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.
"When we do acoustic instrument sessions, like strings for example, we usually go to RAK Studios. I used to work at RAK, and Studio 1 is one of my favourite studios for strings recording. But this time, because of time pressure, I stayed at My Audiotonic Productions to mix, while Fraser went over to AIR Edel in Baker Street in central London where the house engineer, Nick Taylor, recorded the session. I know the setup that he uses and it always sounds great, so when I get the session I just add a bit of EQ and effects on the separate channels and bounce them down to stereo to reduce the number of tracks I have in my mix session."
As is the case for most engineers working predominantly in the box, Grandjean is continuously busy doing rough mixes, which she calls production mixes, during the writing and recording process. It turns out that she has taken this approach to the point where the final mixdowns are little more than a formality. "I mix as I go. I do a lot of work after the sessions all the time to improve the production mixes, so that by the end of the process, all that's left is to do some automation and some tweaks here and there. On the production side, Fraser always makes sure that each part is sounding good and everything is fitting well together, which makes my job a lot easier.
"The other thing is that because everyone is so used to hearing the production mixes — it's what they listen to for a period of time and love, most of the time — I cannot stray too far from them in a final mix. Once I did a full analogue mix, spreading things out on the desk, patching compressors, and so on and it sounded fairly different from the prod mix, and everyone preferred the production mix in the end! Since then I'm very careful not do to go too far at the mix stage. The final mixing process is about minor changes, to bring everything together, rather than go in a different direction.
"So once the recordings are finished, I have a look at what's needed to get a song over the line. I mainly look at the vocals, and may add more automation, riding the vocals, making sure every word can be heard properly, which is especially important in rap. On the record as a whole, Dave wanted the bass to be more subby, so I worked on that, adding some sub on all the tracks. All this involved little touches here and there.
"Everything obviously goes through quite a lot of analogue gear during recording, and after that I'm all in the box. However, during the later stages of the production process, when I have some time, often after the session, I work on the sonics and the balance, and often run things out through hardware and print it back in again, just to add colour and that sonic stamp. On the Dave album, I ran the piano and the strings through an old Sony TCD5 Pro 2 cassette recorder that Fraser got on eBay, then transferred that back into the session, again for colour. I fed things into the Sony via its XLR mic inputs, which meant that I needed to take down the level coming from Pro Tools into these inputs, and then I played with the limiter and the gain on the cassette recorder. These days I also use the Sony with the SM57 on the piano when we record.
"Another favourite thing we do is a Michael Brauer mixing tip. When the bass sits in a very low frequency range, we run it through the mic input of an Akai S612 sampler to get crunchier, distorted, mid-range bass, which I'll print back into Pro Tools on a separate track, and then add to the sub bass, as a parallel, at -25dB. It's fun to do things like this, just like with the Sony. However, I didn't do this on 'Black' because it wasn't the right track for that. If I want a more aggressive sound on the bass, another option is to send the sound through an outboard Distressor, and then through the UTA EQ on the desk, before bringing it back into Pro Tools.
"During the mix I also sent Dave's vocal out through the desk for some EQ, and through the Unfairchild compressor to give it that final polished sound. I'll reprint the audio as the main vocal track in Pro Tools, so not as a parallel. While writing with other producers, Dave had recorded vocals on a few of the tracks in different studios, and he really liked some of them, so wanted to keep them. Sending the vocals out through analogue gear was a good way of keeping the sound of all the vocals similar over the record."
Manon Grandjean grew up in France, in a small city near Marseille. Since moving to the UK she's become one of London's top engineers and mixers, with credits like London Grammar, Kano, Anne-Marie, Craig David, Stormzy and Dave, plus two MPG awards under her belt.
"My parents were really into music, and I played a bit of piano when I was young, as well as some harp, and I then studied classical guitar for seven or eight years. I had no idea what a recording engineer was, but I really liked science as a teenager, and studied physics at Marseille University for two years. I also spent a summer as an intern/runner at a studio in Marseille called Studio des Sirènes, and the owner was very happy to show me how things were done. I thought that was amazing, and that's how I ended up doing the Image & Son course at Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest. Afterwards, I had to do six months of internships, so I did two months at a studio in Paris, one month of live sound, and three months at Livingston Studios in London.
"I was planning to go back to France again after Livingston, but had such a great time that I decided to stay a bit longer. Livingston gave me some freelance work after I finished my internship there, and I looked around for another studio that needed runners or assistants, and found State Of The Ark. My trial session there as a runner was with Noel Gallagher! The trial went really well, and I quickly went into assisting and then engineering. I worked at State Of The Ark for five years, and for two or three years parallel to that also worked at RAK Studios. I met Fraser at RAK during a session four years ago. His engineer at the time, Beatriz Artola, moved to New York a few months afterwards, and Fraser asked me if I would work full-time for him."
Women have long been under-represented in the world of production, so it was heartening to see Manon win Recording Engineer Of The Year at the same 2018 MPG Awards where Catherine Marks was crowned UK Producer Of The Year and Marta Salogni Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year. "The award ceremony was really nice," comments Grandjean, "especially because Stormzy came out to give me the award. You work really hard without thinking of an award, but it is nice when you work gets recognised. I have to say that I have been really lucky, because all the people I have met in studios have always been really great towards me. I've heard the stories of some other women, but I have never experienced being a woman as a disadvantage. When I studied in Brest there were only three girls out of a class of 24, so this kind of job was not attracting a lot of women. I'm glad to see that this now is changing."
Fraser T Smith is at pains to make clear that he hired Manon Grandjean because she was the best person for the job. "I chose to work with Manon because she's brilliant at what she does. Both Beatriz and Manon happened to be the best engineers for me at the time. I've been fortunate to have worked with them, and some of my greatest moments have been seeing Beatriz win two Grammys and Manon winning her two MPG Awards! I love the balance of energy that a female engineer brings to the studio. We're creating art, so it's strange to me that in some circumstances the industry can be male-dominated. So, yes, I'm very supportive of the rise of females across the industry."