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Inside Track: Beyoncé and Jay-Z 'Apeshit'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Stu White
By Paul Tingen

Inside Track

Beyoncé and Jay-Z topped charts worldwide with their album Everything Is Love. Stu White was the engineer who made it possible.

There are many celebrated break-up albums, but the Carters’ Everything Is Love is perhaps the first great make-up album. Beyoncé and Jay-Z participated equally in its making, and it’s released under the married couple’s shared last name. It comes on the heels of the pair’s most recent solo albums, Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) and Jay-Z’s 4:44 (2017), which in part trace their well-publicised marital discord.

The Carters: Beyoncé and Jay-Z.The Carters: Beyoncé and Jay-Z.The album is sonically and stylistically an extension of these solo albums, particularly Beyoncé’s experimental and widely lauded Lemonade. Beats were supplied by the distinguished likes of Pharrell Williams, Cool & Dre, Boi-1da, Mike Dean, Nav and David Sitek, as well as many lesser well-known writers and beatmakers. Stylistically, the big break with the past is that Beyoncé raps more than she sings, and, in a nod to Atlanta rap, with a very obviously Auto-Tuned voice.

Behind the scenes, the production involved renowned names like Tony Maserati, Leslie Brathwaite, Young Guru and Chris Godbey, all of whom have featured in the Inside Track series; but the main unsung studio hero was Beyoncé’s regular engineer and mixer Stuart White, who recorded large parts of the album, and has a mix credit on all but two of the album’s 10 songs.

Pulling Together

Everything Is Love was recorded and mixed in a large number of places around the world, including the U Arena stadium complex and Philippe Zdar’s Motorbass Studio, both in Paris; the Church and RAK in London; and, in LA, the Carters’ home studio Kingslanding West, as well as Record Plant and White’s own studio, Avenue A Studios West DTLA.

“I was the main tracking engineer,” reports White. “Tony was mixing at The Church, and I spent a lot of time at RAK, which has become my favourite studio. I brought in Chris [Godbey] as a tracking engineer in Paris, and we mixed ‘713’ together and he mixed ‘Salud!’ alone. Leslie [Brathwaite] is Pharrell’s regular mixer, and Pharrell wanted Leslie to mix his two tracks, but Leslie refused to mix ‘Apeshit’, as he considered my mix finished. So he mixed ‘Nice’ and ‘Friends’. As a general rule, I took the sessions to a certain place and then everybody helped finish them. There was no ego, and sessions were at times passed back and forth all the time with everyone trying to get the best results.

“Mixing as I go has always been my process, and I think it’s the best way to work. It’s how old-school guys used to work: they would get the right sounds there and then, and mixing was an afterthought. That’s also my mentality: let’s get it right now while it’s fresh, while we are all excited about the track, and while everybody is in the room. At that point I can ask, ‘What do you think of this reverb?’, or of the sound of this vocal, or this transition, or how this bass sits against that kick, and I get immediate feedback. It can be tricky doing this when tracking on a laptop in tons of random places, but actually it’s good to be hearing things in real-world environments.”

Headroom Is All

“I start with my Pro Tools tracking template, which is a slightly more basic version of my mixing template, and I load the sessions given to me by the beatmakers in that. We may initially get a two-track MP3 of the beat, and many engineers in urban music will record vocals to that, but I almost immediately will ask for the full multitrack, on behalf of Beyoncé. And when she asks for the multitrack, it usually arrives pretty fast! It’s much easier to record things when you have the multitrack. The reason some producers like to give us a two-track is that they work in FL Studio, and there’s a certain sound that you get from overloading the outputs on that. It adds clipping and distortion that glues tracks together in a certain way, and it also has an awesome punch in the low end that can be difficult to recreate in Pro Tools. If I want to simulate that FL Studio punch I’ll do a lot of parallel distortion, using plug-ins like the SoundToys Decapitator or the UAD Little Labs Voice Of God. Or I’ll clip the Pro Tools output, and I’ll will then bounce that and turn the output down again. It all depends.

“I turn the output down again because I need tons of headroom, and everything that I receive tends to come in too hot. The first thing I do when I get a multitrack in is clip gain everything down to where I have a ton — and I mean a ton — of headroom. One reason is that Beyoncé’s dynamic range is incredible. She can go from a whisper to a roar in a moment, and I’d be a terrible engineer if I was clipping my recordings of her. Because we work so fast while tracking, I don’t have the time to adjust things, and I need to have headroom all the time, just by default. After clip-gaining all tracks down, I route everything to an aux, so I can trim that up and down while working.

“Also, I find that the best in-the-box mixes are the ones where you give yourself loads of headroom. Granted, with 32-bit float Pro Tools has much more headroom now than ever before, but I still feel that plug-ins work better if you don’t give them a ton of level. I might boost 10dB with an EQ on something that may be a bit dull and lifeless or where I want to do something drastic, and if you start from a place where everything is turned down, it sounds much better. Whenever you look at my master fader when I’m tracking, you’ll notice that the signal is way, way down. During recording I just turn up the speakers, and when I make a bounce at the end of the night for reference, I just turn up the entire mix with a limiter, and as soon as I have bounced it, I’ll take the limiter off again, and save the session and close it.”

Good Feedback

Once White has loaded the multitrack, reduced the gain to get enough headroom, and organised the session to conform to his template, he’s ready to record vocals. He recorded both Beyoncé and Jay-Z with his “Telefunken mic, Avalon mic pre, and Tube Tech compressor. That was the chain for the entire album on both of them. I use just the one chain, because they jump back and forth on the mic all day long, and they both sound really good on that mic, so I kept it simple.”

Stu White in his home studio, playing keyboards.White will start massaging and mixing the material in front of him even during vocal recording, “just to get a sound happening really quickly. I do it about half and half while they are in the room, and after they have left. I just do it really fast. As soon as I get the idea, I try it. There are moments when they are talking to each other, or there’s some other brief break, and I’ll turn down the monitors a bit, and I may do something like adding a cool delay for a transition. If I think it works, I’ll turn the speakers up again, and if I get a reaction, I know it’s good.

“I always try to make the song sound like a recording as soon as possible. If you can get the artist excited while you’re working, because to them it sounds like a record, it is the best. That’s the epitome of what we’re doing. It’s like a good concert. When the band feels the audience, they will play better, and when the band plays better, the audience is going to go crazier, and so on. It’s the same in the studio. If you can make things sound great right in the moment, the artist will be more excited about writing a song that moment, and give a better performance. You get to this energy level where you make great-feeling stuff. If you don’t feel great in the studio, what you’re doing is not going to feel great to the listener. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that stuff in the moment.

“I don’t get involved on the arrangement side. I let them lead the way on that front. I’m not trying to produce for them. I very much stay in my engineering lane, but in mixing as I go, I try to make things sound as cool and fun as possible. In so doing I sometimes do get additional production credits, for example on Everything Is Love on ‘Apeshit’, which was for reshaping the low end, because at first it didn’t hit really hard, and I also added some transitional effects and sounds, using reverse reverbs and other effects.”

The Broad-stroke Stage

Stu White repeatedly stresses the importance of speed during rough mixing, and details some of the techniques he uses to get things done fast. “Rough mixing during tracking is a broad-stroke stage. Tony [Maserati] always uses the Picasso analogy. Picasso would sketch out a whole painting really fast, and after that he would go in and fill in the details and make it a masterpiece. Rough mixing is about getting those broad strokes happening. At that point I don’t worry about EQ’ing something to perfection. If anything is taking me too long, it is wrong. If I am trying something, and it is just not sounding the way I want it within seconds, I get rid of the plug-in I am using and I go to something else. I need to get the broad strokes down really fast, because if I slow down the process with all this nerdy stuff it is going to kill the artist’s vibe. If you can do it quickly, they are going to love you, but if you’re sitting there being slow, they are going to go: ‘Do that later!’

“Part of speeding up the tracking process involves deactivating tracks that I don’t need any more. But I always keep them in the timeline, at the top of the session, rather than deleting them. I may have 20 to 30 tracks at the top of a session of old vocals, or old keyboard parts or old drums, or whatever, and I keep them in the session because when we do edits on the entire song, the edits will also be done on those tracks. And if Bey calls me later and says, ‘Can you please put that keyboard part back in?’ all I have to do is scroll to the top and find the part and just turn it back on and hit Play. I find that many artists will at some point refer back to an old part they had, and ask me to put it back in. Keeping these parts in the session like this makes it much easier and faster.

“In a similar way, I will keep three or four arrangements of a song in one Session by copying the entire arrangements in the timeline. The latest arrangement will always start on bar one, and I will have copied an earlier song arrangement to bar 1000, and if I want to keep yet another arrangement I will have copied that to bar 2000. So every thousand bars there’s another arrangement. I keep it all in the session, because sometimes months or years later, Bey will remember an arrangement that I forgot about, and I can immediately find it, and don’t have to fumble around looking for it.

“Again, when you are tracking big artists, it’s all about speed and organisation. I used to have a great assistant, Ramon Rivas, but since he moved on to film and video I’ve not had an assistant any more, partly because we’re so often working in Bey’s house, or on the road, and it’s easier if it’s just me. Also because you can’t make mistakes with this stuff, you have to make sure that everything you do is right. Since Ramon left I have been without an assistant, so I do it all myself now, and don’t have time to take notes. This means that I have to organise myself in a way where I can always execute any ideas artists have before they lose their creative spark. The singer may have an idea, and if I take two minutes to do something, he or she may have lost that idea, and then you have a frustrated artist, and you don’t want that.”

Despite all the attention White gives to rough mixing during tracking, however, he makes sure “not to overmix” and to leave space for a final mix. “Once again, I really just try to get the meat and potatoes happening, and get the feeling good during the recordings, and then, every day I load up the song, the artist hears it getting a little better. When it gets to the end, I do have a separate and more elaborate mixing stage, which I usually do by myself. Once I feel like my final mix is done, I send it to the artist, and they give me comments. In the case of Everything Is Love, we went into proper studios to finish the songs. I mixed ‘Apeshit’ in several different places, like the Record Plant, where I used some outboard on some vocal stuff, like an Eventide H3000, and at Bey’s studio and at my own studio, and the final studio environment I listened to the mix was Motorbass Studios.”

Going Apeshit

Inside TrackApeshit’ was released as the lead single of Everything Is Love, complete with the already almost iconic video of Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Louvre in Paris. The beat for the track was created and programmed by Pharrell Williams, with backing vocals by Quavo and Offset from Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos. Williams, Beyoncé and Jay-Z produced, with additional production by Stuart White. His final mix session contains 111 tracks: from top to bottom, seven master and subgroup tracks, 15 effect aux tracks, a gorilla sample, 11 drum tracks (mostly blue), nine synth and sample tracks (purple), three effects transition tracks (blue), eight Migos hook tracks, a VCA track, five Jay-Z tracks, 15 Beyoncé lead vocal tracks, both ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, another 22 Beyoncé backing vocal tracks, and two more of White’s additional effects tracks.

The first four aux tracks feature SoundToys effects, namely Little Microshift, two EchoBoy delays, and a delay from the Little PrimalTap. Next are a Hall Reverb aux and a Church Reverb aux, both using Waves’ RVerb, an EMT plate from Audio Ease’s Altiverb, four aux tracks with the Waves H-Delay and various other plug-ins on them as well, and four more reverb auxes with the Avid Revibe II, two Avid D-Verbs and another RVerb.

White: “I use the Little Microshift in pretty much every mix, with the left-right micro pitch-shift effect that’s similar to the classic effect in the Eventide H3000 shift where you pitch one side down six cents and one side up six cents to create width. It’s a good way to get your vocals wider without them being out of phase. It thickens up vocals, and is kind of like a doubler. I do quite a lot of filtering on some of the EchoBoy delays, for example with the Waves REQ, and I am adding colour with the SoundToys Devil-Loc, which is great if you want to colour the delay so it is separate from the main vocal, and compress it with the UAD LA3A and mix that in to taste.”

Drums

The main 808 kick was heavily equalised to fit around several other kick samples.The main 808 kick was heavily equalised to fit around several other kick samples.Distortion was applied to the second ‘808 Harmonics’ track to sculpt the kick sound.Distortion was applied to the second ‘808 Harmonics’ track to sculpt the kick sound.“There are two 808 audio tracks, which both go to an 808 aux track. ‘808 main’ is Pharrell’s 808, and I added the Avid EQ3 to it, boosting 34Hz and pulling out 10dB at 77Hz to make space for the big fat kick further down, and also added the Waves RBass. I then made a copy, ‘808 Harmonics’, and distorted that with the SoundToys Decapitator, set to Style A, Punish ‘on’ and Drive at 7, and rolling off low end to get more mid-range. I then blended the two together on the aux track, on which I had the UAD Massenburg DesignWorks EQ, with a 5.2dB notch at 124Hz, again to make space for the kick. The Massenburg EQ adds the least amount of phase distortion of any EQ I have ever heard in Pro Tools.

The ‘KIK 2’ sample was treated with contrasting EQ settings to help it cut through.The ‘KIK 2’ sample was treated with contrasting EQ settings to help it cut through.“The two kick tracks below the 808 tracks create a big fat kick together. On one of the kick tracks I boost 99.8Hz with 4.5dB, cut some 315.7Hz, and boost 4.42kHz by 13dB, all using the EQ3. Beyoncé and I agree on pretty much everything with regards to the sonics, and we really wanted to hear this big kick punch. It may seem odd that I was boosting at 4.4kHz, because a kick doesn’t have much frequency content there, but I was more trying to affect the 1k to 3k range and I’m trying to get the curve just right. It’s like sometimes you boost 25k on vocals, and while we can’t hear that frequency range, it does curve down to push frequencies up that we can hear. And yes, I’ll use the EQ3 all day long. It sounds good to my ears. I love grabbing the dot and just moving it around until I get the sound I want.

“The other drum tracks consist of a couple of snares, each with a send to the Church Reverb aux, and four hi-hat tracks. One of the hat tracks has an EQ3 with a high-pass, cutting out low end below 371Hz that was clouding the bass and kick, and boosting 1.43Hz for some brightness, and then a Decapitator to add some drive and get it to cut through. On its own it sounds brittle, but it sits well with everything else. Mixing is about getting sounds to sit next to each other and hold hands and work together.”

Instruments

The ‘Glide 1’ keyboard part received some brutal treatment thanks to SoundToys’ Devil-Loc.The ‘Glide 1’ keyboard part received some brutal treatment thanks to SoundToys’ Devil-Loc.To add interest at a transition in the second verse, Stu White duplicated the ‘Glide’ track and applied different effects to the two parts, including different EQ settings.To add interest at a transition in the second verse, Stu White duplicated the ‘Glide’ track and applied different effects to the two parts, including different EQ settings.“‘Glide’ is a keyboard part, and I set a high-pass filter at 63Hz with the EQ3 and then added a stock setting with the Devil-Loc. To create a transition in the second verse at around the three-minute mark, I copied a small section of that part to two separate tracks below it, ‘Glide 2’ and ‘Glide 2 low’. I pitched the latter down an octave with Elastic Audio. This is an example of creating movement and energy in the track. Because everything else drops out at that point I just made this sound the star of the show for a moment. On ‘Glide 2’ I added some compression with the Waves SSL E-Channel and CLA-3A, and using the EQ3 I boosted mid-range, and cut everything above 2.58kHz. I then added some distortion with the Devil-Loc. ‘Glide 2 low’ has a high-pass filter at 325Hz, and again the Devil-Loc and a lot of compression from the Waves RComp. I also created a send to the Microshift aux on both ‘Glide’ transition tracks, to make them sound wider. If you listen to the track, all this totally changes the way it sounds.

Inside Track“Next down are three ‘Voice Sample’ tracks, mainly treated with the RComp and SSL E-Channel, adding some low mids, and one has the Decapitator for more bite. The ‘Drama Keys’ track also is split over three tracks, with me copying the main sound twice. I was trying to find the fundamental of the sound, and added some aggression, because the original sound wasn’t quite bright enough and didn’t cut through. All three tracks have an insert chain with the SSL E-Channel, two times the EQ3, the Decapitator, and again the SSL Channel. The EQ3s have the same setting on all tracks, with the first having a high-pass filter at 75Hz, and boosting at 208Hz and 1.15kHz, and the second a low-pass at 20kHz. It is again a matter of me trying to make everything fit together, so all frequencies hold hands, so to speak.

Another effect transition was enhanced by automating a filter sweep from Soundtoys' FilterFreak.Another effect transition was enhanced by automating a filter sweep from Soundtoys' FilterFreak.“The ‘FX Transition’ track consists of five effect transitions, two of which are muted in the original track; at those two points I created two copies on two tracks below, and treated those. I added the SoundToys FilterFreak, and automated it with the filter opening up. Again, we are trying to create emotion and drama, we are trying to get people excited. The filter opening up is doing that, and the EQ3 afterwards is taking out some harshness around 2.9kHz. The CLA3A compressor is keeping the main sound in our face and is controlling it, because it has a crescendo, which was a little bit too much. The second EQ3 is automated with a filter sweep that is a little different for each transition, and the final EQ3 has a very dramatic shape, doing surgery, with a high-pass filter at 87Hz, and cutting harsh frequencies at 298Hz, 1.27kHz and 2.12kHz. The Q at 298 is wider because I’m cutting to make room for other low mid-range sounds in the track, and the other two frequencies notch out frequencies that were emphasised by the compression.

Handle with care: ReFuse’s Lowender plug-in was used to massively enhance the sub frequencies in a drop.Handle with care: ReFuse’s Lowender plug-in was used to massively enhance the sub frequencies in a drop.“I created the other two tracks because there’s no low end just before the second and fourth hook, and so my brain thinks, ‘OK, there’s room to play with sub frequencies here. So what if that effects transitional sound had a bunch of rumbling sub happening on the crescendo that brings the track back into the hook?’ The first duplicate is similar to the original ‘FX Transition’ track, also in the way I treat it, but the second one has the ReFuse Lowender. Be careful when you use the plug-in, because it will blow your speakers very easily! It creates low synthesized octaves, like a dbx 120. I wanted to make the sound as subby as possible, so after compressing it with the CLA-3A, I set the Lowender to ‘Classic’, adding 24-56 Hz frequencies, and then I added a ton of RBass, and with the EQ3, a high-pass at 60Hz and a low-pass at 120Hz. When you listen to that part of the song with a system with sub-bass, you get an earthquake rumble in that section.”

Vocals

“The Migos vocals came in as seven audio tracks, with the Avid D-Verb on each of them. Putting a D-Verb on a track before EQ is not something I normally do, but it sounded great. So I adjusted them a bit, but otherwise left them as they were. The tracks also came in with the Aux track above, and the EQ3, with a high pass at 60Hz and notches at 430Hz and 1.41kHz and a high boost, the Waves API 2500 compressor, the RComp, the Waves Q10 EQ, following a slightly similar curve to the EQ3, the Waves De-esser, the Waves Aphex Aural Exciter, and the Avid Dyn3 expander/gate. I added the EQ3, with another high-pass filter at 144Hz, and the RComp, with a ratio of 10:1.”

Unusually, Migos’ vocal parts arrived with the Avid D-Verb plug-in as the first insert in the signal path. Stu White retained this but tweaked the settings slightly.Unusually, Migos’ vocal parts arrived with the Avid D-Verb plug-in as the first insert in the signal path. Stu White retained this but tweaked the settings slightly.Jay-Z’s part consists of just two tracks, one lead, and one ad-lib, with an additional ‘reverse’ track, and a ‘jay clean’ track. White: “The main lead vocal track has the SSL E0-channel, Waves C4 multiband compressor for some control, FabFilter Pro-Q2 EQ, with a few notches, and McDSP AE400. Where Jay raps ‘Tell the Grammy’s fuck that 0 for 8 shit / have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?’, you can hear some stuff in the background, which is another example of me adding flair and energy. That actually comes from the third ‘Voice Sample’ track further up the session, on which I have some automated plug-ins, the ReVibe, Waves S1 Imager, and filter sweep from the EQ3. It’s subtle, but it gives you a little ear candy.”

Stu White felt that McDSP’s 555 de-esser was the best option on Beyoncé’s heavily compressed lead vocal.Stu White felt that McDSP’s 555 de-esser was the best option on Beyoncé’s heavily compressed lead vocal.Beyoncé’s lead vocal tracks consist of three aux tracks, four ‘dirty’ and eight ‘clean’ audio tracks. The audio tracks only have the EQ3 on the inserts and a few of them have a send to the Church Reverb. All White’s processing is done on the three aux tracks. “All lead vocals are sent to the ‘B Aux’ track and the ‘B Parra Aux’ tracks. On the former I have the McDSP DS 555 de-esser. I use the Waves de-esser the most, but in this particular track, because I wanted to compress her voice really hard, I felt that the 555 would work the best. I am rolling off until 6144Hz into what it is detecting; it’s like a side-chain filter. The FabFilter Pro-DS is doing a little more gentle look-ahead de-essing.

“After that there’s some pretty heavy EQ from the EQ3, with a high-pass at 142Hz, a 9dB cut at 244Hz and a 2dB cut at 3kHz. My cut at 244Hz is because she is singing in this husky, low voice, so there’s not a lot of energy in that. I get the energy from the RComp compression, and the EQs, including from the SSL E-Channel, are there to make her sit in the track, rather than making it sound filtered. I love the RComp, mainly because it doesn’t sound like compression to me. The SSL E-Channel adds a bit more compression, and the [Crane Song] Phoenix II Tape Emulation is really cool because while it doesn’t actually sound like tape, it smoothes out transients in a signal just like much analogue equipment does. It enables me to get a fatter vocal sound that again makes the vocal sit in the mix. The final EQ3 has a notch at 3.2kHz to take out some harshness. I also have sends to the Verb aux track, which are the D-Verb and [Waves] H-Reverb, and the Delay 1-4 aux, with the EchoBoy.

McDSP’s AE400 dynamic EQ was used to retain tonal consistency in both Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s vocals.McDSP’s AE400 dynamic EQ was used to retain tonal consistency in both Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s vocals.“The other aux track, ‘B Parra Aux’, is a parallel compression track, with the RCompressor and the CLA 76, which I mixed in low. Both these aux tracks then go to the ‘LD ALL Aux’, on which I’m doing some more surgery with the McDSP AE400 [dynamic EQ], which allows you to set a threshold, just like on a compressor. It’s like turning a volume knob down on a frequency the moment it gets out of control. Finally, there’s the Waves C4, for some control, to keep the vocal even. This track has a lot of energy, so this is an example of using compression for energy, mood and attitude. I also worked a long time to get the compression on Bey’s breaths to pump on the beat. I wanted her breaths to be another percussive element in the track, and getting the attack and release on the compressor right was key to getting that feel and pumping effect.”

Five of the 22 Beyoncé ad lib, backing and harmony vocals below her lead vocals also go to the above-mentioned aux tracks, while the rest have their own signal chains. These audio tracks are sent to several aux tracks, often with tons of plug-ins, and all aux vocal tracks in the end get sent to the ‘Voc All’ group aux right at the top of the session, which has an RCompressor, with ratio at 10:1. There are more group aux tracks, like ‘TrackAux’, ‘FX Voc Aux’, ‘FX’ and ‘Music Aux’, which all get sent to the ‘All Aux’. This in turn gets sent to the ‘no limiter’ mix print track, and finally there’s a Stereo Master track.

White: “There are hardly any plug-ins on my group aux tracks. Less is more! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But these group tracks give me some control over certain groups if I need to. The RCompressor has a smooth Opto setting and glues all vocal effects together. It is great if you need a loud vocal in the mix. The ‘All Aux’ aux is my master bus, and it has the UAD SSL G Bus Compressor, set to a ratio of 4:1, attack of 10ms, release of 1.2, and a threshold close to +15. But the meters are barely moving on that compressor. UAD did a great job with that plug-in, because it has a mix knob with a roll-off that goes all the way to 500Hz, which is useful for guys like me who have so much bass in their mixes. I roll off pretty high, and the attack is slow. This is followed by iZotope Ozone 7’s Imager, which gives a little bit of really nice width to the top end.”  

The White Stuff

Stuart White has been engineer and mixer for Ed Sheeran, Depeche Mode, Sia, Nicki Minaj, Fun, Mary J Blige, FKA Twigs, Alicia Keys and many others, but since 2012, the mainstay of his work has been as Beyoncé’s regular engineer and mixer. White had an obsession with the recording process from an early age. He grew up in North Carolina and, as a teenager, messed with his father’s stereo system, bouncing tracks between a double tape deck and a karaoke machine. Then, seeing a photo of a recording studio with an SSL on the back of a CD by his cousin Agona Hardison changed his life. White bought a sampler, an eight-track tape recorder and some turntables, and in 2001, at the age of 21, he went to Full Sail University in Florida for a year. Following this he moved to New York, where he worked at Quad Studios, and with top engineer and mixer Russell Elevado, which, he recalls, “opened up a whole world of the creative side of engineering for me”. White also met engineer Ann Mincieli at Quad, who worked with Alicia Keys, and when the latter built her own studio, Mincieli and White ended up working there for six years. “It was a very creative time, because Ann was into experimenting, and bought guitar pedals, amplifiers, crazy microphones and so on.”

Another crucial influence on White was Key’s producer, Kerry ‘Krucial’ Brothers, who is based in LA, and, says White, took him on “as his personal engineer/mixer. That’s where I really cut my teeth mixing.” When Mincieli opened up Jungle City Studios in 2010, White returned to New York to work there, until the owner told him in 2012 that Beyoncé was looking for an engineer. The first Beyoncé album White was heavily involved in was her self-titled fifth album, released in 2013, and for which he received an Album Of The Year Grammy nomination. It added to his two 2012 Grammy nominations for fun.’s album Some Nights. Since then, White says, Beyoncé projects account for about half of his work, “and many of my other recent credits come from tracks that she also features on”. Lemonade earned White a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album, and two more nominations.

On The Move

Attracted by lower rental prices and better weather, Stu White moved from New York to LA in August 2016. He set up a studio there in a place downtown that’s “bigger than I had in NY, and it has daylight. I brought all my equipment over from New York. I work mostly in the box, but am kind of hybrid, with a Chandler Mini Rack mixer, which I use as a summing bus, and on which I use a Manley Massive Passive EQ and SSL clone compressor. My monitors are first-generation ProAc Studio 100s, with the Bryston 4B amp, Yamaha NS10 and ATC SCM25A, plus Genelec 8040. I have a rack of outboard, including a Bricasti M7 reverb, and a whole rack of guitar pedals on a patchbay.”

However, Beyoncé loves to travel, and likes to record wherever she goes. This means that White has a room full of Pelican flightcases ready to go, with everything he needs to record on location. In the case of Everything Is Love, he employed his entire remote setup at locations like U Arena, where he set up in “box suites and closets, and so on”, but often uses a lot of his own gear even when working in recording studios.

“I travelled with my ATC SCM25A and my Genelec 8040 monitors for the entire project. I don’t take my ProAcs because they need a big Bryston amp which is hard to carry around. But yes, the ATCs also are very heavy! I transport the monitors in their factory boxes, which I wrap with gaffer tape to make the boxes sturdier. In addition I travel with nine Pelican cases, and I check everything in on the plane as luggage. I have one Pelican for my Avalon VT-737sp, one for my Tube Tech Cl-1B compressor, one for the Avid HD Omni, one case is full of cables, one case has a small subwoofer and a Reflexion Filter, one has my Bricasti M7 for if I want a good reverb that is not a plug-in, one case has my Telefunken mic, and one case has speaker stands and a microphone stand. I fly with all that stuff so I can set up anywhere, because Bey might want to set up in a hotel room one day, the next day in a house, the next day in the venue, and so on.”

Mess With It

For Stu White, the mixing process involves plenty of creative sonic manipulation, which earned him an additional production credit on the tracks ‘Apeshit’ and ‘Boss’. He explains: “I often take elements that are already in the track and I will manipulate and pan and ride them to create moments of movement in the song. You don’t want to listen to a song with the same transitions every time. That would be boring and lazy. The changes don’t have to be huge, but just different enough so the hook is never exactly the same each time it comes in. It should be similar enough so everyone knows it’s the hook, but at the same time you want to add some flair, some drama and some excitement.

“Many engineers and mixers do this these days, like Josh Gudwin with Justin Bieber, Ann Minciele with Alicia Keys, and Chris Godbey with Justin Timberlake, and so on. We are all adding our spices and tricks to help tracks move and bring them together. It’s also what engineering used to be, back in the ’70s and before. Look at what someone like Geoff Emerick did, when he was challenged by the Beatles. I get challenged by Jay and Bey. I also go in on my own initiative, and then I’ll get a thumbs up, or a thumbs down. When you engineer for these top-level artists, they expect you to do that. At this level, doing these embellishments is part of your job.

“When you are working in this genre of music, many things in the sessions are looped, and when you have the same drums, the same chord progressions, and the same instruments all the way down, at some point you have to mess with it and change things to make the track more interesting. I listen all the time for moments where I can do something. The people that hire me as a mixer usually expect me to do this stuff, saying, ‘Yeah, man, if you hear something you can do, try it.’ Of course, you’re walking a fine line between things that sound really cool and things that sound really corny. I am always asking myself whether it’s cool.”

Cutting Together

Stu White’s mixing process involves a lot of subtractive EQ. “It’s how I create room for everything. When two sounds clash, I solo them, and with a medium Q I sweep the EQs and find out where the sounds clash. You pick the frequencies of sound that you want to win the battle, and pull these frequencies out of the other sound, and now all of a sudden the two sounds fit together. I do this across the board, soloing things together, and then removing clashing frequencies. That is how some mixers can get their mixes to be super-loud, and it also sounds good. You have to make space in your session, because at the end point everything has to go through one funnel, the two-mix.

“It’s the same for a producer. If you fit your sounds together so that they complement each other EQ-wise, rather than overlap, your productions are going to sound so much better. And when you hand your stuff over to a mixer, they are going to love you, because they will be mixing, and not fixing. In that case the mixer’s job is to put the cherry and the whipped cream on top, and he or she doesn’t have to go in and first make the ice cream. Good producers will work hard to find kick and bass sounds that work together, and that don’t need endless EQ to make them sit well together. It depends on the genre, in rap you don’t want the kick to pump too much, while you do want it to pump in dance music, but when you have the low end in place the way you want it, you can focus on the song, the melody, and the structure.”

Published September 2018