(Photo Credit: Sebastien Kohler)
Philippe Weiss has been earning his living for over 25 years as a mix engineer, with a career path that’s taken him from Switzerland to Paris to New York and London. With a cast of clients that stretch from independent artists like Selah Sue to superstars like Madonna, I knew that he would have loads to share about his work and experience. As a fan of the 2011 “Selah Sue” album that he mixed and mastered, I reached out to him to talk about his work, and the resulting 4-hour discussion ended up being one of the more informative and lively interviews I’ve done. I make no apologies for the length. Enjoy.
I’ve heard that you started off by working as a DJ in Switzerland as a teenager in the early 90s. Is that true?
Yes. I started collecting records around 15, as well as DJing, and really had to find my own way in the industry because Switzerland is a small country with hardly any music industry. Because of my knowledge of electronics, I started off as a sound engineer, which I loved in the beginning, but the problem with doing that kind of work in Switzerland is that the only place you’re going to end up working is at a TV or radio station, neither of which suited me. So I left for London at the age of 20 and enrolled at SAE in 1993. Going to school gave me a good basis for moving forward, although I should add that they don’t teach you the essentials of how to act in the studio as an engineer. You have to get that from working in the industry.
Why do you think that the Swiss music scene wasn’t accommodating for you as an aspiring engineer?
It’s a country with only 7 million people, and 4 different languages, so it’s a small place. Even back then, I was envisioning myself behind an SSL desk, working with musicians I admired, not with local Swiss bands that would never leave the country. So I left to work in the international music scene. There were only 3 or 4 successful bands that came out of Switzerland in the early 90s, and they always went to other countries to record and mix. So even the Swiss bands weren’t looking to support their local mixers and engineers, which is quite different than a place like Germany or the UK, were the bands would rather use their local engineering talent to record and mix their music.
So what happened when you moved to London and later Paris? What developments to your career took place there?
Whilst living in London in 1995, after I had finished SAE, I received a letter from the UK government saying that I had to leave the country because Switzerland wasn’t in the EEC. So I had to make a decision about where to move next. At this time, before the Internet, there was a black book floating around the music industry with the names of many prominent recording studios in the world. It was called “Kemp’s Music & Recording Industry Year Book“. I went through it and sent out around 150 CVs to all of the studios it had listed from around the world. None of them answered, but I was really into what the French recording scene was putting out at the time, especially what Philippe Zdar was doing. He had released some EPs with La Funk Mob on Mo’Wax Records, and some Motorbass work was on the way. So I got excited by that and decided to move to Paris. So I checked the Kemps book for studios in Paris, and the first name in there was Studio Davout. I gave them a call and said “Hi, I sent you guys a CV. Did you get it?“, and they said “Oh yeah, we got that. It’s right in front of us on the table. Do you speak English? If so, you can start next week.” It was completely unexpected, but I took the chance and moved to Paris to work there.
It was an amazing studio that’s unfortunately closed now, but it had 4 rooms, the biggest being 300 square meters, which could accommodate more than 100 musicians at once, with top-rate gear. As soon as I arrived, the studio manager, Olivier Kowalski, put me in a session with Sly and Robbie, with Dennis Bovell producing. So things were serious from the start, and I worked there as an assistant engineer for about a year.
It was an amazing experience. In their basement, Studio Davout had original tapes from artists like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fela Kuti, Prince and David Bowie, who had come through the studio in the past. So I had access to that, in addition to working with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and with big orchestras. I also was lucky to learn the old school way of recording, before Pro Tools became the standard.
Analogue tape was on it’s way out at the time, but we had a Sony PCM 3348, which was a digital 48-track tape machine, the 2-track Sony PCM-3402 and Sony 1630 Digital Processor, and the legendary Sony DAT PCM2500. Sony were really making quality machines at the time, and their audio engineering division was amazing.
Studio Davout was also where I met my mentor, Tony Smalios, who taught me a large part of what I know.
There were two schools of recording in the early 90s: the French school and the American school. The first one featured minimal EQ and compression on individual tracks, with the result being a loud master that sounded quite clean. Then there was the American way, which featured greater amounts of EQ and compression, and an end result which sounded quite processed, especially considering that the source material was vinyl records that had already been processed through samplers. I adopted this method since I grew up listening to early hip-hop, and I had Tony Smalios as a mentor, who worked with the likes A Tribe Called Quest, 2pac, Biggie and Mobb Deep, to name a few.
After that period in Studio Davout, I moved to New York City for about 3 years. Those were my early mixing days.
(Below: Philippe’s mentor, Tony Smalios, talking about his teaching position at Blaise Pascal University in 2012)
You mentioned tape machines. Analogue tape is something that’s used a lot less nowadays, but it played a big part in why 90s and early 2000s music sounded the way it did. For example, one of my past inteviewees said Daft Punk’s “Homework” was recorded to DAT (digital audio tape), and that one of the secrets to Daft Punk’s sound was the use of mastering units like the Universal 2192. Is that true?
I worked with a lot of the guys in the French house scene, like Stardust, Martin Solveig, DJ Gregory,and Faya Combo but as far as DAT, I don’t know if Daft Punk used that, sorry. But “Discovery” was released in 2001, and “Homework” in 1997. The Universal 2192 didn’t come out until 2004, so it was quite late in the game. Secondly, I would never call the 2192 a mastering grade unit. The secret to that album’s sound lies elsewhere I’m afraid.
As far as Universal Audio goes, they make great plugins. I had all the machines their stuff is based on, and I know from experience that their emulations are well-made.
On a side note, I’d like to say that being familiar with music culture is very important when you work in this business. 95% of the sound engineers I know don’t even have a record collection at home, and many of them don’t listen to the kind of music they record unless they’re in the studio. Daft Punk aren’t like that. These are guys who know everything about music, and people forget that.
Back to the subject of tape. You mentioned that Studio Davout had digital tape machines, and that analogue tape was on it’s way out at that time in the mid 90s. Could you contrast the two? What difference in sound will you achieve using analogue tape versus digital tape versus a computer?
The effect of using an analog 2-track machine like the Studer A820 or Ampex ATR 102 is like putting the music through a new process, because tape creates its own compression, and boosts the low-end and high-end, meaning that you’ll end up with less mids. That sounds great on certain types of music, but I’ve moved away from that. It’s also hard to find the right type of tape, as well as having an assistant that knows how to work with the technical side of things, like bias, and the artistic side of how to hit the tape. I’m talking about differences of one millimeter when it comes to these things, which I can hear in the final result. It’s very time-consuming.
Analogue tape also has it’s challenges. For example, before you mix on an SSL desk, you better know which tape machine you’re going to print to, because the difference between a Studer A820 and an Ampex ATR 102 is huge. The first Selah Sue album, as an example, was printed on the Studer A820, and what you hear is the digital printing of the mix in Soundblade, not the analogue tape itself. Printing your mix to digital, with a good converter, will give you a cleaner and straighter sound than if it came straight off the tape machine.
For me, DAT always sounded better than the computer, because all DAWs sounds different from each other. Playing a track in Pro Tools will give it a completely different sound than playing it in Cubase or Magic Sequoia.
I read in an old interview that Dr Dre would record straight to DAT for his “Chronic 2001” album. As someone who is able to listen to albums like that with the ear of an engineer, what are your thoughts on how “Chronic 2001” was recorded and mixed?
I don’t know if he recorded to DAT, but analogue tape is slow-sounding and DAT is fast, and when you listen to “Chronic 2001” what you hear is something very fast and less-colored than what analogue tape would give you. I’m not talking about quality of sound, but just the sound of the mid-range frequencies.
He had the MPC3000, which I believe was modified. Also, he probably hit the desk in a certain way. Thirdly, he used an SSL 4000, which I think is the desk Kendrick Lamar is currently using. It’s the best desk ever created, in my opinion. There’s a type of crunch you hear in the high end on “2001” that comes from the SSL 4000 driven to the limit. So when you put a snare on one of the channels and drive it hard, that’s what you get. Also, he pushed the mid-range a certain way. Artists and engineers like to obsess over the bass, to which I say, “yeah yeah, but listen to the mids. Those are the most important frequencies”. And for the guys who always say “I love bass because I’m a fan of hip-hop music…“, I’m like “c’mon man. Sure, lets put tons of bass on the mix“, but then they say “Hmm, it’s becoming muddy“. That’s because the critical stuff happens in the mid-range! Dr Dre knew that. He also had a great team of people around him who did good work.
Because of your work alongside Tony Smalios, you were likely to have been exposed to the Bad Boy camp in the 90s. On a side note, can you tell me if Puffy was really doing anything as “producer” in those days?
You have to have to look at him like a chef. The 1st chef isn’t the one necessarily cooking in the kitchen. He has a crew of people around him that he directs, and he knows what he wants.
The reason why I’m asking about these legendary producers like Dr Dre and Puffy is because none of them seem to be able to replicate their former success or quality of music for the past 15 years. Even Dre’s “Compton” isn’t as interesting as anything he did in the past.
But you forget something important because you’re in your 20s: Age. When you’re young and hungry, with goals that are big and risk-filled, you’re going to have a crew around you and you work closely with them even into your late 30s. But if I were to talk to you in 20 years, you won’t be the same. Don’t forget that all these guys have changed their lives and goals since the 90s and the 2000s. So they were once at a point where they could make amazing music, and even then it was hard to do what they did. You have to remember the problems that come with being successful at that level: family problems, friendship problems, etc. So Dr Dre’s thinking “I gave you guys 2001, and now you’re breaking my balls for a new album. Ok, here’s ‘Compton’.” These guys don’t want to do the same thing twice, so what you got was an album that sounds very different from what he did before. And also, those guys used to work 27 out of 24 hours. You can’t do that when you’re 50. You’ll see when you get older.
But Quincy Jones did amazing stuff with Michael Jackson as a man in his 40s and 50s.
Ok, but you’re talking about a guy who is a producer in a completely different field, and not an engineer. The lifespan between the two are a bit different. Let me ask you something: can you name any 60 year-old producers who are on the cutting edge of music, outside of rock or jazz?
RZA still has the ability to do great things. Alternative rock or not, Philipe Zdar did great work with Phoenix. His output is still good.
It is, absolutely. He’s an engineer who also happens to be a producer, not the other way around, as many people think.
Look, when you bring up names like Puffy and Dre, you’re talking about people that did so much for this industry. Dr Dre, as amazing as he is, is gonna be tired at his age. Tired of criticism, conflict, the long work hours and things like this. Also, when you’re famous, unfortunately, it’s easy to surround yourself with people who only tell you that your work is great, and no-one is honest with you anymore. Even your friends will think “He knows what he’s doing, so why should I criticize his music?“. That doesn’t happen with someone like Philippe Zdar. If he messes up, his friends tell him. He works on international music projects and things like that keep you fresh. I’ll give you an example: I’m currently working on a project called Tiwayo that will be released on Blue Note. It was tracked by Mark Neill, who does tracking and recording for The Black Keys, and co-produced their album “Brothers”. So working on high-profile stuff like this keeps me fresh, because I can’t afford to not deliver when I work with people like that. But in the case of Dre, it’s possible that “Compton” sounded the way it did because he was pushed into doing it.
Fans weren’t generally expecting “Compton”. We were all hoping for “Detox”, which he allegedly scrapped.
How do you know that “Compton” isn’t the same “Detox” album he had been working on all along? He could be telling you anything, as far as “scrapping” it goes.
Look, I’m sorry to say it, but I think that era of classic albums as part of a wave of amazing artists is gone. The days of Led Zeppelin and acts like that are probably done.
Look at the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I love their music, and not just because I worked with them, but because I was always into their stuff. But when I look at what they’re putting out now, I have to remind myself that people’s tastes and work habits change. When you’re young, you don’t mind working 5 hours on your drums, but 20 years later, you might only put in half of that effort.
I do differentiate between electronic and rock artists though, because the electronic musicians make their name off of saying that they did it all by themselves, at home in their studio, with their samplers and vinyl, whilst rock musicians have always relied on engineers and producers to guide them.
I understand what you mean. That’s true, but I have to add something to that. Many electronic musicians say they did it all at home, and it’s not true. They may have created the demos or sequences at home, but many people had a friend or family member in the background that knew more than they did, and helped them out. Also, a lot of them rent expensive studios for their monitoring. They didn’t mix their record on a pair of small speakers in a home studio. I’ve had some well-known electronic artists rent my studio just for the monitoring, so I know this first-hand.
I remember reading interviews given by well-known electronic musicians, and many of them seemed to have some rags-to-riches story about making their first album or EP on consumer-grade speakers, and mixing the album on monitors that were half-broken. They’re lying though.
Of course they’re lying. But we’re in a world where everybody lies. We all know it, especially when you’ve worked as an engineer or a mixer on someone’s project, and later read an interview they gave about how the album was allegedly made; you know what’s true and what’s false. All I can say is that as an engineer, you have to know where you want to be in the industry. You can’t obsess over what happens in the media and what artists say. I know that once I’ve done my job, I can move on.
I read in one of your previous interview that you made it a point to listen to a lot of 70s music when you started engineering, because you wanted to improve your abilities. What was it about 70s music that helped as a mixer?
Well, I always listened to a lot of music, even today, whether I’m at home, or in in my car. But when I was young, around 21, the only thing people let me work on was hip-hop. “Forget about mixing pop or jazz or rock“, they said. But none of the older mix engineers wanted to mix hip-hop back in the day, so they left it to me, and I knew how to do it because I had been listening to both rap music and 70s soul music, which had been sampled on the rap records. There’s a direct link between the two. If you know what a soul record really is, you’ll better understand how to mix hip-hop. If you’ve listened to Blue Note records from 1958-1975, you’ll recognize a lot of the hip-hop samples used in 90s rap records. So by knowing that music, I knew where the drums came from, and the hip-hop producers liked that.
It would seem like you had success straight out of the gate by mixing Assassins “Underground Connection”. Do you think your first mix would have been harder if you’d been giving a rock record to mix, which has more dynamics going on, instead of a rap record?
Of course. If I had been given a bad rock record to mix, it wouldn’t have helped my career. But by giving me someone who was already famous in hip-hop at the time, meaning he and his producers already knew how to make good records, I was able to work with quality material from day one.
I had been going to Assassin’s concerts since I was 16, and suddenly he was sitting next to me as I mixed his record. It was unreal, but I didn’t want to mess things up by overthinking, so I just went off my instincts for the mix, which is still how I mix today.
To be honest, I have over 15 examples throughout my career where if things hadn’t lined up to the exact minute, where I met the right people or was given the right opportunity, things would have turned out very differently for me.
What were things you learnt whilst working with Tony Smalios in New York that were the most valuable lessons for you?
He was a great human being, like a father to me. He taught me way more than just how to mix well. For him it was more about an overall attitude and mentality about how to approach the music, and he shared that mentality with me.
Talking to the producers was important, and realizing that they were normal people. I used to have conversations with Ali Shaheed from A Tribe Called Quest, and he would say things like “Tomorrow I’m going fishing with my kids. It’s going to be great“. So I was reminded that rap personas and daily life were different.
I also discovered that behind every record you had a crew. There weren’t any one-man shows there. There was always an interaction of people, with one person doing the bass and another person doing the drums. I had come from a school in France where one guy would do everything, and what I discovered in New York was the American way of using each guy for what he’s good at and then the engineer would help everyone put it together.
The engineer is supposed to know how to help everyone with the technical side of things. I never saw an artist in the US have to explain to an engineer what his music was about, cus it should be obvious what it was about. If you have to explain your song to an engineer or a mixer, your music is already dead. Just play your demo, and say where you want to go with it. But don’t explain what it’s about, cus if I don’t get it on my own, you should be worried. If I don’t feel that connection, I don’t mix it.
I know what you mean. It seems like back in the 80s, artists were more honest about their collaborations. It was “DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince“, not “Will Smith The Rapper All On His Own”. Ice Cube and Public Enemy were always upfront about working with The Bomb Squad on “AmeriKKKas Most Wanted“, and “Fear Of A Black Planet“. That’s gone now. Very few of today’s rappers are open about the crews that are making their music.
It’s gone. That’s why when you look at someone like Drake, for example, it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the background of his music unless you dig into it. The only impression I get is that it’s all done by him. His co-workers aren’t in the light. But do you think that’s a problem? I don’t. He’s the artist.
I think it’s problematic if you want to take inspiration from today’s artists. There are a lot of young people that want to be like Skrillex or Drake, but they’re going to have a hard time understanding exactly how to recreate those sounds because there are so many lies to sift through. Back in the day you could read a Daft Punk or Dr Dre interview and they would openly share what gear they were using. But today I’m reading a lot more stories about production that make no sense.
You’re right about that. When I work in London, I have an assistant in my studio. But when I work at my studio in Paris, I don’t, meaning I can’t teach anyone there, which I would love to do. There are a lot kids going to audio schools nowadays who don’t have a good foundation. Sure, I started off at SAE, but before that I already had a background in electronic music. Also, the kids today are different before. Everyone wants to be famous and recognized after their first mix. I don’t understand it. I never cared about that, so it’s strange, and the result is that it’s hard to learn how to do good things.
So after your New York phase, what where the subsequent developments for you?
I returned to Paris, where I created my own room at Studio Davout. That was my first big studio, with an SSL 4000G, which later switched out for a Neve VR. Bad move. That switch actually lost me some clients. The Neve VR was a ridiculously slow desk. Oh my god. I mean, sure, the low end is big, but it’s slow, and I like hitting stuff hard, which I couldn’t do with that. I didn’t like the EQ either.
After that, I moved back to Switzerland, where I had a studio called, The Room, which was located inside another studio called Dinemecs, that was a part of Phil Collins’ studio in Geneva. I stayed there for a year and half, after which I had to chance to buy a studio in Paris that became Red Room Paris. I took that concept with me when I relocated to London, which became Red Room London.
Currently, and I have a new studio called The White Room in Paris and The Red Room is still in London, which is a commercial studio that gets rented out.
My understanding is that Miloco, a studio directory and management company, helps you with managing your commercial studio. What kind of relationship do you have with Miloco and why did you partner with them?
I came to Miloco through Nick Young. He’s the person I contacted who was behind most of their ideas. I approached him when I had Red Room Paris, and the idea was to ask them to take care of my studio in 2009. I also wanted to find management outside of France, so I chose Nick, who was working at Miloco, and he primarily managed my engineering career. When artists n from the US and UK wanted find a studio in Paris to use that was semi-private, I became the guy they came to, and we had a lot of clients. The last big project we had there was Frank Ocean’s, before we moved the room to London.
As someone with a background in electronics, you have a history of building your own studios, and I’ve heard you talk about things like cable length and the importance of modifying stock gear. Can you expound on those things?
Sure. Firstly, I have to say that tuning and matching a room is very difficult. You have to do it by trial and error, and it’s important that you know what result you want.
As someone who mixes on an SSL, I never felt that your converter should be in the machine room, which means the audio signal goes into the SSL, then into the Pro Tools rig, and back into the console, probably through a patch-bay. We’re talking about a minimum of 30 meters of cable for that. But here’s the thing: if you were to take a cable of 30 meters, versus a 5 meter cable, connect them both into your chain and switch between the two, you won’t believe the difference in sound. It’s significant. So I said to myself “Why should I put 30 meter cable between my Pro Tools and my desk instead of a 1 meter cable?” So I tried it, and the difference was huge in terms of clarity and speed. Then I decided to try different types of cables to better match with the SSL, which made another huge difference when I found the right one.
Following that, I had to examine the integrated circuits used in the SSL 4000. It’s basically a chip that acts as an amplifier on every channel, and honestly, it’s a quite generic. I found that if you swap out the in-built ¢50 chip for a $2 one, it sounds way better and you gain a little headroom, which lets you hit the desk harder. It was through this process that I started wondering how many other engineers were making similar adjustments to their rigs, and I found out that many of them do! I talked to Michael Brauer about this stuff and I was like “How do you make your SSL 9000 work the way it does? When I engage the fader on my desk, the VCA comes in and my mix collapses“. He was like “Don’t worry, I’ll help you with that“. He gave me the contact info for a guy who builds custom equipment, and that’s when I understood how the top guys work.
So by trial and error, and by working with electrical engineers, I was able to improve my studio to the point where now I can’t work in other commercial studios because of how different it sounds. I’ll give you another example of how I modified my gear: I have the Alan Smart Research C2 stereo compressor. It has a “crush” button on it that sounds amazing, but I said to Alan “This button sounds great, but it only has an on-off setting. I would be great to be able to adjust the level of crush for each sound you put it on“, and he was like “Okay, let’s develop that“. So now I have a one-of-a-kind C2 that lets you customize the distortion. Even someone like Philippe Zdar does the same thing. We all know how the gear works and the importance of modifying it.
Classic labels like Stax Records and Motown never went to a store to buy gear back in the 60s and 70s; they had engineers who made it themselves. Even when I was working at Studio Davout, they would ask engineers to build them EQs for their sessions. So maybe I took inspiration from that. Stock equipment manufacturers always cuts costs, and I know that for a fact. Look at Focusrite, which is an amazing brand. Their Blue Series modules are great, but if you switch out the power supply for one that offers 5x more power, the effect on the EQ is unbelievable. I discovered this by accident one day when I plugged in a different power supply, and the entire low-end of my audio signal changed. I was like, “whoa, how did I get suddenly sub-frequencies? There aren’t supposed to be any subs on that EQ!“. So I’ve always been mindful of modifying gear to get what I want, which is even more important if you have a mastering room like Sterling Sound or Bernie Grundman do.
What are your thoughts on iZ Technology’s digital audio recorder, RADAR? I’ve been told in previous interviews that it’s the only digital format that sounds close to tape.
Absolutely. It sounds great. Mark Neill uses that. First he’ll uses tape,and after that he goes to RADAR. I don’t use it myself, even though I was blown away by it. As a mix engineer who mostly receives Pro Tools sessions, using RADAR would be unpractical for making edits if an artist wanted to change a vocal or send me a new bass track. I work with producers who are so thorough in their work that sometimes they’ll send me stems to mix, and when I send the mixed stems back to them, they´ll make production changes to my mix and send me the same stems to mix again. RADAR would make something like that incompatible.
One of the most recurring items of our conversation is the SSL 4000. What is it about the SSL desk that’s so alluring? I hear other engineers speak highly of it, but they never give specifics. What is it they like about it? If it’s just about the EQs, can’t you just make a 500 Series rack of those?
If you take out the EQs and put them in a rack, they won’t sound the same at all. People who tell you they have a 500 series rack with SSL EQ modules from the original desk should be laughed at. Firstly, on the actual desk you have stages that the signal passes through before and after the EQ module. If you remove those stages, the sound changes. Secondly, the power supply of an SSL is a huge rack with a lot of amps and current. It takes around 4000 Watts just to keep it running, depending on the size of the desk. Do you think 4000 Watts of electricity will give the same sound as the power in a 500 rack? It won’t. It’s the biggest joke in the world. You can’t get the same sound with a different power supply.
The uniqueness of the SSL 4000 shows when you hit it hard with your signal. Let’s get a little technical: The SSL is powered by +/- 18 volts, which gives you a swing of 36 volts between those 2 ranges. So when you hit the desk with an audio signal and push it like crazy, you’re going to be limited by that range, and it will start to distort, since you’re asking the desk to use more power than the power supply provides. But when you do that, a particular type of compression occurs prior to the distortion, which I like. Even when I use the latest SSL emulation plugin by UAD I get the same type of compression and distortion. Just one of those plugins eats up 25% of my processor, which is crazy, but they’ve managed to nail down the same type of compression effect, which the Neve desks don’t have because they have a higher quality power supply. So the quality problems with the components in the SSL desk are what gives it the sound we like: compression and fast mids.
But Neve is acclaimed for what it does to drums because of the crunch you get when you drive it hard. That sounds a little parallel to what you’re talking about in the SSL.
There are 2 things I can say about that. Firstly, Neve desks are recognized for tracking drums, not particularly for mixing drums. Those are very different things. Secondly, can you answer me this: how many Neve consoles are there in the world that can do what you’re describing other than the 1073 or 1081 modules? And how many of studios have one of those desks? You won’t be able to name more than 10 studios.
Everyone in the audio business knows that Rupert Neve left his company, Neve Electronics, around 1975. Anything that came out after that isn’t Neve; it’s either Siemens or AMS Neve. So just because a desk has “Neve” in it’s name doesn’t mean it’s from the original Neve Electronics. The classic Neve desk refers the 1073 and 1081 module and its internal components like the 33609 and 2254 compressors.
I read your interview with Linn Fijal at Rixmixningsverket. She’s working on one of those desks, and they’re super rare.
How would you rate a Harrison desk alongside Neve and SSL?
It’s amazing. I have a friend who’s an Italian producer that lives in Belgium, called Junior Jack, who has a Harrison 32C, and I love it. But would I put it in the same league as an SSL console? The Harrison consoles lean more towards the Neve sound. It’s very musical; the SSL isn’t musical. You need outboard gear to achieve a musical sound with an SSL, in order to compensate for the kind of transparent sound it has.
It seems like you have quite a fondness for mixing over recording, even though you have some impressive recording credits also. Can you compare mixing and recording, and why you’ve chosen to focus more on being a mixer?
Being a recording engineer means you have to be pay a lot of attention to the needs of the artists you work with. When you record someone, you have to be in a good mood, and nice, and help the artist get the best performance. Sometimes artists aren’t easy to handle, or you’re not in a good mood, and sometimes you have to wait for each other to be in the right mood. But a mixer is going to be sent files on a hard-disk and with a simple question: “Can you mix it?“. Either he can or he can’t. So as far as choosing between the two, I want to do things my way, and I don’t mind working alone. I do like to socialize and talk to people about music, but after 3 days with the same artist, it can get in the way of working, and after 2 months, it can get particularly difficult. So I’d rather focus on what I like to do, which is to mix. I don’t want to deal with the politics of showing up at a studio in the morning, wait 3 hours for the artist to show up, who doesn’t apologize when he’s late, and still have to pretend to be okay with it.
Also, as a recording engineer, you’re never going to have the right balance of sounds coming out of the speaker, because you’re always working with a rough mix, and the producer will say, “We’ll fix it later in the mix“. I hate things like that. I’d rather work to make the mix better.
What I did as a recording engineer on the Selah Sue album was to pick the vocal mic and the pre-amp, set up the vocal chain, and leave the rest to the producers. I always preferred helping with the overall picture, as opposed to minute details. I’m the guy who, if you play me your track, in less than 3 seconds I can tell what you’re trying to accomplish and can help you with that as a mixer. Being an engineer is something else. I remember working as an engineer early on, and I never liked it. All the cabling and mics wasn’t my thing. Imagine working in a studio with 115 people in the room, all mic’d up, and one of the mics starts to fail. It’s always the recording engineer’s fault….No thanks.
(Photo Credit: Sebastien Kohler)
So Ricky Ojijo was the main engineer on the Selah Sue album?
Yes, he did the recordings, and his assistant was Manu Schlindwein, who later became my mixing assistant at Red Room Paris. But the producer, Patrice, knew how to record too. I had confidence in all of them.
But when I look on your resume, I see that you have credits for engineering Madonna’s “MDNA” album, even though you just said that you prefer mixing. Do you want to talk about that?
Here’s what I can say about that: One day I received a call from Martin Solveig, who said that Madonna wanted to do some tracks with him for the MDNA album, and she had asked Martin to bring his engineer and assistant. At the time, I was mixing for Martin, and since Madonna preferred to keep her team in-house, instead of hiring another engineer from somewhere else, I came on board as the recording engineer. Working with Madonna was something I’d always wanted to do, so I accepted the job even though it was an engineering position.
For those recording engineers who really want to be a part of superstar projects like this one, I suggest you think about what you’re asking for. You may not want to go there. If you don’t know everything about recording and more, down to the how the electronics of your gear works and how to adjust them, you’ll have a difficult time achieving what the artist wants.
But not even the artists themselves know anything about that stuff.
They don’t, but they are so demanding. If you ever find yourself working with big artists, you might end up having to move 3 faders with one hand as you record, while using your other hand to control another parameter on the outboard gear simultaneously. So if you don’t know exactly how those parameters affect the audio signal, and suddenly there’s feedback in the artists headphones, you’ll be put on the plane home. And what do you think all your friends and colleagues at home will say after you told them that you left to work on a big major-label project, and you show up 2 days later? That’s not my style, haha.
Even if the artist doesn’t know what they’re asking for technically, they have the right to be demanding anyway. You have to be the technician. And let me ask you: Do you think it’s normal to be an accomplished engineer and not know the electronic side of how a desk works? It’s not. When you talk to all the big names in this business, they all know what’s inside a desk and why it reacts the way it does. Philippe Zdar is one of them. You can talk technical with him all day, even though he’s not an electrical engineer, because he taught himself. Same thing with Michael Brauer. It’s because of the digital revolution that many younger people don’t care about these things anymore.
How much of a salary difference exists between a recording engineer and mix engineer?
There’s a huge difference. The mixing engineer takes way more. But I mean, I’m not talking about mix engineers in their 20s. I’m talking about those who are 35+. Not to say you can’t start young! I started at 20.
But is this disparity in salaries between a mixer and recording engineer a result of what labels have decided to pay, or are the salaries proportionate to the skills required? Because without a recording engineer, you don’t even have a record to begin with.
Wait a second though. Mixing is a huge responsibility, which is the only thing people hear on the final record. That means your EQ, your compression and your final sound is key. It’s the mixer that ultimately sets the vocal in a way that people either love or hate. That shouldn’t be underrated.
Listen, if you want me to track your drums, I’ll put a mic in front of it, run it through a Neve 1073, then into Pro Tools… and then what? What more can I do? Nothing. The drummer has to tune his kit well, and producer has to guide his playing. But the recording engineer? You set up the mic, adjust the gain, the producer tells you what he’s going for, and that’s it. But with a mix, I literally have to make hundreds of decisions per song, because there could be 100 tracks in one song and I have to make a conscious choice about all them.
The difference in rates could be seen as unfair, and I understand why. The way the industry works is that they go for young guys in their 20s to do the recordings, and then they pay them nothing, which isn’t fair. But with mixing, they can’t do that.
You’ve also said in past interviews, “Computers are shit…I use them because I have to”. Why do you feel like you have to use them? Can’t you just avoid them if you don’t like how they sound and just use analogue gear?
I used to be critical of computers until Pro Tools 11 came out; it was terrible until then. But since version 11, things improved hugely because Avid created a better audio engine. But regarding why I have to use computers, it’s because people send me Pro Tools sessions, and they always want to make edits and changes. Imagine working with an artist who later goes on tour in Japan, and calls you up 4 days later to ask for changes to be made in the session you did. If I was using only the SSL, I would have had to leave the mix on the desk for 4 days. Who wants to do that?
When you talk about digital versus analogue, you also have to remember what today’s generation of artist like. I discovered this through first-hand experience. I’ve mixed records using only analogue gear, and then done another mix of the same record with only plugins, and the artists always choose the digital mix. Always. I make an exception with reverbs though, because digital reverbs aren’t to my taste. But when it comes to digital summing versus analogue summing, I always get a better response from the artist when I use the former. It’s clearer-sounding and the bass sounds faster to them.
Interesting. Well, we’ve talked about everything except the album I reached out to you about. Let me ask specific questions about the Selah Sue album. How did you come to work with her and what was the overall vision for achieving the sound of the album in the beginning?
Things came together through her label, Because Music. They played me her demos, and their A&R asked me if I had any suggestions for a producer that could work with her on it, so I suggested Patrice, who in turn brought in DJ Farhot.
It was an amazing moment in time with the right people. The sound you hear on that album was attained using old gear and tube equipment, fully recorded to tape. Computers weren’t used until the end. The personnel were super knowledgeable about recording, like Patrice, who has his own studio with a Neve VR, tube mics and great pre-amps, and he knows how to use them.
Most of the album was recorded at Supow Studios in Colgone, right?
This might be a side question, but it’s kind of related to the subject. When you talk about a studio like Supow and all of its vintage equipment, it sounds like a fool-proof way to record a great album. But how many times don’t artists and producers claim to record on SSLs and with LA2As, yet the albums sound as bland as if they did it on a laptop? Why is that?
It’s marketing. It seems appealing for people to say that they recorded something through a “tube compressor”, as if that means something. It means nothing. That’s just marketing. But the choice for Supow was less about gear, and more about it being Patrice’s studio, so we couldn’t have gone anywhere else.
The reason why the Selah Sue album sounded the way it did was because of the interplay between the producer and mix engineer, and goals we wanted to reach. I mixed that album to fit Selah specifically. If an artist wanted to make a soul album, but his recordings didn’t sound like soul recordings, I wouldn’t mix it to sound like a soul record. I would have to create a sound that fits him, which is what I always do.
That was Patrice. All the music contacts came from him.
If he had brought in the “wrong” session musicians, or someone that wasn’t competent enough, would you have commented on that?
No, I wouldn’t have commented because it’s not a situation I would have been able to anticipate. It never happens with Patrice.
Your mixing makes things sound very upfront and discernible on the Selah Sue album, so I’d like to do a comparison between 2 tracks to get an idea of how you think when you mix.
Let’s compare Majid Jordan’s “Day and Night” from 2016 to Usher’s “Seduction” from 2004. With the Usher record, the drums have an immediate upfront quality and cohesive sound to them, along with plenty of low-end information, and the chorus features panned, layered vocals that surround the center take.
But the Majid Jordan record has the vocals further back, and drums are heavily processed and sound a bit disjointed, as if the samples came from notably different sources. Can you comment on these differences and compare it to “Selah Sue”?
It’s easy talk about other people’s music, and I don’t like doing it, but I’ll do my best here to be objective.
What you hear on records like “Selah Sue” and Usher’s “Confessions” is one mono vocal in the center that’s well-mixed with no unusual stereo effects. On the Majid Jordan record, it sounds like 2 panned vocals, with a stereo-effect on them that has something strange going on in the sides, and it hardly leaves anything in the center.
Beyond the vocals, they’ve made particular frequency choices with the drums: the kick is interfering with the frequency range of the vocal. You don’t hear that on the Usher record, where the kick has its own range of impact. The kick on the Majid Jordan record seems to have a bump at 2KHz to 4KHz that’s so loud that it interferes with everything else.
Also, there’s less emphasis on having low-end in the vocal in “Day and Night”. If you were to listen to the vocals on “Selah Sue” and suspected that I was pushing 30Hz on that, it’s because I am, even if you don’t hear it immediately.
Another difference is reverb. With “Selah Sue”, I had 5 or 6 different reverbs on the vocal alone, even if you don’t hear them. Each of them is meant to do something different. On the Majid Jordan record, it sounds like they just slapped one reverb on the vocal because they think that’s what a reverb should sound like. But you have to understand that it’s important to layer the reverb with your EQs, so each one addresses a different frequency spectrum, or you won’t get a realistic effect. I use one reverb for the high frequencies, and different ones for the mids and the lows. I have a different reverb for the left side, and I might use a delay on the right. But you won’t hear it immediately. Then I’ll adjust the amount of reverb for different parts of the song, and I won’t have the same EQ settings though-out the whole song. Even the different vocal tracks have their own unique EQ that changes from part to part. So no matter what section of the song is playing, the vocals stay upfront and audible, because the EQ is always adjusting to compensate for the new elements that are brought into the song. I can hear on “Day and Night” that the engineer doesn’t have the same approach to EQing, which makes everything sound very bright. But it also comes down to what kind of artistic approach you want to to take. The Selah Sue and Usher records are made more in the way of traditional RnB and soul, whilst “Day and Night” is more modern, and it comes with a loss of fullness of sound, which is why the vocal sounds thin. But it’s a matter of the taste and vision they had for the track. They mixed it like that on purpose, and the track is great by the way.
From personal of experience, I’m aware that a lot of music production education is happening through Youtube, and one of things that has always been emphasized for the past 8 years or so in online forums, videos and in music production schools is that you should always EQ out the bass from anything that isn’t bass-centric, because it will interfere with the kick and bass. So slap a hi-pass filter on your hi-hats and such. Have you heard of this?
I know they tell you that, but that’s how you lose the soul in a mix. It’s something they might teach you at school, which may be right technically, but it’s why things sound less interesting to me on certain records, which sounds more like the engineer was being technically minded. It’s like talking about db level; there’s no “right” or “wrong” level in db. You do what feels right. If you’re mixing a recording of a live drum-kit, and you put a high-pass filter on the hi-hat alone, you’ll get phasing problems. You can’t just EQ things without thinking about that. For me, the kick, snare and hi-hat are all one block of sound, even if they’re on separate tracks on the board. I can’t treat them separately.
Let´s look at specific Selah Sue tracks on the first album. “This World” starts off with a vinyl hiss. Where is that coming from?
It came from the production team in the form of a sample that plays throughout the song. I also had the Ensoniq DP/4 parallel effects processor on the bass, set to a random phaser patch that created some odd noises, but I couldn’t take it off without killing the vibe on the bass, so I left it on.
Can you talk about how you got such a full-sounding bass guitar sound on tracks like “This World” and “Summertime”?
I have some techniques for treating bass guitars. In Selah’s case, I processed the whole bass through an EAR 660, with a Pultec EQH2, and re-recorded it into Pro Tools before mixing the whole record. Of course, you have to realign the bass with rest of the music after re-recording it, but pre-processing sounds before mixing is something I do a lot. Even if I loose little bit of resolution in the process, it gives an edge to the sound that I like.
“Ragamuffin” is obviously one of the most famous songs on the album, and the acoustic guitar plays a huge role in what makes it an interesting song. Most people don’t think recording an acoustic guitar is challenging, yet it’s not uncommon to hear guitar recordings that are flat and uninteresting. How did you guys manage to make the “Ragamuffin” guitar sound so lively?
To be honest, that happened during the mix stage. If I were to play you the original sound I had, it would sound quite different. At this point, I can’t remember all of what I had to do to make it sound like what you hear now. I know that I sent it through an LA3A, with some Neuman 495STB, and the original recording was done with one mic.
What about the drums?
On “Ragamuffin” we have live drums recorded to tape and a layered drum loop that I think was sent to tape as well, for a total of 12 tracks of drums
It’s important to remember that a large part of the glued-together sound of records like “Selah Sue” is because of it’s use of tape. The Studer A80 16-track 2-inch has a great sound and it’s own unique compression.
One of the defining aspects of the mix on this album is that despite there only being drums, bass, acoustic guitar and vocals on many tracks, everything fills the frequency spectrum quite nicely, and sounds very dense.
That’s mainly because of the production quality and music choices that were made. But another factor is that the recording was done to tape, which gave me a sound that was cohesive before mixing. What tape does give all the sounds the same error, compression and overall low-end. There’s also Patrice’s and Fahrot’s music sensibilities. They were never people to make clean recordings, and always bring grit to their music. On my side, because there aren’t a lot of instruments, the vocals have to be the center of everything, which I worked a lot on.
I really enjoyed mixing Selah Sue. For some tracks, I had to do the mix 9 different times. For others, it took 1 hour. “Black Part Love” took a lot of time to nail down.
How did the mastering for the album go? Were you involved with that?
I was. We went through 5 different mastering engineers for the Selah Sue album. At the end of the day, I had to do it myself, which I’m not proud of, but we had no choice. I brought my Avalon E55 EQ, Pacific Microsonics Model One converters,and did my own EQ on the final master, with the help of AVRM mastering at the time.
We’ve had quite a long talk, probably the longest interview on the site. Thanks a lot for all you’ve shared. What can you tell about your future projects? Any coming developments?
I’ll always keep mixing, which is what I love doing. I also want to find a way to pass on what I know about mixing and music. But I want to do it in an effective way, and not just by filming myself with a webcam for Youtube videos. I also want to do more consulting work regarding product development for brands that are doing interesting things.
The most important thing in a recording studio is high quality monitoring and very few people have it. I’ve developed my own amplifier and electronics, which is what makes my system unique, and moving forward I want to develop more things based on that. When producers or engineer come here, they often can’t believe what they hear.
Basically, most people in the music industry use active speakers with on-board DSP. But all the great classic records of the 20th century were done on passive speakers, which had great external amps. I don’t have a problem with audio gear because I can modify it myself, but the monitoring was always a problem for me. I always used to ask myself “Why does one brand of hifi speaker or amplifier cost $100,000, and sounds great, but what most people use in their studio sounds so bad in comparison? Studio speakers are supposed to sound good too! And another thing: why should I use active speakers in my studio, which have an Analog-to-Digital converter, followed by Digital Signal Processing and then Digital-to-Analog conversion? That’s 2 stages of conversion, so you’re not getting the direct audio signal! A passive speaker only needs one external amp”. So now the question for me is how can I make Red Room’s monitoring quality available on a wider level? I worked for a few years on this, and have now developed an amplifier that you can use with a speaker like the Yamaha NS10, ProAc Studio 100 or Tannoy DMT 10, that will cost the same as a regular amp, yet is unmatched in quality.
I know a lot of manufacturers don’t want to develop passive speakers with high quality amps because of the cost involved, and frankly, if you wanted to by an amplifier for your NS10s, you wouldn’t be able to find anything other than a very basic one. So I want to be able to make developments in the area of monitoring, and I have high hopes for that.
That sounds great. This was quite the interview, Philippe! Definitely my longest and one of the most in-depth. Thanks for talking to me about your work.