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Jeff Bhasker on mixing ‘We Are Young’

Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers By Paul Tingen
Published October 2012

Jeff Bhasker doesn't usually mix his own productions or work with indie-rock bands. With Fun, he did both — and created a worldwide hit.

Jeff Bhasker.Jeff Bhasker.

Iwent nearly insane mixing 'We Are Young',” recalls Jeff Bhasker. "It took me almost two weeks, because I knew it was going to be a giant song and I wanted it to be right. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to nail it, making sure it sounded good on car speakers, computer speakers, with radio compression, and so on. I'm not really known as a mix engineer, I'm more into arrangement and production, and we considered sending the song to a mixer, but you can end up having that demoitis syndrome. Plus the budget was kind of small, so I thought: 'The rough mixes sound great, I'll just mix it myself.' But this ended up a total nightmare. After writing, playing, arranging and producing, I had listened to the song so many times, I didn't know what I was listening to any more. And when you try to make one thing one percent better, everything else can come down like a house of cards.

"Somehow it seems like I pulled it off. I actually mixed most of the album, and I'm happy with the results. The mixes have a kind of purity, making everything sound a bit like the music I listened to when I was young. When you pass the music to a mixer, they can tighten up the finer points and get a little bit more punch, and improve things in other ways, but what matters the most is the overall feeling you get from the music. And for us it's great that people got to hear the album the way we heard it. People are hearing exactly the same music and sound that got us excited. It was a challenge that drove me insane [long sigh], but it was also a great experience. I drew on my background in arranging, and once the arrangements came together, I only had to fine-tune things in the mix. But I'll never do it again!”

Growing Up

This composite Pro Tools screen shows all the audio tracks from the 'We Are Young' mix session (although many aux tracks have been removed for clarity). The tracks are arranged in colour-coded groups: from top, drums (blue), real and synth bass (dark purple), electric guitars (green), synths (purple), piano (magenta), horns (dark blue), and more brass (yellow), followed by huge numbers of vocal tracks. At the bottom you can see the rough mix and two reference tracks, by Queen and Kanye West.This composite Pro Tools screen shows all the audio tracks from the 'We Are Young' mix session (although many aux tracks have been removed for clarity). The tracks are arranged in colour-coded groups: from top, drums (blue), real and synth bass (dark purple), electric guitars (green), synths (purple), piano (magenta), horns (dark blue), and more brass (yellow), followed by huge numbers of vocal tracks. At the bottom you can see the rough mix and two reference tracks, by Queen and Kanye West.

Jeff Bhasker's judgements proved correct, as sales of Fun's 'We Are Young' have, at the time of writing, exceeded those of Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Call Me Maybe' and are approaching those of Gotye's 'Somebody That I Used To Know'. Like the two other monster hits of the year so far, 'We Are Young' was a grower, having been released as far back as September of last year. Following a leg-up through being covered in Fox's Glee, it was pushed over the top by its use in a car commercial during America's all-important Super Bowl last February, and it has since reached to the number one spot in the US, where it's already gone five times platinum with sales of over five million. It's also hit the top spot in the UK, Australia, Canada, the European digital chart, and many other territories, while Fun's second album, Some Nights, has also gone Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.

All this meant a major breakthrough for Fun, whose debut album, Aim And Ignite (2009), had failed to do the latter. Deciding to take better aim next time round, the New York trio spotted the work Jeff Bhasker had done with Kanye West, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, and decided that he was the man to produce their second effort — although getting Bhasker to take note proved far from straightforward. In February 2012, when he was in New York co-writing and co-producing material for Beyoncé's 4 album, Fun sensed their opportunity.

Bhasker recalls, "I didn't really want to meet them. I was thinking: 'Why should I meet with an indie rock band?' I was working with Beyoncé, and also with Alicia, Kanye and Jay-Z, and doing this had been a big goal in my life. I had no intention of being distracted. So I agreed to meet Fun for five minutes in my hotel. During that meeting Nate [Ruess, the band's singer] sang 'We Are Young' in my ear, saying that they were working on this song and that they really were fans of melodies and lyrics. I immediately recognised what a great song it was, and told them to come to the studio where I was working at the time, Jungle City, the next day. On that first day we essentially recorded the basis of the final version of 'We Are Young'. I programmed a drum beat on my [Akai] MPC3000, a bass on my Moog and maybe using my little [Roland] Juno 106, and we added vocals and piano. We worked for many more days on it afterwards, but the core of the final version of the song was recorded on that first day.”

The Real Stuff

Jeff Bhasker on mixing ‘We Are Young’

Following the initial sessions at Jungle City, Bhasker and Fun recorded more vocals, piano and guitar in Electric Ladyland Studios. The sessions continued, off and on, for most of the rest of the year in Los Angeles, at Enormous Studios, with an excursion to The Village Recorder to record a children's choir, and even some orchestral sessions at Abbey Road in London. Enormous is Bhasker's own studio, and he briefly elaborates on his tools of the trade.

"The studio was originally built for post-production and 5.1 mixing, so it's tuned really well, with a very transparent sound. I can really trust what my monitors are telling me. They are a pair of NS10s and two Geithain speakers with a Genelec sub. I have a Pro Tools HD rig, a grand piano, a couple of Moog keyboards, a couple of Junos, and a couple of other random keyboards, plus some vintage preamps by Neve. I don't have a desk, but I do have a Pro Control and a Shadow Hills summing box, which I used on some songs on Some Nights, though we bypassed it for 'We Are Young'. I did not like the way it coloured the sound on that track. I have the same plug-ins everyone has, mainly Waves, so I know my sessions will open on any computer. My engineer has loaded the Pro Tools rig with every soft synth known to man, but I always come back to using my MPC and my keyboards. You can get so bogged down in too many choices with soft synths that it just gets too much. In the end, working with limitations is really useful, and can help you get the best out of what you're working on. Although I use soft synths, I tend to go for the real stuff. I like the noise it makes. Every soft synth sounds clean and digital and cold, but real keyboards get these imperfections that make them interesting. Like the chorus on the Juno develops this woosh sound, like the wind blowing, which adds some nice air to a track. You need that.

"When we began work at my studio, we added to the recordings we'd done at Jungle City and Electric Ladyland, and things went really fast. They had six songs, though none were demoed, they simply played people things in the room on acoustic guitar, piano and vocals, which was great, because that meant there was a real emphasis on songs. It gave the album a real foundation to build on. So I recorded them performing these songs on piano and guitar, and I built around that. We finished doing that by the end of March, and we thought we'd have the album completed by May, but after we got those six songs going, we started developing the sound more, and when you improve one song, you want to make the others better, so that was a gradual maturing process. We also had to write some more songs to round out the album, something for which I invited Jake One and Emile Haynie, and we gradually got the overall sound of the album together. But you don't want the music to go stale. It should always be growing a little bit, and this meant that it took a year to get the album done.”

Rubbing Along

Fun on stage, with singer Nate Ruess at front.Fun on stage, with singer Nate Ruess at front.Photo: Digico Ltd

Elaborating further on the arrangement of 'We Are Young', Bhasker states, "There are many vocal tracks in the session. Nate had never multitracked his vocals, and when I first recorded him in New York, I had him sing the chorus over and over to warm up. When he was finished I chopped up his vocals and layered them, and what came out of the speakers immediately sounded like magic. He had never heard his vocals sound like that either, and he was just amazed. I continued that approach with all the vocals on this record: I never let them sing to previous vocal takes. I would always let them sing by themselves, and I'd then add the different vocal takes together. You get a stronger performance that way, because the overdubs are rubbing against each other. It's the rubbing between vocal takes that makes it sound like doubling. I don't like to align vocal takes. I'll only do it if the timing is really out of whack. It's kind of like an older style. Back in the day they didn't have Auto-Tune or the possibility to stretch and time the vocals, so people just sang, and it was the rubbing of the vocals against each other that made them sound big.

"I kept the drum arrangement on 'We Are Young' fairly simple. You can layer a lot of stuff, but what often ends up happening is that different parts fight each other. I'd rather have one kick that sounds good, or two with one for punch and one for the bottom end, and just turn them up! If you use several kicks you can get phasing issues. For me it's all about getting the sound that you want and then cranking it up! That's another lesson from working with Kanye: rather than adding more tracks, keeping it minimal actually makes things sound bigger. Ironically, the more you add, the smaller things sound, because there's no room for anything. If there's a track you can't hear, I'd rather mute it, rather than keep it in there as some kind of background texture or whatever. The biggest thing in the world is the 808 kick drum in 'Love Lockdown' because it's just one thing. When you play that in an arena, it's huge!

"One funny thing about the rhythm track is that Nate had been talking about the tempo changes in 'We Are Young,' and that he wanted to lock into the same tempo for the entire song. So we did that, and listened to it, and we felt that the verse didn't sound right. It needed to be faster, but that meant that the chorus would be slower than the verse. I was like: 'You can't do that, it has to be all one tempo.' But the more we listened to it, the more it was apparent that the verse had to be faster, and then I realised that it was no problem doing that. I have a lot of experience making playback tracks for Kanye's live shows in Pro Tools and I was messing around with Elastic Audio for that. I totally knew how to speed the track up and slow it down, so that's what I did. The way we played with tempo changes was another key element in the song — and, in fact, the whole album. Basically, with computers today there's nothing that you can't do. I love playing guitar, but I'll slow the speed down so it's easier to play, and will then speed it up again, and that gives a really interesting sound, tighter and a little bit other-worldly. So I thought that the tempo stuff with Fun was a really cool thing. The ADD generation today wants to hear all these noises and ear candy going on all the time to satisfy the need of the brain to have something unexpected happen. The tempo changes meet that need.

"After we'd sorted out the rhythm track and had recorded Jack [Antonoff]'s guitars and Andrew [Dost]'s pianos at my place, we began work on orchestrating the track and adding all those elements that make it sound like fun. Fun's first album had a lot of orchestral arrangements on it, and that was part of what they wanted to incorporate in the song. So we did the orchestral arrangements and then sent those to Rosie Danvers and TommyD, with whom I've done a lot of stuff for Kanye. We'd done the arrangements with MIDI and samples, and they transcribed them and did some additional orchestration, and they recorded everything with live instruments at Abbey Road and sent that back to me. We also recorded a children's choir at Village Recorder. There really is a kitchen-sink approach in this song! We spent many hours working on it, but the key was to keep it sounding simple and straightforward.”

Faders Up

Jeff Bhasker on mixing ‘We Are Young’

Jeff Bhasker: "As I said earlier, I'm not known as a mixer. I mixed most of the Fun album, and I mixed some of my own stuff, but what I normally do is writing and arranging, choosing and balancing instruments. The main thing for me is that the arrangements have to be good, and the arrangements dictate, for the most part, how the songs sound. You do the arrangements, you record the instruments, and when you then put all the faders at zero, it should sound really good. There are many tracks in the session, but there are always just a few elements: vocals, drums, bass and piano, basically. There's an orchestra playing, there are guitar tracks, there are all kinds of synths doing different things, but at heart there are just four elements.

"One issue that was really important to me, and that I was really struggling with, both in the arrangement and the mix, was whether the guitars or the drums were going to dominate the track. The heavier the guitar gets, the rockier the track, and if the drums get more prominent, it will sound more like hip-hop. Finding the balance between the energy that the guitars bring versus what the drums bring was interesting, and I guess in the end the drums won — though, overall, the vocals won. With every record, it's always about the vocal. I had Queen's 'We Are The Champions' in the session because I wanted the vocals to feel like they do in that song. But I also wanted the song to sound as contemporary as 'Empire State Of Mind'. This song, and Fun's album in general, have these two elements. There's a very timeless, classic feeling in Nate's writing and voice, and I felt that my job was to frame that in a really contemporary, hard-hitting production and mix.

"Mixing 'We Are Young' was both a gradual continuation of the recording process, and a separate stage. I spent most of two weeks dialling in the mix. One of the reasons it took so long was that I had used drum samples in the arrangement that couldn't be cleared, so I had to replace them with my own sounds, and that was a killer. All of a sudden, the record didn't feel the same. I spent a week getting the drums to feel the way they originally did, which involved taking the session to a friend's studio and running them through his Fairchild compressors 10 times or so to get some grit in there and make them sound old. People might not have noticed the difference, but we had been so used to hearing the track sound a certain way, it just killed us not to have that warmth. So a lot of time was spent getting those drum elements to sound similar to what we originally had.”

Get Organised

"When mixing, I start with the drums and the vocal. I want the drums to hit really hard, and I want the vocals to be really clear. After that I'll bring in the bass, and then the other elements to fill in the middle. I'll regularly mute the keyboards, or the bass tracks, or the drums, and see how things sound. That's how I arrived at having only the drums and vocals after the bridge, which for me is one of the most magical parts of the record.

"Part of mixing is being organised: once you have eight sessions with 60-plus tracks in each session, organisation is really important. Underneath the individual tracks in the session, you'll see group tracks in green, like guitar aux, orchestra aux, bass synths, drums, music aux, and so on. They help me organise the session, and they also relate to the Pro Control that I use, which allows me to balance those different elements. When everything is grouped like that, I can really quickly listen to what each element is doing. I love touching faders and mute and solo buttons, as opposed to doing it all on a screen. I'll move the fader up until it sounds like it's in the right place, which is such a different feeling than doing it visually. I have been wondering, though, whether these auxes actually hurt the sound quality because of the additional internal summing. Really, you want to be sending these groups to a summing box.

"For the rest, my approach is really just mixing 101. It's very basic. I'm not technical about it at all. I start playing with EQ and compression, using plug-ins to carve things out. It's a mixer's job to organise different frequencies, making sure everybody and everything in the track can be heard. That's nothing new. It's just a matter of using your ears and using common sense on where instruments should be sitting. Choosing the instruments when you're arranging is the first thing that really defines the overall sound, and then you polish it up. You break it down in basic elements: drums, vocals, bass, piano, guitars, orchestra, synths. It's really very basic. I don't have any special tricks, it's just me and my ears. I'm not looking at how cleanly I edited a wave or what a plug-in is doing. A lot of people these days tend to use their eyes, but to me it's really important just to use my ears. Hey, it's music, you have to listen to it! I can't stress that enough!”

Drums & bass: Waves Renaissance EQ, CLA 76, L2, Maserati compressor.

"There's not that much going on, plug-in-wise, on the drums. There's a Renaissance Waves four-band EQ on the tom loop, as well as a CLA 76 compressor. I'm using a Renaissance EQ and an L2 limiter to maximize the 808 kick and give it more punch, as it can sometimes be rather flabby. There are two keyboard basses, and a real bass, played by Jack [the label 'Adrian' refers to an assistant engineer]. One keyboard bass gives a pulse, and other has a more distorted sound and kind of functions like an effect. One of the keyboard basses has a two-band Renaissance EQ and the bass guitar a four-band Renaissance EQ as well as a Tony Maserati compressor plug-in to give it a rough and tough sound.”

Guitars: Waves De-esser, Doubler, SSL EQ, Renaissance EQ.

"One of the guitar tracks has a lot of plug-ins, and this was because Jack used many pedals when we tracked this, with lots of distortion. We called the sound of his guitar 'the swarm of bees'. I think I was trying to tame that a little bit! I didn't want it to stick out and hurt your ears, it needed to blend in. There's a De-esser and a Doubler and a SSL EQ and a seven-band EQ and the Renaissance Compressor. These plug-ins are totally not thought-out, I just put them on in a frenzy, trying to tame the swarm of bees. There really was no master plan. If it works, just leave it! A real mixer might have done better, but however naively I put on these plug-ins, it has charm.”

Keyboards & orchestra: Sound Toys Crystallizer & PanMan, Waves Puigtech, CLA 76 & S1 Stereo Imager, McDSP Filterbank E6, Bomb Factory Sansamp PSA1.

"The Juno 106 has the Sound Toys Crystallizer and a PanMan for automatic panning to get it to move through the soundfield, and a PuigTech EQ, as well as a CLA 76 compressor. The E6 on the Synth Bridge is the Filterbank EQ, and it also has the Waves Stereo Imager, to widen the signal a bit. I added the Sansamp on a few of the piano sounds, to give them a little more bite and make them sound more like samples. I initially did the pianos in the Triton and then re-cut them on my acoustic piano in my studio, but I felt that they weren't cutting through enough, so I blended the two together to get the best of both worlds. There are almost no plug-ins on the orchestra stems, because I did not want them to sound processed. I liked them exactly the way they were, and they provided a natural element in the arrangement.”

Vocals: Waves Renaissance EQ, Compressor & De-esser, MetaFlanger & Maserati VX1, Audio Ease Altiverb.

"There aren't too many plug-ins on the individual vocal tracks, but there are many on the vocal bus. But it's all pretty straightforward. There's a Renaissance EQ and compressor, and a little bit of reverb and delay, from Altiverb, and 'DLD' is a small hall reverb. I kept it pretty dry. The backing vocals have the MetaFlanger phaser, which gives a shimmer that sounds a bit like an ELO thing. I'm using a Renaissance de-esser on some vocals. 'MV1' on Janelle's vocals is the Maserati VX1 vocal plug-in for some air and presence. She's singing in a whispery and sexy way, but the music is quite loud in that section, so I had to make her sound more cutting to make sure she was heard.”

Stereo mix: Waves L2, API 550.

"The session was in 44.1kHz/24-bit and I mixed back into it, using the L2 limiter and the API 550 EQ on the master bus, to boost a bit around 5k, add some bass and give it some additional shimmer. Essentially, I wanted to hype it up a bit. Many mixers hate putting an L2 on the mix, but I don't get too purist about it. One of the big things about this record was that it had to sound like contemporary music. I think the song is timeless, and then the production and mix had to be current. Production is like fashion designing. It's like clothes. The artist has to feel like they're wearing something cool, and they should not be wearing last year's fashion or something that isn't cool. And like fashion, production sounds change. In every era, people's ears have a certain palette, and right now, if it has an L2 on the master, it sounds like music to people. I will try every option, but if my ears tell me that it needs to sound like a Pro Tools session with an L2 on it, I'll put it on. This isn't 1972, it's 2012!”  

A Dose Of Prog

Although Jeff Bhasker is best known for his contribution to American urban music, Fun no doubt noted that his work displays many influences from early-'70s rock, particularly of the jazz, prog and symphonic varieties. Among Bhasker's favourites are Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Kiss, Santana, Queen and Return To Forever. The screenshots from the 'We Are Young' sessions contains two reference tracks that influenced the song: Queen's 'We Are The Champions' and Kanye West's 'Empire State Of Mind'.

Bhasker, who grew up in Socorro, New Mexico, elaborates: "Actually, I first got involved in music by playing jazz piano. That was my first love in music. I then went to Berklee School of Music in Boston, where I studied arranging and jazz piano. I did many big-band arrangements, and programmed these in MIDI in [Opcode] Vision software on an old MacBook 520, and then created the scores using Overture software. I gradually also got into doing beats for hip-hop music, which, as black music, seemed a natural extension of jazz, and blues and rock and so on. I moved to New York on 9/11 — I signed the lease of my new apartment with ashes floating around everywhere. The months after were a rough time during which many people didn't want to come to New York to record, so I did a lot of programming in my apartment, and got into writing songs in addition to writing beats. I also got into singing, using my voice as an instrument more than a lead vocal. But doing all this myself was more immediate than writing things and having other musicians and singers interpret them.

"All these things formed the basis for what I would be doing with Kanye later on. I moved to LA in 2004 or 2005 and honed my skills further. My first big placement was with The Games' The Documentary album [2005], for which I co-produced the title track. It was interesting to get this hip-hop placement, but I wanted to do songs, so I took a step back, and started playing keyboards in Kanye's backing band. I gradually became his musical director, and he began inviting me to the studio to work him on his records. He gradually became my musical mentor and inspired me to shape my own sound, and to use different tones and not fit in the mould. I turned the corner from someone who was still trying to sound like others to beginning to sound like myself. When you're trying to sell tracks to labels, you tend to cater for what you think A&R people and labels want to hear, and it takes courage to be different. I ended up closely working with Kanye on 808s And Heartbreak [2008] and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [2010]. People responded more and more to my unique sound, and I kind of ran with that.”

Run with it Bhasker certainly did, because in addition to working with Kanye West, Alicia Keys (on The Element Of Freedom, 2009), Beyoncé (4, 2011) and Jay-Z (The Blueprint 3, 2009) and Jay-Z and Kanye West (Watch The Throne¸ 2011), he has also worked on albums by Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars, Drake, Kid Cudi, Leona Lewis, Mary J Blige, Snoop Dogg and many others. Bhasker has become one of the key people in today's American hip-hop/R&B scene. He describes his sound as "a lot of space and a melody that is going to stick with you. Kanye pushed me in the direction of doing music that sounds like Pink Floyd and has this kind of prog-like flavor, using Moogs and Junos. I think that the most interesting things always come from contrasting directions that you don't think will go together. So my style is based on a kind of moody proggy rock sound, placed against rugged hip-hop drums and a general urban sensibility. It's like urban music with a really strong sense of song and melody. It's funny, because I got an email the other day from Bob Ezrin, saying that he really loved the production on some of the things that I had done, and I was like: 'Wow, the reason you like the production is because it was totally inspired by you, like Pink Floyd, with all the space and epic size and slow-moving stuff.'”

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Fun, inspired, as they are, by '70s British rock, saw Bhasker as the ideal person to help them ignite their second album. He recalls, "Nate said to me: 'I want you to put that sound on our songs.'” For Bhasker, it meant his first major album project as main producer.