Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Ariel Borujow

Ariel Borujow is a Grammy nominated mix engineer who  has been a part of the NYC studio community for over a decade. Doubling as a music broadcast engineer, he has the opportunity to put his multi-platinum proven touch on all different types of sounds.

His clientele has included high-profile acts such as The Black Eyed Peas, P Diddy, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Andrea Bocelli, Kanye West and many more.

In 2011 Ariel and his attorney/manager Joshua Kamen launched ImprintOne80, an independent record label dedicated to bringing back the craft of artist development

Here’s how to contact Ariel:
Website: www.mixedbyariel.com
Label Website: www.imprint180.com
Twitter: @arielborujow
Email: aborujow@gmail.com

 

What got you into the engineering side of the music business?

In elementary school there was a choir class.  I mean I can’t sing and I’ll be the first to tell you that but I can hear near perfect pitch.  I just remember the teacher had a stereo system with an EQ  and I asked if I could run the music for the choir.  I would always mess with the EQ even though I still didn’t know what engineering was at the time.

RaisingHell_coverAround that time I discovered Rick Rubin and I would listen to anything from Run DMC’s “Raising Hell” to Slayer “South of Heaven” which were produced by him.  I had a dual cassette recorder and would record from one cassette to the other and try to match his EQ curve.  I guess at the time, what

I was trying to do was master, which I obviously knew nothing about.  That was the start of my obsession.

When I was in high school, I played sports a lot and I think I got in trouble while playing lacrosse so I had to find another after school activity.  That’s when I heard that the school play needed a sound guy.  We had this beautiful auditorium in our school that had a console and since they needed someone, I volunteered.  That’s when I first started really messing with sound.

Then I saw a video of Metallica in the studio making the “Black Album” with Bob Rock and that solidified it for me.  I used to play in bands but always had stage fright so when I saw that video, I was like “Perfect! I want to sit in that room and I want to work with musicians.”

Before high school was over, I started looking for programs and found one at NYU.  Since my grades weren’t up I went to community college and took an A/V class.  My teacher at the time saw that I was interested in the console in the classroom and suggested I speak with his son who was an audio engineer.  His son told me that I could finish community college in two years, go to NYU for another three years and then clean bathrooms or I could go to the Institute of Audio Research for nine months and then clean bathrooms.  So obviously I weighed that out and decided that I wanted to clean the bathrooms now and not later.

After that I dropped out of college and went right to the Institute of Audio Research.  Two weeks into school, I got an internship at Greene Street Studios which was a famous studio in New York at the time.  I interned there for almost the entire nine months while I was in school.  I was going to school, interning and not sleeping.  That’s what started it all.

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And at what point did you realize that mixing was where you wanted to be?

I think the obsession started pretty early for me.  My first real mentor was John Siket and at the time he just got off doing the Dave Matthews “Crash” album.  I was always there at the studio and I guess he took a liking to me.  One night John told me that he was mixing a Phish Live Show from Boston but he didn’t have a budget.  He said that I could hang out and assist on it if I wanted to.  After I saw him mix that album I was like “Yeah this is exactly what I want to do”.

I wanted to manipulate everything and I wanted control over the music.  There’s a certain power that you feel when you’re in that position as you know.

What  is about mixing that you prefer over every other aspect of the music making process?

I’m just obsessed with sound.  I still study everything and I even learn from my interns.  I tell people that I’m not a very technical person and I’ve never really been one.  Like when someone says “to get the bass guitar to bite you have to boost 1K”, I’ve never done it that way.  I always go with how I’m feeling so there’s always been this emotional attachment to it for me.  As much as I’m technically trying to get to the clients overall vision, I’m still putting my feeling into that record with whatever that may be. So yeah I guess I like it because I feel it the most.

 

So you’re saying that the technicals aren’t as important as how something makes you feel?

Yes but I when I was coming up I didn’t have YouTube or anything like it.  When I was assisting, some of the studios I worked for, would let me use the rooms on off hours.  I would bring in bands or hip hop artists to record and mix for them, that’s how I learned.  So I figured out that an La2a sounded very different than an 1176 on an acoustic guitar.  Then I tried to figure out why and by putting the pieces together, that’s how I learned.

So the technical stuff did come from watching guys like Maserati or Prince Charles Alexander but it was a lot more trial and error.  Also when I was assisting back then, the hours were so crazy that there came a point where I lost the love for assisting because I was so tired and it was hard to watch and focus on the technical stuff.  The only time to do it was when the show was mine and I got to touch the gear.  That’s when I learned.

 

In a recent twitter pic that you posted, I saw you used 3 stock Pro Tools plug-ins: The BF-76, The EQ3 and Lo-fi.  My question is: Do you think that you could get a good mix using only stock plug-ins?

Ariel Borujow - Twitter Pic (Stock Plug-ins)That was a retweet of the plug-ins that I used for a live tracking session.  When I do live tracking I set things up in a way that it’s like a console.  The studio just happened to have a TDM version and those were the plug-ins they had but I use that Lofi plug-in quite a bit.  There’s a stock preset in there called “Tape Emulation” and you just put that on and you’re like “Wow.”  It’s honestly unreal.

If you look at my sessions then yes, you’ll see plug-ins like UAD, the WavesSSL or Metric Halo’s Channel Strip (which I think is incredible).  However, most of the time when I’m cleaning up, I’m using the EQ3 – The 7-band or the UAD Cambridge EQ.

But to answer your question – Absolutely!  Obviously it depends on what you’re given because if you get a turd then you can’t polish it, even if you have a neve console.  If it’s bad, it’s bad.  A mentor told me a long time ago that it’s the ear not the gear, so it doesn’t matter.

When I started going freelance, I had an Mbox with stock plug-ins and that’s how I was making money.  I was just coming off assisting and I was like “Oh I can do this myself, in my house? Okay.”  So I bought the Mbox with the Producer bundle and I had all stock plug-ins.  I had the DVerb, the EQ2 (at the time), the stock compressor and the stock deEsser; I just made it work.  Obviously now I’ve upgrade quite a bit but I do believe that you can make it work with whatever you have as long as what you’re given is quality.

 

Since you mentioned “Polishing a turd”, what do you do when you get files that are less then desirable?

First thing I do is communicate with the client, and if they are in town, than I’ll have them come by the studio with their files prior to me starting the mix.  That’s something I take pride in doing and I believe in giving the client a good solid hour or two to sit and go over the song.  There’s times when I look at them and say “I know you want good quality but the vocals are distorted.  We are probably going to have to re-record it.”

Sometimes I’ve turned projects down because I didn’t want to promise that I could do something and not deliver on it.  I have to keep it honest.  I won’t take someone’s money just for the sake of taking it.  I’ll communicate with my clients a lot and just be honest with them.  Usually they will take my advice. I think if you portray that you are honest, you’re trying to make their music better and establish that you aren’t trying to produce their record, than most of the time they will take your advice.  That’s my approach.

 

So if you think the record isn’t fixable, you won’t take the job?

I’ve definitely taken on my fair share of not so great records but at the end of the day I give them the opportunity first and if they still want to proceed then I just have to pull out some magic.  You’ve got to find something in the song that’s going to make the song exciting even if it’s one element like a hi-hat.  That one element you have to find and make it work.  If I’m going to sit there for eight hours then I have to find something exciting about the record and make it work [Laughs].

 

How do you feel the mixing business has been impacted by the explosion of home studio rigs?

I’ve always been a business man.  What I try and do is help bring up young mixers under me.  Let’s say a client comes to me and has a really low budget, I’d rather give a guy a chance that’s got a laptop and a set up at home.  So what I’m doing is giving him that work and a majority of the money (I’ll take a percentage).  Once he’s finished with the mixes, we’ll go into my room and then I’ll tweak it and show him what he could be doing better.  It’s almost like a mentorship but they’re getting paid to do it.

Times are changing; Every mix engineer is mixing a ton of independent records unless you’re like Manny Marroquin or Serban [Ghenea].  Even Tony Maserati, who I’ve worked with and is a mentor, is evolving with the times.   You’ve just got to roll with the times.

 

Not everyone can be a great mixing engineer but do you think we’re living in a time now where at least everyone has the potential to become one?

I just had this conversation with somebody and I think that the answer is yes, absolutely.  The difference is that a lot of people aren’t going to have the luxury of sitting in with an A level engineer.

The biggest downfall for someone coming up now is the interaction with an A-List client.  When I have guys sit in with me, I explain to them to not worry about what I’m doing on the computer but to watch how I handle the session and control the room at any given moment.  If you can learn that and master that, then that’s what’s going to get you work.

I think technically, they can learn to be really great mixers because shit, I had a 4 track cassette.  I had to make due with what I had but those days are over.  Now a kid in his room from anywhere around the world has the same plug-ins that I do so he can learn.  Plus with the YouTube videos and everything else, you can definitely learn and I’m sure there will be some great mixers.  But my belief is that if you’re in a facility you will have the opportunity to get in with major clients plus the chance to learn proper client interaction.

 

You recently left Stadium Red, can you talk about where you’re working now?

I have a room at Treehouse Studios located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  It was an existing studio owned by Jason Salmon who has a management company called Atworkmusic.  I met him through Just Blaze because he works very closely with one of his artists.  I needed a room (a more private setting for my clients) and he needed someone who had a lot of experience so we combined our gear and made it happen.

It’s a beautiful room, it’s built out and I actually have a window.  I think the last time I had a window was at the Cutting Room years ago.

My team and I still work together.  Ricardo Gutierrez does all my mastering and I’m still working with Frequency who is pretty busy now that he produced the number one record “The Monster” by Eminem and Rihanna.  I work closely with Frequency because his manager is not only my attorney, but also my business partner for my Label Imprint180. So I still have my core guys and who knows what the future holds.

 

What about your mixing set up, what does it consist of?

Avid C24 In the past eight months, I’ve gone strictly in the box but I still do have my hybrid set up.  I have a C24 because there’s something about faders that makes it more musical for me.  I have a dangerous summing box [2Buss Lt] and from that I run it into an SSL stereo buss compressor.  From the stereo buss compressor I go into the Dangerous BAX Equalizer.  At the end of that chain I have something that’s a little bit of a secret and when people hear about it they’re like “What?”  I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Behringer Edison; they don’t make it anymore but it’s basically a stereo imager.  It’s like a more in depth version of an M/S widener and the engineers that I used to work under all had one and they would use it on background vocals a lot.

Ricardo Gutierrez, who is my mastering engineer, came from the Hit Factory and worked with Herb Powers Jr.  Herb has an edison that he uses on his masters and since Ric’s gear is basically a duplicate, he has one as well.  I usually sit in on the sessions while my mixes are being mastered and it always impresses me how the Edison makes the sides wider and a little shinier.  He told that if I could ever get my hands on one, that I should just buy it.

Behringer EdisonSo one day I saw one on Ebay that was sealed and never opened and said “I don’t really know what this is but if you can find use for it, throw me a number.”  So I sent the guy an email saying I would give him a hundred bucks and a “Buy Now”.   So that’s the last part of my hybrid chain.

As far as speakers, I’m a big NS-10 guy and as much as I’d love to move away from them, there’s just something about carving out mid range on them that’s comfortable for me.  Then I have a pair of B&W 801 Matrix 2 with subwoofer as my mains.  Recently I have been using the JBL LSR 6328T speakers and I have been on those plus the NS-10’s and they are amazing.  The JBL tweeter is just mind blowing.

When we went into the room to set up the acoustics it was really done for mixing even though we have a live room and beautiful booth.  The focus was really to make it sound good for mixing.  We actually went with GIK Panels.  We spoke with the owner Glenn, and gave him a blueprint of the studio.  He walked us through it and made suggestions on what we should do to make it sound better and now the room sounds absolutely phenomenal.  It’s a world of a difference compared to my old room at Stadium Red.

 

Let me get into the process of mixing a little bit.  Once you receive files from a client, how do you start a session?

I spend a lot time getting my session prepped.  If it’s a larger project then I’ll have my assistant handle it but since I’m so hands on, most of the time I like to do it myself.  I have a sheet that my manager sends my clients where it lays out exactly how I want things.  The most important thing is the prep because once the prep is done, you don’t have to worry about it.  The more prep work that you do, the easier that the mix becomes.

I like to have my drums in yellow, my bass in brown and I like to put my bass right next to the kick drum because I like to start with the kick and the bass first.  If the kick and the bass are working in relation to one another than the rest of the mix is easy breezy.

 

Once your session is prepped and ready to go, how long would you normally spend on the mix?

It depends but anywhere from like 4-5 hours to 2 days.

 

Why would one song take 4 hours and the other 2 days?

Because I’m crazy [Laughs].  That’s really the only reason. There’s time when I bring work home and my wife’s listening and she says “Your still working on this? It sounds exactly like it did four hours ago.” [Laughs] It’s just our craziness, I don’t know.  I’m sure I have a good reason when I’m in the thick of it.

 

Let’s say you had a time crunch, what vocal chain could you rely on to get them to pop?

UAD A800The UAD A800, the Slate VCC, The EQ3 to clean, The UAD La2a (or 1176), then maybe an SSL style EQ, a DeEsser and after that the sky’s the limit.

UAD put out the Maag EQ4 which is an unbelievable plug-in and sometimes I’ll slap that on.

As far as reverbs go, lately I’ve been leaning towards a drier sound so I’ll use small delays and I’ll usually use the H-Delay or the stock Avid delays.  Nothing too fancy, just whatever the song calls for.

 

You work on a lot of urban stuff so what’s your approach to getting the kick and the bass to live together?

It depends on the style of hip hop and I do a lot of EDM too which is even crazier because of the synthesizers.  What’s cool about EDM is that I’ve been able to bring that side-chaining into the hip hop world to try and make things sit right.  If I’m working on a South beat where the 808 is predominant than that it’s going to trump the kick drum.  If it’s New York type of sound then the kick drum is going to trump the bass because you want that boom bap.  It’s really hard to say.

 

Anything technical you could share?

You know what I do is maybe some parallel compression on an 808 where I might throw on the Sansamp and compress the shit out of it so it pops on small speakers.  I have the ihome ($40) speaker and I listen to make sure that the 808 pops.  I also reference a lot on head phones because being from New York City, we’re always on headphones whether it’s on the subway or walking down the street.  I like to boost a little bit of high end if the 808 is dull because I want it to pop on headphones.

That’s really it, just depends on the song.

Sansamp

 

I’m glad you mentioned the SansAmp because I think it’s seriously underrated.

Dude, it’s awesome!  You know what the problem is, everyone thinks that you need to have these fancy shmancy plug-ins but I’m like “No you don’t”.

I saw you did a review on that Native Instruments compressor.

 

The Supercharger [Laughs]?

Its awesome!

 

Are there any crazy techniques you’ve aquired over the years that people might find interesting if you told them about it?

Not at all.  I’m a minimalist and you’ll see that.

 

So is balance your main focus and then a little bit of tweaking?

Yeah, I kind of just let the song speak.  It depends on what the song is telling me to do.  I’m a real minimalist though, I can’t even begin to tell you.

 

What’s you’re favourite in-the-box compressor?

The UAD La2a, I love it.

UAD LA2A

 

What’s you’re favourite in-the-box EQ?

The UAD Cambridge EQ, SSL (both the UAD or Waves plugin, depending on the song), and Metric Halo Channel Strip.

 

As far as automation, do you use a lot of it in your mixes?

I do.  Automation gives the song life.  Thats something that you realize after years of mixing. I may raise the master fader up .5dB-1dB in the chorus just to make it exciting.

 

Do you use anything on your mixbuss when you’re mixing?

Always the Slate VCC, VBC, and UAD ATR 102.  Anything else depends on the song.  Lately to get some grit I’ve been using the WAVES REDD.

UAD ATR 102

 

What does the future look like for Ariel Borujow?

Broadcast is something that I’m passionate about and I’ve been doing it for about 10 years but it’s not something that I really talk about publically – maybe I should.  My credits for that are much more extensive than anything I’ve done in the music business.  I’ve worked with everyone from Andrea Bocelli to Rascall Flatts, Lynard Skynard, Doobie Brothers, etc.

With that said, a couple of business partners and I are putting together a remote company with the intention of getting a truck.

 

So is that live mixing?

No, no, no. I don’t do front of house that’s for sure.  It’s basically like what you see on SNL; it’s the guy mixing for air.  Imagine yourself in a control room and the song that your mixing is going out to a million people through broadcast.

I think mixing records has helped me do it just because I understand how to mix a song but there’s another element to it because it has to have more of a live sound.

With the big acts, they bring their front-of-house guy to come and sit with me to give me cues.  I’ll speak with them about a week before the show and they give me the breakdown on what’s going to happen.

It can get a little hairy though because when I’m mixing a record, I’m sitting there for 8-10 hours and I’m mixing for myself, at that moment, because most of the time I don’t have clients in the room. With the broadcast mixing, if you screw up, millions of television audiences will hear it.  There’s no “Oops, got to go back and redo that” you know?  But I like the thrill of it because when you’re on the air, you’re on and it’s a big moment.

 

Any advice you can give to young engineers just starting out?

Never stop learning and practice, practice, practice!  Study all kinds of music and try different things.

I got a lot of kids that come out of school and they think they’ve already figured it out and I’m like “No” [Laughs].  I’m 37 years old and I have not stopped learning.  One of my assistants just taught me something the other day.  He sent me a mix and I was like “That’s cool what did you do?”

 

Great stuff.  Thanks for doing the interview I really appreciate your time.

Not a problem.  If there’s anything you need, let me know.

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