Playing It by Ear - EMusician

Playing It by Ear

Electronic Musician''s interview with Neal Pogue, the Grammy-winning mix engineer behind OutKast''s mega-hit "Hey Ya" talks about his mixing methods and philosophies.
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He may be soft-spoken and unassuming, but mix-engineer Neal Pogue is definitely no lightweight. He possesses a quiet intensity, backed by a healthy dose of self-confidence and a distinct sense of style. Pogue leans toward a creative, left-field point of view on most subjects — including sound — and that unique perspective has resulted in an atypical career path.

Following his dream, Pogue moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, and then to Atlanta, just as that city's music boom was taking off in the '90s. Along the way, he worked with some of the most innovative artists in the R&B and hip-hop arena.

His first big success was in 1995 with the TLC's “Waterfalls” single from CrazySexyCool, the group's 11-times-Platinum release, which was produced by Atlanta-based production trio Organized Noize. Since then Pogue has worked on hits for En Vogue, Mystikal, Pink, Faith Evans, Lucy Pearl, Brian McKnight, and Yolanda Adams, among many others. He has also maintained a working relationship for more than ten years with the witty, innovative, multi-Platinum duo OutKast. This year, he picked up a Grammy Award for his work on seven tracks — including the smash hit “Hey Ya!” — on The Love Below, Andre 3000's disc from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (see Fig. 1), OutKast's two-CD, Grammy Award — winning Album of the Year for 2003.

Pogue's cell phone number still has an Atlanta prefix, but these days, he's living back in Los Angeles. That's where I caught up with him for a chat one evening at Larrabee North Studios.

Your mixes tend to have a twist; they don't sound like anybody else's. I'm guessing it's no accident that, throughout your career, you've worked with some of the stronger, edgier producers and artists.

I guess I'd call myself a street engineer. I'm much more of a feel person than a technical person.

But you did go to engineering school.

Yes, I have the schooling. But for me, with engineering, it's really been more like learning to play an instrument by ear rather than by training. I believe it's possible to be too influenced by training or by what someone is teaching you. When you're afraid to break rules because you're always hearing the teacher say, “It should be this way,” your work can be sterile. Whereas, if you learn something from a street level and do it your way, great things can happen. You can develop a signature sound.

Great things come out of being taught as well — I have nothing against it. I was taught the foundation. But sometimes I block out what I was taught and just go for what I feel. It can be good to be reactive, without letting your mind get in the way, and to go for it rather than feeling doubtful.

That requires either a lot of confidence or a situation in which you're so involved in what you're doing that there's no room for self-doubt.

You become afraid if you start thinking that a producer might not use you again because of how you do things. That's the fear that mixers can have. You've got to keep your job going, keep the relationships going, and keep the money flowing. So that's where fear can keep you back. Your mind starts talking to you, saying, “I hope he likes this.”

How do you deal with that?

I just have to block it out. Most of the time people like what I do, but there's always that little human thing inside you that gets you to start wondering. But see, [when you try new things, clients] might say, “That's cool, but not for this song.” They might like that you ventured out and tried something different. A lot of people you work with don't want you to hold back, they want you to go for it. [Laughs] Of course, not everyone! Some people are sticklers for the rough mix, and it makes you wonder, “Why did you come to me?” But a lot of them will say, “Go for what you feel.” It's a good feeling to work with those kinds of people. But you have to be able to deal with different sides of this business.

So how did a New Jersey guy like you end up working in the Deep South?

I moved from New Jersey to L.A. when I was 20, with dreams of being a drummer in a band and being a star, but it didn't work out.

One day, I saw an ad for Sound Master Recording [Engineer] School and I decided to try to get on the other side of the glass. I never meant for it to turn into a job, I just thought I'd do it to learn how to record my own music. But I graduated and ended up with an intern job at Larrabee Studios, where I worked with a lot of great engineers. I guess I picked things up fast because after a while Kevin Mills, Larrabee's owner, recommended me to [jazz-pop keyboardist] Jeff Lorber to mix a song. And I guess I did a good job, because I started working with other people, and then I got offered a project with Bobby Brown. It was just after his big record “Don't Be Cruel” [1988], and he'd moved to Atlanta. We hit it off, and he asked me if I'd like to move to Georgia.

Things were so competitive in Los Angeles, and at the time there weren't a lot of engineers in Atlanta, so I went. The scene was just starting to happen, and I met a bunch of artists who were just coming up: Dallas Austin, Kris Kross, Jermaine Dupree … I came up with those guys, really. But the majority of my work was done with Organized Noize.

And that's how you hooked up with OutKast?

Yes. Organized Noize got them signed to LaFace Records when they were two guys just out of high school, barely 18.

Do you find that mix engineers are also, in a way, producers?

We enhance what the producer brings to us and, hopefully, take it to a whole other level. Whether you're balancing or adding reverb, delays, and effects, taking it from the rough mix to the final is definitely a creative process. So yes, it's also often a form of producing.

You seem to have a good ear for how parts go together.

Part of that is from being a drummer. I've noticed that some people who make great producers — Phil Collins, Larry Blackmon, Narada Michael Walden — are also drummers. I think being in the band, being the glue that holds the music together, and having to watch everybody else in the band helps you understand how songs work.

Maybe it's also the way I see music. Some people see music in numbers; I see colors and levels. When I write my console tape, I color-code the instruments — I put drums in black, bass in blue, guitars in orange, keys in green, horns in brown, background vocals in purple, and lead vocals in red. I credit that method to an engineer named Taavi Mote. He color-coded everything. I always saw music in colors; when I saw him doing that, it made sense to me.

For him, it was a convenience. When he got tired, he'd know what he was looking at by the colors, which is sensible. But for me, that's actually how I see it. Also, I mix as if the band is playing to me and I'm the audience.

How do you start a mix?

I used to start with just drums and bass, but now I put all the faders up and mix as I go. I'll pull the vocals down low so I can just hear them, then I'll start equalizing. But within that, I'll generally start with the drums. The music that I do now is pretty much beat based; everything else is secondary. The beat has got to be loud, and the bass has got to be up. People have big sound systems inside their cars now, so the music has to sound right for that environment. It's all about the cars.

How do you choose whether to feature the kick drum or the bass?

Each song is different; some songs definitely call for the drums to be up. But with people so used to hearing the drums up, you can be forced to have them up on a song where they'd do better just sitting right in the mix. That's too bad, because a song will tell you how it should be mixed. Sometimes we force ourselves upon a song and mix it in a way that's different from the way in which the song calls for because that's what the current style demands. But I believe that if you just listen, the music will speak to you and tell you how it should be mixed.

It is my understanding that you prefer the sound of recordings that were initially tracked to analog tape. When you are working on tracks that were not, what are some things you do to warm them up?

Cut frequencies, cut highs, filter things — that can really help, especially when you're working with samples. When you're mixing, often you'll get samples that have already been equalized and filtered a certain way. If they've laid drums on top of a sample, they may have filtered out the low end on the sample to make them fit together, resulting in a really harsh top end. To warm that up is difficult, but you just have to work with filtering highs and adding lows.

In that case, are there any frequencies that you tend to cut or boost?

There aren't any specific frequencies. Each sample and song is different. Basically, you have to turn the knobs until you get it right — or at least that's what I do!

How do you train yourself to know what's right?

I'm sorry to tell you that it's all about listening. I read an article recently about someone who'd lost his sight. He said he had no real understanding of sound until he became blind. Then he started hearing how things are panned, the differences in frequencies, and just how amazing the subtleties of sound are.

Do you have a regular setup for when you start to mix?

No, I don't prepatch stuff in, I just pull up what I want as I go. For me that's better, because you can get confused if you have a lot of stuff patched in. What I have up and running is definitely there for a purpose.

Maybe that's part of why your mixes have so much clarity.

Right. Things have to be colored a certain way, not just thrown into the mix. They have to be colored to fill in the little holes, like a little slap, or a little reverb on something where you don't hear it so much as feel it. It's more subliminal. I love using subliminal stuff, where you may have a reverb on, but what it's doing is making a vocal sound more natural rather than creating a vocalist's sound. I don't want to create it, I just want to enhance it.

What types of subliminal effects do you like to use?

I like using delays instead of reverbs. They'll make a stiff track move if used correctly. There are times when I'll use a short reverb — about seven milliseconds — to make a hi-hat sound slightly open and to loosen up the beat. A cool delay trick that also helps loosen up the beat is to put a slap on a snare.

I also like panning back and forth. I love to use the SPX-90 Pan program. I like when a sound flies across the speakers. I love to hear things on separate sides. I'm like a kid when I listen to music through headphones — I am always amazed at how you hear things spread left and right. I see myself making music for people who are listening on headphones. I don't mix on headphones, but I've got that kind of soundscape perspective, because as a kid that's how I listened to music.

Is it a challenge to make space in a mix so that you can create those subtle things?

People these days have an enormous amount of stuff on their tracks. People tell me I have a good sense of how to separate things and make them sound as though they're at different levels.

How do you do that?

By panning things away from each other. Even if two sounds are evenly panned away from each other — depending on the sound, of course — I'll make one lower in level than the other. That way it will create different dimensions within the track. It's like looking up at the stars at night. You see the stars panned out all over the sky, but some are brighter than others. Some people might see that as a strange analogy, but a star's brightness can also be thought of as its volume.

A colleague once told me that when he heard my mixes, it felt like he could physically put his hand into them. I was very flattered, because my aim is to create an experience. Other ways to create space in mixes are with short delays and reverbs so that a sound can have its own voice among the craziness. Often the best way to create space for a sound is to simply mute the sound that's in its way. Some sounds are just not needed in a track. Nowadays, with the availability of so many tracks, many producers tend to overproduce. I call it “song abuse.”

I look for things that, placementwise, aren't making any sense in the song. If something doesn't sound right, it has to go, or it has to be placed somewhere else. Arrangement is about what works well at any given time.

You're known for your ability to deal with complicated vocals. What are some things you do to get a good blend?

It is important to get the perfect harmony — that alone can make or break a song. The harmony has to speak to you, especially when it's supporting a lead vocal or it's in an important section of the song. A beautiful vocal gives you chills, makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Boosting or cutting the EQ is important in getting that right blend; you have to be careful with it.

What do you do to give a vocal clarity — to make the lyrics understood without making the overall sound too bright?

I cut frequencies. Lowpass filters are also a good way to get clarity. But again, you have to be careful. If you cut too much the vocal can become thin. It depends on the other elements in the track. Close your eyes, use your ears and your instinct, and keep messing with the EQ until it sounds right.

Do you EQ your vocal reverbs and your delays?

Yes, if something isn't making a big enough statement. It's either got to be heard or felt.

What are you looking for in a good bass sound?

I like a good round sound. Which is hard to find nowadays in the digital world. I like to use good-old analog gear for bass, like an LA2A compressor/limiter. SSL EQ works great, and I also like using the Roland Dimension D for spatial processing, or the [Yamaha] SPX-990's bass chorus.

How would you approach doing a mix in a home studio where you wouldn't have all of your usual tools?

Levels and panning are what is important. Sometimes processing is not necessary at all, and sometimes having more gear can make the end result worse. When you have only one thing to use, you're sometimes more creative. “Less is more” can be true. It makes you think “What can I do with this?” If you've got one reverb, you have to think about putting it on what matters, not just anywhere. When you have a whole bunch of gear, you think “Oh, I can do this, and this, and this.”

If you've got one Nanoverb and you have to decide how to use it, you may leave the vocals dry and use it on one thing that will make the listener say, “Wow, what made you do that?” That can make for a great record. That's why, in general, I have a tendency to use less gear. The more gear you use, the more the mix can become washed out.

With me, it's about need. What does it need? I don't like to hide things behind a delay or a reverb. If I'm going to use them or some other special type of effect, it needs to have a meaning — it needs to talk to you in a certain way. A lot of people will automatically throw a reverb on a vocal just because that's what they're used to. It's like a tradition. I would love to hear a Whitney Houston or Celine Dion song with a dry vocal. How would that be? Pop records always have big reverbs these days, but I think — depending on how you work it — you could make a nice, dry pop record.

What type of gear do you think is good for a home studio?

It's cool to have a nice analog board. You can make great records using only computers, but it does kind of take the fun out of recording when a guy is sitting in his room with just a computer screen, a keyboard, and a MIDI controller.

I really like the Alesis Wedge. It's a small unit with reverbs and flanging — all that type of stuff. It's one of the best-sounding reverbs I've ever heard. I was in Atlanta and saw them at Guitar Center for $99, so I bought two. Combined with the [Digidesign] 001 system at my house, it sounds better than a Lexicon 480. I also love my Alesis Nanoverb (see Fig. 2). It may not look like much, but it sounds good and has a lot of good programs. I don't mix anything without it.

I would like to do a plug here: I love Alesis gear. Their gear sounds incredible, and it's priced at a fraction of the cost of high-end gear. The Wedge and the Nanoverb are my two secret weapons.

There's a lot of expensive gear out there that you can't use in everything. All of the programs don't sound good. A lot of engineers will tell you that. They'll use an Eventide H3000 for this, and a Lexicon 480 for that. You pick and choose certain programs for certain gear. But the Alesis Wedge and the Nanoverb, in their little boxes, sound good and are useful for a lot of different kinds of things.

That being said, I use my [Lexicon] PCM 42s; H3000s; AMS RMX and DMX; and Manley compressor, Pultecs, and APIs. But I do not fill up the room with gear. And I do not own massive cases of gear. I'm not a collector.

You said you don't use headphones for mixing; what do you use?

[Yamaha] NS-10Ms and my Fostex 6301Bs, which are small, powered speakers (see Fig. 3). They make it sound like you're listening to the radio, except that they have a nice low end, too. So for mixing, I use them, my NS-10Ms, and my small near-field Bose Freestyle speakers.

Do you stay on near-field monitors the whole time you're mixing?

Pretty much. Except for a few times when I'll turn it up for a good 15 minutes straight to get the feel of a club or the car, where I can hear the low end, and the mix smacks your face off!

I start off at a moderate level, and then once I get into the mix, I listen to it softly to hear what's sticking out or too low. That tells me what I'm doing wrong or right. After that, I'll turn it up loud, and then I'll go back to listening softly.

Do you have a special system in your car?

No, I just have a simple Bose system that came with the car and sounds great.

Do you do a lot of different mixes for one particular song, or do you just mix for radio play?

Basically I'm doing just one mix. Nowadays, it's pretty much all the same. Because of the big sound systems in cars, what people hear in the club is the same thing they're going to hear on the radio. So really, I'm mixing for the car first, the club second, and the radio last.

People ride in their cars more than they do anything else. Most people who are buying records aren't listening to the radio anymore. They're buying CDs and playing them in the car.

What's it like working with OutKast?

They're a perfect example of not being taught. They learned on their own and from Organized Noize, who were all about not having set ways of doing things.

So are you the guy who pulls it together?

Oh yeah, sometimes the tracks are anarchy and I have to make sense out of it all. In a way, I pull the center of the song back to turn it into a record. I'm grateful that I have some musical training. Artists will often bring in a track where things are everywhere, and I'll have to arrange them.

Tell us about mixing “Hey Ya!”

We mixed it twice in the same night. Dre [Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000] knows what he wants, but sometimes he has to hear it a bunch of different ways to be sure. And I'll spend hours mixing until I think it's right. We work hard on everything that we mix, and we try to take it beyond the norm. It can be a tedious process that takes a long time; it's not done until it feels done. We just keep experimenting and going back and forth. After those mixes I'm usually tired. We exhaust all the possibilities and drain all the energy out of ourselves.

That record was finished down to the last minute. We were up until eight or nine in the morning and had to go to mastering right after that. It was fun, and it paid off, but just thinking about it makes me tired.

How many tracks did you have at the mix?

It couldn't have been more than 40. There were two drum tracks: kick and snare. No hi-hat. It's a clever idea; someone else would have put a hi-hat on, but Dre allowed the track to speak to him when he wrote it. The guitar was the main thing, and then we had these quirky '80s synths going around it and the bass driving it.

What did you do to make the acoustic guitar work?

That took a long time to get right because it's a big-body kind of guitar, and the bass and guitar got in the way of each other. I had to cut some of the low end on the guitar, so I used the EQ on the console to take some out. I trimmed the frequency a lot at 300 Hz — about 12 dB. I think that's better than adding EQ to make it brighter, which often adds brittleness.

How many background tracks are there?

Maybe eight for each section. I used very little compression, and I think I boosted at 8 kHz by about 2 dB. Once again, I cut the low end at 300 Hz. I think the [Digidesign] D-Verb plug-in was used on all the vocals (see Fig. 4) — a simple technique for a straight-ahead song.

What about the lead vocal?

Dre's not a singer so you have to let it be what it is: pure fun, no excuses. I just made sure it fit right in the track.

How many basses are there?

There are two basses. The quirky synth bass that has the resonance on it, and the live bass. I remember Dre not wanting the bass to overpower the track. It was about the acoustic guitar, so it really wasn't about concentrating on the EQ of the bass. The bass had a muddiness that I would usually try to fix, but in this case it was cool so I left it alone. The synth bass had to have more personality; the live bass just rode the track.

What is going on with the tinkly melody keyboard?

It is a key part of the mix; a cool '80s countermelody a lá the B-52s, Yello, or maybe even Devo. I just added some high mids to make sure it stuck out through everything else that was going on.

I don't hear any loops. What's going on subliminally?

No loops, no subliminal things playing, it's just a simple little ditty. Those are the best types of songs.

You've said that when you first heard it you thought it would become a hit. What made you think that?

It was different than everything else that was out; it sliced through all of the cookie-cutter songs. There is nothing better than a fun, feel-good song with a great hook. I read that Prince said he was surprised that, in this day and age, someone recognized “Hey Ya!” was a hit. But I knew. “Hey Ya!” is like Prince's “Little Red Corvette” — an instant hit.

Take a look at the music industry now. People call it cookie cutter, but I call it the General Motors effect: same body, different dashboard, and everything sounds the same. It's a fear factor; nobody wants to be different because they're afraid they won't sell records. But the industry was built on being different.

Before “Hey Ya!” was released, everybody felt [the potential], but they were doubtful because of industry pressure, because the song was different, and because they just weren't sure. But the public isn't stupid. You've got to give them the benefit of the doubt. They do love music, and if it's a good song, they'll buy it.

Back in the day in the '60s, there were only a couple of major record labels. Everything else was independent; people were doing their own thing and picking their own flavor. I think it is getting back to that now. It's an exciting time, one that is forcing you to think. You can't be dependent on something or someone to do it for you; you have got to create your own plan.

Maureen Droney,whose list of engineering credits includes projects for Carlos Santana, George Benson, John Hiatt, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin — among many others — is the Los Angeles editor for Mix magazine.

NEAL POGUE: SELECTED CREDITS

Sleepy Brown, “I Can't Wait” from Barbershop 2: Back In Business soundtrack CD featuring Andre 3000 (Interscope, 2004), mixed

Beyoncé and Bilal, “Everything I Do” from Fighting Temptations Soundtrack (Sony, 2003), mixed

OutKast, “Hey Ya!” from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista, 2003), mixed

OutKast, “I'm Sorry Ms. Jackson” from Stankonia (Arista, 2000), recorded vocals and bass and mixed

En Vogue, “Don't Let Go (Love)” from EV3, (East/West, 1997), recorded and mixed

TLC, “Waterfalls” from CrazySexyCool (Divine, 1994), recorded and mixed