Interview with Andrew Dawson – Part 2
About a year ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Producer/Engineer Andrew Dawson. He had just come off the success of working on Kanye West’s “Dark Twisted Fantasy” album. One year later, Andrew has been hard at work with Fun., The Morning Benders, The Pet Shop Boys, and P.O.S.
I’m going to begin with some of the questions a few folks from Gearslutz.com requested. Then get into a few of my own.
Sounds good, shoot.
This is from The Marvel. For “Late Registration” and “Be”, I would like to know how he created space on the sample track so that the vocals sat well in the mix.
If I have a track with a sample, I’ll make four or five different copies – I’ll chop the low end out of one, and the high end out of another, and have a different eq during the verse and chorus. I don’t use a lot of automation, so I’ll just put different configurations in at different times. And I just keep my ear out for the space of the vocal.
I’ve always had trouble getting splits like that to sit right, especially when blending in a low-pass filtered track.
I usually use parallel compression on the bottom track. I’ll have a super long (long attack & release) compressor before the filter. But it varies a lot – and requires a fair amount of experimentation. A sample could be one track or twenty – the key is just knowing where you’re doing too much.
From The Marvel: Also, for many of the tracks around that time (2005), Kanye used simple chopped breakbeats for many of the drum tracks. I’d like to know how those got beefed up in the mixing process.
EQ, compression, or I’ll chop the kick out the loop, snare out the loop – like an MPC. And I’ll run a general blend [of the unchopped loop] underneath to keep it from being choppy.
This one is from Alxi: How much did a guy like Jay Dilla needed mix on his tracks? And was it more corrective mixing then creative mixing ??
Dilla just used a lot of stock Digi stuff. Mostly EQ-2 at the time. Not much corrective stuff. He’s got a very specific thing so I didn’t mess with it too much, except to make room for the vocals.
Speaking of corrective mixing, this is from Beat You Down: What percentage of time spent is spent “fixing” (replacing kicks, tuning stuff, replaying bass, doubling stuff etc) vs “mixing” on the big dogs.
There’s still a lot of fixing that goes on in big records. Once you start isolating things in a mix and clearing things up, other things become apparent. Suddenly a snare might not sound as good, or you notice a slightly out of tune 808 on bar three. A lot of times you notice there’s more room in the track. I’m pretty hands on so sometimes and I’ll add production stuff when I mix. Most of the time people are cool with that.
I think people assume that because there’s a big name producer or artist that everything is really taken with extreme care. But that’s not always the case! “tbrucks” asks an interesting question about one of those situations: Any interesting stories about the “Swagga Like Us” mix on T.I.’s Paper Trail album? What were some of the challenges that you faced while mixing that track?
Yeah, there’s a good story on that one. Fun mix, but getting everyone’s vocals was tough and sessions varied widely. I remember Wayne’s verse, he recorded it on a tour bus through the Logic Tune software. Unfortunately it was set to the wrong key, and it was printed that way. I had to manually go and make a melody that would work. So I used pitch software and I made a completely new melody. The vibe was right, the performance was great, so I just retuned it, and that’s the melody you hear on the song.
Minty Fresh and Rowan Rashard have some gear questions. What software is on your master channel? and what would be your desert island vocal chain?
Ok, for my master channel: Massy 2007, UAD Massive Passive, LinEQ sometimes, ML4000, generally those are it. Desert island chain – U67, MP1A, CL1B, Massive Passive, Avid i/0 or Lavry Gold. Of course, that’s like a $20,000 vocal chain right there. Bargain budget mic, I’ve cut a bunch of leads were on a Peluso 2251. But you can make a lot from a little. I recently mixed Pony Pony Run Run – he cut the whole record through a 58 through an MBox. And this is a pop record! But I made it work.
Last Gearslutz question is from “Dah”, he wants to know: How do you find the sonic cues for building the frequency spectrum of the mix as a whole? and how do you keep the right perspective?
I mix using the subtraction method – I create a space for something else. I started as a live sound guy – and that’s the cardinal rule of live. That said I’ll boost 15db at 60hz if it works. But I try to give it all its own space. One thing at 60, one thing at 120, one thing at 300, and so on and so forth. And basically I just keep my focus on how everything’s gelling and what’s important.
Well, that’ll bring me to my first question. How do you approach a mix where a frequency range isn’t really represented – like there’s no bass, or there’s nothing living in the high end?
Embrace what it is – if there isn’t something in the high end – don’t try to force it. The further you make something it’s not, the more problems you run into. If I’m the mixer I leave well enough alone. As the producer I might put something else there. As a mixer though, I do add production elements – if I feel it could really benefit – I’ll try it and play it for the client.
Hypothetical – you’ve got the Pet Shop Boys coming over at noon – and you’re sure they will be on time. Unfortunately you hit LA traffic and you couldn’t get to the studio until 11:30am. What’s your next half hour looking like?
Ha! That’s a normal day for me! It depends on what we’re doing. I have my day lined up ahead of time whether or not I’m physically there. It’s not like I need a whole mess of prep time. If I do need time I’ll usually send the guys out of the studio, let them grab lunch or take a tour of LA. I’ll be aligning the phase of kicks and basses or whatever so I might say you guys can go out. I try to keep it moving with talent in the studio. I want to utilize their skills, not leave them sitting around.
But with those guys we really utilized our time. They had a lot of songs demo’d out as midi and scratches – and they’re mainly electronic – we wrote string parts, I played parts as overdubs. So we did a lot of component work. There wasn’t a whole lot of band setup. And that’s how it is a lot of time with bands these days. Like the project with Versa Emerge – we’re gonna do guitar one day, vocals one day – we’re doing four or five days of drums.
I’ve been getting more into the production game these days, so this one’s been on my mind a lot. What do you think makes for a great hook?
I remember starting a new project where the A&R sent me an email that said, “yo we gotta make sure hooks are big”. So I wrote back “Jeez an A&R asking for big hooks, that’s the first time…” poking fun. It’s hard to say. I think its not necessarily the one liner chants any more – you can find a hook in a synth sound or progression – it doesn’t just have to be vocals now. It could be the last word of the chorus followed by a breakdown or an “oh”-chant. I find a hook can be multiple things – could be a melody, could be the way you pronounce something… anything.
Do you think hooks are more effective when they are hinted at in the song?
It’s almost like writing a book, creating theme and variation – you can hint at the hook or not. It’s hard to generalize music, but obviously you need to build to the hook. If you hint at something and go the other direction, people don’t get that pay off. Definitely needs to connect. Whether its the same sound or whatever, that’s individualized for each song.
We’re going to wrap up with a game – inspired by the Batter’s Box segment on Dave Pensado’s show. Except instead of gear, you’re going to respond with what you think is most fundamentally important to the sound of the genre. So for example, if someone were to say “Jazz” I might respond with “3-Dimensionality.”
Ha. Ok, cool.
Dynamics. And leave them as alone as possible.
Drums, arrangement. Drives but doesn’t get in the way. Arrangement is everything in dance pop – everyone uses the same sounds, it’s all how you put it together.
Something Unique – like The Pet Shop Boys.
Don’t put them in a box. I had a slight kind of preconception, but I didn’t really reference much of their earlier stuff. I try to get a lot of the artist input and work with them. I’m the third member, and work in that kind of sensibility. I draw from what they do in the present – and hone it the best way I think I can. Especially since their songs were already written. It’s super hard to put into words. There is no formula and that’s why you have both people who are trained and untrained being successful.
Underground Hip Hop, like P.O.S. or K-Flay.
Drums again, along with originality in production sounds. Productions sounds, you can’t use the motif – can’t use standard every day stuff. Nothing cookie cutter.
Guitars. In your face. Also for the electronic stuff, it’s like the opposite of jazz. No dynamics. Everything is BLOW in your face.
Mainstream Hip Hop, like Kanye.
See, I still don’t think of Kanye as Mainstream. Approaching a Kanye record equals “let’s find a new approach and bust out the creativity, but also make it legit and not cheesy”. Which is hard. Outside of that, those records are about getting the vocals super up front and making the track get out of the way. The beat is accompanying the message of the song.
Alright, well as always Andrew thanks for spending a little time and dropping some knowledge. You’ve got The Morning Benders, POS, and The Pet Shop Boys both coming out sometime around the fall. So this should be an exciting year!
Yep, thank you Matt.