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Mike Strange Jr: Eminem Recovery

Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers By Paul Tingen
Published October 2010

Eminem's Recovery has been one of the biggest hit albums of the year, spawning two number one singles — all recorded and mixed by Eminem's long‑term engineer, Mike Strange.

Mike Strange Jr.Photo: Grant Morhman

Eminem's 80 million album sales, including nine number one albums and 13 chart‑topping singles, don't only make him the world's best‑selling rap artist, but are also indicative of the degree to which he has crossed over into the mainstream pop market. The accolades he's gained during his 14‑year‑long solo career include Artist Of The Decade (Billboard magazine, 2009) and Best Rapper Ever (Vibe magazine, also in 2009), plus a staggering 11 Grammy Awards (from 26 nominations) and seven American Music Awards. Eminem's achievements are even more impressive when placed in the context of the detour his career took in 2005, when he retreated from the limelight just as he was at the top of his game. At that point he had released four best‑selling solo albums — The Slim Shady LP (1999), The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), The Eminem Show (2002) and Encore (2004) — and had a hand in two US number one albums with D12, the Detroit hip‑hop group that he co‑founded in 1996.

Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers, aka Slim Shady, aka Em, didn't return to the fray until 2009 with Relapse, which didn't quite scale the commercial heights of the aforementioned solo albums. His latest solo album, Recovery, is an obvious attempt to re‑establish himself at the forefront of the hip‑hop and pop worlds. The man states in 'Talkin' 2 Myself', one of Recovery's core songs: "Them last two albums didn't count / Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushin' them out / I've come to make it up to you now no more fuckin' around.” The album has been one of the greatest hits of the year, spawning, for the first time in Eminem's career, two US number one hit singles from the same album: 'Not Afraid' and 'Love The Way You Lie' (featuring Rihanna).

Changing The Team

This composite screen capture shows the Pro Tools Session for 'Not Afraid'. Eminem's vocals are near the top, colour‑coded blue and red (at the extreme left), above Luis Resto's instrumental parts (purple and green), with the components of Boi‑1da's original beat (orange) below those.

Eminem has always been particularly adept at blending rapping of dazzling virtuosity with ultra‑catchy pop hooks. Recovery takes this approach one step further, and 'Not Afraid' is notable for its extended chorus and bridge, both sung by Eminem. The foundations for Eminem's writing and production approach have usually come from a small group of collaborators led by Dr Dre; Encore and Relapse also featured Mike Elizondo along with keyboardists Mark Batson and Luis Resto.

On Recovery, however, Eminem worked with a much wider variety of producers, several of them unknown or up‑and‑coming. Dre appears as executive producer and co‑produced just one song, while the rest of the tracks were (co‑)produced by the likes of Just Blaze, DJ Khalil, Jim Jonsin, Denaun Porter, Supa Dups, Emile Haynie, Script Shepherd, Havoc, Boi‑1da ('Not Afraid') and British new kid on the block, Alex da Kid ('Love The Way You Lie').

Given Eminem's lengthy relationships with Dre and other musicians, the rapper appears to like working with a stable and close‑knit coterie of insiders, so it doesn't come as a surprise to hear that his engineer, Mike Strange Jr, has been working with him since 2001. On the phone from Detroit, Strange explains that he cut his pre‑Em engineering teeth with producer Michael Powell, famous for his work with Anita Baker and for founding Vanguard Studios — during the '90s one of Detroit's most in‑demand recording venues. "Em came into Vanguard to mix the first D12 album,” recalls Strange, "and they needed an assistant, so I stepped in. I later received a phone call from the owner of 54 Sound, the studio where Em was working at the time, asking me if I wanted a job. I've worked with Em ever since. I began as an assistant, and eventually moved onto being his main engineer and mixer. Apart from when he's touring, Em is always working in the studio, even when he wasn't releasing albums, so it's a full‑time job.”

Strange was originally a musician, and when recording his first, never‑released solo album in the mid‑'90s, he ended up manning the Pro Tools rig, his first step towards becoming a self‑taught engineer and Pro Tools expert. It made finding work easy, says Strange, "because there weren't many Pro Tools rigs in Detroit at that time”. He still occasionally plays guitar, bass and keyboards on Em's records, but his 'musician' career has taken a backseat to his engineering and mixing. He engineers all Em's sessions and, with the rapper, mixed almost all of Recovery.

Out Of The Box

When recording Eminem's hook vocal, Strange used Digidesign's stock reverb and delay (right) plug‑ins — though the latter was replaced at mixdown by a TC 2290 hardware unit.

The Eminem recording and mixing sessions all took place at Effigy Studios in Detroit, formerly a commercial studio that Eminem acquired in 2007. Strange: "We left the large live room more or less as it was, but completely gutted the control room, including the digging of a trench in the floor for the cabling. The room wasn't quite big enough, particularly for Dre and his people, so we knocked down walls to be able to accommodate everybody. We only kept a few pieces of the studio's original gear, and for the most part installed our own. For instance, we changed Effigy's API for an 80‑channel SSL G‑series, which came from Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles.”

Eminem's core team at Effigy is completed by Mike's brother and assistant engineer Joe Strange, studio manager John Fisher, and keyboardist/composer Luis Resto, who has also been working with Em since 2001, and who has co‑produced and co‑written many Eminem songs. As for the studio itself, the SSL is not just for show: Em and Strange continue to be fans of analogue equipment and are averse to mixing 'in the box'.

Strange: "We are only in the box when cutting Eminem's vocals for a song, which I record over a two‑track mix of the producer's beat. During that stage, I remain in Pro Tools so it's easy for Em to switch between songs while writing and recording. After that, I ask the producer for the individual tracks and I'll spread them out across the SSL. We basically use Pro Tools like a tape machine. We use the occasional plug‑in, but it's mainly to clean up stuff. For the rest we use outboard and the SSL board, and after we've mixed the track, we add musical overdubs, usually with Luis. We've long worked in this way, and acquiring Effigy Studios hasn't really changed our working methods. Our main focus in getting the new studio was in creating a recording facility that was similar to other rooms Em had worked in and in which he is comfortable. We've developed a certain workflow over the years that means that we can move through the material very quickly, and in which the recording process has become almost invisible. All our focus is on creating the song, and not so much on getting sounds and things like that. The studio is set up in such a way that we can just walk in and start.”

Adding instrumental overdubs after having mixed the song is hardly conventional practice, but it's clearly become such a normal procedure that Strange mentions it in passing without further comment. It emerges that this unorthodox working method has a very logical raison d'être. According to Strange, their most common way of working is that a producer will send them 'beats': a combination of a rhythm track and a musical arrangement, which may be rudimentary or complete, and with or without a hook melody line. This arrives as a stereo mix, and the next step is for Em to write and record his rap to the non‑hook sections of the beat. He will usually double‑track the entire rap.

Strange: "We have a large live room at Effigy, and we have Em in there with some gobos, and a Sony C800 microphone, going into an Avalon 737 mic pre. It's the microphone that Dre uses, and Em likes it, so he's always used it. In all the years I've worked with him, I don't think we've ever tried another mic. It's a little bit like a guitar player who digs his old Les Paul: you don't take that away from him. We have a few C800 mics, because we tend to burn them up quite quickly. Em has two, I have one, and Luis has two or three. Because it's a fairly modern mic we've never had problems changing from one to another. We go straight into Pro Tools from the Avalon, at 44.1kHz/24-bit. Dre used 88.2 for a while, so we switched to that as well, but we prefer working in 44.1 because of the amount of tracks that we sometimes use in one song. Once Luis starts doing overdubs, we need all the tracks we can get! We don't need them for Em, though, who will cut his vocals exactly the way he wants them. We don't do vocal comps and things like that. I have never done vocal comps for him. Em doubles his rap vocals for sonic reasons, to make it sound a little thicker, and he's really good at reproducing his performance and getting his doubled vocals to sit really tight. It's not a lot of work for me. Cutting the vocals is easy, because he knows what he wants and is able to achieve it.”

Get The Vocals Out Of The Way

Few plug‑ins were used in the mix, but the Massenburg EQ appeared in several places, such as on Boi‑1da's timpani sample.

Strange continues by giving more details of their back‑to‑front mixing method, asserting that Eminem prefers to "get all the vocals out of the way before we mess with the track too much. Once we have cut all the vocals to the point where Em is comfortable with them, and we're sure we're going to use the song, I'll request the multitrack from the producer, spread things out over the board, and only at that point will I start dissecting the beat, tweaking it sonically. That's the beginning of me mixing the song. I'll get the mix to the point where it sounds close to the orginal two‑mix, but better, with the vocals mixed in, and then Em will come in and he will mess with it for two or three hours, especially paying attention to the vocals. At this point I simply man Pro Tools. In general, the producer isn't there when we work on the track — the beauty of the Internet is that you use it to send files to and forth, which means that people don't have to come all the way to Detroit. Though Dre is always there when we work with him, and Alex da Kid did come over, as did Just Blaze and Jim Jonsin.

"After the mix, we get Luis in to do overdubs. Luis has a huge collection of keyboards and soft synths, and we have tons of stuff at the studio, like the Oberheim OB8, the [Yamaha] Motif, the new [Roland] Fantom G, and so on. He'll be throwing ideas down pretty quickly. Joe [Strange] is usually at Luis' side during overdubbing, because there can be a million things happening at the same time, and Joe helps to keep everything moving. I'm not trying to condense or comp anything at this stage, because it takes up too much time. As I said, I like the recording process to be invisible, so the artist can just get on with creating music. There might be only one idea on each track, but it keeps the workflow going fast. In some cases I end up with hundreds of tracks! Later, once it's clear something is not going to be used, I'll make it inactive and will hide it. I don't delete anything, because it's always possible that someone will ask for it later on. Also, Luis actually plays everything. He doesn't program or sequence his parts and we don't sit there quantising his stuff. Luis is an actual player, a real music guy. He has a really good feel.”

Strange explains that Eminem is very involved at all stages of the process, including the mix and the overdubbing processes: "He has a real vision of how he wants things to sound. Everything with him is very deliberate. Our main focus is in understanding what he is looking for and giving it to him.”

It is here that the reason for Strange and Eminem's back‑to‑front working method becomes clear: once the rap artist has laid down his vocals to the producer's beat, he comes into the control room, where he can focus without distractions on the arrangement and production side of the song. Given that in hip‑hop the vocals are the most important element, even more so than in pop music, it also makes sense that he first sets them in stone, so to speak, and then fits "the music” in with them. Moreover, according to Strange, the parts that are added by Resto are in most cases an embellishment of the producer's original beats, rather than a rewriting or re‑arranging of everything. Often this involves Eminem introducing his own musical ideas, which Resto develops into complete parts. In this sense Resto's contributions are on a par with a mixer working on improving sounds or replacing a kick drum or another part. So would it be correct to understand the overdubbing process as a continuation of the mix process?

Strange: "Yeah, in this way of working the overdubbing process and the mix process are one and the same, and Luis' contributions generally enhance the producer's arrangement that's already there. Sometimes we end up with something very different, but that's not very often. You have to remember, though, that Luis also writes stuff, like he co‑wrote 'Lose Yourself' [Eminem's 2002 number one hit]. So there are different ways in which songs come into being. On 'Not Afraid', Luis' contributions improved and fleshed out Boi‑1da's original arrangement to the degree that he did get a co‑writing credit. All Luis' stuff is recorded DI, so we're in the control room at this stage. The live room at Effigy gets mainly used for cutting Em's vocals. We don't do a lot of acoustic recording in the studio. I played acoustic guitar, bass and keyboards on the track 'Going Through Changes', and used the C800 and Avalon 737 for the acoustic guitar, and DI'ed the rest. We've recorded guitar amps in the past, like when working with Mike Elizondo, but it's not very common. Usually people will be going through [Native Instruments'] Guitar Rig, rather than us miking the guitar amp. For the bass, we also go DI through the Avalon or, again, Guitar Rig. We have a Prism Orpheus Firewire and the RME Fireface 800 audio interfaces to plug electric and bass guitars into.”

'Not Afraid'

An unusual use for Antares' Auto‑Tune: to keep the pitch of the TR808 kick stable.

  • Written by Marshall Mathers, Matthew Samuel (Boi‑1da), Luis Resto, Jordan Evans, Matthew Burnett
  • Produced by Boi‑1da
  • Additional production: Mathers, Resto, Evans, Burnett

The original beats for 'Not Afraid' were supplied by Boi‑1da, the 23‑year‑old Canadian production wonder, who shot to fame last year with the US number two hit single 'Best I Ever Had', performed by fellow Canadian singer/rapper Drake. A few months later, a second Boi‑1da‑produced hit song, 'Forever', shot to the top of the US charts, featuring Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Eminem. Strange: "We first heard of Boi‑1da when working on that song. We were like, 'That beat is great, let's get more from this guy.' So he sent us more stuff, and Em picked out some of the beats and wrote to them, and I then stuck Boi‑1da's CD in Pro Tools to record Em's vocals. I think two of Boi‑1da's songs made it to the album, 'Seduction' was the other one. He was never there for the sessions.

"The original beats that Boi‑1da sent us contained most of the drums and a number of keyboard pads, so we had the chord changes. If you look at the screen shots, you can see that I've put all Boi‑1da's stuff at the bottom of the Session, under an inactive track, 'Orig beatz'. It consisted, from top to bottom, of an 808 kick, a regular live kick, a hi‑hat, a ride, a snare and a cymbal track. Underneath that, there's a horn track, a track with orchestral hits, and several pads, including a Mellotron‑like sound, that play the chord progression. There was no hook melody; that was added by Em. I like to have the vocal tracks at the top of the Session, because in hip‑hop they are the most important element. There are three stereo 'explode' tracks at the top purely because they were a last‑minute addition. But below that you can see Em's main rap track, '3EmMn05', and below that the rap double, and below that his talking in the intro. You can see that he sang the hook five times. These are actual overdubs, we didn't copy and paste, other than for the hook vocals in the intro, for which I bounced some of the later hook vocals and them moved that submix to the front. The bridge vocals were overdubbed six times. We didn't use Auto‑Tune or anything like that: Em also gets his singing parts down quickly and accurately.

"Below the bridge vocals you see the inactive 'Luis2' track, and below that is all Luis' stuff, 25 stereo tracks in all, going all the way down until Boi‑1da's beats. Seventeen of Luis' tracks are keyboards: piano sounds, guitar sounds, and so on. There's a lot of orchestration that he added, particularly in the choruses and bridge. On the far left of the screen shots you can see that I colour‑coded all tracks. All the more traditional keyboard tracks are in blue, the two bass parts played by Luis are in green, and the percussion/drum tracks, whether from Boi‑1da's original beats or played by Luis, are in brown. Boi‑1da's original keys are in orange, and the gunshot explosion in dark green. Em's rap is in dark blue, the hook vocals red, and bridge dark purple. The three lines, colour‑coded in purple, are master faders that trim the outputs to get things to the console at the right levels.

"After I've arranged the Session in Pro Tools like that, I lay things out more traditionally on the desk, with drums on the left, then any bass instruments, then any guitars, keyboards, main vocals, and overdubs to the right. When I start mixing I begin with the drums, first the kick, then the snare, et cetera. I bring each part of the drums in, and then I add the vocals, which usually means I have to go back to the drums and change things there. If anything interferes with the vocals, it gets changed. When I add in the vocals I'll start with the rap, because you have to prioritise that in hip‑hop: you want to be able to understand each word, especially when he raps fast. It can be a challenge to fit in the rap from a sonic perspective. The hook is usually a lot easier to fit in. I'll then add in the other instruments, one by one. Em has a particular way in he wants things to sound, and we do our best to get the track to fit around the vocals. Once I've got the mix to a point where I think it's close, Em will come in and he'll be at the desk for a few hours, and he'll tweak things and will get them to how he wants to hear them, and at that point we start adding Luis' stuff. In doing so we make sure it fits in with what we already have. We don't have another separate mix session after Luis has done his overdubs, we're always working towards the end result.”

Drums: SSL EQ and compression, Antares Auto‑Tune, Digidesign Trim and EQ III, various reverbs.

"Boi‑1da's stuff sounded pretty good, so I only used SSL EQ and a little bit of compression on that, to make it fit with the other tracks. I used a Trim and Auto‑Tune on the 808 kick that was added by Luis, because there was some pitch fluctuation in the 808 and we wanted to keep it in tune. There's a 7‑band EQ on the timpani sample, and apart from SSL EQ and compression that's it as far as the drum and percussion tracks are concerned.

"The vast majority of effects I use are outboard, and we're pretty well stocked at Effigy. I always set up a number of reverbs while mixing, mostly the Bricasti, Eventide 2016, the Lexicon 480, Lexicon PMC70, and the Yamaha SPX90s. The SPX90 is an old box, but it has such a cool sound. It has a clanginess that's difficult to get from other boxes or plug‑ins. These effects are mainly set up for the vocals. One track may get a couple of reverbs, and but I'll sometimes use them on the drums or other instruments as well.”

Vocals: Massenburg EQ, Digidesign Extra Long Delay and D‑Verb, Alta Moda Unicomp, Requisite L2M, TC 2290, various other reverbs and compressors.

"The two rap tracks have a Massenburg EQ plug‑in, and the '9' send goes to the eighth‑note delay track immediately above the two rap tracks. The 'E' plug‑in on the intro speech track is Digidesign's Extra Long Delay. That's all the plug‑ins I used on the rap. The outboard included a lot of compressors, including the Alta Moda Unicomp, one of the coolest compressors around, which works great on vocals, but also on the kick or the snare. There's some vocal distortion in the rap, which was caused by running the vocals hard from the Alta Moda back into the SSL returns. You have to push the SSL really hard to get some distortion, because it's usually pretty forgiving. I also used a Requisite L2M on the vocals, which is a tube mastering compressor. It's kind of like a couple of LA2As, but with more control. I've used that on every song I've recorded for Em. It's expensive, but really cool.

"With regards to the hook, the delay on Em's vocals that repeats every vocal line he sings is a real feature. During tracking I used a plug‑in delay for that, and you can still see the Hook Delay track in the Session, but you can also see that all the sends are gone. I replaced it with the TC 2290 delay, for sonic reasons. I also used the D‑Verb when cutting, and it looks like I left that in there. In terms of the outboard reverbs, I'll usually have a short plate and something longer, and that will kind of stay there for the duration of the track.”

Music: SSL EQ and compression, API 550a, Digidesign Dynamics III, Massenburg EQ, various other compressors and reverbs.

"For the most part, the music tracks only had SSL EQ and compression. Certainly the Boi‑1da tracks had nothing else. The bass had an API 550a EQ, which we like a lot. I may use outboard compressors or reverbs on more important instrumental parts. You can see that I used a Digidesign compressor limiter on one of the horn sounds, and the Massenburg EQ on an OB8 sound. At the end of the session we added the three gunshot tracks, which had Massenburg EQ plug-ins to roll off some low end. There are also string overdubs [arranged and recorded by Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett] and a live choir overdub [recorded by Robert Reyes] in the track. Em wanted these and they were recorded after we finished the track. They were done in LA, the files were sent to me and I flew them into the mix.”


"We print the mix back into Pro Tools, and we'll do a few different mix passes, like a main pass, an instrumental pass, an a cappella pass, a drum pass, and a bass pass. We do this for several different reasons. One is that if Em wants to change something later on, like he wants a little more bass in one section, we can do that very quickly and easily. The other is that when he's touring with his live band, they can add elements of the mix to what the band is doing. There's also a vocal delay right at the end of the track, just as it segues into 'Seduction', and that was created by using the a cappella mix and putting a delay on it, and copying and pasting that at the end of the track. I didn't do anything to the final mix, I simply sent it off to [mastering engineer] Brian Gardner and let him do his thing.”  

'Love The Way You Lie'

Eminem's most recent hit, 'Love The Way You Lie' featuring Rihanna, came into existence in a slightly different manner from 'Not Afraid', for a number of reasons. The backing track and hook melody were created by British producer Alex da Kid, and apparently the arrangement was so complete that Luis Resto didn't add anything. In addition, Rihanna's vocals were recorded elsewhere. Mike Strange explains: "Everything we needed was already in the track, apart from the vocals. As with 'Not Afraid', we cut Em's vocals to the two‑mix, using a D‑Verb and Extra Long Delay plug‑ins, which I kept in the mix. Then Alex came over to help us with the mix.

"Rihanna recorded her vocals while on the road. They consist of seven stereo vocal tracks, and basically we left these exactly as they were given to us. We added a bit of SSL EQ and compression, and some reverb, but not much. In fact, I kept the vocal balance made by Rihanna's people, and simply had Rihanna's vocals come up on the desk in stereo. Often when we work with another vocalist, we figure that they have done what they want, and so we prefer to leave it. On Em's vocals, in addition to the D‑Verb and the Extra Long Delay, I had board compression and EQ, and the Bricasti and 2016. The rap almost always gets those two. Sometimes I use the 480, which is cool for longer reverbs, while the Bricasti and 2016 are better for brighter reverbs.

"Regarding the music, I didn't do very much to Alex's tracks. They were very well recorded. The [Waves] R‑Verb and REQ on the kick and the Maxx Bass on two other kick tracks came from his Session. I left everything he sent me. We didn't use much outboard on this song at all, almost everything was done with the console EQ and compression. It was simply a matter of trying to match and then to improve on the demo he'd sent us.”