MIX MASTERS: DISTORTING TWENTY ONE PILOTS FOR SUICIDE SQUAD
Distorting Twenty One Pilots for Suicide Squad.
Story: Paul Tingen
Artist: Twenty One Pilots
Melancholy, minor-key, mid-tempo electropop appears to be all the rage these days. The Chainsmokers’ Closer, Major Lazer’s Cold Water, Seeb’s I Took A Pill In Ibiza, DJ Snake’s Let Me Love You and Twenty One Pilots’ Heathens are just a few of the songs in that musical vein which have been slugging it out at the top of the hit parades all over the planet.
Heathens was the lead single of the Suicide Squad movie soundtrack, and has been one of the big success stories of 2016. The song was also the third big hit for Twenty One Pilots, a duo that broke through last year with the megahit Stressed Out, followed by the more moderately successful Ride. There are strong similarities in the sound and musical direction of Stressed Out and Heathens, which is unsurprising as both were produced by Mike Elizondo and recorded by Adam Hawkins, who also mixed Heathens.
Heathens was written by Tyler Joseph — singer, keyboardist and bassist of Twenty One Pilots — in Logic. He took his demo over to Elizondo’s Can Am Studio for two days of further development and recording. From there, Elizondo “fine-tuned the arrangement,” recalled Hawkins. “He added and took away parts, and programmed additional drum sounds. After assistant engineer Brent Arrowood moved the session over to Pro Tools, we started overdubbing live drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. But the rest of the arrangement is made up of synths and samples. The signal chain I used on Tyler’s vocals consisted of a Sony C800 mic, going into a UA610 preamp, which I was overdriving, and then into a UA Bluestripe 1176. It’s the same signal chain I used on the songs I recorded for Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface album, including Stressed Out.”
The words “overdriven” and “distorted” popped up a lot as Hawkins talked through the making of Heathens. It seems he wasn’t alone either, as many of the other songs on the Suicide Squad soundtrack are awash with distortion. While distortion may be part of an overall aesthetic designed by the film’s music supervisor to fit in with the dark and creepy atmosphere of Suicide Squad, Hawkins said he didn’t refer to the movie at all. His aim was simply to make it sound right for the ears and sonic sensitivities of Twenty One Pilots, Elizondo, and Pete Ganbarg, Atlantic Records’ Executive Vice President and Head of A&R.
“Yes, there’s a lot of distortion,” agreed Hawkins. “On the vocals, the drums, the bass, and almost everything towards the big ending of the song. A lot of that was already there before I started to mix. Many of the synth sounds and samples were already very distorted, and I recorded Elizondo playing a heavily distorted live bass through a fuzz pedal. Although the lead vocal sounds fairly natural, it has some distortion as it was pushed heavily though that tube preamp, and the backing vocals underneath are heavily treated and distorted. I also used Avid Heat, which is part of the Pro Tools Mixer to add a little bit of crackle and distortion to everything in a pleasing way.”
STILL HANDS ON
Hawkins was speaking from his Acacia Sound studio in the backyard of his property near Los Angeles. His Pro Tools system with Avid HD I/O is at the heart of his studio, where he now works entirely in the box. On his web site, he lists quite a few nice analogue goodies, including a UA Blue Stripe 1176 and 6176, Chandler TG1, Manley Massive Passive, SSL G Compressor, Distressor, Altec 1612B Limiter, BAE Vintage API 312, Wunder PEQ2R, but Hawkins explained that these see very little, if any, action these days.
“For the last three years I’ve been pushing the mixing side of my work, and I now spend 90% of my time in this room, mixing,” explained Hawkins, who’s had his current studio setup for a year. “This is where I am happiest, even though I still enjoy occasionally going out to record an album for someone. In my previous room I had an SSL AWS900 for a short time, but today everybody expects me to mix song after song after song for an album. Then I get all the notes for all the songs at once, and I spend a day making changes. Doing it all in the box makes that much faster and efficient. With the console and analogue gear it takes 20-30 minutes to switch songs, and you never get your recall 100%. Of course, when you’re in the box, a recall is just a double-click away.
“Yes, there’s a lot of distortion”
“Also, when I was working on an album on a console and with outboard, I would sometimes try not to change the settings on a piece of outboard, and only change the levels going into that piece of outboard, to make the recall process simpler and faster. I think that limited me. By contrast, when working in the box all my effect and EQ settings are completely unique for each song, which works much better. I’ve also learned how to get the sound I want in the box. I did lots of AB testing between in the box and out of the box to make sure I was happy with the sound I got in the box and had figured out a way of re-creating some of the character and flavours I like from outboard gear.
“I do still like to have my hands on faders, though. I now have two Avid Artist Mix controllers, and recently also got the Avid Pro Tools Dock, which uses an iPad. I have 16 faders plus the one on the Dock. I’m one of those people who actually uses those things! I may assign the lead vocal to stay on one fader at all times so I don’t have to go searching for it, and I will assign a couple of different stereo-mix versions to two of the faders so I can AB them easily. I will also assign the drum VCA, so I can solo it. Otherwise, I set it so that when I select a track on the screen it immediately jumps to a fader. Lately, since getting the dock, I’m using that one fader more than all the others. I prefer to listen to things and adjust them with a fader, because I hate drawing in little automation dots with the mouse. Screens have such high resolutions nowadays and the dots are so tiny that I feel you have to click on that exact pixel, and it’s just awkward.”
The Heathens session totalled a whopping 100 tracks — 22 live drums tracks (including aux tracks), 25 sampled drum tracks (including aux tracks and one VCA track), 12 miscellaneous sample and noise tracks, which also include four bass tracks and two guitars tracks, 18 keyboard, synth and sample tracks (including one strings track), 14 vocals tracks including a Vocals VCA track, and nine aux effect tracks at the bottom of the session. With many of the tracks being stereo, Hawkins said the session, “maxed out my available 128 voices on Pro Tools. I almost had to buy a second Pro Tools card just to play the session!”
Hawkins got a handle on the sizeable mix by doing doing it in stages. “I got the rough mix in the ballpark at Elizondo’s studio,” he explained. “But I didn’t get to dial in detailed automation dynamics or fine-tune EQ curves. When I took the session to my place, the first thing I did was line up the five kick samples so they were enhancing each other, rather than taking away from each other. You don’t want certain frequencies disappearing due to phase issues. I spent a lot of time flipping the phase on each one against another, and would nudge them forwards and backwards until they hit just right. Moves like that add punch and clarity. I also lined up the snare samples.
“After that I spent time on the drums as a whole, making them sound powerful and clear. Many people say you’re not supposed to mix things in isolation, but I do it anyway. I like to work from the ground up, which for me, means making the drums sound great, then adding the other elements in as I go through the session. I go through each individual track and make sure it sounds the way I think it should sound to me on its own, then I fine tune it while it’s playing with everything else. So yes, I am a solo-er. I like to solo things and find out what is bugging me about particular elements, fix it and put it back in the track to see if that helps. I need to focus on each thing individually before it can feel as one whole thing to me. I do a lot of nitpicking over stuff that no-one else will ever notice. It’s just how I have always done it.”
In fact, despite Hawkins saying he’s not supposed to mix like this, that ‘solo and build a mix section by section’ approach is fairly common. Hawkins took AudioTechnology on a solo-ers journey through all the parts that make up Heathens, so you can walk through the mix process as he was hearing it. Hawkins: “Was this song easy to mix? No, there are no mixes that are easy! The biggest challenge is always the internal creative pressure I put on myself: ‘Is it good enough?’”
Given how well Heathens has travelled and its lead single status on Suicide Squad, Hawkins can rest assured that the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes!’
1. DRUM ARRANGEMENT
Hawkins: “In the arrangement, Elizondo decided not to use the live drums in the first verse and chorus, so they’re greyed out. I recorded the kit, including kick, snare, toms, overheads and two room mics. Below that are a number of overdubs like hi-hat, floor tom, crash, and a ring snare sample for the big section of the song, which we labelled the bridge. I felt that the snare needed more attitude during that section. We also added an old drum machine style electronic drum fill for that section (‘Phill’).
2. ALL THAT NOISE
Hawkins: “‘Wahwah’ is that mid-range two-note accent you can hear underneath the vocals at the beginning, and at various other points in the track. It’s the name Tyler gave it, and it stuck. The track called ‘32GgSSL’, is a sample of a 32-gauge shotgun load from a sound effects library, tying in with that two-note accent. There’s one section at the end where the electric guitar and bass also plays the same accents. ‘Noise’ is just static noise, ‘C-hit’ is white noise, and ‘Machnns’ is a weird, bleepy, machine-like noise.
Hawkins: “The ‘Lead Bass’ track is a synth bass. Below that is another synth bass under that, then the distorted live bass called ‘Bass.05’, and ‘BassChuk’ is the accents. ‘ChnC 101 and 1101’ are the two guitar tracks, playing the accents. Waves SSL Channel appears on many of these tracks, on ‘Lead Bass’ it’s doing a hi-pass and bumping up some low end, while the FabFilter handles the low-pass. The bass synth tracks have the UAD Blackface 1176 and Valhalla Room plug-in. Overall, the drums and bass just needed tightening up a little bit; nothing too dramatic. In general, the direction of the song was pretty clear by the time I got to mix it.”
Hawkins: “Many of the individual drum tracks have the Waves SSL Channel — usually doing some hi-pass and gating, to shorten decays — and the FabFilter Pro-Q2, which I use to notch out specific frequencies. The Waves SSL Channel is a workhorse I’ve used since the beginning. I also like the compressor in it, especially when it’s not set to a fast attack. All live drums are sent to the ‘Master10’ master track, on which I have the SoundToys Decapitator in E-mode for some more distortion and punch, the Waves API 2500 for some compression, and the SoundToys Devil-Loc for yet more distortion.
“The drum master track is sent to three different Drum aux tracks, one without treatment, and two other tracks for parallel compression; one with the McDSP 6030 Ultimate Compressor really slamming it, and one with the Eventide Omnipressor, again destroying things. The latter also has a Trim plug-in to take it down a bit. The sampled drums have similar treatments: almost all individual tracks have the Waves SSL Channel, and all the sampled drum tracks go to a master with the same chain, as well as the same triple aux treatment.”
PIANO & SYNTHS
Hawkins: “Below the shotgun sample are two piano tracks, with the Waves J37 tape saturation adding a little bit of a slap delay and some wow and flutter to give it the sound of an upright piano in a bar. I used a Waves Kramer Master Tape plug-in to add a little bit of slap delay to the ‘Verse Synth’, and a SoundToys Microshift for an H3000-style micro-pitch shift. Other synths have just the FabFilter Pro-Q2, mostly hi-passing, and many have the Waves EMI TG12345 Channel Strip. I’m taking out some mids and widening the stereo field and blending in the limiter just a hair. The ‘distrtdid’ tracks are distorted synth tracks, with the Pro-Q2 as a hi-pass filter because I don’t want some weird rumble taking up the space. I mainly use the TG12345 for more stereo spread. I put the strings through the Waves SSL EQ and the UAD Roland Dimension D to make it sound like a 1970s Roland string ensemble.”
Hawkins: “The vocals were the last thing I added. While mixing I’m always thinking that I need to keep space for the vocal. Sometimes the vocal steps on the track a bit when I put it in, and I have to back pedal, but it generally works out. The vocal tracks here are mostly stems. Again there are many instances of the Pro-Q2 for a hi-pass, and the UAD 1176 Bluestripe version, all buttons in, pretty insanely compressed.
“On the backing vocals I used AutoTune and SoundToys Little AlterBoy for those weird pitch parts. Little AlterBoy is so quick to use, and it’s a current trend to pitch down with a formant shift. The Waves Renaissance De-esser is still my favourite de-esser, even though it’s not transparent and changes the sound instantly. There’s a track called ‘Verse Crystallizer’, which I automated very strongly to add this weird left-right vocal effect.
“The vocal tracks have many sends, which go to the nine aux tracks at the bottom of the session. They include the UAD MXR Flanger/Doubler, a reverb from the UAD EMT 250, four different delays from the SoundToys Echoboy, and a delay from the Waves HDelay with a UAD Dimension D on it as well, and a Valhalla Shimmer.”
Hawkins: “I mix back into the session, though it’s not shown. I go to a master track, which has the Waves NLS Analogue Summing plug-in, Avid Impact, plus an EQ. I change the mode on the NLS from time to time. Impact is my favourite bus compressor, which is odd, because it’s probably everybody else’s least favourite. I have it barely do any work, just 2:1 ratio and the attack is on the slow side with an auto-release. The biggest section of the song has maybe 1dB of gain reduction. I am not big on bus compression. When I send out rough mixes for feedback I also use the Ozone Maximizer, just to make it louder, but I leave that off while I’m mixing and it doesn’t go to mastering.
ABOUT ADAM HAWKINS
Hawkins grew up in North Carolina, and though he loved playing in bands, realised it wasn’t for him. He got interested in recording and ended up working at a small studio in Greensboro around 1996. He later moved to New York, where he started as an intern at Unique Studios, and also worked at Sony Studios, The Cutting Room, The Hit Factory, Quad, Battery, and so on. In 2005, when Hwakins was 25, he decide to move to LA. He’d been working mainly on hip-hop and rap, and heard there were more sessions with live musicians in LA. Ironically, his first recording session in LA was a hip-hop session. However, it was where he met Mike Elizondo, with whom he’s worked regularly ever since.