With your start as a DJ in the San Francisco area, what decisions did you make in order to succeed coming up in the ever changing music industry?
The biggest decision I made was to obtain a proper education. I had been in and out of studios, but I wanted to get a real grasp of Music Theory and Audio Engineering. I moved to Los Angeles and attended M.I. Hollywood. Those years shaped the foundation for everything I do in the studio now. As far as succeeding in the ever changing industry, you have to be adaptable, and you have to have a clear set of goals that you can measure your daily actions against.
To be honest, I had just gotten out of a 3.5 year relationship, was working a full-time day job, DJing night clubs on the weekends, and I just wanted more for my life. I knew that if I didn’t leave my hometown and chase my dreams I would never really be happy. I also want to have a family one day, and be able to support them doing what I love. So, I decided to go to the hub of the entertainment industry on the West Coast.
I have always tried to be very open to opportunity, and go after things I want. I started as the Lead Engineer at The Mint. This lead to touring as a keyboard player, and to Nashville to learn how to produce country music. Then back to Los Angeles when the opportunity presented itself. When you are truly passionate about your career, you have to chase it. Also, I try to keep my “flavor” by keeping a streamlined workflow. Stripping out unnecessary equipment and software can be just as important as buying new ones.
In order to keep costs down for both my clients and myself, I work primarily out of two studios. If my project needs live drums, I do my initial tracking at Stagg Street Studio in Van Nuys, CA. They have some of the best vintage Microphones available, and an amazing sounding 1970’s API “Whitey”. This console is the “sound” of API, and the console’s pedigree is the soundtrack of music for the last few decades. Their client list is a veritable “who’s who” in music, and the owners are wonderful people with big hearts and cute dogs. These recording sessions are usually focused on getting great sounding drums.
Once my rhythm section is recorded, I go back to my personal studio in North Hollywood for overdubs, vocals, editing, and mixing. Currently, I’m running a Mac Pro Tower, Pro Tools HD2 v8, all Apogee converters, and a host of microphones and outboard gear.
You’re a solid inspiration in the Hip Hop and Pop genres, and you help many aspiring engineers with your Groove3 tutorials. If you could choose two tips, what would they be and why?
As a Producer, my first tip is a motto I try to live by.
“A Music Producer is a team leader, not the team.” This is very important, and most people forget that a big part of being a Producer is paperwork, relationships, phone calls, booking musicians and spaces, negotiating contracts with and on behalf of your clients… and you can’t always do that and work the console. More often, you need to create and lead a team of talented individuals and guide them into creating what you hear in your head.
My second tip is to make an effort to hire and record great musicians whenever possible, and when you do… trust their instincts and record everything. When great musicians get inspired, you get takes that are exciting and often better than whatever you thought you needed. Knowing your instrument and the genre is more than just playing the right notes, it’s about the history of the instrument and the musicians that came before you. It’s about the history of the genre and the classic ‘licks’ that defined it. It’s the guitar, the pedals, and the amps… knowing the different tones and why each style typically uses each. We as producers simply don’t have the time to learn this in every genre, but the right session player already has, and comes prepared. This makes your music authentic, reduces the amount of editing and EQ you will need, and often times gives a new inspiration to build on. The extra cost is always worth it.
Recently, you topped the charts with “I’m Not Perfect” by Cheesa featuring Charice. What was your approach to mixing these two powerful vocalists?
I remember an old saying from sales trainer Floyd Wickman. He said, “Houses sell houses. Salesmen mess up sales.” I took this approach with Cheesa and Charice, because here you have two huge voices, and they need to sound like themselves. Especially at this stage of Cheesa’s career, this being her first commercial release after “The Voice” aired. It needed to represent her as people remembered her from TV. So, I started with just the two vocals. I panned them about 15% left and right so they could live together in the center (this is true to the final mix), and I tried to EQ and compress them to sound natural. To this end, the first plugin in my chain on both ladies was Slate VTM. What’s nice about VTM is, that on a female voice, you can really dial in the lower energy using the bass attenuation knob. So, I used that to match the two vocals in timbre, and then hit the tape as hard as I needed in order to get the compression and saturation I needed.
I am a big fan of dynamics in a recording, and the vocals were tracked really well. So to maintain this and not mess it up, I relied a bit more on volume automation, then over compression. Once I had the mix at about 85%, I returned to the lead vocals, and worked on cascading the performances naturally. This song was written as a duet, so when it was recorded, the vocals tended to overlap and “riff” over each other. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s about two ladies coming to terms with self esteem. This is very different from a love song duet where the vocalists are singing to each other. With this in mind, the key to getting the vocals right was all about the fade outs of each line, and maintaining the emotions by not stifling the big notes. Compression, set too high, would reduce the impact, and I knew that in mastering the squash was going to be put on, so I tried to keep them open and dynamic.
I only own 2 outs in my studio. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a wall of compressors and a huge console… but it’s just not where I’m at yet. So, for now, I have focused my gear purchases to expedite my workflow. Analog gear for tracking, digital for mixing. So my racks are filled with Channel Strips, Mic pre banks, and compressors. If I need it and don’t have it, I’ll rent it, or rent a studio that has it. Once I am mixing, I focus on plugins that will get me the sound I want immediately, reliably, and with minimal wrestling.
I use them first.
My mixing template comes pre-loaded with VCC set to Neve on insert 1 on inactive, VTM on insert 4 on inactive, and VCC set to SSL 4k on insert 10. I mix in Pro Tools like I was tracking in a real million dollar studio, and so this comes with certain limitations. Signal flow in the studio hasn’t changed very much. For the most part, studios have a few great compressors and EQ’s with the goal of capturing them to tape, so you can use them for something else. So, when I set up my mixes in Pro Tools, I emulate this workflow, and this helps me get the sounds audiences are used to hearing. For example, let’s say someone brought me a vocal they recorded at their house, it’s decent, but needs work. First, I like the option of giving the vocal a better mic pre flavor, so I turn on the VCC set to Neve. It warms it up and gives me the sound of the console channel. Then, I would have EQ’d it (insert 2), then I would have inserted an 1176 style compressor (insert 3), all before going to tape – VTM 2″ on insert 4. This then returns to the console for mixing, and I use the remaining inserts for more compression or EQ correction. Any effects I may want to insert, like volume riding plugins or coloring effects, would then feed the summing bus of my virtual SSL 4k (insert 10).
On my master bus, my template opens with VCC Mixbus on insert 1 set to SSL 4k, an SSL style Bus Compressor as insert 3 to go with my Virtual Console, and then VTM 1/2″ on insert 5 to capture my mixdown. Starting my sessions with these templates allows me to get right to work using my favorite tools, most of which are Slate Digital products.
I use Trigger very often, and it never lets me down. There are so many ways to use it other than live drum replacement. Lately, I have started beat boxing into it, and I have it trigger hip hop drum samples. This takes a bit of creative copy and pasting inside Pro Tools, but it’s really fun to hear it come to life. Sometimes I find it faster than using my drum machine.
FG-X is my go-to final plugin for mastering, and I find it to be the one plugin that doesn’t change the sound/tonality of my mix. Sure they all add a bit of squish, but I don’t like when a final plugin suddenly makes your mix brighter, and the bass goes away. I want my mix to come back from mastering and sound like my mix, but on steroids. FG-X does that for me, if you know how to feed it!