Jam and Lewis' R&B Engineer, Tremaine Williams, on Mixing with Universal Audio Analog Hardware and UAD Plug-Ins
To describe Tremaine “Six7” Williams as "busy" would be a bit of an understatement. As a longtime engineer for famed production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, he's garnered a total of five GRAMMY nominations in the last five years, winning the Best Contemporary R&B Album GRAMMY in 2011 for his work on Usher’s Raymond v. Raymond. With a long list of mixes for Jill Scott, El Debarge, Ledisi, 50 Cent, Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, and Keyshia Cole under his belt, it’s a safe bet that Tremaine’s phone won't stop ringing any time soon.
We sat down with Tremaine as he reflected on his audio journey, and particularly on how UAD Powered Plug-Ins have furthered his quest for audio perfection.
So where did you grow up – where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina and was there for 18 years until I moved to Florida to go to college at Full Sail University. I eventually moved out to Cali at the end of 2004.
So what kind of musical influences did you have growing up?
I think my musical experience growing up was like the typical household in the South where mom played Luther Vandross every Saturday morning while cleaning up the house [laughs]. I started playing the piano when I was seven, so of course I got to know Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway, and those types of well rounded musicians. I also enjoyed artists that were primarily vocalists, such as Janet Jackson, but as I got older I started to really find out about the production side of things and developed a greater appreciation for guys like Quincy Jones and Jam and Lewis [Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis].
How did you start engineering and producing?
I started producing in high school using a Yamaha DJ X keyboard. Even though it had 16 tracks, I had to play everything live for the whole duration of the song. It also got me tighter with my quantization because I had no choice but to play in time, since I couldn’t rely on the sequencer to do it for me [laughs].
My in-house production had eventually migrated to a DAW and as I realized what engineering really was, I felt compelled to dive deeper into it.
So it sounds like the engineering came as a natural byproduct of your musical background…
Yeah. By being a musician and producer I knew I had developed a good ear for music, and I feel that’s why engineering came naturally to me. In turn, my engineering made me into a better producer because it eventually put me in a position to work with a wide variety of high-profile producers and learn from them.
So how did you end up in California?
Well it’s kinda funny. My uncle made a deal with me; as a graduation gift I was able to pick anywhere in the country and live there for six months while having my rent paid for.
I started by looking for an internship, so I hit up Hidden Beach records – a label whose artists were from Philly. I started on their street team/intern program and after speaking with head of the intern program, I was offered an unpaid intern position at their office, which turned out to be in Cali.
So I found a spot a week before I graduated and I ended up moving out there.
So you just finished a four-year stint at Flyte Tyme studios, which is owned by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. How did all of that come about?
The Grammys have an annual summer camp and I spent a summer working there as a counselor for the music production and audio engineering students. One of the field trips for the students that August was to go on a tour of Flyte Tyme studios. Things were hectic that day, so as a result, I ended up being in charge of the students during the trip. My supervisor told me who to call when I got there, and that person ended up being Jam and Lewis’ assistant. At that point it’s looking like I’m the one in charge, so while waiting for Jam to get there, we started talking. She asked me, “So what do you do besides this summer counseling gig?” After I told her that I engineer and produce, we exchanged our contact information.
I hadn’t heard back from her until December, during the week I had went home for Christmas. She had called me literally the day I had got there and said that she had a Jennifer Hudson session that she needed me to come do because “they wanted to try me out.” It was heartbreaking when I told her that I had just arrived in North Carolina and I didn’t have any money to fly back to LA on such short notice. She told me it was cool and to let her know when I would return so we could try something out at a later date.
I got back and didn’t hear anything from her until February – which was Grammy week. When she called me, all she pretty much said was, “Meet me at this address, at this time.” I get there and find myself in the middle of the Grammy rehearsal for The Time and Rihanna. That ended up being my first engineering and teching gig for Flyte Tyme … the first Time reunion in 20 something years! Basically I had no idea what I was walking into [laughs].
Things went really well, I caught Terry and Jam’s attention and as a result, they tried me out in the studio the following week. My first session with them was a Ruben Studdard song for American Idol. I did the choir, strings, and it was a wrap after that.
I worked there for four years, and I believe everything happens for a reason. It was Grammy Camp that originally put me in that position, so the next year while I was working at Flyte Tyme I came back to be at Grammy Camp as a staff member so that I could give back!
So your audio journey has taken you to Atlanta as well. How has that been going?
The Atlanta trips have been entertaining. I’ve been working with IamDanielMoore and “Big Jim” Wright. We’ve been working on BET’s Sunday Best, and the new reality show featuring Faith Evans called R&B Divas.
I’ve co-produced one or two joints on Daniel’s album in addition to engineering the whole thing. We also worked on former Sunday Best contestant Jessica Reedy’s debut album, which ended up #1 on the Gospel Billboard charts. It’s fun because Big Jim is originally from Flyte Tyme, so it’s an automatic comfort level. Plus he respects what I do as an engineer and lets me do my thing.
How would you describe your engineering style?
I have my “sound,” so I’ve been told. But at the same time I try to go back and listen to the artists’ earlier records so that I can see what they consistently sound like – that way I’m not too far off from what their fans are accustomed to hearing. I wouldn’t want to scare them away [laughs].
So now on to the gear. What’s your favorite console to work on?
I love the SSL AWS 900. They actually had five in the Flyte Tyme building thanks to an endorsement deal they have with SSL.
So you do all your automation with the console?
Yeah, that’s what the AWS is made for — making life easy!
So do you prefer tracking with hardware, then mixing with the plug-ins?
Yeah I definitely like to. I like to run vocals through the GML 2020. And, of course, when I do live drums I use straight hardware. I go to the Empirical Labs Distressor, the Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier, etc.
Interesting that you use the LA-2A on drums…
I usually use it on the kick. It works great, especially for the kind of music I do. The Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier makes it feel good to the point that usually all that is needed is just a little bit of EQ from the board before doing the rest with the UAD Powered Plug-Ins.
“If I don’t have a particular piece of hardware, then it’s all right because I have this [UAD] plug-in that sounds damn near just like it.”
What is your top three list of mics that you use for tracking?
I go to the Brauner VM1, I love an AKG C12 modded with a C414 capsule.
That’s right I remember you saying that was your favorite mic to use on Chaka Khan.
Yeah that’s right. I also love the U47. We used the U47 on El Debarge on one of his songs. It didn’t make the album but — oh my gosh — it sounded so good! The rest of the time we used the C12 on El.
Okay so now that we knocked out mics. What is the "top three preamplifier" list looking like?
I’m dead set on that GML; that’s what I’ve been using for the last three years on every vocalist that’s come through. I’ve used the GML on every single thing.
What EQ? Do you track vocals using an EQ?
Nah, I like to track flat to give me options. I’ll of course roll off some low end but it’s very rare.
I can understand because you’re generally dealing with good rooms and mics…
Yeah, I like it flat.
What about compression?
Hmmm. GML. Then I usually go in the box with the dbx® 160 Compressor / Limiter Plug-In.
Do you also use the hardware version as well?
Yeah, and the third compressor I like to use is the Universal Audio 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifier.
So, have you always been working with Pro Tools or have you been using other audio applications as well?
I started on Cakewalk Sonar at my mom’s crib, and that’s what put my mindset somewhere else, due to being able to chop files digitally. It was definitely a big step up from when I was a kid and it all made sense when I got older.
I went to Pro Tools in college and messed with Logic for a little bit. Now I’m back to pretty much Pro Tools and I’ll hop in Logic every once in a while.
So you prefer mixing with software?
At this point it depends on the situation but generally, yeah, because the deadlines are getting tight for the artists I work with, so I don’t have time to go and patch in a bunch of outboard gear. It’s like “click, click, click” — get it done in a day or two. A lot of the material I find myself working on lately has been “due yesterday” type stuff.
What is it about the UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins that has made them your go-to software solution for mixing?
Man, because they sound great! If I don’t have a particular piece of hardware, then it’s all right because I have this plug that sounds damn near just like it. Also I only have one hardware LA-2A, so if I use that on the kick, then what am I gonna do? I’m going to click and grab another one! UAD Powered Plug-Ins give you more options because you can have it on multiple sources. To simply put it, they work great!
The first time I was hanging with you at Flyte Tyme, you mentioned that it is not uncommon for you to have the FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor Plug-In on the master bus.
Man, the FATSO is my favorite plug-in. The only way I can describe it is amazing.
So, when mixing with the UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins do you find yourself using presets?
Absolutely. I haven’t initially been the biggest preset fan, but I always try them out to see where they will put you, and sometimes it’s just off the wall!
Yeah, I remember you telling me about a particular preset that you especially liked that the FATSO offered.
Yeah the ‘warmth’ joint — warmifyer — on there. I’m amazed at how it can put you right where you want to be. Of course you gotta tweak it but the preset alone can kill half the work for you.
Besides the FATSO, what are some of your other favorite UAD Plug-Ins?
Do you tend to have a preferred method for mixing or do you approach every song differently?
As a musician first, I feel that I always have to start with the drums. I also play drums as well. After getting the drums right, I slowly push everything up from there.
Basically you’re all about getting the rhythm section right first and foremost.
Yeah, because that’s the meat and potatoes of everything. Then I go to keys because I play those as well. I like to do it the way I have them playing in my head – then after that, I’ll get to the strings, then synths, horns, and whatever else is in that particular session.
You save the vocals for later then?
Yeah the vocals are at the end because they just need to sit perfectly, once everything else is good.
In a UA interview with Michael Brauer, he stated that it’s always his goal to get a groove going in the mix within the first 15 minutes.
Yeah that’s where everything originates from, because the vocals aren’t going to sit right if the groove isn’t right. So after starting with the meat and potatoes of a mix, the vocals are like the dessert on top.
So you were saying in an earlier discussion that after you’ve achieved a final mix you’d bounce it to tape?
Yeah, half-inch. I’ll run final mixes through a Studer before it gets sent it off to mastering.
So your former place of employment, Flyte Tyme Studios, there’s a lot of history there. Who were some of the notable artists that you encountered during a day at the office?
Janet Jackson,of course — that was fun doing records with her. I’ve worked with Chaka Khan a countless amount of times. Let’s see… 50 Cent…
Yeah definitely must be cool to have such an assortment of characters come through at any given time…
There were so many people that came through there, man. It’s even current guys like Hit-Boy (Jay-Z, Kanye, Usher), Boi-1da and T-Minus — the cats that did all the Drake stuff — and Polo Da Don, who came in when we did American Idol. Harvey Mason from the Underdogs came in not that long ago; I’ve worked with some of everybody.
Speaking of making the most of it, what are you working on now or have coming up?
Towards the end of last year I began moving into the world of TV and Film, and had music placed on the Kim Kardashian wedding special, “Bad Girls Club”, as well as various episodes of MTV’s Real World. I also have a song I produced and mixed called, “Said N Done” by an artist named Lina, which is being used in an upcoming BET film called Gun Hill starring Larenz Tate. I just scored my first film called The Last Fall, which is doing extremely well in the film festival circuit this year. On the album side, Lina, N’dambi, Amber Riley and Noel Gourdin. Lastly, I’m the Pro Tools operator for BET’s Sunday Best and Apollo Live.
Additionally, I just finished work on a Soul/R&B album from a group called Kindred Family Soul. The album is called Love Has No Recession.
Looks like folks will be seeing a lot more of you. Thanks for your time!
No problem man!
Photos By: David Goggin.
— Sean 'Brycen' Bryson