A 13-YEAR-ALBUM WAS RECORDED AND MIXED ENTIRELY WITHOUT PLUGINS, AUTOMATION OR INSTANT RECALL. D’ANGELO MIGHT BE CALLING FOR A BLACK MESSIAH, BUT IS ENGINEER RUSSELL ELEVADO THE SAVIOUR OF ANALOGUE OR A MARTYR PAYING THE PRICE FOR HIS BELIEFS? WAS THE MAKING OF THE ALBUM 13 YEARS OF MASTERY OR MADNESS? IN THIS UNIQUE AND EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, ELEVADO LIFTS SOME OF THE VEIL…
The liner notes of D’Angelo’s third album, Black Messiah, contain the following striking pronouncement: “No digital ‘plug-ins’ of any kind were used in this recording. All of the recording, processing, effects and mixing was done in the analogue domain using tape and mostly vintage equipment.”
It’s the kind of statement that’s rarely seen these days yet that was not uncommon in the nineties, when many people were resisting the digital revolution, convinced that analogue sounded superior. The recording medium war that was raging at the time had started rather belatedly, as most people had initially bought into the digital-is-superior ethos that accompanied the new medium’s introduction in the late seventies. Those who listened with their ears rather than their minds eventually noticed that the new digital emperor was rather lacking in clothes.
As we all know, digital did, eventually and very gradually, get its act together, to the point that fifteen years into the new millennium the analogue versus digital discussion has become virtually non-existent. Almost everyone agrees that today’s pro audio digital gear sounds as good as analogue, and with the obvious and overwhelming practical advantages of DAWs over analogue gear and it’s a small wonder that the latter looks like a sure addition to the ever-lengthening roll call of extinct species.
However, in arguably one of the ultimate cases of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, a few analogue diehards are holding out, still arguing that analogue remains the superior audio recording medium. Their arguments mostly center on sound quality, but also often include the view that analogue’s very limitations are actually good for the creative process, while conversely digital’s millions of options and mix recalls, instantly accessible at the touch of a button, are said to encourage lack of decisiveness, imagination and soul-sapping, sterile perfectionism. And while the pro audio analogue proponents are in a small minority, there is general consensus that consumer-level digital has introduced game-changing woes such as precipitous album sales, lossy formats and loudness wars. The digital emperor still is rather skimpily dressed.
On the phone from MSR Studios in New York, Russell Elevado, the main engineer and mixer on Black Messiah, explained why D’Angelo and he continue to belong to the dwindling camp of analogue diehards, and why Black Messiah wears its all-analogue declaration as a badge of honour. Very notable is the fact that it has the word “plug-ins” in quotation marks, as if describing something unknown, suspicious, and smelly, held aloft between the fingertips of one hand, while holding one’s nose with the other. The extremity of the statement is puzzling in itself: why would anyone not want to use any plugins on a mainstream album released in 2014?
“Primarily it is about the sound,” began Elevado. “Analogue just sounds better. I feel even more strongly about that now than I did a few years ago. Digital sounds OK, but I still don’t like the workflow. I hate mixing in the box, for example. All the great albums I have done were mixed on an SSL, using SSL automation. In recent years I’ve had to get used to doing automation in Pro Tools when I’m working on a smaller console with no automation. But I would and will not compromise on using a desk”
“With regards to plugins, I get the arguments all the time that the new generation sounds as good as the analogue gear they often emulate, and that what you record goes to CD or a lossy format in the end anyway, and so why not use these new plugins, especially as it’ll make a recording project easier and cheaper. My reply is that I have over the years invested a lot of money in analogue gear, with some of the best vintage mics and outboard, so why would I buy a plugin package that might or might not be obsolete in a few years? My gear will never be obsolete, and for me it’s funny when people tell me how great their plugins sound because they emulate this or that tape machine or tube compressor, because I have all that stuff! I don’t need to get a plugin of it. I have the originals!”
“My gear is the reason I call myself an ‘analogue gypsy,’ because a lot of my time goes into carrying it around. Every time I go to another studio, I pack my gear into my car. It may take two or three trips, and a few hours to set up, because I don’t trust anyone to transport my gear. That’s how committed I am to the sound. When I get requests from people who want me to do something for them on a more limited budget, I tell them that I’m happy to think with them for solutions, but I can’t give them what they want unless I can use my gear and mix on a desk.”
“I encourage people who want to work with me to make decisions based on a “final mix” mentality. So once we leave the studio, there is no need to go back and change anything. It’s about commitment. Up until 2000, that was the mentality. For me to revise the mix requires paying for the studio again and ‘recalling’ the settings manually on the outboard gear and console. It costs time and money. The only concession I make is that I’ll print instrumental and a cappella versions of the mix, to give people some options. I’ll print stems only on rare occasions. No-one else has the right to do recalls of my mixes. Trying to change a mix after the event is like trying to paint over someone else’s painting. For me a mix is a performance, or a sculpture. Once a sculpture is done, it’s unheard of for someone else to take a chip off it. My approach is very old school. Luckily there are enough people willing to accept my way of working, and they’re usually very happy in the end.”
“HOW DO YOU KEEP PERSPECTIVE WHEN YOU MIX A SONG MORE THAN 10 TIMES AND HOW DO YOU STAY IN TOUCH WITH THE ORIGINAL VIBE 13 YEARS LATER?”
So far so principled, and to add serious weight to his pro-analogue arguments and old school methods Elevado can point at a glittering career, recognized with a whopping nine Grammy Award nominations (for his work with The Roots, Al Green, Roy Hargrove, and others) and five Grammy Awards (Alicia Keys (2x), Erykah Badu, Angelique Kidjo and D’Angelo).
Born in the Philippines in 1966, Elevado and his family moved to New York when he was five. He started playing guitar aged 11, and was very serious about this, but eventually envisioned that a studio career would be more stable than life as a professional musician, and he attended the Institute of Audio Research in New York. Elevado went on to intern at Arthur Baker’s Shakedown Studios and later started assisting at Soundtrack and Skyline, and eventually became staff engineer at Quad Studios. Elevado went free-lance in 1993, and worked his way up from there, in addition to the above-mentioned names, also working with the likes of Roberta Flack, Common, Norah Jones, Mark Ronson, Jay Z, Nikki Costa, Rick Rubin and many others.
Elevado first worked with D’Angelo as a mixer on the latter’s debut album, Brown Sugar (1995), and he was, as engineer and mixer, the sonic mastermind behind D’Angelo’s now-classic second album Voodoo (2000), which was also recorded and mixed entirely in the analogue domain, and which became the most influential and critically-acclaimed album of the neo-soul genre. Expectations were sky high for the follow-up, but no-one, least of all Elevado, could have foreseen that the making of Black Messiah would take a whopping thirteen years.
The length of Black Messiah’s making is matched only by Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, which famously, or notoriously, depending on your point of view, took about the same amount of time to make. And that’s not even mentioning the $13m that reportedly was spent by Axl Rose & Co. No details are available on Black Messiah’s final recording tab, but given that work on it was intermittent for part of its 13-year gestation and involved far fewer people than were employed in the making of Chinese Democracy, the final budget is likely to be significantly lower than that of the latter album. But multiple studio lockouts ranging from a couple of weeks to several months in duration each time, at a daily rate that was often as high as $1500, will have pushed the final outlay to well over a million dollars. An article in the New York Times quoted D’Angelo’s tour manager, Alan Leeds, as saying that even those close the fire weren’t quite sure: “25 accountants were still trying to figure it out, and none of them agree.”
The sprawling excesses that went into the making of Chinese Democracy are well-documented, but the making of Black Messiah for a long time involved only D’Angelo and Elevado, who remained impressively tight-lipped about what they were up to. Reports did circulate that work was impeded for a number of years by drug and alcohol problems on the part of D’Angelo, and The Roots drummer Questlove leaked a track in 2007 (as a result of which the two fell out), but that was more or less all that was known, until the album’s unexpected release last December.
During the two long phone conversations on which this article is based, Elevado sounded relieved to finally be able to spill the beans on the project, even if it meant that he had to relive some of the serious challenges the inordinately long-gestation period had posed him, which included, for example, the vexing question of how to remain objective when laying out the mix of a certain song on the board for the umpteenth time, with different mix versions sometimes spread out over several years.
“D’Angelo would come in and ask me for a mix version dated April 3rd,” recalled Elevado, “which we might have completed a couple of days or a couple of years before, and he’d notice if it didn’t sound exactly like he remembered it! He could focus on the most minuscule detail and would insist on perfecting it until all possibilities were exhausted. Sometimes I had to tell him that it was impossible to get any closer and he’d have to work with what we had. Because of my work on Voodoo I knew D’s ways of working, and I knew that it was crucially important to keep as extensive and detailed notes as possible. In the case of Messiah there were mixes that we had last put on the board 10 years before, and that I had to lay out over the desk again after all that time! We switched between songs all the time, and I always had to be top of my game.”
“To be able to keep our options open I would often have all 80 tracks of a mix session up on the desk, including some of the small faders, because there might be like a blend of a 24-track vocal comp that could change at any time. I did not dare to print a comp and use those faders for something else, sometimes for years! There were times when I printed something and I would just hope that I would not have to go back and find the individual tracks again, but Murphy’s Law dictated that D would come in and want to change! An example is a song for which I had four takes of Questlove’s drums, and D had compiled a drum track from them. We kept that comp for probably a year. And then D suddenly said, ‘you know what, I want to find a new take of Ahmir for the first minute of the song.’ So I had to find a way to match those sounds, and I think we had lost one of the recall sheets, and in the end I could not pull it off and he had to live with it. Things like this did not happen all the time, but it got crazy on a couple of songs.”
“D could suddenly, without any warning, add another overdub that would change the entire outlook of the song again. D is such a perfectionist, and he hears things differently than other people. I can’t guess what is in his mind, and he doesn’t always say, and you might have been working on a song for years, and not have a clue or hint about a last-minute change he’s been planning all along, like a guitar riff or melody that transforms the song. Meanwhile he’s had it in his head for years! That could be frustrating. Some songs were technical nightmares. We had done loads of different sessions in several different places, and most songs went through a number of different permutations, and there could be 1000 technical details swimming in my head. So when it finally came down to me finishing, it was like, “ok, now where do I start?”
“On an emotional level mixing a song like ‘Really Love,’ which he began in 2002, became increasingly difficult. How do you keep a perspective when you mix a song more than 10 times, and how do you stay in touch with the original vibe 13 years later? There definitely were moments during this project when I felt that things were getting out of control, certainly on a technical level. Everything was always virtual, but in the analogue domain! There was so much to remember and document, and we had such an unstructured way of working that I at times was quite uneasy about whether the final result would be up to scratch, especially when I really started digging in with the final mixes.”
Given the ecstatic reviews Black Messiah has garnered, Elevado’s fears were unfounded. But the mind nonetheless boggles when imagining the challenges that he faced in the making of Black Messiah, particularly bearing in mind the analogue-yet-virtual route that D’Angelo and he took. With its endless changes and permutations and mix recalls of each song, if ever there was an album screaming out to be made with a DAW, it was Black Messiah. Given that Elevado tells other clients that he only does a couple of recalls for each song, he conceded that the amount of recalls he was doing with D’Angelo definitely is “ironic. Had everything been done in Pro Tools, each change and recall would have been instantaneous.”
The engineer/mixer continued with explaining how he managed one of the most demanding recording projects of all time, first by giving an overview of the thirteen-year time line…
“The earliest sessions for Black Messiah took place in 2001,” recalled Elevado, “right after the Voodoo tour. The moment he came off that tour he made plans to get back into the studio. The first studio we worked at was Sear Sound in New York. It was a crazy time. D was definitely ready for experimentation, and he was really into the black rock thing, like Jimi Hendrix, Parliament Funkadelic, Sly Stone and into psychedelic music like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and I guess there was an element of him experimenting with drugs in the way his heroes had during their classic recordings. ‘Really Love’ was the first new song he wrote for the album, and we recorded it at Sear with a drum machine. ‘Prayer’ also came out of those early sessions.”
“After Sear we bounced around for a while between different studios. We worked at Avatar in New York for a while and at two studios in the San Francisco area, one of them being The Plant Studios in Sausalito and a few studios in LA like Paramount. After that we were in Henson in Los Angeles for a while. Sometimes we were in a studio for a couple of weeks, sometimes much, much longer. We worked for a couple of years on total at Avatar. Then, in 2007, D signed to J Records, which is part of RCA, and we got a new budget. Following this we spent a few more months in San Francisco, and then we were in LA again for several months, working in several studios. Finally we came back to New York in 2010 for the home stretch. For the last 3 ½ years we worked pretty much full-time on the album, more than all the previous years combined.”
“Almost all of these last 3 ½ years were spent at MSR studios. Although the focus on mixing became stronger and stronger towards the end, I had been mixing throughout the project. D likes me to get things in shape so he can get inspired to do other things. He loves it when I do something that gives him ideas. So I did many rough mixes and tried to do cool things. The very last year we were in mix mode all the time, with us going to and fro between MSR Studios A and C, which both have SSL desks. Ben Kane was very involved by this stage as well. He started out as my assistant at Electric Lady Studios, a couple years after Voodoo and eventually he started engineering sessions for D’Angelo when I was out of town or working with other artists. He was my right-hand man during the project and has a mixing credit on ‘The Door.’ He was invaluable to me.”
“For most of the thirteen years it was just D’Angelo and myself in the studio. Voodoo had to a large degree been collaborative and he really needed to experiment and get things out of his system and just craft some songs all by himself. This rather than jamming with musicians and coming up with songs in that way. This changed after sessions in LA in 2008, when D was jamming with [drummer] James Gadson and [bassist] Pino Palladino. ‘Sugah Daddy’ came out of those sessions.”
“He had started breaking the ice with Ahmir and in 2011 they started working together again. The song ‘The Charade’ came out of D and Q jamming at MSR in 2011, after which they were joined by Pino. ‘Till It’s Done (Tutu)’ and ‘Another Life,’ also came out of those sessions. While we were in New York we had quite a few people coming in adding new parts. For example, Quest replaced the machine drums on ‘Really Love,’ and eventually his parts were replaced by James Gadson. This went on all the time. We recorded sketches for many songs, and many were not released, with some closer to being finished than others. You can’t imagine how many reels of tape we used!”
A SPATIAL THING
Apparently the answer is about 200 reels of 24-track tape, made by Quantegy and ATR. With one reel of 2” tape costing US$300 or thereabouts, just the cost of tape used in the making of Black Messiah topped the recording budgets for many of today’s mainstream charting albums. However, while Voodoo was exclusively recorded with tape, without a DAW in sight, Pro Tools was used extensively in the making of Black Messiah. Elevado explained why it became inevitable, despite all their articles of analogue faith, to use some good old digital technology…
“Up until 2010, I was using only tape of this project, with Pro Tools purely for backups. For most of the time we ran two Studer A827’s together, so we had 48-tracks running. I’d also make stems and then transferred these to slave tapes, and we’d record on them. For example, D’Angelo recorded all his vocals, by himself, to 24-track slaves, which I had loaded with stems of the music. He started doing that in the middle of recording Voodoo. I showed him how to run the tape machine, and he sat alone with the remote control in front of him, sometimes in the control room, sometimes in the live room.”
“We set up a little mini studio for him, with the tape machine and a vocal chain of Neumann U67 or U47, going into Neve 1081 or 1073 and then an LA2A. He also has a little Mackie board for monitoring, so he can pull up the tracks he wants from the tape, and then he does all his own vocals. He doesn’t like other people to be around and he does a lot of vari-speeding with tape the way George Clinton and Prince used to do. He’s so used to doing this that he is at this very moment in his hotel room doing some vocal overdubs using my Studer A827 24-track. Everyone uses a laptop these days, but D insists on bringing an A827 into his hotel room!”
“This shows how committed D is to using analogue tape. I am the same, but by 2010 I became afraid that by playing the analogue tapes back too often we would be losing something, so with some of the older songs we started working off Pro Tools. This was a purely a matter of preserving the original tape recordings. We tried to be as diligent as possible in staying on tape as long as we could, but in the end we were always surpassing the 48 tracks of tape, and the most efficient way to handle that is to use Pro Tools. Trying to sync up three or four tape machines is cumbersome! There were a couple of songs for which I had to rent a third tape machine on Voodoo, and the mixes for those songs took forever, because it took 10 to 15 seconds for the machines to sync together, after I hit ‘play’!”
“When we were recording basic tracks after 2010, we still always went to tape, but after that the choice take was transferred to Pro Tools. If somebody came in unexpectedly and wanted to immediately do an overdub, I would record that in Pro Tools, just because it was faster. I’d then bounce it back to tape and back to Pro Tools right afterwards. Everything on Black Messiah, 100% of it, touched analogue tape at some stage or another. Analogue tape definitely adds a colour, but most of all it adds depth. This is what makes the biggest difference for me. There’s a front and back to the sound imagine in analogue, as well as top and bottom, and left and right. It’s a spatial thing.”
“I work at 24/88.1 in Pro Tools. There’s a big difference between 16 bits and 24 bits. We did try Pro Tools at the time we worked on Voodoo, but the sound of the 888’s was atrocious. I could not believe how bad it was. Even ADAT’s and Tascam DA88 sounded better than Pro Tools at the time, because they were using better chips! Apogee converters were an option but you had to rent them and they were expensive. In fact, you had to rent a Pro Tools “rig” in those days as they were still not the standard in the studio. Can you imagine me PAYING to use Pro Tools! But today’s higher quality clocking and converters make a big difference, and higher sampling rates are essential if you’re using plugins. But even then, the moment you start using several plugins, things start sounding weird again, because plugins are not processing things in the right way. You’d be surprised how much character you can add simply by re-amping things instead! So we used Pro Tools purely as a multitrack machine and storage medium, without any plug-ins.”
In the context of Elevado’s pro analogue and anti-plugins convictions and dedication to supreme quality sound, one would expect his recording signal chains to be of prime importance to him. It’s mildly surprising that he in fact doesn’t seem too bothered, provided he uses any of his own vintage and Class A pieces of kit, or an equivalent quality mic or box he finds in the studio he works in. The engineer/mixer elaborated on the rationale behind some of the nearly half million dollars’ worth of gear he has acquired and how he used this and other gear in the making of Black Messiah…
“When I started making money, I began collecting gear that could give me different textures and colours, rather than things that could do surgical things or things that most studios had. So I got vintage mic pres, compressors, EQ’s and effect boxes, and I also got into envelope filters and things that could bring out certain hidden timbres in instruments and that would help me dismantle the frequencies and sounds of any type of instrument that came to me. I now have things like an original Gates Sta-Level compressor, which I had modified, the Gates SA-39B limiter, a crazy mono Altec tube compressor which I call ‘The Bomb’ that has about 25 tubes—it’s one of my favourite pieces of gear—other Altec compressors, like the 436c and 438c, all of them modified. I also have an LA2A, 1178, WSW 601431A, Dynax and Fairman TLC compressors, and my EQ’s include the Quad Eight MM-312, 712 (graphic eq) and 333c, Neve 33115, Helios Type 79 and Telefunken 395A’s. Plus I have reverbs/echos like the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, Roland Chorus Echo SRE 555, Maestro Tape Echo and Demeter Realverb, and many effect pedals vintage and new, by the likes of Mutron, Maestro, Mooger and so on.”
“I also have tons of mics, like a nice U47 that I paid US$7000 for back in the ‘90s. It looks brand new and it sounds incredible. I have a matched pair of U64 tube mics, and so on. My mic preamps include a vintage Altec 9470a from the designer of the Langevin AM-16, plus Neve, Quad Eight, Telefunken 676A and the Siemens V276. In many cases I don’t mind what preamp I use, as long as it is one of the latter three. I used to be pickier, and I’d love to say that for this album I was mostly using Neve’s, but all these mic pres are of high quality, and I might get a little surprised one day when I have the Telefunken on the snare, instead of the Neve. They’re all good. It’s like having three different Ferraris to choose from. When you get to that level of mic pre with that kind of character, you could be using anything, so I don’t have a go-to mic pre anymore.”
“I changed my signal chains once and a while, but for drums they would have been for the most part a Neumann FET47 on the kick, sometimes by itself, sometimes with a secondary mic, like my vintage AKG D12 or Electro-Voice RE20. The snare would usually have an AKG C451 on the top, and a Shure SM57 on the bottom. I’d occasionally swap them for the harder stuff, with the 57 on the top and the 451 at the bottom. I find that if you swap the mics, you instantly get that rock sound. I usually have just one mono overhead, a Neumann U47, but I will use an AKG C24 or a pair of U64’s if I need to cover more cymbals that might be spread away from each other, and I have Sennheiser 421’s on the toms. I use many different room mics depending on the room and the sound and texture I’m after, and they could be an RCA 44, 77dx or Beyer M160 Neumann U47 or U67.”
“Some of the bass sounds on the album came from D’Angelo’s Ensoniq ASR10, which I recorded DI. I record the bass cabinet usually with a FET47, going through one of my main three mic pres, and then through a compressor, usually an 1176 or an LA2A, but also sometimes a Gates, Altec, or UA 175. On ‘Really Love’ Pino played a semi-acoustic bass with flatwound strings, and I tried to make sound a little bit like an upright. The classical guitar on that track is played by Mark Hammond, and I recorded with a U47, and no compressor. I don’t normally use a compressor in the recording chain, except for bass or for vocals.”
“I also had the U47 or 421 or SM57 or combinations on the electric guitar cabinets, again going through one of my three main preamps. I recorded D’s acoustic piano with the AKG C24 that they have at MSR, and if that’s not available, two KM56’s or two U67’s. I like using tube mics on the piano. It helps when you have a good player, and D is an amazing player who really owns the instrument. Other instruments he played, in addition to guitar and piano, were the Akai MPC2000, on which he did a lot of drum programming, using samples from records and things I have recorded, and the Ensoniq KT-88. But 90% of the synth sounds on the album came from his ASR10, which he has used since Brown Sugar.”
Elevado illustrated his mix process by giving extensive details of his mix of the song “The Charade,” a strutting Prince-like soul-funk track with a sitar motif. As mentioned above, ‘The Charade’ started life in at MSR studios in 2011 with D’Angelo and Questlove jamming (the music is credited to the two), and Pino Palladino joining them soon afterwards. As with all songs on Black Messiah, “The Charade” went through several changes. “I actually did the first mix of ‘The Charade’ at Henson in LA,” stated Elevado, “where we went for a couple of months just to change the pace a bit. I think D did some new vocals, and wanted to hear the song in a more mixed form. I had shipped some of my gear to LA, to be able to match the sounds, and then had it shipped back to NY, where I finished the mix at MSR.”
The final Pro Tools session of “The Charade” is relatively modest, by 21C standards, totalling 63 audio tracks. It has to be noted that Elevado printed quite a few of his analogue effects back into the mix and comped a lot of vocal tracks. Split out these 63 tracks consist of, from top bottom: 13 drum tracks (including several drum effect print tracks), 9 clap tracks, 4 MPC2000 tracks (one clap, one ride and two tom tracks), 3 bass tracks, 2 D’Angelo guitar tracks, 5 Roland Fantom X8 tracks and 2 piano tracks all played by D’Angelo, 2 sitar tracks, 3 D’Angelo lead vocal tracks, 3 Kendra Foster backing vocal tracks, 11 D’Angelo backing vocal tracks, and 5 guitar overdub tracks by Isaiah Sharkey and Jesse Johnson. Finally, at the bottom are several instrumental and a cappella mix tracks, Elevado’s original Henson mix, and other mix print tracks.
Elevado stressed that a lot of the automation process took place on the SSL board, particularly most level rides, which cannot be seen in the screen shots, of course (barring a few Pro Tools volume rides “for convenience.”) He elaborated, “As you can see, the comment boxes mark that tracks came from ‘tape,’ or were transferred from a slave, ‘xfer from slave,’ or where it says ‘req’, it means that I processed that track and signed off on it. The green drum tracks are all Questlove, and include some effects tracks that I printed back in. I did not use the Tapedbl track, but there are two effect tracks of the toms with tape flanging on them (tomflangeLT, tomflangeRT), which have a nice dirty sound to the drums and added some overall rawness. Every once and a while the crash cymbal would come through in the mix on those flanged tracks.”
“The flange effect is tape flanging, just off-setting a 2 track ½” machine with the 24 track. I had to keep doing it until I got it right! The Gates Sta-Level compressor was a big part of the drum sound, and I had that as parallel compression that I printed back in on the ‘gates drums’ track, with the phase reversed. The reverb on the drums would have been the room sound that came from the compression I used on the overhead, which picked out a lot of the room, and I then added the Roland Chorus Echo or the Fulltone Echo for the tape slap. For the rest it was a matter of using my four channels of 33115, which sound amazing, and MSR’s Neve 1081’s.”
“Below the drums are the claps, starting with a track called ‘reverse reverb clap.’ The neat thing about the A827 is that you don’t need to flip the tape to play it backwards, so you don’t have to deal with all the tracks being flipped, like track 24 is swapped with track 1, 23 is swapped with 2 and so on. So I recorded the clap with the reverb to the tape playing in reverse, and then played it back in normal mode. It’s quite simple, and it sounds better than any of today’s plugins that simulate the process. [Drummer] Chris Dave added a number of claps to the session, which he triggered, using samples, and D then wanted to change the sound and added yet more clap samples.”
“The ‘claps 1.02-2.02’ etc tracks are real claps recorded with D’s mic, and underneath that is the MPC clap, as well as other MPC tracks which were part of the original loop they started off with. I think I just used SSL board EQ on the MPC claps and the toms. They were really dirty sounding and I wanted to keep them like that, nasty and hissy! As a matter of fact, the very first impulse for this track was a shaker sound from Ahmir’s ‘ipad,’ which we put on and aimed to replace later, but we never did.”
“The main bass track, ‘bass dirt,’’ has heavy fuzz from my Univox Uni-fuzz pedal, and ‘pino EQ’ is the bass track with me adding EQ from any number of things, probably a Neve or Quad Eight EQ. I also used the Gates Sta-Level on that. The bass track underneath has the UA 175, but I did not use it. The guitar track underneath the bass track has my Fulltone Deja Vibe pedal for a sort of Hendrix-like sound, and the other guitar track probably had the built-in phaser from my Music Man combo amp, which sounds killer. I often use that amp for re-amping stuff. Next down are the Fantom synth tracks, to which I added a Mutron Flanger for a kind of warbling effect. The sitar was an electric sitar, and it would have had the Fulltone Tube Echo or Roland Chorus Echo. The piano went through a real Leslie cabinet and was printed back in. I probably also used SSL board EQ on the sitar and piano.”
“The vocal treatments varied quite a bit across the record. We were going for a consistent vocal sound on Voodoo, but this time round we did what was appropriate for each song. What you see in the session are comped vocal tracks, often distilled from dozens of tracks. The vocal effects on D’s voice in this song were a combination of slap, from the Roland Chorus Echo, and reverb from MSR’s EMT plate. I might also have used the Fulltone or a Maestro for a slap echo. In addition I had compression, from the LA2A, or Altec 438c, or the 1175, or the UA175, I can’t quite recall what I used in this song, but any of them would have been used for vocal compression on this album. EQ would have been from Neve, Telefunken or Quad Eight. Kendra’s backing vocals would have had the Urei 1178 compressor and sometimes the Fairman TLC. Below the vocals are more guitar tracks, which D or I would have muted in and out on the board, and I’d have added similar effects as to D’s two guitar tracks.”
“The final mix went to a ½” tape, and we printed it back to Pro Tools from the repro head for a backup, but the tape versions were always used during mastering. It’s a real problem how so many things are smashed to bits these days during mastering because of the loudness wars. When I do a full album, I am present at the mastering 9 out of 10 times. But I almost always find that I have to make compromises, and eventually I have decided to accept that, otherwise I’d drive myself crazy. It’s the only choice I have. So I get the mixes as good as I can get them, and with minimal compression, and then I have to let it go.”
Clearly, the making of Black Messiah was an epic journey for Elevado and D’Angelo. But any fears that many, including Elevado himself, apparently, had about the end result of thirteen years of work being stodgy and overcooked, or smashed to bits during mastering, proved unfounded, in the context of the glowing reactions from the fans and the many five star reviews the album received, with accolades like “a humblingly brilliant album,” “a warm, expansive masterpiece,” and “not just one of the best records of 2014, but one that will stay with you throughout next year, too.”
One perceptive reviewer, Joe Goggins in Drowned In Sound, noted, “Like Voodoo, Black Messiah’s greatest strength lies in D’Angelo’s understanding of how to create mood by weaving an impossibly complex instrumental palette,” and that “everything from D’Angelo’s voice to the crackle of the snare is treated with a delicate mastery.” The master on this latter front, surely, and someone who played a crucial role in making this “impossibly complex” palette work, was Russell Elevado. He’s managed to make Black Messiah sound truly great, a far cry from the ear-assaulting digital grey that’s everywhere these days. In how far this is due to D’Angelo’s and Elevado’s commitment to the analogue medium is a question that no-one who truly cares about good sound can afford to ignore…
© 2015 Paul Tingen.
The Charade Pro Tools session screen shots