As someone that listens to pretty much every rap album that comes out these days, after I listened to Drake’s latest opus Scorpion I was struck by how impressive the mixing and mastering is on it. Now it’s no secret that Drake’s secret weapon is his audio engineer, producer and guy Pusha T likes to take cheap shots at, Noah “40” Shebib and it just shows how savvy that partnership has been.
So what makes Drake the gold standard in mixing and mastering as far as modern hip hop goes?
A Fine Balance
The majority of songs on Scorpion have an incredibly balanced mix that pretty much tames any rogue frequencies. There’s not a vocal or any instrumentation that’s out of place on the album and nothing sounds unlistenable. The only misguided mix is surprisingly on Drake’s viral hit “In My Feelings” where the kick drums have been turned up just a tad too loud. Interestingly, this song wasn’t mixed by 40 but by 40’s mentor Noel “Gadget” Campbell.
Unlike the mixes that Mike Dean does for Travis Scott and Kanye West that are purposely over-saturated, Drake’s mixes tend to be as clean as a whistle allowing for Drake’s vocals to effortlessly float above the soundscape.
For example, on “Nonstop” which is basically just a bass line and drums, Drake’s half a sleep sounding vocals turn into a nonchalant show of might. Now to an untrained ear this probably sounds half-assed and pedestrian but the way Drake sounds is an equal product of his own performance as well as his audio engineers ability to drop him with pinpoint accuracy into the pocket of almost any beat.
It also helps there isn’t too much going on in the beat for Drake to hide behind. But trust me, getting an unruly bassline like that to sit with Drake’s vocals is not for the unseasoned audio engineers.
I don’t want to get into the “loudness wars” with anyone (So don’t @ me) but Drake’s music on Scorpion is insanely loud. I measured the levels on “God’s Plan” and it at times it was hitting 1 db. For the majority of artists recording at home and not in a proper recording environment with professional audio engineers I don’t recommend this cause you’re going to hear everything and by that I mean every flaw.
Remember to sound like Drake, you need to be recording on the same equipment as Drake, with the same producers and audio engineers as Drake and in the same room as Drake. You basically need to be Drake to get the Drake sound, otherwise you’ll come off sounding like Tory Lanez (I know cheap shot!).
Also it’s kind of interesting that 40 allowed Drake’s music to get so loud, as one of the nice things about Drake’s So Far Gone was how much headroom it had. I guess that wasn’t done so much intentionally but as practical matter as much of it was recorded in hotel rooms in less than ideal conditions with less than ideal equipment.
I remember talking to 40 when Thank Me Later dropped and he alluded to being disappointed to the mastering on it, particularly in that that album was so loud and how it contrasted with the more natural sound of So Far Gone.
While I wouldn’t say 40’s had a change of heart, it seems now that he’s been able to record Drake in a million dollar studio with all the toys an audio engineer could ask for, he’s adopted the motto of “why not have it loud, if it still sounds good loud?”.
This would be similar to my motto on loudness which is make it only as loud as it sounds good. Audio engineering is a game of minimizing compromises and it seems like Drake’s music from an audio engineering perspective has closed that gap as much as possible.