The biggest hit of 2014 is a triumph of minimalism — and a triumph for mix engineer Leslie Brathwaite.
Pharrell Williams enjoyed major success over the years, as featured artist on Snoop Dogg's mega‑hit 'Drop It Like It's Hot' in 2004 and Ludacris's 'Money Maker' in 2006, as well as with hip‑hop band NERD and as one half of production duo the Neptunes, and in 2013 he hit a peak. The two best‑selling songs of last year — Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' and Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' — both involved Williams as featured artist and co‑writer, while he also produced the latter song. Since then, 'Happy', released under Williams' own name at the end of last year, has become the biggest hit of 2014 so far.
The song was made for the Universal Pictures animated movie Despicable Me 2, itself such a staggering success that it has become the fourth highest‑grossing animated movie of all time. In a clever bit of cross‑project marketing, 'Happy' is also the lead single for William's second solo album GIRL, which was released in early March.
'Happy' is a mid‑tempo soul song in faux‑Motown style, with an arrangement that is, by modern standards, very sparse: programmed drums, one bass and one keyboard part, and handclaps both programmed and played, all topped off by Williams's lead vocals and a whole posse of backing vocals. The song was arranged and recorded by Andrew Coleman and Mike Larson at Circle House Studios in Miami, Florida. They sent the session over to Leslie Brathwaite, who mixed it in his fully in‑the‑box studio at Music Box Studios in Atlanta, which is owned by eminent hip‑hop recording artist and producer Akon.
From his white, science‑fiction‑esque mix room Brathwaite explains his setup and working methods, and how they were applied in his mix of 'Happy'. Apparently it was the connection with Akon that got Brathwaite the job. He says: "Pharrell and Akon know each other and Akon recommended me, after which Pharrell and I did a few projects together, for example with Leah Labelle, an artist that he works with. We started getting into a groove and I could tell that we were speaking the same language. He called me one day saying that he wanted me to mix some of the songs he was doing for the new Despicable Me movie, and I ended up mixing three, 'Happy', 'Scream', and 'Just A Cloud Away', plus some of the instrumental sections that he wrote that were more like a movie film score.”
Brathwaite has been in his room at Music Box since 2012. He'd previously been working out of another top Atlanta studio, Patchwork, but the connection with Akon prompted him to move to Music Box, which is a four‑room facility. "The other three rooms house Akon's producers,” explains Brathwaite. "They pretty much live there, just like I live in this room. It's really helpful to share a building like this. We all bounce around from room to room, because it's great to have people around that you can share energy with, or release energy with when you need to play a little bit, and most of all to have guys around who have other talents. They will also invite me into their rooms and ask me whether something sounds good, because I am the resident mixer, and I will chat with them about the occasional bit of production that I still do, like recently I produced Snoop Lion [aka Snoop Dogg, PT]. So we bounce ideas off each other and share ideas.”
Another factor in Brathwaite's decision to move to Music Box was that he was ready to finally part ways with his beloved SSL desk and go for a 21st Century DAW‑only approach. He recalls that he had in fact already been working in the box during his final year at Patchwork. "I was still sending all the individual tracks through the SSL desk in my room during that year, but I was no longer using outboard or the SSL faders, EQ, or compression. The SSL functioned as a huge summing box, with me splitting things out purely for the sound. Since moving to Music Box I am completely in the box, without summing mixers or outboard, and I don't even use the Avid Artist Control that I have. I'm a mouse guy now: just point and click!
"I moved fully into the box for two reasons. The first is that it was the only way to keep up with my productivity schedule. Doing recalls on large format consoles is a pain the butt, because it takes a lot of time and it is therefore just not efficient. With my workload increasing and me also trying to meet the demands for smaller budget projects, going into the box made total sense. It also does away with the need to have assistants, because there's nothing any more for them to do. Everything nowadays is done at the press of a button. I do have interns sometimes, but that's purely a matter of me being a mentor and showing them what I know.
"The other reason for going into the box is the UAD plug‑ins, which give me the warmth and depth in the sound that I'm after. When I first listened to them it was clear to me that Universal Audio is one of the companies that really takes modelling of old outboard units seriously. Their stuff sounds really good, just like the old equipment. Getting to know the UAD plug‑ins allowed me to get the same sounds I had before and made me comfortable with mixing in the box. To be honest, many of the producers I work with, like Pharrell, and the JUSTICE League, who I work with all the time, have been telling me that my mixes sound better now that I am in the box. It allows me to really push the envelope.
"All I use in my mix room now is my Pro Tools rig with a UAD Satellite, and some other plug‑ins — I'm big on Waves plug‑ins as well — and my speakers. My monitors of choice are my Focal Twin6 BEs, which I use together with the Focal Sub6 sub. I love them. I tried the Focals about two years ago, fell in love with them, and never looked back. They're pretty much all I use. My go‑to speakers used to be the [Yamaha] NS10s, and I still have them, but they've become redundant since discovering the Focals. I occasionally reference my mixes on the white edition KRK Rockets that I have, but don't use the Quested room speakers at all. They're purely for playback for clients who want things blasted out loud.”
The need to prepare sessions for mixing can also eat up Brathwaite's valuable time, but fortunately most of his collaborators do a good job themselves. "I have producers and engineers who send me stuff that is well‑organised,” he explains, "like Andrew and Mike who do Pharrell's stuff, and in those cases I have to do very little or no prepping. Though there are still some younger producers and artists who send me stuff that's not prepped at all, and in those cases I may have to spend part of the day or sometimes a whole day just doing prep work. I'm definitely big on good organisation. The more organised you are, the fewer mistakes you make. I still like my sessions to be organised in a similar way as a large‑format console, with top‑bottom equalling left‑to‑right on the desk. So it's drums at the top, then instruments and then vocals. I also like things to be colour‑coded, with lead vocals in red, instruments in a brownish colour, and so on. The colours help me move around quicker.
"Funnily enough, I never pay attention to track names. Instead I just look at the wave forms in the edit window. When you've been doing that for 15 or 20 years, you can pretty much open the session and just by looking know what the instruments are. It's gotten to the point where I can recognise what certain words look like. So when I do clean versions of songs, I can recognise what words like 'shit' look like and edit them out. It's a bit crazy, but other engineers who have been doing this long enough will tell you the same thing. It's one of the reasons why I almost always work on the [Pro Tools] Edit window. I'll have a look at the Mix window now and then, but not very often. I know that people used to say that it's better to use your ears and not look at the music, but I think I'm fortunate to have experience of working in both the analogue and the digital worlds. This means that I can apply old‑school concepts and approaches, but I can also be adaptive and responsive to the new‑school stuff. For me, looking at the music helps. It makes you a little bit more efficient.
"It's the same with all the other tools we have at our disposal now, for example to get things 100 percent correct in terms of timing and pitch. Some people look at that as a bad thing. I think it's because they have done things in a certain way for a long time, and they are used to the way things have sounded in the past. But I think the powers we have now to correct things are great. For me it's about finding the right balance between old and new approaches. It's about training your mind to be open to progress and to new things. I have always been one of those guys who was open to the latest thing. I thought the Internet was great at a time when everybody was screaming about how it was going to ruin the music industry. I like progress and I like change.”
Brathwaite acknowledges, however, that the digital revolution has brought its own set of challenges. He's sympathises with the complaint expressed by some of his mix colleagues, which is that with music producers now having the same tools as mixers and often spending months mixing their tracks, they create very sophisticated rough mixes that they become very attached to.
"It's true that we're fighting the rough mix more than ever,” reflects Brathwaite. "When you mix something made by guys who have been working on a rough mix from a couple of months to a couple of years, it's a very delicate balance. What I try to do in those situations is to simply enhance the mix and make sure that it's technically correct, and not to change what they have gotten used to. I might fix a couple of vocal lines that are slightly out of tune, making sure the bass and high end are sitting in the right place, and so on. I am not as frustrated as some other mixers may be in this scenario, because I still have a job to do, and I still need to make sure the mix is technically correct, and somehow that is just as challenging, because I need to take something that someone has worked on for a long time and still make it better, without messing up the elements that they are attached to. You're still looking for that response where they walk into the room when your mix is finished, and they go: 'Wow, I love it!' For me that's equally gratifying. Having said that, I am fortunate in that I also have a sizeable batch of clients that send me their sessions straight after they have recorded them, so they haven't gotten the chance yet to get used to their rough. In this scenario I have a lot more freedom. Again, it's about balance, and in this case having a nice balance of clients.”
Pharrell Williams is one of those clients who gives Brathwaite a lot of freedom, and the mix of 'Happy' was no exception. "Pharrell is not one of those artists who listens intently to the rough mix,” elaborates Brathwaite. "Instead, he sends you the song the moment it is recorded. In fact, Andrew and Mike sent me the session the very night that they finished the recordings. When I get a session like this, I will play it through one time to get a sense of where they left off. It still is a rough mix — Pharrell and the others just haven't had two or three months to get used to it. This means that I can make changes without running into the problem of them being attached to what they have. So I run the session through to find out what they were feeling and what they are aiming for, and then I have a conversation. Conversations are important.
"Most producers will tell you what they would like their stuff to sound like. When someone says to you, 'I want this to sound like Aretha Franklin,' it's an easy blueprint to work with. All I have to do is listen to the songs they reference and apply that to the mix. When I spoke with Pharrell, he said things like: 'I would like it to sound a little bit like a combination of André 3000's 'Hey Ya!', a Phil Collins song and a Motown song.' So I downloaded the three songs Pharrell mentioned and that gave me a feel of what he was going for, which in part referred to the classic Motown era. This meant that I knew how to approach the claps and drums in the session, and the reverb that would be best for the drums, and the way the vocals had to feel and where they had to sit. In the Motown days they didn't have the best microphones, so the vocals weren't pretty and in your face. Instead they had to be a little in the background and spread out. These were the kinds of things I had in mind when I mixed the song.”
As mentioned above, the arrangement for 'Happy' is positively Spartan by modern standards, and this is reflected in the session screenshot. At the top of the session is Brathwaite's final mix input channel. Underneath that is the rough mix, and underneath that the print of Brathwaite's final mix ('LBP4'), followed by three empty tracks for potential new mixes. Then there are just five programmed drum tracks — kick, snare, hi‑hat, claps and percussion — a bass track, one keyboard track, a track containing a 'hmmm' sample, eight live handclap tracks, four lead vocal tracks, six Pharrell backing vocal tracks, and a multitude of tracks with the rest of the backing vocalists. Just two tracks of what's known as "the music” — ie. bass and keyboards — must surely count as a new record for minimalism in a 21st Century production! Moreover, it turns out, Brathwaite himself is similarly minimalist in his use of plug‑ins, using the same de‑esser, compressor and EQ on each of the vocal tracks, and also using several instances of a few other plug‑ins on various other tracks.
"I always start every mix with the vocals,” he explains. "They are the most important part of the song, so I want to lock them in first, while my ears are still fresh. I'll even start with the vocals when mixing hip‑hop, because when I get the sound of the vocals first, my ears aren't burnt out by the time I get to working on the drums and bass and have everything playing loudly. I like to mix the subtle things first and then work on the loud stuff. I'll start the mix by working on either the lead vocals or the background vocals first, depending on the song. Once I have the vocals the way I want them, I will go to the drums, then the bass and the relationship between the bass and the kick, and I'll then bring in the keyboards and guitars and other instruments, and finally I will bring the vocals back in. I will sometimes reference them while mixing the music, just to make sure they continue to sit well in the mix. The sound we were after with 'Happy' was for all the backing vocals together to sound almost like a musical instrument, so I started with them. After finishing with the backing vocals I got a nice blend of how I wanted the leads and backing vocals to sound together, and then I started work on the music.”
- Lead vocals: Waves De‑esser, Renaissance Compressor, SSL Channel & L2, Universal Audio SSL Channel, Audio Ease Altiverb, Avid Extra Long Delay.
"The four lead vocal tracks are colour‑coded red, and each covers different parts of the song, like 'PH85' is the verse vocals track and '8101' is the hook vocal track. You will note that I have the same three plug‑ins on each individual vocal track: the Waves De‑esser, the Waves Renaissance Compressor and the Universal Audio or Waves SSL Channel for EQ. The reason to keep the tracks split out is that I'll treat each vocal track slightly differently based on its characteristics and its role in the song. Pharrell will have sung the hooks a bit more aggressively, because he is singing with the backing vocals behind him. This means that the compression in the verse lead will be a bit different from that on the hook lead. These four lead vocal tracks are sent to a yellow aux track, called 'Lead', on which I had the Waves L2 and again the SSL Channel, this time using the compression. The L2 limiter adds a little bit more presence to the group, and puts the vocals more in your face. The three sends are going to the Altiverb, and two delays with different timing on them. I prefer to have the reverb on an aux as opposed to on the inserts, because I like to have everything that I send through it feel like it's in the same room. I tried to build a sense of space and distance depending on how much reverb I put on each element. The vocal aux delays are the Digidesign [Avid] Extra Long Delays, and they are really subtle. I also took the low end out of the delay return, so they become like a whisper sounding in the distance. It's something to keep your brain occupied, without you being aware of it.”
- Backing vocals: Waves De‑esser, Renaissance Compressor, SSL Channel & L2, Celemony Melodyne, Universal Audio Precision EQ, Audio Ease Altiverb, Avid Extra Long Delay.
"There are six Pharrell backing vocal tracks, in blue, below his lead vocals, and the backing vocals are sent to the aux track immediately below them, just above the lead vocal aux track. Below these two vocal aux tracks are all the other backing vocal tracks. All backing vocal tracks again have the Waves De‑esser, Renaissance compressor and SSL Channel EQ. In fact, I will use these three plug‑ins on every individual vocal track I work on. Every background vocal will have the esses at a slightly different place, so for them be accurately de‑essed I need to treat each track differently. I also want to be able to roll off individual notes in sections or accentuate the high end. These plug‑ins are only marked on the Pharrell backing vocals tracks because the other backing vocals were tuned in Melodyne.
"I like to process the tracks with de‑essing, compression, and EQ before I send them into Melodyne,so there are no latency issues. When I work on a mix I first figure out what vocals need to be Melodyned, and I do that before anything else. I then put these Melodyned vocals back into the session. I did also Melodyne some parts of Pharrell's vocals, he encourages that, but not entire lead vocal tracks. I prefer Melodyne for more realistic tuning of vocals, but I have also used Auto‑Tune a lot. In fact, I mixed many of T‑Pain's big hits, and we kind of started his signature Auto‑Tuned sound when working on his first single, 'I'm Sprung', in 2005. I put the effect on his voice, and he was like: 'Please turn it up even more, I want to sound robotic!' Pharrell's backing vocal aux track had the SSL Channel, the L2 and the UAD Precision EQ, which allows me to home in on a specific frequency. I often use it to tweak the high end, boosting it to give some nice sheen. Pharrell's backing vocal aux track goes to the same Altiverb reverb and two Extra Long Delay aux tracks as his lead vocal aux, which are at the bottom of the session.”
- The music: Flux Stereo Tool, Universal Audio Little Labs VOG, Pultec EQ, Precision EQ & Precision Enhancer, Audio Ease Altiverb, Waves SSL Channel EQ, L2 & Renaissance Compressor.
"The kick drum has the Flux Stereo Tool, the Little Labs VOG Analog Bass Resonance Tool and the UAD Pultec EQ. The Flux helped me to balance the kick which was not quite in the middle, the VOG allowed me to add a bit more roundness to the low end, and the Pultec added some more low‑end definition. The snare has the UAD Precision EQ and Precision Enhancer kHz plug‑ins to enhance the high end of the snare. The hi‑hat also has the Flux Stereo Tool and the Precision EQ, and the kick, snare and hi‑hat go to a drums aux with the Altiverb. I think I put the drums in a smaller space then the vocals, to bring out more of the body of the drum sound. Next is a claps track which was programmed using a Roland 808 and on which had the SSL Channel EQ. Then there's a percussion track with the Precision EQ and the L2 to make it cut through. Below that is the bass, which has the VOG and Pultec, similar to the kick. Both plug‑ins are great for tightening and enhancing the low end. I didn't treat the keyboards, or the 'Hmmm' sample. Underneath the sample are a whole series of live claps. I used some Renaissance Compressor on two of the clap tracks.”
- Stereo mix: Universal Audio Precision EQ & Precision Enhancer, Waves L2.
"The song was mixed via the 'yep' track, on which I had the Precision Enhancer and EQ, like I had on the snare. Universal Audio call the Enhancer 'a specialised tool designed to enhance high frequencies and breathe new life into dull tracks', and it allowed me to add a nice gloss to the mix. The Precision EQ is treating one specific frequency in the high‑end range. Below that is the L2, which I put on purely for Pharrell, to give him some idea of what mastering would do to the mix. I took it off again when I sent the mix to mastering, to give the guy some headroom to work with. I did a full mix in stereo, and I also created stems of the drums, bass, guitars, pianos, vocals and backing vocals, which I sent to Gary Rizzo, who was the re‑recording mixer for Despicable Me 2. Where necessary he will have adapted the parts to specific scenes.
"It's quite a simple session. There aren't a lot of tracks in this mix. It's how Pharrell produces. He is a minimalist! He is one of my favourite artists because he allows me to be me and do what I do. So in looking at this mix you also got a nice glimpse into my approach and my world.”
Leslie Brathwaite is originally from the Virgin Islands, where a vibrant local music scene made a great impression on him. Immediately attracted to the behind‑the‑scenes music equipment, he got himself a small multitrack recorder and set up a studio in his bedroom. To expand his horizons and learn more about recording he went to Full Sail in Florida, where he attended the Recording Arts program and graduated in 1992.
Following this, Brathwaite moved to Atlanta, where big‑name producers like Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Babyface and LA Reid were building a big scene. Brathwaite found a job working with Dallas Austin at his studio, called DARP. "We were still working on analogue tape, using the Studer A800,” recalls Brathwaite, "and working with large‑format consoles. Everything was analogue. We started moving into the digital world in 1996‑97, using Pro Tools and also soon plug‑ins, but for the most part Pro Tools was just a tape machine. I certainly wasn't mixing in the box in those days!”
Brathwaite moved to Patchwork Studios in Atlanta in 2001 and to Akon's studio facility Music Box in 2012. While working in these three studios over the last 22 years, Brathwaite has amassed an astonishing amount of credits. Allmusic.com lists a whopping 349 credits, including Outkast, Boyz II Men, Cypress Hill, Toni Braxton, Björk, Aretha Franklin, TLC, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Beyoncé, Akon, T‑Pain, Eminem, Jay‑Z and Ricky Ross. Brathwaite has won several Grammy Awards, was in 2010 inducted into the Full Sail Hall Of Fame, and he returns to Full Sail every year to take part in the college's Hall Of Fame week. "I love to pass on knowledge!” he enthuses.