Engineering Dilla: How J Dilla's Classic Albums Were Mixed and Mastered

In the 15 years since his death, the music of James Dewit Yancey (aka J Dilla) has been meticulously analyzed, passionately debated, and consistently referenced. It makes sense that Dilla is so revered in music circles; with albums like the slick, soulful sound of Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 2 or his dense, sample-chopping opus, Donuts, Dilla's music has inspired countless musicians and pushed hip-hop forward.

Often, the discussion around Dilla's sound has focused primarily on his unique approach to production. Whether it is the loose, swinging feel that he achieved with his drum programming or his creative approach to chopping and flipping samples, much of our analysis and understanding of Dilla's sound and the rich catalog that he left behind has focused on how he created his beats. But how was the sound on those watershed J Dilla records achieved in the mixing and mastering stages?

In order to gain some insight on how this post-production work impacted the sound of Dilla's records, we interviewed Todd Fairall, Bob Power, David Kennedy, and Dave Cooley, four veteran engineers who each worked with Dilla at a significant period in his musical development. They told us about the gear, techniques, and overall approach they used on those projects.

THE INTERVIEWEES

  • Todd Fairall: a recording and mixing engineer from Detroit. Significant Dilla-related projects include: Fantastic Vol. 2, Welcome 2 Detroit and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus.
  • Bob Power: one of the most celebrated mixing engineers in hip-hop history. Significant Dilla-related projects include: Beats, Rhymes & Life, Like Water For Chocolate, and Electric Circus.
  • David Kennedy: mixing and mastering engineer and producer with a massive catalog spanning hip hop and reggae. Significant Dilla-related projects include: The Love Movement.
  • Dave Cooley: a mastering engineer based in LA. Significant Dilla-related projects include: Donuts, The Shining.

First Impressions and Working With Dilla

David Kennedy on mixing A Tribe Called Quest's The Love Movement: I have chills here talking about it now. Tip [Q-Tip, the A Tribe Called Quest rapper and producer] had all this stuff laid out already and he knew what he wanted to track. And we tracked maybe five or six songs, until this disc showed up. This disc was from Detroit, and Tip slipped it in quietly and pressed play and I lost my mind. I was like, "This is it. This is what I've been searching for." I didn't know about J Dilla at that time.

We get down to mixing "Find a Way," which was like my favorite track, And he came to New York for that session, and this quiet, unassuming, small fellow sits at the back of the room. He smoked, I smoke. And he just sat there and vibed, and I mixed. We said nothing other than hello and goodbye for the whole day. If I turned around and asked him, "Is there anything you want to suggest?" He just looked at me and shook his head, "no," whatever. And that was it.

Todd Fairall: When I first started working on Jay Dee's beats, I didn't even know who he was. It was just these beats that were coming into the studio and local guys were bringing them in and could tell there was a certain guy that was working on this. And then the first project that we're making those beats, I mean, the stuff is so identifiable.

Dilla's weapon of choice, the MPC3000
Dilla's weapon of choice, the MPC3000.

MCA booked a session for The Roots and, when they came in, it was Questlove, Black Thought, and ELO The Cosmic Eye. We were working on "Dynamite" from Things Fall Apart. We were talking and I said to Questlove, "What brings you to Detroit?" And he goes, "Uh, Jay Dee." And I was like, "Who's Jay Dee?" And he looked at me with like, almost a look like it was so serious and almost like, "Are you an idiot?" Like, What kind of engineer am I working with? And he was like, "The future of hip-hop!" And those words were proved to be so true after that. And then Jay came in a couple of hours later, and I knew he was a producer when he walked in with an MPC under his arm and probably had a crate of records and a turntable.

Dave Cooley: I was already doing projects for Stones Throw Records and in the middle of mixing The Shining. That's when Eothen ["Egon"] Alapatt, the GM at Stones Throw at the time, let me know that there was a really great "mixtape" that wasn't really a mixtape that they wanted to rush out. J's health was already pretty bad at that point, but he had been working on finishing Donuts in the hospital. He was just so dedicated. Peanut Butter Wolf (the owner of Stones Throw) wanted to get it out immediately so we rushed it in one day.

I think it either came in on CD-ROM or as an audio CD. Pretty much already completely thought out and sequenced. He had that Amadeus-like ability to see the whole thing before it was done.

Bob Power: Jay was a very quiet guy. So when he came in, unless he was working, even when he was working sometimes… he didn't take up a lot of space in the room.

The Roots - "Dynamite," produced by J Dilla

Champion Sound: Setup and Gear

David Kennedy: At the time I was just getting into digital editing and recording. I was using PCs at the time, Microsoft Windows PCs, and I had a program called Sound Forge. I did some post-mix production on one or two songs and basic sequencing of the album. I didn't want to touch—I didn't want to venture into—Tom Coyne's territory. He was a mastering engineer. From what I've heard, he was like, "There's really not much more I need to do other than just balance levels."

We were at Sony studios and they asked me, "What do you want to work on?" So, well, I'm a Neve fan from day one. So wherever you can find me a Neve, you know? And I said, "Well, we could track on the vintage Neve [8078] and maybe mix on the VR [a different Neve console with full recall capabilities] later on." And we ended up just tracking and mixing on the same console. There's history attached to all those boards. The room had in basic outboard gear and, um, usually, on the VR I'd use what's on the board, you know? It had EQ, compressors. I didn't have to be patching in and out.

I was a bass lover—you couldn't put on too much bass. If you listen to my early mixes, you'll laugh—you'll die. It's just mud. I had to figure out how to make it really work. So, I really started to pay attention to how I balance out the sound. Now, the tone that you hear at the bottom end is because I drive… I saturate EQs. I saturate those tones. I saturate the bass, and I find that saturation, I only get from a Neve. I can't get it from an SSL. A lot of people swear by SSL because it's so punchy. And I say, "OK, but it doesn't have that warmth." To me, it's not musical. I was just hitting stuff, as hard as possible. People would come in and say, "Boy, David, you always smashed the hell out of drums!" I mean… not in compression, but you make them tear up speakers.

A Tribe Called Quest - "His Name Is Mutty Ranks," co-produced by Dilla

Bob Power: Most of the stuff was mixed on SSL, because of automation and because of the sufficient sophistication of the automation system at that point on SSLs. It was usually either that or a Neve VR, which was Neve's answer to an SSL—a better sounding console, but I didn't know how to get around on it. There's certain sonic anomalies of an SSL G that are not very good. Now, a lot of people for those same reasons like it, you know? A lot of rock mixers really like a G because of certain tonal characteristics, but there wasn't a tremendous amount of headroom in the mix bus.

The low frequency content was not big and open and round. You really needed to work the hell out on the bottom to make it big and round. And because there wasn't a lot of headroom in the mix bus, that bottom could get messy very quickly. The other thing is that the high frequency on that console is not what I would call "sweet." You had to work real hard to make sure that the high end was not harsh.

Todd Fairall (on kick drums & sample processing for Fantastic Vol. 2): Yeah, all of that, the Slum Village stuff was already recorded to an MCI JH24 analog tape machine, and then it was mixed through an SSL. It was actually an E-series SSL with a bunch of G-series upgrades to it, some G-series EQs in it. As far as compressors for vocals and stuff like that, a lot of that was the DBX 160X compressor. And then he was real fond of this particular program [in the] SPX900 [Yamaha rack mount effects processor]. It's a multi-effects processor and the program on it was called "Symphonic." And if you went inside there, you could turn on—it called it a D-filter [Dynamic Filter]—and it kind of made this real watery, bubbly sound. He put a lot of his samples through that sometimes.

For his kick drums, we would use an old oscillator, and I'd let him choose the frequency and an oscillator with the gate… the kick drum would trigger it, but it'd be real tight. There would be no length to it. And it gave you that little bit of extra sub frequencies below the kick. It's like 40 hertz, and then we'd go through a gate. Then the kick would trigger the gate to open up, but it'd be a real short. That's all over that record.

Workin' On It: Mixing and Achieving a Sound

Bob Power on mixing Dilla and making choices: One of the really cool things about mixing Jay Dee stuff is that there was never any question about which way to go with certain elements. He was so gifted in terms of his choice of sounds as a mixer. There wasn't any question to me—and with well-produced music there's not a lot of questions when you get something to mix.

In a way, his choice of sounds was for the timbral and frequency content of the sound as much as the sound itself. So he had a really immaculate sense of how things were going to sit together, fit together, sonically. I didn't have to ask him a lot of questions. It was so intelligently put together.

Slum Village - "Get Dis Money"

Todd Fairall on Fantastic Vol. 2: We did mix that at the studio [Studio A in Detroit]—that was a whole different thing than either The Roots or the Common project, because he [Jay] recorded the majority of that record to ADATs in his basement of his house. Even the vocals and everything, and he would bring it into the studio and I would take those And then we would mix it from the 2-inch tape. So there were overdubs and there was some tracking done at the studio, but the majority of that was recorded at his house. As far as the mix of those records he was the mastermind behind that stuff. I mean, I still felt like I was more of a tool to help him get where he wanted to get to with those. He did a lot. He was real hands-on on the console and stuff, especially when it came to his beats.

But when it came to the vocals, he was very hands-off. He had the beat sitting where he wanted it and then he was like, "OK, mix the vocals." And if I had to move stuff in the beat for the vocals, he was perfectly cool with it. Or if I had to move some of the vocals to make room for the beat, It was kind of like a team at that point, but yeah, that sound that you're hearing on those records, that's all him. I wish I could take credit for it. We were at the console together the whole time, but I wasn't reaching over him or anything like that.

Bob Power: I felt as a mixer, since he was operating on such an involved level to begin with, it was my job to make sure that the mix reflected that same kind of care and careful intention. I do a lot of high- and low-pass filtering on different elements to keep them out of the way of other things in that particular frequency range.

I've said this publicly, and I've said in lectures before, but if you go through a track before you sit down to mix and high- and low-pass everything in the track, taking away all the elements, all the components of the different elements that don't really need to be there—meaning, say, for the bass, you low-pass it, and you might high-pass it in a certain sub area below 80 hertz or so, because you want to leave that area for something else, like the bottom on the kick. So, I probably did a lot of high- and low-passing on the stuff just to keep the kaka out of something, to which it was not essential.

Dave Cooley on mastering Donuts: I can't remember exactly what I did 15 years ago, but I do remember timing releases on the [Crane Song] STC-8 pretty carefully to the track tempos to preserve the really disorienting compression pump, to take that intensity even a little further. The GML EQ was good for adding top end with a "matte" finish; at the time I wasn't into slick top end. All that said, it was pretty much done when it arrived and I just sweetened it a bit.

Pulling it up, it was already sounding so amazing. I remember thinking the "Lightworks" sample was the one that blew me away the most... but the whole thing was so cool, so clever. I recognized a bunch of the breaks/samples, but they were flipped so hard—he had turned them into something brand new. Honestly I didn't know that day that it would be regarded as his most revered piece. It was more like those stories you hear from 1960s' engineers just rolling up their sleeves for an unassuming day's work on a soon-to-be classic. Sometimes it's better that way, just shooting from the hip and not tripping out on how important it could be.

J Dilla - "Lightworks"

The Last Donut: Final Thoughts

Todd Fairall (on Fantastic Vol. 2): Obviously, I'm obviously very, very biased, but in my opinion, that's like one of the great records of history, you know? That stands with Sgt. Pepper's or Animals by Pink Floyd. I just think the world of that record. I think it's a masterpiece.

Dave Cooley (on Donuts): I thought it sounded completely captivating, just from a fan's perspective. But to clarify, I don't think J imagined Donuts primarily as a commercial product per se, even though the title is kind of a play on that (as well as an obvious play on the shape of the 45RPM records he sampled). Rather, Donuts was a moment of self-actualization, a moment for him to be completely at ease with himself. It pays homage to the long line of producers and musicians that preceded him, his influences. The record is a thank you note, a realization of mortality, and a goodbye from one of hip-hop's greatest producers. It closes the loop.

Bob Power: I think something that people who turn knobs sometimes lose sight is that, whether you like what he does or not, James Taylor could make a great record on a phone because of what he does. Biggie could have made a record on a phone, and you still would have gotten the essence of that artistry. And I think Jay's stuff was like that as well. Yeah, it was nice that they asked me to polish it up a little bit, and, you know, make it sound real good and stuff. But what I did was not essential to that, because it was there to begin with.

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