Studio Sessions | Stuart White talks being Beyonce’s main engineer, helping Solange finish ‘A Seat At The Table’ and more
Stuart White isn’t just Beyonce’s main engineer, he’s one of the best engineers in the game. Read our interview with the music vet here.
For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Stuart White isn’t just Beyonce’s main engineer, he’s one of the best engineers in the game. He has credits on albums for Solange, Fun, Angie Stone, Alicia Keys and a hall of fame list of other artists. But, it’s his work with Beyonce that has forced the engineer to step his game up.
“The speed at which she wanted to work and what she wanted to do, as far as creating the sound, and what she would ask for wasn’t always basic,” White told REVOLT TV. “It was complex. So, I had to get better as a Pro Tools operator. I had to get better and faster that first year or so.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” White explains helping finish Solange’s A Seat At A Table in church, helping make classic hits for Bey, and his hopes for engineers. Check out the interview below!
Some of your earliest engineering work was with Angie Stone 15 years ago. What was it like working with her?
I was an assistant engineer and staff engineer at Quad Studios, and would assist any engineer that needed me to. With her, I remember her energy and her vibe. I remember how laid back she was and how intuitive she was with singing. I remember one time the computer crashed while she was mid take. It was an old G3 Mac computer. She had been waiting all night to go in there. As soon as she goes in there and sings, the computer crashes. She was feeling it. She walked out like, ‘It crashed? Oh, that sucks. That was the one, too. Well, we’ll try again tomorrow.’ She didn’t get pissed off about it or anything. She went home and took a crack at it the next day (laughs). For her, it was about giving her a lot of headroom, not compressing her much and making sure she sounded really good in her headphones, so she could get the vibe.
You’ve also worked with Alicia Keys, who owns her own studio. What makes her studio special?
She designed it with Ann Mincieli, her longtime engineer, and because Ann’s a gear junkie, there’s a bunch of cool gear in there. There are all sorts of guitar amps, vintage guitars, and guitar pedals… Between Ann and Alicia’s love of gear, there’s just a lot of cool vintage gear.
Do you have an example of you making something elaborate on the spot?
Yeah, there’s this song I worked on with this band Fun called ‘We Are Young.’ We recorded 85%-90% of that song the first day we all worked together. The day we did it was the first time we all met. We just went into a studio and [Nate Reuss] had this hook, and there was nothing else really written. Jeff Bhasker made a beat on the spot, and we crafted the sound and effects of that song together on the spot. I think that song has five or six tempo changes in it because [Nate] was used to not singing to a click track and constant tempo. Elastic Audio in Pro Tools had been around for a little bit, but people weren’t using it too much. So, I suggested we throw Pro Tools into elastic audio and that way, we could plot in tempo changes all day long and change the tempo of whatever we recorded as a songwriting tool. So, he could figure out how to sing it because that song starts off fast and then it slows down for the chorus, and then speeds up a little bit. Jeff Bhasker mixed the song, I recorded it, and all the vocal effects on it are basically what we did that day.
You’ve worked on every Beyonce album since 2013. How did you two link up?
I was living in New York at the time and was the main house engineer at Jungle City Studios. I was totally freelancing. Ann Mincieli told me around 2012, ‘Hey, Beyonce is looking for a new engineer. You should do that.’ I worked with Alicia Keys before, so I knew what working with a superstar is like and it takes over your life. I didn’t know if I wanted that responsibility because I was working with Nas a lot. I was doing a plethora of different gigs at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it would be a great opportunity.
Teresa Labarbera, Beyonce’s longtime A&R, was looking for an engineer in New York. She called me up and ‘We Are Young’ was No. 1 at the time. She asked me what I had done and I got shy (laughs). I was like, ‘Not much. I’ve worked with Alicia for a long time. Oh, the song ‘We Are Young,’ I did that.’ They gave me a shot around July 2012. I remember going to a studio I had never worked at before. That’s where we did our first couple of sessions, then we moved over to Jungle City Studios and did a few sessions there. Then, we went to the Hamptons and set up a studio in this house, and started what became the self-titled album.
How did you build such a great working relationship with Bey?
I just kept my head down and tried to get better every day. We hit it off right off the bat, but at the same time, I had a lot of improving to do. The speed at which she wanted to work and what she wanted to do, as far as creating the sound, and what she would ask for wasn’t always basic. It was complex. So, I had to get better as a Pro Tools operator. I had to get better and faster that first year or so. I’ve been her only engineer since 2012 except for when we’re mixing, and the homies Tony Maserati and Chris Godbey get involved.
What song have you worked on that has really made you grow?
All the projects are mountains to climb. ‘Drunk in Love,’ being that it’s a big hit, it started from very meek beginnings and she turned it into this massive hit. That shows her genius as far as her ear. As far as my contribution as an engineer, I remember I mixed it with Tony and at the last minute, she liked the demo better. She liked the way the drums were mixed in the version we did in his studio. But, she wanted everything from the original demo put back in. I was at Tony’s studio and literally had to import all the vocals, and music tracks from the original session, and mixing it into what we had made, and make this new version at the last second before we had to turn in the album (laughs). I re-did the mix hours before we turned the album in.
Every engineer that has worked with an artist long enough develops a sort of template of procedures that they use to work. What’s usually your template for Beyonce?
Just basic stuff. A bunch of tracks. Groups of fours. If we do background vocals, typically we might stack harmonies four times, and so I’ll have groups of tracks color-coded and labeled accordingly. I’ll have it all going through on aux with a basic Digi EQ3 and a basic Waves DeEsser on the track. That’s routed out of Pro-Tools. I have some reverbs. One long reverb, a shorter reverb, one eighth-note delay and one quarter note delay set up. That’s it. I just keep it simple. If I need anything more elaborate, I’ll just make something on the spot. I mix on the fly when I’m recording.
You also worked with her sister Solange on A Seat At The Table. What was that process like?
That’s an interesting story. I didn’t record any of that album. The album was finished and they needed some help finishing the mixes. They were out of time and the mixes weren’t quite where they wanted them to be. So, I actually got called by her big sister (laughs). She recommended I go out to New Orleans, sit with Solange and help her with the mixes. I had just moved from New York to California and was kind of on hiatus. This was roughly six months after Lemonade came out. So, Bey was on ‘The Formation Tour’ rolling and I was hanging out in my living room with my boys from New York who helped me move to California. Then, I got the phone call.
I dropped everything and went to New Orleans. I sat with Solange’s engineer [Mikaelin] Blue [Bluespruce] and he showed me the songs they needed me to tweak. I just loaded up six or seven songs, and stayed up for about 30 hours. We had no time. I knew they were out of time, as far as the deadline, but we had a little bit of time to tweak. No one told me exactly how much time we had (laughs). I just went to a studio called Esplanade Studios, which is amazing. It was a church and after Katrina, it took on a lot of water and was destroyed. This guy named Misha [Kachkachishvili] bought it, renovated it and turned it into this incredible recording studio.
Blue and I started loading up songs and tweaking them together. I was literally in the studio for 24 hours straight. Solange came in, gave me a bunch of notes on the songs, left, sat downstairs, and I worked on the notes. She came back up, listened, and we did a lot of notes together. She took off and I bounced everything down. I go back to the hotel room and right as I’m about to go to fall asleep, she texts me, ‘Hey, I have a few more notes.’ So, I went back to the studio, worked a few more notes, bounced everything again, sent it to mastering and that was it. That was my experience on A Seat At The Table (laughs). I think it came out a couple of days after I worked on it. It came out pretty much right after.
How was it working on the audio for Beyonce’s Homecoming special on Netflix?
It was a lot of mixing. I was mixing that with her musical director Derek Dixie and his partner-in-crime Lester Mendoza. We were mixing that for a long time. It was extremely challenging in the sense that it’s this long show and there were a lot of intricate parts. To get it to flow seamlessly was complicated. It was a lot of stems from the live show. There were more than 30 or 40 stems. I can’t remember, but it was a lot. It was intricate because it’s a lot of different songs, sounds, and vocal tones. To make it cohesive took quite a bit of work.
What’s your greatest talent?
The talent I strive the most to have is just to be fast and to be able to feel the music in the moment, and be able to get the sound happening. Whether it needs effects or mixing, whatever the song needs for you to feel emotionally, I help with that. It may not be technical perfection off of the bat. But, I can get in a room with a bunch of artists — any artists — and any genre of music and figure out what they want from me.
What is something you hope changes in the music industry for engineers in the coming decade?
I wish it was a law that the credits have to be right. I wish credits were more important to the industry, as a whole. The credits are our livelihoods. I look online all the time throughout my career and credits get messed up on these different websites… You can’t figure out who did what and I wish that would change. I wish there was a standardization of how the credits had to be submitted, how they had to get turned in, and where they’re displayed online. There should be some checks and balances. Credits are our livelihood. For instance, I worked on this FKA Twigs EP M3LL155X. I mixed the first and last song on that album, and the first song is one of my favorite mixes I’ve done.