RAC on crafting a remix and getting a tight mixdown

RAC once stood for “Remix Artist Collective,” but now it’s the solo project of André Allen Anjos.

What started as a remix-focused project (he’s remixed for over 200 artists, including the likes of Lady Gaga, Bloc Party, Lana Del Rey, and Ella Fitzgerald to name a few) has now branched into a wildly successful pop endeavor. RAC has produced music for ads for the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Delta, released on Interscope and Ninja Tune, and won his first Grammy in 2017 for Best Remixed Recording. We sat down with the multi-talent to discuss gear, his mixdown process, and how he crafts his signature remixes.

To start, do you mind giving us a rundown of your current studio setup? Within the box, what DAWs, plugins, and VSTs do you typically gravitate towards? Externally, what kind of synths/interfaces/outboard gear or instruments are incorporated in your setup?

I’m currently using a hybrid analog/digital system. Internally, I’m using Ableton Live 10 with a custom template that I’ve been building for the past 5 years. It’s run on a MacPro but most of the heavy lifting is done through UAD DSP. I’m a big fan of Goodhertz, especially the Vulf Compressor, in addition to Soundtoys, Native Instruments, etc. I have a few UA Apollo 16 units that give me 50+ channels of I/O and 12 DSP cores. Basically, I can run as many UAD plugins as I want. Externally, I’m running multiple hardware compressors – Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph for drums, Alesis 3630 (Daft Punk comp) for percussion, and the API 2500 for my 2bus.

I rarely use internal plugins for sound generation, so I have a lot of outboard synthesizers. The Roland Juno-60 is probably the most notable example. I use it on almost every track. I also use the Korg MS-10, Yamaha DX7, Univox MiniKorg, Minimoog, and Roland Boutique series (JP-08, JX-03, JU-06). I also have a fairly large modular synth system for more experimental work. For drum machines, I’m using the Roland TR-808, Arturia DrumBrute, and Korg Volca Beats. For electric keys, I’m using a Wurlitzer 200e, Fender Rhodes 54, and Yamaha CP-70 Piano.

All of this hardware is plugged into a central patchbay, which I can easily route into a collection of preamps. I’m using a Chandler TG-2, 1073, API 512c, and a bunch of UA 610s. I’m obsessed with anything tube or vintage. Software preamp emulation has come a long way in the past 10 years but I still like having the original machine.

Vocals play a heavy part in your originals. Can you talk a bit about your process both working with vocalists during the writing process and recording and mixing your vocal takes? What techniques do you use to get a good performance out of a vocalist? What is your effect rack and chain when you’re processing vocal recordings? In your remix work, what do you use for chopping up vocals?

It’s a bit all over the place as each song is unique. Most of the time I’m working in the same room with another artist and we’re coming up with melodies and ideas on top of a bed of music. The writing process doesn’t usually generate a final vocal recording so I don’t stress too much about that. I see it as pre-production for the actual recording. I’m lucky in the sense that I’m usually working with very professional singers that know what they’re doing. They usually exhibit a degree of self-editing that I don’t need to intervene on. Given that I’m doing most of the heavy lifting on the instrumental side, I’d prefer to give them room to be creative and comfortable. There are many times where these songs are written remotely and that usually involves some basic emailing back and forth. It’s not that glamorous haha.

As far as mic quality, I usually go for a Neumann U87 at a minimum. Preferably a 1073 or another high-quality preamp. My whole ethos is to capture it as well as I possibly can on the way in, and then I don’t need to spend a lot of time fixing things after. There are songs that were captured with a simple SM57, so it’s not a strict rule.

As far as remixing, I actually like to keep the vocal somewhat intact. Even the basic structure of the song is usually the same. Maybe I’ll lengthen the bridge to make it more impactful when the last chorus hits, but I hold back on any significant edits to the original vocal. I’d rather work around it. I’m very picky about getting dry vocals though. There’s nothing worse than getting a vocal file that’s drenched in reverb. It’s one of the main reasons why certain tracks sound “remixed.” It’s because the FX don’t match up.

Live instrumentation like guitars play a big element in your tracks. Can you tell us a bit about your guitar setup? Do you do everything in-the-box (VSTs, effects, etc.), or do you have a traditional guitar-pedals-amp setup? If the latter, what does your guitar rig look like? What kind of mics are you using for your amps?

I have a home studio in an apartment, so volume is always something I have to consider. Not just for my neighbours, but for my wife’s sanity haha. My guitar setup reflects that. I currently have 3 main guitar amps – the Fender Reverb Deluxe Head, Roland Jazz Chorus 120H, and my secret weapon, Vox AC4. These are all running into an Ampeg System Selector that runs into a Rivera SilentSister Isolation Cabinet. This basically means that I can easily switch in between amps and have them all running into my iso cab. This severely dampens the loudness of an amp and allows for cleaner recording. Inside the iso cab, I have a Shure SM7 and a modded Shure SM57. I used the boiling method to mod my 57. By boiling it, you remove the glue holding the transformer inside and it gives it a slightly warmer/vintage tone. The downside is that it no longer has phantom power protection, so that’s something to consider. I have a substantial guitar pedal collection that I have rack-mounted and plugged into a patchbay for quick switching. This way I can easily try out different FX.

I’m mostly using my childhood Gibson SG. I just know it very well and I have the tone dialed in. I will sometimes use other guitars with different tunings to save time.

When crafting a remix, how do you think about changing compositional elements like chord progressions or structure? Do you apply concepts like reharmonization when thinking about this, or do you have a more intuitive approach?

I’d say that most of it is intuitive, but sometimes I’ll actually think about the theory behind it. I’ll solo the vocal and improvise underneath it with a guitar. This allows me to get a lot of different ideas down quickly even if I’m not gonna use a guitar sound. As long as you stay within the same key, it’s usually fine. I do have a lot of fun trying out a song in a relative minor, if the original is in a major key. It changes the feel and sometimes gives more meaning to the lyrics. When you solo out the vocal, it gives you room to forget about the original and just try different ideas without a lot of the baggage. Ultimately it’s about the song, not about what that band is “supposed” to sound like.

Lastly, your mixes are watertight and minimal without a single sound out of place. What do you recommend to new producers who typically throw every sound (and the kitchen sink) into their tracks? How do you keep yourself from overthinking while creating and learning to tighten tracks up during mixdowns?

This is something that comes with doing this for a long time. The reality is that the average person can only process maybe 2 or 3 melodies at one given time. Especially on a first listen. I focus on those core ideas and then simply layer tons of sounds with that same melody – by doing so, I can achieve the complexity that I want without sacrificing texture and nuance. I think of them as compound sounds. I might use a DX7, a minimoog and a Korg MS10 on the same melody, but when they’re all combined together it becomes something new. This way they’re not competing for attention, they’re working together. That’s a trap that a lot of young producers fall into because they’ve been hearing the same track for 40 hours already. In that context, a new melody sounds good, but will likely be too busy for a first listen. There’s room for complexity in all of this, but you have to apply it to the right places. I’m always trying to imagine what that first impression is going to sound like.

Check out RAC’s high-fidelity sounds in his first sample pack, “Loop Pack Vol. 1.”

July 2, 2018

Ken Herman Ken Herman is a producer under the name Exitpost and is an editor of the Splice blog.