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Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mikey Donaldson

Inside Track: Tamar Braxton Love And War By Paul Tingen
Published November 2013

Mikey Donaldson at The Hive Studios, now renamed Muse, where much of Love And War was recorded.

Love And War was not only a remarkable comeback for singer Tamar Braxton, but a breakthrough opportunity for engineer and mixer Mikey Donaldson.

The Tamar Braxton album Love And War was, says Mikey Donaldson, the "biggest opportunity” of his career, giving him the chance to engineer and mix the majority of a major release. Donaldson is a fast-rising star in the Los Angeles studio world, who modestly still regards himself as an understudy to the legendary mixer Jean-Marie Horvat. That's not to say that Donaldson doesn't already have an impressive track record of his own, which at the age of 26 already includes big names like Kelly Clarkson, Boyz II Men, Ciara, Janet Jackson, Pussycat Dolls, Beyoncé and Natasha Bedingfield.

Tamar Braxton has undergone a career renaissance thanks to the power of reality TV.

Donaldson had the good fortune to be born in Pleasantville, New Jersey: the hometown of Rodney 'Darkchild' Jerkins. More than a decade ago, when Jerkins had already scored major hits producing and writing songs for the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Destiny's Child, Brandy and Toni Braxton, he noted a young kid doing a good job supplying the live sound at the local church, and invited the youngster over to his studio. "I began interning at Rodney's New Jersey studio at age 14,” recalls Donaldson, "and I climbed the ladder from there.”

Like many other engineers and mixers who have reached the top in recent years, Donaldson also studied Music Production at the renowned Full Sail University in Florida during 2005-6, at a time when he was still working in Jerkins' studio in New Jersey. When Jerkins decided to move his entire operation over to Los Angeles in 2008, Donaldson moved across the country as well. He spent a couple more years working for Jerkins, until going freelance at the end of 2010. His connection with Jerkins opened yet another door for him, as Horvat often mixes for the producer, and ended up taking Donaldson under his wing.

The mix of 'The One' took place in Studio Y at Studio At The Palms in Las Vegas."I learned my overall engineering skills from working under Rodney,” remarks Donaldson. "In addition he showed me how to be more than an engineer, and not just be the guy who sits behind the desk and hits buttons. I did a lot of sound design for him, and digged really deep in terms of getting new sounds. After that, Jean-Marie taught me many of my mixing skills. After I went freelance he and [engineer] Paul Foley really helped me, and allowed me to work at their studio, which was The Hive studios at the time, but has been Muse Studios since Paul acquired them at the beginning of this year.”

Hive Mentality

Many of the sessions for the Tamar Braxton album, which started in Autumn 2012 and ran well into 2013, took place at The Hive and later at Muse, and also saw the involvement of Foley, who recorded the song 'One On One Fun', and Horvat, who mixed the songs 'Pieces' and 'Where It Hurts' together with songwriter and producer Bryan-Michael Cox (see SOS May 2007: /sos/may07/articles/bmc.htm). Donaldson engineered 10 of the album's 14 tracks, and mixed six, including the first two singles, 'Love And War' and 'The One' — a remarkable achievement in a world where up-and-coming mixers usually get to cut their teeth on album tracks, while the potential singles are farmed out to big-name mixers. (In the case of 'The One', in fact, Donaldson was supposed to work with a big-name mixer, but the engineer wasn't keen on the idea of co-mixing and turned in his own mix, which was rejected, before Donaldson mixed the song alone.)

Mikey Donaldson's studio home is Studio C at Muse, with its SSL AWS900 console.In the world of urban music, it's also unusually for a single main engineer to handle recording on the majority of the songs, but in this case Donaldson had a good rapport with the artist: "Tamar was really comfortable with me recording her and didn't really want another engineer to be there, so when it came to recording sessions, if I wasn't able to do it, they would reschedule so I could be there. Singing is an intimate thing for many singers, and many prefer for the people in the room to be the same for every session. Regarding the mixing, some of the songs were mixed by the go-to mixers of the producers involved, like The Underdogs or 'Tricky' Stewart, and for the rest, Vincent Herbert [label manager, executive producer and Braxton's husband] liked the rough mixes I had done, so he asked me to do the final mixes as well.”

Love And War is Tamar Braxton's second album, coming a whopping 13 years after her debut Tamar failed to set the charts alight, perhaps because she was overshadowed by her enormously successful big sister Toni. Tamar, Toni and three more sisters enjoyed some commercial success as part of the all-girl group the Braxtons, but since 2011, Tamar Braxton has been in the news because of her participation in the hugely successful US reality TV shows Braxton Family Values and Tamar & Vince.

Vincent Herbert pulled out all the stops to make Love And War a success, sharing an executive production role with heavyweight industry veteran LA Reid (known for steering Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Kanye West, Usher, Ciara and many others to the top), and hiring big-name writers and producers like 'Tricky' Stewart, Bryan-Michael Cox, The Underdogs, Kendrick Dean and Kuk Harrell alongside fresher faces like Donaldson, KE On The Track, D'Mile and Da Internz. KD Davis (see SOS October 2008) and Jaycen Joshua (SOS August 2010) were amongst the named mixers.

Tracking Tamar

The tracking process for Love And War was "very straightforward,” recalls Donaldson, with producers bringing in backing tracks and various songwriters (amongst them Christian Ward, Shaunice Lasha Jones, LaShawn Daniels, Makeba Riddick, Tiyon 'TC' Mack), writing lyrics and in many cases also melodic lines to these backing tracks, all with an eye and an ear for what would work for Braxton. "The writers discussed various concepts,” says Donaldson, "and really directed the songs towards Tamar. With 'The One', Vince and Tamar had received a demo from the producer, KE On The Track, with him doing all the instrumentation and some of the backing vocals. Christian, LaShawn and Shaunice then wrote the lyrics and Shaunice recorded a demo vocal. TC acted as vocal producer for much of the album, though LaShawn was vocal producer for 'The One'. Tamar would usually tweak a few words or ask for things to be rewritten. If there was too much stuff she felt like changing, the song wouldn't be recorded. If she did like the song, the demo session was sent to me in preparation for her to record her vocals on it, and she'd come in a couple of days later to record it.

"The only people in the room when tracking Tamar were she, LaShawn and I, and the two rewrote the second verse to Tamar's liking in the studio. Normally Tamar would knock out the lead and backing vocals for two songs in one day. We'd start in the afternoon, and late at night TC, or, in the case of 'The One', LaShawn, would record the rest of the backing vocals. It was up to LaShawn or TC and I to decide whether we'd stay up late, or would come in early the next day to do the backing vocals. TC did most of the backing vocals on the album, because Tamar isn't too keen on doing them: she feels she's spent too much of her life singing backing vocals! So she only does the main notes and the most distinct harmonies. TC's slightly raspy voice blends really well with hers, and he has a good sense of harmony and arrangement, and Tamar really liked what he did. If you soloed his vocals you'd be hard-pressed to tell whether they are male or female. He has a great ability to change his voice.”

Discussing the gestation processes of the songs from a technical perspective, Donaldson explained that he recorded musical instruments for the other songs, but because all instrumentation was already contained in KE's demo for 'The One', he only recorded lead and some of the backing vocals for that song. In this case, his preparation for the vocal session consisted of submixing the backing track. "Just to maximise computer power and speed while tracking vocals, I will mix the backing tracks down to just two tracks. We tracked the vocals for 'The One' at Muse, and my vocal chain was the Sony C800G mic going into a GML 2020 mic preamp/compressor, and going straight into Pro Tools at 24-bit/44.1kHz. The GML is one of my favourite pieces of gear, I use it in every vocal session. Not everyone likes the Sony C800, but Tamar's voice has such a warm tone that I wanted to have a slightly brighter microphone. I used the same recording chain for the backing singers — in the case of 'The One', only Shaunice.

"LaShawn Daniels made all the calls as to which of Tamar's performances on 'The One' were the best, but most vocal producers trust me to do the comps, and then they listen to it and they may ask me to change some specific words. They don't want to sit there for hours listening to everything and punching the vocals word-for-word. I already mix the songs during tracking, partly for my own sanity so I immediately have things organised and sounding the way I like it, and partly because when the artist comes out and they want to hear what they have, they want to hear everything sound good. So during tracking I am EQ'ing and compressing the vocals and adding reverb and in general trying to get the best sound, and I am also riding the levels and doing the panning.”

Oooh Las Vegas

When it came to mixing the songs on Love And War, Donaldson first mixed the title song and then 'Hot Sugar' at his room in Muse, and was then asked to go to Studio At The Palms in Las Vegas to mix 'The One' with the aforementioned big-name mixer. He mixed the song at Studio Y, which is dominated by an 80-channel SSL XL 9000 K-series desk. Donaldson: "'The One' was supposed to be Tamar's summertime hit record, so it was taken very seriously, which I guess is why they brought in the other mixer for me to work with. The mix of 'The One' actually proved quite tricky, and took me two days, because there was a lot of tweaking and emailing back and forth between LaShawn Daniels and I. LaShawn was overseeing the entire project, and he was in touch with Vince all the time, so they would listen to my mixes and then give me feedback, often asking for very specific tweaks.”

'The One' is a mid-tempo mashup of R&B balladry, allowing Braxton to showcase her impressive vocal skills, and 1980s funk, courtesy of a sample of a record that itself samples Mtume's 'Juicy Fruit', originally released in 1983. 'Juicy Fruit' is one of the most sampled songs in music history, and a remake simply called 'Juicy'provided rapper Notorious BIG with his breakthrough hit in 1994. The rhythm and mood for 'The One' are, to a significant degree, defined by a section of BIG's hit, and in turn by the original 'Juicy Fruit'. The resulting clash between 1980s and 2013 sonics proved challenging for Donaldson. In fact, it opened up his ears and mind to a completely new mix perspective.

"For a mix engineer today, the first thing you go for is clarity. You want everything to cut through and be noticed, so you make sure that all instruments are distinct and well-defined and have their own space in the mix. I had been given free rein as to how to mix 'Hot Sugar' and 'Love And War', and approached 'The One' in a similar way, with a more modern sound, ie. bouncy, clear and bright. It blew my mind that they wanted me to go in the opposite direction! They wanted the mix to have the vintage sound that both the original song and the sample had, and yet still to sound modern. The way I interpreted that was that they wanted the punch and kick and expansiveness of everything that's playing on the radio nowadays, whereas the vintage aspects means that things sound close and tight and blended together. I had to go back to the original records and listen to how they sound, with music being more like a melting pot, with everything blended together, almost like soup. By contrast, getting the drums to stand out on their own was part of what gave it a more modern feel. Another big issue was to get the guitar to sound right.”

Donaldson mixed the session on a pair of Yamaha NS10s at Palm Studios, and double-checked the mix later after returning to Muse on his favoured Auratones, ProAc and Adam SA3 monitors. "For the majority of the time during the mix I was simply beefing up the music, making things cut through a bit better, because I did not want to mess with what the producer had done balance-wise and texture-wise on his demo. As I mentioned, I also already had the vocals in the ballpark where I want them by the time I began the final mix. So I got the mix to where I thought it should be on the first day, and then spent most of the second day tweaking it to achieve that vintage-meets-modern sound.”

  • Drums: Avid EQ & D-Verb, Waves CLA-2A & Renaissance Vox.

"The seven drum tracks are there to beef up the sound of the sample. If he had just used the sample, the drums would have sounded too weak. I think he kept a similar drum pattern and just updated the sounds to make it more modern. KE often used the Digidesign [ie. Avid] EQ and Waves CLA compressor and I tended to leave them there. They are on the kick and snare, for example, and I did not change the compression settings, though I might have adjusted the EQ. I lead each out separately on the board, which helped to beef these sounds up a little. I added the RVox on the snare, which is one of my favourite plug-ins. I use it as a levelling amplifier. Using it is like turning up the volume without touching the fader or affecting the texture of the sound. It really helps to make things cut through. I also added D-Verb on the snare because it needed a little bit of space around it, but it's very light, and more a subconscious thing. The hi-hat again has KE's Digidesign EQ, and added a second Digidesign EQ, so as to not affect what he had done. I boosted around 500Hz to give it a bit more body, instead of it being rather sibilant and harsh. Regarding the various D-Verbs in the session, on the drums I in most cases Option-copied that across [to duplicate the same settings on each track], because I wanted the drums to sound as if they all came from the same space, for that vintage feel. I used different reverb settings on the music, and especially on the vocals.”

  • Keyboards, bass & synth: Avid EQ & D-Verb, Waves CLA-2A, Renaissance Vox, EQ, Compressor, Puigtech, C4 & MetaFlanger, SPL Transient Designer.

"The electric piano had, again, the Digidesign EQ, D-Verb, CLA compressor and also the SPL Transient Designer. The piano was reinforcing a melody that was already there, but you couldn't hear it and there was no easy way for me to get it to cut through. I didn't want to EQ it, because I liked the way it sounded, so I used the Transient Designer to get me some more attack. Using the D-Verb I went for a longer plate reverb on the musical instruments than I had on the drums. The guitar was a headache, and I learnt a lot from doing that. It involved a lot of going to and fro between Vince, LaShawn and I, because they wanted it to pop more, particularly the low plucked notes. The texture of the guitar was right and I only effected it with some Renaissance EQ, and to get it to pop I mainly used the RCompressor and RVox.

"The lead synth tracks had again a similar set of plug-ins, just with the D-Verb instead of the RVox. The CLA plug-ins really help with making things sound modern. I'd normally replace the Digidesign EQs with the Renaissance EQ or the API 560a or 560b, but again, because the Digidesign EQs were on the session and I wanted to stay relatively close to where KE had left off, I kept them. The pad has the Puigtech compressor, the Waves C4, one of my favourites, and the MetaFlanger to give it a bit of movement.

"The three bass tracks were really important, and they kept telling me they wanted it to slap more, they wanted more groove, plus I had to make them work with the drums. I had the MetaFlanger on the second bass, because it made the bass stand out a little more, and I had the D-Verb on the slap bass, because it only appears occasionally, and I wanted it to connect with the other instruments, so it doesn't sound too different. I wanted all the instruments to sound like they came from a band playing.”

  • Vocals: Waves SSL Channel, Renaissance Compressor, RVerb, MetaFlanger, TrueVerb, Renaissance Axx, Aphex Vintage Exciter, Renaissance EQ & Kramer MPX Master Tape, Avid Medium Delay, De-Esser, Euphonix Channel Strip & Digirack Pitch-shifter.

"Tamar's lead vocals have the Waves SSL Channel and RCompressor, and Digidesign Medium Delay and De-Esser on the inserts, while the sends went to the various aux tracks. In this case buses 1-2 went to the RVerb aux track, buses 3-4 to the Extra Long Delay/MetaFlanger aux, buses 5-6 and 7-8 to two different TrueVerb reverbs, which are both large plate sounds. There's an outro vocal on which Tamar wanted a radio kind of effect, so I used the Renaissance Axx and the Aphex Vintage Exciter and MetaFlanger on that. Below that are Tamar's backing vocals and then many stacks of backing vocals sung by Shaunice. When I quickly record background vocals I name them using letters, so you have an A track, and then AA, and then AAA and so on, which together form the A stack, which has its own aux track, and in this case there also are B, C, D and E stacks, so there were quite a few backing vocals.
Waves' Renaissance Axx plug-in was used to add grit to a radio-style vocal outro.

"There's also a male voice saying 'Yeah' and 'It was all a dream', which didn't come from the Biggie sample, but instead was performed by Christian Ward. The idea was to make it sound like Biggie, and so I used a Digirack pitch-shifter, going up four semitones, then an Aphex Vintage Exciter, followed by a RCompressor and REQ4, then finally a Kramer MPX. Finally, when mixing back into the session I did not put anything on the two-bus, because I get into trouble when I do that, though I like using the McDSP ML4000 on demos. I tend to mix at fairly low levels, to have enough headroom, and then send the two-mix through an aux track when coming back into Pro Tools to get the level up.”

Make Records Not Love

With Love And War having reached number one in the American R&B chart, number two in the main Billboard albums chart and number 11 in the UK, the efforts of Herbert, Reid, Donaldson, et al clearly have paid off. The latter sees it as another step upwards in a career that sees him having very little of a life, instead spending virtually all his time in the recording studio. "One day, maybe when I'm in my 30s, I'll have space to think about relationships and so on. For now I'm fully focused on my career, and love being in the studio day and night.”  

Only Partly In The Box

Given his youth and the R&B/pop genre in which he works, Mikey Donaldson is as much a product of the digital age as it is possible to be nowadays. One might expect him therefore to adhere to today's digital-age practices such as working entirely in the box and mixing while recording. It turns out that the reality is more complicated. "I still regard the actual mixing process as entirely separate. It's a completely different mode and process for me, and I actually have a hard time switching between the two. When I am recording I am totally in the box, and am just coming out of outputs one and two, but for the final mix I will spread the music out on the board, and I will focus more on mixing the music and building the entire track around the vocals. I may still do some minor adjustments to the vocals, like EQ and compression, because they are the most important aspect of any mix, but most of my vocal treatments will already have been done during tracking.

"Right now here in Georgia [when we speak, Donaldson is working with rapper Bera Ivanishvili, the albino son of Georgia's prime minister, and apparently a big name in that country] I am working on the SSL Duality, but at Muse in LA it's an AWS. While mixing I also use some outboard from time to time if there's a specific sound I'm looking for, usually to beef something up a bit more, but for the most part, what I'm after in going through a board is the summing. I'll submix in the box where necessary, and I'll then lay up to 32 channels out on the board. Background and lead vocals can often be reduced to just two stereo tracks, and so can various instruments, like all the keys, or all the guitars, and so on. Going through a console gives me more air and space, and I'd say that my method is a hybrid of 70 percent in the box and 30 percent out of the box.”

Donaldson's familiarity with mixing desks is the result of the years he spent working with Jerkins, who is a big fan of SSL consoles, and still uses a huge J-series desk. In addition, Horvat has pointed him towards some of the other advantages of working on a desk. "While working with Rodney, I had to map everything out on the SSL, which was pretty intimidating in the beginning. My biggest stumbling block was the patchbay, but once I had that figured out, the rest was easy. When you're working in the box, you do everything with your eyes, which makes it harder to really listen to frequencies and what's going on in the audio. Jean-Marie suggested to me to sometimes not look at the screen at all, and just focus on what I'm hearing. The desk is way better for that, because I can feel the buttons and faders with my fingers. I love to be able to touch faders and knobs rather than grab a mouse. So the console is for feeling the music, as well as the extra headroom that comes from the summing.”

The Session

From top to bottom, the Pro Tools session for 'The One' has Donaldson's rough mix right at the top, followed by his final mix, and then 11 tracks of vocal stems. The music consists of seven stereo tracks of drums, one track of guitar, three tracks of synths, the sample track, and three tracks of bass. Below this are seven auxiliary effect tracks (light green), three Tamar Braxton lead vocal tracks and 35 backing vocal tracks. Donaldson explains that he separated much of the music and laid it out over the SSL desk, and reduced the vocals to the 11 stem tracks, which were all laid out separately on the board, because, he says, "I always anticipate being asked to turn all the backgrounds down, so I print them like that after they've gone through the board. This means I can adjust them in the box after I've left the studio.”

The eagle-eyed will notice that the title displayed at the top of the session is 'All I Need Is You (The One)'. "The name of the song changed constantly,” clarifies Donaldson, "with the original title being 'All I Need Is You (The One I Want)' and they finally settled on 'The One' during mastering.