Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Lu Diaz

Lu Diaz is a Miami based multi-platinum & Grammy award winning music producer, executive producer and mix engineer. Born in Santiago, Chile and living in Miami since he was eight years old, Lu Diaz began his music career as a drummer with a few local rock bands and quickly gravitated to the music business. He started his first record label at the age of eighteen and has never looked back. Lu Diaz is a big part of Miami’s music landscape. Lu Diaz and his younger brother Hugo Diaz better Know as “The Diaz Brothers” are considered one of the architects of the modern day Miami music movement.

After a few years of embarking on a career as a sound engineer, Lu Diaz became one of the most reputable sound engineers in South Florida. Making Circle House Studios in North Miami his home base, Lu earned many credits for recording and mixing with the likes of The Baha Men, P Diddy, 50 Cent, Juvenile, Beenie Man, Trick Daddy, Lil Jon, Beyoncé, Toni Braxton, Mary J Blige, Lauryn Hill and the list goes on. As a result, Lu Diaz and his brother “The Diaz Brothers” scored remix jobs for several major artists, namely The Rolling Stones and later Wyclef Jean. In the span of five or so years Lu Diaz was awarded with countless Platinum and gold awards and was credited with two grammy awards for his work on The Bahamen’s “Who Let The Dogs Out” and Beenie Man’s “Art & Life” album.

Lu and his brother have since started their own respective companies and are giving The Diaz Brothers brand a break. One of the first projects that Lu produced since the departure from The Diaz Brothers was a Remix of Jason Mraz’s hit “I’m yours” which features Lil Wayne & Jah Cure. This remix achieve critical acclaim and gave Lu Diaz his new identity. Lu Diaz produced a song titled “My Life” that features Akon & B.o.b. for Dj Khaled’s album “We The Best Forever”. Lu & Ben “The Team” also produced Ace Hood’s first Single “I Need Your Love” for which features Trey Songz.

Lu is currently in the studio with countless artist in the pop, hip hop and R&B world. Some notable projects that are in the works include Fabolous, Busta Rhymes, Pitbull, Flo Rida, Dj Khaled and many more.  Lu Diaz shows no signs of slowing down, he has many new productions scheduled for release in 2013 and still enjoys mixing for the biggest names in the business. Most notable mixes include Dj Khaled like “I’m so Hood” featuring T-Pain, Trick Daddy, Rick Ross & Plies, “All I do is Win” featuring T-Pain, Ludacris, Rick Ross & Snoop Dogg, “Welcome to My Hood” featuring T-Pain, Rick Ross, Plies & Lil Wayne & worked on “I’m on One” featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne.

Lu Diaz is back actively involved in his with his label Lu Diaz Music and has a publishing agreement with Sony / ATV Music Publishing.  So needless to say Lu is a busy busy man, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Lu Diaz lives the music.

Here’s how to contact Lu:
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I read that you started out making beats on your drum machine but maybe you could explain the process of how you went from doing that to getting into a professional studio.

Well for me, I think it was the most unconventional way to start off and there wasn’t really a set plan that I had.  What happened was I set out to be a rock drummer; I was just a musician who loved music.  Playing in bands led me to Electronic Music which then led me to Hip Hop, which I loved.

So I initially set out to be a musician then kind of transitioned to a producer and that led me to starting a label fairly young – 17 years old.  I had pretty good success in Miami so I built a little studio.  Production is kind of what I headed out for and what happened was it eventually morphed into engineering and life just took me there.  I kind of just fell into engineering.  I was pretty naive about the process and in retrospect it played to my advantage to be honest with you.  When I started out engineering it was by default because I had my own little studio.

Then I got a little older, got into a relationship and had a baby on the way and the production stuff wasn’t enough to make a living at.  My younger brother, which is the other half of The Diaz Brothers, came to me and said he wanted to make music.  So I gave him all the equipment so he could do his thing.  He went out and ended up getting a record deal with a group he was developing called G.O.D and another one called K-Squad.  I ended up tracked the project for him and at the time I wasn’t an engineer but I knew how to do it.  When the label [Atlantic] heard the mixes from the engineer they hired, they didn’t like them.  They ended up liking the roughs [my mixes] better and they asked who did them; my brother told them that I did.  So the label requested that I mix the album.  Which was funny to me because I wasn’t even an engineer [laughs].  But that made me think that maybe I could do this, I could stay in the music biz, make money and not have all the stress of owning a record label.  I took a shot at it and quickly realized I had a knack for it.  What ended up happening was I worked my way backwards from mixing.  I started mixing first and worked my way back to tracking. Crazy!  It was a cool experience and I’ve been very lucky.

 

So in the beginning you didn’t want to be a mix engineer?

You know looking back now I see how naive I was because I didn’t even know that mixing music was a big deal.  I just thought it was cool and I felt comfortable so I did it.  But when I decided that maybe I’d do the mixing thing, reality hit me and I realized that there way more to this. I was very fortunate because I didn’t have to intern or assist in a studio to break into the biz.  So I never got jaded like many guys did coming up.

 

Okay so how do you go from working out of your house to mixing on big consoles without having any assisting experience?

The Beat Nuts[Laughs] You know what, it sounds funny to say this but naivety was my best friend, I didn’t know, that’s what it was.  Of course it was intimidating to see a console, I mean my first mixing gig was at SoundTraks in New York City and I had Heavy D and the Beatnuts in the other room and I had never touched an SSL before.  Now the only reason why I was comfortable was because I had a studio with a my partner [Danny Canary] it was a little 8 track reel to reel studio with a small console.  But the basics, like signal flow, the channel strips and the process of it just made sense to me.  I don’t know why it made sense to me, it just did.  I didn’t feel lost on the SSL.

The  thing that I battled with in the beginning was the centre section.  That was really the challenging part but I understood the rest, I guess because I had already tinkered with it so much.  I’m not saying I was a great mixer,  it was just a combination of naivety and a having a knack for it.

 

So you were trying to figure out the SSL and mixing in general, meanwhile you’re getting paid gigs with some major artists?

You know what; I didn’t really take a lot of mixing gigs at the beginning.  The thing that I did, that really helped me get ahead starting out tracking was mixing while your tracking?  I got board while I was tracking so I just started tweaking, a little 10k on the snare, a little compression, you know just give it a decent feel.  I would always put a quick little rough mix on it and those roughs became my advantage.  They got me gigs because people heard them and whether I had experience or not they loved what I did so the work spoke for itself.  I mean obviously I was fortunate because it wasn’t like the mixes were amazing.  A lot of things just aligned for me I think we were going from a transition where hip hop was becoming a big industry and I understood it.

 

What were your defining moments or lucky breaks?

circlehouse studiosI owe pretty much my whole engineering success to Circle House Studios in Miami because I landed there through this whole process.  I had done a record for a rapper named Knuckles (Yes Correct)who was signed to Def Jam and we were doing a recall in Miami.  They told me “Hey go to this house, we’re going to do a recall there because the rapper had said something about “Mike Tyson” or something along those lines.  That house ended up being Circle House Studios, so I walked in when they just finished building it.  They took a liking to me and I did a couple mixes for Inner Circle. They really took me under their wing and groomed me.  It was me and Ray C who kind of came up and grew together with the studio.  As the studio was growing and becoming popular so was I.  That exposed me to so many people and so many clients.  You know obviously I took a step backwards by going back to tracking and doing some rough mixes but I ended up growing.  I worked with Cash Money and that led me to mixing songs for Juvenile which led me to more work.  Eventually I stated mixing more and I became a staple at Circle House so that was really my lucky break.

I think one of the first big moments I had was when Diddy got out of that whole court thing with JLo, he wanted to start the Saga Continues album.  His people called Circle House and they asked for the best studio engineer they could get to start working with.  Circle House said me and I couldn’t have paid for that kind of advertising you know what I mean?  That led me to tracking Beyonce, Mary J and Toni Braxton.

 

So just like that, you were in the studio working with P. Diddy?

Yeah, we actually started at the Hit Factory because Circle House was booked and we did the 112 remix with Ludacris.  We recorded some keys and drums and I did a mix of it and that was the first time I was like Woah, this is a big guy I’m working with.  I can’t say it blasted my career off but for me it gave me confidence because I was with a big producer at the time and he was loving what I was doing.

 

Is he as intense in the sessions as portrayed on shows like Making The Band?

[Laughs] You what’s funny about him man, I actually like him and I think he’s cool but I don’t agree with his philosophy.  Now me saying that sounds ridiculous because the man’s obviously successful so he’s doing something right.  I got into this music business to have good vibes, if not I would have become an accountant.  I just felt like his intensity was a New York thing and I felt like there was a lot of tension in his crew but it works for the environment that he creates for himself.  As a person, one-on-one in the studio, he was actually funny and cool like he’s a pretty normal guy.  He knows who he is, let’s put it to you that way.  I can’t sit here and tell you Puffy’s humble, he’s not by any stretch of the imagination but he’s nice to be around.

 

So how did you go from working with Local Artists to then be working with Pitbull or P. Diddy?

Right.  I mean it’s a long road and I always tell people it’s a little bit of luck, there’s always that sprinkle of magic dust.  But mostly it’s determination I think, you have to recognize and opportunity when it’s in front of you and you need to be serious about what you do. I didn’t go to school for this but I did take the craft of it very seriously and I am really into it.  I didn’t just sit down and it all happened for me.  I really botched up mixes and learned, scraped my knees then got back up.

I have to say the best break for me was Circle House because they started growing after I got there.  When I got there it was just Inner Circles private studio and because of that I got to work with all their friends which was all the Marley’s, Beenie Man and all the reggae guys.  As the studio grew, they were basically the ones booking me.  After you sit in the room for 12 hours for 7 days with Cash Money, they kind of say “Hey why don’t you do some mixes”.  That’s kind of how it started for me and Ray.  Cash Money was really Ray’s clients but every once in a while I would do a couple of mixes and trick daddy was his client as well but I ended up mixing “Can’t Fuck with the South” which ended up becoming a club anthem here in Miami. I had my clients and as the studio grew, we grew by default.  Not to give them complete credit because yeah, I was hustling and trying to show people my mixes.  But as we grew and the credits got a bit bigger, people felt more comfortable and then one thing led to another.

 

You were credited as Producer on Pitbull’s song Culo and I remember when that came out it was massive especially in the clubs.  Do you remember the process of putting it together and the workflow in the studio with Lil Jon and Pitbull?

This one is going to definitely surprise you [Laughs].  At that time I was having discussions with my brother about us producing more even though we were actually producing some American Club Remixes for Latin Records.  So we had done a ton of work for Sony Latin and we actually produced a remix record for Ivy Queen which Wyclef was featured on.  The record broke in America so it ended up becoming an American record.  The President of Sony Latin was really impressed that he was getting a Latin artist exposed in the American market.  So they filmed the video for the record we did and at the video shoot we met Wyclef who became friends with us.  Clef said “What you guys need to do is find an artist and invest in them and that will help you with what you want to do.”  So because of that, my brother and I kept our eyes peeled for somebody to invest in.

Lu Diaz Pitbull 2003When I was working, mixing a record for Uncle Luke, I met Pit.  I thought he was an intern but when we were talking he told me that the song that was being mixed was him rapping.  I was like wow and that’s when we hit it off, we had a nice conversation and that led to us signing him.

When we did Culo we were in the process developing him and getting him going.  Culo was a record that was already done by Mr. Vegas and it was actually his single.  With Pit we always jumped on records to do freestyles and remixes and I believe Culo was done for Memorial Day Weekend.  Pit jumped on it, came in the studio and played it for me and I was like wow that’s crazy.  He just said to me that he was doing a freestyle for Memorial Day Weekend and I told him he should do another verse because it sounded good to me.  Not thinking much of it, he took off that night to see Lil Jon at a club, who was an old friend of mine.  A DJ friend of ours happened to be working at the club so he played the freestyle that Pit gave him.  When Jon heard it he was like, “What the hell is that?”.  Pit said it was freestyle but Jon’s like “No that’s a hit record”.

They leave the club and hop into the car to go to Circle House Studios.  You have to remember I just let the record go with Pit and once they got to the studio Jon jumped on the 2 track that Pit had with him.  They gave it to the DJ who then took it to the station and then I hear it on the way home in the car.  I’m like, what the hell is going on? I just heard this.

None of us thought the record was going to be a big hit and when the record started grabbing it was so backwards.  We couldn’t clear the record because Vegas and his people were flipping out; it was their single.  So Jon, my brother and I went into the studio to remake the beat and we spent like a whole day trying to recreate it to make it sound the same but when it was all said we ended up just going with the way it was.  What ended up happening was we had to settle with Vegas because the record just ended up running away from everybody and we weren’t ready for it.  Once it started to get really big it just made more sense to settle and we gave him a substantial amount of money so he was a happy man.  That’s why Jon, my brother and I got credited for producing it because we went in and tried recreating it but really at the end of the day I it was a gimme Lol.

 

On Pitbull’s earlier records you and your brother are credited as Executive Producers but how come they were mixed by other engineers?

Lu Diaz Pitbull Chile 2011When I found Pit at Luke’s Studio, I was at the point where I was a bit burnt out from mixing.  Not to the point where I wanted to quit but it was like a revolving door. I was working like 365 days a year, I was making crazy money and I won a grammy for mixing Who Let The Dogs Out with Mike Mangini.  I kind of hit the peek of my career as far as engineering and since I never really set out to be an engineer, I still had the thirst for finishing the production thing.  So when I found Pit, I went to Circle House and told them to stop booking me so much and the studio manager there, Lourdes, was like “Are you cracked, we groomed you for these many years and now you don’t want to work?”  But when I met Pit I knew he was a star and when I had that conversation with him that day, I knew that he was what we were looking for.

Also I grew up in Miami so I’m a big Miami supporter and we didn’t have a Latin rapper representing the crib at the time.  Everyone told me I was crazy but there was something in my gut that knew that this kid was going to go.

I purposely didn’t want to be the one mixing and producing everything.  My brother and I were conscious about opening the album up and not have it be all produced and mixed by us.  We wanted that album (and Pit) to a have a real feel. Like a real major artist and I think that’s probably why the record was successful – we didn’t stifle it.

There were people like Jim Jonsin around at the time, which my brother and I were all really good friends with from back when we started. Of course Lil Jon produced a lot of records.  When we connected him up with Pit, Jon on already had a working relationship with Ray C, who I knew from Circle House.  So it was a good synergy there, you know?  Plus I had my Executive Producer hat on at the time.

 

You’ve been working in the business for a long time.  Do you notice a difference in pay as far as mixing gigs from say 10-15 years ago to now?

You know I have to tell you man, I feel bad for the kids that are coming up today.  As you know the music business has shrunk and at the time when Circle House was in its heyday there was so much local work that if there wasn’t a major gig there was always some local group paying you cash.  So you always had money and it wasn’t an issue plus there wasn’t so many guys doing it.  Full Sail [University] has probably quadrupled in size since then and I feel bad because kids come out today and there’s less work, there’s less cash and the label budgets are smaller.  So it is harder to get to that point and I was very lucky that at the time I was able to make money which allowed me to take some time off to develop an artist like Pit who ultimately became very successful.

I feel like when you have a certain amount of income coming it gives you the luxury of passing on gigs at a certain rate then people know what your rate is.  But because I started so early my rate and my money has gone up but I definitely recognize how hard it is to build what I have built now, which really sucks.  I feel like these younger guys are trying just as hard as I did, I just happened to be fortunate enough to be older and come from a different time.

Don’t get me wrong there were times when I was broker then broke because this business is a labour of love.  There were times in my life when I was like if I put this much energy into something else I’d probably be better off monetarily but I loved what I did.  I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do sometimes, it’s just ridiculous.

 

Was there ever a point when you thought to yourself “Wow, I think I finally understand mixing”?

Yeah, Yeah [Laughs].  It took a while because for me there was so much going on.  Like I said, I had a baby on the way so I was a young dad trying to figure it out and make it in this game which I’m sure you know is not easy.

I do remember at one point (I wish I could remember the record) when I completely heard compression, I knew I had it.  EQing is obvious but compression at the beginning is a little more subtle.  I talk to people now and they kind of look at me like they know what I’m saying but they don’t hear what I’m saying.  When compression made sense to me and I could hear the difference between one compressor and the other, or what it did to the record as a whole, that’s when I started understanding mixing.  When you can get speakers to react right, there’s nothing like it.  I have to say it probably took a good solid four years of rough mixes, tracking and working at home.  I have to tell you that I was obsessed, I was reading the SSL manual front to back and mix magazine top to bottom.

 

Since you’ve already touched on compression, what are your thoughts on it?  How often do you use it and what are you listening for?

To me it’s almost the most important part of mixing.  To be able to truly hear it, understand it and be comfortable with it.  I tell a lot of people that I think mixing is like juggling and if you do it every day for 5 years, you’re going to be the best damn juggler in the world, you know what I mean? [Laughs] Over time your brain makes distinctions that really grow your ears.

Compression is a give and take to me.  You can either over compress a record [or sound] or you cannot compress it enough.  So knowing [hearing] where you’re supposed to be is where the essence of it lies.

I have a bunch of ways I go about things but at the end of the day as a whole it’s about getting the record to that spot that over the years I’ve learned to find.  That’s kind of my method as a mix engineer,  to get it to where it blends and feels competitive with the rest of the records that are out there at the current time.

 

Can you maybe talk about your set up?  Are you in the box or out the box?  What kind of equipment are you working with?

Recently I’m in the box 100% and I love it – it’s very convenient.  For me it was just very hard to let go of the console until I was completely sure that I could do a record inside the box. I think Pro Tools is a great piece of software and Waves and all the plugins have gotten us to a point where we can do it.  So I’m comfortably there now.

But my set up is relatively simple,  even when I was mixing on the console I wasn’t a huge gear guy, most of my mixing got done on the console.  It was very rare that you would see towers of outboard gear behind me.  To me it was about getting the sound with the console in front of me first and then the gear.  The whole thing for me was always to keep it simple and I kind of take the same approach in Pro Tools.

One thing I love about Pro Tools is the VCA grouping. You can get your gain structure under control and that’s something we battle with a lot.  That’s a big thing for me cause I tend to mix loud like a maniac [Laughs].  I should not be saying this but mixing with a pair of Genelec 1036As its too tempting not to go in [Laughs], I crank those bad boys like crazy. I love that wall of sound. Of course I do go down to the NS-10’s ultimately because that’s where everything happens. I just love loud music so I tend to push and push, especially with Hip Hop.  I’m trying to squeeze as much volume as I can and those VCA’s help me at the end of the mix, to be able to pull back everything and keep things in relation to each other.

 

So the speakers you said you used are the Genelecs?

genelec 1036aYeah I love the Genelec 1036As, it’s a beautiful sound.  The low end is so big which works great for Hip Hop.  I mean honestly everything today is getting bigger and bigger.  I like to be able to hear and feel 30 or 40 [Hz] you know, really feel it.  Both Circle House and We the Best Studios have them, they can hurt you so you got to be a little careful, but I love them.

The NS-10 is the speakers I live and die by, but I have to say that the  HS50’s [Yamaha]. I have in my home studio, I love.  I know people look at me crazy but I love those little speakers.  To me they have the most familiar NS-10ish sound.  I have them with a little subwoofer they come with and I just feel like I can beat the crap out of them and they just hang in there like champs.  I’ve actually done some significantly big mixes on them.  I’ve got two pairs because sometimes I take them to the studio but usually I come home to check what I have.  Since I’m mixing in the box now, I’m able to go into my studio and kind of re-tweak what I did at Circle House or wherever I’m working.

I am involved in a studio here it has a SSL Duality, the Genelics, the whole nine.  But honestly I found myself coming to my house more, and more. I don’t know what it is.  I think it’s the comfort of being home.  Obviously listening environment is important, and when I’m mixing in a major studio I love referencing the mixes in my studio. As a matter of fact 4 of the songs on Khaled’s last album “Kiss The Ring” were mixed in home studio.  I think going in the box has given me freedom to mix at home and bounce around different rooms and get different perspectives on my mixes.

 

And your room at home, is it acoustically treated?

Yeah I have it treated pretty well.  It’s not a world class studio but yeah I have had it built out proper.  I don’t have huge mains just quality near fields.  When I mix at Circle House, We the Best or the Hit Factory I come home around 6 in the morning every night and listen to the mixes again. I wake up the next day take another listen and head back to the studio.  Those two audio checks give me significant info that results in changes that later prove to be huge.  So I’m really digging my home listening environment.

 

6 in the morning?  So you start a night and work until the morning?

Yeah, I’ve been a night owl for the better part of my life.  I would love to work during the day and be a regular person but it’s now been 20 years of my life.  I have to say that the earliest I get started is about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and realistically I don’t get started until 6 or 8 pm and I’m working until about 5-7 in the morning.  Obviously if I have a client coming in from out of town we have to go by their schedule but for the most part I work a night.  Plus most of the guys I work with are like that, it’s weird.  I’ve done session during the day and I think it’s great but I guess my body clock is set for the night from doing it for so long, it works for me.  Some people think I’m crazy but whatever [Laughs].

 

Maybe you can give us a short explanation of your process from when you receive the files until the finished product.  Like how do you organize things and what would you start mixing first?

It’s pretty simple.  Outside of organizing files or assembling sessions I begin the mixing process with the drums.  I work from left to right and I tend to group everything first, Drums, Keys, Vocals, Efxs etc..  I like to get the rhythm section going first, like the kick, snare, bass and maybe a guitar or piano.  Whatever the meat of the song is, that’s what I usually work on first.

In an ideal session I spend a pretty even amount of time between drums, music and vocals.  There are times that are different and you have to battle with things but generally it’s pretty straight forward.

I always have a client send me an mp3 of the rough, because it’s important for me to hear what the producer’s vision is.  Sometimes you’ll get tracks and there may be 4 different synths and you may not always think the same as the producer.  In other words, you may make one particular synth the lead line and it’s not, it’s supposed to be panning around and sitting at a low level.  So I always have them send a rough so I can get an idea of the placement of things.  After I listen to that for a while then like I said, I go onto the rhythm section.

After that I move on to the rest of the instruments, then vocals and last I spend time arranging, tricking out the record or anything that the producer wants me to do.  There are guys with all the drops in place and everything is exactly how they want it and there’s people who send me an 8 bar loop with a bunch of vocal stems and I pretty much arrange the record for them.  For example with Dj Khaled’s “All I do Is Win” which DJ Nasty and his brother Lenny “Nasty Beatmakers” produced,  was an 8 bar loop of music and they told me to do my thing.  So I had to make the Hook sound different from Luda, Ross and Snoops verses. I guess because I am a producer as well I really enjoy doing that stuff.

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When it comes to you arranging these records would ask for extra payment or production credits?

You know what’s funny, everyone always tells me “man you practically produced that record”.  The thing about it is, in some cases I guess I do but I think the more anal you are about it seems like the more backwards your career goes.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.  Obviously if I’m getting paid my full rate, I’m getting paid very well, so I like to go the extra mile.  If that producer says “Damn you really made my record amazing and you kind of went out of your way to help me”, it just makes for a very happy client and it creates loyalty so I trade off the credit. I have plenty of my own production credits so I guess I don’t sweat it.  I try not to be so anal about it.  It’s just not good business as far as I’m concerned.

 

I noticed the low end on your records is very tight and punchy, the kick and the bass.  I think the question I see a lot is in regards to making the kick and bass fit together better.  What’s your typical process for mixing the kick and bass?

Yeah I get asked that question a lot.  Ironically with all this compression talk, at the end of the day when I’m done with a record and it feels good but it’s too tight in the low end, like too much compression, I will actually let go of some of the compression.  I start taking compression away to give it more breathing room. Compression is great but there’s that balance like I was saying at the beginning of our conversation.  You get to a point where you’re like okay I need to pull back the compression a bit.  The reason why my low end is so big is because I tend to over compress and then when I’m almost done with the mix I start to take away compression.  Only way I can describe it is, I take away a little bit at a time until the boom or kick feels like it’s going to overload or distort. Then I add more, it’s like balancing a car at the end on a cliff!  [Laughs] I have to give credit to Chris Athens, Jose Blanco and all the mastering guys I’ve worked with because they know me now and they know how I will hand the mixes off to them so they have a good understanding of my sound.

What I like to do is my own makeshift mastering where I take the mix “balls to the wall” and I do what I feel it should sound like. Then I send it to the mastering engineer as a reference so he knows where I want it to go.  Your relationship with your mastering engineer is probably one of the best things you can develop as a mix engineer. At the beginning of your career they can be a great source of reference as to where you can make improvements in your mix.

But it’s like riding a bike, once you’ve done it right a couple of times you know where you got to be.  That’s why in the beginning I said compression is so important because it really lies on the balance.  Sometimes you got to push the record over the edge and then pull it back before it goes over the cliff.

 

But when you get stuff that’s borderline flabby sounding and the kick and bass just mush together, would you sample replace or tune the kicks?  How would you fix that?

I get stuff all the time where guys are making beats on these little speakers and they don’t realize there’s all this mud going on at 40Hz and below because their speakers don’t reproduce those frequencies very well or at all.  What happens is I’ll hear a boom and a sub bass and I’m like,  which one of these are we going with?  Sometimes the kick may have a lot of low low frequencies and they interfere with the boom .  So I’ll either sample replace it, tune it, truncate it or whatever it takes to fix it but usually I’ll let the client know before I add sound or replace anything.  But yeah the easiest way around it,  is to just replace the sound if it’s wrong.  The times that I’m working with an inexperienced producer, I know what they’re trying to do.  I’ll go ahead and grab a kick that they’re trying to sound like and keep there kick in and filter out the entire low end out of their kick to keep the character of the sound and underlay it with my kick so it gives it the right punch.  Sometimes there’s a lot of fixing that goes on at the low end, to get it to feel just right.

 

Okay you mentioned about working with mastering engineers, I want to know what’s the sonic difference between your mix with a limiter on it and then the professional mastering job?

Waves L2It used to be dramatically different like Whoa what a difference because the volume was so much louder coming back from mastering.  I think now because software and plugins have gotten so much more advanced and everyone is L2ing their reference mixes to sleep, it’s come to a point where we can get it closer in loudness to mastering.  As a matter of fact last time I sent Chris my Mastering reference, he was like “Hey, your master reference was kinda hot on that last one” [laughs] Because the L2, the iZotope and all these plugins are getting better and better at getting the mix louder and louder.

But now, the volume difference between how I master the song and how the professional masters the song is not as much as it used to be.  I only master it for my listening purposes and to print in case it needs to go to a club that night.  But what I send to Chris or Jose, is pretty much an EQ and maybe, but VERY rarely, a compressor.  I’ll usually send it at a good level like 80% the way up the meter so there’s a decent enough room for him to do what they do. They always get it sounding bigger.

What I think the main difference is, that it’s more controlled.  I already have that “in your face mix” that I send out so when it comes back it’s controlled and even exaggerates that “In your face mix” I love it.

I still believe that mastering is super important part of the process, because what they do, is just as intricate as what I do.   I’m not going to sit here and pretend that one plugin is going to replace what they do.  It would be arrogant to think that way, but you can get some pretty good make shift masters today.

 

Speaking as a whole, your mixes are very together and tight sounding.  Everything comes out of the mix but not in an intrusive way, it still sounds very pleasing to the ears.  How do you achieve that sound?

I think that’s just something I developed over time because I’m very aggressive as a mixer.  People always say Damn you made my synths so sharp and it’s because I go to the limit with it and like I said, at the end, I’ll start pulling stuff away.  I may have gotten the synths bright and edgey and then once the vocals are on top I start softening it up a little bit.  But I do take every sound to it’s limit and then pull back.

I’m not the guy for everything [laughs]. For example a Celine Dion record…… I’m probably not the guy you want to come to, Lol!  Seriously though, over the years I’ve had the opportunity to mix records in that vein and I’ve got a really good sensibility to them, it’s just that the mixes out there that people know me for, are the more aggressive hip-hop sound.

I’ve honed my process and  philosophy of aggressiveness but I want to make sure people understand that I’m still a big believer in mixing at a low level as well.  A good rule of thumb is that at a low level, you should hear clearly the kick, snare and vocal.  The reason why some of the stuff sticks in your face is because with some synth instead of turning them up I’ll make them edgier at like 2, 4 or 7k to give it more presence and not necessarily volume.  That kind of makes it more audible.   I’m very conscious that every instrument has a place in the mix and that somewhere in the song you should be able to make out even the background instruments or efxs.

 

Your vocals sound like there’s none of that low end junk in them and they sound present but not thin or harsh.  How do you achieve that and what do you do to tame that low end muck?

Waves C6I spend probably 80% of my time using multi band compression, when mixing vocals.  Multiband compression is your best friend….. trust me.  I listen to the raw vocal and I determine which frequencies need taming.  The majority of vocals have three or four  sort of trouble spots.  Almost all vocals have this nasal sort of problem. Sometimes that’s just inherent in the person’s voice or maybe the microphone or pre just enhanced that “nasal” sound.  I’ll also cut out everything under say 30-40 Hz, just get it out of there and deal with some of the mid boxy sound as well.  My favorite plugin to when I’m mixing vocals is the C6.  You can really target those annoying bands.  Sometimes I will over use the multiband compressor but I’ll come back later and start pulling away from it and start giving it more life.  There’s that balance where the vocal is crammed in your face but there’s no frequencies spike out killing your ear

Obviously DeEssing is so important but everyone knows that, that’s simple.  But that’s it, to me that’s where the success of getting a vocal sitting in front of the mix.  So usual change is a multiband compressor dealing with all those annoying frequencies I.  Then I throw a DeEsser followed by an EQ. At  the very end of my chain I just squash the crap out of it with something like an RVox or even something like an L1, it all really depends on the character of the vocal sound.  When you do that you’ll realize “O shit I got to get more 1 k back” and then you go back to the C6 and pull out a little compression, re-check it, listen…… re-tweek it and so on.  It’s a give and take and once you can get to that place where vocal sits right in front of you, I love that.

 

So when you’re using the L1 to squash it, how much are we talking? -3 dB, -6 db?

[Laughs] No, no, no.  I’m only talking extreme situations and usually I use an RVox or really any compressor to kind of give it the last control and bring it an extra couple of inches towards the listener.  Sometimes your vocal is drowned when it’s sitting in the mix and to pull it out I’ll use the RVox because I like the way it sounds.  That’s when the VCA and gain structure comes into play, that the stage in the mix when I’m really adjusting groups and really fitting the vocals in the mix.  That’s when it all comes together for me.

 

So you don’t use any parallel compression on the vocals?  The RVox gives you the volume and stability you need?

Waves RVoxWell the RVox handles all the compression for me at the end.  It’s really a catch all for me because I’ve already got the vocal pretty much balanced out with the C6.  Don’t get me wrong sometimes I’ll pop in an extra C1 just to get another frequency and there’s times when I’ll have a pretty extensive chain with a couple DeEssers but for the most part that set up usually takes care of it.

I like to use compression as volume especially with vocals I love that because I feel like that gives me more room.  It’s kind of forgiving; I can push the vocals right in your face and it’s not going to jump around.  That RVox will catch anything else that got away.  But I’ve used other compressors and anyone of them will work, I just like the sound of the RVox at the end of the chain.

 

Looking back, is there one technique that you learned that changed your mixes forever?

This is going to sound crazy but I remember going and racking my brain over a kick; I was so anal over drums because I was a drummer initially and that was my thing.  When I realized that less is more, was probably the aha Moment.  You don’t need like 20 compressors on a kick, you’re just doing too much.  If you’re not getting it with the basics then it’s just inherent in the sound.

I know sometimes guys mix with their eyes but you really need to mix with your ears.  To me your ears is ultimately where the magic is.  Just because I have this one chain on my vocal doesn’t mean I’m going to do the exact same thing on the next one.  If it doesn’t need a C6 then why am I going to pop it in, you know what I mean?  It doesn’t need it.   That philosophy is what I think got me there, especially with drums.  When I got the fact that the drums are lacking a little bit of 40 [Hz], you know that thunder, it was because I was compressing too much.  When I pulled away from the compressor a little, the bottom came back ever so slightly and I realized that I understood the give and take with compression at that moment. It was like “Oh man, this is great” [Laughs].

 

Do you every use reference mixes?

You know what, I still do but not as much as I used to.  The only thing about using references and the thing you have to be careful about is that most of the references that people are listening to are mastered.  I think at the beginning, you start doing a lot of mixes and you listen to the references because you want to make sure that you’re there.  I think that’s very healthy and it makes you a better mixer because you have a sort of goal to reach. For example If you’re mixing for like 5-6 hours straight you turn to a reference mix and quickly realize that you’re too bright or too dull.  That’s probably the best thing about having a reference, just to have some sort of guide.

For me what happened after a while, I got comfortable in what I was doing and I didn’t reference as much as I used to but I started actually referencing my own stuff.  I didn’t do it out for my ego lol, but more because I had done something that I really liked and more important had access to both the mastered and un-mastered versions.  The Ironic part of it is that I tend to pick apart the reference mix that was so great (Laughs).

To this day I grow, every mix I do I hear more of what I could have done.  If I go to a club and I hear something I mixed and the bass shakes my shirt, I’m like “Okay that’s what I do” feels good you know what I mean?  It’s a very gratifying feeling to get to that point.  The first significant time that happened was when I heard  “I’m So Hood” in a club in Miami and I was like wow that snare feels like its hitting me in the head!! Lol ! that was a fun mix!

 

What’s your favourite in the box compressor and can you explain what you are hearing when you use it?

Kramer PIEMy favorite compressor?  That’s a hard question because there’s a lot of compressors I’m thinking of and they all have a certain characteristics I love.  I like the Kramer Pie, been using it a lot lately.  All the CLA classic 2A, 3A, 76. There are some compressors I go to for as an effect more than the compression value.  For example the Eddie Kramer Series Bass or Drums have cool vintage sound to them that I’ll use to achieve a particular effect and I will compress before with something else. I can’t tell you I have this one go to compressor, because for me it’s usually a combination.

 

What about your favourite in the box EQ?

Izotope Ozone 5I really love the EQ on the Izotope 5, I think it’s the most transparent EQ I ever heard as a plug in.  I don’t use it as much because I do like the way the SSL channel sounds – I use it for the color.  There’s times when I’ll go to a regular stock Digi EQ7 depending on what’s happening.  I use it a lot to roll of low end and to add a little crispiness here and there.  I like the API 550B for the top end, I love how the 10 and 12k sounds on there.  But my go to EQ though is the Waves SSL Channel and I use it a lot just because it’s a good for my first run through the mix.

 

Do you feel it accurately represents the hardware?

You know what, it’s not so much that it’s accurate but now I know it.  It’s definitely a different approach and its close to the original but not exactly.  It’s now in my brain at least, and it helps me get to where I want to go.

 

MEMBER QUESTIONS

The questions below were all submitted by subscribers of Modern Mixing

1.  What are your techniques for mixing pads and synths? [Submitted by algert]

When it comes to pads they are usually the widest instruments in my. I’ll do a lot of harmonic enhancers, phasing and special stuff to widen them as much as I can. Some boosting in the 12k above range depending on the sound.  With out exaggerating the 2-7k range too much, I sort of use that as a volume control.  For me it’s all about imaging when it comes to paddy stuff, I’m not talking about hard saw synths, I’m talking about pads and strings.  I tend to push those to the wide end, so it feels like there’s isn’t much in middle.  So I use like an s1 Imager on them a lot, the SPL Vitalizer MK2 to do some imaging or the iZotope which has a great stereo imager and harmonic exciter on there .  I use all that stuff to sort of spread them as far as I can.  The more you do that the more you leave room for that vocal, snare, kick and bass to sit right in the middle.  I’ll do that when mixing backup vocals as well, I’m spreading them out as far as they can go to make room.  In turn what you’re doing with the mix is giving the listener a great stereo image.

 

2.  Do you focus on Loudness while mixing and if so what are you techniques to getting it loud? [Submitted by pioneer987]

Like I said I have the VCAs to group all my music, my vocals, my effects etc.  Then what I do is route the entire mix through an Aux and at the beginning of the mix I’ll put a trim plugin on the Aux and turn it up.  What I’m doing is giving myself a huge amount of headroom to blast my speakers but not kill my whole gain structure.  The reason I do that is to fool myself and give me more volume so when I’m cranking my speakers I still have a relatively decent level.  Then when I take away the trim, everything comes back to a regular level.

Despite of the common rule to mix at a low level, I come from the school of really cranking and pushing my speakers. If you do that and you don’t have that trim on there, you’ll tend to completely smash everything and kill all your headroom.  You’ll be way too loud and everything’s a mess.

 

So by adding the trim plugin, you’re increasing the level on your 2Bus but your keeping your channel levels a lot lower in the mix?

Exactly.  It’s just kind of a safety net for me.  It may sound like insanity to somebody else but in my head it makes perfect sense.  Then when I finally take it off my levels should be right where they’re supposed to be and use my VCA groups to level everything off.

 

So when you bump the volume up on the Aux and your mixing, do you ever find that you start clipping because you’re pushing so hard.

Yeah and I do that on purpose so that I will take it easy.  In other words, it’s kind of like a balance between the trim I have on the aux and my monitor level on the console.  I crank that up so it’s near that extreme loud level but its not clipping then I can crank up my monitor a lot louder in the room.  So if my client wants to blow the roof of the joint I can do that and keep my mix out of it. it’s kind of controlled chaos.

 

3.  Do you ever use side chaining [low end ducking] with your kick drum and bass? [Submitted by nikola]

Occasionally, but I do it more for Dance and Pop than the Hip Hop records.  On the Hip Hop records I try to make the kick and the boom work and that’s my big battle.  If they work already, than great all I got to do is EQ it, make it sound big and compress it,  but if I have to battle with them I don’t use side chaining. Side chaining does help, but I usually get there with out it.

 

4.  Is there any other DAW that you think is just as good or better than Pro Tools? [Submitted by sambeatz]

The other software I’m in love with is Ableton; I fringing love that software.  I recently became an Ableton guy on my producer side.  I do all my music production on there.  I ain’t gonna lie, it’s kind of a hard learning curve if you’re a Pro Tools guy.  It’s not easy on the eyes but it sounds Great.

I don’t like the way Logic sounds, it’s very thin and shinny and Ableton sounds warmer and thicker on the low end. Just sounds bigger.

It also has a lot of features that pro tools doesn’t have.  It’s really well thought out and it’s definitely more of a producer’s tool.  One of these days I may give it a run and attempt a mix on Ableton.

 

5.  Is there any advice you can give to a home studio engineer? [Submitted by sambeatz]

The only thing that I would really say is that you’ve got to take the craft seriously; At some point you have to.  A lot of these new kids come out and they’re not focused on hearing, you know it’s like I’m glad you can talk about it but you’re not hearing what you’re talking about.  I feel like practice absolutely makes perfect, especially if you do it every day. If your working at home and you have a reference the best thing you can do that day is mix.  Mix a record and try to get it as close as you can to what you’re hearing.  I feel like if you give your ears enough flight hours they will eventually be able to make those distinctions.  To me it’s just like flying, it’s all about the flight hours and the more you mix, the better you’ll get. You just can’t get worse, you’re going to get better.

But then it’s like how is this kid going to practice if he can’t get any work? It’s tough and I hate to be the voice of reality but this business is shrinking and there’s more people coming into it.  I think for me going and interning at a studio like Circle House or the Hit Factory may be taking a step backwards if you have your own studio. You’ll be running coffee but eventually you get into a room, eventually you get with a camp and there’s nothing better than working with clients who are actually doing commercial music.  The variety of producers you get exposed to in a commercial studio still benefits you as an engineer because you get different problems, different sounds and different attitudes.  That makes you a well rounded engineer because it gives you true life experience as opposed to being at home.  After a while you can only throw so many curve balls at yourself as opposed to being in the real world.  Not everyone can go take an internship and not make money and that’s the problem.  It really works against these kids who want to start making money right away.

 

But how many internships are actually available these days?

Exactly and the way these schools are turning out people, I’m like how are all these kids going to get a job.

Another thing I would say is that when I first started I would take any gig.  I would sit there for free just so I had mixes that I could play for people you know what I mean?  So when I got into a room with somebody and they asked what I’ve done, I had mixes I could play.  You’re your best advertiser and promoter; you have to go out there and put your feet to the pavement and get yourself booked.  And if you don’t they certainly aren’t going to come knocking so you have to get into the circuit wherever you are.  It’s tough, not impossible but, I’m not going to sugar coat it.

 

6.  Are there any secrets that you’ve learned?  Maybe anything that you haven’t already shared in this interview. [Submitted by rambo]

I don’t think I have any secrets at all actually, but what I do guard is my mix sessions. People ask for the mix session of the song and I always stem out every sound back to pro tools and send the stem session.

 

You mean you won’t send them your mix project?

No, because I feel like at that point it’s not one secret I’m guarding, it’s just a combination of everything that I do. That’s something that you should guard, as a mix engineer. It’s sort of your blue print.  There’s nothing individually on there that you could say, Oh my God look at that, I’ve never seen this.

I’m not hiding anything but I don’t think it’s smart to have your session just kind of floating around everywhere as an open book.  Even in interviews like this, I divulge everything and even when I’m in a mix session it’s not like I’m not showing people.  They’re sitting next to me and we’re talking.  They can ask me any question they want and I’m an open book about it.  But that’s one day or one mix.

 

Awesome! You’ve been amazingly gracious with your time and knowledge so thanks for being part of this interview.

My pleasure J.

 

Here’s A video of Lu in the studio with DJ Khaled, working on a mix.

[youtube id=”gxeTvsKP3Xs” mode= “lazyload” api_params=””]
  • musicfreak63

    Wow now I am really nervous about not getting a job as a music producer, or making it in the music business after what Lu Diaz said about the industry shrinking these days!

    • Justin Smith

      Take it with a grain of salt. There is less major studios around but there still is plenty of work, you just need to separate yourself from the herd but that’s the same in any business. Nothing will ever replace hard work and dedication. I think is more of a “Self-employed” lifestyle now more than ever. IF that works with your personality I think you will be fine.

      • musicfreak63

        I really do understand what you are saying about the music business these days, because i have been reading a lot about all these interviews on this site about these great music producers, and from what I have been reading to what you think, it really connects the pieces together which makes more sense to me. Lately i have been spending a lot of my time just researching, and learning more about how these great music producers started from scratch to where they are now, and also how the business works and how to really get into a studio as an intern and start my future from there. I have so much time on my hands now because I just graduated high school and wanted to go to school for recording art, but my parents cant afford it. And i am now home reading all these interviews because i am very passionate about this business and I just want to get out like the way these guys started without spending money on school when I have been producing,recording, and mixing local artist around more for 4 years.

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