Nominated for Producer of the Year, Best R&B Song (Tamia, “Beautiful Surprise”)
Remi is recognized this year for a wonderful range of R&B projects, including Tamia’s Number 6 album, as well as big records from Anthony Hamilton, Amy Winehouse, Nas, Miguel, Usher, and Alicia Keys—a huge variety of sounds that seem to come out of different decades. As a composer, musician, and producer, Remi’s versatility stems from his feel for the personality of each song and each artist. We asked him to compare his approach to Tamia’s “Beautiful Surprise” to his production of Keys’ “Girl on Fire.”
“On Beautiful Surprise, once I had the song, I thought about my favorite Tamia record, which is ‘I’m So Into You.’ I thought, I want something that feels like a cousin to that, in that ’90s feel, so I pulled out my [E-mu] SP-1200 and brought up some old Linn Drum and Oberheim DX-type sounds. I programmed it out with sounds I had since the ’90s, and then I pulled out my Roland JV-880, and used some of my older keyboards to get the overall flow. I put the track together to sound like what sounded to me like a classic Tamia record.
“‘Girl on Fire’ was something in Logic that I was playing around with, with a guitar sound, and Alicia started singing different things to it. Jeff Bhasker was there, and he had started playing changes on Alicia’s [Yamaha] CP70 and took it more in the direction of a classic, singer/songwriter approach. But then drumwise, we went to a big Billy Squier “Big Beat” thing. Then it was also [engineer] Ann Mincielli and Jeff spreading it out so the bass came out one side, the high part came out the other side, and Ann did a bunch of splits and sent it to some amps to really give it more of a whole band feeling.”
Nominated for Album of the Year, and Best Rock Album (Blunderbuss), and Best Rock Song (“Freedom at 21”) White’s self-produced solo album shimmers with ’70s-rock-god electric guitars, delicate keyboard work, and emotional distress. The album was tracked mainly live to analog in the artist’s Third Man Studio, and was engineered by White’s frequent collaborator Vance Powell. Debuting at Number One, Blunderbuss also charted with three singles: the Grammy-nominated “Freedom at 21,” the violently poetic “Love Interruption,” and “Sixteen Saltines,” with its punchy drums and massive electric guitar sound:
“I was testing a reverb tank,” White explains. “I just wanted to see if the reverb was going to last long enough for whatever we were going to record that day. I just kept playing that riff, and I was like, ‘Man, record this riff real quick. I’m starting to like this riff.’ [Laughs.] It was just me testing this Fender reverb tank from the ’60s. Some of them don’t sound very good. They all sound different. So I was checking it. It has a Dwell knob, and I was trying to see where to put the Dwell knob and how long it was going to last. I think it’s just got two guitar tracks both playing the same thing in stereo. That was it. And it was all acoustic instruments besides that, which was kind of funny. Acoustic violin and acoustic bass. And my Telecaster and my Airline amp into two 12-inch speakers.”
Nominated for Producer of the Year Non-Classical, Album of the Year, and Best Rock Album (El Camino), Record of the Year, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance (“Lonely Boy”)
What a huge year for Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach. His production of Dr. John’s psychedelic-roots album Locked Down was nominated for Best Blues Album as well contributing to Auerbach’s presence in the Producer category. And the Number 2-charting El Camino—co-produced by Danger Mouse and recorded in Auerbach’s studio, Easy Eye—is a triumph for the Keys’ inspired, vintage approach to rock and soul.
“We’re going through all of these tubes and transformers, so tape is not as necessary,” Auerbach says. “Everything is literally either going through giant old transformers that were hand-wound in the late ’60s or ’50s tube gear. Sometimes both. Old tube mics or ribbon mics or a great old dynamic that already pre-EQs things. We’ve gone through a lot of gear; you find out what works for you, what gets those sounds. But it has less to do with tape than it does miking technique and the arrangements. When I record a band, I like to track to a 1-inch 8-track tape machine. But when we do a Black Keys record, I step away from the engineering side of things and try not to think about it so much. So I can just focus on the songs.”
“Brian did the Grey Album with Jay-Z but he hasn’t done a hip-hop record since then,” Auerbach adds, commenting on Black Keys’ relationship to Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse. “He’s not a hip-hop producer. He’s a musician who plays guitar and keyboards, and he listens to The Troggs. We have a lot in common, musically. The only thing we talked about was keeping everything simple. There’s things Brian has done in the past with Gorillaz, Broken Bells, and Gnarls Barkley where there’s atmospherics, psychedelics. He’s copping the ’60s feel but making it modern and that’s what we like to do. We’re not trying to be retro, we just appreciate those old sonics.”
Nominated for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical (Jason Mraz: Love Is a Four Letter Word)
Chiccarelli is equally great working with Jack White’s Raconteurs as he is tracking My Morning Jacket, The Shins, Bon Jovi, Kronos Quartet, or the pop record he’s recognized for this year: Jason Mraz’s Number 2 album, Love Is a Four Letter Word, recorded in Sunset Sound (L.A.).
“Producing and Engineering Love Is a Four Letter Word is certainly a career highlight,” Chiccarelli says. “Jason is a true professional. Truly one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with. His ability to morph into different styles of music but still be true to his own voice is impressive. He never runs out of ideas for harmony vocals, and has a keen sense of how he wants to be perceived as an artist. The sessions with a group of L.A.’s best studio musicians were totally fun and inspired. Getting to work with Tony Maserati was a pleasure. His attention to detail and his commitment to the song is outstanding.”
Chiccarelli also reveals some of his technical choices on the album: “[Jason] was in a nice, comfortable booth for acoustic guitar and a vocal. He always records his vocal with a Telefunken 251. He has his own and we used that, and/or Sunset Sound’s 251. They went through a Wunder Audio PQ1 preamp and then a Mercury Audio Pultec, a Retro 176 limiter, and then an API 550A EQ. I would kind of get the bottom end out of the Pultec and the top end out of the API.”
Nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Long Form Video (Radio Music Society), Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) (“City of Roses”)
The winner of the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy, versatile jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding has performed a rare trick: drawing listeners of all ages and persuasions to a jazz album. Her Number 10 Radio Music Society incorporates elements of pop, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, with a horn section, keys, strings, and drums all artfully arranged around her sweet, agile voice.
“All sorts of things affect the arranging decisions you make,” Spalding says. “Some of it comes from a really solid understanding of composition and harmonic arc and what works in a harmonic chord and who’s doubling what effect. What effect does this or that technique have? And a lot of the time you’re following a more intuitive feedback loop, where you’re just listening to what a song needs and how we can get it there.
“That can often be something that lies outside a particular arranging rule or technique, but you find it based on a feeling for the song, or maybe it was something you heard that had nothing to do with arranging. For instance, I went to the Amazon rain forest before I finished this project, and I think hearing the polyrhythms in that music and the multiple interlaying melodies probably affected some of the decisions I made. So, I get ideas from everywhere and anywhere.”
Nominated for Record of the Year, for Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
This mixer to the stars works in his three-room private facility in Virginia Beach, VA, where engineer John Hanes checks in incoming projects and lays everything out in Pro Tools for Ghenea to mix. Both Hanes and Ghenea are recognized this year for work on two break-up songs: Clarkson’s is an empowering fist-pumper, whereas Swift pokes a little fun at on-again/off-again romance.
“I mix inside the box,” Ghenea says. “I love the Waves plug-ins. I love the Channel Strips from Metric Halo, which I’ve been using for a long time. Also McDSP, Sound Toys, Softube—nothing too crazy. I do need a lot of options, because sometimes we get things with a specific effect going on that wasn’t printed, so I have to be able to play that and make sure it’s the way they intended it.
“The biggest challenge these days is the track count. Some of these songs are just huge, and it can be hard to make sure you can run all the tracks and still be able to have processing available to do what you want. A lot of times, they’ll leave all the backing vocals laid out there, and then I’ll work on the blends a bit—make sure everything’s where you want it to be—and then I just bounce it, not necessarily to a stereo pair, but to a few groups so that I can still tweak stuff but not have to have four or six voices of each note.
“Obviously on a pop song, or any song, the vocal is the most important thing, because that’s the artist’s signature and that has to come across no matter what the track is all about. But even more importantly, the way the song feels and makes you feel is the key. It has to connect with the listener and make you feel something, whether it’s happy, sad, angry. . . . How you get there is hard to explain, but you know when it’s working.”
Nominated for Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical (“Promises,” Skrillex & Nero Remix), Best Dance/Electronical Album (Bangarang) and Best Dance Recording (“Bangarang,” featuring Sirah)
A year ago, Skrillex told Electronic Musician that he didn’t make “radio-friendly songs.” Radio play or no, Skrillex, the stage name of Sonny Moore, has practically become a household word. The dubstep producer/artist/remixer took home three Grammys last year, when he was the first DJ ever to be nominated in the Best New Artist category. This year, he’s nominated for three more, for Bangarang, a wild confluence of processed and invented sounds and sampled vocals:
“Sometimes I pre-record [vocals] with an SM58 into whatever soundcard is in my computer,” Skrillex says. “When I’m tracking, I’m using different vocal compressors: [PSP] VintageWarmer with multiband compressor/limiter, [iZotope] Ozone; I do most everything in Ozone. There is so much sh*t you can do with it: multiband, compression, everything. I’ll take [Celemony] Melodyne and detune it for vocals. From there, I render it to audio, and start manually chopping it up in Ableton Live, using the pitch envelopes and the transpose wheel right in Live and doing manual pitching of the melody for all that crazy editing. I even use that Chris Lord-Alge [CLA Vocals] plug-in from Waves for vocal effects.
“I like vocals; they are fun to resample and they sound cool—the same as how you like a piano in a sampler. Vocals sound really fun and playful and they make me feel nostalgic in some way when they are chopped up like that. Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ is a perfect example of that. That is one of the first things I heard as a kid that I really loved. Or even, ‘To Cure Weakling Child’ from the Richard D. James album. It had all these really sick vocal chops; I thought that was genius.”
Nominated for Record of the Year (“Thinkin Bout You”), Album of the Year, and Best Urban Contemporary Album (Channel Orange), Best New Artist, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and Best Short-Form Music Video (“No Church in the Wild,” Jay-Z & Kanye West Featuring Frank Ocean & The-Dream)
Frank Ocean’s massive success with Channel Orange (Number One R&B, Number 2) stems from strong songwriting and his decisiveness in the studio. This inventive artist knows what he’s after sonically, especially when it comes to his vocal performance.
“Frank stands out from a lot of artists because of his depth,” says engineer Pat Thrall. “There are some humans who hear music on other levels and who are incredibly sensitive to the nuance and subtlety in a musical performance. It’s a spiritual understanding of music, and I’ve only met a handful of people throughout my career who I feel have that gift. Frank is one of them. He truly communicates his pain or joy through his voice and lyrics in a way that is undeniable.
“I was brought in at the end of the record to help Frank finish the vocals to perfection. He has amazing pitch and time, and works on his vocals forever. He is a true perfectionist. He is fearless in his ideas and wanted to try some electronic harmonies. I used a combination of Melodyne and Waves Ultrapitch 6 to achieve that effect.
“He wanted to re-cut some vocals, so we did that one day at Westlake studios. Frank produces his own vocals, so the engineer’s job is to just make sure he is going in clean and that you’re keeping up with him and not stopping his flow.”
Nominated for Best Dance/Electronica Album, Best Remixed Recording Non-Classical (“The Veldt Tommy Trash Remix,” Featuring Chris James)
The alter ego of DJ/electronic musician/remixer Joel Zimmerman, Deadmau5 scored big this year with a Number One Electronic album that also rose to Number 6 on the Billboard album chart and yielded a Top 40 Modern Rock single (“Professional Griefers,” featuring Gerard Way). His studio rig is massive and ever-changing, and includes a surprising amount of hardware.
“My compressors and limiters are all outboard,” Deadmau5 says, “just because I like the way the physical ones behave. And I have all these modular synths; I’m loving this gnarly-ass Modcan [a collection of rack modules for complex, evolving monophonic voices and external signal processing] I commissioned [Modcan founder Bruce Duncan] to do, and that was a f**king eight-month build. But it was all worth it; there are lots of oscillators and options, just a big happy-accident machine, really.
“Definitely the analog delays are great, and the frequency shift is all analog, too,” he continues. “Frequency shifts are a real horror to program, and even then, to have it sound really great you have to invoke some oversampling algorithms on rendering and stuff like that. There are things like that that you just can’t get a computer to even get close to doing, at least in near real time.”
Nominated for Reggae Album (Rebirth)
Jimmy Cliff and producer Tim Armstrong made magic in Sunset/Sound Factory Studios last year, pumping up Cliff’s always beautiful, traditional approach to the genre with the Rancid frontman’s Jamaica-by-way-of-The-Clash influence. In fact their Number One reggae album, Rebirth, even has a brilliant cover of “Guns of Brixton” off of London Calling.
“We were all in the studio just jammin’ and having fun and we started playing ‘Guns of Brixton,’” Armstrong recalls. “Jimmy was killing it with the nyabinghi [a Jamaican drum], and J’s wife was in there filming it. We were super-happy and fired up. The next day, before Jimmy came in, we looked at the footage and we thought it was awesome, so we took that original free-form ‘Guns of Brixton’ jam, set a tempo to that, and we tracked it for real. So when Jimmy came in, we had ‘Guns of Brixton’ already rockin’, and he loved it! I’ve got the acoustic Fender, and then that electric is me with a ’71 Gretsch Country Club—I’m going for sort of a Western showdown thing.”
Thanks to Kylee Swenson, Blair Jackson, Tony Ware, and Ken Micallef for contributions to this article.