and he’ll then ask me to try something, like ‘Can you add some flanging, or some panning, or something else crazy?’
“We’ve been working like that for years and it got my ears tuned to all kinds of different effects. When it’s during recording, I tend to do these effects in the box. It might take me a few minutes to set up, but it’s fun. In some ways the engineer-artist relationship is like driving a car, going on a road trip. The artist knows where he wants to go, but it is up to the engineer to take him there.
“The whole recording process was like filling in a check-sheet, and Kendrick always knew what he still had to finish or go back to. Towards the end of the project it became more of a mix-as-you-go situation, because of deadlines, but in general, once all the parts were recorded, and the song was structured and edited and sequenced, it was time to mix. Kendrick and I would have already discussed the direction for each song during the recordings, so for me also it’s just a matter of waiting until all the sounds are in, piecing and editing everything together in Pro Tools, and then I’d wait a day, to give my ears a break, and then it was time to do the final mix.
“We did all the mixes at Tom-Tom. The process was that after my day off I’d lay the mix out over the SSL, and then I’d spend one or two days on the mix. Kendrick and the other guys would be present with me in the room while I was mixing, non-stop. I am blessed to work with them, because they give me freedom to do all this crazy stuff, because they know what I am capable of. They’re not leaning over my back telling me what to do. After the initial one or two days mixing, I’d spend a day living with the mix, listening to it on all sorts of different speakers and in different situations. I’ll listen in my car, on my little home boombox speaker, in all sorts of places where people will be hearing them. Kendrick and I might also be listening to it in my home studio, where I have a Pro Tools rig, and Yamaha NS10s, Neumann and Auratone monitors. We’ll discuss what elements we want to bring out more. But really, most of the mix is done after those first one or two days. After that it’s just a matter of adding a little bit of sugar and spice. I’d come back in the studio the next day, and incorporate any final feedback from the guys, and I’d then print the mix, back to Pro Tools via a Lavry Gold A-D converter, and to half-inch analogue tape, using an Ampex ATR102 machine.”
Ali elaborates on his mix approach by detailing his mix of fan favourite ‘These Walls’, which features rappers/producers Bilal and Thundercat and singer Anna Wise. Starting and ending with spoken word, the song is otherwise one of the most melodic tracks on the album, essentially a medium-tempo soul ballad, played by a band with live bass, guitars, keyboards, saxophone and trumpet, and produced by Terrace Martin, Sounwave and Larance Dopson of the ensemble 1500 or Nothin’.
The Pro Tools session is fairly straightforward, consisting of about 90 tracks. At the top, in green, are tracks originally programmed and played in Ableton Live, including drums, bass and keyboards, plus some effect tracks, followed by guitars and trumpet; then, in light blue, are visible a number of Ali’s aux effect tracks, followed by two lead vocal tracks, horn tracks and more effect tracks in browny-green, and the guest vocal tracks mostly in darker blue. It is notable that there are hardly any plug-ins on the drums, a fair amount on the other music instruments, and a lot on the guest vocals.
- Instrument tracks: SSL desk EQ, API 550, Neve 2254, SPL Transient Designer, Pultec EQP-1A, Waves Doubler & S1 Imager.
Ali explains: “This is actually one of my cleanest mixes. I didn’t do anything crazy on the drums, just SSL desk EQ, plus the API 550 EQ on the snare, and Neve compressor as parallel compression on the drums as a whole. I also used the SPL Transient Designer on the drums. A lot of Kendrick’s music is really bass-heavy, and the API and the SPL allow me to get the drums to sit next to the bass and vocals in way that gets them to smack and be in your face without overpowering the other elements. I’ll take out some mid-range with the API, around 1kHz or so, and I’ll add high end, to get that high presence, and I’ll then take out high end on the SSL again, so it’s not piercing your ears. I do that a lot on snares in general. The API gives me a really nice top end for that smack, and the SPL gives me that thump. I used that chain on a lot of the drum tracks on the album. I like my drums to be clear and to hit hard and be present in the mix but not overpowering. I try to get every mix to sound both dirty and clean, if that makes sense.
“The Neve livens the drums up with some added body and mid-range. I also use it on the vocal, the brass and the guitars. In this song I had a Pultec EQ on the bass. The plug-ins on the synths and keyboards are mostly there to trim things, taking out unwanted frequencies and stuff like that. I don’t like to boost frequencies with the Waves plug-ins, because to me it sounds like they are thinning the sound. I’ll add frequencies on the board and will shape things there until they fit. Below the instruments are a number of aux tracks which I use in the third verse, where I added a lot of crazy stuff. The [Waves] Doubler acts on Thundercat’s bass, so it starts to sound like it’s underwater, giving a real funky effect. I also had the S1 Imager on the bass, to give it more presence.”
- Vocals: Waves Renaissance Compressor, SSL Channel & S1 Imager, EMT 250, Empirical Labs Distressor, Fairchild 670, SSL desk EQ & compression, AMS RMX16.
“There are quite a few plug-ins on Kendrick’s vocal.He has a real raspy, mid-range vocal, so I use the Renaissance Compressor to smooth that out. I have it in manual and opto modes, with the threshold all the way down to -18, so if anything in the mid-range leaps out too much, it keeps that in check. I use the SSL Channel strip on his vocals, just for high- or low-pass filtering, because most of my vocal EQ is done on the board. I also like to use the S1 Imager, again because of his voice being so raspy and mid-rangey, and the Imager opens it up. A perfect analogy is to think of a blanket on a bed which is tied in a knot, and then you open it up and spread the blanket over the bed. The Imager opens up his vocals and allows it sit on top of the track in a similar way. For outboard I used the EMT 250 reverb. The first time the studio took that out, I was like: ‘What’s that? A refrigerator?’ I also like to use the Distressor on his lead, because it adds some grit and presence at the top. So the RCompressor and S1 smooth and widen out his vocal sound, and the Distressor opens up the top end, making it crisp and allowing his vocals to cut through.
“The aux reverb tracks are mostly used for the vocals in that final section. You can hear I have vocals automated to pan left and right, and the S1 Imager makes them sound almost 3D, with stuff going on behind you. The reason I did that is because the song gives you a really happy feeling in the first two verses, it’s like a wedding party, even if when you listen carefully, you’ll hear Kendrick is singing about, excuse my language, pussy. But in the last verse he’s talking about people in jail, and so I added loads of effects to give you that feeling. As an engineer you manipulate sound to get certain emotions. For that reason I don’t want people to listen to my mixes. I want them to experience my mixes!
“Anna’s vocals were mainly treated in the box, with minimal stuff done on the board, just some shaping with the board EQ. The same with Bilal’s voice. I did send both their voices through an outboard Fairchild 670, for parallel compression. I didn’t do much to Thundercat’s voice either, it was mainly a question of trying to get it to sound airy, and for that I used a combination of SSL board EQ and reverb from the AMS RMX16. I might have initially done that with an in-the-box reverb, which I removed during the final mix.”
- Stereo mix: SSL bus compressor, GML 8200.
“As I mentioned before, we mixed back into Pro Tools, via a Lavry Gold A-D converter, and to half-inch tape. Whether I treated the two-mix depended on how loud my mix was. If it is super-loud already, I probably won’t do anything, but the majority of the time I use the SSL stereo bus compressor, and I also will often use a GML EQ, just to tune it a little bit. The album was mastered from the tape reels. Kendrick had been saying from the beginning of the project that he wanted a vintage ’70s sound, and doing my research I figured that mixing to tape was the best way to achieve that. We tried it, and we noticed how much warmer my mixes came out when they were printed to tape. Kendrick and I loved it. So in the end what we did was a hybrid of new and old approaches. You use the things from the past, and then you modernise them as best as you can.
“We really want for people to listen to this album from top to bottom, without skipping songs. This meant that the entire flow of the album had to be cohesive, and build in a certain way. So after we finished all the mixes we sequenced the album in a new Pro Tools session using the Lavry mix prints, and created a kind of blueprint of the album, adding effects and skits and bits and pieces to get the songs to flow into each other. We then replaced the Lavry mix prints in this Pro Tools session with digitised versions of the mixes that were mastered off the half-inch tape, and did some more fine-tuning. We had a lot of help with the entire mastering and sequencing process from our mastering engineer Mike Bozzi, at Bernie Grundman Mastering. So the album is one long piece of work from top to bottom. Listening to the entire album became a whole experience that makes you think about things and the emotions that are there.”
One of the more unusual aspects of Derek Ali’s approach to mixing is that he spends, he says, “about 80 percent of my time mixing listening to just one Auratone speaker, so yes, in mono! Dre always told me that if I could get something to sound amazing on crappy speakers, it’ll sound brilliant on normal speakers. So I try to get a great mix on the Auratone, and I’ll then go to the NS10s, and when I’m in Tom-Tom, to their main Augspurgers, with Bryston 4B amps. I make sure everything is clear and crisp and I’ll do any edits on the NS10s, and then I play it super-loud on the mains. I mix on just one Auratone, because I like specific elements of the mix to pop out, and listening in mono on that speaker really helps me define that. When I do my pans I often use the S1 Imager to get things to sound even wider, with things going round in a circular motion, and happening behind your head. But it’s difficult to assess your balance like that, whereas when you listen in mono, you can gauge the true value of how everything sits in the mix. I then reference things in stereo again, but most of the time I’m in mono. I’ve been doing this for the last couple of years, and I know when tracks are phasing in stereo and what to listen for in terms of balance. It’s something that I have developed that works for me.”
Derek Ali’s engineering skills were tested by the amount of live recording that took place in the making of To Pimp A Butterfly. “I mostly use our Stephen Paul-modified Telefunken U47 to record Kendrick, going through a Neve 1073 mic pre and then a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor, which gives a great, fat, warm vocal sound, especially in conjunction with the U47. Sometimes I’ll run his vocals through a Pultec EQP-1A3. On ‘Alright’ I used a U67 instead of a U47 on his voice and on ‘For Free?’ two Electro-Voice mics, the RE20 and the 666. We stacked the two EV mics on top of each other, and this gave a warm, almost distorted sound. I use plug-ins on his vocals during recording, because it’s easier and quicker, and they tend to be the Waves Renaissance Compressor, Metaflanger, De-Esser, SSL Channel, S1 Imager and the [Avid] Air Chorus.
“The jazz band was also recorded at No Excuses. On the drums I had an RCA 77 for the overheads left, and a Neumann U48 for the overheads right, an RCA 44 in front of the kit, and an AKG C24 as room mic, with one side pointed at the drums and one at the sax. The close mic on the sax was a Neumann M49, and I had a Neumann U48 on the upright bass, and on the piano AKG 414EBs with C12 capsules. That was it. All mics went straight into the SSL board, and I had mono compression on everything.
“The sax, trumpets and trombones on the rest of the album were recorded with a combination of RCA 44, RCA 77 and Royer 121 ribbon mics. We re-recorded the music of ‘That Lady’, the Isley Brothers song that was used for ‘i’ [the album’s lead single], and for that I had an AKG D112 on the inside of the kick and a Neumann 47FET on the outside, Shure SM57s on the snare top and bottom, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, Neumann KM84 on the ride, Shure SM81 on the hi-hat, Neumann 87s for overheads, and AKG C24 and [Telefunken ELAM] 251 as room mics and the Neumann TLM170 as room floor mic. The guitar cabinet had an SM57 and Royer 121 in front of it, and the keys and bass were DI.”
Like every engineer, Ali does rough mixes during recording, but he only used plug-ins at this point. Because his final mixes were done on the board using significant amounts of outboard, the final mix was a very separate stage. “In some respects my mixes are like reverse engineering, with me taking out plug-ins, and replacing them with desk EQ and compression and outboard. In some cases I replaced the Metaflanger and the S1 with the Eventide H3500, for my pitch-shift and chorus effects. Other effects I often used during the mix were the Neve 2254, for drum parallel compression, Dbx 160x and LA3A compressors, the Dbx 902, if I wanted to replace the Waves De-Esser, and the Lexicon 480L for reverb.”
Derek Ali brings to the mix process the same almost obsessive focus that helped him develop from teenage novice to world-class engineer in the span of just a few years. “The amount of detail that is in this album, nobody would understand unless you have the sessions in front of you. The reason the initial mixes can take me two days, or a week in the case of ‘Wesley’s Theory’, is that I get very passionate, maybe a bit over the top!
“Every mixer works on individual sounds, of course, but for me every sound needs to be perfectly in the pocket. Like the drums really need to hit and punch in a certain way, and if I have problems getting that, I won’t move on until I nail it. I start my mixes by working on the drums, and I’ll work on them until they snap and punch the way I want. I’ll then fit in the bass, and then the vocals, and after that I’ll bring in the musical instruments one by one. At every stage I’ll work on an element until I feel it is right. People often tell me, ‘What are you doing still working on this mix? It sounded great yesterday!’ But there’s something inside me that tells me that the mix is not ready yet.
“I like to take my time, especially with Kendrick’s stuff, because I am so partial to these records. I don’t feel I can rush through them. I may work on one instrument for hours. I literally spent three 18-hour days just mixing the drums for ‘Wesley’s Theory!’ The guys often tell me that I am crazy, that I got it 10 hours ago, but there’s something I am hearing that they are not hearing, and I have to get it right. I do bounces every two hours of where I am at, just in case I get lost. I did 13 of these bounces of ‘Wesley’s Theory’ after the mix was already approved. When I played Kendrick these bounces in sequence, he could hear the progress from the moment he had already OK’ed the mix, to the finished product.”