Working on Trippie Redd’s mixtape A Love Letter To You 5 at Miami’s Criteria Studios gave mixer Koen Heldens the rare chance to mix a rap album to half‑inch tape.
Trippie Redd’s fifth album Mansion Musik, released in January, didn’t quite live up to expectations, because it had been rush‑released after hackers had got hold of the sessions in progress. For this reason, mix engineer Koen Heldens was called in to make sure the final mixes for Redd’s subsequent mixtape, A Love Letter To You 5, were in the best possible shape. He conducted the mixes at Criteria Studios in Miami together with Redd’s regular collaborator Igor Mamet, who had recorded, co‑written and/or co‑produced almost the entire album. The end result features guest performances by top artists like Lil Wayne, the Kid Laroi, Roddy Ricch, and others, and is more a collection of ballad‑like love songs than a rap album.
“We did two songs for A Love Letter To You 5, ‘Take Me Away’ and ‘Thinking Bout You’, at Criteria Studio A in June 2022, using the SSL 9000 J‑series in that room,” says Heldens. “We also did the Trippie Redd/Don Toliver standalone single, ‘Ain’t Safe’, in August in Criteria Studio E, which was released in October. Then I heard nothing for a while, until I was asked to mix the rest of A Love Letter To You 5 with Igor.”
According to Heldens, Criteria is Redd’s “studio of choice, particularly Studio E, where Lil Wayne recorded his Carter albums”. Heldens chose to work in Studio D for most of the mixing process, because its small size ruled out dozens of people showing up for studio sessions.
When not working in his home studio in Miami, Koen Heldens likes to take his gear with him. “I have acoustic panels in my room, and my gear consists of a maxed‑out Apple Mac Studio M2 Ultra, Apple Mac Studio Display, Apogee Duet 3 audio interface, Softube Console 1 system, Genelec The Ones 8831s with GLM Kit, Focal Listen Pro headphones and Apple AirPods Max. I am super mobile, and have a custom‑made laser‑cut PeliAir case for my Genelecs and GLM Kit, and custom laser‑cut hardcases for the Softube Console 1 system, which includes two fader packs, Mac Studio and Mac Studio Display.”
Heldens’ portable monitoring proved its value during the mixing process for Trippie Redd’s mixtape. “Igor and I worked for about two months in Studio D. On the first day we were working with the Genelec 1031s, Yamaha 10s and Augspurgers in the room, but although the room is very well balanced, for some reason I felt I could not judge the low end. The next day I brought in my Genelecs 8831s and used the GLM system to shut out the room. When we pressed Play, even the assistants were like ‘How’s it possible to hear sub out of those small speakers? It’s like having giant headphones on!’ So we could judge the low end better from there. The GLM system also showed the bump in the low‑mid area coming from the desk, and corrected that as well.”
Mamet and Helden’s process at Criteria D was to take the former’s rough mixes as a starting point, and then to continue working in his Pro Tools sessions. “Mixing was in the box, with the exception of the two tracks we mixed a year earlier, which we laid out over the SSL 9000, and the fact that we ran all sessions through a Studer A820 half‑inch, using Quantegy 499 Grand Master Gold half‑inch tape. I was absolutely mind‑blown by the enhanced sonics of using tape.
“Igor’s rough mixes were usually done with the two‑tracks of the beats, so when we started mixing, the first thing I asked for were the individual track‑outs of the beats. In general, whenever somebody sends me a two‑track with vocals, the first thing I request is the full tracked‑out instrumental. If they don’t have it, I respectfully decline the job. I don’t feel like that’s mixing, and I don’t feel I can do the song as much justice. And nowadays with Atmos mixes this issue is even more pressing. If you don’t have the tracked‑out beat, you’re going to have a problem with Atmos.
“I have strict preparation guidelines for people to stem out their multitrack for a final mix. I call it ‘stem out’, because I don’t need every element separate. There’s usually a lot of layering in the drums, with two or three or more kick drums, which I tell them to bounce out as one kick drum stem. If backing vocals are harmonies, just one stereo harmony group is OK. When sounds are layered, print them out as one sound. Keep the instrumental stems fully wet, keep the background vocals fully wet, and for the lead vocal, give me a tuned version that’s completely dry, and send me the effects returns separately.
“When people send me a full Pro Tools session to mix, I don’t want to work out why this track is going to that auxiliary, and then into another aux with maybe some strange EQ settings. I know my mind will wonder, ‘Why did they do it?’ Instead I prefer to receive everything committed, so when I load it in and press Play, it’s the same as the rough mix, and I can work from there. If there’s something technically wrong, I’m using my ears rather than my eyes to judge it.”