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Nailing the Tone for Post Malone

Nailing the Tone for Post Malone

Producer Louis Bell on Creating #1 Hits with UAD and Apollo

Hip-hop artists tend to be big personalities, and few are bigger or more buzzed-about than 23-year-old Austin Post, aka Post Malone — the wily, smack-talkin’, weed-smokin’ young firebrand whose #1 hits “Congratulations” and “Rockstar” have turned the worlds of both pop and hip-hop on their collective heads. Part of Malone’s magic is that, along with an effortlessly laid-back rapping style, he can really sing and play.

Tasked with capturing and processing his vocals, along with production and co-writing, is 36-year-old Boston native Louis Bell, whose own string of successes — among them DJ Snake’s massive 2016 hit “Let Me Love You,” and Camila Cabello’s crossover hit “Havana”— reveal a savvy, well-informed producer, able to get feet tapping and heads nodding without sacrificing a nuanced, layered approach to sonics.

We caught up with Bell just as Post Malone’s second album, the 18-song epic
 Beerbongs & Bentleys, was owning the Billboard charts, with the instantly likeable “Psycho,” sitting right at — where else? — #1.

"I ask myself, how far can I take a sound in terms of effects or distortion, while still keeping it relevant and appropriate to the song?" – Louis Bell

Congratulations on the immense success of Beerbongs & Bentleys.

Thank you. It took two years to get everything just right. We started working on it toward the end of the Stoney era, [Malone’s 2016 debut] so it was a big deal finally getting it all done. We really believed in the record and we knew that it was going to be different and not pandering to the trends.

Is it true that you use only an Apollo Twin as both your interface and preamp for vocals?

Yeah, I keep it very simple. I start with the Sony C800 microphone, which is what I use for most vocalists I work with, unless they request their own mic. I connect that via XLR to the back of the Apollo Twin, and I’m just using the preamp that’s built into the Twin. I want to make sure that I can change the color of the vocal sound after the take, or tweak it if the singer requests something different from whatever we’ve printed on the vocal track in Pro Tools.

Why does that flow work so well for you?

I had certain plug-ins I’d use on my vocal chain for years, but once I discovered UAD plug-ins, I found it became really easy to get results. Suddenly, I didn’t need to tweak all that much to get a good vocal sound. UAD plug-ins get right to the point.

Everyone assumes I use all this outboard gear, but one of the things I love about the Apollo Twin and UAD plug-ins, is that I can get incredible sounds on the go, in a hotel room if I have to.

I also like the stability of the Apollo Twin — outboard gear has good days and bad days, or you suddenly need to replace a tube. If I’m trying to finish a record, and suddenly there’s an issue with the gear, that’s a big problem. That’s not going to happen with Apollo Twin.

"Once I discovered UAD plug-ins, I found it became really easy to get results."
– Louis Bell

You’re also able to stay in the artistic zone.

Yes. When I’m working with singers, I can’t afford to have any down time, because those creative juices can dry up pretty quickly. I need tools that are consistent and reliable.

What UAD plug-ins do you use after you've tracked the vocal?

For vocals, the 1176 Compressor is a go-to for me, because it gives the vocals a certain attack and a roundness, along with a nice warmth, that just immediately makes my job easier. I’ll also use the Neve 1073 or the API 550A or 550B plug-ins in a vocal chain.

On vocal ad-libs, I really like the Brigade Chorus Pedal. I tweak the input control to give the vocals a "not your typical," in the background sound. Instead of just putting reverb on them, I like to give them some extra flavor and a unique quality, something to differentiate them from the lead vocal.

A really cool tool that I also love is the Sonnox Oxford Inflator. Throw that on vocals and you can press them to the point where they have a brightness and a volume that you can’t get with any other effect.

"I want to squeeze as much as I can out of each sound, so that I don’t have to use 20 sounds to make the track interesting. Especially if one or two, fully exploited, will do just as well." – Louis Bell

How do you make space for parts in a dense mix?

To be honest, I’m tempted to use the Cambridge EQ on absolutely everything, because almost every sound can be improved with it, by clearing out a little space in the frequency spectrum.

It’s like organizing furniture in your living room; you can always carve out more space around each piece by nudging things just an inch this way or that, so you’re not stepping on yourself and every piece has some air around it.

What do you use on your master bus?

I love the Shadow Hills Mastering plug-in. In the final stages, it glues everything together. The Precision Multiband helps me do that too, especially on the master bus; it’s really helpful when you can actually see as well as hear the way you’re attenuating each specific frequency band.

Post Malone’s one-billion streamed “Psycho," co-written by Louis Bell, from the album Beerbongs & Bentleys.

The low-end is really impressive on your records: meaty, gritty and subby, but very much part of the overall mix, and never swallowing the instruments.

Thanks. For low-end, I love the bx_Subsynth Subharmonic Synthesizer by Brainworx, which is great at adding low-end to kick drums if there’s no actual 808 there or a natural sub creator. The bx_subsynth gives you a really clean, driving kick and bass tone that’s not distracting to the overall mix — and you can even focus it only on the middle channel without affecting the left and right sides of your mix — but it still adds a lot of beef.

Bass is tricky; especially with hip-hop, you want a lot of bass in there, but at the same time you don’t want it to eat up the whole track, or the whole stereo field. You have to find a happy medium, and the bx_subsynth is pretty amazing at that.

It’s funny, if you soloed the bass on a lot of my tracks, you might think it sounded distorted and over saturated, but in the mix, those are the exact things that allow the bass to cut through. People sometimes imagine the bass should sound all nice on its own, but you need that lion roar to make it cut through all the other instruments.

"If you hear a certain sound in your head, you should never settle for less than that."
– Louis Bell

Your productions have strong chord progressions, not just static bassline vamps like a lot of harder hip-hop music. I’m even hearing proper keyboard-style slash chords, like F/A in some of the songs.

The goal with hip-hop has often been more about creating a kind of musical discomfort, or even a cacophony. When you analyze the music, you do wonder how it even all works, at least in terms of traditional harmony. There can be a real genius in that, because it’s very instinctive.

Post has been playing guitar for years, and I’ve been playing piano for years, so collectively, we can create the music beds pretty easily because of our background and our understanding of how music moves. But we also try to have fun while we’re doing it, we go with our instincts when it comes to getting ideas, and we see where that takes us, what kind of song it becomes as we work it. Post is a young guy who knows exactly what he’s doing, and is so aware of what he likes.

Describe the collaboration process with Post on a track like “Psycho” or “Candy Paint.”

Those tracks are a good example of Post getting the beats and vibe together at home in Fruity Loops. He’ll send me the basic elements, and I ask myself, “How can I make his vision sound as clear as possible, and what musical elements can I add to develop it? How do I get the best song out of it?”

That’s a really fun process. I know that if I’m feeling something, he’s going to feel it, because we have a very similar musical barometer for what we like, and similarly eclectic tastes. It’s a big advantage when you’re not dealing with competing visions for a project where you can get stuck in a cycle of compromising, and no one’s really enjoying it. Happily, that’s not the case with us.

Louis Bell tweaking his Apollo Twin and fine tuning with a batch of UAD plug-ins.

While the vocal is always very much front-and-center in your work with Post Malone, DJ Snake and others, there are invariably lots of nuanced layers of production — tucked-in synths, background vocals, and lots of reverbs and delays working together.

There are always layers in my work, but at the same time, I want the average listener who may not really understand music at all, to enjoy the songs on a purely surface level.

I can throw in additional elements that aren’t distracting to that listener, while also adding things that a more sophisticated listener can appreciate. I also think layering gives these tracks much more replay value, because people may not notice all those layers the first few times they listen.

On tracks like Post Malone’s “Candy Paint” or DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You,” you make a few elements sound like a fairly large, orchestrated production. How do you do that?

Those synth parts on “Candy Paint” are an interesting example. The trick with that song was “enveloping.” If you can low pass those pads at the right moments, then release the low pass, much as a DJ would do it, you can make the track sound like it’s doing way more than it’s actually doing.

During the verses it can sound more mellow, but when the hook comes in, you don’t have to add more elements. You can just filter or unfilter things you already have going. And then they’ll suddenly pop out like you’re introducing something brand new.

“Candy Paint” works because you don’t have 18 elements all happening at once. Using lush pads, you get a lot of space in the mix, so you can hit the drums a lot harder underneath them to produce a nice contrast. That’s what gives “Candy Paint” what I’d call an “urban easy-listening” vibe.

What advice do you have for young producers and writers crafting their own approach to recording and building tracks?

You know, I have a 20TB drum and sound library that I’ve been collecting and tweaking since 1999. And I make sure to devote entire days where all I do is organize all my sounds. That’s immensely important. If your library is well organized, and you know exactly where sounds, and families of sounds, are located, then you’re more able to be a pure creator. If you hear a certain sound in your head, you should never settle for less than that. You should find that exact sound.

Artists are always impressed that I can find a sound in seconds. They want to be writing and working — they don’t want to sit there while you try to dial in a sound for a half‑hour.

Ultimately, you have to be organized. I think of it like this; the artist is driving down the street, trying to get somewhere, and I’m building the road in front of them — as they drive — anticipating their changes of direction. So I need to move quick. Because if they run out of road, they fall off a cliff. I’m not going to let that happen.

— James Rotondi

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