You are here


Recording Angels & Queens By Tom Doyle
Published August 2023

With Angels & Queens, LA’s Gabriels have produced one of the most adventurous albums of the year.

Beginning with the 2020 release of their debut EP, Love And Hate In A Different Time, LA‑based retro‑futuristic soul band Gabriels have attracted widespread attention and famous fans, including Paul Weller, Harry Styles and Elton John — who called the EP “one of the most seminal records I’ve heard in the past 10 years”. Now the trio, comprising singer Jacob Lusk and multi‑instrumentalists Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope, have finally released their full‑length debut album, Angels & Queens, following a seven‑track Part One taster issued last year.

Gabriels: Ari Balouzian (left), Jacob Lusk (rear right) and Ryan Hope (front right).Gabriels: Ari Balouzian (left), Jacob Lusk (rear right) and Ryan Hope (front right).The three all come from very different backgrounds: Compton‑raised Lusk was formerly a gospel choir leader, working with the likes of Diana Ross and St Vincent, while Balouzian was a film and TV composer, and Hope, a Briton originally from Sunderland, was a music video and commercials director who’d moved to California when he was signed to Roman Coppola’s agency The Directors Bureau.

Baked In

Gabriels first pooled their talents in 2016, when Hope and Balouzian were working together on music for a Prada commercial and invited Lusk to get involved. Since then, the group’s music has maintained the same atmospheric, filmic quality, referencing classic soul and gospel recordings while at the same time employing modern, hip‑hop‑styled production methods.

“That’s always been something we’ve liked,” says Balouzian. “There’s such a lack of things that are real nowadays. I feel like that’s been lost a lot in modern music, where you don’t feel people playing together.

“But, instead of doing it in a traditionalist sense where it’s like, ‘OK, this is a gospel blues album,’ or something, it’s like: How do you do that, but make it kind of fresh and exciting? I feel like we have those elements of hip‑hop production, where they’re sampling stuff that’s all baked in together. With Gabriels, we could really have fun with the production and treat the songs like they were almost samples.”

“It opens it up,” says Hope, “because you’re not reaching for a song in the conventional way. With our writing process too, it’s very much like you’re trying to paint a picture.”

Desert Rock

The preliminary sessions for Gabriels’ first recordings took place at Ryan Hope’s home studio in the city of Palm Desert, East of Los Angeles. “I was making techno, really,” he explains. “So I had a Roland 909, 808, 707, 727, 303. I had a Vermona modular drum machine. I had a Roland Jupiter‑6, I had a [Sequential] OB‑6, a Roland SH‑101, a MicroKorg, a Yamaha DX7, an Oberheim Matrix 1000...

“I just had a shit ton of synths and drum machines, and I was buying and selling them. Whenever I got a cheque, I bought something, and whenever I needed to pay the rent, I sold something! Ari used to come out all the time. And basically, we used to just nerd out with all of the gear.”

“He had this setup and then I would start moving stuff out there,” says Balouzian. “I had a Coles [4038] mic and, eventually, we got a Neve 1073 channel strip. We just used those on everything. Vocals, strings: we would kind of get these little scraps and ideas. Ryan would have drum beats, modular synth stuff. I’d play keys over them, put strings on, and then we’d build stuff from there.”

Logical Moves

Up until this point, Hope had been using Ableton as his preferred DAW, but Balouzian encouraged him to switch to Logic. “I wanted to learn Logic anyway,” he says. “It was a lot easier, because we were sharing files, for both of us to use the same thing. It’s better for arranging songs too.”

One of the pair’s early breakthroughs was the creation of the brilliantly lopsided drums, claps and piano loop that forms the basis of one of Angels & Queens’s standouts, ‘The Blind’.

“I’d been doing this for years, where I’d just put a mic into a [Boss] loop pedal and build these kind of weird drums,” says Balouzian. “It was hitting the timpani, clapping, just one snare hit, all this stuff. And then I hit these chords, and that’s all baked into the loop.”

These handmade sessions continued at Balouzian’s home studio in Burbank, where he would often layer string lines, playing all the parts himself, most notably on the original EP version of the strident soul/pop track ‘Love And Hate In A Different Time’.

“I was doing it as an experiment,” Balouzian says, “testing out my RCA 77 [ribbon mic], which I’d just got. I was like, ‘What does that sound like if I use it on strings?’ That more kind of thin string sound just ended up becoming a big part of the song.”

Wave Hello

When Gabriels subsequently signed to Atlas Artists/Parlophone Records, and after they had written and toured most of the material for Angels & Queens, they decided to get a co‑producer involved for the album, approaching Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave (see box).

Co‑producer Sounwave (front) and engineer Ryan Nasci behind the Neve 88R console at Conway Studios.Co‑producer Sounwave (front) and engineer Ryan Nasci behind the Neve 88R console at Conway Studios.

“The reason we were happy to bring him in is because we f**king love what he does,” Hope enthuses. “The Kendrick albums are absolutely incredible. And it just feels like when you listen to them, you can feel the searching in them. That’s very similar to the ethos of what we’re doing.”

“I had no idea that they were fans of mine, but I was a huge fan of theirs,” Sounwave laughs. “The few EPs they dropped prior, I was just playing all the time. As soon as we got in the studio, it was an instant connection. Like, our energies matched. I’m always trying to push the envelope. So I don’t like to stay in one box.”

Back Tracking

Sounwave’s main instrument is the Akai MPC.Sounwave’s main instrument is the Akai MPC.The Gabriels album sessions began at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, before moving two miles Southeast to Conway Recording Studios. Live rhythm parts played by various drummers, including Trevor Estes (Midnight Sister) and Rico Nichols (Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West), were augmented by rhythms programmed by Sounwave using his Akai MPC Studio. “It’s the closest I can get, in a portable, to the MPC2000 and 2000XL,” he says. “It has the same functioning, same feeling, same vibe. The MPC, that’s home for me.”

The chief engineer on Angels & Queens was Ryan Nasci (Dua Lipa, Harry Styles), who was happy to employ minimal miking for the live drums at Conway, often simply positioning a single RCA 44‑BX ribbon mic in front of the kit. “It’s not like a rock setup, for sure,” he stresses. “It’s definitely more leaning into the jazz world. Then Sounwave just has his sample libraries that he’s accumulated over the years. I’ll loop the song, and he’ll run through samples and grooves. And when he has something, he’s like, ‘All right, lay it in.’”

“Sounwave did an incredible job of helping us and encouraging us,” says Balouzian. “There was that kind of freedom of him working with his MPC on our tracks and bringing his input. Y’know, drum beats we weren’t really expecting. He’d be like, ‘What do you feel like you need on this song?’ Or he’d have done some work on one of the demos, and we’d say, ‘Oh, let’s maybe recut the bass and the rhythm stuff to your drums to fit your groove a little more.’

“At the end of ‘Remember Me’, he did this drum beat that he wasn’t sure about at first. He was like, ‘Is it too Wu‑Tang or something?’ And we were like, ‘There’s no such thing!’ So we recut the drums and bass to those kinds of things.”

Inspired by the late J Dilla, Sounwave has disabled the quantise function within his MPC. “I’m always pushing the swing,” he says. “Quantise is putting you in a box. If you learn how to actually program with no quantisations, that will put you in a whole different feeling. Like that vibe alone is just so natural, so weird, and so unique. So that’s kind of one of my secrets is, whenever I can, I will just have no quantise on anything, and go for more feeling.”

But Sounwave’s contributions didn’t stop at the beats. He added “little structural kind of things”, as Balouzian puts it. “It was this interesting thing where he gave us our space to feel comfortable and work alone in there. And then when it was his time, we’d go out of the room and give him, like, four or five hours to really just work. Then we’d come in and shape it. It was a really fun, free process.”

Within his Mac laptop, Sounwave tends to use Native Instruments libraries. “It’s just infinite sounds in there. Also, I use a lot of the [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere sounds. And I just mess with the EQs on that and try to get as trippy as possible. The trippier the better for me.”

Sounwave: Quantise is putting you in a box. If you learn how to actually program with no quantisations, that will put you in a whole different feeling.

World On A String

At Conway, the team experimented further with Ari Balouzian’s one‑man string section. “We brought in a cello player at one point,” he says. “But for the most part, I do it all: cello, violin, viola.”

“We had three microphones set up for the strings for Ari to stack himself up,” says Nasci. “So we had two [Neumann] U67s, left to right, and then an M49 in the middle, all on the same plane, just to keep everything in phase. Then as far as panning, it was kind of Ari panning himself. When he was playing viola, I would mute the M49 to thin it out.

Ari Balouzian lays down a keyboard part in the live room at Conway.Ari Balouzian lays down a keyboard part in the live room at Conway.

“I wasn’t doing too much EQ’ing. One, because I just didn’t have time to go through and try to EQ all these tracks, and two, just because it already sounded pretty good. He was able to balance himself pretty well. When we were doing some cello passes, we put up a [Neumann] KM54, which sounds great on cello. That mic’s incredible. So we used that to get a little more directionality from it.

“There wasn’t too much processing on the strings when we were tracking them. I made a string bus with maybe some Fairchild plug‑in, maybe some [Softube] Curve Bender to sweeten it up a little bit, but nothing crazy.”

A similar, open‑ and multi‑miked approach was used on some of Jacob Lusk’s layered backing vocals, most notably on the gospel choir‑like end section of the album’s closing track, ‘Mama’. “He was layering everything on just one [Neumann] U47,” Balouzian remembers. “And we were struggling to feel that depth of how big it gets when he’s singing loud. It just felt a little thin and like all these close layers. So eventually we tried putting him in different positions around stereo mics, and he just backed off and would move around like a choir would.”

“I think we spent a good hour and a half, just stacking him up,” says Nasci, “and we’d slowly fade in clapping, like having this church experience. It was really incredible. That was one of my favourite moments, for sure, was making that kind of emotional church choir with Jacob.”

A Real Voice

Jacob Lusk’s vocals were recorded using a Neumann U67 during the early sessions at Balouzian’s home studio. “But then we realised if he’s singing really loud, you need to have like a really controlled, clear vocal,” Balouzian says. “It was kind of best to work with him for the final vocals in these more treated rooms. So, we started using a U47.”

“The guys had done a lot of work,” Ryan Nasci adds, “and they were saying that the U47 was the one for him. I was like, ‘All right, I’m not gonna question that.’ So we did a U47 into a Neve 1081 [preamp] into a [Tube‑Tech] CL1B [compressor]. Pretty classic. On one song, the intro of ‘Mama’, we did use a [RCA] 44.”

Gabriels“Mostly it’s real, live performances,” Balouzian points out. “I love that, in ‘The Great Wind’, at the end, he’s out of breath. At first, we were like, ‘Oh, do we just comp that in?’ But there’s something about that where you know he made it through and that was a real take. We did that at Sunset Sound, and he sang that with the band.”

On ‘Love And Hate In A Different Time’, Lusk’s voice in the choruses was fed through a Leslie speaker, while on ‘Taboo’, it was routed through an Ampex ATR‑102 tape machine to add slapback echo. “The vocals for ‘Taboo’ I wanted to sound like an old Nina Simone record,” says Nasci. “So we just ran them through at seven and a half IPS on that, to get them really, really gritty and midrangey and take all the fidelity out of it. I mean, it actually still ended up sounding great, because those ATRs are incredible. So, a lot of tape. A lot of slap.

“I have a little [MicMix] Master Room mono spring reverb that I brought. That’s a great little reverb. We experimented a little bit with an [Eventide] H9000, which Ryan brought in. He really likes that unit. But yeah, it wasn’t super‑effected. I would add, just to bring it into the modern world, [Waves] R‑Vox. But not crushing it.”

Too Weird

Ryan Hope recalls there being many standout moments when recording Lusk’s vocals for the album. “The last song we did was ‘Taboo’. We had ‘Taboo’ as this instrumental that Ari and I loved. We were told, ‘Maybe it’s too weird... it’s not a single.’ We cleared everybody out the studio and Jacob just cut it. Those first takes of him singing were unbelievable.”

“‘Taboo’ we actually wrote in Conway,” says Balouzian. ‘I didn’t know if it was going to really work for Gabriels because it was a song in 7/8. I laid that down with Trevor Estes, who’s a great drummer. He has all this great percussion and knowledge of stuff. We wrote the song, with the vocals, in Conway and Sounwave really liked it. So he laid some sounds with his drums that fit within them. Really subtle things, but they made a huge difference. It’s funny, even that little woodblock sound in the chorus, I was like, ‘This is why he gets paid the big bucks.’ It gave it this real cinematic thing.”

“‘Taboo’ was the one that was started from scratch,” Sounwave says. “We all just locked in and just vibed out and created this. I don’t even know what genre to put that song in. It’s like soul orchestra/church/futuristic. That one was exciting to make. We just had so many different elements in one gumbo pot, so many minds just trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. And it turned out amazing. It’s one of my favourites.”

Turning Professional

At the opposite end of the spectrum from their experiments with digital beats and textures, sometimes the early stages of tracking simply involved the musicians playing together as a band unit. The ’40s‑sounding ‘Professional’ was a case in point: it segues into ‘We Will Remember’, which uses the song ‘The Way We Were’, made famous by Barbra Streisand.

“‘Professional’ was something we developed live,” says Balouzian. “Jacob had the idea when we were in one of the rehearsals: ‘I feel like singing this Barbra Streisand song over this beat.’ He started singing it, and then he made that arrangement with our keys player who’s also a co‑producer on the song, Sam Beste. They kind of figured out an arrangement for that middle section of the Barbra part. That became kind of a highlight of our live sets.

“We did it where we recorded it like a jazz recording. We had Sam and Max Whipple, another major collaborator who plays bass and did all the horn arrangements on the album. Him, Sam and Jacob cut those two verses into the kind of beat section. They played live and Jacob sang the whole take live with them while they were playing.”

Inevitably, perhaps, the team then began to add programmed beats to the live track. “When Sounwave got involved, I was like, ‘It would be amazing to hear what he would do drums‑wise on those parts where the beat came in...’”

Beach Noise

When it came to mixing, Gabriels and Sounwave decided to bring outside ears into the project. Beach Noise, a trio of producers involving Matt Schaeffer and brothers Johnny and Jake Kosich, had previously worked with Sounwave on Kendrick Lamar’s albums.

Angels & Queens was mixed by production team Beach Noise. Left to right: Johnny Kosich, Matt Schaeffer, Jake Kosich.Angels & Queens was mixed by production team Beach Noise. Left to right: Johnny Kosich, Matt Schaeffer, Jake Kosich.

“Yeah, they started off as our interns for Kendrick,” he says. “We had no idea they even produced or had a group, until we were looking for a guitar player for the end of ‘King Kunta’ [from 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly]. We were listing the guitarists that we know, and we left the room to get lunch. We came back in, and Matt had laid down that whole outro by himself. We had no idea he played guitar. And ever since then it was like, ‘Now you with us on this side, too.’

“We’ve been rocking with them ever since. Whenever I have a project, I’m always gonna have them involved in some kind of way. Whether it’s mixing, whether it’s production. Like, their genius level of mind, the way they think, it’s just unmatched.”

“Any time Sounwave reaches out to us, no matter what, we’re gonna say yes!” says Jake Kosich. “But we checked out Gabriels and we were blown away.”

Mixing for Angels & Queens took place in Conway’s Studio C, with its 68‑channel Neve 88R desk, which, in fact, Beach Noise chose not to use. “We didn’t really mix it on the console,” says Matt Schaeffer, “but they have a lot of cool outboard gear in that room. The ATR‑102 was ready to go, so we could mess with different speeds for different sounds. They have an EMT 250 [reverb] in there... nice, nice gear.

“We brought our [Roland] Space Echo, and I brought my rack of Coil mic pres, which are like ’50s style. And I was using [undecoded] Dolby [noise reduction, used as a treble enhancer] on all the vocals as a parallel. So I would just send tracks out of Pro Tools through all that stuff, get a good blend of things and then print it back and mix that.”

Mixing began with Lusk’s vocals. “I ran all the vocals through Coil mic pres,” Schaeffer says. “They have a pad so you can run line level into them to get a cool tube sound. There’s a negative feedback control that is kind of like an EQ, but it’s more really a broad tone‑shaping thing, kind of like a Pultec. So I ran all the vocals through that and then also parallel to a Dolby A.”

Blind Faith

According to Jake Kosich, the trickiest track to nail was ‘The Blind’. “The direction of that one from Wave and Gabriels was just, ‘Go weird on this one.’” says. “We just started experimenting with stuff. Matt printed some vocals and then we put it out on a MIDI keyboard, chopped it up. Then just played a bunch of chop sounds and delays and crazy stuff. So, I think that one sticks out to me a lot because we definitely were given pretty much free rein on just going crazy on that mix.”

“I sent some of the drums out to the ATR as a tape delay, but it was feeding back into the track,” says Schaeffer. “So it was like a feedback loop, and I was just controlling it with the send in Pro Tools. I just played the fader like a filter on a synth. Then I also reversed the entire vocal track and did the same thing with the send on that through the ATR. So there’s two tracks of feedback delay and one of them is the whole vocal track just playing backwards like an automated feedback loop.

“Then on that one we reamped a bunch of it. The drums we sent back out over the speakers in the live room at Conway and recorded the drums back in again and just slammed them with compressors.”

Schaeffer, for his part, reckons that the album’s opening track, ‘Offering’, was the toughest to mix. “There was an upright bass in there and an open‑sounding kick, like it didn’t have a pillow or a blanket inside of it. It was just like a concert bass drum type of sound that had a lot of low end, and so did the upright bass. And it was pretty tough getting those to sit with each other.”

“‘Angels & Queens’ was a tough one, too,” says Sounwave. “I couldn’t get the drums to slap the way I wanted to. And so I had to replace the kick a few times. I tried about six or seven different kicks, and none of them fitted. It just stood out; either it was too low or too high, too weird. Then eventually I had to get a real kick and just beat that up to make it feel a little bit more synthetic. But that was the way to go.”


Looking to the future, and a second Gabriels album, Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope both say their approach has been changed by working with Sounwave on Angels & Queens. “We both got MPCs thanks to him,” says Balouzian. “I guess Ryan and I have brought back the drum machines a little bit. We’ve actually been making a lot of our own drum sounds and putting them in MPCs, and there’s more percussion.”

Exploratory sessions for the next album have already begun, with Gabriels having just spent a week at Rick Rubin’s Shangri‑La Studio in Malibu. “Usually our songs don’t really go on long journeys,” says Hope. “The real nuggets of them are caught and captured fast and they’re kind of finished fast. We’ll sit on them for a long time, and they’ll get finessed sonically, but not hugely. The identity of it is usually there in the original demo.”

Closing the creative circle back to where Gabriels began, Hope and Balouzian have been working on a TV score, which will likely inspire their next songs. “We’re working on a score for a limited series on HBO,” says the latter. “That’s been kind of interesting. A lot of times for the album, songs came out of writing from earlier scores. There would be themes and melodies and chords and stuff that we pulled in. That’s happening right now, as well. Stuff will get made for the score, and then we’ll be like, ‘Oh, shit, it doesn’t really fit in the score, but it would be a really good song...’”  

Game Music

As a teenager, producer Sounwave (real name Mark Anthony Spears) was inspired by Timbaland’s beats, and began making his own using a Korg drum machine borrowed from his father, before experimenting in loop‑based track creation with the MTV Music Generator program for PlayStation.

“Somebody had the genius idea of creating a video game that allowed you to make music,” he says. “For somebody who didn’t have money — I couldn’t afford the big MPC machines and stuff like that — it was great. At that point, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, music is my life.’”

One demo track Sounwave made on Music Generator with rapper Bishop Lamont ended up picking up local radio plays in California. “From a video game,” he laughs. “That blows my mind.”