New York, NY (June 4, 2021)—It may not sound like it, but arguably the biggest album of 2020 started with a purge.
Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese, who has produced The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) for more than a decade, is credited on half of the songs on the record-breaking After Hours album. But, before a single sound was collaborated on between the two for the album, not only had the pair not spoken in years or worked together since The Weeknd’s 2015 album Beauty Behind The Madness, but the Grammy Award-winning producer was also burned out by a music industry prioritizing quantity over quality.
“When it was time for us to reconnect, I actually was trying to retire from music,” Illangelo says now. “I had sold everything I owned—my whole studio—at the beginning of 2019. I went back to Toronto and I wasn’t trying to do anything. I wasn’t trying to executive produce After Hours and spend a year on it; I was done.”
Some of that equipment Illangelo gave away included huge Barefoot speakers,a Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier and a 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifier, along with a E-mu Mo’Phatt Synthesizer Rack. Yet, just a month after he purged himself of his music connections, Weeknd and Illangelo linked back up in Toronto for a few days in March 2019 to work on a few songs—some yet to be released and others that would later become part of After Hours. Ultimately, the album was a year-long labor of love that reminded Illangelo of the magic that can be made when music is crafted with care.
Speaking with Pro Sound News, Illangelo explains the simple vocal chain they used to create stadium-sized anthems, how he avoided getting burned out again while making After Hours, and what went into the sonics of After Hours standout track, “Faith.”
What was it like reconnecting with The Weeknd after all those years?
The second we linked back up in Toronto in early 2019, it was that magic. It was the same thing that happened when we first started working together, where I got that feeling of just knowing this is f–ing crazy. When Abel and I are in sync, we’re a pretty incredible team. I went to Peru with my girlfriend, then Abel was like, “Yo, you want to come to L.A. to do this album with me?” The songs we started in Toronto, along with the vibe and everything, made it hard to say no; it was so good. I went to L.A. and that was it. We set up the schedule, Monday to Friday—work every day, but we had to take at least two days off so we wouldn’t burn ourselves out.
You have production credits on songs such as “Snowchild,” “Faith,” “After Hours,” and “Heartless,” but you gave away your equipment months before you and Weeknd locked back in—so what did you use to make that music?
When we came back to work, I took it back to the basics of being on the laptop and doing everything in the box. Those songs you mentioned were all started with other producers. “Snowchild” was a beat that started with Metro Boomin’. “After Hours” was a demo Abel started with DaHeela. When it came to working on the album, it was just Abel and I—that’s it. [It was:] I have the files, I’m loading them up in Ableton this time around, and anything and everything that needs to happen is happening. We’re figuring out arrangements. I’m layering sounds. I’m swapping out sounds. I’m replaying. It’s a lot of work.
What was used to record him?
Everything we did went through the [UA] Apollo Twin with the premise of everything going in direct. We tried a lot of different mics and a lot of different things, but the best was when we used the [Shure] SM7B; that’s just the best. We used the Sony C800, and it’s not that we don’t like it—it’s good—but it has characteristics that don’t hit the same way to us as when we’re on the SM7B, so the v vocal chain is really the Shure SM7B going into the Apollo Twin, using the pre-amps Universal Audio supplies. They have the Manley VOXBOX [Channel Strip plug-in], which is incredible. Sometimes you don’t need to throw those plug-ins in, and you bypass all emulations and just use the preamp on the soundcard. There’s so much heavy lifting done via plug-ins, anything to do with hardware, I’m not concerned with at all.
In fact, when we first started on After Hours, I bought the Tube-Tech CL 1B and Metric Halo ULN-8 soundcard because I was thinking, “We’re about to do an album again? Let me get the sauce right.” We moved around studios. We went to Alicia Keys’ and Ann Mincieli’s studio in New York, Jungle City. We’re portable, so carrying around a Tube-Tech, Metric Halo, a power cleaner, and racks of gear is a lot. It’s easier, faster and better to use a super small Apollo Twin and an SM7B. We had very simple setups.
What did you work on at Jungle City?
I worked on “Faith” a lot at Jungle City. We worked on a lot of the songs at a lot of studios. It was a real blend. It’s hard to say we started and/or finished any one song anywhere, to be honest, because these songs were being worked on even up until the very end at Universal’s Republic Records Studio in Los Angeles. That’s where I was working, doing finishing touches on the mix and on everything. The whole album was spread across so many studios—that was our workflow.
Speaking of “Faith,” what specifically did you help do on that song?
The song has so many different sections. There are so many different movements within it that it’s not an easy thing to get right, especially when you’re dealing with fresh punch-ins every few weeks and Abel wanting to get a new performance on something. When we decided to change the arrangement, there was massive amounts of automation spread across every single track. It’s a lot. The outro fades out into the abyss and how that vocal is, I had to get that perfectly fine-tuned.
Metro Boomin’ is listed as a producer on the song. What did you add?
I did the composition; the intro; the outro; the arpeggiators. Once I got the file for Metro’s drums, then we were building the song from there. It was just Abel and I together making it. It took us the whole year to finish it because you’re talking about us dialing what the tempo is; what the key of the song is; what the bassline is doing; how the arpeggio is pumping; how the bassline is pumping. You’re talking about the noise builders and risers. You’re talking about the spot delays on the vocals. You’re talking about ethereal pads building up in the pre-chords. You’re talking about the way the piano and delays hits. You’re talking about really producing the record.
How do you know when a production like that is done?
Essentially, the goal is you press play and you have to be f–ing faded. If you hit play and the playback is not changing your life, then to me, it’s not a job well done. This day and age is so much about quantity that, in the process of that, we’ve lost a lot of quality. I personally wanted to stop doing music because everyone was in a rush. Making great music takes time.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length; a shorter version appears in the June 2021 issue of Pro Sound News.