Macklemore is working on a new album

Mixing practice: Macklemore & Lewis

Jonathan Castelli mixes downtown
by Paul Tingen Translation: Dr. Andreas Hau,

What if the first album was an incredible hit, got three number 1 singles and four Grammy Awards? One struggles with the success. Anyway, that was the case with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who felt guilty about being favored because of their white skin - Macklemore publicly asserted that, in his opinion, he and Lewis deserved the Grammy for "Best Album", but rather he and Lewis for The Heist Kendrick Lamar. So their follow-up turned into a headstrong and defiant work on which the two get rid of all expectations and still try to create appealing rap music. Rarely has an album been so aptly titled: This Unruly Mess I've Made.

While rapper Macklemore and writer / producer Ryan Lewis would have had every chance to work on a big budget this time around, This Unruly Mess I've Made, like The Heist before, was a DIY project Lewis did on his own Studio in Seattle produced. Unlike The Heist, which the two mixed themselves, they hired an external mix engineer for the new album, true to their defiant style but not a star mixer, but the largely unknown Jon Castelli. This mixed all the songs on the album, including the first single Downtown, which was released six months before the album. Downtown should set an example early on and suggest that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had no intention of playing into the cards of the critics.

In his Los Angeles studio, Castelli explains that Downtown served as the blueprint for the duo's second album. “Of course, Ben [Macklemore] and Ryan planned to continue doing well, but after three number one singles, they wanted to impress people with something completely different. In fact, they wanted to create something completely different from anything that has been released in the past decade. And they didn’t care whether they would hit the top of the charts or not. "

Downtown is therefore unusual in many ways. The song is almost completely recorded with real instruments, mainly saxophone, trumpet, tonal percussion and piano. In terms of sound and theme, it is reminiscent of the 70s as well as uptown funk by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson. The chorus with singer Eric Nally from Foxy Shazam doesn't start until 1:43, and the verses consist of different sections in which not only Macklemore but also rappers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz can be heard. Opinions on the song and the accompanying video differ widely: »Catchy and funny; Foxy Shazam's Eric Nally provides great vocals, and the great video makes the song even more enjoyable, ”wrote one reviewer; another said: »the biggest artistic sell-out of 2015«. In between there are ratings that get to the point, such as "wonderfully ill" and "so ridiculous that it is brilliant again".

Downtown vibe

With its unconventional design, the song probably even overtaxed its creators at the beginning. Mix engineer Jonathan Castelli recalls, “Ryan called me and said they'd been working on this song for two years and needed my ears and a fresh look to help them get it over the finish line.

When my assistant Ryan Nasci and I first listened to it, we went to see each other and I said, 'This song is crazy. It will be a lot of work to shape it into something that seems like a coherent concept. H. the sound was 100% bone dry, and it sounded like four songs that were somehow cobbled together, with the transitions making each section feel completely different. In addition, the votes did not prevail.

The challenge was to make it sound like one piece so that the song wouldn't throw America into chaos. The voices also had to come out, jump out of the speakers to get the song over to the radio. "

The uncertainty about exactly how to go about downtown came as a complete surprise to Castelli, because it was the fourth song he had mixed for the next album by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and the direction had been pretty clear for the first three.

Mixing the entire album was a great honor for the young engineer, whose customer list in the top league was still quite short: Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande and the Backstreet Boys. As one half of 4FRNT, he also remixed Gotyes Somebody That I Used To Know, which received the artist's blessing. Originally from New York, Castelli studied saxophone at the Hartt School of Music on Long Island. There he built a studio together with his father, where he perfected his skills as an engineer and producer. In 2013 he was hired by Mirrorball Entertainment in Los Angeles as a mix engineer and producer.

One of the founders of Mirrorball Entertainment is the star mixer Tony Maserati, who took Castelli under his wing and became his mentor. “The first project we mixed together was a Lady Gaga song; then he invited me to move into the other side of the hall, where I still have my studio. It's completely in-the-box; my only outboard are a Rascal Audio Two-V preamp and a Kush Audio UBK Fatso compressor, both of which I use on the stereo mix. Otherwise I have two of Tony's Neve 1066 mic preamps as well as the Microclock 3 and Sparrow ADC and DAC converters, all from Black Lion. I use PCM IB2 boxes with a Bryston 4B power amplifier and Mode 42 MK II from Chris Pelonis as monitors; these are small coaxial speakers that I use like Auratones. They are great! "

Castelli was commissioned by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis through Joshua "Budo" Karp, an artist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who frequently works with the Seattle duo. Castelli had a writing session with him a few years ago, and 18 months later Budo texted him asking if he would like to mix up a few things for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Castelli could hardly refuse such an offer. For the most part, Castelli worked in his studio at Mirrorball, but occasionally in other locations. Although Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were unsure of which direction to take with Downtown, which would also be their first single, they immediately realized that Castelli's first mix wasn't what they were looking for.

“I communicated a lot with Ryan [Lewis] who is very good and has a vision for the songs from the start. In general, I've worked hard to make these rough mixes, which are already good, sound even better. Downtown was interesting, but also difficult because the song sounded very different from the one I had already mixed for them. With the exception of the three guest rappers who are represented on the song, the recordings for Downtown were also already completed, while the other songs still heavily switched between recording and mixing because they added more things. For my first mix they hadn't given me a direction and when I sent it to them I was very happy with it.

Ben contacted me and said, 'Man, how did you get Eric's voice to get through in such a loud arrangement?' But when Ryan called he said, 'Jon, I really like your mix, but it's going in the wrong one Direction! On the other songs that you mixed, I like that warm, fat, more tube-like sound with a deep bass that you managed to get. But this song has to sound a little more natural. The basses need less EQ and the mids should sound more neutral, more like transistor equipment. ‹

When Ryan said that, I knew what he meant straight away. I love tube equipment and mostly get big, fat bass by working with subharmonic stuff and saturation. It worked for the first few songs I mixed, but on this one he said, 'Do yourself a favor and listen to Grandmaster Flash.' So he finally shared something of his vision with me. I found it amusing because if he'd told me right away, I'd have saved myself three days of work! I then said that I saw the song as an answer to Uptown Funk, where they live chic and classy in Uptown, while Downtown is about the hidden, inconspicuous life downtown. Ryan liked that point of view. I had worked really hard on the mix because I knew the song was earmarked as the first single on the album. You can usually take a few steps back on a mix and work from there, but not on this song. Instead, I decided to start all over again. In the end, the mix from downtown took two weeks! "

Two weeks for a mix - that sounds overly long, but downtown required a lot of fine-tuning because, according to Castelli, “... instead of aiming for an R&B sound with fat bass, my challenge was to give downtown a retro 70s sound . So it was supposed to sound more like Neve and API than tube, although of course it still required enough bass and punch to sound contemporary in 2015. In this phase the problem of my goal setting was more of a sonic nature, as I had already largely solved other problems with Downtown, for example the fact that the song sounded very fragmented due to the rap verses and the clean chorus, which then leads to something Classic Rock Recalls; everything should sound like a single song. Besides, I had already made it, as Ben confirmed, that the vocals caught on. Bringing it all together was a big challenge. But I like challenges! "

When Castelli got the downtown session, he listened to it carefully for an hour to absorb it all. Castelli: "For me, mixing is about the journey, about the emotional connection you make with a song - it's definitely not primarily about which plug-ins I use. When it comes to other songs, I often jump right in and start with setting a good drum sound, but with a real production and a great song like this, I first listen for a long time. When I connect to a song, I don't get into any details as much as I mix more for the bigger picture. Of course I also listen to things individually, but you have to be careful not to focus on one point, otherwise your mix will start to fall apart. Everything has to fit together, so I mix a lot while everything is playing at the same time.

Like most, I usually start with the rhythm instruments, but in the case of Downtown, I focused on Ben's vocals first in the mix. The drums were already well on their way, even if they didn't sound as powerful as they do now. So I focused on having the vocals set the tone and built everything else around them to support them.

After Ben's vocals, I turned to Eric's vocals in the chorus and then the rest of the vocals; they told me the story that had to go through between the sections. After that I worked on the horns, then on the drums and bass so that the groove came across as solid; and then I worked on the rest of the instruments. "

Typically for the way we work today, the Pro Tools session for Downtown consists of no fewer than 112 tracks, including the group and effect tracks. From top to bottom we see five mix tracks in purple, including the rough mix at the top, eight group tracks in light green (drums, guitars, keyboards, synths, strings, brass, vocals and effects), 34 drum and percussion tracks (mostly red and yellow), three effects tracks, five bass tracks (mostly orange), one piano track, seven guitar tracks (dark green), one Oberheim synth track and five wind tracks (yellow-green).

At the bottom of the session there are 45 vocal tracks, including 14 at the top for Ben Macklemore. Four of them, namely Ben / Mod / Mod / Mod, are Macklemore's demos for the guest rappers, which consequently had no relevance for the final mix. At the bottom are 18 tracks of the three guest rappers, and in between are Eric Nally's vocals, the choir and other vocals.

Castelli reveals that his mix session for Downtown is actually a stem session that Ryan Lewis ’engineer Stephen Hogan created from the original session, which had well over 200 tracks. In the following, Castelli explains in detail how he processed the most important elements of the Downtown session, in the same order as he did the mixing: “Ben's main vocal track is 'BnLd'. It sounded really good and didn't take much work. I have five plugins on it.
The FabFilter Pro-Q2 acts as a high-pass filter at 100 Hz and also takes a little bit out at 700-900 Hz - this is a frequency range that I often don't like about vocals. Then comes the UAD API Vision channel strip, which I like because it can give signals a pleasantly aggressive note. You can make it sound hi-fi too, but it's best for that snappy transistor sound, that rock board I wanted here. I used it to increase the treble and decrease it a little at 240 Hz; I also used the compressor with a ratio of 3: 1. The UAD Pultec Pro boosts at 200 Hz to provide a bit of warmth over a broadband. also
I also had the FabFilter Pro-DS [DeEsser] at the start. Ben's vocal has no reverb. I don't like reverb on his voice and I only gave it a little on one song.

Eric's main vocal track has eight plugins in the inserts and a send; but all of the plugins do subtle things. The beginning of the processing chain is done by the Waves API 2500 compressor, which grabs pretty hard, then I boost with the Waves API 550B at 100 Hz and take away a bit at 500 Hz. He has a soft voice that I had to give more body to. As with Ben's voice, the FabFilter Pro-Q2 works as a high-pass filter and takes out a little something at 700-900 Hz. The FabFilter Pro-MB [Multiband Compressor] controls the range between 800 and 2,000 Hz that the microphone emphasizes. The Softube TubeTech PE1C EQ [Pultec-Style EQ] cuts a little at 10 kHz, and the Alliance Maag [EQ] plug-in increases at 160 Hz, 650 Hz and 2.5 kHz. Finally, the Softube TubeTech CL-1B provides a slight compression. The send goes to a UAD EMT140 plate, which is set to a short, bright sounding reverb with a long pre-delay, and lets its vocal glow short but big; this makes his voice seem huge. His vocals also go to the “610” track via Ben's vocal track, for somewhat parallel distortion with a UAD 610 [preamp plug-in], and to the “VxPrl” track for parallel compression with a Bomb Factory BF76.

Further down in the session are all of the remaining vocals, including the "Chant" track - that's the big choir in the song with probably 60 voices or so mixed together into stems. At the very bottom are the tracks of the three rappers with no plug-ins at all. All of these tracks were more about setting the balance and adjusting the levels than about processing. This is an important point because a lot of people believe that you have to do something on every lane.

I used a lot of plug-ins on Eric and Ben's vocals, but in general I am a fan of Tony's school that you don't always have to do a lot, only when it's really necessary. If it's good, don't touch it anymore! Above the vocals are the brass tracks that make up a large part of the song. You don't hear that many wind instruments in pop music these days, so it was important to me that they sound special. I wanted a dirtier, darker horn sound than the 70s funk sound that the song already has. So I chose a dark tape machine vibe with very little compression.

It was more about filtering in the highs and finding resonance peaks with which the winds assert themselves in the track without it sounding too aloof. The wind tracks all go to one track called ›hrns‹ with the UAD Studer A800 tape machine plug-in, the Waves SSL E channel, with which I tried to make the sound a bit more classic, the Softube TubeTech ME1BEQ , which lowers at 2 kHz and increases at 200 Hz and 5 kHz, the [FabFilter] Pro-MB and Pro-Q2 as high-pass. Most of the sound is made by the A800 plug-in, which is set to 15 IPS; I wanted to make the sound a little darker. The drum tracks fall into two broad categories.

The upper half of ›KIK2‹ to ›MIC1‹ are the obviously programmed drums; you go to the ›drmc‹ track above with parallel compression from a DBX160 and then to the ›DRUM‹ track above with the Studer A800 plug-in.Among these, from ›BIGB‹ to ›AGO‹, are drum tracks with samples that are supposed to sound like real drums; they go to BBD. There is nothing in my drum editing that needs to be mentioned, everything is pretty standard. The drums already sounded great, I just made them sound a bit harder with EQ and added a sample, ›kickshort‹, to amplify the kick sound.

The bass didn't take much either. ›BAS1‹ is a sub; I used a bass amp plug-in on it and parallel processing with the Culture Vulture. The goal was to fuse the bass with the drums; it was all about cohesion. When I was almost done with the mix, I went to Seattle to see Ben and Ryan in the studio to incorporate the three rappers they recorded there into the session. Then I came back to my studio at Mirrorball to finish the mix and let it run through my hum edit. They actually asked me to chase the mix through a desk, so I rented EastWest Studio B to use the vintage Neve desk they have there. We wanted that classic 1970s sound. But it didn't work.

After sending the mix through the Neve desk, it didn't sound as good as my in-the-box mix I chased through my Rascal Two-V and UBK Fatso. I found it interesting that we'd spent $ 2,000 on it and it didn't end up sounding better! It's reminiscent of a song I mixed for Robbie Robertson. We did a few mixes on his Neve desk at The Village in LA and a few in-the-box; we also tried a dangerous summing mixer. And in this case too, we ended up using the in-the-box mix because it sounded better. The Neve desk and the summing mixer made the sound muddy, it lost its shape.

On the other hand, I recently mixed a few songs in a studio in Burbank on a great SSL console that was once heard by Chris Lord-Alge, and I don't think I could have got the same sound just on the computer. A month ago I went to the Blackbird in Nashville, where I was adding a mix to a desk, and it sounded great there too. So I'm open to both ways of working. In-the-box is definitely easier today because quick recalls can be requested at any time. But as far as the sound is concerned, you can mix as well in the computer as with a desk. The result ultimately depends on the room, on the desk, the monitor speakers and, above all, of course on the song. «And - what Castelli modestly withholds from us - the mix engineer.

 

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