Reviving The King Of Pop
Mixing can quickly turn into a labour of love, even for full-time engineers. For Dave Pensado, mixing Michael Jackson's latest single over 13 months took plenty of love to go with the labour.
Artist: Michael Jackson
Posthumous albums are fraught with pitfalls and controversy. Unless the album was already finished before the artist died, accusations of the record company and/or musician’s family exploiting the musician’s legacy for their own personal gain are par for the course. Even when unreleased material is revived from the vaults with the best intentions, the simple fact those songs never made the grade in their time often says enough. Then there’s the question of how much to polish: should demos, or even unreleased finished tracks, be left alone or enhanced by new parts? And if enhancement is the logical choice, should the production follow a contemporary style or hark back to the artist’s day?
All these issues are particularly poignant in the case of the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. Ever since his tragic death on June 25, 2009, there has been endless controversy surrounding the posthumous release of material starring the entertainer, starting with This Is It. The documentary centred around the lead-up rehearsals for the ill-fated concert series planned to start at London’s O2 Arena on July 13th 2009 — Jackson’s first full run since his HIStory world tour ended in 1997. Some of Jackson’s family members opposed the movie’s release, making accusations of “shameless profiteering” and a body stand-in being used in certain scenes. Nonetheless, the movie was mostly well-received by critics and fans alike, something that cannot be said of Jackson’s first posthumous solo album, Michael (2010), which was marred by claims three of the songs were not sung by Jackson, surrounded by dissent within the Jackson family ranks, and yielded mostly mixed or average reviews.
MORE MJ MAGIC
Reportedly, a whopping eight posthumous Michael Jackson solo albums are planned. After the lukewarm reactions to Michael, a team of ultra-heavyweight executive producers was assembled for the second release, Xscape: John Branca and John McClain (executors of Jackson’s estate), the legendary L.A. Reid (chairman and CEO of Epic Records and producer of OutKast, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Kanye West, Usher, and more), and the ubiquitous Timbaland. Only one of the producers that appeared on Michael received a return call, Dutchman Giorgio Tuinfort, who has worked with Akon, Lady Gaga, David Guetta and Whitney Houston. Rounding out the production team are other well-known names such as Babyface, Stargate, and Rodney Jerkins. It seems the draw of the King of Pop is still strong.
The team of mixers that worked on the second album also received an overhaul, and consisted of Timbaland’s right-hand man Chris Godbey, Jerkins and his engineer Trehy Harris, and star pop/R&B mixers Jaycen Joshua and Dave Pensado. The latter was entrusted with arguably the most delicate and important task: to put the final touches on the first single and opening track of the album, Love Never Felt So Good. The song had been co-written and produced in 1983 by Jackson and Paul Anka. 30 years later, Tuinfort and McClain dressed the song up in a contemporary jacket, resulting in a gentle, uplifting “classy disco-soul” song, that’s been called “airy, sweet, funky and pretty much impossible to dislike.” There’s also a completely unrelated version that has Justin Timberlake duetting with Jackson, which was produced by Timbaland and Jerome Harmon. The Tuinfort-McClain-Pensado version of Love Never Felt So Good, was to be Xscape’s calling card and it’s an indication of the supreme importance attached to the song that Pensado spent a whopping two months full-time on the mix, spread out over an even more astonishing 13 months.
Pensado explains he got the gig because of “personal relationships”, in this case with L.A. Reid, John McClain, and engineer and programmer Jon Nettlesbey, who often works with McClain and was involved in the making of both Michael and Xscape. Of course, nobody gets a job as important as this one on personal connections alone. But Pensado’s immense track record — which includes names like Mary J Blige, Beyoncé, Keyshia Cole, Christina Aguilera, Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Pink and more — speaks for itself. During the mid-’00s, the three mixers working at Larrabee Studios in Los Angeles — Pensado, Manny Marroquin, and Pensado’s former assistant Jaycen Joshua — were responsible for mixing more than half of all charting pop/R&B songs in the US.
Pensado first received the Love Never Felt So Good session in April 2013, when he was working at a facility in Burbank, and recalls “the funny thing is they asked me to turn it round in a week. I actually did some all-nighters to make it happen, and then the mix stretched out to 13 months! After my first week in April, I did a couple more days in May and in July, four days in September, 10 days in March 2014, and I then worked again for most of April and seven or eight days in May of this year. I did most of the mix at Echobar in the San Fernando Valley, which is owned by producers Erik Reichers and Bob Horn. I mixed the song by myself, with my main points of reference being the reactions from John McClain, Jon Nettlesbey and L.A. Reid, who are both perfectionists and have strong opinions.
“The approval process also involved Jackson family members, so there was a big psychological component in getting all these incredibly talented and strong-willed people on the same page, and this is one of the reasons why the entire mix project took so long. We all took the process very seriously, because it’s Michael. We experimented with many different things, which greatly added to the time it took to complete the mix. I think five or six different guitar parts were tried, and several different bass, keyboard and drum parts. I would just wake up one morning and find a new guitar part in my computer; I’d throw it in, make it work, send it back out and wait for feedback.”
The place where Pensado mixed Love Never Felt So Good mattered very little, because he worked entirely in-the-box. The mixer — whose roots go back to working in recording studios and as a live sound engineer in Atlanta in the ’70s and ’80s before he moved to Los Angeles in 1990 — has long been famous for working on large SSL desks. He says that he still loves working in analogue and on a desk (“It makes me feel like a big shot!”), and his new facility is currently being set up to make this possible, if his clients prefer it and have the budget. Obviously, budget was no issue with Love Never Felt So Good, so it was purely Pensado’s choice. “I didn’t want to mix this song in analogue,” explains Pensado, “because the original track I was working with and the whole feel of the song was already very analogue-like. Everybody involved had an opinion on the song’s direction, with some wanting it to be very modern-sounding and others wanting it to sound more like a classic record. I wanted to enhance the integrity of the song and try to make a record Michael would have fallen in love with if he were still alive. I wanted it to have a classic Thriller feel, but for people to also get a sense it was a new record when they hear it. To achieve this, the record had to be dressed up and framed in modern technology and sound. For this reason, I intentionally avoided a console and didn’t use any outboard gear apart from a Bricasti reverb.
“I also had to stay in-the-box because I did a lot of MS processing. The most unusual and challenging aspect of the session was that Paul Anka’s piano part and all Michael’s vocals — a centre lead vocal, and stereo background vocals — were on one stereo track. Dealing with that piano/vocal track was the starting point of my mix. There was no other way to do it. What I did is kind of neat, and I am really proud it. I used the UAD Brainworx bx_digital V2 in MS mode. I figured that the keyboards had all the information I needed in the sides of the stereo track and most of what I needed from Michael came from the middle. I EQ’d the keyboards and the vocals differently, taking out 12dB of 1.2kHz from the stereo section, i.e. the keyboards, and adding at 500-600Hz and 5-6kHz on the middle mono section, i.e. the vocals. When you look at it you wonder how on earth it can ever sound good, but it does.”
The funny thing is they asked me to turn it round in a week. I actually did some all-nighters to make it happen, and then the mix stretched out to 13 months!
MIX NOTES: VOCALS & DRUMS
The final ProTools session for Love Never Felt So Good is minimal by modern standards. It totals 36 tracks, including auxes, effects sends, and mix buses. Pensado took the session from close to the top, starting with his aux group tracks: “I always have those five tracks in my sessions, because they allow me to treat the drums, or music beds, etc as a whole and in relation to each other — it helps me glue each of these elements together. For example, in this session I pulled out a little bit of mid-range from the All Music aux track, because I wanted to create more space for Michael’s voice. In general I am a big believer in EQ-ing individual tracks correctly before they get to the aux tracks, so you’ll rarely see me use EQ on them. In this case the EQ comes from the Brainworx Saturator, which allowed me to manipulate the size of the mid-range. I also added the Massey L2007 to the All Drums track, because I felt the drums weren’t quite gelling together, they didn’t feel enough like a performance and a little bit of limiting from the Massey helped achieve that.
“The effects tracks are part of my starting template, but nothing in my sessions ever ends up the way it starts out. At one point during this mix I was using all of these effects tracks, and I must have eventually rejected all of them I guess because they felt too contrived. In the end I only used the Split Harmony track on the guitars, and the Bricasti track, which is outboard. The setting I used on the Bricasti was Large Hall, which I tweaked and took out a little bit of bottom end.
“As I mentioned earlier, I began the mix by working on the vocals/piano track, and applying the bx_digital V2 in MS mode. The piano is the main driving force of the music, and combined with the bass for the majority of the song’s harmonic content — I used the guitars more like a rhythm instrument in the final mix. This meant I had to reach a compromise and find a place for both Michael’s vocals and the piano. The plug-in world does mid-side better than the analogue world, and bx_digital is one of my favourite plug-ins. In addition to the V2, I used the McDSP AE400 on the piano/vocals track, as a multi-band compression EQ. I am expanding at 78Hz, and cutting at 1.2kHz, 5.5kHz and 10kHz — the latter setting is also acting as a bit of a de-esser. Finally, I’m also using a Massey CT compressor, set to moderate compression, medium attack and fast release. I tried every plug-in I had on the vocals, as well as some outboard, and in the end I was really happy with this combination.
“My next step after dealing with the piano/vocals track was to make the drums work. The piano/vocals track was not recorded to a click-track, and the drums drifted a little bit here and there. You can see in the edit window that all kick and snare hits are placed individually, and the same was done with the other drum and percussion elements, though some were recorded back into the session after the editing, so you don’t see the individual regions anymore. I reprinted some of these tracks to get rid of some of the real-time processing, because ProTools is happier when there’s less processing going on. The individual placing of the drum and percussion hits was done by Giorgio and his team, and later by me. It took me days!
“Drums (Track 21) is a kick and snare loop I inherited. I’m using it more for the snare sound and a little bit to fatten the hi-hat. The main colour on that Drums track and the hi-hat (Track 27) is coming from iZotope’s Ozone 5. On the drums I am taking out 6dB of 8kHz and have dipped a high shelf as well. I like to use saturation and harmonic colouration for EQ, adding between 130-800Hz and more between 800-6000Hz, then kissing it with a little compression — and that’s it. The hi-hat is really critical for the groove. For the kick drums (Tracks 22 & 23), I actually used three of my own samples to get a more modern sound. I wanted it as close to a modern dance vibe as possible, without it being immediately obvious. I didn’t use any of the original kick sound. The kick (Track 22) is sent to a parallel chain on Track 19 with a Focusrite compressor and Puig Pultec EQ to get it to sound more in your face.
“There’s also a parallel snare (Track 20) with a dbx 160, but I don’t appear to have used it. I must have tried it and eventually muted it. Again I replaced the actual snare (Track 24) with a sample of my own to get it to sound more powerful.
Then there are two clap tracks (Tracks 25 & 26), and I’m using the SPL Transient Designer on Track 25, just to add a bit more attack. The Avid Pro Limiter is just keeping it in place. It’s a very musical plug-in, and I’m using a short attack time to keep it up there in your face a little bit. There is a really fine line between hypnotic and monotonous, and in this song I tried to make sure that all the frequencies above 800Hz lock together in a bedrock groove that hypnotises you, while the frequencies underneath keep you interested. The second clap track uses my samples as well. Finally, there are two percussion tracks (28 & 29) and I’m making a concession to the sound of the past here by using a plug-in version of the old EMI Beatles compressor.”
MIX NOTES: MUSIC & FINAL MIXDOWN
Pensado: “The bass (Track 31) has a Waves Renaissance RBass on it, which adds a little bit of low end; a UAD BlueStripe 1176 compressor, which really grabs things; and a Little Labs Voice of God, to add some real sub bass. The cool thing is instead of parallel compressing the bass, I parallel re-amp it (Track 30) with a Softube plug-in that emulates an Ampeg SVT 810 cabinet, which is known for a really great bass sound with a nice high end. I love the guitars (Tracks 32 & 33), which I think are the original guitars added by Giorgio.
I’m using more of the guitar on Track 33, and it has the Brainworx Rockrack amp simulator on it, on a Funky Clean preset, which really pushes the guitar in your face. I also had the dbx 160 on the guitar, which is great for R&B guitars, and I’m doing a send to the Split Harmonizer aux (Track 14), which has the Waves Doubler 2, with a stock harmonizer setting. I also have the Waves S1 on it which allowed me to widen the guitar and make it sound bigger, without hearing the effect. I like to use the S1 on vocals as well.
“I used Mathew Lane’s DrMS to place the keyboards (Track 34) more in the middle than on the sides, which is kind of odd, but it worked better that way. The strings in this session, which were done by Giorgio’s man, Franck van der Heijden, are just perfect. I used the Massenberg EQ to introduce a high-pass filter at 200Hz, dip out some 500Hz, 800Hz and 4kHz, and add at 6kHz.
I also applied iZotope’s Alloy 2 plug-in, using the Exciter part of it, in a tube-tape retro setting, to give the strings some more colour. I’m compressing the strings with Alloy 2 as well, and using Ozone 5 for some stereo imaging. I panned the frequencies above 10kHz really wide, and then narrowed the panning as you go down the frequency spectrum — so 10-20kHz is really wide, 3-10kHz is less wide, 400-3000Hz even less wide, and everything under 400Hz is mostly mono. It’s a neat trick. The final track is a brief piano part in the third verse and it was perfect, so I didn’t touch it.
“The session was in 24-bit/44.1k, and all the audio tracks are sent to the aux tracks in red near the top of the session (tracks 5-9). There is some volume automation on the individual aux tracks because I wanted the flow of the music to follow the energy of Michael’s singing. Michael’s energy determines when those tracks come up and when they go down. For example, it looks as if the third chorus is coming down halfway through, but what was happening was that chorus was starting get away from me and I couldn’t work out why, so I decided to bring it down a bit. These volume changes were done very late in the mix, and incorporated my experiences with playing live. I’m trying to create the same feeling coming out of the speakers as I had when I was on stage. People complain that programmed music has no dynamics, but if you look at my sessions, you’ll see the dynamics change constantly.
“The aux tracks go to the Master Fader (Track 2), which in turn goes to the Mix Bus (Track 3), on which I have my stereo bus effects. In this case I used the Slate Digital FX-G Virtual Mastering plug-in, just kissing it barely with a threshold of almost 0, the gain is just 2dB, the attack and release are at ‘noon’, the ratio is 1.2:1 and I am not adding any transients or detail. I put the Waves L2 after the Slate so neither had to work too much. If one of them had to do all the heavy lifting, I would not have liked the sound very much, but both of them doing it together gave me a much more transparent sound. I knew that Bernie Grundman was going to master the song, so I wanted to make sure the processing done by the L2 and Slate was very benign to give him enough space to do his thing.”
Ironically, despite the ‘week-long mix’ turning into a 13-month journey, Pensado says the version eventually used was 85% the mix he submitted after that first week. “Moreover, we didn’t really do small tweaks in those 13 months,” said Pensado. “We experimented in a big way, particularly using all kinds of different musical parts! I wasn’t against all that experimenting. In fact, I thought we could make it better, just like everyone else. None of us knew we would end up with a mix very close to what we initially had, with most of Giorgio’s parts in place.” It just goes to show that even for those at the top of the game, the laws of diminishing returns still apply, and endlessly tinkering with a mix often doesn’t pay dividends. At least in this case, Love Never Felt So Good gave Jackson the honour of being the first artist in history to have a top 10 single in the Billboard Hot 100 in five different decades. Thanks in no small degree to Pensado weaving his elaborate mix magic over what surely must be a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records’ longest-ever professional mix.