Mix Engineer Lil Wayne, Michael Jackson, T-Pain, Rianna, Mary J Blige, Flo Rida
Interview by Will Kahn for Burl Audio, 2011
I’ve been listening to some of the stuff you did recently, including Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter IV”(mixed through the B2 Bomber ADC). It’s very cool. I definitely enjoy the sounds. Even though I hate to do it, I downloaded the songs from iTunes, because I wanted to hear how many people experience the music you mix It’s my least favorite way to buy music…
I know man, me too. But you know what, we are the minority. You know what I’m saying? And it is what it is. Every time I mix a record with Pharell, he buys everybody a bunch of those ear buds, you know, the cheapy white ones, that come with iPods… He makes everyone listen to those, and I’m like “What the fuck are we doing?” And he says “C’mon man, this is what all the little kids are going to hear it on, so we gotta make sure we can hear it like that” … It’s just the times man, it is what it is.
Yeah, exactly. So especially with the low end, I was really impressed with the weight of the 808 kick. It hit really hard on that song (“Low” by Flo Rida”) even though it was from an iTunes MP3!
Well, you know man, I’m real old school myself. I take the time and I do it. I mix on Neves, you know, I keep it on the old school sense of things. I mult up channels, a lot of compression, a lot of doubling up on things… I’m all about drums, it’s my favorite thing. If you give me some drum instrumentals, than I’m the happiest cat in the world…
One thing right away I wanted to ask you about: Why do you use the old school Neves and Studers? I know that sounds like a simple question but why don’t you just go the easy route and go in the box and recall your mixes?
Well, I come from that world. I come from tape. I come from analog. That’s what I grew up in, that’s when I came around… I’m a young guy but I’ve been doing this for a really long time. So I was in the 90s in New York, when it was this really cool music scene and studio scene in the late 90s. And at that time that’s all I knew and that’s all it was, and that to me is right. And I don’t want to be the old man, and I don’t want to be passed by by technology. I want it to work together. And you know, I have to compete with these kids these days who work for an eighth of what I make, and there still are labels that pay, but that’s the point of getting my own studio. Now I can really take the time and do it the way I want to do it without having to worry about the money. Money becomes second, because a year ago, two years ago, I was a machine, man… Ones and zeros, you know, pump it in, and pump it out, and “have a nice day” you know what I’m saying?
I started in digital myself and it’s been a journey back to analog. I could never get the drum sounds I was looking for… “OK, I got the performance, but now I’m going to have to have someone mix this and make it sound good.” Once I found Rich, who started Burl, he started teaching me how to get sounds down the way that I like them. And part of that is using all of the analog gear and mixing with an analog console. One thing I find is that there’s a character to it. Beyond the fact that you started that way, you continue to choose to go with a Neve and a Studer. Tonally what can you achieve with that gear that you can’t achieve with a digital emulation of all those things?
I don’t want to say you can’t, I think you can, you can get aspects of it that you want, but the thing is, what you can’t get is a feel, you know? You need that plug in to add noise. I got plugins that cut bits, you know, that do that stuff. Then at the same time it doesn’t have the same feel, so it’s all about the feel, man. It’s about the organic hiss… those are things that you can’t get with the digital world, you know what I’m saying?
I’m not going to name any names, but I bought a nine thousand dollar stereo converter a couple years ago. And after mixing for a while, this is supposed to be the best of the best, blah blah blah, and I was like “yeah- I fucking hate this thing” cause it doesn’t give me anything. I’m a personality person. You can tell from talking to me. If you’re not giving me something I don’t want you around, even with people and even with gear. I was like, “Damn! What am I going to have to do- add some transformers on the output of this thing? What’s going on here?” Transparent is no good, man! Cause I think about it like this: a transparent A to D converter, right? When you’re recording, into the cleanest most transparent Pro Tools system- you know- clocked properly, and then out of that you want to have the best D to A conversion, so it’s transparent there, and into your summing mixer, and oh let’s get the cleanest one we can get… But now, it’s like, what the hell are we doing? You know what I’m saying?
For instance, I’m in the studio with Puff. We were mixing for that “Last Train to Paris” album, and mixing was going on for a long time, I know the album just came out this year but it was a couple years in the making. And he was like, “Fabian, what the fuck did you do? You took all the body out of it.?” But it was funny because he was in there early and I looked across the board and I was like, dude, everything was at 0. It was basically the rough mix he was hearing and it was coming through all this stuff in it’s transparent state and I was like “Dude, this is not cool, this is not musical” But I mean it was, it was gone, and then all the vibes were gone. And that’s why I use most of the shit that I use. It’s a vibe thing, you know?
Absolutely! So you are saying that it’s the vibe and there’s something organic to it, and I would say that you are right in there with what this company is all about.
Yeah, you know what? It’s funny, when I first heard it (the B2 Bomber ADC), I was like “these guys get it”. And that’s why I reached out to you. “We can talk about this!” When you and I are having a conversation, we are on the same page. What you guys do is what I try to achieve. And it kind of works. And that just makes my life easier using that.
We’ve heard that from a lot of people, “You’re making it easier”, “I get my sounds much quicker with the Burl stuff”. Most of our stuff that we do in our studio, now that we have the Mothership, we will usually use 0 to 1 plug ins on a mix of a full band, because we have outboard gear and it’s going down right to start with.
You’re doing the work to begin with. Yeah, man. I dig it. I dig it.
I did want to ask you, you have an artist like Lil Wayne, which you just used the B2 ADC on. He is a very cutting edge artist who is obviously insanely popular and he is not just a cookie cutter artist. He’s breaking ground. Would you agree?
Oh yeah absolutely. I mean, one week he’s doing rap music jumping off the stage, then he wants to be a skateboarder, then he’s, you know, talking about his history in New Orleans talking about the drugs and the gangs, and this and that, so yeah, definitely, he’s got every market covered. The white people love him, you know, the ghetto loves him… Everyone loves him.
So generally or specifically how are you pushing those boundaries as a mix engineer to keep up with the music that he’s putting out, that’s incredibly cutting edge?
All right. Let me tell you what my problem is, and it’s a problem that I think we all have. We all deal with it. The problem is, you know, that there’s a volume war going on right now. You know, I mix a record and I get it dynamic, I get it where I want it to be, it’s got peaks and valleys, and I get to where I want it and then I gotta compare it to what’s going on on the radio. All these people who have these hit records, everything is so compressed, compressed, compressed, to be loud. When you listen to these records, when you really break it apart, you know, it’s so distorted, and it’s over driven. There’s four limiters before you even get to mastering! And then they put another limiter on it to get it out to radio, so knowing that I have to compete with that ties my hands in the big picture. But to go back to that, I never loose what I like to do. I might argue with them and have them master a song five times. I make them keep doing it, you know, just to get it to where I’m trying to see it. Now, knowing how I work and how demanding I am with that shit, I look at someone like Wayne for instance. His record “How To Love”, which was a big record for the single off this new album, you know, I mixed that as a straight pop mix. But at the same time, it’s very, very, very heavy on the bottom end. So that’s how we do it and how we stay cutting edge with Wayne…. Because, even the producer wanted a dark urban mix, but at the same time, you are kind of meshing the genres, so to speak.
I came up working with Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, and all these other things, so it’s like, let me put some of that into what Wayne’s doing. You know make sure that the bottom end is there. And it’s heavy duty, but at the same time, a lot of their rap records are all bottom end. All you hear is drums and vocal, you know what I mean? I do a real mix on a Hip Hop record. You know what I’m saying?
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what I’m hearing on some of your stuff. It’s opening my eyes in a new way, hearing the depth. I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I downloaded these from iTunes, because I wanted to hear what is going out there. 300,000 in the first week (“How To Love”)! I was shocked by the bottom end on those, you know, just on an iTunes Mp3!
Ah, thanks man. Thank you. You know, I just push it wherever I can. And you know what, us urban guys we get a bad rap. They’re kind of like, it’s not even worth mentioning. I’m talking about the technical aspect. We don’t even get mentioned in the big picture of things, but you know what? Five million people are going to buy this album when it’s all said and done. So, we must be doing something! (LAUGHTER) So you know, it all goes together.
What do you listen to? Do you have any time to listen to any music on your own?
You know, it’s funny. I have some friends who work in the movie industry, and they can’t watch movies, ’cause they pick them apart. And I’m the same way, cause I’m a nerd. I do that with the snare. “Why is that there?” You know, I can’t listen to that. You know what I listen to man? I listen to old salsa music, and I don’t even speak Spanish (laughter) and I listen to oldies music, like Doo-wop and stuff like that. That’s the stuff I listen to at home.
One thing I’ve been getting into recently that my dad actually sent to me, was a bunch of gospel music that Sam Cooke produced in the late 50s and early 60s. I’ve been listening to that non stop. It just gets me!
Nah man! That’s what I do. My wife was actually making fun of me today, cause we had to do some pictures, for, um, something coming up. And you know, there’s a brick wall behind me, I’m holding all my Grammy’s, and literally, I did have Sam Cooke playing while I was taking the pictures (laughter). And she was like: “What is wrong with you? If your friends knew what you were really like at home…” (laughter). But, my father was a Doo-Wop singer, I grew up with that. So that’s how I started my career. I was doing live sound for my father’s shows, and I would travel around with him. And the thing is I have always loved urban music. I started loving drums, you know I had a love affair with drums, man. And that’s how I started practicing my mixes. You could hear that, you know, I’m a drum guy. I love drums.
Well, it certainly comes out. “How to Love” Tha Carter IV… it took me a little while, but the bottom end… there’s the two different phrases. The first with real tight sounds then the next comes in with those real low and long notes. That shit is heavy. On another note, do you do any tracking yourself, or are you exclusively a mix engineer?
Oh I’m just mix engineer. See man, I don’t have the patience for tracking anymore. Um, it’s funny. I’ve been getting shit so terrible lately, that I’ve been considering going back to tracking on certain projects A
nd that’s exactly where I wanted to go with this. Tell me a little about how the tracks come to you and how happy you are with the tracks that you get to mix.
Oh my god! Terrible! Aggravated! I want to kill every tracking engineer that sends me stuff! I don’t understand how these kids get jobs! I think they are all fucking idiots! And you can quote me on that. I HATE everybody (laughter)! I get shit over compressed, and then not even a blip on the fucking meter. I mean how did you manage all that and then still not get it loud? It doesn’t make sense the shit I get. It’s garbage man.
Certain artists, like T-Pain, his engineer is a good friend of mine, Javier. I actually hired him to be the engineer. And that stuff is top notch, you know, it comes to me almost mixed already. But man, on any give day, it’s funny. I keep canceling studios, because we’ll get there, and I get the files and it’s wrong. So I have to cancel. Then we get there the next day, get the files and they’re wrong again. So it’s constantly bullshit, all the time. I feel like quality has gone out the window, because people don’t want to pay for it anymore. Because, there’s a new artist every week, there’s a new engineer every week.
Yeah, it’s a little disheartening. The music industry is in trouble. I mean, you are sitting at the very top, I would humbly suggest, but things are definitely shifting still. I know a lot of people who say “I don’t buy music anymore, I just listen to Rhapsody” It’s a little disheartening, but we gotta keep moving forward. There are still people out there who really care. It gives me hope to hear the stuff that you do because after talking to you I see how much you put into it. You’re not just saying “well, this is good enough for earbuds so let’s move on”
Right, exactly. That’s the thing. I want to make them blow the fucking ear buds up and then say, “damn, man maybe I should have gotten some Beats by Dre instead!” You know what I’m saying?
Yes! Do you mix with a subwoofer? You must.
Yeah I do. But to be honest with you, I do that strictly for my bottom end. I mix on Auratones, man. I’m an Auratones guy. I mix on those little tiny fucking Auratones. And then I use the mains for my bottom end shit, but 90 percent of the day, I’m on the Auratones.
You know, cause I know that when they start cracking, I’ve got enough bass. And I know where the mids are, and that’s the thing man, cause once you are able to control the mids and all that, you’re good. And you can find out how to do that easily with those speakers.
I remember reading something from you years ago where you said that you have a very scientific approach to mixing. Yet, you are also talking about vibe, and organic and the feel. So would you say you have strayed from the scientific approach, or how do you describe your process these days, and do you still describe it as scientific?
Well, you know, one thing that has changed about me now, is that we’re not making money like we used to. So now I work on things that I want to work on. So, basically my approach is much different than it was years ago when I made that statement about doing shit on a scientific, 1s and 0s approach. Now I’m more into the music, and the only stuff I mix is the stuff I want to mix. Cause if it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it to do, you know what I’m saying? Cause there’s no money like there used to be anyway. So I’m very impassioned about it now. Like the Wayne “How To Love” record we made, I watched him perform it in the room, and he sang it for me. And then it was like, “OK, now I know what he’s trying to do”, and I put that into the mix.
How did you decide to use the B2 Bomber ADC for “Tha Carter IV”
I did most of the stuff in Miami, and then we printed to tape, and went back to 96k to the Pro Tools, and it still didn’t have…. I still wasn’t happy with what it was. And what I was using at the time, a Lavry Gold, and it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. So I ended up using the Burl (B2 ADC) and I’ll tell you what, it just kicked ass. So that’s how I came to it. I was mixing something, and it gave me what I needed.