The Underdogs

Motown met Midtown on the silver screen late last year when Dreamgirls, the hit stage musical, migrated to the movies — where it replicated its Broadway success. While the domains of pop music and film have increasingly cross-pollinated over the years, the creation of their sound tends to reside in very different camps. But Dreamgirls was meant to have a pop soundtrack that could stand on its own, and director Bill Condon called on the Underdogs (Harvey Mason, Jr., and Damon Thomas) — who have crafted hit records for artists including Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Brandy, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Timberlake — to give that record an edge.
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The Underdogs took the project on as a challenge as much as a gig: Create 61 individual pieces of music, of which 44 would be full-length songs, giving each some element of the period it needed to represent (the show follows the career of a girl vocal group from the 1960s to the 1980s) yet still keeping fresh enough for drive time on Hot 102.5 tomorrow.

The project would eventually stretch out over 15 months, and the sessions were commensurately huge. One song in particular, “Stepping to the Bad Side,” ate up over 20GB and 128 tracks. However, the first order of business was not terribly technical at all, but very soulful. “We picked the right musicians,” says Mason, including his father, one of jazz’s most famous drummers, Harvey Mason, Sr., as well as players like Ed Campbell and Ricky Lawson. “Every musician has his own sound, something you’re not going to get out of a box. We purposely didn’t use drum machines on this project except as part of the demo process. Instead we picked and chose the players to create bands that reflected the periods of the music.”


Working at UnderLabs, their eight-room factory in Los Angeles, and in the main room with its 96kHz SSL C200 console and a Pro Tools HD system, Mason and Thomas would use their bare-bones demos, recorded in Logic, as the map for the finished song. “We had timecode running on both systems [synced using a Lynx], but one of the nice things about using live musicians is that the time and feel will move a little here and there, which really breathes life into the track,” says Mason.

Mason and Thomas immersed themselves in hits of the periods the film covers, a form of research they say was critical to getting it right on the soundtrack. A key result of this is identifying and incorporating an instrument or technique that encapsulates the era, which gives the listener a subliminal audio cue as to what period in time the action on the screen is taking place. For example, to evoke the 1980s, they used a set of SynDrums; they listened to Donna Summer records to find the essence of late ’70s disco era, which could be suggested by something as simple as adding a cowbell to the track, or asking the singer to deliver the lines with more of a breathy sound.

On the engineering level, UnderLabs staff engineer Aaron Renner recalls some of the other tricks. “The technique we used for miking the grand piano was not too out-of-the-box but had great results: We set up AKG 460Bs approximately 9" to 15" in from the sides, 7" above and 3" to 4" behind the hammers. We also placed a Sony C800G at the bell of the piano, at about the same height, around 8" to 9" in from the edge depending on phase considerations, positioned between the 460s and angled depending on whether a more ambient or direct signal was preferred. I use either Avalon M5s on the pair of 460s and a Neve 1073 on the Sony, or a combination of 1073s and Neve 108s on all three microphones.”


Getting the vintage “live band feel” called for classic gear and classic cats. “Harvey Mason, Sr., got a few guys together for a jazz instrumental called ‘Big’ and they killed it,” Renner recalls. “Contrary to the way we approached the other sessions, we tracked piano, upright bass, drums, and sax live with no overdubs. Piano, bass, and drums were set up in the main live room, and the sax was isolated in the sound lock. All the instruments except the sax were baffled in but we retained eye contact among the musicians. We used a Neumann U87 and a DI on the bass. On the drums I used the beyerdynamic M88 on the kick placed nearly outside the drum, with no secondary mic. On the snare I used a Shure 57 top and bottom, as well as an AKG 451 on the snare top, to capture a brighter, more present top end when the drummer was using brushes.

“I used almost exclusively Neve 1073, 1072, 1081, and 31102 preamps, except for the sax; for that I used an sE Z5600 microphone and an Avalon M5 preamp to an Avalon 2044 compressor with the lowest possible ratio setting and a maximum threshold setting. This allowed for additional output gain with a low input gain setting on the M5, to prevent clipping on input — which is not pretty on an M5! This Avalon chain is very clear and transparent, good for brass. While we normally take the time to clean up our drum tracks, we left this session very much as the players performed it, and I really tried to keep true to the performance during the mix, with virtually no dynamic processing, and very little as far as automation.”

The fact that the Underdogs tried to adhere to non-synthesized instruments meant that their engineers had to deal with some acoustic instruments not found on most sessions these days. “On [Beyoncé’s] ‘Listen’ and ‘And I’m Telling You’ [sung by Jennifer Hudson] we recorded a harp,” he recalls. “The approach was to treat it like a piano standing on its bell, as a harp is basically like the frame of a piano. We used a pair of 460s or SE3s and the Sony [C800] once again. We placed all three mics on the same side of the harp — the Sony on the centerline at the bottom of the harp and the 460s or SE3s near the edges above the player’s hands, in an approximate ‘V’ shape, aimed slightly in toward the strings obviously with adjustments for phase. It sounded great.”


In an age of widely used samples and presets, vocals are perhaps the signature of any producer. Mason and Thomas are ardent fans of the Sony C800G through an Avalon M5 preamp, with a touch of compression and EQ from the console or outboard Neve unit. After that, it’s all about the performance.

“You have to know the person you’re working with, know about their history, who they are, what their range is,” says Mason. “You have to get a sense of how far you can push them. And they have to know they can trust you. They can’t perform if they don’t.”

But it’s not all vibe; the Underdogs’ engineers discovered a cool vocal trick to get a Jackson 5 sound. Using the pitch-shifting capability of the Pro Tools system on the song “Perfect World,” they recorded the male lead vocal to a track pitched two steps down, pitched the vocal back up and then flew it into the track at the original pitch. “They couldn‘t start principal shooting until the songs were recorded, but as the production progressed a character’s mood might turn out to be considerably different than it was imagined at the time of the session,” Mason explains. “So we would use pitch change to bring the song into a key closer to what the scene called for.”

“Then there’s how things sit in the mix,” says Thomas. “The vintage vocals tend to sit back in the mix a little bit more than today.” Historical reality, though, collides with technical necessity at points like this; the movie is first and foremost a musical and thus needs the lyrics to convey and support the narrative. Again, this is not a challenge that’s solved with a preset on a plug-in. “The way to deal with that is, the director told us to mix it as through we were mixing any other record, then to go through it again listening to the lyrics and to pull the vocal up if needed to get the story across,” Mason explains.

While the Underdogs created stereo mixes that would serve as both the soundtrack album and as references for the film’s own sound mix, they also delivered “stem” mixes — major elements such as drums, guitars, keyboards, and background vocals mixed to their own stereo pairs. This is the standard configuration that film music is delivered in for 5.1 surround layback to picture, but is also the way music mixers will deliver “music-minus” mixes for artists using backing tracks in live performances. This allows the film’s music mixers to adjust relative levels to fit the on-screen action.

“Dreamgirls was a real challenge, but a dream project for a producer,” says Mason. “You rarely get to cover so many genres with so much great talent for one project.”