Phil Tan is one of the leading names in the world of urban and pop music mixing, with his credits pretty much littered all over the place. From 90's hits like Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby", to modern charters like Rihanna's "Diamonds" and newly released albums by Kylie Minogue, Lea Michelle, Iggy Azalea and Michael Jackson album, his track record is long since proven. So our interview gave me the opportunity to throw some questions his way about how he goes about doing his mixes.
Hi Phil! In 2007, you said that you used to do around 200 mixes a year. That's more than one mix every other day for the whole year! How did you manage that pace? Is it still that frequent?
I actually consider myself slow and deliberate, and often wish I knew how to work faster! I guess it's not that hard when you enjoy what you do and it doesn't really feel like work. Yes, around 200 per year sounds about right. It's been that way for about a decade. Quantity has never been a goal for me though, and never will be. I don't know if it's true, but I once heard Chris Lord-Alge did 500 in a year! I wouldn't be surprised though. He's one of the greats.
As someone who's mixed a lot of music that has electronic elements, such as hip-hop and pop, what have been some of your techniques for making potentially small-sounding, dry synth sounds and drum samples stick out in a mix?
I'll try anything. Distortion. compression, fattening effects ... Sometimes I'll replace or stack the sounds with my own if necessary. I've been very lucky though. Most of the people I get to work with are pros who know the value of picking the right sounds and getting them recorded right.
Drums are obviously a big part of of rap music. In the event that you need to enhance sampled drum sounds to stand out more, what have been some of your extreme techniques for that?
I've never been a very technical guy. I just turn knobs or try things till I get the result I want, or till it feels right. Sometimes when I look at some of my settings they'll look very "wrong." I suppose there's a reason why the EQ designer put in knobs that go to + or -15 ... I don't really know how extreme I am though. I've re-amped stuff through phone speakers, broken and slashed guitar amps and mangled things through effects pedals, but I'm sure there are engineers out there who do much crazier things. Anything to keep things fun, interesting and hopefully create something unique to give the music a bit more personality.
Low end has been an integral part of urban music as far back as most people can remember. For tracks that are made with the goal of being popular in the club, do you have ways of taking into consideration how you mix the low end?
It may sound like I'm avoiding your question, but I really don't have a set way I approach a mix - everything is done on a case by case basis. It's a relatively instinctive and "unconscious" process. I value and rely on the producers' and artists' input. If they tell me I'm off the mark I'll ask them if they have anything they want me to reference. I monitor almost entirely on my nearfields (Dynaudio M1's powered by Brystons) at around 85dB. I hardly ever touch the volume control. Doesn't matter if I'm working on a piano-and-vocal ballad or if it's a club banger. This may be odd to some, but it's worked for me. I guess I know my system well enough to know how things translate.
You've stated in the past that Pharrell asked you to not use any compression when mixing Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" . Do you know why he requested that, and how that affected the end result?
I think he just wanted it to sound a bit messy, like a pep rally in a gym, so compression might have made it sound a bit too "controlled." I had to change my habits a little, of course, since compressors are usually such an integral part of the mixing process. I think it worked out OK though - first single to sell 1 million digital downloads, Number 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, Grammy nominee for Record Of The Year, 2005's second most successful single, after Mariah's "We Belong Together," which I also mixed. (Sorry if that sounded a bit boastful!)
When listening to "Drop It Like Its Hot" on headphones, the bass isn't particularly overwhelming and the production is sparse, yet it doesn't lack any presence or interest. Do you remember how you went about acheiving that with so few elements being present?
I think that's just Pharrell, Chad and Snoop's genius on display. Nothing sounded like it at the time. The sounds and parts were all little hooks that kept things fun and interesting for the listener - the tuned 808, synth line, Pharrell's "click-clock" mouth noises, Chad's "Snooooooop." Since it was so minimal there wasn't a lot of carving to do. Snoop's performance and delivery was just perfect for the track. It became his first Number 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.
I once heard another mixer engineer say, "The average listener only discerns two parts of a song: the vocals and everything else". Is that something you agree with? Do you tend to divide up your mixes in this way?
I think that's a bit over-simplistic. The vocal normally would be front and center, but the supporting parts play an important role in establishing mood, context etc. It's like a movie scene. The lead actor may be the focus, but the supporting characters, location, set design, costumes, makeup all contribute greatly to the story being told. I tend to start with the elements that live in the middle - lead vocal, kick, snare and bass. They're the kind of parts that occupy a good bit of space, so they need to be able to coexist. The other stuff goes around those main elements. There are exceptions, of course. If a guitar or synth is a lead or featured theme in the song, it'll need to be treated as such.
When I examine the waveforms of 90's hip-hop mixes, I find it common to see the kick and snare as protruding spikes that extend quite far above and below the center point, making them the loudest part of the mix when they hit. That doesn't tend to be the case as much nowadays, with hip-hop productions having come to taken influences from pop music. I noticed a lot more evened out, compressed waveforms, where it's near-impossible to pick out the the kick from the rest of the mix. What are some downsides to this?
The main downside is a lack of dynamics. The thing is, as engineers and mixers, we provide a service, so we generally have to adopt a "give the customer what they want" mindset. Otherwise, the client will just go to someone else who will give them the desired results. As hip-hop became more and more mainstream, many of the producers started incorporating pop production techniques. Purists may consider that selling out, but it's hard to blame them because as a creator, you want your art to reach as large an audience as possible. For some time, pop and rock music seemed to be all about loud, so hard limiting was widely used to achieve that. Things seem to be a bit more reasonable now. Some of the biggest hits these past couple of years (like Gotye's and Pharrell's) aren't crazy loud.
Would you mind sharing what some of your favorite plugins are for the following tasks at the moment:
Compressing Kicks: UAD-2 1176, Waves Renaissance Compressor,
EQing Basses: Metric Halo ChannelStrip, SSL (UAD-2 or Waves)
EQing Vocals: Focusrite d2, the stock Pro Tools EQ
Saturatiing Drum Parts: Slate VTM, UAD-2 FATSO Jr.
Go-To Reverb: Lexicon
I see on AllMusic that you have mixing credits on the upcoming Michael Jackson album. Can you share with me what it was like to mix music on that project, within whatever limits that you'd be allowed to speak on it? What kind of desires from Timbaland or LA Reid dictated the vibe that you went for?
The song I mixed was "A Place With No Name," produced by Stargate. I've had the good fortune of mixing a number of their productions over the years and we've developed a great working relationship, so we generally know what to expect from each other. L.A. had me listen to one of the other tracks on the album to give me an idea of what they were going for. This one went very smoothly. The first pass ended up being the approved mix.