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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, guitar and bass, tend to be recorded by Stevens, or sent in. Rappers and singers will also co‑write and add their parts, again sometimes recorded by Stevens, and sometimes sent in. On Heroes & Villains these rappers and singers include John Legend, Future, Chris Brown, Travis Scott, 21 Savage, the Weeknd, Young Thug, Gunna and many more.

The first single from the album, ‘Creepin’, which was a top 10 hit early this year in more than 30 countries, is a case in point. The song is in part a remake of the 2004 hit ‘I Don’t Want To Know’, by Mario Winans, featuring Enya and P Diddy. “I wasn’t there for the actual writing of ‘Creepin’,” says Stevens, “but I know that song had been talked about before because Metro is a fan, and Mario is a good friend of ours. Abel [Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd] also loves that record and has often talked about doing a remake. One of his producers, DaHeala, started the original beat, and Abel did a rough on it, and then it was sent back and forth, with Metro adding things, as well as Mario.

“The live strings were done by our buddy Peter Lee Johnson, who came to our studio to lay down a stack of 10 to 20 parts as well as piano. I used the Royer R‑121 on the strings and the Coles 4038 on piano that was played by Mario. I used the Sony C‑800G on Travis’ background harmonies. It’s his favorite mic, that he feels comfortable using, so I stick with that. The signal chain for Travis’ vocals was the Neve 1073 pre into a Tube‑Tech CL1B [compressor].”

Merging Sessions

The Pro Tools mix session for ‘Creepin’ is a stem session consolidated from multiple source sessions.The Pro Tools mix session for ‘Creepin’ is a stem session consolidated from multiple source sessions.At the mix, the SSL console was used to bring everything together. “I have a separate Pro Tools session for pretty much everything. So in the case of ‘Creepin’ there was a beat session, an Abel session, a 21 Savage session, a string session, a Mario session and a Travis Scott session. I then mixed the above sessions through the SSL to stems, that I then imported into my main song session, keeping Abel and 21’s vocals raw, with my plug‑in processing active, for further tweaking.”

Stevens’ final mix session starts with a bass stem, then six drum stems, a Metro Drums aux, and a drum loop, all in red. Next are the music stems, all in beige‑green, consisting of the main sample, and tracks with keys, synths, pads, a choir, Peter Strings, and Johan Strings. Below the 21 Savage and the Weeknd vocal tracks are vocal stems from Mario Winans and Travis Scott.

“There are very few plug‑ins on the drums and music stems, because they had already been treated on the SSL, mostly using desk EQ. In our main studio we don’t have the biggest selection of outboard, so I don’t use too much of that. In any case, I’m not really into compression for rap and hip‑hop. I might use it lightly on the drums, but really, the drums just need to knock, so I’ll use the outboard API EQs on them. When I mix in Conway, I’ll dive a bit deeper into the outboard: for example, on ‘Niagara Falls’ I used their Pultec EQP‑1S, and I’m a big fan of their Lang PEQ‑2. I also really like their Fairman compressor, and ELI Fatso and Distressor.

“There are several reasons why I work with stems. The bottom line is I/O. Our SSL has 80 channels, but we only have 48 outputs from Pro Tools. So I can’t have 20 tracks of strings and 20 tracks of synths and 20 tracks of vocals all in one session. I have to mix in sections. Also, especially with DSP and HDX cards, your processing is eaten up fast. And finally, though Pro Tools Hybrid mode now gives you a lot more tracks, personally, when I get too many tracks in one mix session, it gets overwhelming.”

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On Heroes & Villains the final mix process was mostly in the box, with the mix session in question containing a large amount of stems that had passed through an SSL. “The final mixing process is very important for Metro and I, because it’s our experimental time.” Stevens explains. “I will try many different things. I might ask, ‘Hey, I think heavy distortion on this bass would be great.’ And Metro might suggest a delay throw or some creative vocal effects. I like to give Metro options: ‘How does this sound? Do you like it? Am I going in the right direction? Or should I leave it the way you had it?’ He’ll give me his honest opinion. If required I may go back and recall an earlier session, but the lead vocals are the one thing I prefer to keep in the box. There are things you can do in digital that you cannot do in analogue. For example, Metro has a big thing about nudging. We’ll go line by line and will nudge each phrase so it feels perfectly in the pocket.

Inside Track“My process is that I get the mix of the instrumental right first, and I then mix the vocals in with that. In a lot of situations in rap, you record a vocal over a two‑track. So I’m used to that. But there’ll be some times when we go back, because the snare or the kick or the hats might be affecting the vocal too much. If so, we go to the source session and work on the instrumental. But most of the time, Metro simply wants to get the beat knocking and hitting right, and then we fit the vocals with that, and I may only make some adjustments in the session to the stems I have. Like in ‘Creepin’, there’s a Kirchoff EQ on the bass, and the Oeksound Soothe 2, which is side‑chained to the kick. That’s so the kick could really come through, without the bass overpowering it. The drums are then sent to an aux, on which I have my Dramastic Audio Obsidian as a hardware insert.”

Savage & The Weeknd

“Savage’s vocals were recorded by his engineer, Isaiah ‘ibmixing’ Brown. You could see the punch‑ins and so on. Something like that I’ll keep in the main session. His verse vocals are all sent to an aux, on which I do the most important treatments. I’m getting most of my gain from the UAD 1176, their new Spark Native version. Then there’s a FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, rolling off some low end to get out some mud, followed by the FabFilter Pro‑MB to balance the lows and the highs. Multiband compressors dip only when needed, and not the whole time, which is great.

To maintain a long reverb on the Weeknd’s vocal without clouding the mix, Ethan Stevens first filtered out the low and high end, then used FabFilter’s Saturn 2 to add grit, before using a compressor keyed from the dry vocal to duck the reverb behind it.To maintain a long reverb on the Weeknd’s vocal without clouding the mix, Ethan Stevens first filtered out the low and high end, then used FabFilter’s Saturn 2 to add grit, before using a compressor keyed from the dry vocal to duck the reverb behind it.“After that there’s another Pro‑Q 3, removing some more mids, because Savage has a lot of midrange in his vocals. The FabFilter Pro‑DS is my favourite de‑esser, and the Oeksound Soothe 2 does more of the same thing. They’re both very transparent. The DMG Audio Limitless is there to bring the level up further, because I wanted to make sure he could compete with the track. These are all on the inserts. The sends go to aux tracks with reverbs from the Lexicon 224, LiquidSonics Seventh Heaven, Eventide H9 Blackhole, delays from Waves H‑Delay and Soundtoys EchoBoy, and the Waves Doubler.

“Abel’s vocals were recorded and already tuned and treated by his engineer, Shin Kamiyama. They came with plug‑ins, including the Pro‑MB and Waves Maserati GRP. I don’t normally use the Maserati GRP, so I bypassed it and put it back in to see what it was doing, and I liked it, so left it. After that there’s a McDSP MC404 multiband compressor, which does a similar thing as the Pro‑MB on Savage’s vocals. It’s about creating balance within the vocals. The Wavesfactory Spectre adds some more body, boosting lows and mid, and then the Eiosis Air EQ adds air in the top end. The Soothe 2 is doing some de‑essing.

Inside Track“There are fewer sends in Abel’s track, because they had sent me an effects print track, which I used. It sounded great, and if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I wanted him in a similar space as Savage so I sent his vocals to two of the same auxes, with the same Lexicon 224 and Eventide H9 Blackhole. The Weeknd’s older stuff has a reverb with a long decay time, and I tried to recreate that with some plug‑ins, like the Valhalla, but the Blackhole fit really well. Since the decay time is so long, I side‑chained it to Abel’s lead.

So after the Blackhole there’s a Pro‑Q 3 allowing only midrange through, then a FabFilter Saturn 2 for more of an analogue feel, and then the Waves RComp. I’m sending the lead vocal to Bus 127, which is triggering the RComp, so while he’s singing it’s ducking some of the reverb, and when he’s not singing, the decay rings out longer.”

FabFilter Saturn 2.FabFilter Saturn 2.

The Way Out

In between the music and the vocal tracks in the ‘Creepin’ session, there’s a master section, which consists of All Vocals, All Music, All Drums and All Bass group aux tracks, a Mix Thru track and a Master track. Stevens explains why they are there and what they do. “The ‘All’ tracks are first of all for Metro. If he wants to tweak something he can mute certain sections in a fast and easy way. But what happens there is that these four aux tracks go to my outputs 9 to 16, which go to my Neve 5059 summing mixer, from where they go to my Lavry Savitr, and then via AES back into Pro Tools, where they come up on the Mix Thru track, which allows me to monitor my mix, and from there it goes to the Master track, from which I print the mix, in the session.

Second from top in this rack is the RND 5059 summing mixer, which is important to Stevens’ mixing process.Second from top in this rack is the RND 5059 summing mixer, which is important to Stevens’ mixing process.

“The Neve adds a little bit of analogue colour. In comparison to the SSL, it sounds a bit rounder and mid‑forward, while sending things through the SSL makes them sound punchier. The Neve is just a summing unit, adding a bit of colour from the transformers, and mostly this final chain is about the Lavry. My mixes are so loud that they clip the Lavry, and I really like the way it does this, particularly with the Savitr’s MX function, which is great.

“My master bus in this session has only three plug‑ins: the Brainworx Knif Soma passive mastering tube EQ, the Pro‑MB and iZotope’s Ozone 9. Normally there’s a FabFilter Pro‑L 2 here as well. I have a Pro‑L 2 preset that’s for my loudness, doing a 4dB boost. But I take it off before I send to mastering.

“The Soma is adding a bit of low end and top end. It looks like I’m boosting a lot with the Pro‑MB, but the mix knob is actually set to 50 percent. It’s because I don’t really like to put a compressor across my whole mix. If I take the wetness down, I make sure that I keep the integrity of my actual mix without it being over‑compressed. Finally, there’s the classic Ozone 9 Exciter and Imager, exciting some of the midrange and low end.

“I don’t rely on my master track. Usually the source of any problems is within the mix, so I prefer to address it there, rather than trying to fix it in the master track. In this track we had no problems. Usually, Metro and I go back and forth a bit during the mix stage, but with this song we got lucky and we hit the nail on the head at the first or second try, which was great.”  

Ethan Stevens

Ethan Stevens grew up in Los Angeles to parents who were into Motown and rock & roll music. He started off playing a guitar that his dad bought him, wanting to be like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. But at high school he shifted direction. “Some of my friends rapped, and I went more into production and started making beats in Logic. That’s how I got into engineering and mixing, because someone had to record my friends, mix everything and put it all together. I then went to the Los Angeles Recording School, which gives you a Pro Tools licence and an MBox, and I started taking engineering seriously.

“While studying at the LARS, I got an internship at Paramount Recording Studios, but I could not go on to be hired at Paramount because I wasn’t 21 yet. I ended up interning for a production team called the Stereotypes, and worked at a BBQ restaurant, until I got a call from Paramount in 2014 and was hired as a runner. My biggest mentors there were Victor Luevanos, who is now Dr Dre’s engineer, and Randy Urbanski, who works with a lot of the big producers [Afrojack, Skrillex, Kanye]. They both gave me a lot of insight as to how to handle clients/artists, microphone and signal chain techniques, and how to use the SSL.”

In 2015, Stevens went independent, receiving a lot of work from Paramount. “A frequent client was DJ Mustard, so I was used to working with a producer, and as I was doing beats myself, I knew how a producer likes to work. In 2016, Paramount asked if I was interested in working with Metro, which was our first link‑up. From day one it was easy working together, and we just got straight to work.”

In September 2017, Metro Boomin offered Stevens a job as his regular engineer and mixer, and he’s been there ever since. While the producer regularly travels between Atlanta and Los Angeles, Stevens only travels with him when they’re working on a project. If not, Stevens remains in Los Angeles, and in down time he engineers and mixes for other artists, like Gunna, Future, 21 Savage and Offset.

Recall & Response

The main problem with mixing on a console in 2023 can be summed up in one word: recall. Strikingly, though, this does not seem to bother Ethan Stevens at all, even though he does not have an assistant to do the donkey work. “I never had a full‑time assistant, so recall can be a little bit time‑consuming for me. If I need to go back to a session, I recall it on the console computer, set all the channels and the outboard gear, and then put my console [scribble strip] tape back on the board. I keep all my console tape and recall sheets in envelopes and a binder — I’m a very organised person! It takes some time, but I may still be working on two or three songs a day. On Savage Mode, I kept everything on the console until the album came out, so I asked Metro before he arrived what song he’d like to work on that day, and I’d do the recall while he was driving to the studio. By the time he’d arrive, I’d have the mix ready to go.”