Multi-platinum producer/mixer Chris Tabron (Beyoncé, The Strokes, Erykah Badu) discusses working on the zef side of things with Yo-Landi Vi$$er & Ninja, and takes us into the mixing & production behind Die Antwoord's latest album House of Zef.
By David Ampong, Waves Audio
Your career & discography are incredibly diverse. But what’s it like working with Die Antwoord?
Thank you, I’m really fortunate that I get to work with such a diverse group of artists regularly. It makes me feel like what I can contribute to a project is more about my perspectives on a song rather than expertise or insights limited to a specific genre.
Working with Die Antwoord was unique to anything else I’ve done prior because they’re simply some of the most singular people I’ve ever met. I also think that the circumstances of us working together—and the time crunch we were under—made all three of us have to put down our facades a bit and jump into it. They had already flown to NYC from South Africa based on a recommendation from mastering engineer extraordinaire, Dave Kutch, and one phone call we had together. That’s it!
So we all jumped into the studio and I basically interviewed them for 30 minutes on what they wanted out of this record and process, took notes, and they went back to the hotel and left me to it. It’s not super common for that amount of trust to come from an artist so immediately. I think I had done a quick mix of “Bang On Em” before they landed so they had something to cut the video to, but before that I’m not even sure they knew my discography before they hopped on the plane and just went with their intuition.
How did you get Zef on the mixing and production? At the same time, how do you capture raw energy and deliver a polished mix?
A lot of the ways we captured the vibe of “Zef” was in the way we went about finishing the record. I joined the process toward the end, and there were lots of existing productions and tracks on the table, and lots of work to do to get to the finish line. When the three of us locked in, there was this unspoken rule that everything we ended up keeping on the record had to be both raw and compelling; it didn’t matter how new or old it was, how long we had spent on it, etc. Basically, we were able to capture the essence by keeping to our work ethic and also not being afraid to scrap an entire song if it wasn’t hitting right.
Also, Ninja and Yolandi are incredibly creative in their overall vision for songs, the album, and how that fits into a larger statement as a piece of art. So it was amazing to tune in with two incredibly articulate and forward-thinking artists who weren’t afraid to push the boundaries outside of their comfort zone. It’s also the first time we’ve ever worked together, so there had to be a mutual trust in each other, which they were quite generous in giving me from the start.
Finally, I think it was really helpful that there were no firm boundaries between recording, producing, and mixing. We were just working and refining each song and whittling away at it until it revealed itself to us. It wasn’t uncommon to be hours into the mixing of a song in the middle of a delicate vocal ride and have someone stand up and walk over to the mic and say; “Nah, I’m gonna beat that take!” We all fed off of each other’s energy in that way to constantly be looking for what’s best for the music. It was super challenging, and really rewarding to constantly flip between the macro and micro, and letting our instincts guide us along the way.
The rave synth sound heard on “Bang On Em” has such a presence, how do you balance that with the vocals in the mix?
That beginning rave synth sound is the main driving energy of the song, aside from the vocals, and I treated it as such. The timbre of the synth was so interesting and compelling that I ended up using it as a guide for the tone of other elements in the mix, even the type of crunch I’d put on the vocals. It really rode the razor’s edge in the mix; it needed to cut and provide the energy but sit just beneath the vocals.
It was tricky to get the balance between the vocals cutting and keeping that synth moving right up to the edge of intensity! Even though what you’re asking about is vocals, as I said above, everything is relative, so it’s also important to talk about what I did to that main synth to keep it riding that fine line.
On the synth, I used the H-Reverb with very short time, and on the darker side to give it a very small ‘halo’ of context as I sometimes call it. There’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary about the settings, but what is crucial is that I’m automating the ER/Tail blend throughout the entire song. I’m manually riding it, sometimes as quick as a ¼ note interval in certain sections, and other times in a more legato way that gently pushes the synth slightly behind the vocals. This is different than straight level riding, this is automating where the synth is in the scene. That helped me create dynamism underneath the vocals and almost have a 3D-panner for the other main aggressive element in the mix.
For Yolandi’s leads, I was lucky enough to get to record them myself, so they didn’t need too much shaping because I was able to track it the way that I knew I wanted it to sound. This was also handy because we didn’t have much time, so it was nice to be able to commit to a sound straight to disk.
I also printed a stereo version of her vocal stack so I had a neat re-sampled file to chop and add the ‘explosion’ reverb type sound that happens on the turnarounds of the chorus. These vocals were fairly heavily saturated by the Abbey Road Saturator, here just modifying my own “Whiskey Vocal” preset, then generously compressed by the Renaissance Compressor, and finally sent to the API 550A to darken them a bit.
For hook vocals — “Bang on 'em! Bang on 'em! Bang on 'em…”, I used the MDMX Overdrive first, (I think modifying a bass synth preset I made, actually) to get some pushed saturation, then R-Comp again, but not as hard as the sampled vocals, and I finished it with the Smack Attack to give me some more punch out of the ‘B’ on “Bang on Em.”
For her ad-libs/stabs that come in and out of the chorus, I crunched them even more with the MDMX Overdrive, then used the trusty CLA Vocals for an all-in-one solution for effects and a little bit of compression, and then added a Q-Clone at the end, which is a capture of my vintage NTI EQ3 pushing some air.
How did you treat Ninja in the mix?
For Ninja, I needed him to stay firmly in place and grab your attention even though it sounded like craziness is happening all around him. So I kept him fairly dry, except adding automation to a MetaFlanger and Doubler in spots to accent his verse. Again, I kept it simple with the Renaissance Vox holding on to him tight, then CLA Vocals for a little bit of treble and automating the reverb and delay, and finally Q-Clone which is a capture of the same NTI EQ mentioned above. I did a lot of my heavy lifting with making many small variations of automation in level and in the plugins to keep the vocal compelling from section to section.
What does “Zonke Bonke” mean, and how did you deliver a different character to the vocals on this track?
I’m not 100% sure of the linguistic connotation, but I think loosely translated it means “Everything for Everyone.”
For this one, the idea was to keep the feeling that it’s a bit of a party and everyone’s passing around the mic. There’s quite a few different vocalists on the track, so it was important to make sure everyone had a distinct identity, but that they also belonged in the same song…almost like different characters in the same play.
This track had lots of plugin and volume / pan automation on it to pull off the different scene changes. I’m definitely a proponent of using analog gear when it’s appropriate, but I’m doing things in this song that simply aren’t possible in the analog world, and I was able to work way faster.
For Yolandi’s vocals, I focused on finding a balance between giving her weight and aggression, but also maintaining the fun factor. The first step was to use the NLS Non-Linear Summer for some heft, and then the Butch Vig Vocals, which was the first time I think I’ve ever used that plugin on a vocal that wasn’t a loud rock performance. I’m only using the tube and solid-state saturation modules, but they sounded great and that was all I needed.
Then, I used two of mix genius, Andrew Scheps’ plugins, the first of which is one of my favorite all-in-one solutions: the Omni Channel. I’m not doing any extreme EQ or de-essing, but the magic here was to just set the compressor to fairly ‘grabby’ settings in terms of attack and release and dial back the mix to 50%. Then I dug in with the threshold until I had that balance of bounce and control that I wanted in her vocal. Finally, a little Scheps 73 to take out some boxiness and add some 12k sparkle and it was good to go.
Ninja’s vocals were simple on this one because we recorded them together, so we got the tone dialed in from the recording chain. As you can see, I did a little bit of R-Vox Control on him and this trick I’ve been doing for awhile now between the API 550A and a Q-Clone capture I have of my analog Pultec EQP-1A3: I push a bit of 3kHz and sometimes some 12.5kHz on the API while taking out 200Hz, and that goes into the Q-Clone that is almost doing the opposite, but at entirely different bandwidth settings on each band because it’s a Pultec curve. I guess something about how they interact with one another creates a really nice euphonic effect and it can often be the right move on a lead vocal.
What types of plugins are you using on your drums? How do you treat 808s & heavy synths in the mix without them clashing?
I’m using a lot of different saturation plugins throughout the drums to make sure they sound distinct on smaller speakers as well as larger systems, but mainly I focused on getting rid of frequencies that I didn’t need in the programming. Not everything needed to be full-frequency in this mix; I didn’t want it to sound lush and fancy because it was supposed to sound like a party and make you want to move to it. For the main 808/Sub Kick, I used the trusty Pensado preset: Trans-X, (sometimes it just works perfectly!) and followed that with the Kramer HLS Channel EQ just to push a little low end.
On the drum aux, there were quite a few different plugins being automated and bypassed throughout, but the two that did most of the tonal heavy-lifting were Smack Attack and the MDMX Screamer using (again) a modified version of my ‘Drums Trust Me’ preset with the mix knob set fairly low.
Finally, I should add that I’m using the Scheps 73 plugin on the mix buss is definitely impacting how the transients of the drums and programming come through in the mix, so even though it’s not directly on the drum bus, it’s something I put on early and made mix decisions through it.
As a producer and mix engineer, how do you balance pushing the music and sound forward versus restraint and the ‘less is more’ principle?
I think that I tend to always consider musical elements in a song in relation to one another. For example, if the vocal sounds dull, sometimes the issue isn’t actually even about the vocal but that the snare is too bright, and it’s fighting the vocal for attention. I also think that at the level of production, every element needs to serve the song, otherwise it’s gotta go. Particularly, in modern music because there are fewer restrictions on track counts and computers and plugins have gotten so good, there’s often a trend to have lots of tracks in a session. I think I’d rather find key elements that drive the narrative of the song, and have those elements be as engaging and interesting as possible. That’s the way that I typically get things pushed forward; find a few key elements that don’t let you ignore them and have the rest of the production elements serve to support those elements.
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