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Inside Track: The Beastie Boys' 'Make Some Noise'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Philippe Zdar By Paul Tingen
Published August 2011

The Beastie Boys at Oscilloscope Laboratories. From left: Adroc (Adam Horowitz), MCA (Adam Yauch) and Mike D (Michael Diamond).The Beastie Boys at Oscilloscope Laboratories. From left: Adroc (Adam Horowitz), MCA (Adam Yauch) and Mike D (Michael Diamond).

Feeling that something was missing from their latest album, the Beastie Boys decided it needed remixing — by a "crazy Frenchman”...

When it came to making this record,” says Mike D, one third of the Beastie Boys, "we had a few different concepts. One was to have a bunch of short songs packed with lots of things going on. In the past, we've made records with very specific guidelines and rules, like it only being instrumental, or we were going to play everything, or whatever. On this record we wanted to combine everything. We wanted to have samples, programmed stuff, play and then sample what we played, and have it all living together, very interwoven, layered densely on top of each other. We also wanted to enjoy ourselves. We didn't really have a mission beyond that. And I guess we're happy that the result, now that it's out there, makes a lot of other people happy.”

The album Mike D, aka Michael Diamond, is referring to is the Beastie Boys' eighth album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Released in May, it has been a hit both with critics and the record‑buying public. It's brimming with ideas, both musical and lyrical, and reflects the band's punk origins in its wild energy and omnipresent distortion. At the same time, the trio tackle with remarkable candour both the fact that they've been at it for 32 years and are no longer spring chickens, and the health scare experienced by MCA, aka Adam Yauch, who was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.

Tracking Hot

As the name suggests, the Beasties had originally planned to put out two Hot Sauce albums, back in 2009, but postponed the release because of Yauch's illness, and ended up releasing what had been Part One under the name Part Two, with a small change to the original track listing! Whether and when the original Part Two will be released is as yet unclear. What is known is that the material for Hot Sauce Committee was recorded at Oscilloscope Laboratories, a facility in New York set up by Yauch in 2002. It's billed as a "three‑headed dragon” with one head handling film production, another film distribution, and the third head being a state‑of‑the‑art recording studio featuring a vintage 28‑channel Neve 8058 desk. The studio has a web site showing pictures of the Neve, as well as some very obscure outboard, and has clearly been fitted out by someone who loves analogue equipment. Analogue and punk aesthetics also clearly emanate from Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Mike D elaborates…

"Yeah, it's Adam Yauch's studio, but when we work on a band project, it's ours. We engineer ourselves, but for the new record we also worked with Oscilloscope's engineer, Andre Kelman. Sometimes he recorded things, sometimes we did. It's a collaborative process. The studio has a lot of analogue gear, because we've long been in love with older things, in terms of how they sound. We often used old synthesizers, old drum machines, old whatever, on our records. But like everybody, during the last few years we have been seduced by the convenience of digital technology in general and Pro Tools in particular. It's great in what it enables you to do, but perhaps we lost a little bit of the beauty of the analogue thing in the process. This was one reason why we asked Philippe [Zdar, of whom more in a moment] to come in for the mix. So we started the record in the analogue world, then went digital, and then Philippe had the vision to take it back into the analogue world. That was a really good combination.”

The recording of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two apparently began as far back as 2008, with engineer Jon Weiner. Mike D: "The way things go down, when we are recording is… first off, we come in hot! We like it raw. When we first started listening to hip‑hop, we felt that it wasn't that different from punk rock in energy and spirit. It felt like hardcore. A lot of hip‑hop has become more slick, even punk has become more slick, but we will always like that kind of raw energy. When we come in one of us will bring in a specific idea, which may be a keyboard line or a guitar line, perhaps recorded on a phone or an iPad, and he'll say: 'It sounds more or less like this,' and that would be a jumping‑off point. But most of the time we write in the studio. We write the music first, always. I play the drums, but everyone does the drum programming. Sometimes we play and chop things up. A lot of the time we'll record our own sounds and program those, often in Reason. We used quite a few analogue synths, like the Moog Prodigy for the keyboard bass in 'Make Some Noise' which was recorded through a pedal and an amp, but we also use soft synths quite a bit.

Andre Kelman elaborates on the writing of 'Make Some Noise', the album's opener and first single, as well as some of the gear used in the recording. "'Make Some Noise' came out of a jam that Mike and Adam [Horovitz] were doing, and they sampled and looped a part of that jam session. Then they overdubbed to that, adding samples and densely layering the track to make it sound exciting. They mostly use Reason for sampling and drum programming, which is then recorded into Pro Tools via Rewire. They might also sample stuff from vinyl records, or YouTube or whatever, and that stuff will go straight into Pro Tools. With regards to the actual recording, we tended to keep things pretty straightforward, just a few mics on the drums, for example, like the D112 on the kick, and they also had a couple of laptops, like the MacBook or MacBook Pro, and used the built‑in microphone and recorded on these laptops. The files were then bounced into Pro Tools and that was used as a drum sound.”

The Crazy Frenchman

Philippe Zdar in his own Motorbass Studio in Paris.Photo: Cedric Bertrand

Hot Sauce Committee Part One was completed early in 2009, earmarked for release in September, and then put on hold. A year later, the Beastie Boys decided to release it as Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, with a slightly changed track listing; they also decided it should be remixed by Philippe Zdar. On Anglo‑Saxon shores, the Frenchman is mainly known as one half of the electronic music duo Cassius, for his work with France's most famous rapper, MC Solaar, and recently for his production and mix of French rock band Phoenix's album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 2010. Among studio cognoscenti, Zdar has a reputation as someone who pushes the boundaries in mixing and in the gear he uses, but he's hardly a household name, let alone an obvious choice for mixing HSCP2. So why did the Beasties want the album remixed, and why did they choose Zdar?

Mike D: "By the time we felt ready to release the album, and went back to listen to it, we all agreed that we liked it a lot, but that it came up short in the way we wanted it to sound. There was a kind of disconnect there. It did not measure up to what we wanted it to be. Initially we thought of simply remastering the album, but then we decided that we wanted someone to remix it. We thought of Philippe, because we were familiar with some of his work, but we had never met him and did not know whether it would work. So we initially invited him over just to try a few things, and well, eh, the first couple of days were a disaster! He nearly blew the studio up! Smoke was coming out of the speakers...”

To understand how the Beasties and Zdar found themselves in this potentially calamitous situation, we need to go over to Paris in 2009, where, after nearly a decade of hard work, Philippe Zdar had finally opened his own studio in the Montmartre area of Paris. Called Motorbass, after a band he once was a part of, it's a state‑of‑the‑art facility, sporting his favourite E‑series SSL 4000 desk, and filled to the brim with outboard by Neve, Pultec, EMT, Lexicon and so on. Zdar explains that he has Pro Tools, but also an Ampex two‑track and an MCI multitrack, and that he's about to acquire Endless Analogue's Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor (CLASP) system for integrating Pro Tools with his MCI. Zdar prefers to work in his own studio, but logistics — not least the fact that some of the Beastie Boys have children — meant that the decision was taken to do the mixes in New York.

Zdar: "We looked at the remaining SSL studios in New York, and found two, the Power Station and Electric Lady. We chose Electric Lady because it was not far from where they lived. We had considered mixing in their studio, but although their Neve is great for recording, it's not good for me to mix on. When you do a mix, you have to be the boss of your own decisions, and I knew that if I agreed to do a test mix at their studio, the mix wouldn't be very good. I've been a fan of the Beastie Boys since 1987, and I really want it to work out! I told them that I want to mix on an SSL, so we went into Electric Lady, and I hired a lot of additional outboard. Many of the Neves and Pultecs and Ureis and Fairchilds and EMT reverbs arrived with dust on them, making me realise that people don't work like this any more. The Electric Lady studio assistant was pulling out his hair when I was installing all the extra outboard, because I was doing all sorts of unorthodox stuff, but he was also fascinated, because it has been a long time since he'd done a session like that.

"Electric Lady also had a lot of outboard, and the Beasties brought some great cheap spring reverbs that you can't find anywhere anymore, so in the end I had a great setup. But when we started to work there was a big problem. I'm used to slamming my E‑series very, very hard, so much so that I have to set the two‑track tape recorder I mix to ‑7dB, so it can handle the level. I did the same at Electric Lady, and we found that we had this 4Hz frequency going through the mixes, that we could see the waveform of, but could not hear, of course. But it did seem to affect the way the ProAc monitors were handling the music. For two days, we didn't understand what was happening, and in the end we called in an SSL guy, who couldn't understand what I was doing and was probably thinking something like 'crazy Frenchman!' The atmosphere was a bit charged at this point. In the end he told me that the 'J' is not like the 'E' and that I can't overload it in the same way, so I took the input down a little bit, and then the 4Hz sound disappeared. He eventually realised that I did know what I what I was doing and why, and we became good friends. The Beastie Boys were also wondering, 'Whooaa, what's going on?' and for two days it was a little hairy.”

Sexy Distortion

Oscilloscope Laboratories resident engineer Andre Kelman at the studio's vintage Neve desk.

According to Mike D, working with Zdar subsequently was like "we'd worked with him for years. It was very comfortable. And Philippe went into each track and opened it up. On the one hand he has his technical method, on the other he sets out to go to a certain place, capture a certain feeling, but a feeling in sound.”

Zdar explains further: "When Adam Yauch first called me, he said that he'd been listening to the Phoenix album, and liked that it sounded really solid, and at the same time very wide and airy. That's exactly what I like to get in my mixes: lots of bass, lots of width and lots of air. He also said that the album was not tiring to listen to, whereas many records since 1995 and the loudness wars are very tiring to listen to, because they have been over‑limited. Yes, the material the Beastie Boys had recorded was distorted, and I added some more distortion, because they are a punk band, and I originally also come from punk. But it's a kind of gentle distortion. I wanted it to be the kind of distortion that girls will also love. So it's not distortion like Slayer. I didn't want the sound to be too man‑driven, but instead have a more sexy distortion. I don't know how else to say it. I wanted there to be a kind of beauty.

"We talked a lot about how we wanted to do things, and of course they have their ideas, and I have mine. But we were completely on the same wavelength, apart from that they asked me at one point to make it less hi‑fi and more lo‑fi. I was perhaps going a little bit too much in the direction of heavy rock. I often went for extremes, like in the song 'Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win' with Santigold [a track with a dub feeling], I wanted it to sound like a very old cassette that belonged to your sister who had already listened to it 200 times. The track reminded me of when I went to Barbados when I was young, and I came back with loads of cassettes that I listened to hundreds of times. I wanted that same tired cassette feel, and so I did submixes, splitting the main sound three times and then putting a Massenburg EQ on one split, leaving only super‑low bass, and compressing that with a side‑chain, and then I had another split on which I left only the mid‑range, and I side‑chained compression on that so that it was really bubbling [makes sound of engine revving], and I did the same with the high end. While doing this you have to really take care of the phase relationships, because you can have lots of phase problems if you treat the same sound differently.

"After that, I put everything through reverbs and delays and stereo effects like the AMS Harmonizer, using only the return, and I ended up with something really special. It was a lot of work, and I mixed these effects in subtly, so you don't hear it very prominently, but you'd notice if it was taken out, because the song would suddenly sound very normal. There's a lot of reverb on that song, there's a lot of reverb on all the songs. In fact, it's been a long time since I used so much reverb when mixing an album. One of the main reverbs was the EMT 140 [plate], which belonged to Electric Lady. I used it a lot, but you have to EQ to make it sound magical. I also had an EMT 250 [early digital reverb], and I used the AMS 1580 [digital delay] and RMX16 [reverb], both of which I love. I also used the Beastie Boys' obscure spring reverbs. All the reverbs were very old. The Beastie Boys were super‑happy when they saw me using the old EMT 140s. They're super‑intelligent, and super‑cultured, and they're all really into equipment, and really into the sound of analogue.”

Too Comfortable

Considering how Zdar treated just this one track, the Beastie Boys may have been forgiven for carrying the thought 'crazy Frenchman' beyond the first two 4Hz‑dominated mixing days. The Frenchman acknowledges that his cultural outlook may have something to do with his approach; anarchy, chaos and danger are, arguably, more highly regarded in the French way of looking at life. Zdar comments: "Probably. When I was a tea‑boy at Marcadet in Paris, I never looked at the way people were working, I always listened for the end result. Also, I believe that comfort is the cancer of every artistic expression. If there's an artist whose work you love, and suddenly you don't care for what they do so much anymore, you'll find out that they most likely had become too comfortable.

"It's one reason why I prefer to work in the analogue domain. I've seen a lot of friends getting great results in the studio, and then, after they got a digital desk and DAW, they were doing really shitty stuff. They tell me it's better, because they can do recall and they can do this and they can do that. But it doesn't work for me. The problem with Pro Tools is that it's easy to forget to take risks. But you have to take risks. I say to the record company and artist: 'If you work with me, I don't recall the mix, except if I made a big mistake. So you have to make decisions while I'm working, and you have to take a risk in the moment.' I love that, and I hate the comfort and the safety net that digital provides. This is one reason for using outboard: I can't save the settings, so it forces me to have a mindset of taking decisions in the moment. Working with outboard is also very fast: I touch it with my hands, I set it and it's working. Plus I don't have to watch a screen. Finally, and most importantly, digital doesn't only sound like shit, it also makes everything sound the same. Young artists and producers should really get into the gear and make their own sounds and develop their own ways of working, but that's not happening enough.

"For all these reasons I rarely use plug‑ins. I sometimes use the Izotope de‑esser, because it works really well and there's no analogue one that's better. There are other good plug‑ins, but I don't use them, because I have all the hardware compressors and equalisers that I love, and if I want, say, distortion, I'll plug in a [Thermionic Culture] Culture Vulture or a guitar pedal. If I want something really specialist, I may use a plug‑in, like I have used Melodyne to tune a bass guitar, but that's it. I like to record my drums on analogue tape: it sounds so much better than recording it in Pro Tools that a kid can hear the difference. I will then dump the drums into Pro Tools. I like to mix from Pro Tools, because of the speed and the fact that I often need to do edits and make some loops, which is a lot more convenient in Pro Tools. But I always mix to analogue two‑track. My tape machine in Paris is the Ampex ATR102, and in Electric Lady I used the Studer A820, with RMG 900 tape, which I really slammed. Mixing is a controlled performance, and digital takes the performance out of mixing. This is why I don't use it. A tightrope walker who has a net is not interesting, because there's no performance. But if there's no net, it's fantastic. Mixing in the analogue domain is like that.”

'Make Some Noise'

The complete Pro Tools Session for 'Make Some Noise'.
  • Writers: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch; contains a sample from 'I'm Suped (Got It Like That)' by Pump
  • Producer: the Beastie Boys

Philippe Zdar: "The beginning stage of a mix is always the same for me. I set up the desk, including the inserts and the sends. I will have inserts on every channel, between the Pro Tools outputs and the desk. For example, the bass insert will have a Neve 1073 EQ, a Pultec EQP1A, a Massenburg 8200 EQ and a Neve 33609 compressor. It's a lot, but I need it. The Pultec gives me the big EQ outlines and the tube sound, I use the Neve for mid‑range and highs, and the Massenburg is the best EQ in the world, you can do everything with it, from surgical detail to more general Pultec work. With three EQs, I can't really go wrong. Everything is split out over the desk. On some tracks, I had 80 channels on the desk, with 60 channels with inserts and 20 channels of effects. This is also why I need a whole mountain of gear!

"After I've laid out everything on the desk, I'll start by working on the most important instruments. If the bass drives everything, I'll start with the bass, if it's a riff, I'll work on the riff. On the Beastie Boys track 'OK', I began the mix with working on the synth. But I'll almost always begin with the beat, so usually the drums and bass. I'll bring the vocal in very quickly, and will set it against the drums and bass to make sure that it fits. After that, I'll take the vocal out again, and bring in the other musical instruments one by one, and when I then add the vocal in again, it'll sound great. This is how I start and mix. It's like a puzzle. After four hours or so, I'll have a solid sound coming from the desk, and I'll go over everything again, and make the mix more precise. I get it more precise at every stage.

"I have so many channels on the desk because I want everything separate. If there's one scratch from a turntable, I will still give it its own desk channel. Because of all the compressors on the inserts, I don't want to have to do any volume automation in the computer [ie. in Pro Tools]. If I raise the volume in the computer, the signal will hit the compressor harder, but it won't actually be much louder. I need to be able to affect the levels after the compressor, and this is why SSL automation is vitally important for me. I spend a lot of time on the volume automation during the mix, because I use it to make the music come alive. If I have a drum track that's a loop or that comes from an MPC or SP12 drum machine, it will never sound like a real drummer. So I do lots of volume rides to add a live feeling. I also do this with live players. If the drummer plays with more energy in the chorus, I'll emphasise that, probably by riding the overheads. I emphasise every natural move the drummer makes, or create emphasis in drum machines. Not too much, but just enough. There already was a lot of energy on the Beastie Boys recordings, so I was careful with how I manipulated that in the automation.

"I love using the SSL automation in this way. It's the difference between a mix that's very alive and a mix that sounds a little bit dead. I recall one of the Beastie Boys saying to me: 'What you're doing looks crazy, but I sure like it!' I normally mix at a very low volume, but at some point I'll have a glass of wine, and with a small buzz from that I'll push the volume up very loud, and then for five or 10 minutes or so I do a lot of automation, and when I listen back 10 minutes later, everything sounds much more alive. This is what really excited me about mixing: I spend hours preparing everything, and when it's ready, I go into the automation, things become super‑alive and the track suddenly sounds exponentially better and sounds like a record. The whole process usually takes a day, and the next day is for everyone to listen at home and give me feedback. But some mixes take more time. The mix you hear on the album of 'Make Some Noise' took just three hours, but I had spent three days on a mix of that track that just wouldn't work. Nobody was very happy about it, and then one night at 12 o'clock we decided to scrap everything and start from scratch, and do something very simple. After that a new mix came together in three hours.”

Bass, drums & loops: Neve 1073 & 33609, Pultec EQP1, Massenburg 8200, SSL desk EQ, API 550.

"I already mentioned what I had on the inserts on the drums: Neve 1073, Pultec EQP1, Massenburg 8200, and Neve 33609. I added 100Hz with the 1073, and boosted around 30‑60Hz with the Pultec, and then will also have used SSL EQ. I had the same effects on the kick, except for the Pultec. For the snare it would be similar, although I may use an API 550 instead of the Neve 1073. I love API on snares. Sometimes I use my Helios EQ on snares. The snare tends to vary a lot. There's no recipe. They're a punk band, so the live drums would have been recorded on just four or five tracks, and they made loops of their live drums. I also added what I call the 'Kikoo' to expand the bass drum, which is a process that is based on using the old AMS delay to sample sounds to replace original sounds with. (Together with Gabriel Andruzzi from the Raptures, I've developed a similar process for the bass, and called it 'Bassoo'). It's a long process to make the Kikoo stick to the live kick. With regards to the compression, I compress in different stages, but always aim to keep some air. I never compress for technical reasons and never slam things, because I want to keep the dynamics.”

Vocals: Neve 1073, Urei LA3A, Universal Audio 1176, API 550, AMS 1580, Roland RE201, Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture.

"The insert chains on the vocals were similar to those on the drums and bass. I'll always have the 1073, or the 1066, both of which I love. I don't use the 1084, because it has too many possibilities. Then there may be a de‑esser and I put a compressor at the end of the chain, which could be an LA3A or an 1176. I tried to distinguish the three vocals as much as possible in the mix, and this meant that one insert would have a Neve and an 1176, another an API and an LA3A, and so on. They're small differences that together created large differences.

"After that, I worked on the crazy stuff. There was a lot going on with this album in terms of reverb and delay sends and so on. We had many sends for each of them, one going into a delay, one into a reverb, one going into something else. The reverbs usually were the EMT, and for the delays I used the AMS and the Roland Space Echo and the Roland tape delay. The Beastie Boys had already created a lot of distortion, but I did use some Culture Vulture to add more. I also did some harmonising with the AMS.”

Sample & keyboards: Urei LA3A, SSL desk EQ.

"The main thing with the sample is always to make it fit with the rest of the track. I will always put it through an EQ and a compressor, which is the LA3A. For some reason, that works great on samples, I don't know why. I can't recall what EQ I used on this track, but it will have been a Neve, API or Urei. I also can't recall what I used on the keyboards, but it would have been the SSL EQ, and some outboard EQ and compressors, plus lots of movements in the automation.”

Mixdown: Fairchild 670, SSL desk compressor

"I had a Fairchild 670 over the stereo bus, and I sometimes used the SSL compressor to have some very fast compression before the Fairchild. Mastering was done by Vlado Meller in New York at Universal Mastering Studios, which was new for me. I always use the Exchange in London, where they have EAR EQs and things. Vlado may have over‑limited a little, but we were all trying to push him not limit things too much. We came with half‑inch tape and he respected what we wanted.

"The whole process was exciting. I'm always excited by mixing, because I don't have a recipe. I never exactly do the same thing twice, so I never get bored. It's always an adventure. It is important for me that everyone gets excited by the mix: the artist, myself, assistant engineer, even the guy who brings the tea into the room. In the end the record sells to people, and they need to be excited. The taxi driver needs to be excited, your girlfriend needs to be excited, the kids need to be excited by the music. Too many people are focused on just making the artist happy, or the record company. But everyone should be happy!”

Zdar and the Beastie Boys certainly appear to have succeeded in this aim.

Trade Secrets

One distinctive aspect of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is the distortion that's on the vocals and many other instruments. When Mike D and Andre Kelman are asked about this, they suddenly become all coy and tight‑lipped. Apparently, the Beastie Boys use one obscure old mic that rather distorts the vocals, but no‑one is willing to say what it is. Here's what Mike D was prepared to go on record with: "Yes, I admit, we have to take the hit for the distortion! [laughs uproariously]. How did we achieve that distortion? Well, it's different. I don't really want to give up any trade secrets now! But I will say that we're not beyond any and all techniques to get distortion, whether by using certain amps, preamps or microphones. We are open to and engage all methods, even plug‑ins sometimes [laughs again]. I cannot divulge the vocal mic we use, because it's a secret weapon. I should not even talk about it. It's in the arsenal and actually safely locked in a safe right now.”

Kelman adds: "The vocal chains were just some SM58s and a couple of dynamic handheld mics that I can't say more about. All vocals went through an eight‑channel PreSonus mic pre, nothing fancy. The reason for that was that the PreSonus would be right next to the guys, so they could control the gain and built‑in limiter and how loud they wanted it to sound. The music was all tracked through the Neve desk. The keyboards went through the Synth Driver. The distortion on the album comes mostly from a pedal or outboard, sometimes a plug‑in. On the vocals the [Tech 21] Sansamp plug‑in was sometimes used, and their special microphone.”

A Zdar Is Born

Philippe Zdar was born Philippe Cerboneschi, in rural mountain country in the Alps. In the late '80s, aged 17, he moved to Paris, where he became a tea‑boy at Marcadet Studios, and gradually worked his way up to become an engineer. Around the same time, he met Hubert 'Boom Bass' Blanc‑Francard, with whom he worked on the first MC Solaar album, Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo (1991), as well as on subsequent albums by the rapper. During the '90s, Zdar realised his ambitions to be successful as an engineer/mixer, producer, DJ, and musician, in the groups Motorbass, and, with Blanc‑Francard, Le Funk Mob and most famously and still ongoing, Cassius. His credits as an engineer, mixer and producer include MC Solaar, Phoenix, the Rapture, Beastie Boys, Cut Copy and Chromeo.

Zdar: "I started playing drums as a kid, so I play drums the best, but in fact I play everything badly. I'm an electronic musician, so I play guitar badly, bass badly, and drums badly, but I'm quite good at programming! All my activities, studio, DJ, musician, are completely related. When I produce a band, even a rock band, I bring my expertise and sounds from my DJ experience. I DJ maybe three times a month — producing and mixing takes the most of my time. But DJing is very important for me, because it keeps me at the cutting edge. With many producers, their musical references stop at a certain point in time, and they end up always referring to older records. But when I'm DJing I listen to a lot of new records, and that updates my musical skills and outlook, and also gives me a lot of energy.”