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."
Click below to download a high resolution JPEG screenshot of the full Pro Tools session for the Brockhampton track 'Weight'.
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