With 32 songs and more than two hours of music, mixing Chris Brown's album Indigo demanded stamina as well as talent!
Even in a music world that's increasingly obsessed with three-minute wonders, there still are artists whose primary medium is the album. R&B singer Chris Brown has, to date, released an impressive nine studio albums since 2005, the last two albums being colossal creations. Heartbreak On A Full Moon (2017) is an astonishing 45 tracks and 159 minutes long, and Brown's latest, Indigo — a US number one and UK number seven — runs to 32 tracks and 123 minutes. In what has been dubbed a "market saturation strategy", Brown has also released an amazing 52 singles, plus 109 as featured artist, leading to a total of 161 singles with his name on them.
The Wikipedia entry for Indigo lists no fewer than 55 producers, with Brown credited as executive producer. The album also features a wide variety of musical styles, from hip-hop to songs influenced by 1970s soul, and numerous guest artists. Critical opinions have varied wildly, but the album is undeniably a tour de force both from a logistical and a sonic point of view. As executive producer, Brown has always held the overall reins, while practical organisation of the sessions was handled for a long time by engineer Brian Springer. In 2015, Springer's role was taken over by Patrizio 'Teezio' Pigliapoco, who not only has an engineering credit on 30 of Indigo's 32 songs, but also a mix credit on 30 tracks, plus a co-writing credit on 17 songs.
Pigliapoco's involvement with Brown began when he was visiting New York in the summer of 2017, and received a call from Springer. "I'd been working with Josh Gudwin [engineer and mixer for Justin Bieber] and I guess he gave Brian my number, saying I was fast and efficient. Brian was moving on to do other things, and asked me if I was interested in becoming Chris' engineer. I initially said 'no' because I had been at the Record Plant, where Chris used to work a lot, and had seen how the studio became a party pad. I didn't want to party every night, but my wife convinced me to try it. It turned out that Chris and I really got on during our first two sessions together, and we've worked together ever since."
Speed and efficiency definitely were important assets, as Pigliapoco was not only tasked with managing recordings for all songs, but also became involved in finding many of the beatmakers on the album and maintaining contact with them. "Jaycen Joshua had mixed the initial Heartbreak On A Full Moon album, and I mixed the deluxe version of that album, which has 13 songs. We started work on Indigo after Chris came off the Heartbreak On A Full Moon tour in August of last year. Chris said that he wanted to do everything ourselves this time. The album has many different producers and genres, and most of the producer choices came from Chris and I, and sometimes the label, RCA. The label organised a writing camp for Chris, and also sent us some other songs.
"I called many of the writers and producers that I know, and brought them to the writing sessions. Chris pretty much liked everyone who came in or sent us beats. We started with 'Undecided', with a new writer, her name is Felicia Ferraro, or Feli, and Scott Storch, who also is a friend of mine. Chris hummed the melody, and the drums, and a guy called Tone Stith also was involved, and the song started coming together piece by piece. For other songs some other writers also came into the studio with us, and many others purely sent us their beats via the Internet, and I mixed the album, at my place here."
During the making of Indigo, Pigliapoco was at the hub of everything, which is one of the reasons why he has 17 writing credits. "In part it's a writer giving me a percentage for bringing his beat to Chris, but then there are a thousand of things that I do that can be considered writing, from structuring melodies, deciding what becomes a verse or a chorus, push harder for a hook, arrange a session, and so on."
Chris Brown is nothing if not prolific, and some have accused him of deliberately making his two most recent albums super-long to maximise the amount of streams and thus push them up the charts. According to Pigliapoco, though, it simply is a matter of Brown being unable to choose. "Indigo could have been another 45-song album. Chris likes all songs so much, he can't get rid of any of them. So the albums become very long! With Indigo we tried to make the first 15 songs the bulk of the album, and then if you like them enough, you can keep listening to disc two."
Getting that many songs to a level high enough that Chris Brown couldn't bear to shelve any of them was no mean task, which involved Pigliapoco encouraging Brown as much as anyone else. "Chris goes into the booth, and if he's writing, he gives me tons of melody takes. I'll be pushing him for better melodies and takes all the time. Even if it's already be amazing, I may say: 'Hey, that's great, but I think you can do better.' Once we start actually cutting the vocals, he'll do a take and will ask me for feedback if he's unsure of how good it is. The thing is, sometimes things aren't perfect, but they may feel right. Everything in music is about feeling. You need to judge that. Many of the singers I work with are too focused on perfection.
Patrizio Pigliapoco: "Sometimes, if a word is sung slightly late or early, and you like the feel of that and leave it, the delay will not feel right with the word after that, so I manually move that delay to make it feel correct.
"When Chris and I cut his vocals, we go line by line. He sings the first line, and the first take may be the final take. Then he cuts the next line. I have three record tracks, and after recording each take, I'll move it up to two tracks above, which is my work space. Putting a new track into record every time takes too much time. So I am cutting, dropping, cutting, dropping, and so on. Then I grab the entire verse and move it to the verse tracks. Spending time moving each individual track costs me too much time.
"I always record Chris with a Telefunken ELA M 251, going through a Neve 1073 [preamp/EQ] and a Tube-Tech CL-1B [compressor], and then directly into Pro Tools. I like to keep it simple. Every time you bring in a new variable, there's another chance for some kind of issue. We also have Antares Auto-Tune on when Chris sings, and he hears it while he sings and we print it. You will never find a raw vocal by Chris without Auto-Tune. When we hear it, if it feels right, it is right, and we print it. It's also far too hard to keep track of tons of instances of Auto-Tune in a session, and if we send it out, we don't want someone messing with the settings. I obviously use an alto/tenor setting, with Retune usually set to 11-12-13. But sometimes we go crazy with Auto-Tune and we set it to 2. Or it may be 7. It's not about the right settings, but about what it feels like.
"While we record, I cut everything below 80Hz, and also give Chris reverb, from the Valhalla VintageVerb, and a quarter-note delay from the Waves H-Delay. The entire album has Valhalla reverbs. They are really cheap reverbs, but I love them. The Valhalla Room is particularly cheap, and I used that on snares and hi-hats, and the Shimmer is the worst, but if I want a vocal to have some space around it, I put the Shimmer on, and it will give it something that's just out of control. And the Valhalla Delay is amazing."
As is common in these computer– and Internet-dominated days, the vocal sessions for the guest artists were generally conducted remotely with their own engineers, with some of these engineers also doing some mix work. These recordings were then sent to Pigliapoco, who worked them into his sessions. Nearly all the music on the album was created inside a computer, with the exception of live guitars on four tracks and live percussion and live keyboards on a couple of tracks each. "The only live instrument that I recorded was the guitar solo on 'Red'. Chris wanted a guitar solo, so I brought in Xeryus Gittens, and I edited the solo from six different licks that he gave me. The only other thing that is not computerised on the album were the live string section interludes, which were done by a producer named Soundz."
However, whereas most engineers tend to do rough mixes while recording, which often form the basis for final mixes, Pigliapoco likes to keep the processes entirely separate. "I am very OCD and I want everything to be very organised. For this reason, my recording sessions and mix sessions are based on completely different templates. When I start a mix, I erase the recording template completely, leaving just the raw audio files, and I then import my mix template, which has an entirely different routing structure.
"I am not one of these people who just throws paint at the wall to see where it sticks. Everything has to be organised in detail. For this reason, my sessions are always coloured the same, with drums blue, bass brown, music green, aux buses green, lead vocals light blue, background vocals dark blue. I create a tremendous amount of structure around everything I do. Having said that, my templates are pretty much bare-bones. Many people already have all processing in their template, but I personally don't like to do that. Essentially, my templates are about routing, and I have some delays in place, like a quarter-note and an eighth-note delay, and I'll use those panned on background vocals. But the meat of my delays comes from making them on the spot."
As mentioned above, Pigliapoco conducts his mixes at his office in his home. "There's no acoustic treatment in here," he comments. "There's a rug and a couch that offer some makeshift soundproofing, but I am not one of those people that goes crazy. I just use my ears and see if I like the way it sounds. I have PMC TwoTwo 6 speakers, and I used to have an UAD Apollo A-D converter, but I just upgraded to the Lynx Hilo, which is a way better converter. I also have the UAD Octo Accelerator, and I always have the latest MacBook Pro, the best one you can buy from the store. I don't really care how much noise the fans make, because at the level I'm playing music, it's not very noticeable!"
Patrizio Pigliapoco chooses 'Heat', the fifth single from Indigo, as a good example of his mix approach. The mix session contains 51 active tracks consisting, from the top, of a mix bus track, a mix print track, six aux group tracks, five aux effects tracks, the original beat two-track, five drum tracks, an 808 track, four music tracks, a producer track tag, another aux effect track, four verse lead vocal tracks, two delay tracks, three lead tracks by guest vocalist Gunna, another delay print, two deactivated ad lib tracks, two more lead audio tracks, three deactivated vocal record tracks, and four background tracks.
"The structure of the song is that all tracks in the session feed the summing buses near the top — Drums, Bass, Music, All FX, Leads, Backgrounds — and these in turn feed the mix bus, and I then print the mix on the red track below that. Below the summing busses are five aux effects tracks: the '140Verb' with the Valhalla VintageVerb, the H-Delay quarter and HDelay eighth-note tracks, and there's a 'LexVerb' track that I sometimes use as a snare reverb, and an 'External Reverb' track that used to go to a Bricasti, which I don't use any more.
"Below that is the beat instrumental, which is muted. We used that to cut the song to, and I have that in the session as a reference. Rule number one is to never do the final mix to the stereo MP3 of the beat. You use that to record the vocals, but then I need the track out from the producers, ie. the individual tracks or stems. When I do the final mix, I want to get as close as I can to what everyone was hearing while recording, hence the stereo instrumental still being in the session, and then I want to make it better. So I constantly reference the instrumental when I am mixing. I always start my mix with the kick, and then I bring in the snare, the hi-hats, the toms, tambourines, in that order, and then the bass, and finally the music.
"This session is actually not typical, as it doesn't have a kick or a snare. The 808 functions as the kick. Once I have the drums set up the way I want them, and this means that they are hitting really hard, I treat them on the Drums summing aux bus, in this case with the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 and the iZotope Ozone 8 Exciter, which I used to excite both the low end and the high end a bit to get things popping. After that I moved to the 808, as the bass is the next thing I work on. The 808 in this session has the Pro-Q 2, UAD Little Labs Voice Of God, FabFilter Pro-C compressor, and a multiband [compressor]. After I compress the bass, a lot of the time the low end still has things poking out, which I'll control with the multiband.
"The drums and the 808 always have similar plug-ins when I mix, because the drums in hip-hop and R&B usually sound quite similar. But once it gets to the music it's like the Wild West for me, because it can be anything, and I'll try anything. This song only has five tracks of music. It's a simple production. The vibe comes from the drums and the 808. The main music part is the Lead Synth, on which I have again the Pro-Q 2, which is my favourite EQ. It has a surgical ability to affect frequencies that is unique. Nothing else compares with it. After that there's the Waves RCompressor, which is my go-to for basic compression, and after that the FabFilter Pro-MB multiband compressor. I use all the FabFilter plug-ins."
"I tend to go for a similar chain on all vocal tracks," explains Pigliapoco. "All Chris' lead vocals have the Pro-Q 2, Waves Tube-Tech EQP1A, UAD 1176 silver-face, Pro-MB, RCompressor and Waves De-Esser. I like standard de-essers, because it's such a miniscule thing, I don't want to have to learn something new every day. I use several compressors because I don't like to attack the signal too harshly, because you lose dynamics. Instead of completely smashing things with one compressor, I will compress lightly in stages. The 1176 is smooth and captures everything, and then another compressor will catch things that still pop out, like with the 808. The multiband compressor then catches low end, 100-500 Hz, which strangely enough actually adds clarity to the vocal.
"With regards to the sends on the vocals, '1' goes to the '140Verb' with the Valhalla VintageVerb. I don't ever put reverb directly on the track, only if it's for a reverb that I'll use for nothing else, like a background vocal. The '2's in the lead vocal tracks all go to the 'HKDelay' ['hook delay'] aux , which is actually named incorrectly, as I also use it for the verse. The reason it is deactivated is because I print my delays — in this case they are printed to the tracks named 'V Delay' and 'HK Delay'.
"Particularly if I have many plug-ins while I'm just throwing paint at the wall trying to create something cool, there may be some issues with the delay being out of time. When I print it, I can go in and manually line the audio up. Sometimes, if a word is sung slightly late or early, and you like the feel of that and leave it, the delay will not feel right with the word after that, so I manually move that delay to make it feel correct, again on feeling. You can see that the audio on the delay print tracks is cut up, so I can move the clips in time. Another issue is that every delay needs to be treated separately, volume-wise, to fit in with the main part. For example, a delay in an open space can be louder than a delay under a word. So I'll also volume-automate the delays. Plus when using audio it's easy to make stutter delays and do other edits. Finally, when I have printed the delays as audio, I can easily add yet more plug-ins for sonic treatments.
"The three tracks called 'Audio' are Gunna's vocals. There was no Auto-Tune, so I had to apply that, and the rest of the signal chain is similar to that for Chris' vocals, though the settings are different. Below that are Chris' 'Hook Lead Vocals', with the same plug-in chains as his verse vocals. Underneath them are more delay print tracks. 'HtLdcd1' is a delay for the hook, to which I added several effects, the main one being the McDSP FutzBox, which creates many great radio-type effects. Finally, the 'Background' tracks underneath the deactivated record tracks are actually lead stacks, not harmonies. Two of them have the Waves OneKnob [plug-ins], to add saturation and create an underwater effect.
"I prefer not to talk much about what I have on the mix bus at the top, but the first plug-in is the Plug-in Alliance Mäag Audio EQ4, which adds some air to the mix. The mix bus plug-ins glue everything together. A lot of the time when you're mixing a track, it's not mastered yet, so I have a limiter on the mix bus, which I take off when I send the track to mastering.
"I typically take six hours to mix a song — everything is about speed and rhythm for me. All my movements, even on the keyboard, move to the rhythm of the song. I am physically in the song. I then take the mix to Chris, and play it for him, and he makes comments, and I go back home and make adjustments and go back. 'Heat' only got to mix three."
Patrizio Pigliapoco is exceptionally well-connected for someone so young (he was 28 at the time of writing), and who has only been in the business for a relatively short span of time. He remarks, "It's all about networking. If you know people, and they like you and want to be part of whatever you're doing, you can do anything in this business."
This is absolutely true, of course, but how did he get there? Pigliapoco's parents are Argentinian, and he grew up in LA, where he started playing bass at 10 years of age. He quickly realised that rock was dying out and that he was unlikely to make a living as a rock bassist or guitarist, so he got into engineering. At 16 he became an intern at the YMA Music Group in Burbank, doing all the stuff no-one else wanted to do. "By the time I got out of high school and went to LA Recording School I already had some knowledge of what it's like to be in the studio, and was familiar with Pro Tools."
During his LA Recording School course, Pigliapoco started to work with Juicy J at Wyman studios, where the owner, Tip Wyman, became a mentor to him. Not long after Pigliapoco finished his studies, and still only 21, he signed a deal with BMG, and was further mentored by Venus Brown, a manager who worked with Black Eyed Peas. "I was signed on my ability to work Pro Tools, cut vocals, and bring in musicians and beatmakers, and provide almost like a full-factory music-making service. Until then all these things were separate, but in today's world it's important to be able to organise the writing and cutting and mixing of songs from start to finish."
This is, of course, exactly what Pigliapoco ended up doing with Chris Brown. There were a few more steps until he got that far, notably working with Cheryl Cole on her album A Million Lights (2012) and Fergie on her album Double Duchess (2017).