Engineer Profile: DJ Swivel on the Making of Beyoncé’s “4”

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FINANCIAL DISTRICT, MANHATTAN: If things seem like they’re moving fast for Jordan Young, aka DJ Swivel don’t be sure he feels the same way. Because when you’ve got your shoulder to the wheel like this New York City engineer, you can’t be watching the clock.

Meet DJ Swivel, Beyoncé's go-to engineer for "4".

He’s just 26, but he’s already earned the distinction of being the full-time engineer for Beyoncé, whose highly anticipated new album 4 drops this week. In addition to doing the trench work throughout, Swivel was trusted enough by Ms. Knowles to mix two songs, “I Care” and “Schoolin’ Life.” But he’d tell you he was just one of the outstanding 4 support team – songwriters, producers and mixers — to help bring Beyonce’s most wide-ranging collection yet to her immense fan base.

Swivel’s role with the reigning R&B queen, who with 75 million+ records sold to date stands as one of the best-selling artists ever, comes after a quick start: a violinst/trumpeter/bassist who’s been DJing since his teens in his native Toronto, Young went to Full Sail and got his post-graduation foot in the door interning with the renowned mixer Duro.

Putting in relentless hours, Swivel’s work ethic got noticed. Seven months after arriving in NYC, he recorded Fabolous’ fourth studio album, From Nothing to Something, and from there his client list kept growing. Jay-Z, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Kanye West, a posthumous record for Michael Jackson – Swivel must be on to something.

Relaxing at Engine Room Audio not long after he finished a globe-spanning, 300-work-day year engineering and mixing for the fiercely-working Beyoncé, Swivel took us inside the making of 4 — providing plenty of career inspiration along the way.

You were a serious DJ in your teens, growing up in Canada. Did that enable you to learn to listen to music in a certain way?

Yes, and DJing really helped broaden my musical spectrum as well, because I wasn’t DJing just one genre: I played just about everything you could hear in a club. This wasn’t stuff I was necessarily listening to in my spare time, so it helped evolve my musical tastes. Listening to different genres helps in engineering and production. That’s helpful because if you’re trying to make a song sound like something, you know the tricks in those different genres.

I personally listened to mostly hip hop and R&B, a little bit of dance and rock, but when I was DJing I was exposed to a lot of dance and reggae — having a lot of those influences was helpful as well.

But doing it in my teens, I wasn’t really thinking about the career aspect of it. I just loved doing it. That makes things a lot easier to pick up, when you just enjoy it, and luckily for me it evolved into a career.

How did you and Beyoncé connect initially? What happened in your early work together to indicate that you had chemistry as artist/engineer?
A friend of mine, Omar Grant was an A&R at Epic, and he used to work with Destiny’s Child on the road. Beyoncé needed an engineer for a fill-in day, they called him, he called me, so I came in and did a session. We recorded the beginning stages of “Party,” which is on the album.

That’s the first thing we ever cut, and she said, “You did a great job today. You’re really fast.” Then she left. I felt like a made a good impression.

Then six weeks later I got another call, and they said, “We need you again.” From that point on — May 2010 — we didn’t take any days off. We probably worked 300+ days this year. But it all started from that one chance session. That comes back to my philosophy of always being around, always being available. I’ll drop anything for a session. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing.

Tell us about her goals for 4, sonically.
Beyoncé had finished the biggest tour in the world the year before, and then took a year off. She did all the things she wanted to do. She just got to be a regular person for a year, and so then coming into the project she had all those influences, like Fela Kuti, and ‘90’s throwback R&B. She had a million ideas, and she just wanted to experiment.

We recorded 70+ songs, ranging from ballads to weird ethereal things, to Afrobeat Fela-influenced music, the ‘90’s R&B. The record is very eclectic, but still very much Beyoncé. Her vocal makes everything fit, but musically it’s a very diverse album, and it really takes on the qualities of the music she was listening to, and all the influences she had at that time. So as far as getting on the same page with her, my job was to execute her ideas to the best of my abilities, and I think we accomplished that.

One song with a Fela influence was “End of Time.” With the horns and percussion, it very much has a Fela thing going on. It started with [producer] The-Dream, and then [producer]  Switch added elements of electronic music, chopped some vocals in there, created an interesting synth intro sound which is actually a Dream vocal. The bass line is very musical, it’s not just a plain 808 bass: It’s got a vibe to it.

Beyoncé really co-produced this whole album herself as well. For the rest of us, it was executing her ideas. It was: bring a horn section in, a live bass player¸ being able to meld all those live instruments along with the programmed element of it to bring in a new sound. I feel like it was achieved, because there’s not a lot of songs that sound like that. She’s introducing a new sound to pop music with records like that.

How do you capture her vocals?
For this record it was a vintage stereo tube mic but we’re just using one capsule. That’s going into an Avalon 737, but bypassing all EQ and compression, then into an 1176. That’s set at a 4:1 ratio, just kind of kissing the vocals a little bit.

But with her it changes on every song. She’s so dynamic, that it really depends on a song-by-song basis. It’s not like recording a rapper whose vocal is pretty much in the same space. She can go from a very soft, low vocal to a screaming, belting-out kind of sound. For a lot of recording on 4, riding the input is a very important thing. There isn’t one setting.

One of the biggest challenges recording her is capturing the best sound through every part of the vocal. That comes from knowing the song, knowing when she’ll be loud to turn it down, and when she’s soft to turn it up. That really saves a lot of time in the mix, and saves the sonic quality. That way you’re not killing the compressor when she belts out, which results in a thin — not strong — vocal.

“Run the World (Girls)” was the first single off of 4.

What studio or studios did you record at? Were they all in NYC? How were they selected?
The majority of it was done at MSR, but we probably worked at 10 different studios. We did a lot at Jungle City, a little at Germano Studios, a little at KMA, a couple of days in LA at Conway, and then we traveled a little bit.

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  • Thejedimaster

    dave… great article

  • sunshyne84

    Awesome and inspiring! I love to see people go after their dreams.