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Inside Track: Metro Boomin 'Heroes & Villains'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Ethan Stevens By Paul Tingen
Published April 2023

Ethan Stevens behind the SSL J‑series console at Metro Boomin’s private Boominati Studio.Ethan Stevens behind the SSL J‑series console at Metro Boomin’s private Boominati Studio.

Metro Boomin’s right‑hand man is championing old‑school mixing techniques in the 21st Century.

“I do a lot of my mixing on our 80‑channel J‑series SSL desk. I work on the SSL for the excitement and the pure joy that I get from it. I came up in Paramount Studios, where every room has an SSL, so it’s like a comfort zone. And it’s both about the process and the sound of working with analogue.

“I think the computer gets too mathematical at some point. You get to a place where you’re working with an EQ and just typing in values. But on an SSL, I only know roughly where I am, perhaps at 5kHz or 7kHz or somewhere in between, but I don’t know the exact frequency I’m cutting or boosting. I go on feel, and get better and faster results than when I’m working in the box.”

Speaking is 29‑year‑old Ethan Stevens, who very much grew up in the age of the DAW. Despite his old‑school preferences, Stevens works at the cutting edge of today’s pop/R&B/rap music, as the full‑time engineer and mixer of Leland Tyler Wayne, aka Atlanta star producer Metro Boomin. Metro Boomin’s two solo albums, Not All Heroes Wear Capes (2018) and Heroes & Villains (2022), went to number one, and he’s enjoyed eight platinum singles under his own name in the US.

Stevens was the main engineer and mixer on all these releases, as well as on a whole range of collaborative mixtapes, albums and productions by Metro. Stevens also mixed most of Gunna’s DS4Ever, and the whole of Future’s I Never Liked You, meaning that he was involved in the making of three Billboard number one albums in 2022 alone. Large‑format consoles played a key role in all of them.

“Metro and I have used multiple rooms at Paramount, including Encore and Ameraycan, to mix, all of which have SSL 4000+ consoles. I mixed the entire Savage Mode 2 [Metro’s 2020 joint album with 21 Savage] as well as two songs from Heroes & Villains, ‘Niagara Falls’ and ‘Umbrella’, at Conway Recording Studios in LA. For Savage Mode 2, I used their Neve 88R, and for the two songs off Metro’s new album, I used their SSL XL 9000K.”

Ethan Stevens: I go on feel, and get better and faster results than when I’m working in the box.

Boom Times

According to Stevens, Metro Boomin makes all his music in FL Studio and more recently Pro Tools, with an Akai MPC 2000XL at the heart of his setup. “When he’s not using the MPC, Metro uses FL Studio as his primary program. I had the MPC modified by Bruce Forat, so it now has eight outputs at the back, so when he’s using the MPC, it’s easier to record it and his keyboards straight to Pro Tools, and he just keeps working in that DAW from there.”

Metro Boomin is also a fan of analogue gear, explains Stevens. “He loves it. It’s something unique and something that we can make our own. It’s not like he’s using the same synth patches that everyone has on Spectrasonics Omnisphere. We have some outboard gear and we like to use different types of hardware like the [E‑mu] SP‑1200, [Roland] TR‑808 and various guitar pedals. We just create our own sound. It’s a lot harder to do that with just software synths and plug‑ins.”

Ethan Stevens’ production room features Kii Three, ATC SCM25A and Yamaha NS10 monitors. The NS10s are also his main mixing speakers.Ethan Stevens’ production room features Kii Three, ATC SCM25A and Yamaha NS10 monitors. The NS10s are also his main mixing speakers.

Metro Boomin now has his own Boominati Studio, and it was here that Stevens conducted the mixes for 13 of the 15 songs on Heroes & Villains. “We have a control room with a big live room,” says Stevens, “and four production rooms. The main room has an 80‑channel SSL J‑series. I usually prefer the K or the G or the G+, but the J does what I need it to do. I mix purely on the Yamaha NS10s in the studio. If I want a different perspective, I will bring down my ATC SCM25A monitors from my production room.

“My production room is upstairs, and also has NS10s, paired with a Bryston 4B, the ATC SCM25A, and a set of Kii Threes, which I use as my mains. My monitor controller is a Grace Design m905. My main computer rig is a Mac Studio. I run Pro Tools, using an HDX card that goes to my Avid HD I/O 16x16, and an Apogee Symphony MkII that has two 16x16 cards. I use the Avid I/O for mic inputs, mix print input and for hardware inserts. My Apogee Symphony feeds my [Rupert] Neve [Designs] 5059 summing unit. The Neve main outputs then go into my Lavry Savitr, which I also clock from, and then back into Pro Tools through that AES input on the Avid HD I/O. I also have some outboard in my room, including the Dramastic Audio Obsidian Compressor and the Bricasti M7, and several keyboards, including the Dave Smith Prophet‑6, Mellotron and Ensoniq ASR‑10.”

Ethan Stevens’ keyboards include a Sequential Prophet‑6 and a digital Mellotron.Ethan Stevens’ keyboards include a Sequential Prophet‑6 and a digital Mellotron.

Non Stop

Heroes & Villains took up a lot of Stevens’ time in 2021 and 2022. “Metro makes beats all day, every second. I’m not with him all day, of course, but when I’m in Atlanta and we’re in the studio, his MPC will be hooked up into my Pro Tools rig, and we’ll work on a beat together like that. We did Heroes & Villains mostly in LA. He had done a lot of the pre‑production in Atlanta, like starting beats and sample chops. Here in LA, I like to bring stuff to the studio we can start a vibe from. There’s a guy living down the street from me who has a garage sale every Sunday, with thousands of records for sale. Sometimes I’ll buy some and bring them to the studio for Metro to listen to and sample.

Inside Track“My role is to bring inspiration to the table. I’ll also bring some of my keyboards when I work with him. Making beats is a constant with him, and I try to get him to play them for me, to see where they could go or to just hear what he’s been up to. I might suggest some strings, he might want to add a choir... we’re just bouncing ideas off each other.”

Any beats that are deemed interesting enough may be further developed by other beatmakers, or Metro Boomin may develop a beat by someone else. Additional parts, like horns, strings,...

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