Mixer David Reitzas shares an inside look at mixing The Weeknd's hit song "Earned it" from the "Fifty Shades of Grey" Soundtrack
How did you end up mixing “Earned It” by The Weeknd?
Stephan Moccio, the producer and co-writer of “Earned It” hired me over the summer on the recommendation of David Foster to mix a big project that he composed for the Canadian Hockey League. This was a huge project and I humbly kicked ass for him. When he got the gig for The Weeknd’s song for Fifty Shades of Grey, he called me to ask if I would mix it for him. It’s because of the professionalism that I exhibited on the CHL project that he felt confident in having me mix “Earned It.”
How did you prepare for mixing the track?
Fortunately, Stephan was still working on the tracking up to the last minute before mixing. I was able to go by his studio and help him with the last few overdubs. His engineer Jay Paul Bicknell did an excellent rough mix. I took an MP3 and walked around the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica listening over and over to that rough while mentally preparing exactly what I wanted to do with the mix.
What input did you get as you started digging into the mix?
Stephan and I talked a lot about his vision of the song. He wanted it to be sexy and passionate. The Weeknd nailed his vocal performance, so the main objective was to shine the spotlight on his voice. The Weeknd wasn’t able to be at the studio, but I sent him a “Mix In Progress” at about 2 AM after working all day on the mix. He called us back and loved it! He only wanted me to raise a few words in a few spots, but other than that, he was thrilled at the way it came out!
What was your mixing workflow like?
As I mentioned, I listened a lot to the rough mix so that I could visualize exactly what I wanted to do from the moment I walked into the studio to start mixing. I mixed the song in Studio C at Westlake Studios in Hollywood. Because they were on an extremely tight deadline, I only had one day to mix The Weeknd song. I did a lot of my pre-mix homework by learning as much as I could about The Weeknd, studied the demos to make sure I didn't lose the vibe; and gathered a bunch of my samples and sound FX that I thought would work in the song.
For "Earned It", I started mixing with the drums, bass, and vocals only. Used some samples to augment the drums, re-amped the original snare feeding it into an Aurotone speaker to my real upside-down Ludwig snare in the live room; did a few cymbal overdubs; and added transitions using reverse sounds. I also used the hardware SPL Transient Designer on some kicks and snares, and I had a pair of Distressors that I used sparingly for parallel compression. I also did some cymbal overdubs in the chorus’.
What gear was used?
Vocals went through NTI EQ3's and DBX 902 De-Essers; no compression—just fader rides in and out of the box. PCM 42's for delays, and Spatializer for that 'in your face' sound. FX were a combination of Bricasti, AMS, and Eventide. Backing vocals had combinations of Waves RVox and console EQ. I was working on the mix later in the day without the lead vocal in, but I had up some of the vocal FX and delays. When the song was ending and I just had up the distorted vocal effect, it became crystal clear that that's the way the song had to end. It was an unintentional happy accident to have only the distorted vocals during the fade.
Then I spent time working on the piano (live), bass (live), guitar (live), and wurlitzer (sample). I didn't use that much compression on anything, but automated some of the EQ and levels ITB, and did some cutting and pasting of some parts to make the bridge drive hard. 95% of the dynamics in my mixing comes from me pushing the faders on the SSL. Not only do I think this makes it sound better, but it also allows me to treat the console as an instrument and “play” the console from the heart in real time. This is where my adrenaline is pumping like crazy and I am “mixing” with emotion. It may sound strange, but from the first time I heard the song, and throughout the mixing progress, I felt that the strongest parts of the song were not in the actual sounds, but in the space between the sounds. The “air” between the notes was exactly where I felt the “sexy” lived, and it was so important for me to make that my mission.
Strings were the most fun. Had to keep it big and warm; so finding the right FX, EQ, and balance between the marcato, pizzicato, and tremolo strings took some experimenting. I used a combination of the Bricasti M7, DSP 4000, TC M5000, and AMS reverbs. For EQ's, it was MAAG EQ4's and iZotope Ozone plugs. Plus some SSL 9K console EQ. The whole time I was mixing the song, my mantra was "This is a 'f@#king' song… Make it SEXY"! I only wished it was a longer song.
There are lots of other small things going on in the mix, but that's pretty much the basics above. Hats off to Stephan Moccio for a fantastic production, and to his engineer Jay Paul Bicknell for some great recording!
Which iZotope products did you use and why?
At the time of this mix, the latest plug-in from iZotope was Ozone 6 which I used on my stereo buss along with the Brainworx Hybrid 2.0. After I finish the mix on the console, I send the output of the console through an SPL PassEq and then into an aux input in Pro Tools where I have the Brainworx and Ozone. Then I print stems of each of the individual instruments and vocals without the aux plug-ins. After the stems are printed, I can feed them back through the plug-ins so that the stem mix will equal the console mix and I can still make minor tweaks from the stems.
I also used iZotope RX to clean up some extraneous noises that I found on a few tracks.
When you're looking for a track to sound "sexy," what does that mean to you from a mixing perspective?
Sexy to me means that the vocal should be the most intimate part of the mix. Every little nuance should be featured, especially the breaths. The breathing of a vocalist is where the sex comes from in the delivery of a vocal line. Also, as I mentioned, it’s the space in between the notes that gives me goose-bumps! It just creates so much depth and width to my mixes.
“Earned It” was a huge hit. What do you think connected with people so much about that song?
The cool thing about “Earned It” was that the time signature was in ¾. Not your typical rhythm for a pop ballad. Plus, the vibe of the strings added so much classiness to the production. Stephan really outdid himself with his choice of instruments in the arrangement. He’s also a fantastic piano player and I loved the minimalist approach he took in his playing.
The Weeknd also sang such an incredible heartfelt performance. He has a very unique sound when he doubles his vocals. It’s just so smooth!
What advice would you have to people mixing R&B?
Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics! The vocals and the backbeat are the boss. I love reverb when it’s not overwhelming or distracting from the vocal. The reverb should hug the vocal and be the frame for the masterpiece, without competing for the attention. The Bricasti M7 does exactly this and I recommend that everyone get one and use it.
What advice would you give to aspiring engineer producer types?
Mix with the heart and not with the brain. It’s okay to use your left brain when preparing for the mix, but when you actually get your fingers on the faders, it has to be from the heart. I memorize the vocal performance and the lyrics and I sing along as I’m mixing; so important!