Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Jeff “Supa Jeff” Villanueva

Jeff Villanueva has established himself as one of the most sought after engineers in the music industry. Jeff’s rise to engineering pre-eminence is a testament to his strong work ethic, raw ability and high energy levels. In his brief musical career he has contributed his work to many multi-platinum albums with some of the music biggest artist such as Beyonce, Lionel Ritchie, Mary J Blige, Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Wyclef Jean, Jennifer Lopez, P. Diddy, Rihanna and much more. Bringing his total albums sales to over 50 million worldwide.  For more of Jeff’s credits, please click here.

In 2003 Jeff became the right hand man to super producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. It started with a chance meeting at an ASCAP event in Orlando, where Jeff introduced himself to Rodney as his new Engineer. In the following years Jeff’s strong work ethic helped him earn many achievements from chart topping songs and multi platinum sales awards to becoming a two-time Grammy award winning Engineer.

Today Jeff is working out of Def Jam/We The Best Studios with Super Producer Duo “The Runners” in Miami, FL. Jeff has been working with The Runners since March of 2007.

Jeff’s attention to detail and unique sound is continuing to position him as one of the industry elite go to guys.

Here’s how you can contact Jeff:  
Website: www.jeffvillanueva.com
Twitter: @JeffVillanueva
Instagram: @supajeffvillanueva

 

On your site, your bio says that you decided to get into the music business and enroll at Full Sail, after attending a music conference.  What happened at that conference that made you come to that conclusion?

At that time I had already been involved with music for about 5-6 years playing trumpet in middle and high school bands.  I always felt like I could hear certain things.  Even on the side I was working at my youth group at church, helping with the sound and set up mics and so forth.  It really was just a hobby and nothing too serious but at that conference they exposed different careers in the music business from being a music lawyer, to a musician, to even being an actual engineer.  I had no idea what an engineer was at the time.  I was real ignorant about everything and I thought music was just an artist and maybe a sound guy.  My interpretation of a sound guy was basically the same thing as what I was doing at church.

I heard about Full Sail when I was in middle school but I didn’t realize how close it was to me, growing up in Central Florida.  One of the speakers there was an engineer and he was talking about the school and it seemed pretty convincing.  It made me think that the way I always thought I could hear differently, was probably true.   It helped me realize that I could turn that into a career and make money out of it.

Before graduating high school, I took a tour over at Full Sail and the University of Miami (they have a good engineering program as well).   The reason why I ended up choosing Full Sail was because of how long the course was.  I’m not really much of a school person.  I wasn’t really into all the reading and keeping up with the books.  So it was like I could either go to technical school, learn the curriculum in 15-16 months and starting interning right away [get my feet wet] or I could go to University where I wouldn’t have stepped foot into a studio until maybe the third or fourth year.

 

So you mentioned that you didn’t enjoy the reading and keeping up with the book work and I honestly feel like I am the same way but do you think that’s a trait of an engineer; to want to actually learn something by doing  it as opposed to reading about it?

I totally agree with that.  I remember vividly, going into school and not having any gear at home.  The only thing that I had that was remotely close to gear was a Radio Shack DJ mixer that I would use to try and copy songs off the radio, to make my own mix tapes.  So that was my recording background [Laughs].

Going into school and having lab time, where you’re physically in the studio recording a band, you get to talk about EQ and compression and all the other technical stuff.  The instructors would reiterate what you learned in the lecture format, inside the studio.

image (2)When the teachers would talk about compression and how they would use it, I couldn’t hear it.  I would ask them what they are hearing because I could see them turning the dial but I didn’t hear anything going on.  It took maybe 3 or 4 years after graduating until I was able to hear something.  I remember being in the studio as an intern, with a blank stare on my face, watching people turn knobs to see if I could hear something and I still couldn’t hear it.

The best way to understand it I think is to do drastic changes.  Instead of modestly using a 3:1 ratio or an EQ boost 3dB, I would just take it the full way [Laughs] and just slowly sweep to where you can hear it working.  I also tell a lot of people that it’s like going to a gym and working out, you’re not going to have a 6 pack the first day in the gym.  It takes years to build up a 6 pack.  You need the right diet and regimen and after about 2-3 years you start to notice the results.  It’s the same thing with engineering.  If you’re physically in their everyday you’re going to see improvements.

I still learn from reading or even watching YouTube videos, I mean I’ll even learn from anyone around me.  I learn from my assistants, my interns, the producers I work with and even the artists.  The artists these days know exactly what they want, you just have to listen and know a little bit about everything from a piece of equipment to a certain technique and then just apply it to their needs.

 

Okay great.  One thing I was curious about is where you got the nickname “Supa Jeff” from?

[Laughs] I got that from the guys I’m working with now – The Runners.  I didn’t have an AKA name at the time.  When I jumped on board with them, I had been in the business for about 8 years already and I would say 4 of those years were as a professional.  The first 4 years I was still interning.  I even had a second and third job just to support my internship and I really wasn’t making money as a “recording engineer”.  When I got the lucky break with Darkchild, I was able to work with big artists and build up my comfort level.

Going into my working relationship with The Runners, I was able to bring that confidence and all the skills I learned, with me.  At the time they were still new to the business and they didn’t really have an engineer.  They used a couple engineers that they knew around town and people that they met along the way but the one thing that they were missing was that their music wasn’t showing.  They’re great producers but the engineers at the time [no disrespect] didn’t know how to get their multi-tracks to sound more enhanced from the original ideas.

photoMy first session with them was recording T.I. at the Hit Factory.  They gave me the track and told me to just get set up and that T.I. would be over in a couple hours.  After an hour and a half I had a pretty decent rough mix going between the drums and piano.  So I was set up, ready to go and was just waiting around.  They were like ‘what are you doing?’ I was like, ‘Im done if you want to check it out’ and when they heard it, they were blown away by how quickly everything came together.  That was basically the work ethic and train of thought I had learned from Rodney [Darkchild].

Darkchild’s philosophy was “this is the demo and nobody is getting paid on it but we need to do the best quality job we can, in a short amount of time, so we can get things done, sell the record and we can all get paid.”  So it was very common for me to do quick rough mixes and to also be very professional with any artist that came in.

Another thing that caught there eye was that I was mixing as I was recording.  Basically I could be aligning vocals as were in record mode or copy and pasting hooks; they were just blown away.  They were just like ‘Man you’re like Superman, we’ve never seen anybody work like this’.  For me it was an everyday common practice because of the background and the training that I had received from Darkchild.  I just thought that it was expected, I didn’t know any different.

 

When you’re in a session with The Runners, how limited is your role as an engineer?  Like if you hear something you think is not right about a performance, can you voice your opinion?

No matter who I work with, I definitely understand hierarchy.  I don’t question myself when I want to say something but I’m very cautious about knowing when and how to say it.  What I mean by that is I wouldn’t suggest something to an artist when they’re in the room.  It can make the producer look like they don’t know what they are doing or it can make the artist feel insecure about their performance.

At this point in my relationship with The Runners [6 years] they do trust my input and they do allow me to vocally express my opinion but I’m still very cautious of knowing when to say it.  I enjoy recording and editing vocals and I consider that to be my forte, so a lot of times I just take it upon myself to do the things that are necessary.  We’ve built up that trust where they feel comfortable with me to do it and if they don’t like something, they’ll tell me and I’m cool with that.  I don’t ever get married to anything and I think that’s a big key to my success.

 

But have there ever been times when the track is being recorded and it’s just sounding completely wrong?  What do you do to navigate that situation and still respect the people you are working with?

Yeah that’s happened a few times.  Sometimes the artist is just coming off tour and then they’re right back in the studio so their voice might be screechy.  If I’ve worked with them in the past, I know their vocal capability and they’re not hitting the notes like they use to, then I might suggest skipping certain parts and come back to it.

I’ve had experiences with artists where they just flat out couldn’t hit the notes and at the point we’d just concentrate on the performance and go back to fix those notes.  I know people don’t want to hear that but quite frankly when you’re making a record it’s supposed to be a perfect performance so I’m all for going back to doctor notes.  To me it’s about selling the record through the performance of it.

I’ve also had things on my end, technically, go wrong.  For instance, it might not be the right mic sound; meanwhile we’re already 2-3 lines into the verse.  I might ask to try something else.  When we’re into the groove of a song and I know it might not be the right time to say something, I’ll still say it.  9 times of 10, even though I was kind of scared to say something, they’re actually grateful that I did.  If the artist thinks that they can sound better then they’re cool with redoing those 2 or 3 lines.

These days people will just press 3 [record] and look at the screen or look down at they’re phone [instagram] while it’s recording.  By suggesting something that could be better, technically, shows that you really care about the task at hand and that you’re interested in putting out a great product.

 

On Danity Kane’s record ‘Hold You Down’ you were credited as recording and mixing engineer but Darkchild was also credited for mixing.  I noticed on a lot of his records that he gets co credited as mixing engineer so maybe you can explain how involved he is in the mixing process and what it’s like doing a “co-credit” with someone else.

I think it’s about them caring enough about their production and seeing it all the way through.  A lot of times the involvement of a co-mix will basically be me getting the record to where I think it’s 100% and then the additional mixer comes in after.  They might want to add a little boost in certain frequencies or maybe they want to compress something a little harder.  They might express that they were trying to take it to a slightly different place when it comes to the sound.  If that’s the case, I will set up the necessary parts for making the changes and then they make the final tweak.  They would normally take my setting and just tweak it a little bit more.

Rodney is the melody king so a lot of times on those co-mixes, he would blend the harmonies with me and then I would add the EQ and everything to enhance the sound so it gels more with the track.

Here’s a video of Jeff and Darkchild, working in the studio on ‘Hold You Down’

[youtube id=”92sgnSjljkA” mode=”lazyload” autoplay=”no”]

 

So based on the way you explained the co-mix process, is it fair to say that a producer who hands you a Pro Tools session, with all the processing and plugins, should get a co-credit for mixing?

I mean yeah I totally agree with that.  I think the reason why a lot of producers do that is because everybody gets so hooked on the demo mix [demoitis].  They’re basically like ‘Here’s our rough mix with our settings, just enhance it.  Give it that space, give it that knock and give it some depth.’  So I would credit that.

And now that you shed it into that light, I don’t think we do enough crediting for that.  Quite frankly, for me, at the end of the day as long as I’m a part of something great it doesn’t matter to me if there’s a co-mixing credit or not.  I just want to be a part of great records, have opportunities to earn great achievements and to be recognized for it.

 

Have you ever been in that situation where you got a pretty good rough mix, handed off the files to the mixer and asked for a credit?  Or did you just not say anything because you didn’t want to piss anyone off or bruise any egos?

It depends.  If I’m already getting a tracking credit and my job was to prep up the mix and the artist chooses Manny [Marroquin] or Serban [Ghenea] to mix the record, I’m not going to take their credit from them.  I’m already getting credit where credits due and I’ve already put my stamp on the record by choosing the mics or the way I’ve recorded it.

A lot the guys at that level are very quick to give you back the credit in praise.  They might say something like ‘Dude, what you sent me was great, I barely did anything to it.’ or ‘The guitar sounded great, I left all the settings.’   Even though I consider myself a great mixer, I want to get to that level too.  I want to be a well known mixer so any praise coming from them or if I can impress them than that’s all the credit I need.

Okay great so this is a a good segue into my next question.  If you could be a fly on the wall during a mixing session, who would be the engineer?  Past or Present.

image (1)I’ve already had the chance, a couple of times, to be a fly on the wall for Manny Marroquin and I would have to say him.  He basically has the same background that I have.  He started off as a tracking engineer and did that for years and then he transitioned into mixing.  That’s the next step to where I’m transitioning to now as well; doing more mixes.

If you do the grunt work of tracking, you definitely know how instruments are supposed to sound.  Just being able to get tones really translates into mixing and really makes you work hard to try and retain all those natural tones.  That’s the way I like to mix.  I like to keep a lot of the natural ambience in the recording and Manny has that same type of mentality.  Now that he’s been doing it for a long time, he’s at that level of trying to push the limits.  It’s all about the sound quality for him and the production of it.  Even though he’s a mixer, I consider him a producer.  He’s able to take the record to another level sometimes just from the actual mix, the FX or the vocal ideas that he has.

As you were developing as an engineer, were there any mentors or engineers that you feel helped shape the way you hear sound or the way you approach your mixes now?

My career path was unique in the sense that I never really got to sit under engineers.  Not by choice because I wish I could have done more of that.  I don’t know how it happened but a lot of my interning and assisting was always with producers whether they were local or a big name.   I guess I have to credit all of them to be honest with you.  Even though I had a well balanced background, they helped me understand a song.  They helped me recognize a hit melody and how to bring those melodies out.  They helped me understand how to put a song together from top to bottom from the production, the writing and how to present it to an A&R so that it can make it on a project.  All of those key things have helped me along the way.  So if I’m in the mixing chair or the recording chair, I’m not only thinking about the sound but also how I can help sell the song.

So what does your mixing set up consist of?  Are you In the box, out the box or both?

I like both to be honest with you.  When I first started learning Pro Tools, it was version 4 and it was still at a time where not many studios were using it.  I embraced the technology because I didn’t know any better.  I definitely think it’s gotten to a point where it’s really good and now I’m finally starting to dig the head room in Pro Tools.

What I like to do is spread everything out across the board [mixing console] if I have the time/budget and do a quick 3-4 hour mix using just my instincts.  I read a lot about other great engineers where they’ve stated that their best moves have come from their first initial instincts.  I like to use that same approach.

I’ll start filling out the drums, throw in the keyboard or rhythm section and just bounce around the entire board.  I don’t like to just start out with a kick drum, for example, and get the sound.  I like to get all my volume levels first and then shape the sound once I have a good amount of the instruments in the mix.  After about 3-4 hours and I have something I like, I’ll print everything back into Pro Tools.  From there I will complete the mix inside of Pro Tools.  So at that point I’ve captured some of the analog sound and I’ve got the analog summing.

Not only that I feel more comfortable with all the automation I can do inside Pro Tools whether its volume, panning, dynamics or EQ.  It’s just much more efficient to make those moves inside of Pro Tools then having to do them on the board.

You mentioned a little bit about automation so what are your thoughts on it and how do you use it?

I love it.  I think it opens up different worlds of creativity and you can do things in Pro Tools that you just can’t do in the analog world.

One thing that people will notice, when they do get to sit with me is that all my volume automation is done in trim mode; It’s not actually done with the volume line.  I like to use the volume for the final trim – boosting the overall volume of an instrument.  Now which one is better from a technical stand point? I can’t really answer that but it’s just faster for me to go into the trim and make adjustments.

In Pro Tools 10 I’m using clip gain a lot as far as grouping a set of regions, especially with vocal tracks.  Once I have a blend of the harmonies, let’s say, and I notice a certain harmony part should come out more, I’ll region group them and bring them up a little bit with the clip gain.

As far as other thing like panning, you just can’t do that as quickly and smoothly on the board as you can in Pro Tools.

Also, to be able to get in there and really mess with the delay times is pretty handy.  Maybe I want the beginning part of the delay to be a 1/4 note and the very tail end to be an 8th note, so it repeats faster as it tails out.  Those are some of the cool things I enjoy about the automation process and what Pro Tools allows me to do creatively.

That’s a pretty interesting tip with the delay, I don’t think I’ve ever tried that.  I might have to steal that one [Laughs].

image (3)Yeah, right as it’s about to fade out it’s good sometimes to have the extra repeat.

Everything I do is not very mind blowing or life changing, I just like to keep things simple.  A lot time I like to say I dumb it down because that’s how I think.  An example is like on certain word delays you might throw on a 1/4 note delay but I like to duplicate the region and put it on its own separate track.  Then I would put the delay on that track right in line where that word is.  So I tend to get a better feedback and I’m able to control when I want that word to fade out or how long I want it to repeat.  It’s one of those things where I’d have to show you more than explain it.

I like to try to ask every engineer this question but could you see yourself every going completely in the box one day?

Yeah definitely!  I would hope to keep some sort of analog, at least on the summing side of things.  When I am mixing in the box I still like to bring it out on the SSL faders if I can.  Then take the output of the SSL and bring it back into Pro Tools so I can get that summing.

That said I don’t even know if I have a choice anymore and I’ve been thinking about downsizing my own personal rig to a Thunderbolt system.  The ability to have that access at any moment or to try different things, when I’m not in the studio, is great.  Like if I have my laptop with me and I’m on a plane, the ability to just pull something up I think is pretty cool.

I think you have to embrace the technology to be honest with you.  The budgets just aren’t there anymore and the artists these days are growing up with the technology.  Before, tuning vocals wasn’t unheard of.  The artist would go into the studio and sing through the Autotune and not even know it.  Now artists will come in and say ‘This is my Autotune settings and this is the reverb I like to record with.  You have to embrace that technology because it’s more affordable and everybody is using it at home.  I definitely embrace it because I don’t want to get left behind with the times.

You’re not the first engineer to mention that they would prefer to have analog summing when working in the box.  Maybe you could explain the differences you notice from analog summing and digital summing.

I don’t really consider myself a techy type of engineer; I’m definitely a musician at heart and I go mostly by feel.  So when I explain this, it’s coming from a place of feeling.  From what I notice, if I’m pegging the stereo bus on the board, for a hip hop record, it gives it that certain grunge, punch and edge that I’m looking for but without distortion.  If I try to emulate that inside of Pro Tools I usually lose my head room right away and it’s a lot easier to distort.

I’m also noticing something from the imaging aspect of things.  My mixes sound like they have a bit more depth and I can hear a wider spectrum as fader as my panning goes.  There’s just something about it and like I said, I’m not much of a tech head but when I hear it, there’s more of a feeling and sound perception that I can’t get in the box.  But it’s getting really damn close.

I’ve been really ecstatic with Pro Tools 10 and when I crossed over I got that extra head room I’ve been looking for.  Also I’ve been experimenting with things like “Pan Depth” in Pro Tools.  Depending on the settings, you can get them to emulate pan laws similar to different consoles like Neve’s and SSL’s.  These little things are leading me into the box more and more.

When you approach vocals in the mixing process, what are your goals and what tools are you generally reaching for?

When I’m mixing I tend to have the lead vocal in at all times.  Sometimes I’ll take it out but I usually like to have some sort of vocal present because the vocal is the most important thing.  Even when I’m making the final tweaks and I’m just about to print, I’ll listen to how the bass, the keyboards or the guitar sounds in relation to the vocals.  One thing I like to keep is the realism, so if it’s a ballad I want to hear all those little cries at the end of a note.  If that’s something that I can enhance than I’ll try my best to make it happen.

Usually, I’ll do the backgrounds last.  I’ll start with hook melodies first, you know any type of melody backgrounds, and get those to sit nice underneath the hook vocal.  Then I’ll start adding certain harmonies but again, a lot of times it’s just about what’s catching my ear.  I don’t necessarily go from a hook melody to a low harmony.  If there’s a certain thing that I like that the middle harmony is doing versus the low harmony then I’ll mix that first.  I’m constantly bouncing around.

As far as things that I do to enhance vocals; I guess every song speaks to me differently.  One thing that I have been experimenting with recently, thought it’s not game changing, is I like to use 2 or 3 reverbs on the vocals.  I’ll use 1 bus to send to all 3 reverbs and I’ll use the volume on the different aux sends for the balance.  I like to EQ each reverb to the key of the song.  There’s a chart that I’ve recently used; I’ll have to send it to you.  It shows you the overtones of certain keys.  Let’s say for G Major you have 6 different octaves and your low overtone is at 80Hz, I’ll go to the EQ and boost that frequency to help give richness to the reverb.  I just felt like I could never get a nice reverb sound using only 1 reverb and that’s why I blend multiple reverbs together.

I also like to feedback delays in the reverb.  That’s something that’s done a lot in dance music [EDM].

As far as certain tools that I like to use, I read your Psychology of a Mix Engineer article with Ghislain Brind’Amour and I definitely have to agree with him that the Maag EQ sounds great on vocals.  I love using that to open up the air on the vocals and give it an overall clarity.

R Comp Jeff VillanuevaThe RCompressor is a big thing for me when I’m doing vocal compression.

I’m trying to think of what else.  I mean if you look at my vocal set up it’s definitely not a standard thing.  If I have to use 2 different EQ’s on the same channel, to get the sound I want, I’ll do it.  I tend to throw a lot of rules out when I’m mixing because I mix off feeling and what the music is telling me.  At the same time I’m always listening to what each plugin is doing to other plugins in the chain.  If I have 2 EQ’s, back-to-back and one is boosting a certain frequency, it can start to overload the next EQ in the chain so I’m very conscious of how each plugin is affecting the others.

Do you have a favourite in the box compressor?

Waves RVoxI’d say a lot of times, even when I’m tracking, I’m dealing with vocals so I feel like the RVox works well for me.  It even sounds great on bass guitars.  I love the fact that it has the SC [sidechain] option if I feel like I need to use it.  It just automatically responds well to me.  Usually 9 times out of 10 that’s the one that I’m going to go to.

If that’s not getting the type of sound I’m looking for then I also like the remodeled 1176 and the LA2A.  Those are on my vocals a lot as well.

You mean the Waves versions?

For the most part it is the Waves Audio plugins because we do have the Waves Bundle but it could be whatever is available.  Whatever I have to use at that time, I’ll use.  That’s one thing that I’ve learned, you can’t always rely on specific tools, and you should be able to work with anything.  I make do with whatever I have.

You know, the Digidesign [Avid] stuff is great too as far as the dynamics go.

What about in the box EQ’s, any favourites?

As far as EQ’s I love the API EQ’s.  I became a big fan of those when Waves introduced them into Version 7.

I just recently started using the Maag EQ and I use that specifically on vocals to open them up on the top end.

Waves REQ - Jeff VillanuevaA lot of times when I’m in the beginning stages of the mix I’m using a lot of frequency sweeps to find the bad tones and take them out.  I’m able to do that quickly and efficiently with the Waves REQ.  I tend to use the 6 band version the most.  Anything more than 6 bands is too much for me.  I know that Waves also produces the Q-10 but I stay away from that because it’s just too many options for me.

I think that’s about it, so thanks for doing this.  I really appreciate you answering all the questions honestly and for being part of this slowly growing interview series.

I appreciate you reaching out to me.  I think it’s an honour to have opportunities like this.  So hopefully I was able to answer all your questions.

You definitely did, thanks again!

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