Behind every rap megastar, there's a very talented engineer. Young Guru was at the desk throughout the recording and mixing of Jay‑Z's latest smash-hit album, The Blueprint 3.
Shawn 'Jay‑Z' Carter is not only the biggest star in the rap world; with his own clothing company and Roc‑A‑Fella Records label, he is also a highly successful businessman. The recent third album in his 'Blueprint' series was his ninth American and his first UK number one, pushing his total album sales to date in the US alone to a staggering 30 million. Its lead single, 'DOA (Death Of Auto‑Tune)', provoked much controversy, while follow‑up 'Run This Town' was a number one in the UK, and reached number two in the US.
The Blueprint 3 was produced by a swathe of hip‑hop luminaries including Kanye West, Timbaland, No ID, Swizz Beatz and the Neptunes. In typical Jay‑Z style, the rapper also gave a break to some less well‑known talents, in this case Jerome Harmon and Al Shux. The common factors throughout were Jay‑Z's own New York studios — Baseline and Roc The Mic — and engineer and mixer Gimel Keaton, better known as Young Guru.
On the phone from his home studio in New York, Young Guru recalls, "I met Jay‑Z in 1999 when I was doing sessions for [rapper] Memphis Bleek, who was signed to Roc‑A‑Fella. As the head of the label, Jay would come and check on the sessions, and then invited me to do sessions with him. Soon after he asked me if I would be an engineer at Baseline. I continued to be an independent engineer, but I ended up literally living in Baseline. I did and still do a lot of sessions for Roc‑A‑Fella and Def Jam and other labels, and do pretty much all Jay's sessions. Even when Jay's working with another producer who has his own go‑to engineer, Jay takes me along to engineer his vocals. This is to do with my knowledge of his way of working and the comfort and trust factor between us. We do more than just recording: he also bounces off ideas with me, so there's a kind of synergy about the records we create together. Plus, if you have only one person working on all your music, it cuts down on the bootlegging. I absolutely never leave a session on anyone else's computer.”
Having worked closely with Jay‑Z for a decade now, Young Guru has an intimate knowledge of the rapper's way of working. "It's pretty much the same process as when I first met him. Most of the time a producer presents him with beats, though he may also give a producer a song or beat idea. There will be a track, and Jay will figure out a flow and a concept for it, if it isn't already in the track. He'll then start pacing around the studio, mumbling to himself. He calls it his 'rain man' thing, and it's a mental exercise where he creates lines and will keep saying them over and over to himself, until he has them memorised. He'll construct a whole verse or pattern in that way. Once he has the verse memorised, he'll go into the booth to recite it. From a recording point of view, this works much better than someone reading from a piece of paper, and having his mouth tilted to one side.
"Jay doesn't write his ideas down, he does everything in his head. But because he has eight different jobs in one day and there are many distractions, to help him memorise an idea he'll pull out his laptop and will recite it into GarageBand, without worrying about the quality or background noise. It's like a sketchpad, he's just reciting things into it, so he won't lose them. And then he's onto the next thing. It's a great tool. I've given him Dictaphones and things like that, and he loses them — but he's not going to lose his computer! He'll input lyrics, and also musical ideas sometimes, like he may be humming a chorus melody that he'll then ask a female to sing.”
Auto‑Tune Is Dead: Long Live Auto‑Tune
Kanye West produced seven out of 15 tracks on The Blueprint 3, some of them with No ID, who is Kanye's mentor and known as "the godfather of Chicago hip‑hop”. No ID single‑handedly produced the album's lead single 'DOA (Death Of Auto‑Tune)'. All basic tracks for the West and No ID‑produced songs originated in Avex Honolulu Studios, a commercial studio in Hawaii. Timbaland, who co‑produced three tracks, also spent time at the Hawaii studio. Young Guru — who was an engineer on 14 tracks, and mixed nine, including 'DOA' and 'Run This Town' — recounts the Hawaii sessions, which lasted 10 days.
"The studio has two rooms: Studio A downstairs, with an SSL 9000, where Kanye had a lockout, and Studio B upstairs, with an SSL 4000, where Timbaland was staying. Kanye laid the groundwork for this album there. Before the sessions, Kanye had a huge creative spurt, and flew to Germany to meet Jay at a show just to play him 12 beats. In the tracks that Kanye gave Jay, all the beats are arranged, and some of them will have hooks and some of them won't. Jay picked six or seven of the tracks and worked on them and filled in the blanks and sent them back to Kanye. It's a back‑and‑forth process.”
According to Young Guru, 'DOA' came out of an hour‑long conversation between him, No ID, Jay‑Z, Kanye and Timbaland. "We were all in Kanye's room having a conversation about where the album should go, the direction of hip‑hop and all that kind of stuff. At the end Kanye was like: 'I've had enough of talking, No ID — play whatever is in your computer!' No ID happened to have a sample up of a track by Janko Nilovic and Dave Sucky called 'In The Space'. Everybody loved the sample, so No ID constructed a beat to it in 15‑20 minutes, and everybody was just going crazy. Jay took the beat back to the hotel that night, and wrote to the words to it. We had been talking about the Auto‑Tune thing, and Jay was basically saying that we can't all fall into these trends and get lazy and all sound the same. He laid down the whole song the next morning in maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Once he gets into the booth he is extremely fast. No ID works completely in Logic; even when he is in a room with all this equipment, he does not use any of it. He bounced his tracks to stereo and I loaded that in Pro Tools to track Jay's vocals to; I didn't want to track into his laptop.”
It's All Greek
'Run This Town' is based on a sample Kanye West took of the song 'Some Day In Athens', by the Greek '70s progressive rock band The Four Levels Of Existence. The backing tracks include his rhythm programming, electric guitars, acoustic piano, and Rihanna's vocals, all recorded by West's engineer Marcos Tovar at Avex Honolulu. Jay‑Z overdubbed his parts at Roc The Mic, with Young Guru engineering. "Thanks to technology, we don't all have to be in the same room any more,” notes Young Guru. "Contrary to No ID, Kanye likes to use all the equipment in the room — stomp boxes, classic samplers, and so on. He mainly uses the [Ensoniq] ASR10 and sequences that with an [Akai] MPC 2000XL. When he's done with a track, he sends it to us as an MP3, and I upload these onto two tracks in Pro Tools. In this case Jay wanted Rihanna's vocals to be edited down, so I asked for them separately, and worked with two tracks of music, two tracks of Rihanna, and then Jay cut his vocals to that. The song was originally intended to feature just Jay and Rihanna, but he also wanted Kanye on it, because he felt that it would fit the texture of the song. So one day when Kanye was in New York, he came in at 10am and in two takes he was done.”
Jay‑Z sold Baseline Studios when he went into retirement in 2003, but when he started working again in 2006 decided to build Rock The Mic. Jay‑Z and Young Guru remain extremely attached to Baseline, and so asked the same person who had designed Baseline, Dave Malekpour of Professional Audio Design, to construct the new studio. Young Guru now spends most of his time at Roc The Mic, where there are two rooms: Studio A features an SSL 9000 J‑series and Studio B an SSL 4000 G+. The engineer declares that he's very happy with Roc The Mic, but prefers to mix at Baseline Studio A, because it has more outboard gear, and because "I spent 10 years there, so it is almost like a glove. I know every nook and cranny. Plus there's always something going on at Roc The Mic and it can be hard to get in for a mix session.”
With regard to recording Jay‑Z at Roc The Mic, Young Guru relates, "My signal chain is normally a Neumann 87 or 67 going into an Avalon 737. I love the way the Avalon preamp sounds with his voice. It's a perfect match. I use the 737 compressor as well as the preamp. I recorded Kanye's vocal with a Neumann 67 going into a Neve 1073 and then an [Urei] LA2A. From there I go straight into input 1 of Pro Tools, at 24/44.1. I am not a big fan of super‑high sample rates. One, the files gets too big, and two, I don't hear enough difference to make higher sampling rates worthwhile for what we do. The music itself is often coming from a 16‑bit sampler, so arguing about bit depth is not going to make a big difference. Also, I have to go down to 44.1/16‑bit at the end of the day, which makes higher resolutions even less relevant.”
Young Guru relates that Jay‑Z works very quickly, creating many songs in the process. "The majority of the time we are listening and trying to figure out whether we are going in the right direction, and he then spends time determining what songs he's going to use and how he can improve them. If Jay does two verses and then does not come back to that song after three or four days, it's normally an indication that we are not going to use that song. The mix stage is more dictated by deadlines than by Jay‑Z telling me to mix a song. He is always changing things: even during mastering he may say: 'Oh, I have a better verse for that song!' So it can get pretty hectic. Once I have a specific date on which I have to turn in a song, I will request the full Session files from the producer. I'll arrange the Session the way I want it, usually at Roc The Mic, and I'll then schedule the mix at Baseline. I factor in two extra days for Jay to listen to the mix and give his comments, but most of the time mixing is a pretty quick process.”
'Run This Town'
- Written by Shawn Carter, Robyn Fenty (Rihanna), Kanye West, Ernest Wilson (No ID), Jeff Bhasker, Alatas Athanasios
- Produced by Kanye West, No ID
Young Guru: "More and more people mix as they record, but I don't like to do that, because usually I'm tracking to the [MP3] two‑track, and I will have been listening to that for a long time and its sound gets kind of ingrained in me. So when I get the full Session, I prefer to start from scratch, and go on feeling. I'm also not an in‑the‑box guy, even though I can do that if the budget requires it. But for Jay‑Z's projects I always spread things out on an SSL, old‑school‑style. I can operate an SSL almost blindfolded and love it, particularly the 4000 G+. I'm also an extreme stem guy. After I've laid down the mix, I'll run each individual audio track via the board and print it back into a new Pro Tools Session with effects, EQ and everything on it, and at the right level. So in my stem Session all faders are set to zero. If I later want to change the level of the snare, all I have to do is change it in the stem Session. And when Jay does a live show with a band, and needs certain tracks because the sound can't be reproduced, I can give him stems of these.
"I normally take a day for a mix. I first do the beats, taking an hour or two, because in rap and hip‑hop the beats are the most important element. I'll then spend some time making the sample sit with that, and then I'll work a couple of hours on the vocals. After that I'll go away and watch TV or play PlayStation or surf the Internet, to give my ears a break. I'll come back in and listen again, and mix in the music, and do some more tweaks, and I'll stem it, and will go home. I leave it overnight, and the next day I'll listen again and improve where necessary. I'll print a pass and send it to Jay, and pray he listens on a good system, or I'll play it for him. He won't give me technical feedback, like 'add 60Hz on the kick', but to give an example, I'd mixed one song really hard and punchy, and he told me that was not the focus of the song. The song was about heroin and the trappings of the city, and it had to be, in his words, 'like therapy'.
"The way the drums hit is my signature style, and part of my sound comes from the fact that they almost always go through a [Empirical Labs] Distressor and an API 550. I spend a lot of time on that and on finding the balance where the sample sits with the drums, because where the sample sits in relation to the drums is what makes or breaks these types of songs. Sometimes people turn the sample up too much and it swallows up the drums, which then don't have enough hit left. I often do extensive work on the sample. I will go as far as splitting it up into frequency ranges as many times as I need, and I will mult these across several channels on the board. I may have bass, mid, and high, spread over three channels, so I can carve out what aspects of the sample I want to cut through in the track. I may want to flesh out the sample a little more to be able to combine it with the rest of the sounds, and sometimes just EQ'ing the sample as a whole is not enough. I do whatever is necessary. When splitting up the sample into frequency bands I may compress one channel more than the other. Or I apply very specific EQ with a GML or something like that, to affect a super‑small bandwith. Remember the samples are coming from vinyl, so there might be clicks and pops and little scratch noises that I need to deal with, and also, the sampler itself may add a signature sound. The ASR10 sounds different from the MPC series, and you want to enhance that and not take away from it. The other thing that is very important is the phase. When I am dealing with digital audio which I can move around, I always make sure that the kick and the snare and rest of the drums and the sample are perfectly in phase.
"My mix of 'Run This Town' was inspired by Jay's vision for the song video. He described it to me right after we did the song. He wanted it to have an atmosphere like in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, with everyone in the desert and real dusty, and it's almost night time and you see the headlights of the cars. So it had to be dark and intense. As I said, I'm really into phase, and one of the main issues was to make sure that the kicks No ID added [the tracks 'MstrK' and 'MstrS' in the screens] were exactly in phase with Kanye's drum loop ['Dru1']. Kanye had taken a sample from a live drummer and rearranged and looped it, and obviously the feel of a live drummer was not the same as that of programmed drums.”
- Drums: Empirical Labs Distressor, API 550, Waves Renaissance EQ & C4, Digidesign Reverb One, SSL desk dynamics & EQ.
"Kanye's drum loop has a Waves REQ6 on it, which boosts around 2484Hz to get the snare to snap a little bit harder, and a Waves C4 multi‑band compressor to glue everything together. I am a Waves‑heavy guy, because back in the days when plug‑ins first came out, Waves probably had the best quality, so I got used to using them. Waves, UAD and Altiverb are my main go‑to plug‑ins. I am in love with the UAD series, I love their recreations of the older stuff. On the board, the loop goes through a Distressor and then an API, either 550a or 550b [EQ].
"My liking for the Distressor‑API chain may come from my learning experience at Omega Studios [see Young Guru box]. Their API room sounded incredible, and I loved to track through their API preamps and EQs. I just fell in love with them, and they sound fantastic on drums. The loop, the guitars, the toms, the piano, and various other tracks all are sent to bus 1‑2, going to the 'Trac' effect track, which has the Digidesign Reverb One. I am from the school of being able to tell what studio somebody recorded at because of the way the room sounds. So I put that reverb on to make it sound as if it all came from the same room.
"The kick, 'MstrK', had way too much high in it, so I put the RE6 on to take that out. Sometimes when the kick is coming from a record you get that sample hiss, and you have to take that out, and you have to make sure that it sits right. This was a clean‑up thing, and not an aesthetic issue. I didn't do anything to the snare, 'MstrS'. The additional kick and snare, as well as the two 808 tracks, don't go to the overall reverb, I felt that they sounded better dry. There are two 808s, and they don't play at the same time, they complement each other. The first 808 had an RE6 on it, to get it to sit right. I'm boosting at 2.7k, for character, and at 10k for air. A lot of people miss the higher register of the 808, which actually gives it its character. By the way, I never really look at the numbers when I am EQ'ing, I just move the dots around and listen. The only number that I will pay attention to is the Q. The low 808 rings out longer, and adds strength to the drums. On the outboard, the two 808s and kick and snare would have gone through the Distressor and the API.
"The toms had no plug‑ins. I only used the SSL gate, EQ and compressor. I did not feel the need to add anything else, other than the overall reverb to which many of the drums tracks are sent. I am not the kind of person who just grabs for outboard gear because it is there. For some mixes, if it sounds great when I push up the faders, I may just use just one effect, whether plug‑in or outboard. What makes me decide to go for one or the other? To me it doesn't matter whether I'm using hardware or plug‑ins and I'm totally comfortable moving back and forth between them. But sometimes I can't, yet, get the same effect from a plug‑in as I can get from outboard. As I said, most of my mixes from the last 10 years will have the Distressor and API on the drums, because I can get really detailed with the harmonics in the Distressor. I can tune the kick very precisely and make it fit perfectly. I could never get the same sound from a plug‑in, until recently, when UAD came out with the Fatso, which is the closest plug‑in to a Distressor that I have heard.”
Sample: Waves Renaissance EQ, SSL desk EQ & dynamics, Focusrite ISA 110.
"I use the RE6 to boost the sample at 496Hz. I wanted to bring out the mids of the guitar figure in the sample. There also wasn't enough bottom end in it, so there is a little boost around 34Hz as well. I did not want too much of the sample bass line, but I still wanted some of the rumble. I also EQ'ed the sample with the SSL, and again with two Focusrite ISA 110 EQs. Somebody took the EQs out of a Focusrite board and put them in a rack and we have that in Baseline and I love them. Why three EQs? Most of the plug‑in EQs happen during my initial listens to the track and when I hear things that need to be fixed. That first plug‑in EQ is like starting at zero: it neutralises the sample for me. After that, I use outboard EQs to adjust the tone to my liking. I also compressed the sample on the board, using the SSL compressor.”
- Guitars & bass: Waves Renaissance Bass, Digidesign Eleven, Massey TapeHead, SSL desk EQ.
"I used the Renaissance Bass on the guitars ['AG101', 'AN201'] because they seemed a little thin, and they needed to have more body because they are going against the heavy rock guitar inside the sample. The Eleven plug‑in was put on by Kanye, for the tone, so I just left that. The Massey TapeHead made the guitars sound as if they were coming off tape, and this was also done to make sure that they blended in with the sample, which had been taken from a vinyl record. I didn't use any outboard gear other than the SSL EQ. The guitars are low in the mix, as they only add support to the guitars in the sample.
"'BAS05' is a bass Moog, played by Jeff Bhasker. Like the guitar, it is mixed in low, as it's more there to add texture. It occurs during Jay's last part of the verse and throughout the hook. So it was really an additional sound. The REQ is not adding any EQ. Many of the stereo tracks I get are uneven in volume between left and right, and I'll use the REQ to level the two channels. You can see that the right channel is up by 1.4dB. That was just a quick fix.”
"The acoustic piano, also played by Jeff, sounded great, as did the room that they recorded it in, so I did not need to add any reverb. I just did a little bit of desk EQ, because, as always, you have to be mindful of mids building up. They are always fighting for that area. In addition, there are a number of tracks in 'Run This Town' that were added for texture and excitement, often in rhythmic patterns, and contained what could be called sound effects. One of them is 'Stomp', which is the sound of boots hitting the floor. It had the right texture but sounded way too thin, so I added super‑heavy low end with the REQ, but that then swallowed the high end, and I was losing the texture, so I added some high as well. I think there are no effects apart from the general reverb. 'Hey' is an effected repeating vocal sound. Kanye programmed it, and it's almost used as a percussion sound. It went through a high‑pass filter to minimise rumble, and a little extra 3k to brighten it up, all done on the desk. 'Pat01' is an effected vocal swirl around what sounds like the word 'hello'; I only had a delay on it, coming from a PCM42. 'Hihye' is a 'pow' vocal thing that also goes through the PCM42. Finally, 'Loud' is an explosion sound I added that occurs before every verse, announcing it. I only put the group reverb on that.”
- Vocals: Waves Fairchild 660, ADL 1500, Focusrite 110 EQ, Lexicon 480, TC Electronic D•Two, Shep 1073, Antares Auto‑Tune, Waves SSL EQ & Renaissance De‑Esser, Digidesign Reverb One & Mod Delay II.
Jay‑Z: "Jay did a lead vocal ['JayLV'] and two ad lib tracks ['Jyds1', 'Jyds2']. They were all treated the same way. I had a Waves Fairchild 660 on each. The outboard Fairchild is one of the best‑ever vocal compressors. It glues them together so well, without having this super compressor sound. I just fell in love with Fairchilds, and to have one of those in plug‑in form still amazes me. I use it on many of my vocals. I also sent Jay's vocals through an ADL 1500 compressor, which I think is incredible. It locks things in really well. The hardware ADL gives a presence that the plug‑in can't do. After that I used two Focusrite 110 EQs. Jay's vocals also had a Lexicon 480 reverb, and a quarter‑note delay coming from a TC Electronics D•Two.”
Kanye: "His vocals ['KnyLV'] also had the 660 plugin. For outboard I used the Shep 1073 EQ, which is an emulation of the Neve 1073, plus the same 480 and D2 quarter‑note as on Jay's vocals.”
Rihanna: "Her vocals were spread out over three tracks ['RV302', 'RV507', 'RV801'], which I sent to a group track called 'Ri Ri' so I could treat them all as one. The three separate tracks all retained the Auto‑Tune that Kanye had put on, just to make sure that all notes are perfect. When Jay sang 'DOA', he was talking about the T‑Pain effect, not using Auto‑Tune the way it was intended, simply to perfect notes. So I left the Auto‑Tune plug‑ins the way they were, and added the SSL plug‑in EQs ['SLC'], just to get her to sit better in the track. 'RDE' is the Renaissance De‑Esser, used in a very basic way, cutting around 5k, to catch whatever esses jumped out. On the 'Ri Ri' track I had the REQ pulling out around 9792Hz, which is a real high notch — there was an annoying frequency there — and cutting below 70Hz to take out any rumble. I added two effect tracks specifically for Rihanna's vocals, one with Reverb One and one with the Digirack Mod Delay II.”
Crowds: "Jay wanted some crowd responses, so we gathered some people in the studio around a microphone and recorded them four times ['Jyds3', 'Jyds4', 'crwd1', 'crwd2']. I grouped them to two channels on the SSL, and used a high‑pass filter around 100Hz, to make sure that there was no bass in it, and added around 8k, and that was it.”
"I mixed back into Pro Tools, taking the left and right outputs of the board and sending these into inputs 1 and 2 of Pro Tools. My preference is to mix to half‑inch, because it sounds better, there's no discussion about that: the half‑inch glues everything together. But not every project allows for that, and I couldn't do it this time because of the speed at which this project was done. I rarely put stereo effects on the mix, even though I think that the SSL 4000 stereo bus compression is absolutely the best stereo compressor for this. But I try to leave that up to the mastering engineer.”
The Rise And Rise Of Young Guru
Born in the tiny US state of Delaware in 1974 as Gimel Keaton, Young Guru acquired his nickname in his teens, when he was teaching African history classes at a community centre. He also used his name when he began working as a DJ while still a teenager. In the early '90s there were no clubs in Delaware, so Young Guru brought his own amplifiers, lights, microphones, and so on, which sparked his interest in music technology. He began DJ'ing in Washington DC in 1996, where he met singer/rapper Nonchalant, who had a top 20 single at the time, and became her tour DJ. Young Guru, who had taken piano lessons as a child, used the money he received from the tour to fund a six‑month music recording course at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, Maryland, which had a great impact on him. After Omega, Young Guru engineered Nonchalant's second album, which was never released, but the producer, Chucky Thompson (Mary J Blige, Faith Evans) recognised the young engineer's potential and invited him to come and work with him in Washington DC. In 1999, Young Guru went independent and moved to New York, where he worked with Deric Angeletti on his Madd Rapper project and with Memphis Bleek. The latter was signed to Roc‑A‑Fella Records, which led to Young Guru meeting Jay‑Z.