A combination of technical wizardry and old-school craft helped Bernie Herms and Andy Selby bring Josh Groban’s Broadway album to life.
The success of Josh Groban’s album Stages has been out of all proportion to its profile in the media. No-one has even made a Wikipedia page for the album, and it has received few reviews — yet it reached number two in the US, Canada and Australia, and topped the UK album charts. What’s more, unlike many of today’s one-week hits, Stages stayed in the top 20 for some two months after its release in April.
The patchy online and press coverage of the Stages album may have something to do with the singer and his audience. Groban is known for his operatic approach to MOR popular music, and Stages features his take on a number of classic Broadway songs from musicals such as Phantom Of The Opera, Les Misérables, The Wizard Of Oz, A Chorus Line and more, for the most part set in big, dramatic, orchestra-heavy arrangements. It is hit-parade material, but not as we generally know it.
Stages goes against today’s trends in another important aspect as well. A quick look at the album’s credits reveals that it is an old-fashioned big-budget affair made in multiple large studios — including Abbey Road, where the orchestral recordings took place — and featuring a huge cast of production personnel. Seven of the album’s 15 tracks were recorded, produced and mixed by Humberto Gatica, one of the living legends of the American music industry (see SOS April 2010: www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr10/articles/it_0410.htm), with the assistance of Martin Nessi. The remaining eight tracks were produced and, for the most part, also arranged by the less well-known Bernie Herms, who worked with several different engineers, including his regulars Jorge Vivo and Andy Selby. The latter also mixed three of the album’s tracks.
Like the album, Bernie Herms has a minimal online presence, with no web site of his own or extant interviews, yet his Allmusic credits page lists an impressive 593 entries, including names like Barbra Streisand, Andrea Bocelli, Brad Paisley, the Tenors, Ruben Studdard, Casting Crowns, CeCe Winans and his wife Natalie Grant. Strikingly, Herms’ credits see him in many cases acting as musician, composer, programmer, arranger and producer.
“I know it is uncommon in my profession to wear all these hats, particular for a producer to also do his own orchestrations, which can be a real time-suck,” comments Herms, “but that is where I’m a strange mix of a control freak and a glutton for punishment. I can’t help myself. I love being part of all these processes. Orchestration is part of my canvas. It’s part of the way I paint a picture, and for better or worse, I can’t extricate myself from it. I have come to peace with the fact that it is the way I paint, and that I have to follow through. But it does make time management and deadlines a bit tougher. On the Josh Groban project I actually shared some of the orchestrations with a musical hero of mine, William Ross, who finished two of my orchestral sketches with his genius orchestration, and who also contributed a third arrangement, for ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, from the ground up. Just being around him helped me think better musical thoughts!”
With a father who was an opera singer, Herms probably thought musical thoughts from the moment he could, well, think. He started playing piano at the age of four and received formal lessons from eight before attending Trinity Western University in British Columbia and completing his studies at Belmont University in Nashville. His goal throughout his career has been to integrate his classical background and his love of popular music. To this end, he bought a Korg M1 workstation keyboard while he was still at high school, and began writing and recording jingles on it. Today he has his own studio in Nashville, called Soulfuel, where he programs and arranges much of the music he produces, mostly using MOTU’s Digital Performer.
“I value both raw musical instinct and my musical education highly,” observes Herms. “Together, they give me the skill and vocabulary to do what I am doing today. But I find myself in many musical circles in which one is elevated above the other, and at times I’m the only guy in the room with a composition degree, which of course I never advertise! My degree has never gotten me a single gig, but it shaped my musical soul big time. There are the conservatory-type musicians who consider the Top 40 and the pop music I am doing beneath them, and I’m also around rockers and songwriters who at times elevate a lack of education to the point where they think it gives them more pure inspiration. But the truth is, we needed both. The greatest composers in Western music had a motherlode of both musical instinct and education, and were musical explorers.”
Integrating both tendencies involves bringing the latest technology to bear on centuries of arranging and composing know-how. “I used to be a pen-and-paper guy, but today a lot of my stuff exists in the virtual world, in which I do sample mock-ups of my orchestrations that the artist can listen to before we record a real orchestra. Because samples are so amazing today, they allow me to create really inspiring renderings of my orchestrations. They won’t match a real orchestra pound for pound, but they nonetheless are very convincing. So I start there, and then I work with an amazing orchestrator in Nashville called Jim Gray, who scores them for me.
“I do a lot of my programming and virtual orchestrations and track building in Digital Performer. But when we track a rhythm section or an orchestra we use Pro Tools. In today’s climate of collaboration, WAV files are the main format that people use to communicate between different formats. I also use different things for my orchestrations. I’m really into the Spitfire stuff these days, which is inspiring, musical and very usable. I also use LA Scoring Strings a lot, and some Hollywood Strings, and still even the Miroslav and Vienna libraries. Each library has its own strengths, with the way the orchestra moves and breathes in the room quite brilliant in LASS, but for soloists I go to other libraries.”
Herms’ Soulfuel studio is a typical modern-day affair, with no desk, but the odd bit of outboard, a few good mics, and some decent monitors, plus a bunch of keyboards. The outboard consists of a Retro Sta-Level compressor, API Lunchbox, a couple of BAE 1073 mic pres, Groove Tubes Vipre mic pre, Kenetek 1176N compressor and some other bits and pieces. Herms’ go-to mics for vocals are his Telefunken ELAM 251E or Neumann M269 or U47, and he uses an assortment of other mics for instruments, including Shure KSM44, SM7, SM58 and AKG 451C. His monitors are Event 20/20 BASs and his main keyboard the Yamaha Motif XS8.
It was here that Herms did his prep and arrangement work for the Josh Groban sessions. Here, too, Andy Selby did a significant part of his programming and editing for the eight songs Herms produced, and also part of his mixes of three of these songs.
“Andy edits vocals like no-one else I have ever heard,” remarks Herms. “He’s also one of the most musically deep and technically advanced people I have ever met. When I’m programming a rhythm track and I have a computer meltdown, I’m totally lost, but he’s like a Mac guru who can sort it all out. To have someone like that around is invaluable. He held a lot of parts of the operation together.”
According to Herms, Groban’s initial involvement in the making of Stages centred mostly around choosing the songs, after which Herms would map out his arrangements for each song in Digital Performer. His next step was to go to Westlake Studios in Los Angeles to meet up with Groban, fine-tune the arrangements, one aspect of which involved making detailed adjustments to each song’s tempo map (see box). Groban’s vocals were also recorded at Westlake, using, says Herms, “a Schoeps CMC5U condenser mic with MK5 capsule, going to a Neve 1073, into a GML 8200 EQ , and finally a Neve 33609 compressor. This chain was actually designed for Josh by Hum [Humberto Gatica] on the early records he engineered and mixed for David Foster.”
Concurrently Gatica and Nessi were recording tracks for the former’s productions at Capital Studios, United Recording and Sony Scoring Stage in LA. The next stage was for both Gatica and Herms to travel to London for 76-piece orchestral sessions at Abbey Road, following which Gatica and Nessi mixed all but three songs on the album at the former’s Lionshare Studios in LA.
One song, ‘What I Did For Love’ (from A Chorus Line), was the odd one out during the entire making of the album. Groban’s management and record company weren’t sure it should even be on the shortlist of songs to be recorded, and Herms came up with an arrangement that contrasted strongly with the other material on the album. It also was the first of three songs that Selby, rather than Gatica and Nessi, ended up mixing. However, the final result was so successful that ‘What I Did For Love’ ended up being chosen as the lead single for the album.
“When I heard the song, I heard it with a live Nashville rhythm section,” recalls Herms. “I wanted to give it a more commercial and rhythmic rendition than most of the other orchestrated material. I wanted it to have a very different vibe. This meant that I started from a different place in my computer. Rather than program a full arrangement, my pre-production consisted of me creating just some elements of the string arrangement and I mapped out some of the band arrangements with a keyboard — just with a drum loop with a basic feel and tempo and maybe a rough bass part just playing root notes. I then went to Blackbird Studios, where Justin Niebank recorded the musicians live in the studio. They consisted of drummer Dan Needham, bassist Matt Campbell and guitarists Bryan Sutton and Jerry MacPherson. I also played piano. I wanted to give these top session guys enough space to do what they do, so the rhythm section was not 100 percent pre-arranged. Nashville has a deep-rooted culture of collaboration in the room between musicians, and this is what I wanted to encourage.”
Selby: “I remained in Nashville, where I did a lot of additional programming on the songs Bernie produced for Stages, like extra keyboard, synth and/or percussion parts, and editing, compiling, rough mixing and so on. On ‘What I Did For Love’, I only edited and mixed. There was no additional programming necessary on that song, because it was very much based around Bernie’s idea to get this sound of a ’70s Nashville band, but with a modern twist, with everybody vibing together and interacting. Nobody was sure about this song, and the label didn’t hear it until they heard my rough mix of just the Nashville rhythm section with some string mock-ups. They are such fabulous players and they get such great sounds that doing a rough mix was easy. But the impact of that rough mix was just enormous. They went, ‘Oh my God, we had no idea it was going to turn out like that!’ Also, this version of ‘What I Did For Love’ brought back the expansive band-and-orchestra style that made Josh famous ,and so provided a link to his past.”
Andy Selby is a musician, engineer, programmer, arranger and mixer who originally hails from California, but has lived in Nashville since 1993. Selby has enjoyed long-term professional relationships with songwriters, arrangers and producers like David Mullen, Tommy Sims, Robert Marvin and Michael Ochs, as well as with Bernie Herms, and his credits include Natalie Grant, the Tenors, Cody Karey and CeCe Winans. He won two Grammy Awards with the latter artist, and received a third Grammy this year in the Contemporary Christian Music Album category for the album Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong by King & Country.
Selby’s connection with Groban was made in 2006 when the latter covered a song co-written by Selby called ‘In Your Eyes’, which appeared on the singer’s third album, Awake, and has become a live favourite. Herms and Selby have worked together since 2011. “I enjoy having good friendships with people,” explains Selby. “Of course I work with people with similar musical and sonic sensibilities, and we have complementary skill sets, which means that working together increases the quality of what we’re doing. I do a lot of the pre-production with Bernie in which he mocks things up, and after that you make choices as to what you replace with real stuff, and what to not. Sometimes the way a programmed harp hits one particular line works better than a recorded one. It is all about musical and emotional impact and not about the purity of whether it’s actually played or not.”
Like Herms, Selby also works in multiple formats, with an emphasis on Digital Performer as his main programming environment (to the point where he’s been instrumental in developing and designing alternative DP ‘skins’: see www.ampguimods.net) “I started out in Digital Performer,” explains Selby, “and still use it because it’s a very musically orientated application, whereas Pro Tools started more from an engineer-audio perspective. Over the years the two have slowly converged, but I have never found one application that does everything I need it to do 100 percent of the time. Digital Performer has incredible pitch control for vocal editing, and Melodyne is actually based on what DP did with its pitch engine. Yet Melodyne still doesn’t do everything DP can, which is why I use both of them together. Also, the way DP’s interface is laid out is great. It has these two screens that allow you to instantly switch between a bird’s-eye view and a zoomed-in view. With most modern DAWs you’re constantly toggling the zoom.
“Pro Tools is very fast and efficient for large-scale editing and has great mix tools. I also use [PreSonus] Studio One, because it gives me a modern, forward, punchy, mid-rangey sound, so I used it to mix a recent Echosmith acoustic EP. [Propellerhead] Reason also is very important to me. It’s the first tool I used for programming that did not use any external hardware. The Josh Groban album asked for a big, wide, open sound, and for that the Spectrasonics Omnisphere [soft synth] is amazing. I normally start with Omnisphere, and when I want something a little weirder, I may go for Native Instruments’ Kontakt or Absynth, and all those crazy synths.”
Andy Selby does not have his own project studio, instead preferring to work on a laptop with headphones anywhere he finds himself. “At one time in the past I was floating between four and five studios, and the overheads just didn’t make sense. Because most of what I do these days is post-production, with technology so mobile nowadays I can work virtually anywhere. It means that I have become a bit of a nomad, and I like changing scenery a lot. I may be working at a coffee shop, or outside, or a friend’s, or at home. I use my incredibly beautiful Sennheiser HD650s, which are some of the most incredible headphones I have ever encountered, and they sound to me as if I’m sitting in front of the best studio monitors I have ever heard. My ears have become totally used to the Sennheisers. They’re fine for editing, and for mixing I can get the mix to maybe 70 percent of the end result, and I then tweak things sitting down in front of some speakers, which is what I did with my Josh Groban mixes.”
Selby’s rough mix of ‘What I Did For Love’ had such an impact that he was given the job of finishing it for the final release. However, both Selby and Herms emphasise that the mix had been shaped during the entire production process, when Selby was continuously busy editing and shaping the material Herms had recorded.
“Given that Andy is one part mixer, one part arranger, one part editor, he can’t help himself but make it sound good,” noted Herms. “And all of a sudden you have this painting that is nearly finished. There were three songs where Andy’s rough mixes had the right energy and placement and were tweaked to a degree that they were ready to go to mastering. This typically happens when it’s done by someone who has been there for the entire process. The painting is so beautifully done, it just felt right to go with it. It’s like once you cook the omelette almost by accident, you can’t uncook it! In the end it’s about the emotional connection that the listener can make with the music. So there were some of the songs I produced that Humberto mixed in a day or two, and I’d send him notes and he’d make adjustments, and these mixes were awesome. His mixing is so emotional and natural. You feel all the right things, and your ear knows exactly where it needs to go. And then there were these three songs that had mixes that emerged from the process, and it felt pointless to try to re-cook the omelette.”
The other two songs that Selby ended up mixing were ‘Try To Remember’, from Fantasticks, and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel (his CD credit for the mix of ‘Anthem’ from Chess is an error). “All these mixes were finished at Bernie’s studio, using his Event monitors, with him present,” recalls Selby. “But before that they were done wherever I found myself. They were very much done as I went along. During the making of the album I as much as possible set up at Bernie’s place, and he’d be in his room and I’d be in another room, and he’d come in and comment on what I was doing. But if he had a writing session or was doing something else in Nashville, I would go close by to one of the great coffee shops we have here, and I’d work there, rather than wasting time sending files back and forth. By contrast, when I mix for other people I’ll sometimes use Nicecast live streaming, so they can listen to it on their own speakers and I can do tweaks while they are listening, which actually is a very convenient process.”
Selby’s Pro Tools mix session for ‘What I Did For Love’ is very tidy and transparent. Beneath the click track there are 17 drum tracks (plus four related auxiliaries), single bass and piano tracks, three acoustic and four electric guitar tracks, a strings stem track and a string sample stem track, a lead vocal audio track (plus no fewer than five related aux tracks), and finally a master track. Below that are stem mix tracks. Justin Niebank’s hands clearly are all over the audio tracks, as the comment boxes detail each player, and many of the microphones that Niebank used.
Selby elaborates on his mix approach: “While I do things like just bring up the drums and other parts of the mix, and go through all the instruments very systematically, in this case it was more a matter of having all these wonderful sounds and letting my ears guide me. You’ll notice lots of ‘P’s on the inserts, and that’s the FabFilter stuff. You can tell everyone that their plug-ins are my secret weapon! I love them, and I use their Pro-Q 2 on many of the tracks, as well as the Pro-MB multi-band. These two and their Pro-L limiter are some of the strongest plug-ins I have come across, especially for this kind of music, because they sound so transparent. They do what needs to be done, and yet they retain the fullness of the original sound.”
“In this session the kick has the SoundToys EchoBoy, my favourite delay, and then three instances of the Pro-Q 2. I keep on putting layers of EQ, and only pull back when it goes somewhere I don’t want it to go. I have the Q2 on each of the three snare mics, the hi-hat, the cymbals, and the room mics, while the ‘E’ on the toms is the Pro Tools Expander/Gate. I have the [Audio Ease] Altiverb on the drums as a whole, and again an EQ. I always EQ my effects; it’s part of what sets my mixes apart. Track 20 is an aux track for the bass with the Altiverb and Q2, which comes from an earlier version. I’ll sometimes bring it back in and will ride the level.
“The bass track, 22, again has the Q2 and other FabFilter plug-ins. The three acoustic guitar tracks, 24-26, go to submix track, 27, with the Q2 and Pro-MB and other FabFilter plug-ins, and then a reverb aux with, again, the Altiverb. The electric guitar also has the Q2 and the ‘T’ is just a trim. The electric guitar reverb comes from the Valhalla Vintage Verb, which I adore. The Valhalla Shimmer also is great, it’s like the Brian Eno sound in one plug-in, though I did not use it in this mix. There are again several instances of the Pro-Q 2 on the electric guitar, while ‘7’ is the Waves CLA 1176, which is my all-time favourite compressor. It has such a cool sound!
“The strings are stemmed down from a much larger session, of course. We also pushed up some of Bernie’s programmed strings in places for some emphasis. Track 40 are Josh’s lead vocals, and I always have these running to a mono aux, track 41, where I do all the processing, so I won’t have to disable all the plug-ins when I edit the actual vocal audio track. The vocal chain on that aux track is the Waves CLA Vocal plug-in, just pushing things in the upper mid-range and brightening things up, then there’s the Q2, then the Pro-MB, then the CLA 1176 and finally the FabFilter de-esser. ‘T’ is just a trim. Tracks 42 and 43 are again the Altiverb with the Q2 EQ, and 43 is an aux with an EchoBoy delay.
“Finally, track 47 is the master track, with a Q2 and the Pro-L limiter. The latter has really changed the sound I can get out of the box. It makes things bigger and wider and warmer than any other limiter I have heard. It is wonderful. It creates a sound stage that is just enormous, and so was particularly suited to this mix. Bernie and I put in a lot of time and emotion into this mix. Including the rough mix it was a process that took us weeks!”
Judging by Stages’ significant chart success, as well as the few reviews of the album that can be found on the Internet, the time put in by Gatica, Nessi, Herms and Selby was exceptionally fruitful. As some reviewers have it, the album is an “exquisite reality of sound, emotion and joy”, while ‘What I Did For Love’ is characterised as “a listening experience that makes one smile”.
Andy Selby has a reputation as one of the world’s best vocal editors. Here are his top five tips:
- Stylistic awareness: “Does the music need to be super-tight rhythmically and in terms of tuning, or not? If you go into vocal editing with the mindset of putting everything in perfect pitch and on the grid, you are going to screw up, because you will come out at the end thinking, ‘Oh man, this does not have the life that it had before.’ If you have done that a few times, you start thinking ahead of what you are really trying to achieve stylistically. In the pop world it is fairly straightforward: you often just put the vocal a little bit behind the beat so the groove kind of relaxes, but other than that everything has to be really close. But when you work with music where things are more open, you have to be really aware of not overdoing it.”
- Take your time: “Some people say that they can edit and tune a vocal in half an hour to an hour. It takes me a lot longer, because I listen to it over and over again just to make sure that I am not missing the emotional impact of something being technically wrong. If somebody is a little sharp when they pop a grace note, or they are a little flat and then go back up to the note, you have to really pay attention to what emotionally is happening.”
- Shut your eyes and don’t look at the screen: “Sometimes when you are really trying to figure out what you should or should not do, you have to get away from the screen and close your eyes and just use your ears. Watching what happens on the screen really affects how you hear things. You’ll be shocked at the emotional and critical difference. But vocal editing is not a graphic redesign, it is not a drawing exercise. It is about listening. So only go in when your ears hear something that needs changing.”
- Don’t be afraid of using certain shorthand tools: “I have always been a doing-it-by-hand guy, but sometimes [Synchro Arts’] VocAlign can be a great friend. I have a trick where if something is just not happening the way I want it, but I can hear it, I will actually say or sing it onto a track and VocAlign the performance to my feel. Every tool is different and no one tool can do everything. I use Melodyne and Auto-Tune and Digital Performer.”
- Do the rhythm first and the pitch second: “Timing’s an interesting issue, because in today’s productions they often change the track after the vocal has already been sung, and all of a sudden it does not fit any more. When I am doing the timing I get it down to listening to the vocals with the drums and the core rhythm elements, and it still takes time, because sometimes you want the front of a line to be real lazy and the second bit you want to really pop with the drums. With a tool like Melodyne, you can treat rhythm and tuning at the same time, but I prefer to get the groove first, just slapping on some tuning lightly, if necessary.”