The February Electronic Musician profiled J. Cole’s Born Sinner. Here, learn more about the studio sessions from engineer Juro “Mez” Davis.
I’m a guy who doesn’t like esses: sibilance and stuff, that’s my pet peeve. So usually you’ll hear my vocals are de-essed, without too much jumping out. But with “Let Nas Down” there was more sibilance left in on purpose, so it felt a little more strained, emotional, closer to the person’s ear. I worked on that so it didn’t bug me but it had that popping out. Also, on “She Knows” I worked on the vocal a lot, because it’s a really big beat and there’s an effect that was fun to use to help certain parts stand out. The vocal that ends on “… piece of that apple pie” fades out and fades back in panning and distorted.
“She Knows” is one of my favorite mixes on the album, because it was different, really spacey, like almost a cross between hip-hop and EDM. That effect on the one vocal was basically two tracks split up. One was more lightly treated and one had the MondoMod, the Kramer Master Tape plug-in pushed to the extreme, a flanger and more reverb. So while one slowly faded out, the other slowly faded in just to get that effect until the beat dropped.
On the beat, the claps in it are constantly panning. There are three different claps that are moving left to right pretty far, but subtly, step-by-step. There’s a real subby bass going along under the kick. I also cut out some at the 118Hz to push it real loud and keep the kick with weight down there around the 100 range. I carved out a lot of dB from the bass line to keep the kick there. There were a lot of strings on this mixed in with the other stuff, so strings or instruments doing similar melodies like a synth, organ and flute were panned hard left and right in the hook real low to make it sound better, support what’s in the sample. Amber Coffman [of Dirty Projectors] is on this track with him, so everything is panned real wide during the hook to get the space for her and the sample that has mono vocals I wanted sticking out.
At the end there’s an outro where I did extreme effects you can hear on Amber’s vocals. I put a flanger on it going really fast with a small amount of modulation and spread it a bit, then put another flanger slower with a chorus effect. I put an exciter on it to boost and distort the high end, and then I demolished it with a brickwall limiter and heavy EQs and delays. I use the Waves MetaFlanger; I like a lot presets in that, like the chorus, classic phaser, and Mutron, then I tweak from there. And I use the Waves L1 as a limiter on vocal channels to cut the top off, or I’ll use the Universal Audio 1176 emulation with all-the-way fast setting and a really high ratio if there are transients popping through I want to cut off.
I use something more transparent on the master, though.I sometimes do stuff on the master bus, but it’s rare. Especially on this album, I tried not too, because I wanted to see what the mastering engineer would do if I left him all the space I could.