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Inside Track: Encanto ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’

Secrets Of The Mix Engineer: David Boucher By Paul Tingen
Published April 2022

Lockdown recording is a lonely business! David Boucher at Sunset Sound Studio 2 in Los Angeles.Lockdown recording is a lonely business! David Boucher at Sunset Sound Studio 2 in Los Angeles.Photo: Jake Dahm

With six lead singers, an orchestra and more, ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ from Disney's Encanto was always going to be an epic production challenge — and then lockdown happened.

“Lin‑Manuel Miranda’s Logic demos were always great road maps,” recalls engineer and mixer David Boucher, “but his demo for ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ was insane! How he created the feel of all the characters, with them stepping on each other’s lines and interacting with each other, was incredible!”

‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’‑ Written by Lin‑Manuel Miranda. Produced by Lin‑Manuel Miranda and Mike Elizondo.‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’‑ Written by Lin‑Manuel Miranda. Produced by Lin‑Manuel Miranda and Mike Elizondo.Also incredible is the enormous success of ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’, and the soundtrack for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto movie from which it is culled. At the time of writing, the song was at its third week at number one in the Billboard charts and its second week at the top of the Billboard Global 200 chart, with the album enjoying a fifth week at number one in the US. The single and album also held number‑one positions in the UK, while other songs from the musical, like ‘Surface Pressure’ and ‘The Family Madrigal’ were in the singles top 10 in both countries.

The soundtrack blends Latin music styles, particularly from Colombia, like vallenato, cumbia and bambuco, with hip‑hop, pop, rock and Broadway influences. Unusually for a featured Disney song, and in fact any hit song, ‘Bruno’ features six main lead singers, aided by the movie’s entire cast.

Growing Pains

David Boucher was at the heart of the process of developing Miranda’s demos for the Encanto soundtrack, working closely with soundtrack music producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent, Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, Muse, Ed Sheeran, Rag‘n’Bone Man), as well as movie directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard. Boucher’s work on the soundtrack began as far back as May 2019, and once 2020 hit, the project was greatly affected by the pandemic.

“Lin would send his demos to the directors,” explains Boucher, “and if they liked the song, they would send it to Mike. He’d work on the demos at his studio in Nashville, adding bass and further developing the arrangements, and then Mike and I would discuss who would play on the songs. We started with recording some accordion and percussion for the opening track, ‘The Family Madrigal’, in the basement at Disney, fleshing out the arrangement to see if it worked. The demos were then given to [original score composer] Germaine Franco, and she would arrange the orchestral elements for a proper orchestra.

“We recorded more bits and pieces during the rest of 2019, and when the pandemic hit, it was a big deal. Everyone switched to working remotely and using Zoom and Audiomovers. I was often the only one in the control room, and it was really lonely! During the pandemic I only did the sessions in Los Angeles, at EastWest Studios, United Studios, and the Fox sound stage. The rest of the sessions took place in New York, Colombia, Atlanta and tons of other places. The number of studios we ended up using was shocking!

“Initially I was set to record the score as well, but we ran out of time, and I brought in Greg Hayes to record at the Fox Newman Recording Stage, while Alvin Wee continued recording at the Village, and he then mixed the score. Because of Covid restrictions, we could not have the entire orchestra in one room, so we had separate recording sessions for strings, woodwinds, brass and orchestral percussion. This meant that some Pro Tools sessions grew to 600‑700 tracks. Throughout the whole process I kept an overview of what we had. Everything was 96kHz, so I had about 8TB of data to maintain.”

Getting It Done

Keeping track of a two‑and‑a‑half‑year long project, recorded in many different studios around the world, with 14 lead singers and track counts in the hundreds, sounds insanely complicated. “Yes, it was hard,” agrees Boucher, and if he says so, it must have been, because he is one of the most experienced film‑music engineers and mixers in the industry, and has worked on many Disney projects.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Boucher studied music engineering at the University of Miami, and then cut his teeth as assistant to the great Bob Clearmountain. Boucher went independent in 2001, and has since worked regularly with producer Mitchell Froom, gaining credits like Crowded House and Rufus Wainwright. Boucher’s movie soundtrack credits include Moana, Coco, Monsters University, Toy Story 3 and 4 and The Princess And The Frog, and he was featured in the April 2014 issue of SOS talking about recording and mixing the soundtrack for Frozen.

Boucher needed every bit of his vast experience to keep the Encanto soundtrack project on track. One crucial aspect of his work was making sure that all final vocals were recorded and delivered to the animators as early as possible. “Usually the order of operations is: get the demo, make sure the arrangements fit the film, record all the vocals as early as you can. You then replace the demo arrangement with the final instruments, or add them. If there suddenly is a crowd or a percussionist in the street, you can always add that later.

“When we’re working on the vocals and the compositions, the movie is still in the storyboard process. The film‑makers want the lead vocals as early as possible, so the animators can get to work. The story often changes, the character’s emotional viewpoint changes, sometimes there are lyric changes. Changing animation on a lead vocal when you have lip‑sync is time‑consuming and expensive, so to do that is not a decision that is taken lightly. Once the animation is complete, all vocals are locked for timing.”


After vocal recording comes vocal production, and Boucher did most of this as well, though with expert help. “When working remotely, we made comp notes, and then the engineers sent me all the takes, and I comped them in my studio. Mike [Elizondo] was focused on the music production, so Andrew Page, who is VP of Music Production at Disney Animation, helped me with the vocal production, because it was an insane amount of work! He did this via Zoom and Audiomovers. Nothing gets past him!

“After the first comp, Jared, one of the directors, would come in from time to time via Zoom, and he’d go shopping for lines that told the story best from a directorial standpoint. One of the nice things about the Zoom way of working is that I get more time with the directors. They have a lot of work on their plate, but in the Zoom world, they can go from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting and at six o’clock have dinner with their family, because they’re at home!

“The process of vocal production is that we first comp the vocals, and then I time and tune them. I use Melodyne for this and do everything by hand. I take a first‑do‑no‑harm approach. I look at the page and listen to Lin’s demo vocal, and then I simply listen to the melody and make sure it’s intact. I’m not looking for perfect tuning. I am only looking for the actor to represent the character’s emotions and Lin’s composition.

“People are more relaxed about tuning today, but in the film world things have changed over time. There was a time when it was almost taboo, and then there was a period when you couldn’t tune too much. Now it’s in between the two. I’m fortunate that when I work on pure audio albums, I don’t tune at all. On the Andrew Bird album that I just finished, and with Crowded House, and when working with Rufus Wainwright, I don’t tune anything. But of course, if there’s a great performance, and one note a little blue, and the artist wants that fixed, I’m happy to do that.”

Compared with a typical pop or rock track, vocal effects were used very sparingly, with almost no reverb. This was a typical vocal plug‑in chain.Compared with a typical pop or rock track, vocal effects were used very sparingly, with almost no reverb. This was a typical vocal plug‑in chain.

Vocal production is also about volume riding, adding EQ and compression, but, when working for film, says Boucher, very little else. “I always use a Massey de‑esser, and the Massenburg Designworks EQ5, and I now use the FabFilter Pro‑Q 3 instead of the Waves F6. The Waves Kramer PIE is my favourite plug‑in vocal compressor.

“But the immediate reaction from the directors and music personnel is that vocal effects are persona non grata. They don’t want record‑style reverbs and delays. When somebody’s telling a story, and especially with Lin where there’s a lot of words in there, delays and reverb just mess with the intelligibility, and if you can’t understand the words, you’re in trouble. They also want to give the vocal a sound that matches the picture. So once we’re done with the vocal production, I deliver the vocals LCR, with a completely dry vocal in the centre and a bit of reverb in the left and right channels, just to add some sustain. I also send the film‑makers an instrumental stem and a percussion stem.”

David Boucher: When somebody’s telling a story... delays and reverb just mess with the intelligibility, and if you can’t understand the words, you’re in trouble.

Work In Progress

After Boucher delivered the film crew the vocals and music stems, he continued to record instruments, and of course new vocals if and when they were needed. “The drums were played by Matt Chamberlain, who has a great recording setup. As I mentioned earlier, Mike would play bass, and the MIDI orchestral elements were replaced, and we added instruments that were recorded in New York, guided by Mike and the amazing Edmar Castañeda. Some electronic elements were not replaced, like the MIDI trumpet in ‘Bruno’, because it was supposed to be a synth‑like sound.”

During the entire process, Boucher would keep making rough mixes of everything he had, moving between what he calls the “multitrack” — ie. original Pro Tools sessions with all tracks separate — and the stems. “I always had a working mix going, with rudimentary stems. I never reduce the original multitrack. The final mix is always derived from the multitrack, because things change all the time, and when you’re locked into stems, you are dead.

“My sessions are the master sessions, for everything. I always try to keep it pretty mellow in the plug‑in world and, if I can, also with the track count, but with this project I couldn’t do the latter. Things were just recorded in too many different places. The fortunate thing is that I could keep the amount of plug‑ins down, because we recorded things the way we wanted to hear them, and this meant that we didn’t need 10 plug‑ins on every track.”

Stills from Encanto during the ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ scene.Stills from Encanto during the ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ scene.