Mixing Down and Speaking Up

Master mixer Dave Pensado enjoys causing consternation among his peers by making controversial statements about the craft of recording. He takes great

Master mixer Dave Pensado enjoys causing consternation among his peers by making controversial statements about the craft of recording. He takes great pleasure in contradicting conventional audio wisdom and, in the process, delights many up-and-coming recordists, while simultaneously enraging large groups of the pro-audio establishment.

To give you an idea, here's a typical Pensadoism: “It is better to sound new than to sound good.” Adding fuel to the fire, he says, “These old farts that are spending their time trying to sound good have all become irrelevant. The only time we ever see them is when the Grammys give them some BS award for something that doesn't matter anymore. Instead, spend your time trying to sound new, because that is what pop music is about.” Take that, anyone who has spent a lifetime pursuing high-fidelity audio.

Or take this statement: “Show me a guy who doesn't like a particular format, and I'll show you a guy who doesn't know how to use it.” Ouch. Or, during a time when most people seem to think of the late '60s and early '70s as the golden age of pop music, what about the following: “I'm in an extreme minority, but I think that the music being made today is the best ever.” And further: “Trying to protect trade audio secrets makes as much sense as Ernest Hemingway trying to guard his verbs. So I put my exact plug-in settings on the Internet.”

Pensado loves saying that many plug-ins sound better and offer more options than old-fashioned outboard gear. He says, “The reason the old-timers are bitching about the digital stuff is that they have not taken the time to figure out what the various plug-ins are good at. I greatly admire and respect the skills these guys have, but I just don't understand why they don't apply the same vigor to today's technology as they did with analog when they were 18 years old. I wish they would turn loose on today's technology and blow us all away with the records that they are capable of making.”

Impeccable Résumé

Pensado's words may rile many, but his track record is inarguable. He is an extremely successful mixer who has worked on numerous hit records. Earlier this year, he enjoyed three No. 1 hit singles in the same month: Mary J. Blige's sumptuous “Be Without You,” Beyonce's “Check on It,” and Keyshia Cole's “Love.” Pensado has also mixed hits for the likes of Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas, Destiny's Child, Missy Elliott, Ice Cube, Lil' Kim, Brian McKnight, Mya, Pink (“Lady Marmalade”), the Pussycat Dolls, Justin Timberlake, and Warren G. + Christina.

Pensado with Mary J. Blige.

Pensado honed his audio skills during the '70s and '80s — years he spent exploring Atlanta's club and hip-hop scene and engineering in both live and studio settings. In 1990 he moved to Los Angeles hoping to hit the big time, and within three months he had mixed the No. 1 hit “Do Me Baby” for Bell Biv DeVoe. His phone hasn't stopped ringing since.

Most of Pensado's work has been of a hip-hop and pop-oriented nature, which adds a crucial qualifier to his combative statements — that is, he isn't talking about music that requires the most pristine audio possible. “Of course, there are kinds of music that require 8 trillion bits and extensive skills,” he admits, “because they are about capturing the ultimate jazz sound or the most beautiful orchestral sound. We could not do what we're doing today had it not been for the guys who're doing that. But that's not the type of music that I do; I do pop, hip-hop, and rock. And ‘Stairway to Heaven’ could not have been any better, whether it had been made in 8 trillion bits or on a half-inch tape machine.

“That's a great song, and the engineering, production, and mix work together to create something that moves us. That's what contemporary music is supposed to do. We shouldn't be centered on elite snobbism about what has the most bits. We should talk about the types of music we create and present to the public, and the fact that the only limitation is our imagination.”

While revealing everything about his technical skills and settings, Pensado simultaneously deemphasizes the importance of technology. “My settings won't work on anything other than what I used them on,” he explains. “Publicizing them may give young engineers and producers a starting point and the confidence to be creative and try their own thing. You have to master the technical side so proficiently that you forget about it while working. But that doesn't mean I have a great respect for technical skills.

“You can teach anybody to get a great vocal sound, but you can't teach what a great vocal sound is. Taste is what distinguishes one mixer from another … which brings me back to the old-timers, who think that it's their technical know-how that separates them from being irrelevant. But it's not — it's their taste.”

Fifty-Fifty Proposition

A few years ago Pensado said that his work was “50 percent Bill Gates and 50 percent Picasso.” Today, with continuing technological advances having made audio even more fluid and malleable, Pensado says that the Picasso aspect counts for 75 percent. He stresses that that is the case for everyone working in the music field, including engineers, producers, and musicians.

“My job used to be to take a well-recorded collection of ideas, sort through them, and feed them to the listener through a set of speakers. That was a pretty simple job. But with the rise in home recording, the quality of the stuff I get varies greatly, and now I have more creative decisions to make than ever before. The creative side becomes increasingly valuable as time goes on.”

Pensado feels that the progress in the quality and affordability of digital technology makes this one of the most creatively fruitful times in the history of music. “If you have 5 musicians in the world, you'll get a certain kind of quality. But if you have 5 million musicians, you can bet there's more quality, because you have a larger pool to choose from. Anyone can go out and spend a few thousand dollars and use the same kind of equipment I use. So the pool of ideas is greater than ever before, and we consequently have some of the best music ever made. The problem is that we also have some of the worst music ever made! Now more than ever we need gifted, talented people to sort through that pile.”

Mixers are among those trying to create order out of that pile. The seemingly endless array of options can, however, obscure one's focus. “We have so much technology that we have to make an effort not to let it dictate what we do,” says Pensado. “A mixer can no longer claim that the reason their mix is mediocre is because the source material is substandard. Those days are gone. We now have the tools necessary to take anything we are given and make it great. Anyone who says they can't do that should reevaluate their skills and go back to the drawing board.

“Vision is the essential ingredient,” says Pensado. “You need to have a clear vision of the sound you want to get. Within that vision there is room for experimentation, and there is room for doubt. Having a vision does not mean that you are on a 4-foot-wide path; it can also mean that you are on an 8-lane highway. A good vision is dynamic and can change as you go along.

“But I'm constantly amazed that a lot of my colleagues immediately pull up the kick drum and the snare drum when they start a mix; they have not even listened to the rough mix yet! How can you know what you want to do unless you have studied the rough mix, or have at least done your own rough mix of the song to understand the nuances and subtleties of what you want to do?”

Hard-Drivin' Dave

Pensado says that unless it's an artist that he has mixed in the past, he always asks to hear a rough mix first, because there are things he is good at and things he is not so good at. “I want to be in a position where I am challenged, but not so much so that what I'm doing is going to suck. When I decide to do the mix, I'm a big believer in listening and writing down what you like and what you think could be better. For example, the delay in the vocal sound in the second verse may be incredible, but the shaker and the hi-hat aren't moving the song enough.”

Pensado currently works almost without interruption at Larrabee Studios in Los Angeles. He doesn't have his own facility, because he likes the feeling of being taken care of and having top-notch stuff around him. “I can have a major technical problem at 3 a.m., and it will be fixed at 3:05 a.m. In a home studio, you don't have that,” he says. He also works extreme hours — from noon until 3 a.m. — at least six days a week. His ferocious appetite for work earned him the nickname “Hard Drive.” In the past decade, as hard drives have become omnipresent, the name has become doubly apt.

“The sessions arrive on hard drive or DVD disc,” Pensado says, “and almost always in Pro Tools format. I haven't seen tape in maybe three years! Very occasionally there's a Logic session, which my assistant immediately transfers to Pro Tools. He also puts the songs in a layout that I like, with the vocals at the top of the session, the drums and percussion next, and then the instruments at the bottom. After that, I go back to my original notes and listen to the rough mix again, because there's usually a more recent one, and take more notes.

“Now all my ideas are starting to produce a direction, a game plan. If the song is percussion-driven, like a hip-hop track, I start with working on the drums. If it's a song that centers around an amazing vocal performance, like Christina Aguilera, I start with the vocals and weave everything around that.

“So I start with what I judge to be the foundation elements of the mix, get them to a point where I think they're great, and then bring more elements in. With every new element that I bring in, everything starts changing. I take a five-minute break every hour or so, and when I come back into the room, things always sound different and I'm better able to distinguish the good stuff and the flaws. At that stage, mixing is like sculpting. Not that I want to compare myself to him, but Michelangelo would start with a blank rectangular block of marble and chop away until it looked the way he wanted. For me, mixing is a process of taking out what I don't want until I'm left with what I do want.

“At that point, I have something I can evaluate, and that is when it becomes the most fun. I have something that's organic and has a life of its own — that has the creativity of the writer, the performance talent of the artist, and the vision of the producer. Then I can take things to the next level, bring in the elements that are going to move somebody, and create something that's more than the sum of the parts.

“That is when my songs become different from those of other mixers. I often change them quite a bit, perhaps adding the lowest octave, 40 to 80 cycles, to the kick drum — things like that. Also, when a song comes to me, it may already be a year and a half old, and it may be another year before it's released. Part of my job is to anticipate where sounds will be going in one or two years. So I may add some samples to make sure it will sound fresh by the time it reaches the radio.”

A Little off the Top

Pensado explains that he can take more chances when artist and producer are present, because he can give them more ideas to choose from. If he's on his own, however, he mixes a lot more conservatively. In his customary colorful language, Pensado draws an analogy between mixing and hairdressing: “Some people want a small trim; others want to change their entire look. So some clients want the rough mix, but a little better, whereas others tell me to do whatever I want. The main problem is finding out what they want.”

Pensado returns to his analogy of the mixer as sculptor, this time discussing the tools of his trade, notably effects gear. He says, “I use plug-ins about 60 percent of the time now. When you're working with a piece of marble, you have tools to knock off huge chunks, to knock off small pieces, and even to polish the marble. The beauty of plug-ins is that you can get microscopic — you can really polish with them. You can pull out a band as narrow as 998 to 1,002 cycles with the Waves Q-series. In general you can't do that in the analog world.

“But please, especially for up-and-coming people, don't consider that a rule — it's just a guideline, and we're talking EQ here. But in general I like to do the broad carvings in the analog world, with stuff like a Neve, an Avalon 2055, a GML, an API 550 and 560, and a Pultec. Everybody uses those. Then I use my plug-ins to add colors, shades, and nuances. We have such a wide and varied range of plug-ins available; just consider that between companies like McDSP and Waves we have 50 EQ plug-ins to choose from. They are all amazing and all do things that were not available in the analog world. I still use the McDSP E6 [shelving equalizer] a lot. The high end has a ‘grain’ that I just love on vocals. And the company's F2 is very useful for rolling off low end on reverb returns or making the bass and kick drum fit with each other.

FIG. 1: One of Pensado''s favorite dynamics plug-ins is the Waves C1 Compressor/Sidechain. This screenshot shows the settings he used for Mary J. Blige''s vocals on the hit, “Be Without You.”

“In the compression world, I still like one of the oldest plug-ins ever invented — the C1 Compressor/Sidechain by Waves [see Fig. 1]. When I find an irritating frequency in a vocal, which typically would be somewhere between 1 kHz and 2.5 kHz, I put that on the sidechain and let the compressor pull that out for me, so I don't have to have a separate fader with that notched out.

“In the old days, we would dedicate two to six faders to just the lead vocal. For example, one fader would have the straight vocal; another fader would have a bit of low end rolled off, because most vocalists sing more softly in the verses; and a third fader with the low end put back in and a little notch around 1K for the chorus. Then you would pull up the fader you wanted. But today, because you can automate plug-ins, you don't need multiple plug-ins, and you do anything you want under one fader.

“I also like Waves C4, Renaissance Compressor, and new SSL plug-ins; McDSP C4 and M2000; and Bomb Factory LA3A. The C4 and M2000 are basically 4-band compressors. Think of them as parametric EQs that have four bands and a compressor on each — they are tremendously powerful tools. The SSL EQ plug-in and G-series compressor plug-ins are incredible. They sound exactly like the SSL. The LA3A sounds spectacular on pianos, and I often send the vocals through that before I send them through an analog compressor. Again, it's better to sound new than good, so when the whole world is using Pultecs, don't go out and do it as well! Figure out something else; find a plug-in that gives you something better.”

Pensado says that he has no time for the very concept that makes many people reach for vintage gear. “I don't like the word warm. For me it's another word for dull. I love saying that, because it pisses a lot of people off! I have noticed that different keys and tempos affect the kind of gear I like using. For example, F#, A, and E are bright keys and best with tube gear, while Bb, Eb, and some of the slow tempos sound best with newer gear and plug-ins.”

Clearly concerned that people will take his statements the wrong way, Pensado adds, “That isn't a rule; it's just an observation. And I would love to hear some feedback on it.” With that, he offers his email address (fdpen@ix.netcom.com) and says, “I get about 20 to 30 emails a day, and I hope that in giving loads of technical details I don't do more damage than good. It's not about the gear — it's what you do with it. So I hope that people think that it's good to know how I do it, so that they can find their own way of doing it. In the end, you don't sell your engineering skills — you sell your creative skills.”

Paul Tingen is a writer and musician living in France. He is the author of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books, 2001), a book on early weird funk experimentation. For more information, visitwww.tingen.co.uk.

Pensado says about working on “Be Without You,” Mary J. Blige's most recent hit song, “A lot of people try to make Mary J. Blige sound street. I find that you can't make her sound anything but street, because that is who she is. But on ‘Be Without You,’ I wanted to make her also sound expensive. That gave me some leeway to use some new effects and approaches with the EQ, and I think the world responded to that.

“I used the Waves Phase Linear EQ and the McDSP [Filterbank] E6 [see Fig. A] on Mary's vocals. I had the E6 set to the standard Classic 1, which I ran into an old Neve 1073, and then out of that into an old Gates STA-Level compressor. At that point, the signal hits the SSL and the outboard gear. This technique gives you the high-tech sound and the brand-new special sparkle from the Phase Linear and the McDSP. In addition, there's an 8 kHz and above presence that you can only get on the Neve. Then, like a good spaghetti sauce, it all melts together and becomes one nice, beautiful sound.

FIG. A: Here are the settings Pensado used on the McDSP Filterbank E6 equalizer for Blige''s vocal''s on “Be Without You.”

“Recently I have become more aware of the effect of panning. Five years ago you had those big, wide, massive backgrounds that you used to hear on Babyface songs, but now they sound old and tired to us. I realized that I like my panning to be a little more compact now. As I brought stuff in, the mixes started sounding leaner, more aggressive, more relevant.

“If you listen to the Mary mix, you'll notice that it is basically a tight, compact mix that also has very selective things that are big and wide. That gives me the best of both worlds: I can imply that Mary is considered in the same league as great singers like Whitney and Mariah by hinting at the wideness of their mixes. At the same time, I can have that tight, compact hip-hop center that makes everybody remember that Mary is a tough girl from the street.”

These days, all engineers must deal with having their mixes end up as MP3s. Not surprisingly, Pensado has a few opinions on the subject.

“Whatever works to disseminate our product to the largest number of people for the least amount of money is a wonderful thing. Right now, that's MP3 and the iTunes format. It allows millions to hear our creativity. From an engineering viewpoint, I would prefer it if we could get a little better fidelity. But we've always been obliged to cater to all formats. We have always had to make sure that mixes sounded good on little mono TV speakers, hi-fi speakers, car speakers, the radio, and now computer speakers. And technology always comes along to make that possible. Take the Yamaha NS10 speakers: everybody hates them, but we all know that if your mixes sound exciting and bright and you can hear the bottom end on NS10s, they will probably sound good everywhere.

FIG. B: Pensado uses the Waves L3 Multimaximizer limiter to boost levels without going over when mixing specifically for MP3.

“Today there are more formats than ever that we have to cater to. I mix to 1-inch tape and to 44.1/88.2 kHz, or if it comes in to me on that, I mix to 48/96 kHz. We choose the master from those alternatives. The 44.1/88.2 kHz converts more easily to CD and sounds only slightly better. In any case, the emphasis with different resolutions — 44.1, 96, or 192 kHz — is on the word different. One is not better than the other. Using 16-bit is better for sledgehammer hip-hop-like tracks, while higher resolutions and sampling rates are better for the airy, spacious stuff.

“The main problem with MP3 occurs with width, and some subtleties such as reverb decays and spaces between instruments can get lost. Usually the two octaves below 100 to 125 Hz are hard to get to come through on MP3. And sometimes the vocal gets sucked into the mix, or the transient response on the snare just isn't there. I make my own MP3 files using the Pro Tools MP3 Codec (highest quality at slowest speed), and if there's something I don't like, I may alter the mix to compensate.

“I always put the Waves L3 Multimaximizer across the mix to cater for MP3. The settings don't vary too much from the screen shot [see Fig. B]. The main point is to keep the signal from going into the dreaded ‘above 0’ distortion territory. Think of the L3 as a 5-band parametric with a compressor on each band. Or think of it as five compressors, each compressing only a small assigned part of the frequency spectrum.

“The MP3 files I make sound pretty good, and I'm planning to mix specifically for MP3. I'll start mixing Christina's new album next week, and I want to talk with her about that. She has the power to get the record company to release our own MP3 files.”

Beyonce, “Check on It” on #1s (Sony Urban Music, 2005)
Mary J. Blige, “Be Without You” on The Breakthrough (Geffen, 2005)
Keyshia Cole, “Love” on The Way It Is (A&M, 2005)
Flipsyde, “Happy Birthday” on We the People (Universal International, 2005)
The Pussycat Dolls, “Beep” on PCD (A&M, 2005)
Kelly Clarkson, “Miss Independent” on Thankful (RCA, 2003)
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” on Stripped (RCA, 2002)
Kelly Rowland, “Stole” on Simply Deep (Sony 2002)
Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, Lil' Kim & Missy Elliott, “Lady Marmalade” on the original soundtrack of Moulin Rouge (Interscope, 2001)
Pink, “Get the Party Started” on M!ssundaztood (Arista, 2001)
The Black Eyed Peas, “Request + Line” (featuring Macy Gray) on Bridging the Gap (Interscope, 2000)
Ice Cube, “Until We Rich” on War and Peace, vol. 2 (Priority, 2000)
K-Ci & JoJo, “All My Life” on Love Always (MCA, 1997)