Song Exploder - Kanye West
For the song exploder project, we were supposed to emulate the production style, technique and sound of any producer that we liked; and create either a remix or an original song.
I chose to imitate the style of producer/rapper Kanye West with the sound specifically centered around his 2007 album “Graduation”. I was already familiar with this album as it is one of my favorites from all time. I’m inspired by West’s minimalist approach to music production and I really dug deep in to his production methods.
Kanye West is a huge name in hip-hop/rap and very few other producers/rappers have achieved a status similar to his.
West is among the most acclaimed musicians of the 21st century and is one of the best-selling artists of all time, having sold more than 32 million albums and 100 million digital downloads worldwide. He has won a total of 21 Grammy Awards, making him one of the most awarded artists of all time and the most Grammy-awarded artist to have debuted in the 21st century. Three of his albums have been included and ranked on Rolling Stone's 2012 update of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list. He has also been included in a number of Forbes annual lists. Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2005 and 2015. (En.wikipedia.org, 2017)
The list just goes on.
Coming back to his album. What really inspires me is how West demonstrates the notion “less is more”. Most of his subsequent work after “Graduation” had more of a maximalist approach; implementing a variety of different instruments and layers. Although, one thing has always been common is West’s music; Sampling. West has been credited as revolutionizing Sampling and making it ‘cool’ again.
After spending the previous year touring the world with Irish rock band U2 on their Vertigo Tour, West became inspired by watching Bono open the stadium tours every night to incredible ovations and sought out to compose anthemic rap songs that could operate more efficiently in large stadiums and arenas. In West's attempt to accomplish this "stadium-status" endeavor, West incorporated layered electronic synthesizers into his hip-hop production, which also finds him utilizing slower tempos, being influenced by the music of the 1980s, and experimenting with electronic music. West incorporated synthesizer sounds into his production and dabbled with electronic music, while sampling from a wider spectrum of music genres. The outcome of the competition marks a turning point in hip-hop culture, when the dominance of gangsta rap in mainstream hip-hop was brought to an end. Graduation received acclaim from most critics and earned West several accolades, including his third Grammy Award for Best Rap Album (En.wikipedia.org, 2017)
I knew beforehand that the biggest challenge of this project would be staying true to West’s production methods and to still be able to make something sounding good. Another challenge for me was writing original lyrics and rapping. I struggle to speak and write English as it is not my first language but living in Australia for the last 16 months has really helped me improve it a lot. My main focus is to imitate the technical side of this album’s production as best as I can whilst still delivering something creatively meaningful.
I decided to sample two songs for this project; Bobby Caldwell’s “What you won’t do for love” and Sia’s “Chandelier”. The lyrics and theme that I was going for revolved around self-empowerment and focusing on what you want and how you want to live your life. The samples "You wonder" and "I came back" from Bobby's song helped push these ideas forward. The chorus from "Chandelier" is very powerful and would serve as the backbone of my song so I wanted to use that as well.
Most of the instrumentation on this track were sampled from Bobby’s track and the hook from Sia’s song was re-recorded; performed by Elly Thompson, my classmate. Elly did not face any problems with the recording as she has a very powerful and dynamic voice and because of the fact that the Key Signature of my track is F minor, which is 5 semitones lower than Sia’s song (Bb minor); it was easier for Elly to sing along to.
Finding an MPC2000 for sampling was difficult so I had to use Ableton's sampler, which was also quite fun. After I found what I wanted to sample, I EQ'd them and panned them around to make more room for the vocals. With the drums; I kept them very simple yet solid. The kick sample was taken from an early 90's electronic dance kit. All the individual samples of my drum rack in Ableton were eq'd and designed e.g.. Filtering frequencies to achieve a good tonal balance, adding 'send' reverb on snare, hi hats and cymbals to make them blend well with the mix and layering of samples to add weight and/or shine. After getting good sounding drums, I moved on to use a similar process on other instruments.
After getting a good sounding mix, I started Comping the vocals in Pro Tools. I edited and compiled the best takes out of all the playlists recorded and then consolidated them and imported them in Logic Pro for pitch correction. I use Logic's in-built Flex(pitch) feature to manually correct vocals to make them sound professional. Before being introduced to Logic, I used Cubase's Variaudio feature for the same purpose. I used Variaudio for many years before moving on to Logic because Logic's algorithms are way more transparent then Cubase's. I had to be very careful with Cubase because it added a lot of artefacts in the performance which sounded horrible. But I managed to get around it with trial and error, practice and patience. Logic's Flex is better in terms of these undesired artefacts.
I believe in genres like RnB and Rap, the vocals should be on point and even the best of the singers in the world struggle with getting perfect notes throughout the recording. So after fixing the "off" notes and re-designing vibratos and time-stretching them wherever needed, I added Logic's own Auto-Pitch Correction plugin with a very slow retune speed just to add that final shine to the already good sounding vocals. After this, I exported the vocals out of Logic and imported them in to Ableton to continue on with the project.
My mixing process for vocals is not very complicated.
Firstly, I use compression to even out the performance a little bit but for Elly's vocals, I had to go to town with compression because the performance was so dynamic. The loud bits were too loud compared to the softer bits which were hardly audible in the mix. I used Ableton's in-built compressor (which I really like) set to a high ratio (5:1) and a not -too-low threshold (-24dB). The maximum Gain Reduction I was getting was 6 dB. For the rap vox, I used mild compression (3-4 dB GR) with a ratio of 3:1 just to even it out. The Attack and Release times were quick (5-6 ms and 80-90 ms respectively).
Still, I never rely on numbers alone and always use my ears to determine if I am getting what I want. With compression, I always start by bringing the threshold all the way down and setting the ratio all the way up. Then, I can really hear what the compressor is doing, which I find is critical to determine the best Attack/Release times. After getting the vocals sounding right, I EQ'd them.
I always start by high passing everything below 100Hz just to get rid of any unwanted low frequencies, hum, rumble etc. which could've been picked up by the microphones. For this particular project, I also added a Low Pass Filter to get rid of everything above 10K. I noticed that because I compressed the vocals aggressively, a lot of the frequencies above 10K were amplified. They also weren't sounding that great in the mix either, so I had to take them out. I also took out 4-5 dBs of 300 HZ using a bell EQ with a quite wide Q value just to make it sound natural by not adding any resonance. After I was happy, I sent the vocals to Reverb and Delay busses.
I play around with Predelay setting to find a perfect spot for the reverb to kick in. A long decay time (around 4.5 sec) on vocals is what I find myself using almost every time. I always high pass and low pass the reverb to find a perfect balance, I usually don't like anything below 300HZ on my reverbs so I take it out; again, with a very gradual curve. With the Delay, I try to be more creative and experiment around to find what I like. Sometimes I use stereo delays and some times a mono delay. I used a stereo delay on Elly's vocals and a mono one for the rap bits. Again, I used high pass and low pass filters to remove any bad frequencies but this time, I used a more steeper curve to add some resonance around 1K which I found was sitting very well in the mix. It also made more room for the main vocals as they were not competing with each other.
After I was done with the mixing, I imported the mix in Cubase and did a basic Mastering to control the dynamics and make it sound louder and fatter. I really like using Cubase's Multiband Compressor which I find is very easy to use yet very powerful. It is also very transparent and gentle, which I find is very important for Mastering.
First I EQd the mix; basic High Pass below 30Hz and Low Pass above 16KHz. I don't really do much EQing other than this in Mastering because I always try to get it right from the mixing stage.
For me, finding the right Attack/Release times is crucial in mastering because not getting them right could suck out all the energy of a song or mess up it's dynamics and tonal balance. I always try to get no more than 3-4 dB GR. I figured if I wanted my mixes louder, I had to compress more which makes a lot of sense in terms of dynamic range and the "sausage" analogy. The final step was limiting (Waves L2) with a 3-4 dB GR, just to make everything loud.
After attending Joe Cara's mastering class at SAE and getting a more in-depth tutorial with Dave Turner, I have learned heaps of new ways and practices to apply in my future mastering sessions. Now I realise that there is so much more to Mastering than just "making it louder". "Translation" is perhaps one of the most important aspects of it.
Although, I'm quite happy with how the song turned out, there is one thing that I wish I'd done differently; finding a better rapper. Because West did not use a lot of overdubs and backing vocals for his "Graduation" raps, I feel that my rap vocals are too exposed; the takes just had to be perfect.
Other than that, I think I did a pretty good job and also learned a lot about sampling and the potential it holds.
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