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58th Grammy Awards: Nominees Talk Production

February 10, 2016

It’s Grammy season! We're getting ready to watch artists, engineers and producers proudly claim their trophies on the 2016 Grammy Awards telecast on Tuesday. But back in January, when the nominees were gearing up for the 58th annual ceremony, we sat down with the creative teams behind the year’s biggest albums, to get the scoop on how these projects came together.

Record of the Year; Pop Duo/Group Performance:
“Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
Best Pop Vocal Album: Uptown Special, Mark Ronson

Nobody would argue that Mark Ronson’s blockbuster hit “Uptown Funk,” featuring Bruno Mars, was the song of 2015—maybe even the decade. But Uptown Special delivers track after track of feel-good, show-stopper R&B funk, performed by a cast of musical characters ranging from Stevie Wonder to Mystikal to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, all united by Ronson and co-producer Jeff Bhasker’s grooves.

“For the most part, I always start with the drums,” says Ronson. “That was my first instrument, even before I knew how to mike a kit…That’s a lot of the glue. And also, Jeff Bhasker and I wrote all of these songs, untilke most produtions now when 20 writers are on each song.”

And though the record, produced by Ronson and Jeff Bhasker, was recorded and mixed at a dozen different studios in the US and the UK, including Daptone, Electric Lady, and Ronson’s Zelig studios in London, Ronson says that his time in Mempis’ legendary rooms resonated the most. “I didn’t set out to make a funk record, but once we got to Memphis, the groove was inescapable,” says Ronson. “We stopped one night and recorded some demos at Sun; they have a great engineer…The next day we went to Royal. As soon as I walked into the room—you can see that over time Willie Mitchell kept adding fiberglass insulation until the hand claps were just dead. It’s just a magical room, and not only because it has the original gear. On the intro track to the album, actually where Stevie Wonder is playing harmonica, we used the same electric bongo machine used on Ann Peebles’ ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain.’ We had to have that on the record!” Ronson notes that recordings made in Memphis were some of the more high-fidelity recordings he has made. “There’s no one-mic-on-the-drums scenario. It was more about getting the shit to sound pristine. Or my version of pristine.”

Rock Album: Kintsugi, Death Cab For Cutie
The final Death Cab for Cutie album to include original member, producer, and instrumentalist Chris Walla, Kintsugi was produced and mixed by Rich Costey; recorded by Costey, engineers Martin Cooke, and Nicolas Fournier at Eldorado Recording Studios; and assisted by Mario Borgatta and mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering.

The record, recorded to both tape and Pro Tools, features a wealth of ancient analog drum machines as well as the band’s first live performances in the studio as a complete group. “Most of the album was tracked with the band playing together live, which hasn’t happened in years,” says Costey. “And sometimes reacting to my drum programming. We recorded all the jams onto a stereo two-track running all the time. They never do that. Ben [Gibbard] is a song guy who doesn’t care about jamming. But it’s good for everyone to stretch out.”

Going against the grain of Costey’s fondness for ancient machinery, guitarist Gibbard prefers tracking in the box. “I have never been happier than when we were able to record vocals into a computer rather than to tape,” he says. “Chris is an analog purist; he likes cutting up tape and we did record basics to tape for Kintsugi. Tape has a certain quality that is unmatched in a computer because of the physical nature of the medium. But there is very little difference that the average musical listener can actually hear between a record recorded to tape and one recorded well to a computer.”

Still, tape and analog processing fill Kintsugi. From Walla’s spliced, diced, and thrown-around tape loops to Costey’s vintage consoles and insistence on recording drums to tape, Kintsugi is a compromise, in many ways, for Death Cab for Cutie. “There are definitely processed, long-sounding guitar things on the record,” Costey explains. “A lot of that is Chris’s natural tendency. He likes tape loops. Chris will put down ambient guitar parts across an eight-track deck, then we will bring it up and set up Chris up with eight faders. He will turn up faders as the song goes by to generate a guitar part out of that ambience.”

“We thought of each song as man and machine,” Gibbard adds. “We wanted varying percentages of man and machine on every song. There might be an LM-1 Linn Drum or a sequence happening, but we wanted it to sound like a band. I was impressed with Rich in that he brought drum machines into the band setting without having the machine overwhelm the band…But in the more successful moments on this album the man and machine are playing as one. Rich was very much at the helm of that.”

Best Dance Recording: “Never Catch Me,” Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar
Steven Ellison, better known to fans of jazz-leaning beathead odysseys as Flying Lotus, FlyLo, or just Lotus, says You’re Dead!, his fifth full-length album, is his most collaborative effort to date. “I opened up so much more of my space to other people with this record,” Ellison explains. “Even though there’s never a full band playing, even though all the instruments are recorded individually, I wanted it to sound like there were all these people in the fold together. And to get that, I had to learn how to communicate my ideas differently to each person in order to get the best performances…I went at it like a classic producer, more in terms of being a Quincy Jones type with lots of personnel and an overall vision, not a beatmaker.”

In addition to collaborating with Kendrick Lamar on the Grammy-nominated track “Never Catch Me,” Ellison hosted numerous musicians in his SoCal home studio, including strings arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and drummers Justin Brown, Deantoni Parks, Gene Coye, and Ronald Bruner, who contributed invaluable source material alongside featured artists Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, (Ellison’s MC alter ego) Captain Murphy, Angel Deradoorian, and Niki Randa.
Tracking sessions were straightforward; the aim was to catch the raw energy of the various performances. “Sometimes I would record drummers for an entire day on this mutt kit in my house, just recreating ideas from records or that I’d hummed into my iPhone voice memos,” says Ellison. “I bought this Neumann mic that cost a fortune, but we didn’t even use it because it sounded too sterile. I wanted warmth, rawness, to dive into the unexpected headfirst. Once I had all that, I could dial in the EQ, draw in all the automation, really manipulate things.

“I hate the way a lot of records, especially jazz records, sound now, so fucking clean, so I wanted to do my thing with one or two mics in a space and that’s it,” Ellison concludes. “And it wasn’t a good acoustic space, just a regular room in my house. I tried to keep things dirty, give it that texture. There are room reflections and they are a true reflection of what we did. I had a big rug and that’s it; we were just working in my living room.”

Best Alternative Music Album
Star Wars, Wilco

It’s an inside-joke between Wilco and everyone else: The general public had been eagerly anticipating the new Star Wars film for years, lapping up any small crumb of a hint at the look and content of the blockbuster sequel. Meanwhile, Wilco released a surprise album with no publicity and no forewarning, and they called it… Star Wars. And because frontman Jeff Tweedy and his bandmates are constantly working in their creative home, The Loft studio in Chicago, there was no reason for anyone to suspect that the band were secretly recording an unannounced ninth album. Almost no one but their engineer, Tom Schick, saw it coming.

“When Jeff isn't on tour, he is in the studio writing, recording, and creating,” Schick says. “Star Wars was part of a large batch of songs that Jeff was working on. They were all in various stages of completion but came together pretty fast once it was clear which songs would make up Star Wars.”

Just a couple of details about the recording process in The Loft: Schick captured Tweedy’s vocals with a Shure SM58 to a Neve BCM10 mic preamp with UA 1176 compression. “Jeff did most of his vocals on the couch in the control room with no headphones,” the engineer says. “The main guitar amp was a vintage Fender Champ, recorded with an AEA N-22 prototype ribbon mic to a Neve BCM10 and Manley ELOP compressor.

Effectswise, a lot of detailed work goes into creating the complex, rich sounds of a Wilco album. Schick offers a glimpse: “We used a Moogerfooger analog delay for the vocal slap on most of the tracks,” he says. “We also used a Binson Echorec 2 for more extensive delays.”

Producer of the Year: Jeff Bhasker
In the past year, Jeff Bhasker produced hit records across a range of genres, from country to pop rock to R&B. Projects singled out for Grammy regonition include “Last Damn Night” and “Ain’t Gonna Drown” by Elle King, Mikky Ekko’s “Burning Doves,” Cam’s “Burning House” and “Runaway Train,” Nate Ruess’ Grand Romantic, “Never Let You Down” by Woodkid Featuring Lykke Li, and Mark Ronson’s smash Uptown Special, which was co-written and co-produced by Bhasker.

To create Uptown Special, Bhasker and co-producer Mark Ronson embarked on a “Mississipi Mission,” as Bhasker called it, traveling through the American south on the hunt for the perfect singer. But their perspective shifted once they discovered the special recording spaces of Memphis. “The biggest impact came when we found Royal Studios and Boo Mitchell,” Bhasker says. “That became our headquarters once we had the bulk of the writing done. The studio has such a magic in it, and Boo and his whole family make you feel so at home. The spirit Boo brought to the table the second we met him made it such a joy to work there.”

Bhasker continued to channel the Memphis spirit with rockabilly newcomer Elle King, recording King’s “Last Damn Night” at Sun Studios, where he had also tracked parts of Uptown Special. “The second I walked in there, I knew I had to record her there,” he says, adding that capturing King’s raw, gritty vocals was straightforward: “Just turn the mic on! She’s such a force.”

Bhasker, who’s cemented his reputation as a hitmaker, says he knew he was on to something special with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ "Uptown Funk," even though nobody could predict that it would dominate the airwaves the way it did. “I knew it was going to be a big record but...come on!” he laughs. “Besides all the charts and everything, I really love how it brought together and appealed to so many different demographics. That, to me is what music is supposed to do: bring people together.”

Album of the Year, Best rock Performance, Best Rock Song, Best Alternative Music Album, Best Engineered Album Nonclassical, Producer of the Year Nonclassical (Blake Mills)
Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes are nominated this year for their intensely dynamic album Sound & Color, and for the stellar production work that helped realize their original songs. We asked legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig for his insight about the engineering side, from the recording studio to his Gateway Mastering studio:

"I gave Shawn Everett an award at an Audio Engineering Society convention when he was a student at the Banff Centre in Canada and said 'I’m sure I’ll be hearing from you in the future,' and that has been very true! Shawn worked with maestro producer Tony Berg and honed his professional skills with him. Shawn worked on Ozomatli, The Like, and two Lucius records with me, and I loved all of those albums, and he has produced the new Lucius album which I adore.

"Shawn’s mixes for the artists were very hot, hotter than I would have normally mastered the record, but it all sounded excellent. My mastering was a lot about being as loud as his good-sounding listening mixes, but hopefully sound even a touch better.

"I love dynamics, and if something feels like it needs to be relaxed for a while, then so be it, then when something bombastic comes on it can really let go! That was the secret of Led Zeppelin, one had to have soft tracks so the loud tracks seemed even louder. The Alabama Shakes performances are phenomenal; there is nothing like them.

"The fact that it was nominated for a Best Engineered Nonclassical Grammy shows that it sounded great to the judges ears and hopefully it will to the voters as well!"

Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical
"Say My Name (RAC Remix),” André Allen Anjos, remixer (Odesza feat. Zyra)
RAC, originally known as the Remix Artist Collective, is the indie-electronic project of André Allen Anjos. Conceived to re-interpret rock, electronica, and dance music remixes. RAC’s vision is to maintain a style of remixing that strays from the "club mix" archetype, focusing less on danceability and more creating new incarnations of songs that stem from the original structure, but expand on the arrangement.

Anjos says his collaboration with Odesza started out as a trade in which he would remix their hit “Say My Name” and they would remix his track “We Belong.” “I had heard about them but it wasn't until my manager Julie showed me a few of their songs that I was sold on it,” he explains.

Anjos honed right in on guest singer Zyra’s breezy vocal hook: “I loaded up the stems and immediately the vocal jumped out at me,” he says. “Not only was it an incredible voice, but it was a really catchy melody. The files had a lot of FX, which they are known for. However, I wanted to strip it back a bit and just work with a completely dry vocal. Once they gave that to me, the entire song opened up. I mostly tried to stay out of the way. It's a very barebones guitar and drums track. When I start remixes, I very rarely have a grand vision. I try to always go where the song takes me and trust my instincts.

It’s no secret that the Grammy Awards were a little late to the party, as far as electronic music is concerned. Anjos says the nomination caught him completely by surprise: “I hadn't really thought about it as a career goal or anything; tt seemed so unattainable. It's especially great because it's exactly in the category that I've devoted the past eight years of my life working in. To be recognized for that is really rewarding—especially because I wasn't doing things the normal dance music way. It has this way of legitimizing what I do. Whether I win or not, this is already a win for me.”

Producer of the Year Nonclassical, Album of the Year, Best Country Solo Performance, Best Country Album, Best Americana Album
Dave Cobb

Nominated in several categories, producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Cobb wears as many hats as his projects require. For Chris Stapleton's smash country-rock debut, Traveler, Cobb produced and played some guitar, working closely with Stapleton and band, and the artist's wife, Morgane Hayes-Stapleton, who provided backing vocals and creative input.

"When we started, the label was allowing us to do a couple songs," Cobb says. "We went over to RCA Studio A to do that, and we wound up getting most of the record done. We were all tracking live with the band in a rehearsal room, and every take was just magic. We'd start the session just goofing off, order some food, talk for a while, order more food, drink a little bit, and we wouldn't really start until 8 or 9 o'clock every night. But when we did, we'd get two or three masters in a row."

Cobb says that the sessions felt effortless at that point, but of course a lot of work and thought goes into creating that vibe: "When I got the call to work with Chris, I didn't want to take any chances, so I called in the big guns," Cobb says. "Vance [Powell, engineer] is a legend in my book. One of the reasons we were able to relax so much was we knew Vance was in the control room. I didn't even have to walk into the control room to know it would sound good.

"Chris and Morgan wanted their record to be honest and simple and feel like when you would see the band—a little bit of an out-there version of that: simple, honest, minimal, and fun. There are hardly any overdubs on the record. We brought in Robby Turner, who used to play pedal steel with Waylon Jennings and The Highwaymen, and Mickey Raphael from Willie Nelson's band to play harmonica, and Michael Webb played some Hammond and piano on a couple of tracks. But as a whole, it's super minimal. And live. Every guitar solo is a live take. Every vocal was live with the band."

Best Blues Album
Worthy, Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette's soulful, smoky, voice is obviously the central focus of her albums, but there's also no underestimating the contribution of the supporting musicians chosen by Joe Henry, who produced two albums with Lavette, including the Grammy-nominated record Worthy.

"One of the most significant things I do as a producer is put the right people in the room who I believe know how to listen, who are going to bring incredible experience and imagination to bear," Henry says. "It's not just about what instrument they play. I'm putting people in the room based on their experience, and that way I know they know how to create an atmosphere and stay in one."

Henry encourages live band recording, and engineer Ryan Freeland was on hand to capture the sessions. "I did my standard [Shure] 57 [and Royer] 121 combo on the guitar amp," Freeland says. "I remember, on one of the really bluesy songs, Doyle [Bramhall II] kept trying to do something that wasn’t a traditional blues vibe, and Bettye was like, 'Honey, just play the blues.' So he played some traditional blues riffs, but they sounded totally unique. That is a sign of his musicianship to me, to be able to play licks you’ve heard all your life but they didn’t sound imitative. They sounded perfectly fit to the song.

"The piano was Joe's upright Steinway," Freeland continues. "It’s got a beautiful vibe, especially the way Patrick [Warren] plays it. The organ was Patrick’s. I use a pair of [Royer] 122s on the Leslie part. But the funny thing was, he went to the extra effort to get this organ over there, and one of the first things Bettye said when she walked in and he started playing was, 'When I hear the organ, I think of church, and I don’t want any organ on this record.'

"But he kept creeping it in as the days progressed. And in the end, there is a lot of beautiful organ stuff on the record, and that became the joke: 'Turn up that instrument, whatever that is that isn’t an organ because I don’t like organ.' She couldn’t believe Patrick made her love the organ. His playing was that beautiful."

Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Covered: Recorded Live at Capitol Studios, Robert Glasper & The Robert Glasper Trio
Musician Robert Glasper set aside his Robert Glasper Experiment projects (Black Radio and Black Radio 2) and returned to his jazz-trio roots to record Covered: Recorded Live at Capitol Studios, an eclectic collection of some of his favorite songs. Glasper reunited with Robert Glasper Trio members Damion Reid (drums) and Vicente Archer (bass), and performed the tracks live with an audience, nightclub-style, in Capitol Studio A; Glasper's longtime engineer, Keith "Qmillion" Lewis captured the performances.

"We had to sort out what we were going to do with the audience,” Qmillion says. “At the last minute, we decided to throw the drums in the booth and keep everybody else out in the room. The audience were not really hearing the drums except for what was bleeding through the isolation booth, but when you consider the number of people who are going to hear in the room vs. the people who are going to hear the record, it’s a big ratio.

Qmillion miked up the studio’s Yamaha grand with his go-to scheme: “I used my three [AKG] 414s,” the engineer says. “The two that are in the front, the stereo pair that go for the low and the high, are placed in the middle of the piano toward the front, above where the keys strike everything. They’re positioned by ear to get a good spread. The third one goes in the back for the low end.

“Rob’s playing style is very unique,” Qmillion continues. “I’ve used this same mic setup on other piano players who are like: ‘Give me that Robert Glasper sound.’ I can use the same mics, same setup, but it does not sound the same. No one plays like Rob plays. His touch is very light at times, because he uses a lot of dynamics; he doesn’t bang on the piano. The 414s really capture the nuances of his playing. If you listen to it, my idea is to have you feel like you’re inside the piano—kind of surrounded by Rob’s piano.”

Best Jazz Vocal Performance
Cecile McLorin Salvant

This deeply versatile and gifted artist recorded her Grammy-nominated sophomore album in Avatar Studio A with producer Albert Pryor and engineer Todd Whitelock.

Salvant's technical team experimented with several microphones from Avatar's extensive mic locker on Salvant's vocal, and ultimately settled on a Lauten Atlantis prototype. "It was hand-tuned by Brian Loudenslager with input from Fab Dupont, who loaned us that microphone," Pryor says. "Together with a DW Fern VT1 tube preamp and the Neve [8088] console, we achieved something akin to the sound of a vintage [Neumann] M49 large-diaphram that could withstand the SPLs."

At the mix stage, Whitelock and Pryor added a vintage Neve 5465 to Salvant's vocal sound. "That began its audio life as the in house recording console at Carnegie Hall and now lives at Damon Whittemore’s ValveTone mix room. We also had an Anthony Demaria Labs ADL1000 tube compressor in the insert for amplification mostly and minimal compressing. For reverb we recorded a real EMT plate that Todd used for the monitor mix while tracking at Avatar. In the mix, he blended that with a bit of the same Bricasti M7 program that he used on the rest of the ensemble to 'subliminally' put them all in the same sonic space—nothing too strong or obtrusive. The reverb was for color and texture, like invisible brush strokes on the final painting that is the song.

"Cécile has near perfect intonation and an endless supply of improvisational ideas," Pryor continues. "She is thoroughly versed in music theory and has well-honed microphone techniques to get every nuance out of every syllable and consonant. Cécile’s artistry comes from every corner of vocal music history and vocabulary: Jazz, Blues, Opera, Baroque Classical repertoire, and Broadway. Breaths and lip smacks stay in—no alterations. We attenuated popped Ps and an occasional S that hit the capsule funny, but in general we left that vocal as unaltered as it was delivered, at her request. She wants the honesty of her performances to resonate—no punches, no edits, and absolutely no pitch alterations."

P&E Wing Honoree: Rick Rubin
Forging His Own Path, for the Love of Music
By Sylvia Massy

Each year, the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing recognizes a producer, artist, or engineer for his or her “commitment to creative and sonic excellence and ongoing support for the art and craft of recorded music.” This year, eight-time Grammy winner Rick Rubin receives this distinction, joining a list of honorees that includes T Bone Burnett, Tom Dowd, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Jimmy Iovine, Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Nile Rodgers, Al Schmitt, Jerry Wexler, and Neil Young. We asked producer Sylvia Massy, who worked with Rubin on landmark records by Johnny Cash, Geto Boys, Danzig, Smashing Pumpkins, Tom Petty, Slayer, and System of a Down, to share a few thoughts about Rubin’s contributions to music.

Some producers find a winning formula and stick with it, always going back to what worked in the past. And who can blame them? Especially when everyone is happy. Then there are those wild dogs who fall ass-backwards into success, often getting lost in the pitfalls of sex, drugs, and hedonistic distraction. The tragic geniuses. We all know at least one.

And then there's Rick, who has taken his own path. He approaches music production from the perspective of the enthusiastic fan, never forgetting that the ultimate goal is to create something that listeners will want to hear. Or at least something that he would want to hear. Even if it is nothing like what he’s done before. Even if it excludes what the corporate music world has calculated as a low risk “sure-thing.” He produces for his own satisfaction, and maybe that is what we all should be doing—because it has certainly worked out well for him.

Rick has conjured up projects that no “normal” music exec would know what to do with. The punky New York white kids with turntables. The troublesome political country girl trio. The quirky Armenian metal WTF-is-it? The long-in-the-tooth American icon in black. And it has worked, over and over again. He is a chef whose musical concoctions have permanently changed the menu for all of us. For instance, who would have thought to mix hip-hop with rock? As groundbreaking as mixing peanut butter and chocolate. At one time astounding; now, it is standard fare.

He's the Zen master who assembles the personalities, sets the wheels into motion, and quietly keeps the machine on track without getting in the way. It take a special person to accomplish this. One who has earned some kind of inner peace and sees a larger perspective. A thousand-miles-high perspective. He is an ambassador who comes from a place of always striving to do what is best for everyone involved. And that’s how you change musical history. I'm lucky to have known and worked with him!

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