As a producer, what do you do when you’ve hit Platinum so many times only your accountant can keep score? When your name rolls off musicians’ tongues in the same breath as such heavy hitters as Dr. Dre and Don Was? For Mark Ronson, who is not only a producer but a recording artist in his own right, the next thing to tackle after multiple production successes (Amy Winehouse, Adele, Paul McCartney) and artist triumphs (three acclaimed solo albums) was the same venue that tests all musicians: the road.
“[producer] Jeff Bhasker [Kanye West, Fun, Jay-Z] and I were up one night late, it was like 2 a.m. and we were brainstorming,” says Ronson, taking a break from rolling tape at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. “Then Jeff had this idea: ‘Let’s drive through the south and find the singer. We’ll call it Mississippi Mission.’ He had this whole concept. It started as a kind of eccentric idea; then we got in touch with someone who could get us in to hear the big choirs at these amazing southern churches. We flew to New Orleans then drove to Baton Rouge, Memphis, Jackson, Chicago, and St. Louis.”
Eventually surrounding themselves with an eclectic cast that included Stevie Wonder, Tame Impala vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker, Miike Snow vocalist Andrew Wyatt, Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss, bassist Nick Movshon, Dap-Kings guitarist Tommy Brenneck, ace studio bassist Willie Weeks, guitarist Carlos Alomar, drummer Steve Jordan. Ronson and Bhasker flew to New Orleans then hit the Deep South, road running on the hunt for a singing star who could make their dreams come true. Perhaps they were looking for the next Amy Winehouse or Adele; perhaps they were looking for inspiration beyond New York and L.A. Who they found was 23-year-old gospel singer Keyone Starr. Not long after, with recording time booked at Memphis’ cathedral of soul, Royal Studios (home to Al Green and production mastermind Willie Mitchell) and with lyrical contributions from Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon, Ronson’s fourth album, Uptown Special, was born.
Jeff Bhasker at the mic in the legendary Sun Studios, Memphis Ultimately recorded and mixed at twelve different studios from coast to coast, Uptown Special delivers surging, shiny R&B in the Bruno Mars-led “Uptown Funk,” dreamy chill-essence episodes with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, ’70s styled lounge lizards with Andrew Wyatt, sizzling James Brown-bent hip-hop with rappers A$AP Rocky and Mystikal, and club-dazzling southern soul with their discovery, Keyone Starr.
Uptown Special’s production credits are just as dizzying: Studios included Daptone, Royal, Mixstar, Ronson’s Zelig Studios, Cherry Beach, Levcon, Bhasker’s Enormous, Dunham, Electric Lady, Germano, Azari Studios, and Atomic. Engineers included Ronson, Tom Elmhirst, Boo Mitchell, Charles Moniz, Josh Blair, Ricardo Damien, Artie Smith, Joe Visciano, Kenta Yonesaka, Jason Staniulis, and many more.
Though Uptown Special is the product of both tape and Pro Tools, of multiple musicians stomping the groove, of live performances cut to click and without, the album is unified and passionate, glossy as the cover of Vogue. For Ronson, who handled everything from playing instruments and placing mics to running the Studer and falling asleep on his MCI 500 Series board, total control paid off.
We don’t get to talk to many artists who also produce, roll tape, and handle practically all of the engineering duties on their records.
Well, [Willie Mitchell’s son] Boo Mitchell was invaluable at Royal Studios. He would say, “This is where Pops put the U47.” But as far as effects and plug-ins, and how I want them dialed on the Pultec, all those things, I only know that. Even if it’s somebody else turning it, I knew where it sounded best.
Given that you mixed the album at 12 different studios, how did you achieve a uniform sound?
Most of the rhythm tracking took place at Royal in Memphis. The drummers were Homer Steinweiss from the Dap-Kings, Steve Jordan, and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala—I like all of those drummers because though they are very different, they all have a specific feel and a touch. They all appeal to me aesthetically so there must be something similar about their drumming. Sometimes we’d occasionally switch out a snare drum or lean more heavily on a mic. But for the most part, I always start with the drums. That was my first instrument even before I knew how to mike a kit. I was a fledgling DJ spending every weekend going to record stores like A-1 and Sound Library (both in NYC’s East Village) looking for that break. It was always about the kick and the snare. That’s why when I first went to Daptone Studios when we were doing [Amy Winehouse’s] Back to Black and I heard engineer Gabriel Roth recording Homer on drums; I didn’t realize that you could still make drums sound that magical. It was a life changing moment for me. That’s a lot of the glue. And also, Jeff Bhasker and I wrote all of these songs, unlike most productions now when 20 writers are on each song. I didn’t set out to make a funk record, but once we got to Memphis, the groove was inescapable. And all of my records, groove is the unifying factor.
Ronson in the studio with MystikalSo you and Jeff took a road trip through the Deep South to find a great singer?
Yes. I began writing in Venice Beach with Jeff at his studio. We had “I Can’t Lose.” Jeff sang the demo. And he is good. It’s funny to hear his demos of songs that he did with Alicia Keys or Kanye West. But we wondered ‘Who can sing this song?” We needed our own Chaka Khan singing in 1977.
How did you hold auditions?
Sometimes we just went to choir rehearsals. We were looking for singers, but to be honest, it was a pure pleasure to go to the churches and hear the roots of the music I love. That was inspiring. And we didn’t want to go into churches holding auditions. That seemed wrong. We had two lowkey camera guys with us and told people we were making a documentary about the evolution of soul music of the Mississippi, which we are. We were making a soul record, so let’s film the trip. But in Jackson, Mississippi, it was hard to get into a church on a Friday. So in some cities the choirs would get their best singers to come down and sing into a mic with a P.A. for us.
What did they sing?
We asked them to sing a church song or one pop song and one secular song. As you can imagine there wasn’t one bad singer in the bunch. You’re spoiled for voices. But we wanted a specific tone and voice that we had in mind. We heard a good 40 or 50 singers. Keyone came out and as soon as she opened her mouth, Jeff and I both knew. She had that slight rasp where the voice breaks. It’s the bit that I always love. Pure singing is incredible of course, but it’s that Lauryn Hill thing, right where it breaks, that I’ve always responded to. It was the voice I had been imagining while we were writing the songs. By the time we got to Memphis, we asked her to come up. She had never recorded on a mic.
There were some singers we came across that were excited about the prospect but they wouldn’t leave Memphis to record in L.A. ’cause then they’d miss their choir practice, which they wouldn’t do. It’s the opposite of what goes on with American Idol where people learn to sing because they want to be famous. Some of the gospel singers would say “I know I can sing a Beyoncé song and kill it, but if I’m not singing it for the Lord, I don’t feel it the same way.”
What were the challenges of working with a singer who had never recorded?
It could have been a problem, but Keyone is so fast. And Jeff is more than one of the best producer/songwriters of his generation. He is Berklee educated, but he understands a great pop melody. He also studied pedagogy at Berklee. We’d be with Trombone Shorty at this school he set up in New Orleans with all these little kids. And after seven minutes, Jeff had the whole room of kids singing this song! He can make people so comfortable. I’ve never worked with another producer on my record, and it made me realize what a great producer does on the other side of the glass. A great producer makes you feel like you can almost do anything, like you have superpowers. So when you go in the booth, you think “Of course I can do that. I can do anything!” He got me playing some things that I didn’t think I was capable of playing. Jeff not only co-wrote the songs with me, he would sing the songs to Keyone and within two hours he had her singing “I Can’t Lose.”
Had you been to the Deep South before?
I was born in England, then grew up in New York City. I had never been to the Deep South, except for New Orleans, but New Orleans is many different things. It was such a great experience. That’s when you realize “these people are just like me; I was just raised somewhere else.” I had never been to Memphis because Elvis is not my thing; I went to Detroit for Motown. But the minute I got to Memphis, I was totally bowled over by the vibe. That’s when I wanted to make the whole record there. When you’re at Stax, Sun, even at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was shot, it’s such a heavy vibe and an amazing, joyous place all at the same time. It’s hard enough to get people to come to New York or L.A. to record, like Kevin Parker from Tame Impala is from Perth, Australia, but he came to Memphis. That’s the beauty of it, too—we were all so cut off from our regular sh*t. There was no being disturbed by anybody; we were just able to work. Kevin plays drums on the intro song where Stevie Wonder is playing harmonica, and he’s singing background vocals all over the record.
Jeff Bhasker with vocalist Keyone StarrDescribe your experience working at Royal Studios in Memphis.
We were using all their mics and preamps; they have the same MCI 500 Series desk as I have in London. I’d have been up for 15 hours and was zoning out, sprawled out on the console and having this surreal experience. “Where am I?” I wondered. I’m leaning down on the same mid-’70s desk I have at home, looking at the exact same desk. “Where am I again?” They actually have the MCI tape machine that came with the 500 Series desk, whereas I have a Studer A800 in London. All the rhythm tracks were cut to tape. It’s not the Al Green desk; they inherited their MCI from Compass Point in the Bahamas, so it’s the same desk that Sly and Robbie did all the Tom Tom Club stuff on. The API that Al Green recorded on is upstairs at Royal.
What were your go-tos on the record?
The thing I run through the whole record is this pedal, the [Analog Man] Ampeg Scrambler; I used that on a lot of the guitars. But all the instrumentation on this record is pretty consistent. There’s a lot of Clavinet because I wrote a lot on a Clav at Jeff’s place in Venice. I just like the color of it as opposed to my last record, which was heavy on synths. This was Clav, piano, Wurlitzer, a lot of Moog Micromoog, which Jeff likes. He uses the Moog Voyager on his anthemic stuff with Kanye West and Fun., but on this we went back to this old Micromoog.
You’ve played me a bossa nova track from the album with Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow on vocals. That’s the jazziest thing you’ve ever done.
I don’t even know what those chords are. I wrote that at Jeff’s place in Venice Beach. I have so much respect for Jeff as a writer. I was trying to write something he would like. In L.A., studios are often in a modest pool house, but you can always see a palm tree from any spot in his studio. I couldn’t write a song like that in London.
Andrew Wyatt also sings on “Heavy and Rolling.” That’s a very ’70s-style song, with slap bass, a fuzz guitar solo, and lush Wurlitzer chords.
At the end of that song, I took out the click so everybody could feel the groove. Most of the time we cut drums live, and bass is always live with reference keys. Half of the drums are cut to click, half are not. Most of the time with Homer, I never cut to click. That makes overdubs tricky, but it’s nothing they didn’t do back in the ’70s and ’80s. Willie Weeks plays bass on two tunes. He was just there in Nashville. He doesn’t do slap bass usually, so I had to ask him really respectfully. “Please?”
You worked at so many different studios. What was done where?
Well, let’s see. Purple Palace is rapper A$AP Rocky’s apartment, where we cut his vocal. Zelig, of course, is my new studio in London, where Bruno cut drums on “Uptown Funk” and all of the vocal overdubs. Cherry Beach is in Toronto; that’s where we did bass and final vocals on “Uptown Funk.” Enormous is Jeff’s house in Venice Beach. Mixstar is Serban Ghenea’s studio, who mixed some of the tracks, including “I Can’t Lose.”
The experience at Royal seems to really resonate.
There are very few studios left that have vibe. They don’t even have to be from the ’60s or ’70s. When we were in Memphis we stopped one night and recorded some demos at Sun; they have a great engineer. And I have the old one-inch Scully machine from Sun at my studio in London. 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! And it’s a big room, too, so we knew we could record and get a great vibe. These were some of the more high-fidelity recordings I have made. There’s no one-mic-on-the-drums scenario. It was more about getting the sh*t to sound pristine. Or my version of pristine. It was intimate; green felt everywhere. After a couple hours, I knew Royal was the place for us.
Nuts, Bolts, and Tape
The Uptown Special Signal Chains
Engineers Josh Blair and Ricky Damian pushed the faders at Mark Ronson’s Zelig Studios in London, where Ronson and Bruno Mars cut the single “Uptown Funk,” and where various overdubs were tracked for Uptown Special. Pro Tools 10 HDX was the recording software of choice. Ronson used his MCI 500 Series console for signals and preamps, along with Avalon 737, UA 610-2, Chandler LTD-2, and Altec 1566, Pultec EQP-1A3, and Fairchild 670.
Ronson and Bruno Mars at the MCI console in Zelig Studios “For drums,” Blair explains, “generally the setup starts with two RCA 77DXs, one placed above the kit at around one meter from the toms and the other at knee level between the kick drum and the snare: These two mics give a nice portrait of the whole kit, and by moving them around it’s possible to balance the sound of the different elements. Usually two other mics are placed above the kit: a Neumann U47 and a Unidyne 545. Having these three very different mics above the kit allows Mark to find the perfect sound by blending the different sounds together. If needed, spot mics were included: Sennheiser MD421 for toms or kick, AKG D12 for kick, Shure SM57 or Unidyne 545 on the snare, and Sennheiser 451 on hi-hat. There are generally no room mics. For ‘Uptown Funk’ at Zelig, the setup was two RCA 77DXs, Sennheiser MD421 on floor tom, AKG D12 on kick, Shure SM57 on snare and 451 on hi-hat.”
Guitars were literally recorded across the globe, but Damian knows the Zelig setup: “On ‘Uptown Funk,’ the guitar was recorded in Toronto. It’s a Harmony guitar through a DI and a Mutron Bi-Phase. At Zelig we did a Fender Stratocaster to a Fender Vibrolux, miked with the Unydine 545. That went to the MCI pre and the Studer A800. Bass was a Fender Precision Bass into a Cinemag DI, or a Neumann U47/Altec 1566/Pultec EQP-1A3/dbx 160 to tape and Pro Tools.”
Though Bhasker played the bulk of the keys, Blair says “I know the Roland SP60 was the main synth for a few songs, but I’ve no idea about amps. There is also a talk box being used, but I don’t know the model. You’re also hearing Minimoog and Rhodes.”
The funk horns that saturate “Uptown Funk” were miked with an RCA 77DX (trumpets), Shure SM7 (saxophone), and a Reslo for trombone. All mics went through the MCI desk and were compressed with two UREI 1176s, UA 1176 and Retro Sta-Level.
Finally, though vocal mic details were difficult to ascertain, Blair states, “The brand and model of mic used for Kevin Parker, Mystikal and Keyone Starr was a Neumann U47 into the MCI pre through Pultec EQP-1A3/UREI 1176 into the Studer into Pro Tools. For ‘Uptown Funk,’ Bruno sang in the control room with a Shure SM7.”