Jeff Edwards [Audio Engineer]

Following my chat with Blake Harden, I was able to further dive into the world of audio engineers by interviewing someone who’s experience has taken him from the American MidWest to the South, both as an audio professional and teacher. Jeff Edwards has a credit list that can be made long, covering most of today’s popular urban stars, which gave me the opportunities to learn a lot about what life is like for someone who regularly finds themselves working alongside names in my music playlist.

Hi Jeff. Nice to be chatting with you. Can I ask how you got your start in the music industry?

I didn’t grow up doing anything musical. When I graduated highs school, I was  construction worker who did concrete demolition, which I hated. My body started falling apart at a young age after I’d done that for 6 years. But I’d always love music. Dr Dre’s2001” came out in 1999, and on the inside of the album was a picture of him sitting at an SSL. I was like “I want to be the guy who operates that board“. So I made an appointment with a representative from school in Detroit called Spektower, which I thought offered the kind of programs I needed. But they didn’t. However, the representative I spoke with had a brochure for Full Sail in her desk, which she gave me. She said it was expensive though; $24,500 a year. I was so unfamiliar with the application process that I thought you needed to have all the money before applying. Back in 2001, the explosion in the business of music schools hadn’t happened yet, so I went home feeling defeated, thinking I would be a construction worker for the rest of my life. But my girlfriend at the time told me to call Full Sail anyway, which I did. They said, “98% of people who come here don’t have the money. They take out student loans”. So I did that.

When I got there, I didn’t even know how to use a computer. So I had to start from the ground up. I hadn’t been a good student growing up, barely graduating high school, and the first test I took at Full Sail I got a “C”, despite studying all night. So it was discouraging at first. But I buckled down and made it work. I did the accelerated program, which meant I was studying a one-year associate program that was two years in one, which involved going to school 40-50 hours a week.

After graduating, I went to work at a studio in Miami called the Hit Factory, which was a pretty big intro to the music business. I would say things like that prepared me to come and work with the best in Atlanta.

I believe that you also had job working at R Kelly’s studio, the Chocolate Factory, in Chicago. How did that come about and what was that time like for you?

That was one of the most amazing things to happen to me. I got the job in the fall of 2006. I saw a posting on Gearslutz, saying they needed an engineer. The post didn’t say what studio it was for, only that they needed someone with experience. The first few interviews that I did on the phone with the studio’s head engineer, who has been R Kelly’s engineer since the late 90s, didn’t even mention anything about R Kelly. He just made it seem like that they were a regular studio in the Chicago who needed some help. I knew what I was interviewing for, but we just didn’t talk about it. During that time, I was living in Florida, but had been working in Detroit on a project. So I was able to drive for 4 hours to Chicago and they tried me out for a week, and Igot the job.

We had a staff of four engineers and multiple guitar players, bassists and keyboard players. The studio was in R Kelly’s house. He had the main one on one side of the basement and another one where everybody else made music 24 hours a day. Nothing ever shut down. There was always an engineer or two on staff and shifts where 12 hours a piece. We’d always try to get there a bit early to exchange notes with the outgoing engineer, because R Kelly didn’t care who was on staff. He expected you to know everything about what had been going on during the previous shift. It’s the most thoroughly run operation that I’ve seen in the music business, and it prepared me to excel when I left.

Did you feel like that working at the Chocolate Factory and with R Kelly helped you improve your technical abilities in any particular way?

It was more so about learning how to deal with him. He doesn’t write anything down, similarly to rappers who freestyle. So you have to be able to work with the speed of these people’s thoughts. If their thoughts leave without you capturing it, they’ll be angry at you.

A good example of his workflow can be seen in the K Michelle video on Youtube.

After working at the Chocolate Factory, you relocated to Orlando to teach Pro Tools at Full Sail. What kind of experience did teaching at Full Sail offer you?

I had had a small stint at Full Sail for 6 months a few years previously, right before I went to work at the Chocolate Factory. One of the cool things about it was that you could keep up-to-date with the latest technology, and they have amazing talent working there. The biggest thing I picked up was my inner workings of Pro Tools, since I had to teach it. Avid has a close relationship with Full Sail, so they’d send their people there to debut unreleased hardware and software to get our feedback. The only problem was that I kept getting the engineering bug.

At the time I left the Chocolate factory, some other staff members left as well. One of them was a songwriter friend of mine called Chef Tone. He came to Atlanta and was immediately signed to Atlantic Records and was paired with Trey Songz, which played a big part in Trey’s success. So after seeing his success, I turned in my resignation at Full Sail, and moved to Atlanta with $150 in my pocket. Luckily I had a place to stay with Chef until I got my feet on the ground. Not too long after, my management paired me up with the producer Bangladesh. In between working for him, I was still working for Tone, as I was living with him. So I’d work all night with Bangladesh, and then do some work with Tone before going to sleep. That lasted for abut a year, and was all about grinding and making a name for myself.

Having been paired with Bangladesh, can you tell me about what that work process was like?

The way that Bangladesh makes beats is similar to how R Kelly records. He relies heavily on working hand in hand with his engineer. So speed is a factor. We record everything straight into Pro Tools, live. Nothing is quantized. He’ll bang away at a beat for 10-30 minutes, and I’ll let Pro Tools roll. Afterwards, he’ll listen through and refine things, and tell me to mark certain sections of the recordings. Then he might create a bass or piano parts, and I’ll mark specific sections of that too. Then he’ll select those sections and put them all together to make a beat. It’s amazing to watch. Nothing gets played quantized, but it has to play back quantized, which is why I use Elastic Audio a lot in Pro Tools for those sessions.

With advances in technology having made it possible for almost anyone to get involved in music and engineer, we’re seeing an increase of people who get into this business for the wrong reasons. If I wanted to be an engineer, I might mislead myself into thinking that I should  strive to only work with the industry’s big names, since that would appear to be the best route to a good payday. What would you say to aspiring engineers with that mentality?

Whilst there’s a good living to be had, you first have to endure the worst parts of the music business. Are there great things to be had in this profession? Yes, there are. Are they as great as we build them up to be in our heads. Probably not. But either way, you need to pay your dues to get there. In today’s day and age, there’s much competition in the field that you have to compete with people who offer $100 mixes. If a client doesn’t know any better, and has been using the services of someone that charges peanuts, and they come to you and you say “I’m gonna need $1500 to mix your record“, they might look at you like you’re crazy. So yes, there’s a good living to be made in this industry, but you have to pay your dues to get to it.

What have been some of the more interesting experiences that you’ve recently had as an engineer?

One of the most recent things I worked on was from something that started 3 years ago. I’m a big fan of Dr Dre, as well as the whole Aftermath movement in the early 2000s.  When I first got to Atlanta a few years ago, an A&R from Aftermath had been pursuing Chef Tone for close to a year to work on Detox. So we worked on a song for Detox that was originally meant for R Kelly to sing on. For whatever reason, he didn’t the sing the hook, so our second choice was Trey Songz. At one point, there was a lot of excitement for it, but Detox has been slated to come out for over 14 years and still hasn’t. So 50 Cent heard the record and loved it, so it was released as “Smoke” for his new album.

Late last year I got a chance to do a song with Future and Andre 3000, and that was amazing. 2 years ago Future, Drake and Lil Wayne did a song called “Love Me“. So no, it never gets old. But what does wear off is the nervousness that you have the in beginning because you aren’t confident in your craft.

And as far as mixing goes, what are some things you’ve done recently in that feild?

It’s something that my career has shifted to recently as of the last year or so. A lot of it is on the indie level though. I’m currently mixing an indie rapper called Chris Webby. I’ve worked with him a few times last year in Atlanta. Growing up in Detroit, I got to witness Eminem’s whole movement from the ground up. Chris is the closest thing to what reminds me of that, so I’ve wanted to be attached to what they’re doing.

What do you think are the most important skills that you’d advise rooke engineers to have at their fingertips?

Almost all sessions today only require a microphone, pre-amp, Pro Tools and a computer. You don’t need an analog mixing board anymore. So you definitely have to know Pro Tools like the back of your hand. But mixing also comes into play, because it doesn’t matter how good you track the recording, if you can’t play back the client a good rough mix, they won’t know whether to redo the take or not.

Do you think we’ll get to a place where Pro Tools gets displaced as the industry standard?

I hope it doesn’t! But If it does change, and something else comes along and becomes industry dominant, I need to change along with it in a heartbeat. I’ve seen a lot of engineers who had great careers in the 70s and 80s who didn’t port over well when things became digital. Their hearing is still superb, but they don’t know how to use today’s tools to achieve what they’re hearing in their head. I don’t ever want to become one of those people.

What are some of the go-to tools you have when tracking?

Artists today want to hear themselves back mixed whilst they’re recording, so you’re not really given much the time to mix whilst tracking. One of the things I always take into consideration is using low-latency plugins. Because of that, I can’t throw on 3 compressors on the vocal track, as I might have originally wanted. I’ll have to use just one instead, which might the RCompressor by Waves. Sometimes an EQ or an De-esser. It varies week by week. Sometimes artists will bring me sessions that they did with other engineers and say “I want to redo the 2nd verse“. When I pull it up, it has 10 plugins on it. They don’t even hear themselves back in time, because they recorded off time due to the latency.

Also, I never just create default compressor or pre-amp settings and leave them be. You have to be controlling their settings at all times, in order to make the most of those few tools and to get the sound right. You also have to ensure that artists have the right microphone technique, and not blow the mic out.

Have you’ve ever had situations where high profile clients become a problem because of their attitudes or expectations? Or even because of improper mic technique?

Most high profile clients at that level have good mic technique. I don’t have to say much to people like that. Someone has already done that earlier in their career. But it comes down to how you present yourself. It’s my job to let the artist know that I know what I’m doing and that they don’t need to worry about what happens on the other side of the booth. As an example, early last year I was  working with Akon, who I’d never worked with before. Because he was on a tight schedule, he said “as long as the engineer can keep up, I’m good to go“. So people at that level are pretty easy to work with.

Have you ever been involved in a session where artists bring in their own microphone to record with?

I’ve never worked with a client that brought their own mic, though I have had clients called ahead of time and requested certain mics. For instance, when I did the “Love Me” record, I didn’t know Drake was coming. I thought it was only a Future session. But then I found out that he was coming and his team had called in to say that he like to record with certain mics, and asked us if we could set one up.

Well this has been fun. Thanks for the chat Jeff! Can you tell me a bit about what you’re currently working on before we part?

Most of this year has been with Chef Tone and an artist called Maejor Ali, formerly known as Bei Maejor. I’ve know him sine he was in high school, though I’m a bit older than him . He’s signed to Def Jam through Justin Biebers label. We have his new single coming out soon. Chef and I also worked on a new artist from Atlantic Records called Kendall. I can’t wait for people to hear that music.