Breaking the Mix Rules with Billie Eilish: Rob Kinelski
Billie Eilish’s album has cemented her place as a pop culture icon, precisely because she doesn’t play by the rules. We spoke to Rob Kinelski, mix engineer for the record to discuss his fearless mix philosophy and how he too breaks the rules.
By Asher Parkes
Originally published on Waves Audio July 9, 2019.
If you’ve been connected to any media over the past months, it would be hard to have missed the name Billie Eilish. The 17-year-old singer/songwriter, along with her 21-year-old brother and sole producer Finneas O’Connell, have caused seismic shifts in popular music. Praised for its stellar bedroom production, their first full-length, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? debuted at #1 in both the US Billboard and the UK album charts.
Receiving as much attention for her unique production and songwriting as her Instagram persona, Billie is rightly being seen as a game changer in music, breaking all the rules of genre, style and pop culture. We talked to Rob Kinelski, the album’s mix engineer and third member of the Eilish team, about his fearlessness, his approach for mixing the album, and his hip-hop love for low end.
Rob, congratulations on your success with this album! You started your career making rock albums but have also worked on records with Beyoncé, Rihanna and Big Sean among others. How did your blended background fit when working with Billie?
It’s interesting because I first worked with Billie and Finneas on “Bellyache” a few years back, and that song is a complete hybrid. It's like organic drums and then acoustics into a pop song. Then the chorus came in and it was like crazy 808s!
I’ve always liked working on multiple genres. I come from a rock background, and I was in a band before going to SAE in New York. I was producing in a studio in Jersey Shore, but I realized I wasn’t going to get to the level I wanted; the market was too small, and I wanted to work on big records. I had a friend at Sony and he managed to get me an assisting job in a big studio, which led me to involvement in Beyoncé’s B’Day. That opened doors for me to Urban, R&B and hip hop, which I never thought I would be doing.
I moved to LA and collaborated with No I.D. for a few years, and connected with Billie while mixing the Joey Bada$$ record. I realized I could work well with their style—the rock guys have one sound and hip hop guys have theirs, and I always sat in the middle. Billie and Finn knew I’d done a lot of hip hop records and they wanted me to bring the low end. We did one song, it turned into another and before we knew it, we had an EP which did really well. I just became their guy.
When We All Fall Asleep has made a huge splash. How has it impacted you, and how do you see its broader impact on the music industry?
I can't predict the future, but I do know that a lot of people are calling me to mix their records now. I was always busy but now it's been nuts. Some records come in and I can see why they want me, and that’s cool.
I hope what Billie did was pave the way for people to do what they want. She and Finneas weren’t trying to fit into a box, they were just being authentic. I think that pop music goes in waves between being calculated and feeling freer. It’s like a pendulum, and maybe this record is pushing it into a more open direction.
I guess it's an argument for not referencing, just following your ears rather than trying to make a mix sound like something that everyone’s heard.
Yeah. It’s funny because I wasn’t referencing anything really. I knew they wanted the drums and the low end to feel huge, but also let the song shine. I listened to the finished masters and I was like, “Oh man, this is kind of dark.” I got nervous and was hoping I wouldn’t get slammed on Gearslutz for mixing a dark record, but at the same time I was like, “Screw it, it sounds good!” It doesn't always work though! Sometimes things just happen effortlessly and that’s usually the magic, other times it’s just tough. I just try not to get in the way. My mantra is, "Don't mess this up dude.”
I’ve heard the record be compared to Nevermind by Nirvana which destroyed everything that was cool in the ‘80s and defined the trends of the ‘90s.
That comparison totally humbles me, because that’s the album that got me to do music; it changed my life as a kid. I knew Billie’s record was going to be big, I did not think it would be this massive though. I’m honored to be a part of it, because I love the shows and I see how the kids are reacting to her music. She’s so empowering to her fans, it’s kind of what we need, you know?
When I listen to the album, I get both a sparse and full feeling simultaneously. Did it come to you with a lot of space?
No, it came to me pretty full actually. If anything, I did some subtraction. A lot of my EQing of her vocal is subtraction because everything is close-mic’d and whispered. But because there's so much space in the production, it makes the vocal feel massive. A lot of people don't realize that the less you put on a record, the bigger it sounds. You know on that Johnny Cash album where it’s just his vocal and an acoustic? It sounds huge, because that’s all there is! When you stack 400 tracks it actually becomes small.
On “Bad Guy,” it's like bass, vocals, drums, and one synth in the chorus with some sprinkled effects. You can turn it up super loud because the speakers are just thumping. If you have a lot of mid-range, you can’t get that type of volume without hurting your ears.
Billie’s vocals sound amazing, and she’s clearly a mature singer ahead of her years. How did you treat her voice to sound so haunting but beautiful?
It came to me like a dream vocal stem. Sometimes you get stuff that’s like "Okay, I've got to really dig on this," and other times you're like, "Let's not break this.” They did it in their bedroom, but they've got good ears and made great choices. I have some basic EQ, often cutting out mids like 2.5k and 3k. I have the PuigChild 670 plugin on an insert for some compression, a little DeEsser for sibilance and then a Vocal Rider just to level things out. After that I’ll usually try add some width and automation, and that’s it really.
In general R-Vox (Renaissance Vox) is my go-to vocal plugin for pretty much any source; it always does a great job. It just brings the vocal forward and levels it nicely. I've been using it for a long time—I want to say like 10 years, but I didn’t use it as much on this record because a lot of the sources came to me already compressed.
The other thing with Billie is super dry and intimate sounding vocals—no reverb or delay. I added reverb to one thing and they’re like, “No, no, we’re going to keep it all dry.” I thought that was dope and super bold. There's not much trickery layered underneath, and all those cool vocal effects were already created. Sometimes they would send me an FX return and the dry vocal, so I could treat the vocal my way and blend in their effects. Anything else I added was subtlety.
The doubled vocals sit in the mix super loudly but are still tight, how did you treat them to fit so cleanly with the lead?
I usually don't do any editing unless I’m asked to, because sometimes people want stuff “wrong,” or just looser—especially in hip hop, there's supposed to be mouth noises and imperfections. There were things on the album that I cleaned up and they were like, "Hey, put that back. That's intentional." And I said cool, it sounded great.
I liked using the S1 stereo imager for some width on the vocal doubles, both gently and sometimes aggressively to the point of absurd. I love it when you push a sample out of phase and make it weird.
Breaking all the rules they tell you in audio school…
Screw the rules! I mean, if it's something traditional like a piano, maybe I won’t go too crazy. But if there's a weird kind of keys sound, l like putting those things through the S1 or PS22 Stereo Maker to give it that feeling that it’s outside the mix. I don't care if you switch to mono and lose that sound. Honestly, I'm probably going to do a lot of stuff people don't like, and that's cool, I’m trying to be fearless.
Did you play with the sound design on any of the sources? I felt some of the tracks had this lo-fi, “Soundcloud rap” sort of vibe.
I honestly didn’t think about any of that stuff. Finneas and Billie made most of the decisions themselves, and I was just trying to get the bass drum and vocal banging! I was mostly sweetening up what they already did—pushing it out a little wider, bringing it in or opening it up. I didn’t analyze things so deeply, so I love that people are doing that.
If I felt anything about this whole album, it was definitely Beatles. I was getting those vibes and you can tell they listened to them. It’s interesting because like the Beatles, Billie and Finneas are fearless—they do what they want.
People have commented on the loudness, maybe even distortion in some of the tracks, particularly “Xanny.” Was that intentional?
It’s all intentional! It’s distorted and makes people uncomfortable, and that's the vibe of the song. I have meters, I make sure it’s not broken. Then I send the mastering guy my loud mix and my less loud mix to pick from, but everybody involved understood the intention. I think "Xanny" is my favorite track on the whole album—it's just so disturbing when it gets heavy, I love that.
If a kid can get that “million-dollar sound” producing in their bedroom, then what’s the role today of the professional mixer?
I think the role is always changing, but it’s hard to answer broadly because everything is so case specific. There are times I get mixes and they're like, "Hey, we have it really dialed in, just take it home." Other times they're like, "We don't really like what's going on, do your thing." Often you just want to bring it to a professional level without messing it up, because people are doing great stuff at home. I always compare it to a haircut, when someone comes in like, "Cut my hair!" Well, what do you want? You want me to line it up or shave your head? Let me help you get there. Old school mix mentality is like, strip everything back and I’ll start from scratch. Now, the mixing process begins a lot earlier, and I like respecting where it is already.
It’s always going to boil down to the people involved; the location and tools are merely dictated by who’s using them and how they’re being used. With this album, I honestly think that if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t say it sounds like a bedroom, because I don’t think it does.
What do you suggest for kids who are trying to do a bit of everything—they're writing their own songs, producing, mixing, maybe even recording for others. Should they focus on one direction, or hone as many of their skills as possible?
I think do it all! Follow what you love, and work on everything. That way you’ll find out what you really like to do. I think when you get to a certain point though, you’ll learn to trust in the process and work effectively with other people. One of the coolest things about Billie and Finn is that they do their thing but they also trust the process. They don't micromanage me or any of it. I think sometimes people hang on to stuff too much; they feel they need to do everything. When I started working on my own, I wasn’t sure if I would produce too. I felt myself being pulled in too many directions. Then I was like, "You know what, let me just focus on mixing."