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Page 2: Inside Track: DaBaby 'Intro'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Kevin McCloskey By Paul Tingen
Published December 2019


McCloskey: "I couldn't change the beat too much, but did some parallel stuff on the kick and the snare. I had the UAD Sonnox Oxford Envolution Envelope Shaper going into the UAD Little Labs VOG on the kick, to make the kick heavier and punchier, yet not lose the original vibe, and I printed that as 'Kick 2'. The parallel snare chain consisted of the Waves Smack Attack into the UAD Maag EQ4, and I printed that back in as well. Depth and punch in programmed drums are always going to come from the transients, and it's really important to me that the kick and the snare stand out, so I can put the vocal inside of them. The Envolution is my favourite transient shaper, and I also did transient stuff with the Smack Attack. I used just the Air band on the Maag at 20k to brighten the snare. I did the latter also with the claps.

"Many of the drum tracks have the Waves OneKnob Filter. Normally I send the beat to its own auxiliary track if I was going to have a filter as an effect, but they asked for the drums and the sample to be filtered slightly differently, so I gave each track its own unique filter automation. The delay send on the 'Claps Duplicate' and '808 2' go to a quarter-note delay from the H-Delay, which was something that was already there. There's a break in the track around 1'32", just before the second verse. Jon wanted maximum impact at this point, and the easiest way of doing that is to have nothing happening just before it. To have nothing at all in that break didn't sound good either, so I automated the delay and the reverb, meaning that a little bit of signal remained there.

Kevin McCloskey made extensive use of Avid's Lo-fi plug-in to try to recreate the rough mix's gritty feel.Kevin McCloskey made extensive use of Avid's Lo-fi plug-in to try to recreate the rough mix's gritty feel."The two 808 tracks have the same plug-ins on the inserts: the FabFilter Pro‑Q3, Avid Lo-fi, Waves Smack Attack and the OneKnob. I brought the sample size down to 15 bits with the Lo-fi, and the distortion was at 0.6. I like to use the Lo-fi as a clipper, so you get a lot of gain out of it. With the Smack Attack, I usually turn the sensitivity all the way up, to 100 percent, and the attack was on 30 and I lengthened the duration to 29.3, just to have the 808 fill up a bit more space. They wanted the 808 to sound more forward, but it didn't have enough punch, so I tried to add that. The beat was made in FL Studio, which has a limiter on by default, and I was essentially trying to mimic that, which has a particular distortion. People get used to that sound, and even if you may think it sounds better a different way, if the client wants you to approximate that, you do."


The only conventionally musical element in the mix is the recreation of a vocal sample (see box). Originally just one stereo track, it is spread over two tracks in the mix, with the top one having six plug-ins on the inserts, plus sends to the Valhalla and Eventide reverb aux tracks. McCloskey, "The track below is the half-tempo version of the sample remake, used in the pre-hooks and outro. DJ Kid pitched it down, perhaps with the Gross Beat plug-in in FL Studio, but I don't know what he used. They liked the sound of that track, so I did not have to do much processing on it, other than some EQ with the FabFilter Pro‑Q3.

"I also have the Q3 on the main sample remake track. It's the only EQ I have, and I like using the Mid/Sides function on it. I'm boosting some low end, and there's a boost of 4dB at 5kHz, plus I'm rolling off some top end. I wanted the vocal sample remake to sound a bit more lo-fi, so I have the Lo-fi. After that there's the SoundToys Decapitator, filtering the highs and a little bit of the lows, and there's a little bit of Drive. The Style is on the T setting, with the Mix at 30-40 percent. I then added a bit of width with the Waves S1 Stereo Imager, and finally there's the Waves SSL E-Channel, boosting 4.5dB at 5kHz, so bringing out some presence just above where Jon's voice sits."


"The two red tracks are the main verse vocals. Vibe is very important for rappers, and they will fill in words to get the right feeling. This happens by punching in, and if the lines don't overlap, I may have them on the same track, but if they're overlapping sometimes and need to be processed separately, I'll have them on two tracks, like here with the A line and the B line. They both have the Avid EQ7 EQ, which was sent to me with the session, with a shelf at almost 6kHz. It enhanced it a bit, so I left it.

"The main processing happens on the 'Verse Bus', as well as on the 'Hook' and 'Libs' busses. Many of these plug-ins on these busses are there to try to eliminate the hotel room sound. You're also dealing with someone who has a voice with a lot of presence using a C800. It has great top end, but if someone already has a voice that easily cuts through the mix, you need to back some of that high end off. There was a lot of low end too, as they used the proximity effect. I had to first fix these problems before I could enhance the vocals.

Kevin McCloskey's extensive vocal processing chain included two separate de-esser plug-ins.Kevin McCloskey's extensive vocal processing chain included two separate de-esser plug-ins.Inside Track: DaBaby 'Intro'"Jon's main focus is that the vocals are in your face, and he does not make a lot of difference between the hooks and the verses. There may be small changes, with slightly more reverb in the hook, but for the most part they have the same processing. It's the same with the ad libs, though the one unusual thing is that he doesn't want them panned, which comes from him performing in small clubs, with crazily wired-up sound systems, so he got used to always having his voice in mono to avoid it dropping out in places.

"Typically, my processing on vocals here is EQ-compression, EQ-compression, EQ-compression and so on. When vocals are recorded well, I don't have to do that, but in this case, because of the hotel room sound, I had to do many corrections. Because speed was of the essence, I just added more plug-ins as I encountered issues — I did not have the time to go into settings of plug-ins already there. The plug-ins on the vocal busses, with a number of variations, start with the Waves DeEsser, and then the UAD SSL-E Channel strip, thinning things out, and the Waves CLA76 knocking off 3dB to flatten peaks, as they did not track with a compressor. I also use the Avid EQ7, and the Waves MV2 compressor, which acts more like an expander.

"There also is a Softube Weiss De-ess mastering de-esser, again in part to compensate for the C800. If you do too much de-essing with one de-esser it sounds like someone has a lisp, so I do little bits with several de-essers. The Weiss is a very transparent plug-in, which I interchange with the UAD Precision De-Esser, which has a similar vibe. I also used the Waves Renaissance DeEsser, and the Waves RVox, with a threshold set to -16.3, so it does a lot. The RVox is a slow-attack, fast-release type of compressor, and it basically puts the vocal in your face. The RDeEsser has a rounder sound, with a bit more colour.

"Some of the hook and ad libs audio tracks have the Antares Auto-Tune EFX, because Jon wanted a small amount of tuning to lock them in. It's on the default setting of 25 with Humanize at 100 percent, so it's not very noticeable. The main vocal don't have Auto-Tune. I often use the iZotope RX7 to get rid of background noise, but in this case I used the Waves NS1 noise suppression plug-in on the spoken word sections. Also, the 'J' on the 'Libs Bus' is the Waves JJP Vocals. I'm only using the Space setting, which is like a stereo slap delay, and I really like using that when I need a slightly different vibe.

"The JJP Vocals is also on the 'All Vox' bus, which starts with the Pro‑Q3, rolling of 12dB at 80Hz. The lead and hook vocals go to this bus, while the ad libs go straight to the Mix Bus. After the JJP the 'All Vox' bus has the Plugin Alliance Dangerous Music Bax EQ, for some sweetening EQ, with a 2dB boost at 130Hz, a 2.5dB boost at 5kHz, and cutting at 18kHz. Finally, I have the Lo-fi, reducing the sample rate to 15 bits, and with 0.1 distortion and 0.1 saturation, to get the vocals to sound a little more gritty. When the beat is distorted. The vocal would sound out of place if it sounded too clean."

Mix Bus

"I like to do subtle things on the mix bus. First in the insert chain is the Brainworx bx_digital V2, just dipping a little mud at 290Hz, and notching some of the peaks in the mid-range. In the side field I was cutting some issues in the upper mids. I really like the stereo width on the V2, so I used it. I'm also a big fan of the Brainworx bx_masterdesk, in particular the compressor. I set the input to 7.3dB, where it got the compressor going, and then cut the wetness down with the Comp Mix, and the Output Trim at -7.7dB. After that I had the Dangerous Bax EQ again, in M/S mode, and I cut the sides 1-2 dB. These mixes often were a bit mid and centre-heavy, because of the way I mixed the drums and the vocals, so I tried to balance that out.

The master bus signal chain involved a lot of Mid-Sides processing, as here with the Dangerous Bax EQ plug-in.The master bus signal chain involved a lot of Mid-Sides processing, as here with the Dangerous Bax EQ plug-in.

"Then there's the UAD SSL E-channel strip. I love this emulation, for example because it has the option of putting the transformer in line, using the Flip button. It just gives it some colour, which I needed here to mimic the FL Studio limiter sound. I also brought the volume down a bit. I typically mix at 0VU, so in the -18/20 RMS range. I'll limit with iZotope's Ozone when I send mixes off for approval, with the threshold at -9dB or so, because the artist and label want to hear it hot. But before I send it to mastering I'll take the threshold down to -1dB or thereabouts.

"There's another reason why I add limiting to my mixes before sending them out for approval. Many people don't grasp that there's a difference between mixing for mastering and mixing for approval. To get the type of punch that you hear in today's records, you have to over-exaggerate the punch before the limiter, because limiting will take some of the punch and depth out. To offset this, after getting the drums/808 or bass balanced, I introduce a limiter. I push the overall RMS to -8, pretty much as hot as I can get it before it breaks apart. I will then adjust the punch of the drums, to make sure that once the song is mastered and brought back up to that level, the punch will be as intended. If you listen to the mix before it goes to mastering, the mix will typically be very drum-forward, and perhaps too much for most clients. So I have to add limiting to mixes I send out for approval.

"Having said all that, the majority of people listen to the mixes you send them on headphones. Jon will even listen to my mixes on his phone speaker! From an engineering perspective you throw up your hands, and you think: 'But like that you won't be hearing that great thing I did in the side field. I just did some magic in there!' But in the end, it doesn't matter. Because once again, it's not about your professional pride, it's about being humble enough to understand that how another person wants to hear it is OK too."

Kevin 'Black Pearl' McCloskey

Inside Track: DaBaby 'Intro'. Interior view of Kevin McCloskey's Black Pearl studio.

Kevin McCloskey was born and raised in Charlotte, and learned drums and percussion before studying production and recording at North Carolina Central University. After a brief stint at Full Sail in Florida, he worked his way up from assistant to engineer at studios in North Carolina. Mentors who had a major impact on him include James Jacobs, who was an in-house engineer at Daddy's House in NYC, and Wade Starnes. For a while, McCloskey also worked as a beatmaker and producer, earning him the nickname Black Pearl, which is what he called his studio when he set it up three years ago.

"I was mixing from home, and wanted to get out of the house! It's a simple room, which I built myself, with wall-mounted JBL 4412a speakers, and modified Yamaha NS10s, which I got from James Jacobs. One of the issues you run into with NS10s is replacing speakers, which is very expensive, although the monitors were never expensive to begin with. So James and I had them replaced with different woofers with a slightly extended frequency range, and new tweeters, and a woodworking shop put new covers on them, to make them look a little more stylish. But it has the same crossover. I mixed Kirk on them, but I have since got myself Focal Shape Twins, which are wonderfully revealing. It's got a really good transient response for an active speaker, and I really like the depth and accuracy I get from them."

To be able to assess sub-bass, crucially important when working with hip-hop and trap, McCloskey relies on a QSC KW181 18-inch subwoofer, and, unusually, a T-Racks CS Metering plug-in. "I got used to RMS metering, and shoot for a specific range while I am mixing. I start my mixes with getting the drums and then the 808 and then the bass where I want them, after which I mix in the vocals, and once I have all that where I want it, I add the music. I judge the bass and drums mainly on the RMS meters, because it is the most objective. Of course I understand my room and speakers, but unless you have a million-dollar setup, you can never be 100-percent sure that you're hearing the low end accurately.

"I went through a stage when I thought that I needed to have the right gear to be competitive. So I got all sorts of outboard compressor and preamps and so on. I had an Avalon 737 mic pre and the [Empirical Labs] Distressor, which I really like, but when I bought the Distressor plug-in, and did a shootout, I could not hear the difference, and I sold my hardware version. I now have the BAE 1073 MPF mic pre, which I prefer over the Avalon. The latter has a great classic sound, but it's too creamy for me. I also have the Shadow Hills Mono Gama, an API 500-6B lunchbox, and a Tube-Tech CL-1B [compressor]. My mic is a Neumann U87. I use my studio mainly for mixing, but I also have a vocal booth in case someone wants to recut some vocals and needs an industry-quality vocal chain.

"There's a slot in the middle of my desk that is built for an Avid C24, but I don't believe in spending tons of money on a controller, so I dropped a touchscreen in there, and a contractor built me a frame to hold the screen. I also have the PreSonus Central Station, which is easy for talkback and monitor switching. For my I/O I have a UAD Apollo rackmount and that goes into a Dangerous D-Box+, which I really like, and from there into some sort of bus compressor, like an API 2500 or an SSL-type compressor. I might also run the signal through a preamp before bringing it back into the box.

"Any time I use outboard gear, I mix into it. I set up a bus compressor that I like, and then leave it like it is, because the big issue you always run into is recall. I'm always asked for changes, and if I had to recall any outboard, it'd take forever to do. Given the amount of recalls that I'm asked to do on most of the records that I work on, and how small they often are, being in the box is the only way. So I've recently invested in tons of cool plug-ins, by the likes of FabFilter, UAD, Waves and Valhalla."

Make It Sound How It Was (When It Wasn't)

The single music track in the mix session for 'Intro' was also the one that posed the most problems, stemming originally from a legal issue. "I always want the track-outs of the beat," explains Kevin McCloskey, "because producers often mix their beats to sound good on their own, without vocals mixed in. At the same time they can be very attached to the way their beat sounds. However, in the case of 'Intro' I initially just got the two-track of the beat, and did a mix with that. It was approved, but then they came back with the message that they couldn't clear the sample, and it had to be redone. I have a buddy in Florida from my time at Full Sail, Jonathan Weaver, who is a great singer. I sent the sample to him, and he came back to me 30 minutes later with his recreation of the four-part harmony stack, and had nailed it. It was so close that the label did not believe it wasn't the sample, and I had to show them the tracks in my sessions to convince them.

"The track's producer, DJ Kid, tried to simply drop the remake of the vocal sample into his beat session, because Jon really liked the way that the two-track sounded, but it wasn't working. The producer must have changed some settings, or something like that. So I was in the end given the track-outs of the beat, and dropped the sample remake in. I did all my stuff to try to blow it out of the water, and they were like: 'Yes, it sounds great, but we want the beat to sound the same, and now it sounds different. The kick is too clean, and everything is working too well together. Please take it back to how it sounded.' When you are used to some dirt in the two-track, and it's taken away, a lot of other things sound different. So I had to dial things back. A lot of this feedback came from Jon, by the way, who has complete creative control. He's a very smart person, very articulate, and knows what he wants. And he makes good decisions: he has a number-one album!"