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Recording Tyler, the Creator with Apollo and UAD

Recording Tyler, the Creator with Apollo and UAD

Learn how Vic Wainstein Pushes the Boundaries of Hip‑Hop on Igor

From making beats and playing in bands, to stints as a runner and assistant at Paramount Recording, to full‑fledged engineer status with some of the biggest names in hip-hop — Tyler the Creator, Solange, Mac Miller, and Frank Ocean — producer/engineer Vic Wainstein has risen through the ranks by sheer determination and self‑application.

On Tyler, the Creator’s Grammy‑winning album, Igor, Wainstein dug deep into his bag of tricks to fulfill Tyler’s vision. Here, learn how Wainstein leaned on UAD plug‑ins and Apollo interfaces to bring the album to fruition.

Vic Wainstein got his start making beats and playing in bands before moving to LA to pursue a career as a producer and engineer.

Igor is not a "traditional" hip‑hop album. At times, it sounds like a hip-hop take on a Brian Wilson‑produced Beach Boys record.

Tyler described it in a recent interview as sounding like Pusha T and Stevie Wonder got together — hard-ass 808 beats with lots of chords.

Tyler’s records tend to push the edges of what is commercially acceptable in rap, and I think some people just can’t comprehend what he’s trying to achieve — especially other rappers. Their attitude is, “Tyler’s kinda weird. Why is he playing all those pretty chords over this hard music?” But I think Tyler has always trusted that at some point, it would make sense.

Even when we started working together, I had to learn to view rap music through his lens. But when he started trying to put all these new sounds into one album, I got onboard. What’s the worst that can happen? The science experiment blows up in our face — but at least we’ll still feel something.

These days, artists often record parts by themselves in DAWs that they're comfortable with. How do you navigate those waters?

Everything I work on ends up in Pro Tools. But Tyler’s a Logic Pro guy, so the creative process starts there. We did all our production in that environment, then imported the tracks to Pro Tools. With Mac Miller, for example, we would start in Ableton. So I’ve had to acclimate myself to different artist’s workflow, and as a result, I’m pretty fluent in multiple DAWs.

At this point, I’ve got a potent three-point attack any time I need to step into a room with a new artist. “You know Ableton Live?” Gotcha. “Logic?” Gotcha. “You good with Pro Tools?” I gotcha there, too. I’d recommend any engineer try to familiarize themselves with more than one DAW. It’s certainly helped me.

"There are no guidelines anymore. The only good new rap music is the stuff that’s pushing the envelope."

I understand you used Apollos and the Console app as a simple way to render files from one DAW to another.

Yes. We started by bouncing tracks from Logic to Pro Tools, but to Tyler’s ear — and he’s very specific about the way things sit in the sonic landscape — the bounces didn’t sound right. The fidelity of the 808s was taking a hit, and the more abrasive synths just weren’t cutting through. We tried every option to bounce tracks, but just kept hitting roadblocks.

I've had experience with Apollo interfaces, but the light bulb didn’t go on until we were doing some tracks with A$AP Rocky, and his engineer Hector Delgado said, “Bro, all you have to do is get a couple of Apollos, and then you can dump all the tracks at once, directly into Pro Tools.” So we did, and it worked.

Tyler, the Creator’s Igor netted the rising rap prodigy a Grammy for Best Rap Album of 2020.

Can you explain how you set that up in Console?

I built an I/O template in Console, and made sure that each channel coming out of Logic was sent to its own dedicated track in Pro Tools. In the past, I’d bounce AIFF files from Logic to Pro Tools, and then use UAD plug-ins to process those files — but this gave me a whole new handle on transferring tracks and stems.

I realized I could use all those killer UAD plug‑ins on individual tracks on the way into Pro Tools, and commit the processing as it was being printed. Plus, when it came time to send tracks to the mixer, Neal Pogue, the sounds were completely dialed and ready to go.

The bottom end on Igor sounds killer. How do you make space for it with all of the dense, complex arrangements?

I got turned onto sub-harmonic processors back in 2015 when Mick Guzuaski mixed part of Tyler’s Cherry Bomb album, which I’d engineered. Maintaining fidelity of 808s is a huge challenge — I can’t tell you how much people struggle with giving those the right amount of space in a mix. But using the Little Labs VOG plug‑in makes so much sense. It became one of our miracle drugs for the 808, because it's perfect for tightening those bass frequencies and adding detail.

Also, the Empirical Labs Fatso Jr and Sr is a real treat, especially on kick drums and snares. Generally, I would tweak an Empirical Labs Distressor to move in a similar way, but the Fatso really made our kick drums cut through, and remain super present among the whimsical menagerie of instruments we piled on top — it helped the beats not get lost in the sauce.

Wainstein in the studio, armed with an Apollo x8p and an arsenal of UAD plug‑ins.

Any secret weapons for drum or mix buses?

The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor came in handy a number of times. I could put that thing on everything, but I especially like it on the mix bus while I work. I pop it in and out often, so I know how things change when they hit it, but you have to be aware of what it’s doing because there are so many parameters. You don’t want to find out after you’ve tracked a bunch of stuff, that you weren’t really hearing the source accurately.

I also like the SSL G‑Master Buss Compressor on the mix bus. The SSL boards are the first recording desks that I really got familiar with. Paramount had every SSL except for the K series, so I learned on the SSL E‑Series, J‑Series, and the G‑Plus. At the end of a recording day, having to sum stuff together, I got used to having that iconic SSL Quad Compressor on deck.

"The UAD Little Labs VOG became one of our miracle drugs for the 808."

The truth is that drums in rap just don’t have many hard peaks, so with compression, it’s more about finding ways to glue things together and use your compressor’s output gain to make up for the gain loss, or just to level up your signal for the next set of EQs and compressors.

The vocals on the record are wild, and I suspect that many of the weird “character” voices are Tyler himself.

Well, we did have an ensemble cast — Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Solange, and Jerrod Carmichael. But yes, the majority of those random, weird vocals were Tyler.

He usually lays down reference tracks for guest rappers or singers that he has in mind, be it Charlie Wilson from the Gap Band, Wanya Morris from Boyz II Men, or Cee‑Lo Green. He’s been doing that since his days with Odd Future, and I think he was inspired to push it even further with Igor. On some occasions, we ended up liking his “sound‑alike” versions better than the guest singers he was trying to emulate.

“With Apollo and UAD plug-ins, I can commit to sounds on the way in and get everything dialed before it goes to the mixer.”

What's your plug-in chain for vocals?

A typical vocal chain would look like this: Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Collection, 610‑A, or API Vision Strip preamp. Then a Pultec EQP‑1A or FabFilter Pro‑Q 3 EQ. And for compressors, a Rev A “Bluestripe” 1176 or Fairchild 660.

I used the SPL Vitalizer MK2‑T on a lot of the pitched vocals, and it even found its way onto the grand piano sounds, which needed a little enhancement and richness. For saturation and harmonic distortion, I love the Thermionic Culture Vulture — it’s a potent tool for carving out those aggressive synth sounds you hear all through Igor.

Did you and Tyler have any sonic references for Igor?

If you want a good reference for our creative direction on this record, listen to those late-’70s/early‑’80s punk rock records — with those aggressive walls of guitars that everything else had to fight through — that’s how we treated the synths. For that, the Culture Vulture was a godsend. I also leaned on the MXR Flanger/Doubler and the Studio D Chorus.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming producers and engineers?

Every song or mix provides obstacles that you’ve got to contend with on the spot. Many young engineers I talk to employ the "set‑it‑and‑forget‑it" approach. But my experience has taught me that every set of problems in a mix is unique, and requires its own unique solution.

Also, trust your ears. That’s become something of a lost art. When you have everything so dialed, and to a certain spec, you risk not relying on your ears. Don’t ever let that happen.

— James Rotondi

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