Mixer Clinic: Understanding Artist Expectations — Featuring Dunson’s “B.A.D.A.R.”

Every mix I do starts with a conversation with the artist.

Mixer Brandon Lackey heads up the Lineup Room.

Mixer Brandon Lackey heads up the Lineup Room.

My goal is to deliver something great. The best way for me to do that is to get a clear understanding of what each artist considers good. Music, like food, is all about taste. So the only way I can impress the artist is to understand what they like.

Initially, I ask for a handful of releases that they like mix-wise and ask why they like them. Next, I try to narrow down a specific record that they want their mix to sound like.

It would be easy to think that mixing a Hip-Hop record is the same across the board. At this point, Hip Hop has branched off into multiple subgenres and mix styles within each subgenre. That being said there are a myriad of definitions of a good hip-hop mix, so I have to know where the bar is set.

It’s also extremely important to remember that the song will often tell you where it wants to go. At any point in the creative process I feel it’s our job to serve the song. By this I mean when you hear the song you will pretty much know what it needs sonically to take it to the next level.

What Can I Contribute?

When Dunson came to my studio, the Lineup Room, with the audio files for the song B.A.D.A.R. (Broke Ass Dope Ass Rapper) we spoke at length about his expectations for the song and what he liked musically.

For this particular mix he wanted a mainstream sound. That is a pretty common request, but I was happy to hear his preference in having the song still sound very much like a Hip-Hop record. Ultimately I ended up using J Cole’s Born Sinner album as a reference.

The next part of my process is to take a little time to think about how I can hit the bar set by the reference record, but also give the artist his or her own sound. If I can give them a little something that sets them apart from other artists and contribute to their brand, it’s a win for me. I want to contribute as a team member just like anyone else.

Get Flexible

Once I had the audio imported, I was impressed with the sound selections made by Dunson himself and Philly-based production team the Phatboiz (who most recently produced the song “Tonight” by John Legend) who co-produced the song. I typically spend some time adding subtle drums here and there to make sure the record knocks like it should but this thing sounded good before I even touched it.

The Baltimore-based Hip Hop artist Dunson has a hit on his hands

The Baltimore-based Hip Hop artist Dunson has a hit on his hands

On the chorus there was originally a chant sampled from Kanye West’s Skit No. 2 from his Late Registration album. This obviously would have been a legal issue so we opted to swap the chant out with a different one we recorded with the help of my Lineup Room intern Casey Frank and fellow DMV artist Brain Rapp.

In our conversation Dunson also mentioned that in the past he had received mixes where the drums weren’t right, so I thought it best to start mixing there as the foundation of the song.

Just as I was ready to move on to the vocals the Phatboiz sent additional production tracks to be included in the song. When a mix is time-sensitive there are often 25th hour adjustments. I got lucky with these additions because they all heightened the emotion of the song and didn’t present any sonic issues.

Once I had the drums together (again) I moved to the vocals, which is often a matter of cutting frequencies I don’t like and slightly emphasizing those I do. The goal for the vocals was for them to be bright and clear but also “in” the mix and wrapped in reverb. I tend to stay away from reverb generally but when it’s the artist’s request I have to deliver.

Once I was happy with the sound of the vocals any other adjustments were completely made on feel. When it comes down to it, that’s what mixing is all about.

The next part of the mix and what I would consider the third priority was the clarity of the “sample” in the song. Which is actually something Dunson composed and then chopped up. To me it sounded like an actual 80’s soul record sample so I was pretty surprised that he had played it.

Lastly I found places for the remaining sounds and sent it off to Dunson. We did a number of revisions and came to a point where everyone felt the record lived up to its potential.

Get Closer (To Your Client)

Overall this was an awesome opportunity and I’m glad I was included in the process. It’s really easy to get wrapped up in the technicalities of what constitutes a good mix and as a mixer I’m always looking for that next technique that will push me over the edge.

In this article however I wanted to shine some light on possibly the most important factor of mixing, which is: understanding the artist or client’s expectations and taste.

The way I see it, plenty of people can deliver a good mix but artists tend to stay loyal to mixers that take time to develop a personal relationship with them. Clients want you to do the job; friends make sure you always have a job.

Brandon Lackey, owner & operator of Lineup Room Recording Studio in Baltimore, MD is a new father and former instructor at Towson University. With his most recent mix (and the subject of this article) appearing on the Billboard charts he is optimistic about his career and eager to “mix the sh#t” out of your music. You can reach Brandon and hear his work at http://www.lineuproom.com.

 

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