JANELLE MONÁE’S THE ELECTRIC LADY WAS ONE OF THE MOST ACCLAIMED AND ADVENTEROUS POP ALBUMS OF 2013. THE MYRIAD STRANDS OF MUSICAL EXPERIMENTATION FEATURED ON THE ALBUM WERE EXPERTLY DRAWN TOGETHER BY MIXER NEAL H POGUE.
Janelle Monáe has executed a barnstorming assault on some widely-held music industry assumptions. For starters, there’s the idea that concept albums are pompous relics of the past that will inevitably be critically panned and end up as commercial failures. Then there’s the received wisdom that most of today’s R&B is commercial pap bereft of innovation and musical integrity. And thirdly there’s the presumption that today’s artists need to grow and ripen before they deliver their best work; the heady early days of rock ‘n roll, when scores of artists created masterworks while still in their early twenties, appear long gone.
In defiance of all this Monáe has released not just one concept album, but two, plus a concept EP, all based on the same overarching concept. Loosely based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis, Monáe tells the story of the android Cindi Mayweather, who is trying to free the citizens of Metropolis in a dystopian and time-travelling future—the year 2719 to be exact. As if that doesn’t ambitious enough, Monae has spread out the story over seven Suites. The EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), released in 2007, obviously contains Suite 1, while the full-length albums The Archandroid (2010) and the recently released The Electric Lady contain suites II and III, and IV and V respectively—suits VI and VII are still to be released. Monáe has explained that The Electric Lady is a prequel to The Archandroid—must have something to do with the time travelling.
Despite the grand and over the top concept behind The Archandroid and The Electric Lady, they have been amongst the most-lauded albums of recent years. The former received a stunning 91 out of 100 rating at Metacritic, combining 28 mainstream reviews, and received a Grammy-nomination for Best R&B Album. The “genre-defying masterpiece,” which reportedly did “what a number of artists—particularly black artists—have not been able to do in years, and that’s move pop music forward,” ended up as 2010’s second highest-rated album, after Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The Electric Lady didn’t quite scale the same critical heights, but nevertheless received a very impressive 83/100 rating (based on 34 reviews), with it being called “audacious, intrepid and brilliantly executed,” and a “dazzling, daring, psychedelic funk pop opus,” which “puts Monáe firmly in the front rank of 21st-century stars.” And all this with Monáe being, respectively, just 24 and 27 when the albums were made.
The music on the Metropolis, The Archandroid and The Electric Lady is a kaleidoscopic, genre-defying mash-up of different music styles and influences, including spaghetti western soundtracks, big band jazz, classical music, funk, reggae, pop, latin, folk, blues, funk, soul, psychedelic, rock, hip-hop, gospel, and much more. The title and cover of Electric Lady are a tongue-in-cheek nod to all this crossing over, taking their inspiration from Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland as well as the aesthetic of the 1966, French, black and white movie Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? All the disparate musical ingredients on Monáe’s two albums are held together in a spectacular production that is roughly reminiscent of today’s R&B/pop aesthetic, yet employs an incredibly rich sonic palette consisting of hundreds of different instruments and sounds. Monáe didn’t, of course, think up and construct all this by herself. On her three releases to date she’s been assisted by a motley crew of co-writers and co-producers that includes the likes of Outkast’s Big Boi, Kevin Barnes of Indie rock group Of Montreal, and Sean Combs aka Puff Daddy, plus Chuck Lightning and brothers Roman GianArthur and Nate “Rocket” Wonder. The latter three have emerged as Monáe’s main collaborators, co-writing and co-producing most of the The Electric Lady with her.
Monáe, Wonder, GianArthur and Lightning are from Atlanta, Georgia, a city with a thriving music scene. Atlanta saw the emergence of what became known as Dirty South hiphop in the 1990s, with the likes of Jermaine Dupri, OutKast, Goodie Mob and Organized Noize, and became during the 00s one of the main hip-hop centres of the US, with artists like Cee Lo Green, Ludacris, Ciara, The Dream, T.I. and others. Rock and folk acts like Indigo Girls, The Black Crowes, Shawn Mullins, and Mastodon also emerged from the city. The Wondaland Arts Society, founded by Monáe and her collaborators, draws much of its inspiration from the Atlanta music scene. Like Monáe’s music, it goes for the oddball, over-the-top approach, with its web site stating things like, “We believe songs are spaceships. We believe music is the weapon of the future. We believe books are stars. We believe there are only three forms of music: good music, bad music and funk.”
The Electric Lady was further steered to success by the contributions of another Atlanta resident, Neal H Pogue, who mixed almost the entire album. Pogue is originally from New Jersey, but moved to California in 1984 to pursue a career as a drummer in a band. Instead he ended up learning his craft as an engineer and mixer, with one of his most important teachers being mixer Taavi Mote. Pogue moved Atlanta in 1990, at a time when the creative scene exploded there, and was furthered by LaFace Records, which was run by LA Reid and Babyface Edmonds. Pogue ended up working with the likes of Outkast, Bobby Brown, TLC, Goodie Mob, Toni Braxton, and many others. In 2000, at a time when LA Reid moved to LA and Atlanta went from being a varied R&B city to a full blown hiphop place, Pogue returned to LA, and during the next 12 years he mixed a great variety of artists there, including Franz Ferdinand, N.E.R.D., Nicki Minaj, Pink, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Norah Jones, and Stevie Wonder. One notable achievement was Pogue convincing Outkast’s Andre 3000 that his rough demo for “Hey Ya!” had all the ingredients for a major hit, and then going on to mix the song. Pogue’s instincts proved astute: released in 2003, “Hey Ya!” went on to become the 20th highest-selling song of the 00s in the US.
Pogue spotting the hit-potential of “Hey Ya!” was an illustration of his production talents, and the mixer has recently spread out more into production. He moved back to Atlanta on June 29th of this year, because “it’s a very creative city and I always felt more creative here on the production side.” Pogue started his own production company in Atlanta, called Fulton Yard Unlimited, and A&R’d, engineered, mixed and produced with production partner Walt B, three tracks on Earth, Wind & Fire’s recent album Now, Then & Forever. Pogue also did additional production on 3 other tracks on the album. Like when he lived in North Hollywood, Pogue works in Atlanta from his own studio, an in-the-box place with Pro Tools HD (“I just switched to 10. I was on 8 for a long time. If it ain’t broke, I’m not interested in moving up”), a Kawai MX8SR 8-fader keyboard mixer and his favourite Halfer TRM8 Trans*Nova and Anthony Gallo A’Diva SE monitors. His studio, in Hollywood and now in Atlanta, is called TheHotPurplePetting Zoo. “I have purple fur on the walls and when people come in they start petting the walls. And with all the equipment in here it gets kind of warm,” explains Pogue.
Given Pogue’s eclectic credits and his roots in Atlanta R&B and hiphop, he was the perfect candidate to mix The Electric Lady. Oddly enough, his location provided an obstacle in the early stages of the project. “I was first approached by one of the A&R guys in late March of this year,” recalls Pogue, “when I happened to be in Atlanta visiting family. He wanted to fly me out to Atlanta, but because I was already there, I could begin mixing Q.U.E.E.N on an SSL J-series desk at Patchwerk Recording Studios in Atlanta on April 5. I then took the mix back home with me to my studio LA, where I did further tweaks and finished it on April 13. After this I mixed the songs ‘Electric Lady’ and ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ at my studio, but we decided that we preferred to mix the rest of the album in analogue, because we really wanted it to sound like the 1970s. Stevie Wonder’s albums from that era were a major influence with regards to the synths, whereas the guitars were more influenced by Prince in the 1980s. So I suggested that I continue to mix the album I moved to Atlanta. I started mixing the rest of the album on July 7, also continued with ‘Electric Lady,’ on a G+-series SSL at Silent Sound in Atlanta, and completed the project in the beginning of August. I mixed one song, ‘Dorothy Dandrige Eyes’ at ZAC Studios, also on a G-series, and also in Atlanta. In each case I finished the mixes at my own studio.”
Prince is not only an influence on The Electric Lady, but appears in person, singing and playing guitar on the song ‘Givin Em What They Love.’’ He’s one of several featured guest artists on the album, others being Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel, and jazz bassist and singer Esparanza Spalding. This eclectic collection of names underscores the multi-faceted nature of the album, as does the name-checking of Ennio Morricone, Duke Ellington, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the song inspiration annotations in the CD-booklet. In the context of the 1970s and 1980s sonic references that were discussed by Pogue and the Wondaland camp, the mixer elaborates that he grew up with the sound of 1970s albums, which are “embedded in my mind. It was a natural thing for me, so I automatically knew what they needed.” From this the rationale for running most mixes through an analogue desk seems clear. But what then, of the fact that Pogue’s own studio is entirely in the box, in true 21st century fashion? The explanation lies in the contradictory movements that typify today’s music industry, with steps forward in technology and backwards in budgets.
“I’ve been an SSL-guy for 25 years,” elaborates Pogue, “and I still love to touch a board and to use the SSL EQ, compression and faders. When I was in LA I used to go to a commercial studio called The Mix Room and mixed on their J-series SSL. To me that was the best-sounding room in the city. I held out as long as I could with mixing on the desk, but began mixing in the box in 2009, largely because budgets were getting smaller, and clients were offering all-in deals, meaning they didn’t want to pay for the studio on top anymore. Also, there’s the convenience of being able to do recalls at the press of a button. It takes me a second to bring up a mix and make whatever change is wanted. This means I can offer clients unlimited recalls and don’t have to charge them for it. Finally, the sonics of working in the box have become much much better, though I still think the board sounds superior. But people have come to love the digital crunch that is part of the way people approach working in the box. They love this digital distortion-to-the-point-that-it-is-shredding and the sound of the L2, and many kids today don’t even know what that warm sound is that comes with analogue and mixing on a desk. If you’d play them a vinyl record, they’d think it sounds dark, because their ears aren’t used to it. But many hiphop guys that sample old records understand that warm sound.”
Pogue’s unique solution to the conflicts between today’s budgetary constraints and unlimited instant recall demands, and the sonic depth, warmth and punch that he gets from mixing on an SSL is to begin his mix in a commercial studio on an SSL, print all the tracks back individually into the session as stems, and then bring the session back to his own studio for more tinkering and fine-tuning. He only does on the SSL what’s necessary for getting the analogue qualities into the mix, and after that he can take as long as needed for in-the-box tweaking in his own room, without a clicking studio clock. It’s an approach that served him well with his mixes of The Electric Lady. As a result, Pogue’s final mix session for the first single of the album, Q.U.E.E.N., contains almost 70 stereo stem tracks, starting with the final 2-mix at the top, and then all individual tracks for drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, horns, strings, lead vocals and backing vocals.
“The main reason for doing it like this is budgetary,” affirms Pogue. “I don’t do any volume rides on the SSL, the point of using it is for the summing, the SSL EQ and compression, and being able to patch in some pieces of outboard. Nowadays mixing is often a race against time, and in that context plugins are definitely convenient. Back in the day I’d have two days per mix, but now it usually is just one day, so you just have to go for it and get things done quickly. Because I’ve worked for so many years in analogue, I also approach mixing in the box as if I am working in analogue. I often use API EQs and other plugins that I’m used to touching with my hands when working in analogue. I’d say that with my current approach 70% of my effects come from plugins and 30% from outboard. But it’s always great to be able to reach for outboard gear when I’m in a studio.”
By contrast, mixing The Electric Lady didn’t conform to the modern budget-conscious and rushed way of working says Pogue. “I was given a lot of time, like two or three days per song. Nate [Wonder], the producer, had a sound in his head, and it took time to get that right. Nate is a perfectionist and often he wanted to sit with the mix for a couple of days before making final decisions. He’s also a guitar player, and given that the album is guitar-heavy, he was very particular about that too. We took an old-school approach and tried to make the mixes sound fun and different, and stay away from the overly bright and compressed approaches of many of today’s mixes. We wanted to push the envelope and not be bound by 21st century mixing standards.”
“As I said, the sound harked back to seventies Stevie Wonder and eighties Prince records, but also to the way the guitars sound on Red Hot Chili Peppers albums. They wanted the record to be approached in a funk, punk, and blues way. That aspect was fairly straightforward for me; because of my background I automatically and instantly knew what they needed. The main challenge on this album was the dynamics Nate and Roman were after. They wanted the songs to move and breathe, and with all the elements talking to each other. Janelle might say a line, and immediately afterwards a keyboard will come up and will quickly go down again. Particularly with Q.U.E.E.N. Wonder was very particular about how even the slightest move of a synth during her vocals would make the track more exciting. The music has to sing and move right along with her. She and the music had to be one.”
Going into the specifics of his mix approach in general and Q.U.E.E.N. in particular, Pogue explains that he uses the rough mix as his starting point, and then expands from there. “I first listen to the rough, and try to find out what the clients loves about it. Sometimes people will have lived with it for months, and I’ve ran into incidents where I’ve just started mixing, and after I’m done they say, ‘you know what, let’s listen to the rough again,’ and you have to go back over all the work you’ve just done. Once you know what they like about their rough, you don’t waste your time on changing that. You keep what they love, and then you take it further.”
“One important thing I do is organize the session in my preferred way. I learned from Taavi Mote to colour code everything. So the drums are in black, the bass is blue, the guitars are orange, the keyboards green, organs will be off-green, the horns are brown, the strings light blue, female lead vocals pink and male lead vocals red, and the backing vocals are purple. The sessions are also always in the same order, with the drums at the top, then bass, guitars, keys, brass, strings, lead vocals, and the backing vocals at the bottom. I use the same colours on the channel strip on the desk, and this allows me to always know immediately where everything is. My board layout is a bit unusual in that I have the vocals on channel 25 and upwards, and the drums on channel 24 going to the left. So the kick comes up under channel 24, the snare channel 23, and so on. Channels 17-24 are my drums and to the left of that are my bass, guitars and keyboards, and perhaps horns and strings on the far left. If I have something left over, it will be to the right of the vocals and the backing vocals. I have the drums next to the vocals because I start my mixes with the drums and this means I’m right in between the speakers for that.”
“After having laid out the session and the board the way I want it, and knowing what the client wants and where I’m going, I normally start to work on the drums. I’ll get the sonics right using EQ and compression and whatever else it needs, and I’ll then bring in the bass, and make sure it works well with the kick. That may need some EQ-ing. I’ll then add in the percussion, and the guitars, and the keyboards, and I keep working my way down the session until the music feels really great. That’s probably a good six or seven hours of work. While working on the music, I’ll consciously leave room for the vocals, and I’ll sometimes put them in just to see how they feel, and then I mute them again, so I can continue working on the music. Over the years I’ve learned which frequencies to cut and to boost to make sure the vocals cut through.”
Q.U.E.E.N. is a funk-pop-rock song reminiscent of Prince’s music from the 1980s, with echoes of Chic and Parliament/Funkadelic as well. It’s driven by a funky rhythm guitar and heavy bass, and by synthesizers popping up all over the place, which are augmented by massive backing vocals that often are made to sound like synths. One of the most striking aspects of the song is that it continually changes, with new ingredients coming in all the time—no hitting the ‘next’ button after the first verse and chorus in this case—and that the snare only occasionally plays on 2 and 4, and is instead mostly used for accents. 2 and 4 accents are for the most part done by finger snaps and hand claps.
“To me the way the snare is used in this track is a breath of fresh air,” comments Pogue. “It was part of the Red Hot Chili Peppers influence, and it gave me no difficulties at all in terms of getting the groove right. Because Q.U.E.E.N. was the first track that I mixed for the album, it was very much the blueprint of the record, for how instruments would sit in the tracks and how they wanted the album to feel. I still call myself a student, and from mixing this record I learned not to be afraid to do radical things EQ-wise, particularly adding high mids. Today guitars are rarely pushed to the limit, but on this record we did push them, to make them bite and stand out a bit more. With regards to the dynamics, on the screen shot you can see how I was riding the volume on the Moogs and Junos in particular.”
“The top drum track is an 808 kick, and after that there’s the ‘big kick,’ and then two snare tracks, ‘Fat’ and ‘Knock,’—the latter supports the former—and then a hi-hat track, which was very minimal, and natural finger snaps recorded with a binaural head, claps, three tambourine tracks, bongos and congas, three shakers and more live percussion. I treated the drum and percussion tracks with SSL EQ and compression where necessary, and the only outboard I used for this entire mix was the DBX160XT compressor and a Tube-Tech EQ on the kick, and that was it. Later, when I brought the mix back to my studio, I added an API plugin EQ on the snare ‘Knock’ track, to add some high mids and make it crack more, plus I put a Digidesign EQ on the finger snaps, to make them shine a little more. I did not add any other plugins, because I was satisfied with the way the drums sounded.”
“There are three bass tracks, that each appear in different sections of the song. I just used SSL EQ and compression on the bass tracks, and when I came home I added Waves CLA compression and API EQ plugins to the end section bass track. The guitars were again just desk EQ and compression, and volume rides for the dynamics, plus an API EQ at the end, to cut out some low end. The entire track slides into a Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’ feel towards the end. All the synths, horns and strings were treated only with desk EQ and compression, where necessary. Challen 30 is a piano track that plays during the rap section at the end. I didn’t use plugins at all on these tracks, because everything sounded great and I didn’t want to mess with it. Also, I wanted to keep that natural 1970s feel on the synths. The J series SSL has a warmer sound than the G-series, and that was a great match for this particular song, even though the rest of the album was done on a G.”
“Tracks 48 is Janelle’s lead vocal track, which has the RCompressor and the Digidesign EQ, and is then sent to track 49, which is an aux on which I had the Digidesign Extralong Delay, for the delay ‘throws’ at the end of words and lines. Track 50 is the lead vocal ad lib track, and this is sent to track 51, which had the Waves SupertTap delay for a slap effect. All vocals were treated with SSL EQ and compression. As I said, we wanted to push the envelope with this record, and just like with the guitars we also sometimes made Janelle’s vocals sound a little harsher than usual, to create more emotion and make them cut through. EQ is so cool, you EQ something one way, and you add one kind of emotion, and you EQ it another, and you add a different emotion. Emphasising the highs and high mids can add a little bit more excitement to your record.”
“Underneath the lead vocals are the backing vocals, which were sung by Janelle, Erykah Badu and Nate. Things can be so sterile nowadays, with the lead vocalist doing everything. I think it’s much more organic to do have different vocalists sing different layers of backing vocals. I just had board EQ and compression on them, and also the Avid Joe Meek compression plugin, as well as more Digidesign EQs. Track 62 is Janelle’s rap at the end of the song. That rap was difficult to EQ, because they wanted it to sound a certain way, different to the lead vocal. I used board EQ and also an API EQ plugin. The reverb and delay on the rap had already been done before I got involved, and was recorded back into the session on tracks 63 and 64. Underneath the rap are yet more backing vocals, including by Erykah.”
“I mixed back into the session, which was at 24/44.1. I think going above 48K is pointless, the naked ear can’t tell the difference. I like to send the final mix through the SSL stereo bus and then EQ with either two API GML8200, but I don’t generally use compression. I don’t like pushing my mixes to make them sound loud, unless I know we’re going for a particular sound that is trying to compete with what’s out there. Nate didn’t want a particularly loud record, mostly he wanted to make sure that there the nostalgic element in the song shone through. For me that was very cool. Overall the idea was to have a natural sound, and that suited me, because it meant that I could focus on volume and panning in the mix, plus the occasional bit of EQ and compression. Many people reach for tons of plugins as if on automatic pilot, but using too many EQs destroys that natural sound. I prefer to keep it natural, and simple.”
With The Electric Lady filled to the brim with tons of different sounds and disparate music styles, Pogue’s “keep it simple” approach was a perfect fit, and helped create a focused and coherent end result that achieved far greater commercial success than its highly-praised but commercially disappointing predecessor.