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January 27, 2015

Salvation - Wakey! Wakey!

Salvation CD Cover by Wakey! Wakey!I was lucky enough to get the call to produce the new Wakey! Wakey! record sometimes last year. As with most pop records, it had already been a long-term project, writing, demoing producing and mixing many tracks to get to the best possible 10 or 12 gems. There were many teams involved in different towns, with different ways of working and different tastes. After a year of this process, Mike Grubbs, Wakey! Wakey!'s leader/singer, found himself with a bunch of great songs but no 'record' because the different teams took their respective songs to different levels, from raw demos to full masters. There was no global vision or common tone for the collection of songs to become a body of work that could be released together. When I got the call I also got a folder filled with mp3s of songs - all great songs - that were to ultimately become the 'Salvation' album. Some songs already had a definite color like 'Stop The World' or 'All It takes' and some were just raw demos like 'I Like You', or 'Homeland' and 'Salvation' but none were finished, in my opinion. The next few days were spent with Mike Grubbs listening to the demos and discussing which songs should make it and in these songs, what should stay and what should go, what should be enhanced, what should be redone, etc, etc... I thought you'd enjoy being privy of a 'demo to final' comparison for one of these songs as it's pretty rare to be able to witness such things with this kind of high-level teams.

First, let's listen to the demo I got from the writing team. Do it. Now. All of it:

Great song, very useful demo. This was definitely going to be a 'ground-up' production job for me based on a basic color given by the writers. I liked the song right away and I loved the opportunity to have a New Order-style bass on a production of mine so I lobbied for it to stay on the record. I guess we did good because it became the album title.

On the demo, notice how the 'Salvation is like a light turned on' part - which I felt was very strong - kinda feels like a second pre-chorus because it's sandwiched in between the 'ooooooo oooo oooo' part that already feels like a pre-chorus after that verse, and the 'Saaaaaaaaavaaaation' part. It bothered me and it also made that 'Saaaaaallvaaation' part feel like the actual chorus of the song and created problems towards the end of the structure with the ablibs. I felt, and Mike did too, that the chant was stronger than the held note so we decided to recycle the 'Saaaalllvaaation' part as a 'climb' after the second chorus. It allowed for several cool things. First the chant became the chorus so the double pre-chorus feeling went away. Second, the resulting first chorus was pretty short now, which made for a very efficient structure with lots of fun stuff happening all the time. Third, it allowed for the fun line 'we all want to be loved' at the end to be superimposed over what was now our chorus with nice counterpoint, which felt great and allowed for a soaring ending. Fourth, I felt it made for a better chorus, so we doubled it the second time around so you could hear that fun chant as much as possible.

Wakey! Wakey!Once the structure was worked out, we recorded a midi piano and voice guide track in Pro Tools to use as a template for me and the potential players, to be situated and learn the new structure. The decision was made to include this song in the batch of songs that would get a live rhythm section treatment on the record, so we knew that we would track real drums, bass and guitars, live at Flux Studios sometimes soon.

At this point I would have usually sketched up an arrangement with midi instruments to give the players an idea of what they are up against but in this case we ran out of time so I did not. On the day of the live session, when we got to this song, all the players got to work with was Mike's rough vocal and piano, some leftover guitars from the original demo, the original demo synth bass re-cut to match the new structure and a click. We worked out the arrangement in real time. I knew I wanted a 4 on the floor drum pattern and I knew where I wanted things to lift and chill. The players delivered a great framework onto which I built the rest of the track over the next few days.

Here's the final mix of the song.

Notice the cool 8th-note guitars that Michael Valeanu laid in the verses and his new interpretation of the demo lines. The drums are mostly live except for the chorused hi-hats which are cut from the drummer's performance but edited and processed to create a constant running subdivision. There are also claps coming in on the pre-chorus and chorus that I programmed to augment the texture and give the song a more digital feel. All the crazy cut-up drum fills are actually live toms and cymbals from the live drum track processed by a SugarByte plugin called Effectrix that my friend Anthony had recommended I check out that week. Trial by fire is good. So is pressure. We did not have much time to finish this track as the release date was looming and I started working on it towards the end of the project timeline. You'll hear no live bass on this song because I ended up muting it at the mixing stage. We had a cool distorted steady 8th note line on the choruses which survived for the first few mixes but got muted when more keyboards came in and "sound real estate" got scarce. The final synth bass was made with Native Instruments FM8 using a classic DX7 style patch and some tweaking.

Wakey! Wakey! LiveThe bulk of the enhancement work was done on keyboards. Mike came up with this great arpeggio for the chorus, which is actually a recorded acoustic grand piano but got mangled with Soundtoys plugins to the point of being unrecognizable, see if you can make it out (Tip: listen to the song's very ending first and then go back). Most of the synth textures are organic instruments, like guitars, pianos and rhodes or wurlys, run through SugarByte or Soundtoys plugins. The intro chordal instrument is a real piano through Filterfreak, for example. I did use some soft synth plugins like XILS V+ for the pad on the pre-chorus for its almost-vocoder-like texture, or the built-in Pro Tools Xpand2 for some thickness pad layers on the chorus. I also used my trusty Juno 60 and made a bell like sound, so Mike could double his filtered piano an octave up on the chorus. "No midi, Mike.. sorry, you gotta play it perfectly. Muuuuhahahahahaaaaaa."

The very last layer that came in on the track is the trance-like lead that shows up in the middle of the 2nd chorus double structure. It actually started as an extra layer to make the 'We all want to be Loved' breakdown more exciting and emotional, but Mike loved it so much that we copied it to the second chorus. We had basically finished the song and revised the mix several times before this last layer was added. It's a XILS PolyKB arpeggio patch that I reprogrammed to match our needs. It was a real challenge to get it to groove, as I wanted it actually play it and the session was so huge that the latency buffer was very high. It took a while to get the accents right and the part to actually enhance the groove as opposed to weigh it down but I feel it was worth it and gives the track a final touch of madness.

We were about to run out of time when we realized we had been working with our temp vocal the whole time. Mike came in one morning and killed it in two takes. I used my prototype Lauten Atlantis on my Neve 53 series. I think it was a 33129 module. No compression, no eq. I comped my favorite lines from the two takes and we had a lead. I used whichever of the two takes I did not use as a lead as a double. Mike is that precise. (Pretty scary considering I did not tune anything.) Then I went back and fished the background vocals from the demo session so we had a template to redo them properly. I cut them to the new structure and, after one listen of the whole song with them in, Mike and I looked at each other and both wondered why we were even considering redoing something that sounded pretty great to start with. So we kept them. Check them out. If you pay really really close attention, there is one spot at the end of the bridge where a slightly questionable cut lets you hear that some butchery was done :)

Wakey! Wakey! at Flux Studios, NYCMix-wise, this was one of these 'mix as you produce' tracks, because of time constraints. So there was no 'bring all the faders down and let's get this right' moment. The mixing and production process were very much intertwined and interactive. That can be very dangerous for headroom and gain stage. The production process is very much based on excitement and inspiration and mistakes and dares and things like that. The mixing process requires peace and control. Excitement often leads to listening louder which is also the kiss of death for a well-balanced mix. So a lot of the final moments in this track's creation process were spent undoing silly mistakes like distorted synths or drum busses, dynamically choking sections due to 2-bus overcompression (resulting from turning things up instead of turning others down). We had no time to start a mix from scratch and we felt that the vibe we had come up with was great and sounded just fine. Basically the mixing process was simplified down to 'space making' by using reverbs (Classic 3 reverb share plus a plate of the lead vocal on this mix) and subtle leveling as the tones had been carved out while producing. When we felt we were "done done done, this is it, this is done", we sent the mix to Diego Calvino at 3:3:2 Studio, for feedback. He got back to us right away, pointing at a few spots that required attention to not damage my reputation as a mixer. Some of which we addressed and some we left as they were, because we did not like the vibe as much after we cleaned them up. So there.

In the end Diego mastered mix version 2.3 of the track and sent it back to us:

I felt it was a bit off compared to the energy of the mix so I complained and he went back on it and came up with this:

Which we all loved and kept as final.

Et voila. Demo to master in probably 50 to 60 hours of work. The rest of the Salvation album is equally fun to tear apart. One of the favorite records I have made: great songs, great singing and complete production freedom.

Check it out here:
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/salvation/id889201509
Spotify: https://play.spotify.com/album/1Ud0DJFKEiuiQZbqMwmWuR



Pianist and Resident Engineer of Fuseroom Recording Studio in Berlin, Hollywood's Musicians Institute Scholarship winner and Outstanding Student Award 2005, ee's worked in productions for Italian pop stars like Anna Oxa, Marco Masini and RAF, Stefano 'Cocco' Cantini and Riccardo Galardini, side by side with world-class musicians and mentors like Roger Burn and since 2013 is part of the team at pureMix.net. Alberto has worked with David White, Niels Kurvin, Jenny Wu, Apple and Apple Music, Microsoft, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Virgin Airlines, Cane, Morgan Heritage, Riot Games, Dangerous Music, Focal, Universal Audio and more.