Traditionally educated in the art of recording, Bainz has had to adapt to Atlanta rap’s studio culture. Here, he talks us through his mix of Young Thug and Gunna’s hit single, ‘Ski’.
“The process is always the same. Young Thug, Gunna or another rapper from YSL Records comes into the studio, and they choose a beat to work with. The beat is loaded as a 2‑track into my Pro Tools recording template, and they start improvising over it. Thug often spends a lot of time chopping up the beat in Pro Tools and rearranging it, to get the exact structure he wants.”
Angad Bains, aka Bainz, works primarily in the Atlanta rap scene. There used to be a time when the red light ruled — make a noise or enter a studio when it is on and you’re dead meat — and artists would come into the studio with carefully prepared songs, with chords and lyrics written down and laboured over for weeks or months. But Atlanta rap culture completely ignores the old paradigm. A relaxed vibe is imperative, and sonic corruption a problem to be solved after the event.
“Thug or the other rappers work out their rap in the control room, which usually is full of people, because it adds to the vibe,” Bainz explains. “No words get written down or entered into a phone ever, by anyone. You will be surprised at how fast the rappers move! Sometimes the entire vocal is laid down in less than an hour. It’s about the energy in that moment. Our job is to capture that, maintain sonic integrity and make the end result sound as amazing as possible.
“A lot of the time people will be talking to each other or on their phone during the takes, so it’s not an ideal acoustic environment. Once when we were working in Atlanta, we didn’t have space for the gobo, so the studio assistant stood behind Gunna and held up the gobo in his hand, while Gunna’s engineer, Flo Ongonga, was recording him. It was crazy! So while we capture all that excitement, afterwards there’ll be a lot of clean‑up, getting rid of noise and clicks and pops and so on, using iZotope RX.”
Based in Los Angeles, where he has his own studio, Bainz has been working for Young Thug and his YSL Records since 2017. One of his first credits with YSL was as engineer on the label’s Slime Language compilation album, released in 2018, and he engineered and mixed much of Young Thug’s debut album, So Much Fun (2019), which went to number one in the US.
Slime After Slime
Deep in the middle of 2020 and of the pandemic, YSL hatched a plan for another Slime Language album. The concept of the Slime Language compilations is to showcase YSL’s artists, as well as a large collection of guest artists and Thug’s close friends. And so Slime Language 2, which also became a Billboard number one, features the likes of Travis Scott, Drake, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, Big Sean, Skepta, Future, Kid Cudi, Meek Mill and many others, as well as Young Thug and Gunna, of course.
According to Bainz, working on the album made little difference to his daily rhythm, apart from the complications of the epidemic. “Since I started to work for YSL, I have barely had any days off. I am Thug’s and YSL’s full‑time engineer, and they are in the studio every day. Because YSL is such a big camp, as a team and as a label, somebody is always working. They operate like a big family. I do mixes for others as well, sometimes, but I am on call all the time as an engineer. The only reason I can do so many mixes is because I have my room in the same facility, right down the hallway, so I can just walk over to help with recording when needed.
“When the Covid crisis first happened last year, all studios in LA had to shut down. So we did the Slime & B album of Thug and Chris Brown, at Chris’s house. Eventually we went to Atlanta to work on Slime Language 2, and then we came back here. We continued working throughout the pandemic, but with fewer people in the control room, and everybody was constantly getting tested. Because there were no tours last year, I recorded and mixed more than I have in a long time. Last year I did many more projects and mixes than normal.”
Born in New Delhi, India, Bainz got to his position as chief engineer and mixer at YSL in Los Angeles via Australia, Florida and New York. He recalls, “I never played an instrument, but got into DJ’ing and I was into electronic music. I went to Melbourne to do a bachelor degree in something, I can’t remember what it was, but I hated it. I dropped out and then enrolled in the School of Audio Engineering Institute in Melbourne. I was always into the technicalities behind music and there I realised I wanted to be an engineer.
“After that I went to Full Sail in Florida. This was in 2006. I graduated valedictorian. I then moved to New York City, where I became an intern at Dubway Studios, which was an indie rock studio, with multiple rooms and analogue equipment. I learned a lot about handling analogue gear there. I became general engineer soon afterwards. My working day at Dubway was from 7am to 5pm, and I then went to work at another studio, Blast Off, which was more urban.
“Blast Off built another room — I got to see how studios were built — which became my room. I worked with Wiz Khalifa there, and a whole bunch of Atlantic artists. Soon after that I met up with Michael Brian, and we started our own studio in SoHo. We got bigger and bigger and after eight years, in 2016, we decided to move the studios to LA. A year later I did my first session with Young Thug.”
Bainz has an impressive credit list. In addition to the artists already mentioned, he has worked with Juice WRLD, Sia, Mac Miller, Quavo, Machine Gun Kelly, Prateek Kuhad and many others. When asked why he thinks he managed to be so successful in a relatively short space of time, he reflects: “I guess I’m really fast on Pro Tools, but also, I’m very adaptable. When I met Young Thug, I really immersed myself in his culture. This is really important. When you work with an artist every day, you have to know where they’re coming from, and how they move. You need to know the technical stuff as well, and if you communicate that with them, it’s the best marriage.”
As Bainz already outlined, work on Slime Language 2 started in Atlanta, at the YSL studio there, which has an SSL in the control room. “That desk was barely used,” elaborates Bainz. “I used it once in the six months that I was in Atlanta, to record a horn section. But I would not in any case use an SSL as my main vocal preamp, because I don’t like the sound of an SSL on vocals. A lot of the vocal recordings were done in the SSL room using a Sony C800G, Neve 1073, dbx 902 de‑esser and a Summit Audio TLA. In LA our vocal chain is C800, 1073 and then a Tube‑Tech CL‑1B.
“I have recorded lots of things, but my job for YSL is mostly recording vocals. The beats tend to come in ready made. Sometimes the producer is there and you’re tracking their production from an MPC or synths or other instruments into Pro Tools. While that occasionally happens, I’m not the producer’s engineer, I’m the artist’s engineer. And when I’m not the artist’s engineer, I’m the artist’s mixer. I’m doing two full‑time jobs!
“I’m Thug’s full‑time engineer, but also sometimes record Gunna, though he has his own engineer, Flo Ongonga. In the past, when Thug and Gunna were in Atlanta, Flo would record them, and here in LA I’d record them, and neither of us would sleep for days. But since Covid, with them working so much, I go to Atlanta to work with Flo and when we work here in LA, he comes over to work with me, so it’s both of us in action at the same time all the time.”
From a technical perspective, given the amount of sessions Bainz conducts, he almost unavoidably starts from a recording template. “You have to have it. Essentially the template is built for speed and low latency. It’s got two record tracks, with Antares AutoTune, a playlist track, a bunch of vocal audio tracks, and a dozen aux effects tracks. A lot of the stuff gets removed when we move into the mix world, where we may have similar things, but better sounding and with higher CPU usage.
“While we are recording, Thug is his own vocal producer. He will pick the takes, or even the bars, he wants to use. Sometimes I will do the comps, but often he gets on the computer and does the comps himself. He knows his way around Pro Tools. We go back and forth. It is like a dance we do. And while we are recording he may ask me to nudge things in time as well.
“Both Thug and Gunna listen back for timing a lot. That’s a big part of what they do. Almost every part gets nudged around, forwards or backwards. Someone who is punched in may come in a bit late, in which case you nudge them forwards, but for the most part we’re nudging vocals back a little bit, because it’s the feel they want. But then there are rappers, for example DaBaby, whose sound is based on being slightly ahead of the beat, and that works for him.”
Once the vocals are recorded and comped, Bainz does a rough mix and the tracks are shelved. Given that complete vocals for each track can be written and recorded in less than an hour, hundreds of tracks end up being recorded. “How many tracks we record is impossible to say, because we’re recording every day. Whenever everyone really liked a particular song for a few days straight it gets added to a mix album shortlist. At some point the artists and/or YSL’s A&R and Thug’s manager Geoff Ogunlesi choose which tracks to finish, at which point I continue to work on them.
“Once I enter the mix world, I start with cleaning up the vocals, because of all the background noises that usually are on them,” Bainz continues. “I’ll be doing small fades and processing with iZotope RX and also use Clip Effects a lot for the in‑built EQ for every clip, option 6. I don’t use the Zoom presets 1‑5. Instead I have them as Clip Effects presets, which really helps me fly through to the editing. If there is harshness, or something else that needs to be de‑essed, I hit one button and it is going to be notched. It is super‑easy, super‑fast, I don’t even have to open the window. This is a big part of my workflow.
“A piece of gear that comes in really handy here is the Elgato Stream Deck XL, with Soundflow software. In terms of my workflow this has been a game changer. You can have all sorts of presets. The de‑clicking, de‑plosive and de‑clipping we do in iZotope RX can all be set up under single‑key macros that trigger crazy automation.”
After cleaning up the vocal recordings, Bainz gets down to the actual mixes, which involves loading the recording session into a mix template, and also chasing the individual tracks of the beat. As has also become clear from previous Inside Tracks, the latter is increasingly an issue in the hip‑hop world, and some mixers end up having to mix the vocals to a stereo mix of the beat. With many rappers suffering from ‘demoitis’, with a real attachment to the original, unmixed stereo beat, it can end up with the mixer being little more than a glorified vocal producer and product control checker.
“Hell yeah,” agrees Bainz, “that’s often my biggest thing! Some rappers get so married to the demo, knowing every sound, that there’s not much you can do. Thug spends a lot of time making sure that everything is the way it was when he was working with the roughs. So my job is to clean things up and make the beat sound better. But in some cases I may change things or clean something up too much and the rapper doesn’t like it.
“This happened with the song ‘Ski.’ After I mixed it, Thug said, ‘That 808 needs to be way bigger.’ In the rough it had been really loud and clipped. So I had to go back and try a few things. Bringing in a crazy amount of low end without the rest of the mix collapsing was a bit of a struggle. But it worked out. And you know what? Thug pushed me to do things I would not normally do, and now many people say that mix sounds amazing and they are using it as a mix reference. So Thug brings out the best in people. And he also notices when I do things to the beat that make it sound better.
“Getting the stems is a problem, though. Once we know that a track is earmarked for mixing, either myself or Geoff Ogunlesi get on the phone and chase the stems. I’m now an established engineer and when I get the producer on the phone I can go, ‘Yo, I’m calling to ask for the stems of your beat, and this means this record may well be used, so it’s in your best interest to get me the stems.’ They agree, but they just don’t like doing it. We spend a lot of time chasing stems!
“Once the stems do arrive, my assistant is tasked with loading them in the session, lining them up, and replicating each one of Thug’s sometimes crazy edits of the 2‑track of the beat. On top, there may be clicks and pops on the stems. Sometimes they are intentional, but more often than not they’re not meant to be there. So there often is a bunch of iZotope RX clean‑up to do on the beat stems as well.”
When Bainz mixed in Atlanta, he was in a small, untreated backroom, working just on his laptop, with a McDSP ABP‑16 signal processor, Yamaha HS8 monitors and a pair of Amphion Two15s he borrowed from fellow Atlanta engineer, Slice. “I then sent the mixes to my assistant in LA, Aresh Banaji, who would load them into the computer here, and run it through my analogue master chain, with summing from the Neve Satellite 5059, and the signal going through an SSL Fusion master processor and a Neve Portico Master bus. I did a bunch of mixing remotely, using TeamViewer and Audiomovers.”
Bainz eventually arrived back in LA, where he conducted more mixes and finished all the mixes he started in Atlanta. He illustrates his mix approach with his mix session of ‘Ski’, a track written by three producers, Wheezy, Outtatown and BabyWave, and rappers Young Thug and Gunna. “I started using folders because it’s easier to organise the session, and I can collapse everything into one screen. The orange tracks (2‑5) are the 808s that came with the session, and the two brown tracks underneath are parallels. One of which, called VOG.cm is an analogue Little Labs Voice of God effect on an 808 that was committed. I often commit tracks with heavy DSP plug‑ins to ensure the session runs smoothly.
“Below this is the kick track, and the Kick Top is a duplicate, with a filter, the McDSP Filterbank F202, and the Analogue Design Black Box HG‑2 for some analogue tube effect. I really like using plug‑ins that add an analogue vibe, and that’s complemented by the analogue gear in the studio. The clap track has the BDE by DJ Swivel for some dirt, and the beta version of a new plug‑in by him called Knocktonal which doesn’t even have a GUI yet. I then committed that track.
“The snare and the snare roll tracks each have the Brainworx bx_console SSL 9000J Series plug‑in, and the Hat and Open Hat tracks have the Oeksound Soothe 2, to get some of the harshness out. The same with the FabFilter Pro‑Q 3 on the hats. Many producers love their hats loud and a little bit too bright, and I have to tuck them in. Another problem is that there often is bleed from the hats via the vocalist’s headphones. You can get away with the snare, but not with the hats. So you EQ the hats even in the tracking session as a precautionary thing.
“I didn’t get the individual elements of the instruments on this beat. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get them separated, but in this case they’re all on the Melody track. It was a bit sterile sounding, so I ran the track out to the Acustica Camel Pre for some saturation and the SSL Fusion, cranking up the Drive knob, for some distortion. I then printed that back into the session.
“Underneath the Melody track are two drums aux tracks, called DrumsTop&Percussion and All Drums. This is a short song and it stays pretty consistent, and most of what I was working on was to get enough energy from the 808s, and getting the other percussion stuff to hit harder. The UAD Studer A800 helped with that, and on the All Drums bus there is a UAD 33609, and again a Black Box. There’s also a parallel compression drum aux using the UAD Fatso plug‑in.”
“Thug’s main lead vocal track is greyed out, because I deactivated it after I printed it on the track below. There’s a long plug‑in chain on the inserts of the lead track, which is: FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, AutoTune Pro, Tokyo Dawn Labs DeEdger (x2), Oeksound Soothe 2, Oeksound Spiff, Pro‑Q 3, Waves C6, SPL De‑Esser and UAD Tube‑Tech CL‑1BN. There’s a lot of clean‑up from plug‑ins like the de‑essers, Soothe and Spiff, but for the rest all these plug‑ins are doing very minor things.
“On the printed track below I have the Kazrog True Iron for some transformer saturation, McDSP 404 multiband compressor taking off 2dB in the upper mids and some lows for any leftover plosives and proximity stuff, the Acustica Ruby 2 and Ultra Marine 4, and the iZotope Neutron 3. I love the Acustica stuff, it’s my secret weapon! I get a lot of my vocal tone from the Ruby, which is an emulation of the classic DW Fearn VT‑5 vacuum‑tube EQ. The Ultra Marine is a Fairchild emulation, which I often use on vocals, and I really like the Exciter in the Neutron and crank that up quite a bit.
“By the way, the above vocal treatments are not part of a template. Every song is different. I cannot stress this enough. Vocals are different, and in general I like to change tools with every song. I might have gotten a new plug‑in that I like. I love new technology, so I like to try things out!
“So the Thug vocal print track, and also the Yeahs track below it, go to the Slime track, which has three plug‑ins on the insert, the FabFilter Pro‑DS de‑esser, McDSP Royal Mu compressor and the Soundtheory Gullfoss EQ. All these plug‑ins use my McDSP ABP‑16 hardware box, which is digitally controlled analogue circuitry. The Gullfoss is a really cool plug‑in. It’s a dynamic EQ and beyond that I’m not sure what it does. It’s mysterious stuff, but I love the sound.
“There are tons of sends on the Slime track! Nine in total. Some of the aux effects tracks they go to are in my template and some not. The Bricasti aux goes to my outboard Bricasti M7 and the iDistressor aux to my outboard Distressor. I use a plate reverb on the Bricasti and the Distressor adds some more in‑your‑face up‑front‑ness. I don’t overdo it and always check the phase on that.
“There are also sends to aux tracks with the Eventide H910 Harmonizer plug‑in for some stereo width stuff and to an aux with the Black Box for more saturation. There are three reverb sends, with the UAD Ocean Way and UAD Capitol Chambers plug‑ins and the Hall was from the tracking session. There’s also a quarter‑note delay from the McDSP EC‑300, which also has a Waves RCompressor that’s side‑chained to the vocal, so it only sounds when the vocal isn’t there.
Bainz: Thug pushed me to do things I would not normally do, and now many people say that mix sounds amazing and they are using it as a mix reference.
The Gunna vocal tracks use similar effects, though Bainz says he “might swap the Ruby 2 for the McDSP Royal Q EQ” for the main vocal sound. All 16 aux effects tracks are grouped under a Sends folder. Below this is a particularly interesting feature of Bainz’ mix template, which is a Vox Throw folder (yellow), under which there are 15 tracks with bits of audio and descriptions in the comments boxes like “Manipulater x Blackhole,” “Down low, monster voice,” “Wide Chorused Double,” “Wet, wide warm single verb repeat,” “Short room Burst,” and so on.
“These are audio tracks with a bunch of plug‑ins, and each one is different. If I want a big effect on one word or phrase, I will duplicate it and drag it onto one of these tracks. The effect is on the insert and 100‑percent wet, and I will then mix that in with the main vocal. I have developed these effects over time, and if nothing fits for the song, I create a new one. In the case of the purple tracks I’ve printed the effects, because there were too many plug‑ins and they used too much CPU.
“I use all these different effects to make sure things don’t get monotonous. It’s how I keep excitement in the vocals and essentially it’s what makes these rap vocals radio friendly. This is one of the last things I do in the entire process. Once I’m done with the mix and everything sounds cool, I’ll listen to where I can add some special sauce. The faders on these tracks are for the most part really low. They are like little sprinkles that come and go.”
All tracks end up in a folder called Routing/VCAs, says Bainz. “There are four group tracks there: All Drums & Bass, All Instruments, All Vox and All Vox FX, plus a VCA called All Stems. The Vocals have the McDSP Chickenhead compressor. These four aux group tracks go to my chain: the Neve 5059 summing mixer, SSL Fusion master processor and Neve Portico Master bus, and then, via the Burl 2, comes back into the session on track 85, which is my mix bus and called Thru.
“I have a bunch of plug‑ins on the latter track: the McDSP Moo X, UAD SSL G bus, Brainworx Shadow Hills Master version, Dangerous Music BAX mastering EQ, UAD Chandler Curve Bender EQ and iZotope Ozone 9 for some imaging and some dynamics. From there it goes to my pre‑mastering track, 87, in purple, on which I printed the mix I sent to Joe LaPorta for mastering. It has the AOM Invisible Limiter G2, and this louder version, which is for listening purposes, gets printed on track 88. The other plug‑ins in this section, like the iZotope Insight, are purely for metering purposes.
“I probably mixed more than 50 tracks in total for Slime Language 2, although only 31 were released. The craziest time was the week before the release. We heard the release would be on Friday, April 16th, and after the album was announced on the Monday before, tons of stuff started coming in. We were still recording and mixing, probably as late as Wednesday. That was a whole week of no sleep. It was insane!
“Because there were so many different tracks and artists, each with different vocal tones, it was important that everyone who worked on the project exchanged notes, and we got a lot of feedback from Joe LaPorta as well. We, the engineers who worked on the album, call ourselves the SlimEngineers. It’s Flo, myself, Shaan Singh, AJ (Atl & LA), Aresh Banaji, Tumay, Jenso ‘JP’ Plymouth, Bezo, Reef, Viko, Taylor, Aleo, Tanner, Bailey, Luca, Drew and various others. We were all in the trenches together!”