How To Mix A Hit In 2000 Easy Steps

Given Serban Ghenea’s discography, it’s surprising that the two cities looming largest in his career aren’t New York and Los Angeles, but rather Montreal and Virginia Beach. While beginning in his hometown of Quebec at Concordia University — where he studied music while playing with some local bands — Ghenea (mixer for Usher, N.E.R.D., Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, R Kelly, Limp Bizkit, ‘NSYNC, Liz Phair and Jewel, and 2004 Grammy winner for Best Pop Vocal Album for The Neptunes’ production of Justin Timberlake’s Justified) most recently has built his own studio in Virginia Beach, Virginia — a place that looks to be the new home base for much of the Billboard Top 100 these days.

Teddy’s Place

Introduced through a mutual friend to R&B producer/artist Teddy Riley (who had built Future Recording in Virginia Beach several years earlier) on a visit to the area, Ghenea noticed that the once-sleepy city was suddenly infused with activity. Riley had just finished up work on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album and was solidifying his position as the so-called “King of New Jack Swing”; producing artists such as Keith Sweat and Mary J. Blige. His own band, Blackstreet, would soon record two platinum-selling albums at Future Recording, which became a Mecca for pop artists such as Bobby Brown and New Kids on the Block, as well as many of the crossover hardcore rappers that would dominate 1990s radio, including Will Smith, Heavy D & the Boyz, and Jay-Z.

It was in this highly active and eclectic musical landscape that Ghenea honed his skills. “It was an amazing time,” he recalls. “My very first session was with New Kids on the Block.” Future Recording had two main studios equipped with an 80-input SSL 4000E and a CAD for consoles. The facility was designed around Riley’s manic work schedule, often writing in the B studio while the previous day’s music was being recorded in Studio A. “There were always projects backed up and waiting to get in,” Ghenea says. “What Teddy was doing was bridging the gap between traditional R&B and hi-hop. I had been working with analog tape up till that point. We had tape at Future, too, but that’s where I started getting into digital recording. We had Sound Designer, which was the precursor to Pro Tools. You had to go in AES or SPDIF. It had no analog inputs, and we used it for track editing and sequencing only in the early days. Then it evolved into Sound Tools, a four-track system. The hard drives at the time couldn’t handle much more than that.”

Ghenea recalls that Riley liked to add live instruments during what became extended mixes. “He would add live keyboards to the track as the mix went down,” he says. “We were using a Logic Audio sequencer locked to tape with SMPTE and playing along. When the TASCAM DA-88s came out, we would use them to record the new parts and slave them to the two 24-track decks.

We were always running more tracks into a mix than we actually had on tape, so the console was always maxed out in terms of channels. Teddy was a programmer at heart, and I got into that as a result. He was always trying out new stuff — new equipment and new ways of using it. So it was an education for me because I had to try to figure out how to make it work. Teddy was always coming up with things to do that the technology didn’t exist for yet. The solution was usually pretty unconventional, but as long as it sounded good, that was all that mattered. For instance, most people would only use Dolby SR on the two-track tape for mixing at 15 ips. We actually tracked to the two-inch deck using SR. It gave us a result that was as quiet as digital but still retained the warmth and sonic characteristics of analog tape.”

In those pre-AutoTune days, Ghenea used a laborious but effective way to correct vocal pitch. “I’d always look for a vocal performance that had feel over pitch perfection,” he says. “Once you found the takes that you liked, I would comp them to a single track and then do pitch correction using an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer. I would bus six tracks of vocals into it from the console and out to one channel, sometimes just going for half a word that needed pitch correction, punching it tight in real time. You’d have to keep doing it over and over again until you hit the spot and the pitch just right. But it was worth it because you got to keep the takes that had the best feel, and the best vibe.”

Is It Live Or Is It…

The notion of the extended mixing process that he experienced with Riley set a template for his own transition to mixing, and it’s one that meshes well with the fact that R&B and hip-hop is moving toward the use of more live instrumental elements (in conjunction with programmed elements). In many cases, the live and programmed elements will be recorded in unpredictable sequences, such as The Neptunes adding live drums halfway through their N.E.R.D. album. This newly animated urban music poses some interesting mix challenges. “The ‘sloppiness’ of live musicians playing together is what gives a record character,” says Ghenea. “But at the same time, when live elements are being mixed with machine elements, you have to make sure everything is very synced up. Otherwise things like phase incoherence between live and machine tracks can drastically change the sound when you put them together in the mix.” He uses sync programs like Beat Detective, often fine-tuning timing relationships by slipping tracks against each other. “It doesn’t defeat the purpose, though,” he stresses. “What you do first is over-mix or overcorrect it, then deconstruct the mix, letting the live elements take the lead in certain parts of the mix. It’s not like the music is going all one way or the other, toward machine or live, dry or ambient; it’s using more techniques from both more often now. Even when drum tracks get sampled and looped, the loops tend to be longer, which lets the feel of the live drummer come through. You can still hear the little imperfections that make it human.”

On N.E.R.D.’s In Search of..., Ghenea’s drum miking setup was rudimentary; keeping with the raw, classic rock feel that live hip-hop tracks are moving toward. He used either a single Neumann U-67 or U–87, placed in front of the kit about toms level and approximately five feet in front of the kit. He also placed a pair of AKG 451 microphones as overheads variously using omni and cardioid capsules. “I tried using some B&K microphones on the overheads but they were too clean sounding,” he comments, underscoring the desire for sonic asperity on the drum tracks. “I was looking for a raw, almost ugly sound for the drums.” Depending upon the needs of the track, he would augment the mic setup with spot mikes — a Shure 57 on top of the snare, a Sennheiser 414 below it, for instance, but those applications are relatively rare, he adds. “It’s mostly all room sound,” he says. “We want to hear the kit for what it is.”

When Ghenea moved out as an independent mixer in 1998, several of Riley’s previous production clients followed him for their mixes, and Ghenea would travel frequently to Philadelphia to do work with Jazzy Jeff and his production company A Touch of Jazz. He was one of the first engineers in the region to get his own Pro Tools system.

Another technique Ghenea developed during his stint at Future Recording works well in a mixing environment in which constant revisions are required for a variety of reasons. “I started out doing ‘stem’ mixes — mix passes that had instrumentals or vocals separated — so that I didn’t have to recall a mix every time someone wanted a revision because they wanted a specific change for a vocal level or because a sample didn’t clear,” he explains. “At first I would record an instrumental, background vocal, and lead vocal passes to a TASCAM DA-60 timecode DAT machine and then dump them into Pro Tools and make the adjustments there. Eventually I would record stems straight into Pro Tools through an Apogee AD8000 and the stems got more and more elaborate. Typical separate stem passes would include drums only, bass, keys, guitars, strings, sample loops, background vocals, lead vocals, and so on. This allowed me to make changes to complex mixes without having to go back to the studio and recall them on the console. Finally, I decided it made more sense to mix entirely within ProTools.”

Ghenea says he often uses the Digidesign Lo-Fi plug-in, which has distortion and saturation parameter controls, which he’ll combine with a very light touch on each to get the tape effect. Other techniques to dial in some analog effect include reducing the sample rate or the bit rate. “What that does is create some contrast between that track and the rest of the song,” he says. “You don’t need much of it, but it can make a world of difference.”

Working on Britney Spears’ vocals, Ghenea wanted to emphasize the breathiness that gives her voice its trademark sexiness. He uses a McDSP Compressor Bank plug-in, which includes models of a Universal Audio LA-2A and UREI 1176 analog compressors. Understanding how the original analog gear performs is the key to getting the desired effect, he stresses. “There are certain things you expect out of those compressors. The LA-2A adds to the breathiness of a vocal because it has a soft knee; it also has a slower attack because it’s an optical compressor. The 1176, on the other hand, is very fast but it’s not always a first choice on a vocal. But understanding the characteristics of each allows you to combine and emulate them as though they were being used together as outboard gear.” He suggests starting with the 1176 and slowly dialing in the LA-2A until the effect is achieved. “Again, it’s all program-dependent,” he says. “But it sounds amazing on vocals.” He also likes the Metric Halo Channel Strip plug-in as an emulation of an SSL console strip. “You can use the dynamics on the plug-in in the same way you can the actual channel strip, so it’s a good starting point when mixing in Pro Tools,” he explains. “The more you can use plug-ins to approximate how the analog equipment would process the sounds, the less you have to go outside the digital environment and encounter issues like latency.”

Tracks for R Kelly, despite being aimed squarely at a pop market, are mostly programmed. Mechanical tracks seem to put that much more of a premium on vocals, he believes. “One thing I try to do is to help the artists achieve a unique sonic signature that’s all theirs, one that transcends the production of the record,” he says. “When it comes to this, I look up to what Mutt Lange has done on such a wide variety of artists: AC/DC, Billy Ocean, Def Leppard, Bryan Adams, Foreigner, Backstreet Boys, and Shania Twain. None of these artists has anything in common musically, yet each one has a very distinct sound, one that is unique to each of them. There’s no mixer’s or producer’s ‘stamp’ on them other than the fact that they all sounded amazing and were all incredibly successful.”

At Ghenea’s own studio, MixStar, in Virginia Beach, he’s busier than ever, but having his own place allows him to control the pace. “It’s relaxing having your own place — it gives me the break I need to get some perspective on what I’m doing,” he says. “Perspective is a very, very good thing.