Manon Grandjean not only recorded and mixed the chart-topping debut by UK rapper Dave — she also mastered it!
When 'Funky Friday' topped the UK singles charts late in 2018, it was hailed as a turning point for UK rap culture. Self-released and promoted mainly on social media, the track is entirely rapped through, without any singing or a discernible hook. It's the first track without a singable chorus to reach number one in the UK since Martin Garrix's 'Animals' in 2013, and that was an instrumental with a very hummable tune.
The ground-breaking success of 'Funky Friday' didn't come completely out of nowhere. David Orobosa Omoregie, better known as Santan Dave or simply Dave, had already enjoyed some hits since 2016, with 'No Words' going platinum, despite only reaching number 17. He was also working with one of the UK's most successful songwriters and producers, Fraser T Smith, who was featured in SOS's Inside Track series in November 2009. Smith's impressive track record since then has grown to eight number one UK singles, two number one US singles, and involvement in 17 number one albums. In 2012 he also won a Grammy Award for his work on Adele's 21.
Smith worked with Dave on 'Funky Friday', and during the autumn and winter of 2018-9 the two regularly convened at Smith's My Audiotonic Productions studio in London for the creation of Dave's debut album, Psychodrama. Released in March, the album also went to number one in the UK, with not a negative review in sight, resulting in an astonishing 94 out of 100 score on Metacritic.com.
Behind the controls during the making of the above-mentioned releases was Smith's regular engineer and mixer Manon Grandjean, herself no stranger to awards. In 2017, she received the MPG Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year Award, for her work with Kano and Gavin James, and last year was Recording Engineer Of The Year for her work on London Grammar's Truth Is A Beautiful Thing and Stormzy's Gang Signs & Prayer. While Grandjean and Smith mixed Gang Signs & Prayer together, Grandjean is credited as the sole mixer for Psychodrama.
Work on Psychodrama began in the autumn of 2018. "Working with Dave has always been about jamming when we're writing," says Smith. "We push each other. We got into jazz and chromatic scales quite heavily on this record. It's amazing to see his development from a 17-year-old with raw talent into this number one selling artist. He draws from so many different influences, as I do, so we really connect musically."
Grandjean recalls: "The sessions took place at Fraser's studio in London. I was engineering, making sure I captured everything Dave and Fraser were doing. Dave would play piano and keys, and Fraser guitar and keys, so there were live instruments to record, and vocals and beats. We have many keyboards in the control room, a Mellotron, a Prophet, a Prologue, a Moog and more, which Dave really likes to play when he wants something other than a real piano. Fraser uses Ableton Live when writing and programming, which Dave would also jump on to record a piano/keys idea. With all the different rigs and keyboards in the room and instruments in the live room, I need to make sure that everything is patched and ready to go, and I record everything in Pro Tools.
"We have a few different ways of communicating between Fraser's Ableton rig and my Pro Tools setup. When he is writing, he uses a UAD Apollo 8 interface, and I just record the stereo output from that during the session. It is a great way to record everything easily, so if they want to go back to an idea they played 45 mins ago I can easily find it, and if required loop it so they can jam on top of that. When Fraser is happy with the track in Ableton, I bounce parts out internally in Ableton and transfer them to Pro Tools. We also sometimes route the eight outputs of the Apollo into the desk to use its EQ and patch in outboard when needed. We then record that all back into Pro Tools separately."
An unusual aspect of Psychodrama is the wealth of acoustic instruments on several of the tracks, including trombone, cello, viola, violin, French horn, flute, harp and double bass. Stormzy's Gang Signs & Prayer features similarly eclectic instrumentation, which is clearly part of Smith's sound. Grandjean's experience in recording acoustic instruments was obviously vital.
"Over the three to four years Fraser and I have worked together, we have developed recording chains that we both like, but nothing is set in stone. We always adapt it to the song or genre of music we are working on. We have a Kawai upright piano in the studio, and the main microphones on that are two Neumann KM84s, going through the UTA MPDI mic pres, through the desk to use some EQ, then to a Smart Research C2 compressor (which has a nice crush function that we use on piano sometimes to bring out harmonics), and then into Pro Tools HDX. Sometimes I will put Shure SM57 mics underneath the piano, to get the sound of the strings and other slightly more unusual sounds that I can then compress and distort.
"Fraser plays acoustic guitar quite often on records, and I usually take a DI signal and a mic, the Soundelux 251, going through an API 512 preamp and a UTA EQ through the desk, and then the Summit TLA 100. The DI goes through the same units, but a UREI 1176 instead of the Summit. Fraser also plays electric guitar, and we normally use the Kemper in the control room if he is writing, and an amp in the live room if we are recording. The Kemper has a great selection of modelled amps, and we also profiled the amps that we have in the studio in it so we can use those as presets as well. The amps Fraser uses in the studio are a Roland Jazz Chorus 50, and a Mesa Rectifier for crunchy guitars. I have a Sennheiser 421 and a Shure SM57 on the Mesa or a Neumann U47 FET for a cleaner sound on the Roland, and they go to either an API or a UTA pre, and then through the desk. The compressors I use on the electric guitars vary, but usually are [Empirical Labs] Distressors.
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