The unique sound world created by Future and engineer Seth Firkins has brought the Atlanta rapper record-breaking success.
Future is that rare thing in the world of hip-hop: an album artist. Though he has never enjoyed a US Top 10 single, his 2014 second album Honest hit number two on the Billboard charts, and his subsequent albums have all reached the top spot. In fact, he recently made history by having successive US number one hits with two different albums, released a week apart, when his eponymously titled fifth album was knocked off the top spot by his sixth, HNDRXX (pronounced ‘Hendrix’).
His achievements are all the more impressive because his music is not obviously commercial. Although there are a few guest vocalists on HNDRXX, including the Weeknd and Rihanna, most of the time Future’s unique, Auto-Tuned rapping and singing is the only vocal content, and his lines aren’t exactly sing-along earworms. This impressionistic and atmospheric vocal approach is underpinned by trap-influenced backing tracks that tend to have an equally atmospheric vibe, and that don’t try to ram home attention-grabbing rhythms, chord changes, or instrumental hooks.
The creation of Future’s distinctive sound world owes a lot to his right-hand man in the studio, Atlanta engineer and mixer Seth Firkins. “Future and I have developed a sound over the years,” explains Firkins, from his 5X5 Studio just outside Atlanta. “Our sound is directly related to the sound I’m imparting to music in general as an independent contractor. My sound is very clean, very wide, with everything in its own space, in its own pocket. Some people want it grittier and dirtier, and I recommend that they go elsewhere. But if you want something beautiful, I can do that. Not that I won’t dirty up individual parts with a distortion plug-in sometimes, for an effect, but my overall mixes are attractive, modern, and translatable. What I am imparting to my mixes is listenability and polish.
“Future’s sound and my sound are also about having a huge dynamic range. I love big drums, but I am not willing to sacrifice the dynamic range of a song just to get a loud 808. The loudness wars mean that everyone pushes and squeezes things to get more volume, but I say: ‘Fuck it!’ Why should I be fighting other releases that don’t actually sound that good? They often don’t have any space or body. You can brickwall your mix, and it’ll sound great in a club, but I also want my mixes to sound good on headphones, in the car, on laptop speakers, and so on. I want my mixes to translate in every situation. And you can only pack so much information into a WAV or an MP3, so you have to be careful about how you reach that maximum.”
According to Seth Firkins, Future’s writing process always starts with beats — instrumental backing tracks — created by a wide variety of beatmakers, including Atlanta regulars such as DJ Spinz, Metro Boomin, Zaytoven and Southside. During often drug-fuelled sessions, Future and Firkins then take it to the next stage. “The beatmakers will send me stereo mixes of their beats via email or drop them off in person. As a result I always have a large folder full of beats. Future and I work together in all sorts of situations: studios, hotel rooms, the tour bus, sometimes in my studio. He’ll be going through the folder with beats and will ask me to pull one out, and he’ll then overdub his vocals to it. I’ve spent thousands of hours with him, and this is an interesting process, because he doesn’t write anything down. There’s no pen and no pad. Instead he just goes into the booth and does his thing. It’s not freestyling, because that’s all about keeping it going. Instead he stops and starts, each time developing the next line. For him it’s all about the vibe. He’ll often try to get the melody first and he may be mumbling as he’s trying to find the pocket.
“With regards to the lyrics, Future has this unusual ability to glean things of substance from the conversations that are going on around him. He may be sitting in a corner looking at his phone, giving the impression he’s not paying attention, but in fact he’s listening to every single word that’s being said. There’s often an entourage in the studio, in many cases people who are on the wrong side of the law, and he’ll ask them about what’s happening on the streets, and so on. One evening there was a backpack in the room with a submachine gun in it, of a brand called Draco. Future asked me to switch on the mic and the moment he went ‘Draco sittin’ with the bookbag,’ everyone looked round at the backpack with the submachine gun. You realise he’s putting real life as it happens in front of him in his lyrics. It’s amazing.
“Another astonishing thing about Future is that he never recycles flows and hops, the latter being the cadence of his delivery. After hundreds of songs you’d imagine he’d reuse something, but he never does. He can do 10 songs in an evening, and I don’t understand how he never runs out of melodies. I also don’t comp his stuff after he’s done. There is no comping. When he does a take, that’s the take. That doesn’t mean he does the whole song in one take. What happens instead is that he may have an idea for the first bar, and I’ll record that, and he’ll start again from the top, and he’ll then figure out the next line. And so on. He may go through the song bar by bar or section by section. In the process the melodies and the words sort of materialise.
“I don’t know how he does it. I call him a medicine man. He’s like a shaman, someone who is in charge of the spiritual direction of the tribe. He’s our shaman in the sense that he takes a lot of drugs, and in return he gives us these unbelievably well-thought-out, well-articulated ideas. I mean, how does he manage to turn someone’s gun sitting on the table into the title and main part of a single from a number one album? And after he’s finished overdubbing his vocal, he rarely goes back and does it again. The way it comes out, it’s the way it’s meant to be, whether you understand the lyrics or not.”
On a more technical level, Firkins says he records Future with a Neumann U87 Ai, going into a Neve 1073 mic pre and a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor. “We request that in every studio, and if they don’t have that, we go somewhere else.”
Firkins also tends to base each track’s session around the format of the beat that’s been given to him. “I will do my best to maintain whatever the sample rate and bit depth is from the original session, because you cannot really upsample. You can’t create resolution that wasn’t there to begin with. I also don’t see any reason to upsample because we later have to go back again to the consumer playback format of 44.1/16. In that context using 32-bit floating rates and 96kHz sample rates doesn’t make sense. In any case, if it sounds good, who fucking cares what the sample rate is?”
Far more important than sample and bit rates are the plug-ins that Firkins adds during the vocal recordings, most notably Antares’ Auto-Tune. Future has been widely praised for his unusual vocal style, and his pioneering use of Auto-Tune while rapping, rather than while singing. Firkins explains how it’s done...
“First of all, during our entire career together Future has never asked me to turn on Auto-Tune. I just always do it. It’s his sound. So what happens is that after importing the two-track instrumental into Pro Tools, I set up a mono record track for his vocal, and the output of that mono track goes to bus 1 and 2. I also set up an aux track with input from bus 1 and 2, so that anything I put on, plug-in-wise, is not printed on the record track, but you are still able to hear the effects in real time while recording. The chain on the aux is Auto-Tune, going into Avid’s Extra Long Delay and then into the D-Verb. People were tripping and speculating about the reverb I used on his voice on DS2 which they said was so amazing, but it was just the generic Pro Tools D-Verb plug-in. People talk shit about factory plug-ins. There’s tons of other stuff out there, but give me good old D-Verb any time, and I can make it sound good. With bundled plug-ins it’s all about how you use them.
“So while Future is tracking his vocals, he is hearing himself with Auto-Tune, and a quarter-note delay, and the reverb is set to a 12-15 percent mix with 12ms pre-delay and to a regular room sound. When he hears himself with these effects, his confidence is up, and he can experiment a lot more. Because Auto-Tune pegs him to the right pitches, he can try any shit, and it’ll still sound cool. After the session I do a rough mix of the two-track with his vocals, and print the Auto-Tune, because we’re still using Auto-Tune 5, which doesn’t have an AAX version. So when we record vocals I use a computer that still has Pro Tools 10.3.10. In the past, when I still mixed in 10, I didn’t print the Auto-Tune either, but I now have to, because I mix in Pro Tools 12, which is great, because I can do everything so much faster in it: commit, offline bounce, freeze, everything. Pro Tools’ workflow already was fast, but with 12 it’s light speed. I don’t think I could live without 12 any more.”
Future and Firkins sometimes lay down vocals for up to 10 songs per recording session, and with such a wealth of material, it’s unsurprising that Future has released more than a dozen mixtapes in this decade, on top of his official album releases. The mixtapes often have a “hosted by” credit, presumably for the person who puts them together. In the case of the albums this role falls to the executive producer(s) — and on HNDRXX, these were Future himself and, most of all, DJ Esco. The way in which Future’s albums are compiled can have far-reaching consequences for how Seth Firkins’ mixes were conducted.
“The executive producer oversees the entire project and does A&R and chooses the final tracks for each album. In the case of EVOL I picked the final song selection. With Future and HNDRXX, Esco did all that and he also often came into the studio, making suggestions like ‘Maybe this verse works better as a first verse, instead of that one.’ These albums would not be the way they are if it wasn’t for him. But the problem with the last two albums was that Esco only gave us the final tracklist at the very last moment. In the end I mixed the 17 tracks on Future in four days at 11th Street Studios. I was literally locked in there for 24 hours every day! I bought a mini fridge and a coffee maker and brought a pillow and a blanket for the couch, and I knocked these 17 mixes out in four days. I mixed HNDRXX at another Atlanta studio, Tree Sound Studios, Room A, which we locked out for a week. The production schedule also was very tight there, which is the reason why Manny Marroquin mixed a couple of songs, Jaycen Joshua mixed three, including the collaboration with the Weeknd, and Phil Tan mixed the Rihanna song. I mixed most of the remainder.”
Delivering 17 mixes in four days, as Firkins did for Future, is a staggering achievement, particularly given that some of his rough mixes were only rough approximations using the two-mix and the final vocals. “The workflow is that we get the beat as a two-track from a beatmaker, and Future records over the top of that. Sometimes I just do a mix based on the two-mix and the vocals, as a reference for the executive producer. Normally these two-track beats are fully maximised and limited, and they don’t give you any headroom. You have to turn the entire track down to be able to blend the vocals in, which definitely is not ideal. But when we feel it’s something that we want to use, or I get the word that a song is going to be on the album, I get the stems from the producer, and I do a rough mix from them. With stems I mean every individual track, like kick, snare, hi-hat, bass and so on. I don’t want group stems. The nomenclature in this business can be confusing! But that gives me the chance to really mix the vocals in with the track, and build the dynamic range that I like.
“When I’m doing the final mixes, I’m using these rough mixes as my starting point. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just enhancing. We already have the vibe that we want, and I’m not trying to change that. I am just trying to make it sound as professional and polished as possible without losing the feel of when we first recorded the vocals. I preach this over and over: I don’t think a song ever becomes a hit if the vibe is wrong. You can have a good song, you can even have a great song, but it’s not going to translate if the vibe is off. So when I am mixing I may listen to something similar in vibe to get me in the same mode. If it’s something more subdued I may listen to some Steely Dan or Chicago or America, if it’s more energetic, or more trap, I may listen to something else.”
Delving more deeply into his mix process, Firkins explains that building dynamic range and space in the tracks is crucial. “When you’ve recorded the session yourself, you can set up your gain structure the way you want it, but you don’t always have that luxury as a freelance mix engineer. When I mix something recorded by someone else, the levels of all individual audio tracks often are set to zero, and this means that every single sound, every clap, every hi-hat, every bass note, is fighting for space. But I want harmony and beauty, in a literal sense. You know when everything pumps too hard and every time an 808 hits, you can’t hear the vocals? It’s because they are fighting for the same set of finite numbers. However, whatever your sampling and bit rate, you can only fit so many ones and zeros in a file.
“So my mix technique is — when the levels of audio tracks are all set to zero — to first group every audio track, but not the aux and master tracks, and bring the volume down by half, and sometimes further than that. The noise floor of a DAW is infinite, so I don’t really care about how quiet it is. That’s only important when you go out of the DAW, and you have to hit a sweet spot between too low and too high. Obviously, with Future, I get to set my own gain structures, but I still take care to create space in the individual tracks sent to me by the beatmakers, and to make sure the levels are not too high.
“When I start the actual mix process, I usually first get a very quick overall level, without plug-ins. I’ll then bring in the vocals. You don’t know where you need to go with the vocals until you know what type of track they’re going to sit with. I’ve mixed beautiful, clean, a capella vocals that got lost the moment I tried to fold them in with the beat. I’ll then go over the mix again, this time focusing on the beat, because that’s the backbone of the song. I’ll bring in the 808, and then other rhythm parts, and I’ll loop a section of the beat that has everything playing. I’ll then add the bass line, and whatever is the most important part of the backing track, and then I start fussing with the vocals.
“Once I feel I’m getting close, I’ll stop and do something else, like watch CNN or something. I’ll then listen one more time, and make some adjustments and I’ll put it on a flash drive and listen in the car. All my cars have subwoofers, and when making trap and rap music it’s really important that the low end is hitting. Whether in the club or in the car, you have to make the subs work. I’ll then come back and touch the mix up one more time, and I’ll send it to the client.
“With the Future project, when I was doing 17 songs in four days, I first organised all the songs, I then went back to the start and got each of them close. My next step was to go through everything again and tighten it even more, and finally there was a final push to get things 99.5 percent done, and after that I did some final tweaks listening to some NS10s, at a very low volume. When I’m done with the mixes, I send them to Future, and in this case to Esco. We don’t normally take what the beatmaker wants into account. I know they also have producer credits, but in our particular genre, the term producer has been misrepresented. When I think of a producer I think of someone like Quincy Jones, someone who finds the musicians and does the arrangements and is responsible for the final product. When you have made a beat you have done the production, but you are not the producer of the song in the traditional sense.”
The Pro Tools session for Seth Firkins’ mix of ‘Draco’, the lead single from Future, is by modern standards extremely simple, consisting of just 17 audio tracks, plus two stereo tracks with copies of DJ Spinz’s beat. Spinz’s original beat is only about 1:50 long, so Firkins and Future simply repeated it to give the song its full length of 3:45. The entire song is also duplicated within the Pro Tools Edit window, with the second version, starting at 3:55, being a ‘clean’ edit with various radio-unfriendly words excised.
The instrumental backing by DJ Spinz consists of 11 audio tracks with, from top to bottom, six drum and percussion tracks (808, kick, snare, clap, open hat, hat) and five music tracks (arppegiator, low organ, ‘tag’, ‘Rev FX’ and ‘saw’). There are just two plug-ins on these individual tracks, and all are sent to Firkins’ Beat group track, which has no plug-ins. Below this are six vocal tracks, starting with Future’s brief intro track, two hook tracks, an ad lib, and two verse tracks. These also are sent to a Vox group track, with a long effects chain. Finally there’s a master track at the bottom, strikingly bereft of any plug-ins. In fact, the entire session only has 22 plug-ins, which probably constitutes a world record for the smallest number of plug-ins used in a modern, in-the-box, mainstream chart mix.
Firkins: “Basically, what you see here is how I do most of my mixes for Future. Yes, the session is very minimal. The only plug-ins I added to the backing tracks are a FabFilter Q2 on the 808, notching out a frequency just below 200Hz that was bugging me, and the Metric Halo Transient Control on the kick, to sharpen the transients. Programmed kicks normally always strike the same [on each beat], so unless you’re looking for something very specific, you’re not going to use a compressor. I’ve tried over the years to use EQ to get some more snap out of them, but I found that the Transient Control really allows me to enhance the transients, without necessarily bringing up the volume. This can also help the kick to sit better with the 808, though sometimes the Transient Control takes out too much of the presence from the bottom of the kick. If it does not sound good quickly, I simply take it off.
“Future’s intro vocal has the Waves MetaFlanger, for extra effect. For the rest all individual vocal tracks have the Avid Mod Delay III, and the McDSP AC202 Analogue Channel. The former replaces the delay I use during vocal tracking, and AC202 takes the lower parts of Future’s performance and sweetens them and brings them up top. The trick with the AC202 is to set it to Auto, in which case it almost functions as a vocal rider. It also adds a really analogue, headroom feel. It doesn’t sound harsh and will duck things just enough. All that then gets run through an in-line compressor, not a multi-band, but just an overall opto, meaning that it will keep every part that it has over-saturated in check.
“All the vocal tracks go to my Vox track, on the inserts of which I have six plug-ins. This is the vocal chain that I use for nearly all vocals, in any project! It also is a chain, meaning that the order of the plug-ins matters — many people mess things up by putting inserts in the wrong order. I start my chain with the Avid EQ7, which shelves off the low end and bumps up the top end above 5.21kHz. Right after that I have the Waves De-Esser, which is set to 5506Hz. So I’m creating more sibilance with the EQ7 and I then tame that with the de-esser. But you really won’t hear that de-esser hit more than once every 10 words. I am not squeezing the hell out of it.
“After that there’s the Waves Renaissance Compressor, with which I smooth everything back down into a nice, squeezed waveform, and it’s only after that that I put on effects. The first is the D-Verb, set to a Medium Room with a pre-delay of 15ms, a decay of 751ms, a high-frequency cut at 9.36kHz, and just 15 percent wet. The AIR Flanger doesn’t do much, it just adds a tiny bit of wobble, enough to almost give it a tape feel, but not really. I am not going for an analogue vibe. Finally, the Waves L1 limiter enhances the vocals further. The L1 has a very different architecture from the other maximisers. It really is just bringing out the top end, to make the vocals stand out in the mix a little bit more. You can slap this vocal chain on about any vocal, and be almost ready to go.”
“There’s nothing on the master fader — no bus compressor, nothing, because I knew that I would be sending out these mixes to Glenn Schick, a mastering engineer who I often work with. I am a reluctant mastering engineer, but some people can’t afford a separate mastering engineer, so if you send me a song to mix, I’ll send it back to you mastered, and it’ll be as loud as is radio standard. In that case I’ll throw on an SSL G-compressor plug-in to tame some of the peaks and then I’ll add a Waves L3 Maximizer and I might even pull up an L2 or an AOM Invisible Limiter as well. People tend to think that one plug-in can do things, but instead it’s gradual. Each plug-in gets you to the next stage, until you’ve polished your mix to where you want it. In using a compressor and two limiters I’m not trying to lose all dynamic range, but I’m trying to find a middle place between too quiet and too loud, and yet still having dynamic range.
“But when Glenn is mastering, I don’t do anything. Glenn and I have worked out a way of approaching mastering that’s HDR, high dynamic range, ie. that’s not just fucking slamming. I’ve worked hard on those mixes, so don’t just squeeze the shit out of them and then apply make-up gain! We also know that people want it loud, and that the stuff we do has to measure up to what’s out there. But if you listen to Future and HNDRXX you’ll notice that while the perceived volume is loud enough, if you measure it I’m sure it’s not nearly as hot as some other releases, even old Future releases. I’m sure there’s a noticeable difference. I want that listenability, that space that you can feel, when listening with headphones or in the car, or wherever, so you can enjoy all the elements in the mix.”
It’s a laudable sentiment, and with two Future albums that are not “fucking slamming” having played musical chairs at the top of the US hit parade, one hopes that the way of Future is more likely to become the way of the future.
Seth Firkins was born in 1981 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was into hi-fi stereo, and there was a baby grand in the living room that the young Firkins occasionally played, but he never really had the inclination or ambition to become a musician. Instead, when he was 16 he packed his car with subwoofers and amplifiers, and took an interest in the physics of music and sound waves. He also took a liking to a local band called Element H, who later changed their name to Breckinridge. Firkins started hanging out with the band, and was soon asked to handle marketing and organise the street team. His next stop was to be the band’s live sound engineer.
“I totally bullshitted my way into being a front-of-house engineer. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d watched the guy who had done it before me, and had asked him some questions, but that was it. But in the end I did a really good job. Then one day we were set to record at a studio in Nashville. We had sent our equipment truck ahead and the studio had set up all the stuff before we arrived. But when we showed up on the first day there was no staff. The band nevertheless went in with their instruments, I saw the SSL 9000K, and thought ‘a board is a board,’ and began pulling at the faders so the band could hear themselves in their cans, and I also got a nice mix in the control room.
“Finally the producer showed up with the house engineer and they said, ‘Who the fuck did all this?’ I thought they were mad at me, but then they said, ‘This sounds incredible!’ I had an epiphany at that moment, to say the least. I thought: ‘I mix entire shows every night, and after that the work I’ve done is gone.’ I realised that I wanted to be working in recording studios, where I can tweak and do whatever I wanted to do for as long as I want. So once the tour finished I went to work in a studio in Kentucky called Head First Media, and then in 2003 I built my own studio in Louisville. In 2006, I moved to Atlanta, and I set up my company 5X5 Media Group here, as well as a new studio.”
During this period Firkins taught himself his engineering skills, mostly by reading up about things in books and magazines, including this periodical, which he calls “the Holy Grail”. He adds: “You had to read about things, because the YouTube tutorials that you have today didn’t exist yet.” By the time Firkins arrived in Atlanta he had honed his studio skills finely enough to go on to bigger things, working with, amongst others, Jay-Z, Trina, Ciara, Rihanna — and Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn, aka Future.
“In 2011 I was mixing a couple of songs for Rocko [another Atlanta rapper]. Rocko also was doing some things with Future, whose regular engineer at the time wanted to spend some more time with his family, instead of spending 14 hours per day in a studio, so I started filling in for him. I recorded the vocals for the songs ‘Homicide’ and ‘Parachute’ on the reissue of Future’s debut album, Pluto 3D, and I also mixed songs like ‘Yeah Yeah’ and ‘Watch This’. Gradually it moved from me occasionally tracking and mixing stuff for Future to me in 2012 becoming his main guy, and by 2013 I was in charge of all his files and drives. I’m independent, but my work with Future continues to be my principal occupation.” Firkins engineered and mixed parts of Honest, and all Future albums since 2015’s DS2, although a few songs on HNDRXX were mixed by others.
Today, Seth Firkins works regularly in many different studios, but he always comes back to his own place, 5X5 Studios, just outside Atlanta. When he set the place up, 10 years ago, he already saw that working ‘in the box’ was the way of the future: “In 2006 there was still this push and pull between analogue and digital. Digital was the new horizon, but many people were not ready yet to let go of analogue. Here in Atlanta some were talking shit about my mixes, because I was already in the box. At the time I still sometimes used outboard by going out of the box for specific effects. If I wanted an LA-2A on a clap, I’d send it through the outboard unit and then print it back in. But I got a lot of blowback for not spreading my mixes out across a board. I recall being part of a Mix Magazine panel in 2009, and the entire topic was how plug-ins compared to analogue outboard, and I told them that digital could emulate outboard no problem by that stage. There are a million ways to skin a cat, so you can’t tell me I was doing something wrong. Plus for the genre I was working in, being in the box really worked well.
“So I don’t have a console. I don’t need it. Today my studio has JBL 308 monitors, Avid HD Omni interface, a Burr Brown DAC, PreSonus Monitor Station v2, a Neumann TLM102 microphone, Avalon 737VT mic pre, and Pro Tools 12 HD. I switched to Pro Tools 12 last year, and spent loads of money on AAX plug-ins, because they switched formats. Realistically my space is just a mix room, but when necessary I can do vocal overdubs. I actually purchased the same signal chain I have at my studio for Future’s 2012 tour, as part of a mobile rig that also includes an iMac, Yamaha HS8 monitors, and Sennheiser headphones, and a small monitor station. A few of Future’s vocal tracks for Honest were recorded by me on that bus, and I also mixed tracks like ‘Covered ’n Money’ on the bus.”