The Vocal Producer Who Mixed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”
“Old Town Road” is the country-trap song that coined a genre, caused controversy in Nashville, and became the longest-running Billboard #1 in history. We spoke to Andrew “VoxGod” Bolooki who mixed the new version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
By Asher Parkes
Originally published on Waves Audio, September 12, 2019.
“Old Town Road” is the ultimate story of millennial musicians. It began with Dutch producer Kio who produced a trap beat with a Nine Inch Nails sample, and sold it online to an aspiring young rapper from Georgia, Lil Nas X. The resulting country-trap composition made its way into the Twittersphere largely through Tik Tok, a video sharing app. The song, along with its accompanying cowboy memes, caused tidal waves on social media and hijacked the Billboard country charts before being controversially removed for “not embracing enough elements of today’s country music.”
Not content with coining a genre, Lil Nas and his new major label backers responded with a remix version of “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. Andrew “VoxGod” Bolooki, an LA-based vocal producer with Fifth Harmony, Selena Gomez and Linkin Park credits to his name, was called in last-minute to engineer the writing session. Andrew’s role quickly became critical in the production and mixing of the track, as he worked for two weeks without sleep to get it out. The remix version has since become the longest-running Billboard #1 in history.
We spoke to Andrew about his involvement in “Old Town Road,” vocal producing Billy Ray Cyrus, and cowboy memes.
Andrew, congratulations on the incredible success of “Old Town Road”! How does it feel to be behind the longest-running Billboard #1 in history, and how has it affected your career?
It just feels awesome, and it didn't hurt my schedule, I'll put it that way! There’ve been many times where I didn’t get credit or payment for work on both pop vocals and rap verses, and that's just the nature of the business. I realize now that it didn't matter because I brought that valuable experience forward. Had I not done all that previous work, I wouldn't have been prepared for “Old Town Road” since it was a tricky vocal arrangement to nail, even though the song sounds simple.
As a vocal producer, what’s your creative touch? What magic do you bring to the project that the producer or mixer can’t provide?
My aim is to make one perfect track of the lead vocal, edited so well that you can discern every lyric and syllable, and the exact melody. I don't want the listener to be guessing as to what the artist said. I want them to be singing along before the song is even finished.
I still get the question, "What exactly does a vocal producer do? Like you're an engineer and a producer?" It's a hybrid of both roles and very situational. Often I’m asked to sit alone with the artist and create an acapella from scratch over an instrumental, and I engineer. With a rough demo it might require making new arrangements on the fly. Other times a recording didn’t come out well, but the label needs a certain artist on a record, so I’m called in for fixing, mixing, and vocal “sound design” to create new vocal tracks from unused takes. Either way, I work with the mentality that my bounce will green-light the rest of the placement process, so anything I send back has to sound like a finished record. The artist needs to sound like an undeniable fit with the material, and my job is to do whatever is needed to get the record to that point.
You were initially brought in to track Billy Ray’s vocals for the remix. How was the project presented to you?
The studio needed an engineer for the writing session for what I assumed was a country song, but soon realized was more of a hybrid country/trap beat. I felt that it could go one of two ways: I could put a vocal tuning plugin on it and be done, or I could really spend time doing my vocal production process and making it work. I chose the latter, which took some extra time in getting a finished sounding vocal mix.
Getting a singer like Billy Ray to work over a trap beat was not so straightforward. A lot of country artists are used to recording with live instruments where not everything's perfectly in tune, and those anomalies sound great and authentic. “Old Town Road” was a different approach for Billy’s voice, and as a vocal producer, I stepped in to carefully make him fit alongside Lil Nas. Billy did a lot of takes in different tones, voices and registers, and I comped them all together in a way that made Billy sound like more than a mere feature, and the last chorus sounds like a gang vocal!
I explained this to the label who were wondering what was taking so long, but when I turned in the verse, they were floored and asked me to vocal produce Billy over the rest of the record. It went from a feature verse to a duet, where Billy starts and ends the song, and does the best country rap verse you’ve ever heard.
The internet went crazy over Billy Ray’s verse; they were calling it the “verse of the century.” How did it come about?
The credit for that verse goes entirely to Billy and Jozzy—the co-writer. They killed it, and it was the smoothest writing session I've ever witnessed. When I went back with Billy to record the rest of the song I was like, "Dude, you already got an A+, you're just going for extra credit now.” He was like, "Cool! Let me try a Johnny Cash voice."
You don't want to come into a vocal session with a preconceived idea of how it should sound, because the artist may blow you away with something you wouldn’t have thought of. Instead of saying, "Hey, I don't like that," be like, "That's dope. What else you got?" and most artists will keep going to outdo their best take. Essentially, they end up vocal-producing themselves, as opposed to me having to hold their hand. If you need to drag them through the process, it might not be the right song for that singer.
The whistling part at the end of the track, which Lil Nas (and the internet) also loved was a perfect case of having fun in the booth. I had a great vocal chain set up with H-Delay, which I love, and a bunch of other Waves effects, and Billy heard himself whistle through it and was like, "Damn, that sounds awesome." When an artist is inspired by hearing themselves through a certain chain or plugin, it’s worth every penny. And when the entire internet is down with something, you know you nailed it.
You ended up becoming the vocal producer and mixer of the remix. Aside from the vocals, what was your artistic intention for the new version?
The original version of the song is great, but it was never arranged by anybody—it's really like a demo. The Pro Tools session I got of the original is the exact 2-track bounce that's on Spotify, and Lil Nas had punched in only one part. It's funny, I actually had trouble loading the session at first because one of the characters in the title was a horse emoji, and Pro Tools couldn't locate it. I was like, "This was literally named by a kid!"
That’s amazing. It’s like a homage to the entire meme of the song.
Yeah! So in the original, it gets to the biggest part over the pre-chorus and kind of dwindles from there. I rearranged the music so that the verses are a little smaller, and the final chorus becomes the coolest part. We went through almost every arrangement possibility before settling. Other than that, Kio's 2-track sounded awesome. No doubt he mixed the hell out of the music before it got anywhere, and no-one said anything needed to be changed.
The remix arrangement turned out to be great because you don't really get sick of hearing the choruses; they all sound different. Had we inserted a chorus in between that first and second verse, the last chorus wouldn't have been nearly as special. I encourage all artists to throw out the idea that your song needs to be forced into a certain length. It's a little frustrating to hear an amazing song that’s really short, but listen to it twice—who cares?
When I finished the vocals and arrangement, I was sure the label would give it to a legendary Urban mixer to wrap up. But looking back, I was really doing all the mix work without the official title. I just went along with how quickly the song needed to be put together and released—with Lil Nas getting kicked off the country charts, there was a very small window of opportunity.
You had many sleepless nights rushing to get this song finished. What were you spending most of your time digging into?
Definitely comping. Each comp was made up of a large handful of takes, and the only tuning I really focused on was making Billy’s doubles from takes with a lot of natural vibrato.
I edit in solo to a click track, because I'm trying to make a raw vocal that’s interesting enough to listen to in isolation, and still get the vibe of the song. It works 100 percent of the time. A lot of people make edits with effects on, which to me seems counterproductive—it's like baking a cake with the frosting on already.
I also do a lot of tedious clip gain automation before compression, by chopping the wav file into pieces. If I want something to poke out, I can push the volume of it into the compressor and it will slam down more. I may also want to bring up the ambiance and mouth noises. The additional volume automation is then done after I add the music back in. It’s subtle, but it’s what really makes the lyrics pop in the mix.
For this process, I almost always use the CLA-76 compressor. To me, the black one sounds smoother and the blue stripe adds some aggression and pleasing harmonic distortion. For background vocals or any sort of smoother pop thing, I'll usually use the black one. For Billy's parts, which are kind of rough, I used the blue stripe for that little extra oomph.
How else did you get Billy’s and Lil Nas’ vocals to sound like they both belong on the one track?
I did a decent amount of bussing. I love the Waves C6. There’s a “Pooch” preset that’s my go-to for every vocal bus in my sessions—leads, ad-libs, backgrounds—so when I make stems, they all sound more mixed. For the most part, I'll just solo the two sweepable sidechain bands, listen for whatever I don't like and pull it out, it’s very forgiving. It’s my emergency "Oh shit, I gotta play this track for somebody fast" plugin, and it always gets a good reaction.
We ended up using the Waves SSL E-Channel a lot because it was on every track in Lil Nas’ original session, and sounded good on his voice. I copied the preset onto Billy Ray's tracks too, just to kind of color them the same.
I'll usually throw on some sort of corrective EQ like high-passing before I get to the compressor, but honestly, a lot of my “EQing” comes from picking the right takes. I never feel I need to go crazy because so much is done in the booth, after that you're just polishing. It’s like getting your car washed and now you just need to wax it. Also, when things are arranged well and you utilize pan automation, you usually don’t need to do anything extreme.
Did you put any processing on the master fader in preparation for its release?
There's nothing on that master fader except for an L2. If you listen to my final version, it sounds identical to what's on Spotify, maybe a few dB difference from mastering. I went back and forth comparing the two, and DMed the A&R guy like, "Dude, who mixed this?" He said, "We didn't have it mixed, it already sounded great man!” I was like, "Uh... I forgot to ask you guys for a mix credit…”
Where do you see your career going in the future? Are you moving into a mixing or producing direction, or further exploring the niche of vocal production?
I've put myself out there as being a vocal mixer, but nobody really credits "Vocals mixed by…" What I tell people is, "Just send me your vocals, I’ll send you back something better.” So far, it’s been successful. I fully appreciate a great mixer’s process and I’m not saying I can compare, but I know I can mix the hell out of some vocals, and sometimes that’s all a record needs.
A lot of A&R people I've talked to recently are coming to terms with this new way of doing things; releasing records without a dedicated mixer. And the people who do what I do—producing the vocals, mixing the vocals, and making sure that the vocals are the best they can be—are getting a little more love in return.