The minimal arrangement of Ellie Goulding's unlikely New Year number one was underpinned by a rather less minimal mix...
As the old decade gave way to the 2020s, Ellie Goulding topped the UK singles chart with her version of 'River', a Joni Mitchell song which first appeared on Mitchell's Blue album in 1971. A piano-and-vocal cover of an old album track about a relationship split does not sound like a red-hot commercial proposition, so the number one position came as a surprise to almost everyone involved.
"Last October we were asked by Ellie's management to record an exclusive song for Amazon, a Joni Mitchell cover," recalls the song's co-producer Joe Kearns. "It was chosen by Ellie, because she's a huge Joni Mitchell fan. She asked Max [Cooke] and myself to produce it, and Jason [Elliott] came in to record and mix it. We were in the middle of working on her forthcoming album, and the song was to be just a one-off, nothing to do with the album. After it was released mid-November, we did not think much more about it."
"When it started catching on, early December," continues Cooke, "our reaction was, 'Huh, that's a bit surprising!' A couple of weeks before Christmas it went to number eight, and we were like, 'Great!' thinking that this would be it. Then we got a text from Ellie saying it looked to be going to number one!"
The number one position of 'River' was remarkable for another reason as well: the song was only released on Amazon and YouTube, and was not available on other streaming websites. Amazon promoted the song heavily on their Christmas playlists, and it was given an edge over the endless Christmas re-releases by the fact that the UK chart weightings favour releases less than three years old. Promotion and opportunity aren't everything, however, and Amazon's efforts would have fallen on deaf ears if the company did not also have a high-quality product to promote.
Cooke, Kearns and Elliott are regular collaborators with Goulding, and were therefore well placed to record, mix and produce a simple piano-vocal song quickly and effectively. All four share a close connection with Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in London. Kearns worked at the studio for eight years, and met Goulding there. Now an independent producer and songwriter, Kearns' credits include Florence + the Machine, Little Mix and Kasabian. Elliott started work at British Grove 10 years ago, and continues to be a staff engineer. Cooke is a producer, songwriter and musical director, who played in Goulding's band for four years. All three have spent much of the last few years working on Goulding's fourth studio album, to be released early in 2020.
Work on 'River' took place over a few days in October, starting with the recording of Goulding's vocals at Angelic Studios in Banbury near Oxford, followed by a day of recording the piano and shooting the song's Behind The Scenes video at British Grove, where Elliott also started the mix, which he completed on the 10th at The Gallery, a project studio in West London run by Kearns and he.
Elliott: "I think British Grove is Ellie's studio of choice, but for several reasons we went to Angelic Studios for a few days to finalise her new album. We were booked to record 'River' at British Grove immediately afterwards. However, Ellie felt comfortable at Angelic, and suggested doing her vocals right there and then, the night before going to British Grove. So Joe asked me to set up the recording chain, which consisted of a Neumann U87, a Neve 1084 mic pre, and an LA2A compressor, going into the line input of his Apollo Twin interface. Joe and I normally like to use a Schoeps VSR5 or a Maselec MMA-4 mic pre — both are really transparent — and a Tube-Tech CL-1B for compression, but we used what was there in the studio."
Cooke: "I had played and recorded a demo piano part using the Alicia's Keys sample pack for Native Instruments' Kontakt. This was done to a click, at Snap Studios in North London, where I share a production room with one of the guys from Years & Years. There had been some discussion about doing something more experimental, but the song really didn't need it. Ellie can sing and the song is so pure and right, it felt like a natural decision to stay faithful to the original."
Kearns: "Ellie sang to Max's guide piano part. We didn't do many vocal takes. She's an extremely professional singer when she gets into the booth, and we normally cut a lead vocal in five or six takes. Sometimes in pop music there's an emphasis on recording each phrase separately, or even single words by themselves, but with Ellie delivering such high-quality performances we don't need to work like that. When we are recording, as much as my role is to guide her through the performance, I find just letting her sing and be the artist that she naturally is gets the best results. The less over-analysis and pressure that is put on her, the better the final vocal is."
Cooke agrees: "From the times I've been in a studio setting with Ellie, it's all about the mood and environment. Choose the right place and have the right people in the room, and she delivers."
Jason Elliott: "I've always been searching for something that would give the vocals a lovely presence and airy lift but that would not be harsh, and I was never quite happy with the ways I was achieving that. Then I tried the Gem Dopamine, and it was a revelation.
That same evening of October 8th, still at Angelic Studios, Kearns and Elliott comped and edited the vocal. "I record almost every vocal the same," explains Kearns, "whether it is going to have a lot of processing later or not. I use a very simple signal chain, with plenty of headroom and the compressor only tickling a little bit on a low ratio. It gives an organic and natural sound, that would not be considered a modern pop vocal sound. I achieve a pop vocal with post-processing. For example, we normally use both Antares Auto-Tune and Melodyne. In this case we only used Melodyne, just a little bit, to sweeten a few notes. If you use it sparingly, you can get a very natural sound.
"This song, and the way we approached it, was very simple. Sometimes that is the skill. You can easily ruin something by doing way too much. I said to Jason that he needed to make the song and particularly the vocals feel like a hug. It had to have that Christmas feeling, where you feel warm inside when a song comes on. From a technical sense that is about it not being super-bright, and having those low mids. It's the sort of classic sound that you would not get from a dance record."
Elliott: "Joe and I have our rigs set up really similar, so we can swap material easily between us. Joe had comped the vocal, and I then did some clip gaining of breaths and a few words, just to start to get a volume ride going, and a Melodyne pass on a few small things that I thought needed touching up. We tried Auto-Tune, but we immediately switched it off, because we wanted something very natural-sounding, and with the vocal so exposed, it was immediately obvious that it was not right for the track. Ellie hardly needs any tuning anyway, because she's such a good singer. When we do a full pop track with loads of vocal tracks, I'll manually go through the tuning and timing, and I'll leave the lead vocals aside, and use Syncro Arts ReVoice Pro on the vocal stacks to get that extra five percent and make sure they're really tight."
With the vocal comped, and some minimal tuning and EQ added, the company travelled to London the next day, and set up at British Grove Studios. Kearns: "We did a couple of safety piano takes before the film people came in, and then Max did some more when they were there. Max played to a click and to Ellie's vocal comp we had done the night before. I think Jason put out four pairs of microphones, and we comped the final piano part from maybe three or four takes. We kept it simple, and tried not to overthink too much. I like to keep my focus on the big picture: if you have a good room and a good player, you are going to get a good piano sound. With this song in particular I was mostly focused on making sure that Ellie's voice was inviting to listen to."
Elliott agrees that four pairs of microphones on a grand piano is a little over the top. He explains his approach, which is illustrated with a recall photo. "I always take recall photos, because maybe in a few years you think 'That sound was great, what did I do?' These photos aren't exact because I took them after the film crew left, and they had moved the Beyerdynamic M88 hypercardoid mics a little away from the hammers. I had two of them placed in an X-Y pattern very close to the hammers to get a poppier, more transient sound. In the past I used two Schoeps MK4 pencil mics for this purpose, and I loved the articulation this gave me, but I kept finding that they picked up too much noise, like pedal and fingernail noise, and that noise of the felts as they pass between the strings. A composer friend of mine calls it 'cat sneezes'. One day I tried out the dynamic M88 mics, and they gave the articulation and all the front end of the playing, and got rid of all those problems. That was a revelation to me!
"A bit further away from the strings is a spaced pair of Neumann M49s, taking a broader image but still fairly close, and I think these were the mics that I favoured most. A little bit further back is a pair of Neumann TLM170 mics, and even further a pair of Royer 122V mics, which basically act like room mics. I would not normally have used four pairs of mics, but because I knew the song would be just piano and vocal, meaning that the piano would be fully exposed, I wanted to have options.
"You can't really go wrong with just a pair of Neumann M49s, especially on the Bösendorfer at British Grove, which is quite dark and lush, but I did end up using all eight piano tracks. Oh, the AKG 414 that you see in the pic was just for talkback. The mic pres I used were the Schoeps VSR5 on the 88s and 49s, and the Neve 88R desk on the 170s and 122s. The Neve desk is brilliant, very warm and open-sounding. I also did some minimal EQ on the console, which I printed."
Elliott started mixing 'River' that same evening, still at British Grove, and continued the next day at The Gallery. Both studios have ATC SCM25A monitors, making it easier to cross-reference. "We only talked a little bit about the concept and direction," remarks Elliott. "We all knew that with the song being just piano and a vocal, it had to sound natural and dynamic. There was no need to overcomplicate things. It did not need to have any bells and whistles, it just needed to sound like Ellie in a room with a piano. We also did not need the super-bright vocals that are common in pop today, though we did actually boost quite a bit of top end, but more airy top, and not the 4-8 kHz region, which is where you get that presence that you need in a pop song."
Predictably, the Pro Tools mix session for 'River' is very simple — though, at 28 tracks, still larger than one might expect. The reason for this is that Elliott applied a large number of subtle treatments: the vocal in particular is supported by nine aux tracks, with a total of 35 plug-ins affecting just the vocal. For a detailed larger view, download the ZIP file of the Pro Tools session screenshot: ellie-goulding-river-protools-screenshot.jpg.zip
The session has two mix print tracks at the top, followed by three mix aux tracks. Then there's a piano VCA fader, for volume automation, four stereo audio piano tracks, a stereo print track of a TC6000 reverb for the piano, and four piano aux tracks. Below this is a VCA for the vocal, the single vocal comp audio track, and the aforementioned nine aux tracks.
Of the nine aux tracks, one is a parallel compression track, and another a vocal bus with sends to the seven aux affects tracks. The first four of these have, respectively, the Eventide SP2016 (room), UAD EMT140 (plate), TC Electronics VSS3 (hall) and FabFilter Pro‑R ('dark yet light space') reverbs. Another has SoundToys' Primal Tap, while the last two each have Waves' Doubler. All reverb auxes and the delay aux have a FabFilter Pro‑Q3 equaliser before and after the effect plug-in, and the PrimalTap delay aux also has sends back into the plate and hall aux tracks.
"Yes, I am very plug-in-heavy!" admits Elliott. "It did not appear like the track called for tons of plug-ins on the vocal, so I was surprised that I used so many. A lot of the plug-ins and aux tracks are from the vocal template that I tend to use for bigger pop tracks, but I could not use all because some did not work in 192kHz. Amazon wanted us to turn the project in at that resolution, because they also sell an HD version. I love the quest for fidelity, but there comes a point where the computers are running badly, and that hinders creativity. As I started loading my track presets, which have many plug-ins, the CPU started to spike, the session got sluggish, and some plug-ins didn't work at all in 192, in which case I had to use other ones."
Jason Elliott: "I am trying to make sure that the vocal is in the middle, and the piano sort of hugs around it."
"On the inserts of the vocal comp track there are Melodyne, the FabFilter Pro‑DS de-esser and Pro‑Q3, the Waves RVox and C4 multiband compressor, and the Overloud Gem Dopamine. The Melodyne plug-in is greyed out because we do a Melodyne pass, commit that onto a new track, go up a Playlist, and then drop the consolidated Melodyne back on the vocal track, delete the new track that was created, and make Melodyne inactive. We render Melodyne, and turn it off, but if we ever want to go back, we can reactivate it, do a tweak, and do the same process again. The Q3 takes out low end and some notches. One of several great things about that plug-in is that you can set your EQ shape, and then grab all the points and move them up and down as required. I also love the dynamic EQ side of it.
"The RVox is the main compressor on the vocal. I always feel like I'm cheating a bit with that plug-in, because it's one of those set and go ones; all you have to do is pull the threshold down. But I like the sound of it, and what works, works. The C4 does some lift at the top and makes sure the upper mids don't get out of hand. The Gem Dopamine is a little bit of a secret weapon for me with vocals. I think I found it on Instagram — I follow tons of engineers and plug-in manufacturers — and it does a kind of Dolby A trick. Dolby A was used to reduce tape hiss, by boosting the high end while recording and then doing the opposite during playback, and the hack was not to use the decode part for playback. I've always been searching for something that would give the vocals a lovely presence and airy lift but that would not be harsh, and I was never quite happy with the ways I was achieving that. Then I tried the Gem Dopamine, and it was a revelation. I've used it on lead vocals ever since the day I bought it.
"There's a send on the vocal comp track to a parallel compression track, with again the Pro‑Q3 and the Pro‑DS and then the Waves PuigChild 670, which does more heavy-handed compression than the Rvox. I then blend that in with the vocal comp track to give the vocals more thickness. The vocal comp track and the parallel both are summed to the main vocal bus, on which I have the Pro‑Q3, C4, Tube-Tec CL‑1B and SPL Vitalizer, and the sends to all the aux effect tracks. The Vitalizer is part of my standard pop vocal template. I'd be lying if I said I understood the exact magic of this plug-in. I saw DJ Swivel use it in a tutorial on his work with the Chainsmokers, and I tried it once, and felt that it gave me an extra 10 percent, and I have used it ever since. It's great to be able to watch tutorials online, I also watch those by Mix With The Masters, because you can get stuck in a rut when you always go for your go-to approaches. It's important to keep trying new things."
"I have four reverb aux tracks, because I really like blending reverbs for every track that I do, and create the perfect sound for each singer. Creating those blends is almost like sound design. The Eventide SP2016 was a new purchase, so I was trying that out — normally I use the Valhalla Room for my room reverb. I tend to lean most heavily on the plate reverb, here from the EMT140, and blend in a little bit of room, in this case from the 2016, and then have a hall for some lingering lushness, which I got here from the VSS3. It's the plug-in version of the TC Electronic 6000. I also love the 'dark yet light space' preset from the Pro‑R. For big pop tracks I use it a lot, to add dimension and depth, but in this track it was used very sparingly.
"I have EQs before and after the reverb plug-ins, because I like to shape the reverbs. The Q3 before the reverb plug-in usually is there to get rid of some of the pokey mid-range that tends to excite reverbs too much. I really want the reverbs to be transparent, and when the mids are hitting them too hard, it makes the reverb too obvious. On the way out of the room and hall plug-ins I do Mid-Sides EQ. I take out a little bit of the top end of the middle of the stereo image, and lift the top on the sides of the stereo image, while I make the plate reverb a little darker and thicker. This means that the main vocal reverb sits in the middle and is really dark, warm and lush, and is complemented by this roomy airiness on the outside. It's subtle, but it sits better with the vocal.
"The delays and doublers are part of my template. I'm hitting these so lightly, it's almost not worth talking about. The PS22 spreads out the PrimalTap delay, and the sends to the plate and hall aux tracks are there because I always feel that delays need a bit of reverb added to them, so they are in the same space as everything else. In pop stuff I use the SoundToys EchoBoy with quarter- and eighth-note delays, but this not did need that. The 'breathywide' aux at the end is a Doubler with the BF76 [compressor], and an effect that I got from Tony Maserati, from one of his Mix With The Masters videos. I tried it, and it sounded great, and I made a preset out of it. I roll off all the low end and some of the mids, and then double the signal and compress it, and it adds a tiny bit of wide sparkle."
Elliott recorded the four microphone pairs on four stereo audio tracks, and together with the print track from a TC6000 outboard reverb, they go to the 'Piano' aux track. This has four insert plug-ins and three sends, one to a parallel compression aux with the UAD Fairchild 670, and two to reverb aux tracks, with the Eventide SP2016 and the TC Electronics VSS3 — these piano reverbs do not have EQs before or after. However, just like with the vocals, there's also a VCA track to automate the volume.
"The Q3 on the inserts is just a roll off at 20Hz. That probably was a preset that I pulled onto those channels, just to make sure that there's nothing crazy going on in the low end. I recorded the output of a TC6000 outboard reverb that I was using at British Grove on the day we were there, and I used a little bit of the Imager on that to spread the reverb a little bit. I am trying to make sure that the vocal is in the middle, and the piano sort of hugs around it. I also have the Kush Clariphonic on the piano bus, in Mid-Sides mode, and again, to push the clarity up a bit on the sides so the piano space sits on either side of the vocal. I love the 'Silk' setting. There's also a Plug-in Alliance Black Box Analogue Design on the piano bus, adding some valve quality. It is one of those things where very little goes a long way. I turned the Pentode knob up by two percent and the Triode by three percent.
"By the way, there's a 'sync mix' track above the piano VCA, which is part of my template. The film world has realised that British Grove is ideal for working to picture, so we get a lot of 5.1 film and also TV work. We are also equipped for 7.1. By osmosis I have picked up that kind of engineering and I now do a lot of surround mixing. The audio-visual people always need tons of individual stems to be able to rebalance things at the dub, depending on dialogue and Foley and sound effects and so on. The sync track contains three clicks and a 1kHz bleep to make sure all the stems remain phase coherent. Sometimes delay compensation can be a bit funny, so it is a nice security check when printing stems and using delay compensation."
"Everything is sent to the mix bus track. It first hits the Massenburg DesignWorks EQ, which is one of these EQs which I first learned about when Ellie was collaborating with Andrea Bocelli, and Bob Ezrin and I were sending mixes back and forth, and he was using many plug-ins that I didn't have. So I tried them, and this EQ blew me away! It is very effective and just so transparent. I am only pulling out a tiny bit of 2.3kHz, which I imagine was to tame some of the harshness on the piano.
"The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor comes next. It is always on my mix bus. It does something that I have not been able to get from any other mix bus compressor. It has a preset I really like, 'Bus Dual Mono', so I set it to that, and then switch it to stereo, and tweak the thresholds, so the Optical and Discrete circuits are hitting maybe 1-2 dB of compression. Then there is the UAD Ampex ATR-102 tape simulation plug-in, to give it that tape feel. It is one of those tracks that suit that vibe. Then it hits the Sonnox Inflator for a little bit of loudness: 22 on the Curve setting appears to be the magic number for me.
"After that I usually have the iZotope Ozone on my mix bus, for a little bit of exciting and imaging. I tend to use it to widen the top and the low mids, to make it more enveloping. It is like that hug that Joe was talking about. I am very careful with the 2-8 kHz region, because as soon as you start imaging that, I find the vocal starts to sound a bit weird. I tried the Ozone on this song, but I turned it off, because it was too artificial. Again, it needed to be really natural-sounding. Then there's the FabFilter Pro‑MB, which is taming a little bit of the low mids around 300Hz, because that Bösendorfer is so dark and thick, it can poke out a little bit. I also took the 7kHz region down a bit to make sure there is no sibilance or high-mid harshness.
"Next in the chain is the Chandler Curve Bender, which is lifting a bit at 20k and a tiny it of 8k, both on left and right. After that I do some Mid/Sides trickery on the Brainworx bx_digital V3 EQ, adding 3.5dB at 26kHz on the sides; you get some more air from the way the curve falls off in the high end. With just piano and vocal there is not a lot up there, so I'm trying to make the track more dimensional. I also do a tiny bit of stereo widening on everything. It is set to 102 percent. The mix bus is sent to a mix limiter track and a mix out track, so I can print two versions of the mix at the same time, one with limiter, for reference, and one without limiter, for the mastering engineer, who in this case was Matt Colton at Metropolis Studios."
Making the complex look, or sound, easy is the hallmark of everyone who has mastered their craft or art, and the success of 'River' demonstrates this point. Joe Kearns sums it up very aptly: "Jason did use a few modern tricks in the mix! He does crazy stuff with multiband and reverb and so on. But even though he used many plug-ins, he made it sound as if he didn't. Again, it's a simple recording, and we all agreed that we needed it to sound natural. If we had overdone it, it would have sounded weird."