Following my chat with Blake Harden, I was able to further dive into the world of audio engineers. Jeff Edwards has a credit list that can be made long, covering most of today’s popular urban artists. As someone who regularly works alongside well-known names, I was curious to learn about his work experience and music outlook.
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 high school, I was a construction worker who did concrete demolition, which I hated. My body started falling apart at a young age after 6 years of that kind of work. But I had always love music. Dr Dre’s “2001” 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 a school in Detroit called Spektower, which I thought offered the kind of programs I needed – but they didn’t. However, the representative did have a brochure for Full Sail University 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 I got a “C” on the first test I took at Full Sail, despite studying all night. So it was discouraging at first. But I buckled down and made it work. I did the accelerated program, which was a one-year associate program that covered two years of work, at 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. 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 didn’t even mention anything about R Kelly. He just made it seem like that they were a regular studio in Chicago who needed some help. At the the time, I was living in Florida, but had been working in Detroit on a project, so I was able to drive for four hours to Chicago and they tried me out for a week. I got the job after that.
We had a staff of four engineers and multiple guitar players, bassists and keyboard players. The studio was in R Kelly’s house. There was a main room on one side of the basement and a smaller one on the other side, where people 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 in the business when I left.
Did working at the Chocolate Factory and with R Kelly help 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, similar 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 “Making of Echo Remix” 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?
A few years before that, I had a small stint at Full Sail for six months, 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.
I left the Chocolate Factory at the same time as some other staff members. 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. After seeing his success, I turned in my resignation at Full Sail and moved to Atlanta with $150 in my pocket. Luckily, I was able 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. 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 for those sessions.
Today’s aspiring engineers might mislead themselves into thinking that they should strive to only work with the industry’s big names, in order to maximize their payout. What would you say about such a 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. There’s a lot of competition these days, and some people offer to mix for as low as $100. If a client has been using the services of a mixer that charges peanuts, and then you tell them, “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 three 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, and 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. Two years ago Future, Drake and Lil Wayne did a song called “Love Me“, which I enjoyed working on also.
And as far as mixing goes, what are some things you’ve done recently?
Mixing is something that my career has shifted to recently. A lot of it is on the indie level though. I’m currently mixing an indie rapper called Chris Webby. I 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 rooke engineers should 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 the client a good rough mix, they won’t know whether to redo the take or not.
Do you think we’ll ever get to a place where Pro Tools gets displaced as the industry standard?
I hope it doesn’t! But if it does change, 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 mixed whilst they’re recording, even though you’re not really given much time to mix whilst tracking. But one of the things I always take into consideration is using low-latency plugins, which is why I can’t use three compressors on the vocal track, as I might have originally wanted. I’ll have to use just one instead, which might be the RCompressor by Waves, sometimes with an EQ or De-esser. Sometimes artists will bring me sessions that they did with other engineers and say “I want to redo the 2nd verse“. But when I pull it up, it has ten plugins on it! The vocalist actually recorded off time because of the latency.
Also, I never create default compressor or pre-amp settings and leave them be whilst recording. You have to be controlling the 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 when singing, so they don’t 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 request 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, until his team called in to say he was coming. They also said 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 since 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.