Willie Linton’s a tough guy to keep up with. A core member of Vybe Chyle, Incorporated—whose global media work keeps its team beyond busy on production projects for artists including Beyoncé, Ciara, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, Bryson Tiller, TLC, and T.I.—Linton is loving his latest run with Post Malone, whose Beerbongs & Bentleys tour started early in 2018 with Coachella, swept the US—including through Linton’s hometown Atlanta—and stretched into 2019 with dates around the world, including a blockbuster set with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Whether performing sold-out shows at Red Rocks or the Hollywood Bowl, Post Malone needs his Auto-Tune in the hands of a pro; and Linton is, without question, a true pro.
A drummer and guitar player who fell in love with Pro Tools and the mixing side of the music, Linton spent nearly a decade recording and mixing, and a few years ago found his calling right on that blurry line between the studio and the stage. He built a reputation for, at requisite lightning speed, pulling arrangements together, preparing and organizing all the stems, and earning the trust of the likes of Raury, Ne-Yo, 6lack, T.I., K. Michelle, and Tinashe. Linton’s role as music programmer and playback systems manageron Post Malone’s tour capitalizes on his niche talent: perfecting a strategy for Auto-Tune to get the same performance on the road that’s showcased on the record.
Auto-Tune has been a staple in Linton’s toolbox for the past 10 years. While technology is always evolving, from Linton’s perspective, Antares has remained steadfast in supporting its users. He appreciates when staff members come to shows, spend time at front of house and monitors, and “kind of get to know everybody. That was the exciting thing, to see that it’s a software company that’s not just putting out plug-ins just to make money,” he says. “They’re trying to make their product better. Because everyone in the company seems to be fueled by the same passion we are.”
Linton uses Auto-Tune both to correct pitch and to create effects. “Anyone can sing a song, right? But not everyone makes you believe it,” he says. “Sometimes, we’ll have this really cool vibrato, or maybe the singer tries to hit a note and it comes out more like a scream—I’d choose that over a take that’s perfectly in tune any day. So, why not use Auto-Tune to actually get that thing in check so you have that emotion? it’s all part of trying to create a believable performance. I think that same mindset from the studio works on stage as well.”
Linton is often called in by artists and vocal coaches to help facilitate those amazing performances on tour with the help of Auto-Tune. “Each artist is different—different experience, different history, and different vocal abilities—so we’ll have to customize the tools for them to perform live,” he says. “We might change the key of the song; maybe the key that it was recorded in isn’t really at their best register and is difficult to perform every night, for example.” He will often work closely with a tour music director to build new arrangements from mix stems so that a band can perform with them. “Plug-in settings from the studio don’t always work the same on stage,” he explains. “Bleed from stage monitors, crowd noise, and other variables make it difficult to use these tools in live performance. I’ve found using a highpass filter before hitting Tune helps minimize some of these problems.”
When preparing for a tour, Linton begins by sketching out tracks with the artist and music director. “That’s where it all starts,” he says. “Then, on the road, once we get the tracks together, I’ll pull up on a set of speakers and get a basic level to get everything sounding cool. Ideally, in the box, I want the stems to be somewhat balanced before it gets to front of house or monitors. I would love them to start at unity and have a nice mix. With Post Malone, after the shows programmed and leveled, I’ll set up our redundant playback and Auto-Tune rig and make sure it’s rock-solid for each show.”
”Whether I’m running a Pro Tools or Ableton rig, I’m always running Auto-Tune,” he adds. “Sometimes we have what’s called a ‘Voice of God’ mic: During the show where the artist wants cues or needs to know what’s happening behind the scenes in the middle of their set—maybe we’re running out of time and need to cut a song, etcetera—we’ll use this mic to speak with them. We have to really pay attention: If a song stops, all automation around the performance needs to change as well. Communication is key. If you do your job, the crowd should be able to enjoy the performance without even knowing what tools you’re using.”
“In the studio, you might have a really fast retune speed to get an effect,” he explains. “And then live, let’s say the singer pulls away from the capsule. Now, if he’s pulling away from the capsule, he’s not hitting the Auto-Tune as direct, so the Auto-Tune is pulling in crowd noise and other ambient noise, and that might trick the Auto-Tune and make the voice sound crazy. We’ll use gates and we’ll use certain microphones with really narrow capsules or supercardioid capsules, so that way we limit the amount of external noise or sound that could trigger the Auto-Tune. We might have to go and back the retune speed down a little bit. Or maybe there’s a song where one of the notes doesn’t really need to be in there, and the Auto-Tune keeps pulling it down, or maybe he needs to glide over a certain section of notes, so we’ll have to go in in Chromatic mode and just remove the one note that we don’t want to hear.”
Linton recognizes that he’s there to support the artist first. But other perspectives are just as important—from the producer to the label to the fans: “When I first got into this, I saw the crowd chanting certain parts of a song, and I realized, man, those elements that make them move and sing, they’re the most important in a mix.” he says. “When you start out with a new artist, you’ve got to build common language, and you’ve got to be able to collaborate—they’re trusting you with their art! There are a lot of moving parts; touring is working as a team to build an ecosystem that will support an artist every night. None of these shows happen on their own, and that’s what I love about it. The biggest challenge is just giving the artists what they want and also what they need at the same time. And then also, helping them grow.”
And Linton is committed to doing just that, with Auto-Tune as part of his toolset.