The Recording Gear, Sage, and Airbnbs Behind Solange's Modern Classics

Solange (2017). Photo by: Frederick M. Brown / Stringer, Getty Images.

Solange's music is the antithesis of normal. Her songs weave her influences, observations, and peculiarities into sonic tapestries inimitably hers. That unconventional style of music is born from a creative process that equally stretches the boundaries of how people normally make music. Few over the last decade can attest to that fact more than Solange's longtime recording engineer Mikaelin "Blue" Bluespruce who has seen everything from Solange creating parts of three songs from one two-minute freestyle on the deck of a house to her burning sage in homes she's converted into studios.

If you look at the credits for the 40 combined songs Solange released on her Grammy Award-nominated 2016 album A Seat At The Table and her 2019 followup When I Get Home, you'll see Blue's name on every single song, and that doesn't even count the work he did on Solange's 2012 True EP. He knows intimately what it takes to make a Solange song more than almost anyone who isn't Beyonce's sister. Over the years, he's become an expert on how to record at the speed of Solange.

"It's our job to keep up with her ideas, honestly. As she's going, she knows how she wants to hear herself at the moment, so she'll say, 'Can you brighten my vocals a little bit. So, it's about EQ'ing it to make it feel right to her in the moment. However it's feeling to her at the moment is how it's going to pretty much stay," Blue tells Reverb.

Speaking with Reverb months before 2020 ended, Solange's engineer of nearly 10 years spoke on the gear Solange needs in every session, the equipment Pharrell needed to work with her, and the techniques and gear he and Solange used to record remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Solange Essentials

During the end of recording True, Solange had an epiphany that would forever change the way she made music. Blue remembers her using a handheld Shure Beta 58 mic to record demo vocals outside of the booth and quickly becoming so enamored with the results she would keep some of the demo vocals in the final songs. By the time she was recording her breakthrough, Grammy Award-nominated followup, A Seat At The Table, she was done with the isolation of the booth and grew an inseparable bond with the Shure Beta 58.

Shure Beta 58A
Shure Beta 58A

"The Shure Beta 58 is the main thing that has to be there in terms of recording. She really doesn't like to be standing in front of a mic," Blue said. "She likes to be seated, walking around the room, or however she wants to be she wants to bring the mic with her and hold it in her hand. The Beta 58 is the only thing that has to be there."

The Shure Beta 58 is a dynamic microphone typically used during live performances, a setting that mirrors Solange's recording process more than you'd expect. Besides abandoning the booth, Blue says Solange also prefers recording with no headphones and the speakers blasting. For any engineer, that's a recipe for a headache, trying to reduce the song's production from bleeding into the artist's vocal recordings in order to get clean vocals.

Blue initially put up a fight, explaining to Solange how this style of recording could complicate the mixing process before relenting to her overall creative vision. "That's part of her sound. She doesn't like her songs to be super polished and her vocals right in your face, compressed, and super bright," Blue said.

As unorthodox as her music and recording process is, the setup is surprisingly simple. Blue reveals the vocal chain that produced songs on A Seat At The Table like "Cranes in the Sky" and "Don't Touch My Hair" was a Shure Beta 58 into an Avalon 737 preamp compressor and EQ with a 192 HD interface into Pro Tools.

The chain remained the same for When I Get Home except the interface changed to an 8-channel Focusrite Scarlett. He adds an SSL Channel Strip plugin to bring more high-end and presence to her vocals to balance out the sound of the mic, and Pro Tools' stock reverb plugin D-Verb. Artists are creatures of habit and the simplicity of her setup ensures consistency no matter where they record.

"A lot of this comes from wanting to use simple plugins because we move around a lot, so we don't necessarily know what setup we'll be in next or studio we'll be in next," Blue says. "If you start using plugins that are not stock or common, then the session will sound different the next time you open it up. She wants it to sound the same as where she left off."

Housing Her Creativity

Solange's intentionality with her creative process is why her last two albums were recorded mostly in homes—either hers or Airbnbs converted into Solange's recording oases—instead of recording studios. A Seat At The Table addressed her experience as a Black woman, so she wrote and recorded the album in a number of plantations in Louisiana, including recording songs like "Weary" in a church on the Whitney Plantation, a historical museum dedicated to southern slavery, in Edgard, Louisiana.

She wanted to document her coming of age in her hometown Houston, Texas for When I Get Home, so all of the writing and final vocal recordings were done in different homes in Houston, including recording "Way To The Show" with Cassie in Row Houses in Houston's Third Ward community.

She burns sage and palo santo, turns the walls into a mood board by decorating them with photos that range from Crime Mob to crop circles and geometric tattoos, places fluorescent lights behind the studio so red light perpetually emanates, and cleanses the energy of wherever she's recording with Florida Water. What you won't find in any of the homes is recording foam panels lining the walls or anything done to the houses to ensure the best sound quality.

"No, there was no treatment. Her main focus is how the room feels and good energy. She likes to be close to a window for her to see outside. So, we'll set up the studio in that room, which isn't always the best sonically because that's not always the main concern," Blue said. "That's why the Shure Beta 58 has been the go-to mic for all of these years, because of its small pickup pattern on that mic. You can sort of record vocals almost anywhere and get good vocals."

Solange - "Time (is)"

When she initially recorded the vocals for When I Get Home track "Time (is)," a click track was playing out of the speakers and got picked up in her mic. Blue was able to remove the click track using phase cancellation, gating, and a few other techniques, but the cleaned up vocals didn't have the same feel as the raw recordings of the metronome.

Against all conventional engineering wisdom, Blue went back and added the click track sound everywhere he removed it in order to regain that feel. Listen closely to "Time (is)" and you'll hear the faint, almost ghostly, sound of a metronome clicking, but more importantly, you'll hear the faint remnants of Solange's homemade creative process uncompromised.

Solange and Pharrell

Solange's creative process is singular to her, but malleable when she wants to invite other creative forces into her world. One day during the making of When I Get Home, casa de Solange got a visiting collaborator: Pharrell. Accounting for Pharrell's musical proclivities meant expanding the studio setup and getting a new system outside of the 8-channel Focusrite that could handle the additional inputs.

Blue rented the multi-generational production oracle two Grace Design M801 8-channel preamps, two AVID HD interfaces, and an assortment of different keyboards including a Fender Rhodes, Moog Sub Phatty, vintage MiniMoog, Mellotron, and Roland D-50.

Usually, a Solange session is reminiscent of a playground with myriad instruments strewn across the recording space, all plugged in and recording at all times even if no one is using it—because at any moment inspiration could strike and Solange wants as little delay between inspiration and creation.

Typically, multiple artists, like her frequent collaborators John Key and John Kirby, are trying out ideas. But, on this day it was just Blue, Solange, Pharrell, and his engineer Mike Larson. Blue remembers Solange letting Pharrell create by himself at the beginning of the day, out of respect for him and his process, and reconvening later in the day to work on melodies and lyrics.

Solange - "Almeda"

The results were the mesmerizing bop of "Almeda" and the wavy groove of "Sound of Rain." For the former, the rattling drums and the ending beat switch are courtesy of Pharrell. What people may never get to hear is Pharrell's full sonic vision for the song, because while Solange respected Pharrell enough to give him a bit of autonomy, he respected her enough to let her vision be the final say.

"In Almeda, she ended up taking off all of the synths and putting different synths from John Kirby on the Mellotron. I think Pharrell has a great deal of respect for her as well because most people I don't think would be able to do that."

Pandemic Recording

In May, while Blue was in New York, Solange was in L.A. and got the urge to get some ideas out, so she asked Blue if it would be possible to record while avoiding the pandemic in separate rooms in separate states. Remote recording wasn't in Blue's engineer wheelhouse when inspiration struck Solange, but after a week of testing and research, he was able to give Solange her first-ever recording session over the internet.

"I screen controlled her computer. I was pressing record and editing as if I was sitting in her room and then I would send the signal back so I could hear what was going on. Her and I were on FaceTime so we could speak to each other."

To help with getting a clear playback of what Solange was recording from hundreds of miles away, he used AudioMovers' plugin ListenTo that allows someone to stream the ProTools track it's placed on to another computer anywhere over the internet. Using ListenTo, Blue was able to stream what Solange was recording to his computer so he could hear what she was doing and then employed a few other tricks to recreate their creative process as much as possible.

Blue didn't say if Solange is working on a new album, but is ready at any moment to turn a house into a recording studio and a room full of equipment into the world Solange wants to invite us into.

About the author: Keith Nelson Jr is a seasoned music journalist who followed his innate passion for knowledge to interview some of the most influential figures in the music industry. He's a journalist who connects the dot to see the bigger picture.

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