MIX MASTERS: BIEBER’S DESPACITO
How Josh Gudwin mixed the most streamed song in history on a laptop during an airport layover.
Story: Paul Tingen
Artist: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber
I’ve got a new line to add to the biggest hit of the Summer: Despacito es un gran éxito. Whether you’re singing it in Spanish or English, Despacito is a huge hit. It was already a massive Spanish language success when two Puerto Ricans, singer Luis Fonsi and rapper Daddy Yankee (who both co-wrote the song with Panamanian singer/songwriter Erika Ender), released it in January. Then when the part-English language version received the Midas touch from Justin Bieber, it turned into a record breaker.
It’s been at number one in over 40 countries, and at the time of writing still holds its place there weeks and months later. In Australia it spent 14 weeks at number one on the ARIA singles chart, and 15 weeks at the top of the US Billboard singles charts. Already last July, Despacito was declared the most-streamed song in history, and just recently broke a record for the most weeks at number one on the Billboard streaming chart, sticking there for 15 weeks. It’s been so extraordinarily successful that it has reportedly increased tourism to Puerto Rico this year by a staggering 45%!
Bieber’s astonishing high-profile run as a featured guest singer started in 2016, after the success of his fourth album, Purpose. Since then Bieber’s involvement helped propel Major Lazer’s Cold Water, DJ Snake’s Let Me Love You, DJ Khaled’s I’m The One, and most recently, David Guetta’s 2U to the top of the charts. Josh Gudwin was the main engineer, mixer and album producer on Purpose, and was at Bieber’s side to record and produce the singer’s vocals in each guest appearance. Gudwin calls these collaborations “strategic planning,” that help keep Bieber in the public eye. It’s worked, because Bieber’s name hasn’t left the top of the singles charts.
ABOUT JOSH GUDWIN
For a long time Josh Gudwin wrote and played music as a hobby, mostly playing guitar. He spent some time in the Marines, and it wasn’t until after this — when he went to college in Miami, Dade and a teacher suggested he make a career out of music — that he took it seriously. He attended Florida’s Full Sail University for a year in 2005/6 and then moved to LA to pursue a career as an engineer and mixer. His first step was to be an intern at Track Record Studios, then an assistant engineer at the Record Plant, where he worked with songwriter Esther Dean. He later worked for two years with top vocal producer Kuk Harrell. A recording session with Justin Bieber in 2010 changed Gudwin’s career path, and he has worked on almost every Bieber release since.
When he’s not working with Bieber, Gudwin is engineering, (vocal) producing and mostly mixing for others. He currently works from his own room at Henson Studios in LA, where he monitors using ATC SMC25A, Yamaha NS10s and little Bose Freestyle speakers.
Gudwin’s gear at his studio in Henson:
Conversion: Avid HD IO 8x8x8, Apogee Symphony 16 I/O, BURL B2.
Outboard: SPL Mix Dream summing mixer, Bricasti, Neve 1073, API 3124, Altec 1566a, Dolby 740, Retro 176, 2 x Tube-Tech CL1b, Crane Song Avocet.
HIGH FLYING IDEAS
According to Gudwin, all Bieber’s collaborations manifested in a different way. In the case of his and Bieber’s ‘remix’ of Despacito the process embodied the epitome of 21st century album-making — Gudwin edited and mixed it on a laptop, with just an expansion chassis and headphones while flying across the world, sending files back and forth via the Internet. The entire process — from first phone call on April 11 to the remix release — took a mere six days! From his mix room at Henson recording studios, Gudwin retraced one of the most intense weeks of his already extraordinarily busy music career, which started with a phone call from Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, just as Gudwin was preparing to go on holiday.
Josh Gudwin: “Last April, Justin was on tour in South America and heard the song. He really liked it and wanted to do a remix. When he got to Columbia he called Scooter, and on Tuesday, April 11th, Scooter called me, saying: ‘Have you heard from Justin? He needs you to cut this remix for him.’ I asked whether it could wait until Monday when I’d be back from a short holiday I had booked at Parrot Cay Resort, on the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. The answer was, ‘please go to Bogota tonight if you can.’ So I took a 3am flight from LA to Bogota, took a nap after I arrived, and went straight to Estudios Audiovision to meet Justin.”
Back in LA, while Gudwin was on his way to Bogota, Jason ‘Poo Bear’ Boyd, one of Bieber’s main writing collaborators on Purpose, was working on the melody and lyrics for Bieber’s contribution to Despacito. By the time Gudwin and Bieber arrived in Audiovision, the vocal producer and mixer had received Boyd’s outlines for Bieber to work with, as well as an instrumental version of Despacito — Bieber and Gudwin were ready to go.
“I always travel with my laptop and an expansion chassis with HDX and UAD cards, which fits in a small duffle bag,” explained Gudwin. “I plugged my laptop into the studio’s I/O and looked around Audiovision for mics and mic pres. They had some nice vintage mics there, and I picked a Neumann U47, a Neve 1081 mic pre and a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor to record JB with. It’s a chain I also used to record his vocals on Purpose. Justin and I then worked on the parts, with help from Juan Felipe Samper, who coached him with his Spanish pronunciation. After four hours we were done. I went back to the hotel, comped the vocal, did some last-minute bounces for Justin, so he could listen to what we had done, checked out of the hotel, and flew to Miami, on my way to Turks and Caicos.”
The recording session in Bogota was only the start of Gudwin’s work on the remix of Despacito. Next up were re-arranging and remixing the song, all of which he did while he continued to be on the road. Gudwin is an eminent vocal producer, who has studied with the great Kuk Harrell (Mary J Blige, Rihanna, Celine Dion), but for logistical reasons he sent the vocal comp of Bieber’s vocals to Chris ‘Tek’ O’Ryan, an engineer who also has a stellar reputation as one of the world’s foremost vocal producers, and who specialises in vocal tuning for the likes of Bieber, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige, Ciara and Mariah Carey. Fitting Bieber’s comped and tuned vocals in with the track also involved some re-arranging work. For this, Gudwin worked with a stem version of the original mix session by Jaycen Joshua.
“I had a five-hour lay-over at Miami International airport before my connecting flight to Parrot Cay,” revealed Gudwin, so while I was waiting in the American Airlines lounge I completed re-arranging the track and mixed it. I was working on my laptop with the expansion chassis, and on Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones, which sound great. I didn’t record any instruments for the remix. I adjusted the levels of some of the instrumental parts and needed to arrange and mute parts of the original vocals to make space for Justin. The beginning of the song belonged to him. I also turned up the levels of some stems, like the guitars and the timbales, using clip gain. I didn’t use any EQ, I wasn’t going to change a great mix!”
Gudwin’s ‘remix’ Pro Tools session of Despacito totals 67 tracks, 37 of which are Jaycen Joshua’s stems, followed by new vocal tracks, vocal aux tracks, and his master track. We’ll dive into the way Gudwin treated Bieber’s vocals (light green and light blue), as well as some new English vocal tracks by Fonsi in the third chorus (red), and his master bus chain.
“I actually finalised the mix while I was on the islands, on Parrot Cay, where I was working on a Bose bluetooth speaker. I sent it out for approvals, then needed to make some changes, because I got a new vocal by Luis [Fonsi] while I was there with English text written by Marty James. Once Luis heard Justin on it, he wanted to add something himself, so I added that at the last minute. Luis’ vocals are called V and VDbl in the session, and they came in tuned. They already had the Waves D3 DeEsser on it, and the RVox, so I kept them. I then added the SSL E-Channel, the C6 and the Pro-Q2. They’re all doing light things, because Luis’ vocals also go back through the main $JB Buss$ again.”
ALL THOSE SENDS
“The sends go to a series of aux tracks that are pretty standard. Everyone uses combinations of this stuff. The first send goes to the HALL aux, on which I have the UAD EMT 140 and a UAD Harrison 32 EQ. Then there’s the PING SHORT aux which has the Echoboy, Air Chorus and Waves RVerb, the 1/8 aux with the Waves H-Delay, the WIDENER aux with the SoundToys Microshift for some width and Brainworx bx_digital for a bit of an MS effect, and the DIMENSION D aux with the UAD Dimension D chorus, and Waves REQ4 and RCompressor. Other aux effect tracks which I did not use, but which are part of my template, were the PLATE aux, with the UAD EMT 140, the MILLI aux with the Waves Trueverb set to a ‘millennium’ preset, half and quarter note aux tracks both with the HDelay, and a PING MOO aux with the EchoBoy, Waves Enigma modulation effect and RVerb. There are also SPACE FLANGE and UNDERWATER aux tracks which everyone has who’s worked with Dave Pensado.”
All Bieber’s vocals are sent to the $JB BUSS$ group track (purple) at the top of the new vocals section. This group track has most of the processing, with six inserts and five effect sends. JB’s vocal tracks are numbered 1-8, with 3 being his main intro vocal part, with a couple of words pulled out to Track 4, for a different EQ. Tracks 1 and 2 (in light green) are individual words with SoundToys EchoBoys delay throws — one ¼-note and one 1⁄8-note, while Track 8 is a copy of Bieber’s entire vocal part, which has the Waves REQ4 and Doubler, for a vocal widening and doubling effect in the background; the level of the track is pulled down to -20dB. The plug-ins on Bieber’s vocal comp tracks, 1-8, consist of just three instances of the FabFilter Pro-Q2 EQ and one Waves RDeEsser.
Gudwin explained the nature of the heavy lifting on the group track: “First in the chain is the UAD SSL E-Series Channel Strip, doing some light compression [Ratio 3, Threshold -12], and light EQ [approx +2dB at 4.5kHz and -3dB at 250Hz], then the UAD LA2A Silver to smooth things out [peak reduction is 25], the Waves C6 multi-band compressor for some very light EQ with compression, the Pro-Q2 fixes some weird things that were brought out by the C6 [it has a hi-pass with some cuts in the low mids], then the Waves Rcompressor again does some super-light touching [Ratio 2.13, Threshold -11.1], and the FabFilter De-esser takes away some high frequencies [at 7kHz and 14kHz]. That’s it on the inserts.”
Gudwin’s master bus chain is different from Jaycen Joshua’s, which explains why the remix of Despacito sounds slightly different than the original. Gudwin elaborated. “The chain starts with the UAD Neve 33609 compressor. I go back and forth between that and the SSL compressor. Then the signal goes through the Plugin Alliance HG-2 Black Box, which has two virtual 12AX7 tubes, and adds a kind of tube vibe. It’s a cool box that lifts everything up a bit. The UAD Brainworx bx_digital V3 does some light MS processing to bring some of the elements on the side forward, and spread things out a bit. The iZotope Ozone 7 Stereo Imager also helps to widen the image. Finally there are the FabFilter Pro-L and UAD Sonnox Oxford Inflator for more volume. You also can put the Inflator before the Pro-L, it works both ways.
“I take the Pro-L off when I send my mixes for mastering, but I sometimes also include it as an option. With the Inflator I set the Effect between five and 15 and the Curve between five and 10. When you go light on it, it still works. With the Pro-L I start with a preset, and I’ll tweak it if I need to. The song was mastered by David Kutch, who also mastered the original. He told me he used slightly different settings on our remix than he had on the original.”