Now, a year later, the mixing engineer—who has also worked with Kanye West—calls me up to explain how he mixed Burna Boy’s follow-up, Twice As Tall. We begin our chat by talking about Ernster’s one-year-old daughter, who is co-mixer on the project. Let’s not forget who the real boss is, and also not forget Ernster is committed to keeping a longstanding musical legacy going for his family.
Born in Winnipeg, and currently based in LA, Jesse Ray Ernster’s perfectionism reveals itself all over Twice As Tall, which garnered critical acclaim, with Pitchfork’s Mankaprr Conteh writing: “The Nigerian superstar’s latest LP can feel heavy under the weight of his personal reflection and Pan-African crusade. It is a load worth carrying.” The “weight” of Twice As Tall does not break the album, thanks in large part to the way Ernster worked on the many layers and symphony of sounds Burna Boy and executive producer Diddy brought to the table. A sonic treat, Twice As Tall will live in Burna’s pantheon for all-time.
As Jesse Ray Ernster and I talk all things mixing and Burna Boy, I realize Ernster is too humble to reckon with being in the room with living legends for a majority of his career. More than anything, Ernster is simply happy to help visions come to fruition. He is a good soul with an amazing ear.
Since we last talked, you’ve had a daughter. Tell me about how that impacted Twice As Tall.
Some may notice that another mixer is credited on this album, and it is my one-year-old daughter. Due to the pandemic and quarantine, she was there during the whole mixing stage. Thanks, COVID!
She was a massive inspiration. She’s so tapped into music, and she feels music on an emotional level. Certain songs make her dance, and others make her cry. We can see her arms get goosebumps at certain songs, and she loves Burna’s music. These indicators were helpful to know if I was on the right track with my balances. I did find out one night that I got the low end right when the subwoofers woke her up from her slumber down the hall in her crib!
When did Burna Boy approach you to start working on Twice As Tall? How did COVID-19 impact the process?
The week after the GRAMMYs, Burna went into the studio and began recording the opening track, “Level Up.” We finished that song eight months ago. From there, we began with this mission that this album wasn’t gonna be African Giant 2.0. It needed to be a full-on evolution, twice as tall in every way imaginable. Twice as heavy, twice as catchy, twice the power and fatness in the low ends. Twice the quality.
With that in mind, we were ready to crush this, and COVID hit. We had to face that goal amidst the pandemic. We had to find ways to produce, mix, and master the album completely remotely. Burna was in Nigeria, Diddy was in Miami, and I was in LA. We proceeded to mix this album, over the last three months, via Zoom.
We spent many, many, many long days together over Zoom, working hard and getting to know each other on a way deeper level than before. Burna and I became a lot closer friends this time around, as well as his producers LeriQ and Telz, who were present on all of those sessions as well.
Please explain Zoom mixing...
The problem with Zoom is you’ve got horrible audio quality, and you’re hearing the feedback from everyone’s phones and computers. Whenever I hit play, we would all mute our mics, and we would stream a hi-res stream of the audio straight out of the mix session with a plugin. Diddy would have it pulled up, Burna would have it pulled up, and my manager Matthew, who also A&Rs for Burna on the label side, would have it pulled up. We would all hear exactly how the record sounded. They would wave at me, like, “Hey! Stop!” when it was time to change something. Or, we’d get to the end of a song and speak about what we heard and what we felt. Then we would begin to make changes.
Which session was the most challenging, and how did you overcome the challenge?
One of the biggest challenges was overcoming [Zoom mixing], but honestly, it was really fast. Everyone caught on quickly to how it would go, and we were all happy with how smooth the experience was of mixing remotely. The learning curve… By the end of the first day, we had it.
How did your relationship with Burna from African Giant impact your work on Twice As Tall?
After the success of African Giant, Burna was able to place a little more trust in me to craft the sounds a bit more than before. On African Giant, we kept things close to the original demos.
This time around, he gave me full flexibility with the vocals and gave me the freedom to go ahead and try stuff. I would experiment with tuning the drums a different way so we would get this musically low end happening, following the chords in the midrange. Those decisions were subtle, but they were creative decisions that elevated the songs.
What was Burna Boy’s creative energy like in the Zoom meetings?
The energy and the morale of those sessions was high! Like any creative project, there were moments of focus where everyone was diligent about the task at hand, and there were other moments of celebration. We were jamming, dancing, and enjoying each other’s company. If it got towards the end of the workday, we would be having some drinks and celebrating what we’re working on together. It was a brotherhood. This was no different than hanging with these guys in the studio, for real, as I mentioned to you last year. But I wanna stress there was a lot of hard work and serious thought going into it.
Aside from Zoom, what was the biggest difference between mixing African Giant and Twice As Tall?
In contrast to the African Giant album, which was mixed with a lot of analog equipment, Twice As Tall was mixed with all digital plugins. Many purists might consider that to be a limitation, saying it’ll never sound as good, but it’s the undeniable truth that Twice As Tall sounds bigger and more high fidelity than any of Burna’s past albums. This was an opportunity to hone in on these digital tools and learn how to maximize what they can do. You don’t need analog gear to make warm-sounding recordings. It’s about the right team, writers, songs, and using your ear to make it happen.
The reason I landed on mixing it all digitally was because I was moving a lot while making this album. My family and I moved around California a lot the last few months. We started the album at our house. A renovation began, so we moved out to Laurel Canyon. I mixed for a month up there, the epicenter of the folk-rock movement of the late 1960s. I felt the spirit! Then, we moved down to Manhattan Beach, and that is where I finished Twice As Tall, on my laptop, right on the beach, on the water. Submitted the final mixes right on the ocean.
Very picturesque. I love the scenery.
I started these mixes at home, where I’m comfortable, with my hi-fi mastering monitors… But I mixed and finished this album all on Airpods. Just listening right out of the computer. That’s how we did it.
How instrumental was Diddy to Twice As Tall?
He came into the process about 80 percent of the way to completion. This was an opportunity for me to have some mentorship from a master. He’s OG.
He worked in-depth with us on the mixing. My biggest memory was working on “Monsters You Made.” Diddy would often compliment my mixing direction, but also challenged me to make more dangerous mix moves. He pushed me. He made the suggestion to crank that snare drum up and make it explode like a rock song. I referenced a song called “Floods” by Pantera. I used a tool called a Talkback Limiter. This tool emulates an old-school routing technique to get this explosive sound. We smashed some of that onto the snare, and that was a good example of a move where we were going back and forth creatively.
What does it feel like to work with living legends? How do you keep yourself grounded being in their company?
I usually stay quiet and listen, and I observe. I try to figure out what they are looking for and find every moment to learn from them. When I am called upon to be of service, I try to be the most diligent I can be. I try to stay alert and focused on what their needs are and how I make their lives as easy as possible.