Engineer John Frye is taking a breather from the year-plus recording and mixing sessions for OutKast's acclaimed new two-CD release, Speakerboxxx: The Love Below. Considering that the outfit's main brains — Big Boi (Antwan Patton) and Dre (Andre Benjamin) — had up to 60 songs apiece to record for the double-album, along with the requisite overdubs and vocals, Frye deserves the week away from Stankonia Recording in Atlanta.
Though bringing so many songs to the recording dates is nothing new for OutKast, Frye reports that Big Boi and Dre have never been this involved in an album before. “Once they got to the second album [the 1996 ATLiens], the two have taken on more of a leadership role in production and finalization of their albums, but I think that this is the most they've ever done,” Frye reports. “If somebody else did a track, I think there were overdubs and production and finalization of it by these guys. They would take it and run with it on their own. I haven't seen them this creative.”
The bulk of the two-CD set, one done completely by Big Boi and the other by Dre, was recorded in their own Stankonia studios. The A room of the two-room facility boasts an SSL 4080 G console with Augspurger monitors and Bryston amplification. Tracks were either recorded to a pair of Studer A-827s or Pro Tools 5. Eventually, all of the tracks went into Pro Tools, either via a handful of Digidesign 888s or an Apogee SE800. Stankonia's list of A room's outboard gear includes the usual suspects, from Avalon to Eventide, Neve to Summit, API to UREI. The studio's second room is a Pro Tools suite with more Augspurger monitors and Bryston amps. (The studio is also open for hire, and a range of clients such as Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, Sevendust, Goodie Mob and Cee-Lo have worked there.)
Frye's first sessions for the OutKast release were with Dre. (The two artists split time with the engineer, who has worked with them since 1994.) “Dre, especially, is into the technology, so we'll try a lot of different things,” Frye explains. “More than likely, he's got some basic pattern of a beat, maybe with a few key lines that he's possibly done at his home studio and brought in to embellish upon. He'll tweak those out with some sounds and then we'll start adding some vocal parts, maybe some melodies, or he'll bring in some guitars.”
The key, Frye adds, was to always be prepared. “Dre would spend a lot of time checking out different elements, and often we'd find that we'd recorded many tracks of overdubs of guitars, maybe vocals, basses, different sounds, and we'd try to get it all down while he's in the creative mode, and then more or less weed it out later,” he says. “A lot of times, he'd end up deciding that something didn't quite fit the track and he'd try something else. But the trick was to stay ready and get as much recorded as possible and not miss any of that magic. A lot of it was live playing, as well, so we had to be ready with microphones and what have you for anything that would come through, whether it be piano, B3, organs, vocals, guitar amps, directs, congas, whatever. We kept it all set up.”
Big Boi's sessions were driven more by a drum machine. “He produced an awful lot on his own; even if some other producers brought in a beat, he'd often take it to the OutKast level with whatever he was feeling or talking about,” Frye explains. “Big would add elements very much the same way [as Dre did]. Sometimes, it was a complete thought from the moment he walked in; other times, we tried a few things. We'd put down three different bass lines with maybe three different people, and sometimes we mixed and matched for no better reason than to try different things to see what would come of it.”
While recording the vocals, Frye relied mostly on a Neumann M149 through an Avalon 737 pre straight to Pro Tools. (Occasionally, a Neumann 87 through a Neve 1073 or a UREI 1176 was used, depending on how they sounded during the day.) “We tried to get as clean a signal to tape on this record because it was shaping up to be a little drier and in-your-face than in the past, [where] we had added more effects at times to some of the vocals,” Frye explains. He notes that there were situations where some Waves plug-ins were added to vocal tracks.
On the musical side of things, Frye attempted to keep the sounds as direct as possible. “I think the music was living before it was recorded. I try not to change it much,” he says. “If a sound is coming from the house or from a drum machine, I'm not trying to EQ it or change it much. I'm trying to get it as true to whatever recording means as it could. If we chose to manipulate it later, then we'd take that step. But there's very little of that. We'd play with it a little bit, and we'd find a sound either with a machine or through the EQ or a subtle effect and run with it. Choices were made pretty quickly. I don't think we really made any mistakes.”
For samplers and drum machines, Dre used the Akai MPC3000 and an E-mu SP1200, while Big Boi's primary machine was the MPC2000XL. “Although they have every version of every one of them ever made, those were the sequencers and drum machines to start,” Frye says. “Occasionally, there was an odd piece that had some kind of rhythmic pattern in it that we'd lock in, but often a lot of things were triggered via the MPC3000 or 2000XL.”
While the usual assortment of OutKast cohorts (Debra Killings, Sleepy Brown, Killer Mike, the Organized Noize production team and Mr. DJ) contributed to this album, Frye reports that hard drives were locked in the Stankonia vaults until guests were recorded at other studios. Dre performed additional recording at Tree Sound in Atlanta to track the songs “She Lives in My Lap” and “Hey Ya”; Norah Jones recorded at Enterprise in Los Angeles for the song “Take Off Your Cool”; and they worked extensively at Larrabee Studios in Los Angeles. Also joining the fray were Jay-Z, Cee-Lo, Goodie Mob, Rosario Dawson, Bun B, Konkrete and Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. “They really put a lot of thought [into] who would be on what song,” Frye reports. “It's not necessarily something that's done just on the spot. They'll really seek somebody out for a particular reason, because of the way something feels or sounds or what they heard on it. On this album, there are actually fewer guest appearances than ever before.”
Asked to describe the recording of a specific song, Frye points to “She Lives in My Lap” on Dre's disc. “It started as a guitar-oriented thing, and when we were laying the original track, it started to take off on its own. One cool thing is that we reversed the multitrack and got the beat to do something else in reverse. So it became a different song, as well,” he says. “Vibrate” was the song that came out of the “She Lives in My Lap” jam. Frye reports that this type of thing is not new to OutKast, noting that the smash hit “Ms. Jackson” from the 2000 release Stankonia was born from a similar situation. “We will try anything,” Frye says. “My biggest thing with being in the room with them is that no matter what they say, the answer is yes. So, ‘Ms. Jackson’ started as one track and we threaded the tape upside down. We're always looking for new textures and sounds to see what things are going to do.”
In addition to engineering, Frye handled most of the mixing within Pro Tools for both albums. Given how Dre and Big Boi worked, much of the mixing took care of itself. The songs on Big's record, Frye reports, went through about four stages: original tracking, vocals and overdubs, a rough mix and the final mix. “We did have to visit the songs a couple of times because the overdubs might be too loud and when you're doing the vocals and hooks, they would be a little more prominent. So, we'd have to simmer it down into the soup that became the real song.”