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Inside Track: SZA 'Kill Bill'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Rob Bisel By Paul Tingen
Published March 2023

Inside Track

It’s no surprise that SZA’s long‑awaited second album has been a hit. More surprising was the key role of little‑known engineer and producer Rob Bisel.

The big music‑industry story of the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 has been the enormous success of SZA’s single ‘Kill Bill’ and her second album, SOS — which, at the time of writing, is enjoying its fourth week at number one on the US Billboard album chart. In the five years since her 2017 debut album, Ctrl, SZA (pronounced ‘Sizza’) remained in the limelight through collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, the Weeknd, Travis Scott, Justin Timberlake, Doja Cat, Cardi B, Post Malone, DJ Khaled and many more, galvanising her newfound position as an A‑list artist. She also let slip that she had worked on a second album with the likes of Mark Ronson, Tame Impala, Timbaland and Sia. Expectations were high, but there were many delays, causing considerable frustrations among her fans.

SOS was finally released on 9th December, but there was no trace of the aforementioned collaborators. Instead, big‑name producers who had worked on the album included Babyface, Jeff Bhasker, Benny Blanco, Darkchild, Emile Haynie, the Rascals, Shellback and Michael Uzowuru. The album’s credits also list ubiquitous top 40 hit mixers Serban Ghenea, Manny Marroquin and Jaycen Joshua, as well as Shawn Everett, Dana Nielsen, Derek ‘206Derek’ Anderson, and Jon Castelli.

Often described as alt‑R&B and neo‑soul, SZA’s music is not typical top 40 fare, making the presence of so many top 40 hitmakers among the credits slightly surprising. However, a closer look at the credits throws a different light on the proceedings. It turns out that someone called Rob Bisel co‑wrote and co‑produced 17 of the album’s 23 songs, has an engineering credit on all, and a mix credit on eight songs. These include three of the album’s main singles: ‘I Hate U’, ‘Shirt’ and ‘Kill Bill’.

Hot Sauce

Rob Bisel’s studio is named after his dog, Ponzu.Rob Bisel’s studio is named after his dog, Ponzu.“The success of the album is pretty cool,” remarks Bisel. “I thought people would like it, but the strength of the reactions has been a surprise. It’s really satisfying after all the hard work! For me, it’s been a long journey. I’m 30, and I first worked in studios at the age of 17, when I interned at Studio 880 in Oakland, which was Green Day’s unofficial studio. They were touring, so there was no action in the studio, but it was still a dream job for me to clean the spaces they would be in, including the bathrooms!”

Bisel’s interest in music preceded his toilet‑cleaning job at Studio 880, as he relates: “I played in bands as a teenager, mostly bass. I also did some pretty serious choral singing, that reared its head on the SZA album. But I was always interested in the recording side, and have been recording friends in my bedroom since I was 14. I never wanted to be a professional musician; for me, the studio side is the coolest thing ever!

“I’m from the Bay Area, but studied music at the University of Michigan, and during summers I interned for Mark Needham [Fleetwood Mac, Imagine Dragons, the Killers — featured in SOS September 2017]. I would show up to clean the studio and watch him mix, and definitely soaked up a lot of sauce from him. After I graduated from college I moved to LA, and when I was looking for a paid position, I stumbled on Dana Nielsen, who works a lot with Rick Rubin at Rubin’s Shangri‑La studio.”

Learning From The Best

The connection with Rubin and Shangri‑La turned out to become foundational to Bisel’s career and skill set. “Dana connected me with the studio, and I started as an intern and a runner in 2014, and eventually became an assistant engineer and engineer.

“I ended up doing maybe 15 to 20 projects with Rick [Rubin], which really fuelled my hunger to dive deeper into production. It quickly became clear to me that his super power is taste, and watching him work was really inspiring for me. There are many intangible things I picked up from him, but possibly most of all Rick is a master at creating pressure‑free moments where people can get out of their own way and do what comes natural to them.

“An added bonus of working at Shangri‑La was that it’s not just Rick and his projects, but others also book the studio. So I was a fly on the wall for Mark Ronson sessions, and Kendrick Lamar booked the studio for half a year, and I got to watch and assist his producers and engineers. If I were to try to describe my style and approach, it’d be a combination of so many people I have worked with, mostly Rick but also Greg Fidelman, Jason Lader, Dana Nielsen, Ed Stasium, Ben Rice, Noah Goldstein, Caleb Laven and Ken Oriole, and Mark Needham for mixing.”

Beats Working

At the beginning of 2020, after six years at the studio, Bisel started to feel that it was time for a change. As luck would have it, in her long‑lasting journey to creating a second album, SZA had booked Rubin’s Kauai home and studio, and needed an engineer to work with her. Rubin passed along Bisel’s name, and two days later he was on a flight to Kauai. “We worked for a week together, with the two of us just vibing and coming up with song ideas. We returned to LA and worked for another two weeks, and then Covid hit and the world was shutting down. So she suggested that we stay and work at her house. So me working with her for a long period of time was sort of the product of the Covid situation.

“Among the first songs we did at her Malibu house were ‘Good Days’ and ‘Hit Different’. It was a pretty crazy situation, because she was used to going to big studios with tons of people coming in and out, and suddenly it was just the two of us, and I had to step into much more of a Rick Rubin producer role than just be the typical engineer. It gave me the space to present beats to her that I had made, alone or with others. If she liked the beat, she recorded over it. She also ended up really liking the way I record and mix her vocals, which led to me mixing songs as well.”

Much of SOS thus ended up being home‑grown, because Bisel tends to start his beat ideas at his home studio, which is called Ponzu Studios, after his dog. Ponzu Studios is full of hardware instruments and outboard, and SOS features many ‘real’ instruments that were played rather than programmed. ‘Kill Bill’ is a prime example.

Crucial to the genesis of ‘Kill Bill’ was a flute sound from Rob’s Sequential Prophet 6.Crucial to the genesis of ‘Kill Bill’ was a flute sound from Rob’s Sequential Prophet 6.

“The idea for ‘Kill Bill’ began with me messing on my [Sequential] Prophet 6. I bought it two years ago, and I played some basic chords using a flute‑like sound. I recorded that into Ableton as audio, and added a bass line, using an electric guitar that I tuned down an octave. At a certain point, I didn’t really know where to go with it, and sent it to producer Carter Lang to see if it sparked something in him. He sent me back three or four different approaches, adding another bass, some guitars and layers of drum machines. The version we liked the most had a strong retro, almost boom‑bap influence, sort of like Amy Winehouse.

“We played SZA five or six beats, including this one, and she immediately gravitated towards it. A week or so later she asked me to pull up the beat, so I put it on loop for her, and she did her thing where she goes very quiet sitting in a corner by herself. I know to stay out of the way and let her be. Five minutes later she said, ‘I have an idea. It might be a little too crazy, so let me know what you think.’ And she sang the lyrics and the melody of the hook of the song, note for note. I couldn’t believe it. If she had finished the song with passable verses, it would have still been great...

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