From an industry perspective, the 59th annual Grammy Awards nominations offer some interesting surprises; Beyoncé’s nomination for Best Rock Performance for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” raised a few eyebrows, despite featuring Jack White and incorporating a Led Zeppelin sample; on the other hand, newcomer Chance the Rapper made history with Coloring Book, the first nominated album to be released exclusively through streaming.
But from a production perspective, Grammy nominees always represent artists, producers, and engineers at the top of their craft. We’ve asked some of this year’s honorees to take us inside these celebrated albums; hopefully you’ll be inspired to try some of these techniques on your next session.
PANIC! AT THE DISCO
Best Rock Album
Panic! At The Disco’s fifth album, Death of a Bachelor, is a hyper-extreme sonic circus, created by what is essentially a one-manband, songwriter-vocalist-instrumentalist Brendon Urie. “I wanted each song to feel like a special event,” explains Urie. “I wrote songs on piano or guitar, moved them into Logic Pro 10, then I used a lot of UAD and FabFilter plug-ins, even a lot of demo plug-ins.”
“I had a concept to take Brendon in a future Sinatra route,” says producer Jake Sinclair. “We put that element in every song. We layered Arturia synth lines with a big-band horn section. That added depth so the songs take on a different life. And it really helps that Brendon is the best on every instrument of anyone I’ve recorded. As a singer you can use his last take and it sounds perfect.”
“We build everything around the vocal rather than the vocal being built around the track,” Sinclair adds. “That gives us a starting place productionwise that is different than if you cut vocals at the end. You could say we use the scratch track, but with Brendon the scratch track is the final vocal.”
Urie says that as a multi-instrumentalist, it’s important to solicit second opinions and keep perspective. “When recording everything yourself, if you get tired of an idea, don’t spend more than ten minutes stressing about it. If I’m working on a keyboard line, if I get stressed for more than ten minutes—and I set a timer—I will move on. Don’t let yourself get too bummed if an idea isn’t working. Don’t lose that initial excitement of the song.”
Best Dance Recording, Best Dance/Electronic Album
After his 2012 debut eponymous album Flume went double-Platinum in his native Australia, Harley Edward Streten was able to build himself a studio in Sydney (Flume was recorded in his bedroom), including his dream speakers, the $22,000-a-pair Barefoot Sound MiniMain12s that he’d seen when he met Skrillex. “Now when I hear the music, it’s actually how it sounds,” Streten says.
However, a nice new studio didn’t stop him from feeling some anxiety about making the follow-up album, Skin. “Having equipment doesn’t make your music better,” he says. “When it comes to the ideas and the melodies and all the important stuff. That’s all in the head. I put a lot of pressure on myself personally to make something as good or better than what I’ve already made. I set a bit of a benchmark, and to be happy I really had to work hard and make sure I was proud of what I was putting out.”
Pleasing himself ended up pleasing millions of people who have enjoyed huge hits like “Say It (feat. Tove Lo)” and the Grammy-nominated “Never Be Like You (feat. Kai)” on streaming services and mainstream radio. Those and other vocal collaborations with the likes of Beck, Little Dragon, and Vic Mensa found a sweet spot for Flume’s tastefully spare electronic slow jams.
Streten says his work with singer Kai fits his ideal scenario for a collaboration. “I prefer to get into the studio with a person,” he says. “Specifically, melody is what I’m into. I really like to work with them closely on that. With Kai, I sent her some ideas online and she sent me some ideas back—just 20 minutes of her basically improvising and riffing. Then I carved out just a few seconds of key moments that I thought were really beautiful—a potential verse hook, a potential chorus hook, a potential bridge. Then we got in the studio together and fleshed out the idea and elaborated on the melody and the lyrics. I just love getting huge loads of ideas and then carving and sculpting them and then getting in the studio with the person.”
Best Rock Performance
In case there was any doubt, taking a look at this year’s Grammy nominations for Best Rock Performance, which include a 10-minute avant-garde track by David Bowie and a mellow, piano-and-synth song by Twenty One Pilots, confirms that rock music isn’t what it used to be. Nor is it made the way it used to be. Evidence of that fact is Beyoncé’s unlikely teaming with one of the last remaining rock stars, Jack White. Speaking with long-time White collaborator and four-time Grammy-winning producer/mixer/engineer Vance Powell (pictured, left), we learned that White originally wrote and recorded the music for what eventually turned into “Don’t Hurt Yourself” about five years ago in his Third Man Studios in Nashville, with Powell as the recordist.
“When we recorded it, there was no concept of it ever being a Beyoncé track,” Powell says. “It was for a soundtrack that Jack was working on that ended up not being used. It was this song we had on the reels that had no lyrics or anything other than drums, bass, guitar, a fantastic violin and [background vocals by] Ruby Amanfu. At that point, it just disappeared into the vault. Maybe a couple years ago Jack told me he had written lyrics to it and was pitching it to Beyoncé. Then it just happened.”
That original music was cut to 2-inch 8-track tape, the way Powell says White always does it. “It was a very cinematic. It was meant to evoke the dusty Wild West or something,” Powell says. “It went on for four or five minutes and there were a couple of movements in it. Those two parts they just cut up and looped up and made into whatever it was.”
Plenty of additional production went into the final version of “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” Another frequent White collaborator and Powell’s former assistant Joshua V. Smith pitched in with additional overdubs and recording in Los Angeles. A 36-piece string ensemble was added. The members of Led Zeppelin even got a writing credit for the inclusion of a sample from “When the Levee Breaks.” All told the song racked up 60 people in its credits, and that doesn’t even include Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), the original author of “When the Levee Breaks.” At least if Beyoncé does the unpredictable and wins a Rock Grammy in the 21st century, it will pay some kind of karmic debt to an African-American woman (Douglas) born in the 19th century.
Three chords and a cloud of dust it is not, but “Don’t Hurt Yourself” reveals the strange state of rock music in 2016.
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical Ricky
Reed is one of the most sought-after producers in L.A., thanks to his chart-topping collaborations with artists like Meghan Trainor, Twenty-One Pilots, and Pitbull.
Reed favors an impactful, concise mix approach: “We don’t use that many sounds but the sounds we do use [have to] matter and hit, and have their home,” he explains. “It doesn’t sound anything like a Quincy Jones production, but I still think of him a lot in terms of how the writing and arranging of parts means so much when you get to mix stage. Like the choices you make of sounds and how many sounds or how few sounds is going to directly impact the sonic takeaway at the end of it.”
Reed generally outsources mixing, usually to engineer Manny Marroquin. “A lot of what I do is trying to get a song to a place where a label is going to freak out about it and make it a priority, way before we even mix it. So I have to get things sounding pretty damn good. But I do most of my mixing with Manny Marroquin. We have an amazing workflow.”
Reed runs his label, Nice Life Recording Co., with an artist-friendly approach. “There’s a lot of things that people have talked about for years: lyrics in songs and misogyny. Aside from that, there’s lots of behavior that goes on behind closed doors, not just between creatives, but also on the business side… I think there’s a subconscious trickledown effect of the way that we treat each other, and treat women, inside the industry. We export culture around the world. I think that we need to make sure that the culture is right here at home.”
Best Dance/Electronic Album
San Francisco electrogaze band Tycho surprised fans last August with the unannounced release of their fourth album, Epoch, which is nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album. “I’ve never been fond of the ‘hand in the album then wait four months for it to come out’ release schedule,” says Tycho founder and producer Scott Hansen. “With the prevalence of streaming and digital distribution, it felt like the right time to step outside that way of doing things and be more connected to the people consuming the music.”
Epoch showcases more aggressive bass and drum parts than on previous albums; the resulting spiked energy was part of Hansen’s plan all along. “I’ve always been really interested in pushing drums as far as I can,” he said. “For this album I wanted to get back to that—really put the time and thought into the rhythm section. I wanted this album to feel more aggressive in that way, more driven. I think it’s part of an overall trend on this album toward more defined parts. I wanted each part of the songs to stand on its own and hold a space.”
Best Country Solo Performance, Best Country Song, Best Country Album
Ripcord, Keith Urban’s tenth studio album, takes the country artist into new musical territory, infusing his familiar, rootsy style with a bright, synth-pop aesthetic.
“Keith is always looking to try new things, and as long as you center the feeling around his voice, everything else falls into place,” says mixer Chris Lord-Alge (pictured, left). “The challenge was to keep it honest to the song and the performance.”
Nowhere is this stylistic approach more evident than in the spare waltz ballad “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which is nominated for both Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance. Regarding the song’s minimalist arrangement, Urban has said he was inspired by legend Don Williams, who liked to say that the track should frame the picture and the power of the picture, “just minimal frames for the vocal”—an aesthetic reflected in the mix.
“I started out with a big, bold frame and switched gears to a more intimate one after I heard the demo, which had more of a singer’s approach,” says Lord-Alge. “It made the story all that mattered.” The ballad adheres to a classic structure, while incorporating “nontraditional” elements, such as drum machine—yet the mix feels cohesive and true to the emotional intent.
“In that situation, I had such a great vocal that I kept the groove very stark and really did my homework on listening to the demo and rough mix,” explains Lord-Alge. “But I also just thought about the feel of a soul record from the ’60s, and went with it.”
Best Dance/Electronic Album
Jarre is nominated for Volume 1 (The Time Machine) of his ambitious two-album project, Electronica, which includes collaborations with Pete Townshend, Tangerine Dream, Hans Zimmer, Vince Clarke, Cyndi Lauper, Moby, Laurie Anderson, and more.
“I’d had in mind for quite a while this collaboration between me and some people who have been all sorts of inspiration to me, and covering more or less four decades of electronic music—people who have the same kind of instant recognizable sound and also the same organic approach to sound,” Jarre says.
The electronica icon felt that his “organic” approach required human interaction as well: “[These] days, we have so many albums with featured artists, and most of the time the people never meet,” Jarre observes. “It was actually the reverse with this project. I physically went to every collaborator.”
Also key to the success of Jarre’s project were the importance of melody, and an openness to using any tool that’s right for the sonic job: “I’ve always been a big fan of the Revox. I use both Revoxes with varied speed and a click track, then sync the rhythm with the click track until the click track is giving me the right pace,” Jarre says. “I’ve been really frustrated with plug-ins and even hardware delays, because I could never find the same kind of thing. At one stage I said, ‘Okay, I would like to do a plug-in myself to get the kind of delay I want,’ until [I found] Native Instruments Replika. It’s quite interesting, quite close. I also use analog stuff—an old Vox AC-30 on some sounds.”
Album of the Year, Best Country Album
Simpson made headlines this year when he called the Academy of Country Music disingenuous for creating its “Merle Haggard Spirit Award,” when mainstream country had failed to recognize Haggard’s talent during the late singer/songwriter’s lifetime.
Simpson also tested the boundaries of the genre itself with his experimental concept album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. With lush orchestral strings, the Dap-Kings horn section, and nautical effects, the album is a thing of exceptional and unusual beauty.
“It’s a letter from a man lost at sea,” says engineer/producer David Ferguson, who co-owns (with John Prine) The Butcher Shoppe studio, where Simpson recorded the album. “Our cutting room is about 30 by 28, and we put everybody out there in the room. These are almost all live vocals; a big part of the drum sound is because it’s a live vocal and he’s sitting close to the drums. And he didn’t wear any headphones to cut. We had a little monitor speaker set up for him.”
On the songs that include acoustic guitar, such as the second track, “Breakers Roar,” Simpson plays while he sings and Ferguson captured his guitar with an AKG 451, into a UA 2-610 preamp, and to Pro Tools HD11.
“We also took a line off Sturgill’s guitar and ran that into a DI into the other side of the 2-610,” says assistant engineer Sean Sullivan. “That was occasionally used to make the acoustic guitar stereo, or if we wanted to add an effect, we used that so we didn’t have to worry about the vocal bleed.”
Best Engineer, Non-Classical
This is the second time Freeland has been nominated in this category. In 2010, he was considered for engineering Ray LaMontagne’s God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise, which won for Best Contemporary Folk Album. This year, his work on Bonnie Raitt’s Dig in Deep gets the nod.
“We recorded the whole band live at Henson Studio D and then did guitar, percussion, vocal overdubs, and mixing at my Stampede Origin Studio in Culver City,” Freeland says. “Pablo Hernandez was our second engineer for these sessions. The bulk of the performances came from the live takes at Henson’s, including a majority of the lead vocals.”
Freeland captured Raitt’s guitar playing with a Shure SM57 and Royer 121 into an API 312 pre and UREI 1176 compressor. Her vocal went to two mics, as Freeland will often do: a Neumann M49 and AEA A440 to a BEA 1073MPF preamp and a Summit TLA-100 compressor/limiter.
“These choices allowed me to capture Bonnie’s killer guitar tone and stunning vocal nuance effectively for the rockers as well as the mellower tunes without having to change mics from song to song,” Freeland says. “I like using two sonically different mics on each source, because it allows me to change the blend of the mics, depending on requirements of the song without needing to stop the session.
“I’m always trying to dig a little deeper on every album I make,” he continues, no pun intended. “Trying to find the exact right balance of sonics to effectively translate the music from the studio to an iPhone, while preserving the heart and soul of the performance, can be tricky, but I love it.”
Best Music Film
In the Netflix documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, we learn how Dim Mak label boss and now superstar DJ Steve Aoki had to work his way tirelessly to the top with little to no support from his wealthy and famous father Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana restaurants. Going from untrained Tuesday-night bar DJ to a globe-trotting, caked-up star in less than 10 years, Aoki hit Number 5 on the Forbes EDM Cash Kings list again in 2016, playing 198 shows despite getting vocal cord surgery.
The movie succeeds, however, by balancing Aoki’s party life with his family life, peering into Aoki’s relationships with his parents and the various pitfalls of his career. “The process of doing this film evolved,” Aoki explains. “As the story unfolded, the director Justin [Krook] and I became really close. He was always with me. It allowed me to feel free to talk about more intimate stuff, and I don’t usually know how to approach that. Once I gave him that access, we were going through all the harder, darker moments. In many ways, that’s why I can’t watch this film... It’s like watching yourself go through therapy sessions.”
Aoki spent all year working on his upcoming 2017 album, Neon Future III, and didn’t have any major music releases, so his Grammy nomination took him by surprise. “It was like, ‘Hold on, I’m nominated for what?’” he says. “I was blown away. I’m alongside the Beatles, Beyoncé, and Yo-Yo Ma. I’m just over the moon that people liked it. I see the feedback it gets online and that really makes me proud about the doc and how it has connected with people.”
Best Improvised Jazz Solo
Not only is 13-year-old piano prodigy Joey Alexander nominated for a Grammy this year, for his performance of “Countdown,” on his album of the same name, but also he’s nominated in a category that speaks to the depth of his inventiveness, creativity, and feel—truly an exceptional accomplishment.
“Before I arrange a song, I always try to feel the song first. When I play a song, it’s not just a melody. There’s a story behind it. I always try to understand the lyrics too, so I know what the song means and what it’s about. I want to give that joy too. That’s really important for me,” Alexander says.
“I try to just be ‘one’ with the song and explore it,” he continues. “And of course, you’ve got to feel that groove too. Every time I play with my band, I try to feel that and have an interaction. For sure I know the risks, because songs like these are hard to play because of the amount of patience you need. Especially ‘Countdown,’ because it’s not just the harmonies—I find the space of it really difficult.”
Best Alternative Music Album, Best Recording Package, Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song
This year, we were forced to reflect upon a rare musical genius, David Bowie. The consummate artistic chameleon succumbed to an 18-month battle with cancer in January.
Produced by Tony Visconti and engineered by Kevin Killen, Blackstar was recorded over three separate weeks in January 2015, would be Bowie’s final work. Tapping the Donny McCaslin quartet and their innovative aesthetic to forge a new sound in a career that traded in stylistic changes, Bowie ran the Blackstar sessions loosely, relying on the band’s exploratory skill set, never requiring more than three takes to nail a keeper.
“The tracking process was live,” explains assistant engineer Kabil Hermon. “They would do mostly full takes in the 1,000-square foot live room; after takes, they would come into the control room and listen. As they listened, the band, Tony, and David would discuss what they were hearing and if needed, make adjustments.
“David usually offered conceptual advice so that he engaged your imagination,” McCaslin adds. “He always engaged our creativity. David would pore over every detail and work really hard until he got it exactly as he wanted it. He was fully engaged in the process. He’d take in every detail…The fact that Blackstar became a Number One album is both surreal and bittersweet. That will always stick with me.”
Best American Roots Song, Best Folk Album
The lovely opening track on Robbie Fulks’ album Upland Stories began its life as part of a play that the singer/songwriter had been writing with Brian Yorkey. “We had decided [on] a scenario about James Agee and Walker Evans, who had written this book called, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about Alabama share croppers—cotton tenants during the Great Depression,” Fulks explains.
The play was put on hold when Yorkey took on a TV writing assignment, and Fulks wound up using three songs, including “Alabama,” as the foundation for his album, which he recorded live with a versatile cast of musicians, in his old friend Steve Albini’s studio, Electrical Audio.
“Everything went great guns and everybody played as I imagined they would, but also brought stuff to the table that I never would have imagined,” says Fulks, who’s been recording with Albini on and off since 1986.
“Steve keeps the clock moving, which is useful. He has an unemotional, pragmatic approach where if you do something two or three times in a row and it doesn’t get better, he comes on the talkback mic and says, ‘The learning curve is not going in any appreciably decent direction. Let’s either change something or, you know, give up.’” Fulks says.
“I’ve also come to appreciate his aesthetic, which is unfussy and folkloric, I would say. He approaches each session like there’s an event, and he’s there to record it and not show his fingerprints much. When I was younger, I was not as down with that, but now I’m much more fond of it. It’s more interesting to have that contrarian approach to creating beautiful music, to avoid the temptation to turn to the easiest and cheapest and most contemporary tool of the time, when tape sounds so great and when good musicians just always sound like good musicians.”
Producers and Engineers Wing Honoree: Jack White
Jack White is the tenth person to be recognized by the Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing, which holds an annual celebration honoring notable artists, producers, and engineers for their contributions to the craft of recording.
“For years, we’ve marveled at Jack White’s prodigious musicianship and have revered him as a guitar-playing mastermind, but we think it’s important to recognize his significant contributions ‘behind the glass’ as well,” says Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow. “There seems to be no limit to Jack’s pioneering creativity and unbridled passion, and it’s those qualities that embody the spirit of all of our Producers & Engineers Wing members.”
The singer and multi-instrumentalist is best known for fronting the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Dead Weather; he also heads up a record label and store, Third Man Records, and a studio, Third Man Studios, in Nashville. White has been known to be an analog loyalist, has eschewed compression in mastering, and seems most comfortable making resolute recording decisions in the moment, as he explained when he talked to us about recording Blunderbuss, back in August, 2012.
“I make my decisions early on and eliminate right from the get-go so I don’t have to make those choices down the road, because that just makes it harder on you,” he said. “There’s a consequence to making quick decisions,” he added. “But it’s like any mentor or parent will tell you: Just go with your gut. You’re going to be wrong sometimes, but in the end you’ll at least know that you went with what you felt was the right thing to do at the time.”
White will be celebrated at a dedicated Grammy Week event at The Village Recorder; Past P&E honorees have included Nile Rodgers, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, Al Schmitt, and Rick Rubin.
The 2017 Technical Grammy: Alan Dower Blumlein
In his short life, British audio inventor Alan Dower Blumlein revolutionized the way we listen to recorded sound.
Although he grew up poor and did not learn to read until he was 13 years old, Blumlein became one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century: Before he died in 1942 at the age of 38, he been awarded 128 patents, most notably for the invention of stereophonic sound.
The notion of stereo sound came to Blumlein in 1931 when, attending a movie with his wife, he grew frustrated hearing voices emerge from a fixed, single location even as characters moved onscreen. Later that year, he filed for a patent for a 2-channel system—he called his invention binaural sound, but we know it as stereo. This patent comprised 70 claims, including a crossed-figure-eight two-microphone stereo recording configuration that would ultimately become known as the Blumlein pair, a technique still in use today.
A senior engineer at EMI ’s Central Research Laboratories (CRL), Blumlein also invented a stereo disc-cutting head and a moving-coil microphone, and held patents for innovations in a broad range of telecommunication fields, from telephone measuring equipment to cathode ray tubes and circuits to radar systems.
Military radar research led to Blumlein’s death in 1942, when he was killed in a plane crash during a covert test flight. The military kept his death a secret to protect the research project, and for a time it seemed Blumlein would be forgotten. Interest in stereo sound grew in the 1950s, however, and in 1958 Blumlein was honored posthumously by the Audio Engineering Society. Today, guests at Abbey Road Studios can visit an IEEE Milestone plaque commemorating Blumlein’s remarkable achievements.