Beyonce Runs Her World

Aug 1, 2011 1:43 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Another foreign jaunt—also connected to the Jay-Z and West project—took Beyonce and Swivel to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, England. While Jay-Z and West were in the main studio, Beyonce was in Gabriel’s personal room, “which is like a musical toy factory,” Swivel says, “with instruments all over the walls, keyboards hanging from the ceiling. It’s such an amazing creative space, and the little village there looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings.” Once again, vocal recording was the focus of their work.

Vocals, obviously, take center stage on all of Beyonce’s albums—her supple, three-plus octave voice is quite astonishing, and she takes great pride in arranging and performing the lush, sometimes silky layers of background vocals that are part of her signature sound. Asked about Beyonce’s vocal stamina in the studio, Swivel responds, “She’s good for as many takes as she needs, but she’s also one of the best singers in the world, so she doesn’t require that many takes. Recording vocals with her is actually the easiest part because I’m fast enough that I can keep up. Usually, we’ll cut a whole song very quickly—we can cut a song in an hour, two hours at the most. I remember there was one time we worked for 36 hours straight and we cut six songs in their entirety—backgrounds, lead vocals, comps, everything. She’s so talented when it comes to cutting vocals.

“The more stressful thing is executing all the production ideas she has because she’ll bring a horn section or a string section and live drummer and bass and we’ll do all this in one day—getting all that set up and making sure the mics are there and everything is running smoothly with no hiccups.”

Actually, the bulk of the music on 4’s 12 songs is electronic, generated by various synths and beat machines, twisted by plug-in processing and occasionally combined with more organic traditional instruments. For someone so embedded in the mainstream of popular music, Beyonce is not afraid to take chances. What seems on the surface to be a ballad-heavy R&B album actually has quite a lot of radical sonic underpinnings on most songs. The primal first single—“Run the World (Girls)”—erupts from a sample of Major Lazer’s odd dancehall tune “Pon De Floor” and is almost entirely made up of drums, electronic effects and vocals; hardly your usual radio fare (and indeed, the song was not a hit).

Another strong tune, “I Care,” begins with a haunting mix of just looped percussion, a keyboard and Beyonce’s lead vocal, then opens up into a much larger musical landscape: “In the hook there’s a horn section and she used a lot of baritone sax mixed with a synth to create a new kind of instrument,” Swivel says admiringly. “One of the cool things on that song is she riffed the entire guitar solo, so her vocal is matching the guitar solo perfectly. It’s a genius idea and she totally pulls it off. She’s pushing the boundaries of music and experimenting with all sorts of things.”

A whopping 70-plus songs were cut during the course of the sessions, with the work of many top writers and producers left by the wayside (for the time being), so who knows what the really weird stuff sounds like!

With so many writers and producers involved, there’s always the danger of the finished album sounding disjointed—the “too many cooks” syndrome. Pro Tools sessions came from many sources, but “everything kind of went through me,” Swivel says. “If Shea added parts, he would bounce them and send them to me, and if other producers were sending parts, I’d add them, and, of course, all the vocals. Everything was added and pieced together on my central sessions.”

Beyonce’s lead vocals and backing arrangements are a reliable thread throughout, and Taylor’s musicality was obviously a steady, grounding presence. The main mixers are among the best in the business—Tony Maserati and Serban Ghenea—and they seemed to be in sync, as well. (Swivel mixed “I Care” and “Schoolin’ Life,” a tune off the exclusive Target double-CD version, which also contains three remixes of “Run the World.”)

“As we got closer to the end,” Swivel notes, “there was a lot of work molding the album. It was about creating a cohesive sound and making a timeless record. I feel like the best albums have a sound and direction. I think we achieved that here, and were able to make an album that will stand the test of time.”

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