“DESPACITO WAS THE BIGGEST SUMMER HIT OF 2017. ITS ENORMOUS SUCCESS WAS MADE POSSIBLE WITH SOME HELP FROM A CERTAIN JUSTIN BIEBER AND HIS ENGINEER AND MIXER JOSH GUDWIN. IN THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BELOW, GUDWIN RELATES THE INSIDE STORY OF THE MAKING OF THE BIEBER VERSION OF “DESPACITO,” INCLUDING HOW HE MIXED THE TRACK IN AN AIRPORT LOUNGE.
“Despacito” was the second best-selling single of 2017 (after Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You”) and broke many records as a rare example of a worldwide hit sung in Spanish. The song was a number one in over 40 countries, in many cases hogging the top spot for weeks, if not months. In Australia it spent 16 weeks at #1 on the Aria singles chart, and in the US 15 weeks at the top of the Billboard singles charts. Already last July, “Despacito” was declared the most streamed-song in history, and one unexpected illustration of the impact the extraordinary success of the song has had is that it has reportedly increased tourism to Puerto Rico this year by a staggering 45%!
The latter is the result of the fact that the original version of the song was released in January of 2017 as a single by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi, featuring fellow Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee (the two co-wrote the song with Panamanian singer and songwriter Erika Ender). This original Spanish language version already was a big hit in most of South America by the time it received the Midas touch from Justin Bieber, and his trusted right-hand studio man, Josh Gudwin. As has been the case with several other songs during the last two years, Bieber’s involvement steered “Despacito” into the worldwide stratosphere, adding to the singer’s seemingly endless chart presence, with the top of the singles charts everywhere often featuring several songs that bear his name.
Bieber’s astonishingly high-profile run as a featured guest singer started in 2016, after the staggering success of his fourth album, Purpose, released in November 2015, which itself spawned four big, worldwide hit singles—“Where are Ü Now,” “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry,” and “Love Yourself.” Since then Bieber’s involvement helped propel songs to the top like Major Lazer’s “Cold Water,” DJ Snake’s “let Me Love You,” “Despacito,” DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” and most recently David Guetta’s “2U.” Gudwin was the main engineer, the mixer and the album producer on Purpose, and also was at Bieber’s side for the recording and production of the singer’s vocals in each of the above-mentioned guest appearances. Gudwin called these collaborations “strategic planning,” that help keep Bieber in the public eye.
According to Gudwin, all Bieber’s collaborations came into being in a different way. In the case of his and Bieber’s “remix” of “Despacito” it involved the epitome of 21st century album-making, with Gudwin flying around the world with just a laptop, an expansion chassis, and headphones, editing and mixing on them, with files being sent around the world via the Internet. The entire process, from the first phone call on April 11 to the remix release on April 17, taking a mere six days! Via Skype from his mix room at Henson recording studios, Gudwin retraced one of the most intense weeks of his already extraordinarily busy music career, which started with a phone call from Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, just as Gudwin was preparing to go on holiday.
“Last April, Justin was on tour in South-America and heard the song. He really liked it and wanted to do a remix. So when he was in Columbia he called Scooter, and on Tuesday, April 11th, Scooter called me, saying: ‘have you heard from Justin? He needs you to cut this remix for him.’ I asked whether it could wait until Monday when I’d be back from a short holiday I had booked to go to Parrot Cay, at the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, but the answer was, ‘please go to Bogota tonight if you can.’ So I took a 3am flight from LA to Bogota, took a nap after I arrived, and went straight to Estudios Audiovision there to meet Justin.”
Back in LA, while Gudwin was on his way to Bogota, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, one of Bieber’s main writing collaborators on Purpose, was working on the melody and lyrics for Bieber’s contribution to “Despacito.” By the time Gudwin and Bieber arrived in Audiovision, the vocal producer and mixer had received Boyd’s outlines for Bieber to work with, as well as an instrumental version of “Despacito,” and Bieber and Gudwin were ready to go.
“I always travel with my laptop and an expansion chassis with HDX and UAD cards, which fits in a small duffle bag,” explained Gudwin. “So I plugged my laptop in the studio’s I/O and looked around Audiovision for mics and mic pres. They had some nice vintage mics there, and I picked a Neumann U47, a Neve 1081 mic pre and a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor to record JB with. It’s a chain I also used to record his vocals on Purpose. Justin and I then worked on the parts, with help from Juan Felipe Samper, who coached him with his Spanish pronunciation. After four hours we were done. I went back to the hotel, comped the vocal, did some last-minute bounces for Justin, so he could listen to what we had done, checked out of the hotel, and flew to Miami, on my way to Turks and Caicos.”
The recording session in Bogota was only the start of Gudwin’s work on the remix of “Despacito.” Next up were re-arranging and remixing the song, all of which he did while he continued to be on the road. Gudwin is an eminent vocal producer, who has studied with the great Kuk Harrell (Mary J Blige, Rihanna, Celine Dion), but for logistical reasons he sent his vocal comp of his recordings of Bieber’s vocals to Chris “Tek” O’Ryan, an engineer who also has a stellar reputation as one of the world’s foremost vocal producers, and who specializes in vocal tuning—something which he has done for the likes of Bieber, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige, Ciara and Mariah Carey. Fitting Bieber’s comped and tuned vocals in with the track also involved some re-arranging work. For this, Gudwin worked with a stem version of the original mix session, which had been conducted by LA star mixer Jaycen Joshua.
“I had a five-hour lay-over at Miami International airport before my connecting flight to Parrot Cay,” revealed Gudwin, “so while I was waiting in the American Airlines lounge I completed re-arranging the track and mixed it. I was working on my laptop with the expansion chassis, and on Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones, which sound great. I did not record any instruments for the remix. I adjusted the levels of some of the instrumental parts and needed to arrange and mute parts of the original vocals to make space for Justin. The beginning of the song belonged to him! I also turned up the levels of some stems, like of the guitars and the timbales. I did this using clip gain, and did nothing else. I did not use any EQ or things like that. I was not going to change a great mix!”
DESPACITO: THE MIX SESSION
Gudwin’s “remix” Pro Tools session of “Despacito” totals 67 tracks and is very tidily laid out, with Jaycen Joshua’s stems at the top (37 tracks), then the new vocal tracks Gudwin mixed in (12 tracks), next his vocal aux tracks (13 tracks), and finally his master track. Joshua’s stem tracks break down in the instrumentation, which was realised by producers Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres and include some guitar/cuatro parts played by Christian Nieves. The instrumental tracks consist of 8 percussion stems (yellow), 5 guitar stems (blue) and 11 synth and sample stems (green). Louis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s original vocal stems take up another 13 tracks (red), plus three reverb stem tracks (grey-green), which are prints from Joshua’s Bricasti and Lexicon 480L outboard units. Gudwin’s sonic contribution to the “Despacito” remix centers on the way he treated Bieber’s vocals (light green and light blue), as well as some new English vocal tracks by Fonsi in the third chorus (red), and on his master bus chain.
All Bieber’s vocals are sent to the $JB BUSS$ group track (purple) at the top of the new vocals section. This group track has most of the processing, with six inserts and five effect sends. JB’s vocal tracks are numbered 01-08, with 03 being his main intro vocal part, with a couple of words pulled out to track 04, for a different EQ. Tracks 01 and 02 (in light green) are individual words with SoundToys EchoBoys delay throws, one ¼ note and one 1/8 note, while track 08 is a copy of Bieber’s entire vocal part, which has the Waves REQ4 and Doubler, for a vocal widening and doubling effect in the background: the level of the track is pulled down to -20dB. The plugins on Bieber’s vocal comp tracks, 01-08, consist of just three instances of the FabFilter Pro-Q2 EQ and one Waves RDeEsser. Gudwin explained the nature of the heavy lifting on the group track…
“First in the chain is the UAD SSL E-Series Channel Strip, doing some light compression [Ratio 3, Threshold -12], and light EQ [approx +2dB @4.5KHz and -3dB@250Hz], then the UAD LA2A Silver to smooth things out [peak reduction is 25], the Waves C6 multiband compressor with some very light EQ with compression, the Pro-Q2 fixes some weird things that were brought out by the C6 [it has a hi-pass with some cuts in the low mids], then the Waves Rcompressor again does some super-light touching [Ratio 2.13, threshold -11.1], and the FabFilter De-esser takes away some high frequencies [at 7KHz and 14KHz]. That’s it on the inserts.”
“The sends go to a series of aux tracks that are pretty standard. Everyone uses combinations of this stuff. The first send goes to the HALL aux, on which I have the UAD EMT140 and a UAD Harrison 32 EQ. Then there’s the PING SHORT aux which has the Echoboy, Air Chorus and Waves RVerb, the 1/8 aux with the Waves H-Delay, the WIDENER aux with the SoundToys Microshift for some width and Brainworx bx_digital for a bit of an MS effect, and the DIMENSION D aux with the UAD Dimension D chorus, and Waves REQ4 and RCompressor. Other aux effect tracks which I did not use, but which are part of my template, were the PLATE aux, with the UAD EMT 140, the MILLI aux with the Waves Trueverb set to a ‘millennium’ preset, half and quarter note aux tracks both with the HDelay, and a PING MOO aux with the EchoBoy, Waves Enigma modulation effect and RVerb. There are also are SPACE FLANGE and UNDERWATER aux tracks which everyone has who’s worked with Dave Pensado.”
“I actually finalised the mix while I was on the islands, on Parrot Cay, where I was working on a Bose bluetooth speaker. I sent it out for approvals, and then first needed to make some changes, because I got a new vocal by Louis [Fonsi] while I was there, with the English text written by Marty James. Once Louis heard Justin on it, he wanted to add something himself, so I added that at the last minute. Louis’ vocals are called V and VDbl in the session, and they came in tuned. They already had the Waves D3 DeEsser on it, and the RVox, so I kept them. I then added the SSL E-Channel, the C6 and the Pro-Q2. They’re all doing light things, because Louis’ vocals also go back through the main $JB Buss$ again.”
Gudwin’s master bus chain is different from Jaycen Joshua’s, which explains why the remix of “Despacito” sounds slightly different than the original. Gudwin elaborated. “The chain starts with the UAD Neve 33609 compressor. I go back and forth between that and the SSL compressor. Then the signal goes through the Plugin Alliance HG-2 Black Box, which has two virtual 12AX7 tubes, and adds a kind of tube vibe. It’s a cool box that lifts everything up a bit. The UAD Brainworx bx_digital V3 does some light MS processing to bring some of the elements on the side forward, and spread things out a bit. The iZotope Ozone 7 Stereo Imager also helps to widen the image. Finally there are the FabFilter Pro-L and UAD Sonnox Oxford Inflator for more volume. You also can put the Inflator before the Pro-L, it works both ways.”
“I take the Pro-L off when I send my mixes for mastering, but I sometimes also include it as an option. With the Inflator I set the Effect between 5 and 15 and the Curve between 5 and 10. When you go light on it, it still works. With the Pro-L I start with a preset, and I’ll tweak it if I need to. The song was mastered by David Kutch, who also mastered the original, who told me that he used slightly different settings on our remix than he had on the original.”
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ABOUT JOSH GUDWIN
For a long time Josh Gudwin wrote and played music as a hobby, mostly playing guitar. He spent some time in the Marines, and it wasn’t until after this, when he went to college in Miami Dade and a teacher suggested that he make a career out of it, that he took it serious. He attended Florida’s Full Sail University for a year in 2005/6 and then moved to LA to pursue a career as an engineer and mixer. His first step was to be an intern at Track Record Studios, then an assistant engineer at the Record Plant, where he worked with songwriter Esther Dean. He later worked for two years with top vocal producer Kuk Harrell. A recording session with Justin Bieber in 2010 changed Gudwin’s career path, and he has worked on almost every Bieber release since then.
When he’s not working with Bieber, Gudwin is engineering, (vocal) producing and mostly mixing for others. He currently works from his own room at Henson Studios in LA, where he monitors using ATC SMC25A, NS10 and little Bose Freestyle monitors, and where he has a small but choice collection of outboard, including preamps, compressors, a summing mixer. His recent credits include Diplo, Skrillex, Blood Pop, Carla Rae Jepsen, Pete Yorn, Dua Lipa, Bebe Rexha, and 5th Harmony. At the time of writing Gudwin’s mix of Dua Lipa’s most recent single, “New Rules,” was a number one in the UK and a #15 in Australia.
Gudwin’s gear at his studio in Henson: Avid HD io 8x8x8, Apogee Symphony 16 io, SPL Mix Dream, BURL B2, Bricasti, Neve 1073, API 3124, ALTEC 1566a, Dolby 740, Retro 176, Tube-Tech CL1b x2, Crane Song Avocet, LG 34” Display, Modular Synthesis.
© 2017 Paul Tingen.