Hip‑hop collective Brockhampton abandoned their home studios for Abbey Road — and left with a number one album.
One of the biggest surprises of 2018 has been the meteoric rise of self‑declared 'boy band' Brockhampton. The group's first three albums Saturation, Saturation II and Saturation III were all released in 2017, each album charting higher than its predecessor, and this year's Iridescence reached the top spot in the USA.
Brockhampton's ability to make albums very quickly is quite a feat, given that they have no fewer than 14 members. Along with leader Kevin Abstract (real name Ian Simpson), these include four vocalists, two vocalist/producers and three producers, plus a graphic designer, web designer, photographer and manager — all of whom have to agree on everything. Other than being youngish and all‑male, Brockhampton are the antithesis of the traditional manufactured boy band, taking complete control of writing, engineering, mixing, production and running their careers.
Stylistically, the band's output spans hardcore hip‑hop, soulful R&B, grime and EDM, with members coming from the US, the Caribbean and Northern Ireland. The group as a whole originated in Texas, yet they are currently based in California.
Iridescence was written, recorded and mixed over the course of two and a half weeks at Abbey Road Studios in London. Band member Joba, aka Russell Boring, is credited with mixing 14 of the album's 15 tracks, but Abbey Road engineers Matt Mysko and Andy Maxwell also played important roles, as did Brockhampton's main engineer Romil Hemnani.
Brockhampton's first three albums were DIY affairs, recorded in homes and their own studio, which raises the question why the entire company decided to head to Abbey Road for the making of Iridescence — a big investment, especially for such a large group.
"We wanted to open our minds, make a record in a new environment, and also a legendary place, and to experience London," explains Joba. "I look at it as investing in ourselves, which is something that we have never had problems with. I personally have spent my life savings over and over and over again, on pieces of gear I should not have bought, because in reality I should have gotten some healthy food! Instead I would buy a preamp; but it kept me going and inspired me. However, working in Abbey Road did not really alter our creative process. It was more about the space and a new experience. Music is life, and we live by it, and the studio was a great place to continue exploring that and we loved it."
"We made our first records mostly in my bedroom," adds Hemnani, "and this got us to a point where we got a crazy record deal. When we looked at our touring schedule earlier this year, we saw that we ended the tour in the UK, so we decided to go to Abbey Road. As Russell says, it's to make music in a new environment and see what that pulls out of us. And when you have the opportunity to work in one of the most historic studios in the world, why not go there? We might not get the opportunity the next time. Who knows? So we spent about 10 days in Studio 3 for the creation and recording process, and a week in The Penthouse for the mixing process."
As Andy Maxwell recalls, Brockhampton were determined to make the most of their time at the studio. "These guys were working around the clock, so while they spent two and a half weeks at Abbey Road, they did about a month's work! Sometimes they did not sleep at all, it seemed."
"There were days we'd go on until 6am, and I was like, 'Guys, I need to go home!'" says Matt Mysko, "and when I came back eight hours later they would still be there!"
"Yes, it was a crazy process," agrees Joba. "Sometimes we'd just get some rest on the rugs on the studio floor, or the very comfy sofas in the mastering suite. Nothing ever slowed down!"
The writing process was massively parallel, with multitudes of workstations being set up in every nook and cranny in Studio 3. "Our main beatmakers are Romil, Jabari Manwa, Kiko Merley and myself," explains Joba. "When we're writing, everyone will have their own workstation/studio, with a computer, an interface, sometimes some outboard gear and monitors. We used Studio 3's piano and vocal booths and so on, turning it into three or four working studios. Everyone works in Ableton, and the foundations of each song are usually laid by one of the producers, after which the session gets passed around, and we all continue building and contributing. Everything that we do is eventually funnelled to the central workstation, which is controlled by Romil. He works on the files, and does a lot of vocal recordings, until the sessions are ready for me to mix."
"One rule is that everything is always plugged in and switched on," elaborates Hemnani, "so there's always a mic that's hot and there always are half a dozen synthesizers on, so as soon as someone has an idea, they can record it immediately. It's like creating a playground, where people can be creative and efficient at the same time. If something happens in the main space, you can go off to your own space to work on it, or remain in the main room and work on it there. Or you start something in your own space and then bring it to the main space.
"We all use Ableton because it fits our workflow. It's incredibly free‑flowing and flexible. When you work with computers you normally are always looking at a screen, and you start thinking about music in visual terms, rather than sonically. You're looking at a grid and think about numbers, rather than that you feel the music. We find that when you use Ableton, you don't have to look at the screen as much. For similar reasons we also like to use hardware synths a lot of the time. We like Moog synths, and at Abbey Road we had synths like the Moog Voyager, Model D, Sub Phatty, and also a Mellotron, and a Prophet, and the Ableton Push 2. I don't play piano, I play the computer and the Ableton Push!"
"I am always drawn to anything with knobs on it," Joba says, "and particularly Moogs. I like to look at a machine as an extension of myself, and almost like a wild beast that's hard to tame. I like to set it to self‑oscillate and do its own thing, so the machine is roaring and you control it the best you can, and you make sense of what it does in the context of the track that's playing behind you. Somehow it's just different when you can touch things physically. Things are a bit more urgent when you can see them in front of you, and you press keys. This rather than having to load up a DAW, find a plug‑in, scroll through your sounds, and on. Hardware synths are also much more conducive to experimentation."
"We technically have 10 musicians in the band, but we always try to make everybody part of the writing process," says Hemnani. "Anyone who has an idea is encouraged to help and offer ideas and feedback in any way they can. This means that when we make a song, there will be many different perspectives on that song, whereas if just one artist works on a song, that artist will at some point need to step away from it to give themselves some time and come back with a fresh perspective. Whereas with us there already are tons of perspectives very early on and we just bounce ideas off each other."
"I never saw you guys getting stuck at any point," marvels Maxwell. "The moment there was some doubt in anyone's mind, somebody else would come and say, 'Why don't we do it like this?' and a third person would say, 'Yes, that makes sense.' I never saw you bang your head against a brick wall on anything."
"When you hit a wall, why keep running against it?," Hemnani responds. "Just go through a different door! Our process is like putting popcorn in a microwave: one starts to pop, and then another, and then it's a rapid fire of popping popcorn. That's kind of how we work. One person has an idea, this will spark something in someone else, and they will go off in their corner and do something that will provide a new spark, and so on. We are very in sync with each other."
Brockhampton's collaborative songwriting process means that the tracks on Iridescence credit up to eight co‑writers and six co‑producers per song — but, in sharp contrast with almost all charting songs and albums released today, there are no outside writers or producers.
Working in a legendary studio with great live rooms prompted Brockhampton to widen their sonic palette and include more live sounds than before. This is where the Abbey Road engineers Maxwell and Mysko, with occasional help from Chris Parker, came in. Mysko: "We helped them record musicians who were not in the band. There was a Jamaican MC who came down at one point, which was fun, and we recorded strings, piano and a choir. Initially the idea was also that we'd fill in for Romil with the recordings in general for when he wanted to sleep, but he never stopped, so he remained at the controls of the main Ableton workstation throughout. Chris filled in for Andy and me when we needed to sleep!"
Maxwell: "For the live recordings, Romil would give us a stereo stem of his Ableton to work with, which we loaded in Pro Tools. The quickest option usually was the best to keep the creative juices flowing. The strings were a double string quartet, which we recorded in the live room of Studio 3. One of the band's producers had a setup there with three keyboards and monitors and an interface, so we had to take out his setup and rebuild it again after we were finished. We recorded the strings with a spot mic on each two strings, a main pair, and an ambient pair in the gallery, and these mics went straight into the SSL J‑Series desk in the studio, fairly flat, and then into Pro Tools. The children's choir was recorded with Neumann U87 spot mics for each pair of singers, and again a main pair and a gallery pair. We tried to keep things as simple as possible. The most important thing was the speed of the creative process, and we did not want to spend ages fiddling with sounds and things. Once again, it was all about keeping the process going!"
Joba contributed some crafty featured acoustic piano parts on Iridescence, most of all the piano solo that introduces the track 'Tonya', which has some unusually advanced chords for a pop song. These were recorded by Maxwell: "The piano recordings were done in Studio 1, the main orchestral room at Abbey Road. They also were super‑simple. We had a pair of DPA 4006 microphones over the hammers close to the keyboard, one low, one high; a pair of Coles 4038 mics in a Blumlein array; and behind that we had some Neumann TLM50s and also a pair of Neumann M50s even further back. We did not add any artificial reverb to that piano. The sound that you hear on the record was the mix that was done on the console when recording. Studio 1 has a great natural reverb sound, and the reverb you hear mostly came from the M50s, which were about 10 to 15 feet back from the piano."
The recordings of the band members themselves were for the most part handled by Hemnani, with help from Joba, and a central role for the Shure SM7B and some choice Abbey Road outboard. Hemnani: "I once watched a documentary about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in which they were using the SM7B, with the singer holding it in his hand, and I thought, 'Let's buy that and see how we get on with it.' We've been using it ever since."
Joba: "The SM7B is our favourite microphone. We always recorded our vocals in the control room, and we're basically all huddled around an SM7B. We tracked the mic through a Neve 1073 with a high shelf, and a [Teletronix] LA‑2A. That was the vocal chain we stuck to."
Maxwell: "There was one song for which we used the RCA BX44 on Dom [McLennon], and I think we all regretted it. It sounded cool, but it was a nightmare to fit in the track."
"The moment Dom worked with the ribbon microphone, we were like 'Man, this does not sound as good, just come in and record on the SM7B,'" agrees Joba, "and he was like, 'no, I need to get it now.' We were not going to say no to that. As an engineer I have struggled with the emphasis on capturing a take that's raw and real, but as time went on, I realised that I prefer to have a real and honest take over a high‑fidelity take."
After one and a half weeks of intense, round‑the‑clock sessions, the Brockhampton collective decided that it was time to start the final mixes. Mixing has been Joba's job ever since he joined the band, but in the case of Iridescence, Hemnani, Maxwell and Mysko assisted him in The Penthouse. In line with current working methods, the final mixes did not represent a fresh start, but built on work that had already been done. Hemnani: "As a producer my job is to put the artist in the best position to succeed, and so in a similar way I also try to set up Russell in the best position to succeed when he mixes. That means already mixing while recording."
Joba: "Recording and mixing are equally important, and we all try to make everybody's jobs as easy as possible. But when it comes to the final mix, it is mixing time. The pressure is on, and we have to make this shit sound as great as it can be, and usually in a very small window of time. All our records have been that way. I mixed our first record in three days, which was absurd!"
Mysko: "Writing/recording and the mix process employ two different sides of the brain. During recording it's the right side of the brain and you're being creative and free‑flowing, and when it comes to mixing, you get very analytical and you look at things in a different light, with much more focus on nitty‑gritty details."
The first step of the mixing process was to export all the songs from Ableton as multitracks, which were loaded into Pro Tools. "We always do full stems, which means all tracks in a session that make the final arrangement are included," explains Joba. "If there are effects that we really love, we print them in the stems. Also, because of time pressure, we wanted to stay with the integrity of how things made us feel during the creative process. But if we just slapped on a quick reverb or delay just to make something sit well, we'd print stems without these effects and we'd start again during the final mix.
"As to the reason to make the transfer to Pro Tools, I have always mixed in Pro Tools, and I honestly think it sounds better than Ableton. I think the sound engine has higher fidelity. I also like the faders in Pro Tools, and in general things are easier to look at and easier to manage while you are mixing. We mixed entirely in Pro Tools, but we had some Abbey Road outboard set up, like a pair of Fairchilds and Tube‑Tech compressors and EMI TG2 EQs. There were three tracks that we had recorded in America, and I sent these vocals also through the 1073 and LA‑2A to make them match the vocals we'd recorded at Abbey Road. I've always mixed on Yamaha NS‑10s and Barefoot MicroMains, but at Abbey Road I used the ATC SCM25As with a Genelec sub. I'd never used them before, so that added a level of anxiety, but at the end of the day, they're great monitors, and it also was the first time I was working in a room that was treated correctly. So I tried not to get too psyched up about technicalities and frequency responses. I had a job to finish!
"When mixing it's really important to keep the integrity of the rough, and that of the producers that I work with. With so many people involved, it's easy for people to get demoitis. People also really want to know where the sounds that they worked on are. So in general, I don't like to beef up or change the sonic textures too much. Instead I like to refine things, and use the most minimal processing possible. I spend the most time on vocals and levels, but when I start a mix, I will always solo everything, and organise the session the way I want it, and I'll then start on the drums, as it's the most important in the type of music that we make. It's all about the low end nowadays! The kick needs to bang, and then the snare needs to crack at the right frequency and level, and from there I build the mix up."
Joba, Hemnani, Maxwell and Mysko talked in detail about the mixes of two songs on Iridescence, 'Weight' and 'District' (see box), both of which feature live strings. "'Weight' is one of my favourite songs on the album, and sometimes mixing songs that you have also co‑written and co‑produced can be a lot," says Joba. "I didn't want to get in the way, or get too deeply into it, so I asked Matt to do most of the mixing."
The Pro Tools session for 'Weight' (working title 'God Bless You') is 95 tracks large, which includes 58 audio tracks, and seven stereo reference mix tracks, and 30 aux tracks. This count includes 13 drum tracks — purple for audio tracks, grey for aux tracks — four bass and 808 tracks in orange, and 21 music tracks of synths, strings, guitar and samples, mostly in green. Below these are the vocals of Kevin Abstract, Joba, Dom McLennon and the choir, in various colours, and lastly eight aux group tracks for the drums, bass, mellotron, synths, 'other', strings, guitars and vocals, and a master track.
Mysko highlights some details: "Track 9 is the jungle break drum loop [similar to the 'Amen' break], which is side‑chained to the kick, just using the stock Pro Tools compressor/limiter. On the track below that, 'Kick Key', I have cut out a kick drum, to use as a trigger for the key. It's sent to a bus and used as the input on the side‑chain. Pretty standard stuff. Track 11 is the drum & bass/jungle rhythm drum sample, which Romil gave us in mono, and I thought it'd be nice if it sounded wider and bigger with more energy. I first filtered off all the high and low end, just retaining the upper mids around 3kHz, using the FabFilter Pro‑Q 2, and then I put two Waves H‑Delays on, with a dotted eighth‑note delay with a few ms difference, panned left and right, so it makes it stereo. After that there's the SansAmp for some distortion, and the Soundtoys Tremolator, again with the dotted‑eighth rhythm, for some kind of pulse. In the bit where Dom comes in, this sample is slowed to half speed, sounding all warped and chopped.
"Track 40 is the real strings, and they also have the Waves H‑Delay, with a detuned ping‑pong delay to make them sound wider. Again it works quite well with the dotted eighths, and then there's some modulation to make it a bit off‑kilter. We also use that effect on another track called 'Tape'. It works really well on chord‑like parts in the lower region, like piano or Fender Rhodes. As you play with the rate you can get some modulating weirdness, a bit like being on a ship and everyone gets seasick, but in a cool way. There's a part where the strings sound by themselves, and they sounded a bit standard and boring, so I wanted to bring in some spaciness to trip things out before slamming back into the drum & bass."
Joba: "One of the things we did in this song that was really cool was using the Studer J37 tape machine. There's a breakdown after the children's choir where it gets glitchy and skippy, and we sent Ian's vocal out into the stereo live room, and into the J37, and Chris [Parker] was messing with the tape heads, almost like turntables. We also did that with the piano. We treated the J37 almost like a plug‑in, printing the output on track 59. Actual plug‑ins that we used almost all the time on the vocals are Synchro Arts VocAlign and Antares Auto‑Tune."
"VocAlign especially," agrees Mysko. "One of the things these guys do is triple‑track all vocals, with one vocal in the middle and the others panned left and right. Romil would then use the Soundtoys Little AlterBoy to mess with the formants, and we'd make sure it would translate in the mix. At one point Andy and Romil went through all vocal tracks to make sure all the AlterBoy settings were right. That was quite an important part of the process. I'm a big fan of the AlterBoy and I like using them with spring reverbs. There are plenty of spring reverbs in Altiverb and I like them because they sound weird and trashy. In this song they added another element of psychedelia.
"I used the Soundtoys Decapitator for the same reason at various places in the session. Though I actually ended up going down a rabbit‑hole a bit on Ian's vocals, adding too many plug‑ins to make him sound good, and Russell took everything off and started again. This is the reason some of the plug‑ins are deactivated. Another plug‑in we used a lot on vocals, particularly on Joba's, is the Waves Scheps Parallel Particles. It's great if you feel a vocal sounds a little lacklustre. It's really ideal to dial in what you are missing."
"One thing that's definitely a challenge when mixing Brockhampton tracks is the fact that there are always several vocalists in each song," says Joba. "It takes a lot of attention to detail, and particularly because we mess with formant and pitch, you often have to backtrack and remix certain things. Different vocal treatments may not sit in the mix in the same way, and so I often had to abandon all my attachments to a sound that I loved, and start over again!"
"One of the great things about these guys is that there's no ego," says Mysko. "They're happy to scrap or change things at any time, because people are not putting themselves first. It's all about the collective good. That was very inspiring, and very easy to work with for us. Collaboration is a beautiful thing, and much better than doing things at home by yourself."
Or, as Hemnani puts it, "Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone all by himself. Collaboration by many great minds created something great. Why not apply that same principle to music?"
Russell 'Joba' Boring is the only classically trained musician in Brockhampton, and also has considerable experience in working in a studio. "I studied voice, and played trumpet and French horn through elementary and middle schools, and when I went to high school I also sang in a choir, plus I studied opera. After that I worked at a studio called Number 6 Productions, in Houston, Texas. It was in a friend's garage, and we would do a lot of hip‑hop, like rap mix tapes. I interned and learnt how to produce. At that time it was strictly Pro Tools, and with a kind of two‑track philosophy, as I was often adding vocals to a stereo track. Following this I set up a studio at my own house, and recorded my own music and met Kevin Abstract and Brockhampton and they paid me to record at my house. I just wanted to be an engineer, but they asked me to join the band and I thought, 'Why not?'"
Although Matt Mysko did most of the mixing on 'Weight', he insists that Joba "did 90 percent of the mixes in general", and 'District' is a case in point. The full Pro Tools session contains 70 tracks, and is colour‑coded according to Joba's usual scheme.
"I always have drums in purple, the instruments in green, and I give each vocalist their own colour, intuitively, depending on what vibe they bring to the song," he says. "A lot of my mixing approach comes from me working in that studio in Houston, and doing mix tapes over two‑tracks. I'll treat the music and the vocals separately from each other. I'll have a drum group, an instrument group and another group of the two combined. Again, I don't do that many sonic treatments. I spend most of my time on EQ and compression on the vocals. I keep it pretty straightforward.
"The 808 has the UAD Transient Designer to get it to hit a bit harder, and the Waves H‑Comp and Avid Dyn3 Compressor/Limiter and the UAD Little Labs Voice Of God adding some subharmonic phase, similar to what the dbx 120 does. There's very radical EQ on Matt [Champion]'s vocal, using the Pro‑Q 2. It took me a while to get it to sit right. I also ran it through the Fairchild, with really aggressive compression. I'm not a fan of that, but it was overcompressed in the demo, and everyone loved that sound, so I decided to throw in some vibe and compress the hell out of it. There are no treatments on the master bus. I prefer to leave that up to the mastering engineer."