Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Phil Tan

Phil Tan is an Atlanta, GA-based mixing engineer.

As one of the most successful mixing engineers of all time, Phil Tan has mixed and/or recorded 26 singles that have reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The amount of sales for albums and singles, Phil is credited on, have totaled in excess 250 million.

Phil is a 3-time Grammy Award recipient, as mixing engineer for:
– Mariah Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” (Best Contemporary R&B Album, 2005)
– Ludacris’ “Release Therapy” (Best Rap Album, 2006)
– Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” (Best Dance Recording, 2010)

 

How did you get into engineering and how did you even know you wanted to be an engineer?

When I was about 19 years old I was in college and kind of aimless, basically. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. My sister and her husband sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with myself. That got me to thinking and I decided that I wanted to do something fun. I didn’t want it to feel like it was going to be a job.

Art was one angle and music was the other because I really loved them both. I decided that I didn’t want to do art as a job – I would much rather do it recreationally. Whereas with music I sure could listen to it all day long so I felt it was a better fit for me as a career.

So that’s what got me going in this direction.

 

And that’s when you pursued an education with Full Sail?

Actually I wasn’t entirely sure.

I applied to Berklee College of Music at first and I was accepted but I couldn’t afford it and Full Sail was a much shorter program. At that time (1989) it was a much different situation than it is now. Full Sail was a much smaller school and they only really had two programs: video & recording arts. The recording arts program was 8 months long and I thought it would be great because I could get in, get out and get to work right away. The alternative was to spend four years in a college.

On the one hand I was disappointed I couldn’t go to Berklee because so many of the people that I admired had come from that program but it just made more sense for me to go to Full Sail.

 

And once you completed the program at Full Sail, did you realize that engineering was where you wanted to be or did that revelation not happen until you got into a studio?

Well, when you’re 19 you pretty much think you can rule the world, you know what I mean? So I was pretty sure I was going to make this work.

In regards to the studios, most of the places I called were in LA and New York because they had the largest music communities but none of those studios called me back or would take my call.

As an aside, it was years later and I’m working at Right Track and Barry Bongiovi was the studio manager there. I told him “back in 1990 I actually called you to try to get in as an intern and you never called me back.” And he told me “It was probably for the better” [Laughs].

But anyways, the only person I got to speak to was located in Atlanta – his name was Jon Marett. He owned a place called Soundscape Studios and he said that I could come in and do an internship but not to expect a paid job. I said that was fine because I didn’t know anything about Atlanta anyways and I was just planning on going there, doing my thing and then leaving. But that studio is where I got to meet a lot of people that I still work with today: JD (Jermaine Dupri), LA Reid, Babyface, Daryl Simmons, Dallas Austin, Outkast, Organized Noize and my current business partner Jeff Carlisi (who is one of the founding members of 38 Special). So it was kind of like I was in the right place at the right time.

Jermaine Dupri and Phil Tan

Phil Tan and Jermain Dupri in the studio

 

And when you first went down to Atlanta, the music scene hadn’t quite exploded yet so you were right at the beginning of the upswing.

Absolutely. There wasn’t much in Atlanta as far as studios, maybe a handful at the time, and Soundscape was one that looked like they had major projects coming through. So that’s where I ended up. Jon and I are still friends and we talk from time to time.

 

You’ve already mentioned some of your credits and to be frank that’s a really short list of all the incredible people you have worked with.  But there must have been times when you were beside yourself when working with someone incredibly talented like Mariah Carey (for example).

I’m not a person who’s easily starstruck – we’re all people. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Mariah’s awesome at certain things and I’m good at other things so it kinda balances out.

At the time when we started working with her she was already a huge star in the music world. The whole experience was really weird obviously because when you work with someone like that it’s a very different working environment. Like when Jermaine and I are working together, it feels much more like family. We’re all just hanging out. It doesn’t really feel like work. With the Mariah sessions it felt more serious [Laughs].

 

Besides your past credits, what do you think it is that you do that attracts new clients and keeps existing clients coming back?

Actually, I don’t know. I’m not sure what to say.

I can try and explain it with an example. Last year I worked with a guy named John Butler (from the John Butler Trio) from Australia.  When they were recording, one of the albums that they enjoyed listening to for fun was Janelle Monáe’s.

I didn’t know much about the John Butler trio at the time. Since they were a folk/rock band I didn’t think I would even be on their radar. But because they enjoyed that Janelle Monáe album that I mixed, they called me and asked if I would be interested in working on their album.

In terms of growing your clientele, it’s hard to say as there’s nothing definitive. People, in some kind of way, just connect with what you do and decide that they want to work with you. In most situations it works out great but sometimes it doesn’t.

Here’s a couple of songs that Phil mixed of the “Flesh & Blood” album by the John Butler Trio:

[youtube id=”3KUDurVRmpM” align=”center” mode=”lazyload” autoplay=”no” maxwidth=”750″]

*If the Soundcloud player doesn’t load, try refreshing the page

 

Maybe you can touch on that point about not every client working out. How do you deal with that situation so both parties can leave on good terms and there are no hard feelings?

I don’t think it’s that difficult, in all honesty, because I’m not one of those people who feels that I’m the right guy for every job. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s the same with even the greatest engineers in history. Say for example, someone who’s a legend in the jazz world. If they were put into a situation where they had to do a hardcore rap record and be out of their element, would they be able to deliver?  So it just depends on the situations.

I don’t like saying no all that much so when someone new comes to me I’ll say “okay, let’s try something here” and when I get into the process, things will start to reveal themselves. It will become obvious if there’s musical chemistry or not. If either of us feels like it’s not working, I have no problem stepping aside and saying “Hey you know what? Someone else might be better at this for you. We’re not quite seeing eye to eye, creatively speaking.”

 

And how would a situation like that resolve itself in regards to payment, especially if you’ve been working on the mix for an entire day?

It’s different in every case but I don’t really care that much about the money angle. If it’s not working out then it’s not working out so let’s all move forward. I mean I don’t want to sound flippant about it but I don’t want to develop any ill will with anybody. Just because we don’t get a long creatively doesn’t mean we can’t get along in general.

With projects these days people don’t make a lot money from just the music so budgets just keep going down and it’s just a fact about our business at the moment. If that money can be put to better use then by all means, I don’t have any hard feelings.

 

You just touched on reduced budgets, which obviously plays a role into how much a mixer gets paid. So do you ask for a fee only, or do you ever try to negotiate something on the back end, like publishing or royalties?

I don’t ask for publishing credits unless I’m involved in the writing process, which is rare. On a typical timeframe in my calendar there’s usually half a dozen projects that I’m working on, if not more, that are in different phases. So there’s really not a whole lot of time to hang out and come up with a song.

I also have a company where we have our first artist signed so we’re working on her stuff to try and get her ready. I’ve also started overseeing an introductory to music technology program for the Callanwolde Fine Arts Centre here in Atlanta. There are a lot of things that take up my time.

In some cases, yes, we’ll negotiate a royalty but in all honesty I treat it like “found money”. I don’t really rely on that because I have no control over it. So if it shows up then great!  If it doesn’t, then oh well.

Phil at console

Phil in front of his D-Control surface

 

From what I understand, you are one of the first engineers to truly embrace mixing completely ITB.  What gave you the confidence to take that leap?

Ah that was a long time ago, probably when I started working with The Neptunes.  It wasn’t so much a leap of faith but more of a necessity because of the way that they worked.

Back in the day, there were segments to the process of making a record. You have the songwriting and arrangement process, then comes the recording, then mixing and lastly the mastering process. Nowadays, because of DAW’s, we don’t necessarily have to be that way anymore. You can write, record, produce and mix all at the same time. And that’s how the Neptunes worked right from the get go.

So if Pharrell started the song with the artist, he would send me the parts and I would start mixing, then send it Chad where he would add parts or take out stuff, then Chad would send it back to me to incorporate those parts into the mix, and I would send it back to both of them. It wasn’t a very simplified process. There would also be times where we would be in Atlanta working, work on it some more in New York, do a recall in Virginia Beach and then go to L.A to finish.  So for us to be able to get back to where we left off it would have been impossible if we worked the conventional analog way, through a console.

 

So how were you able to go from working on a console to working in-the-box in regards to replicating a sound that you are used to getting?  Especially when the plugins just didn’t sound as good as they do now.

I think you just have to not think about it in that sense.  At the time, when we first started working with Pro Tools, it was the 888 interfaces and those didn’t sound that great. So you had to get the best out of it that you possibly could. You had to ask yourself if it was good enough for your clients needs or if everyone involved is happy with it. At that point we might go back and run it through analog gear. In some cases that was an available option and in other cases it was not because time was also a factor.

 

And now with the advancements in plugin technology are you solely ITB?

Well I still have some analog stuff that I like to use and it really just depends on the song. There are times where I might be mixing something and I’m using analog equipment and I’ll say to myself “I’m not really sure I’m liking this”. In some cases the in-the-box mixes are better than the mixes that go outside the box. But if you’re working on a song with more natural instruments, they tend to sound better with some sort of analog character added to it.

But as far as emulations go, all the UAD stuff sounds terrific to me and they get used a lot.

 

Since we’ve touched on it already, maybe you can describe your current set up

My room is very straightforward. I run a Pro Tools system, with Avid interfaces that have been modified by Black Lion. My control surface is a D-Control, I’m using Dynaudio M1’s powered by Bryston as my near-fields and JBL LSR6332’s as my second set of monitors which are driven by Bryston amps as well.

That’s basically what I am working with.

NBC

 

And what about the hardware you were mentioning a bit earlier?

Yeah, I have an SSL summing unit, a passive summing unit, and pieces by Tube-Tech, Millenia, Manley and Inward Connections.

 

And do any of those live on your master bus?

No, they are just used as necessary. There’s nothing that lives anywhere if that makes any sense.

 

So it sounds like every mix is an experiment to you where you like to do things differently every time and you like to try different combinations of plugins and hardware.

Yeah, the only stuff that never changes is the main stuff that I mentioned like Pro Tools, my interface, my monitors, and my work surface. Everything else just depends on what I’m given.

 

You’ve mentioned before that once you are finished a mix you like to move on and never listen to it again. Why is that?

Yeah I typically don’t go back and listen to a lot of stuff. When I do I always hear stuff that I don’t like. I ‘m not sure what to call it, evolution I guess?  When I’m done with something, it leaves my hands, it goes to the mastering engineer and the label releases it, hopefully people enjoy it. That could be several weeks or months down the road and hopefully by then I’ve gotten a little bit better. So if I listen to it, I’ll tell myself “Oh, I should have done this or I should have done that.” I kind of get into that mode where I get super critical so I just try not to listen to that stuff.

With that said, it’s also not always the case. There is still some stuff that I go back and listen to that I enjoy and I will listen to it as a fan.

 

Now I think every engineer has butchered many songs in their career but I’ve followed you for a really long time and I don’t think I have heard one that sounded bad – ever! So my question is, have you ever butchered a song [Laughs]?

Well, you’re very kind to say that but yes I butcher stuff all the time [Laughs].  Sometimes you don’t really know. The process for me is a bit unconscious. I wish I was a bit more organized but I’m not. I don’t usually solo a lot of things, it’s more of moving things around and seeing how they fit. If something bothers me, I will address it right there. I don’t wait to fix it later. It’s a constant free flowing process.

Eventually you will have to step back to get a big picture look at it and sometimes you say to yourself “wow you just completely screwed that up” and then you start over. Then there are other times when things move quickly and easily, especially when things are arranged and recorded very well.

It’s always easy to overdue things, there are so many tools out there. In my [computer] system there are at least 100 different EQ’s from all the different manufacturers out there. Obviously you don’t need all that stuff.

 

Do you have that many EQ’s because you want a certain color or do you have them to make sure that a session can easily be replicated?

It’s probably a combination of the two.

I usually try to get a rough mix of where they left off because it gives me a good sense of how everyone is used to hearing the song. Sometimes if there is a section of the song with a very distinct sound and they used a plugin that I don’t have, I will go ahead and purchase it. So over the course of ten or twelve years, your plugin library just grows.

 

Since we are the topic of plugins, what would you say is your favorite or most used ITB compressor?

There are probably three of them. The Pro Tools compressor I use all the time, the RComp I use all the time and the Metric Halo Channel Strip compressor gets used a lot.

MH

 

And which ITB EQ is you “favorite” or most used?

The EQ-3 from Avid is the one I probably use the most. Again, I use the MH Channel Strip, which has to do more familiarity I think. In the early days when DSP was at a premium you didn’t have a lot of room to put five different plugins on the channel and the MH had the EQ and the compressor, etc. so it was always being used and it still gets used a lot. Also, the Focusrite D2.

EQ3

 

I saw you mention digital clipping in an interview at Full Sail and you mention how little bits of it is not that bad.  It’s something that I try and preach but I thought maybe your insight would add more depth to the topic.  Is it possible to explain your thoughts on the subject?

I think it’s a matter of preference. When digital audio starts to clip, it’s generally not too pleasant when you compare it to analog. On a ton of records through out Rock n Roll history, musicians, producers and engineers have pushed the envelope by distorting and over loading things. All of this overdriving can give you good harmonics where digital audio doesn’t given you any room – if it’s clipping, it’s clipping.

Part of it also has to do with the equipment that you are using. The Apogees for example have a soft clip function in a lot of their equipment where it makes things a little gentler.

Most people will tell you to just not do it [digitally clip] and that’s fine and I actually don’t disagree with that. But sometimes you can’t really help it, certain parts of songs where there is a whole bunch of things happening all at the same time, everything bottlenecks a little bit. And if you take it down and get it to a point where nothing is clipping then it completely loses the impact. I would rather have something be a little technically incorrect versus something that is technically right but sounds watered down. It’s just a matter of personal preference and if you are okay with it.

To read my article on digital clipping – click here.

 

You seem to have a simple approach when it comes to your mixes, meaning you don’t complicate the process and you operate mostly from instinct.  Am I right with my analysis?

Yeah, I would like to be as transparent as I possibly can when I approach it. I would much rather have the music do what it’s supposed to do, the song do what it’s supposed to do and the artist communicate their message. That’s really the most important thing I think. That’s how I like to approach it and hopefully I am enhancing it vs. imposing my will on it.

In some cases the artist or the record label might want me to be a bit more heavy-handed and I can be, but usually that’s because they think something needs it. Like if they’ve been working on it for a long time and run out of ideas and they just want a fresh take on it. Whereas other times, the song is basically where it needs to be but it just needs a polish.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach and sometimes there are creative differences like we discussed at the top of the conversation. The producers and the record label might not have the same idea on how to get something done so then you can get conflicting messages. Then you have to determine whom you are really listening to and then try to work through it.

But generally speaking I don’t try to impose a sound on something, I just try to make sure that whatever is there, is enhanced.

 

On average, how long does it take you to do a mix?

A lot of it would depend on how much is there. Now we’re living in a time where track counts can be massive. It didn’t used to be this way because we were limited but now you can go into the hundreds of tracks. If there are tons of tracks it will take longer, but on average I would say between 4-6 hours and I am ready for the other people involved to have a listen. If I’m way off then they will let me know and I will restart it but if I’m not then we just work on the details.

When I get a song, I’m generally listening to it for the first time whereas the writers and producers know it and its parts much better, so there are things in the song that I might miss. Or there might be something important to them that I didn’t notice and they will point those issues out so I can address them.

 

And how many mixes would you say you do a year?

I’d say around 180 to 200.  That seems to be the number that’s fairly consistent from year to year.

 

And out of those mixes what percentage are major label vs independent?

I don’t know exact figures but I’m going to say 80% major label to 20% independent.

 

You’ve mentioned that mixing has evolved and everything is basically being done at the same time. So projecting into the future, where do you see mixing and mixing engineers going in the next 5 to 10 years based on your experience?

I’m not so sure. The whole mixing process is becoming (I don’t want to say) “easier” but that seems to be a word that comes to mind. DAW and plugin manufacturers are making it so that even if you were a novice, you can get a really great result without a lot of knowledge of how things work. For example, Waves has their signature series where JJP and CLA have their own signature plugins. It’s basically just fixed faders where if you want more compression just “push this up” or if you want more reverb “push that up”. Not just novices, I even know a few pros that use them all the time and get great results. You basically just have to go “I like it here” and it’s pretty much done.

Waves CLA Signature Bundle

Waves CLA Signature Bundle

If you work in Logic, there’s like a couple thousand presets that come with it. You could theoretically say “I don’t know anything” and put a vocal preset up because it’s close to what you think it should sound like and just tweak from there. You could pretty much get good results that way. You don’t really need to know that much about the process of mixing.

So theoretically mixers could go completely away. What’s to say that the whole modelling angle can’t get better, to the point where you could recreate someone else’s sound? You know what I mean?

The other thing too is that schools like Full Sail and SAE are graduating a lot of students and all of these people that come out need to work.

It’s similar to what happened a few years ago to a photographer friend of mine. He had to get rid of his studio because he just couldn’t afford it anymore. He was saying that all the kids graduating from these programs work digitally, as does he, just not as extensively. It’s cheaper; they can do it for $500 where he had to charge say, $3000. To someone who may not know the difference, they will think it’s close enough to what they want and it costs a lot less money. So there is no need for him to have a studio that gets used maybe once a month. It’s a little bit the same in our industry where everything has become portable and people are getting great results with a laptop and Logic or Pro Tools using stock plugins.

So in some ways, guys like me are becoming dinosaurs.

 

But to your credit and other top engineers, you guys are approaching the mixing process from emotion and experience to get the record to touch the listener.  I think that’s something that can’t be replicated by a computer.

I don’t think that you can replicate that but a lot of it has to do with the economics of it. It’s more expensive to book a session with Chris Lord-Alge or Tom [Lorde-Alge] where they work in a physical location where there’s a cost fixed to it and it’s more expensive to do. So if you or someone feels that they need it and they’re willing to pay for it then that’s great but if you look at pop music on the whole, a lot of the stuff tends to be some what disposable. I’m not knocking it, it’s just the truth of how the business is. The record label wants a song that’s not just going to work here but also works internationally.

 

But with the resurgence of vinyl, do you not think that mixing will become even more important because to get a mix to translate well on vinyl you need to be a bit more meticulous?

The thing is the vinyl “resurgence” in all honesty it isn’t that massive. There are people who like this stuff and that’s great, I don’t have any problems with it. In fact I still have a turntable and I still listen to vinyl from time to time. But it’s still very much a niche market.  It’s not like this huge thing where everyone wants it.

Mastering engineers that have the capability to do that are becoming fewer and fewer too. That might actually be harder to find guys that know how to do that.

Articles submitted by Phil on the resurgence of vinyl:
http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/nov/27/vinyls-making-a-comeback-dont-believe-the-hype/
https://musicbusinessresearch.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/the-recorded-music-market-in-the-us-2000-2013/

 

So that’s where we need to look for jobs then? [Laughs]

Yeah. [Laughs]

 

One thing I did want to ask you about was sample replacement because I know its a fairly common in pop and hip hop. Is it something that you do or would you rather try to make the best out of what you are given?

I don’t have a standard process as it relates to that. If I have something that I feel can get the job done better than I will replace it. In some cases you are allowed to and sometimes you are not. It just depends on whom you are working with. I think it depends on the song and it comes down to experience.

For the most part I don’t do something that’s going to draw too much attention to itself. So let’s say I get a song or a series of tracks and the kick drum just isn’t coming across and I can’t get anymore out of it then I might replace it or add something on top to help do it’s job better. But I wouldn’t just replace a kick that was like “hey look at me”. So yeah, drums get added to or replaced all the time – it’s part of the process.

 

Okay great, I know you’re super busy so I appreciate you taking out some time to speak with me.

Not a problem, thanks so much for asking me.

  • “Okay great, I know your^RE (YOU ARE BEOTCH!) super busy so I appreciate you taking out some time to speak with me.”

    Look…I know WE’RE sound engineers, DJs, producers, Mix Artists, Arrangement Specialists, and all-around music munchkins… But please, when posting an article – Holla Atchya editor BOI!

    ~MixClub

  • Thanks for all the comments. Phil was definitely a great guy, so I’m glad that’s resonating with everyone!!

  • John SherpaPsy Grasett

    Great interview…love his attitude.

  • Gregory P. Booker

    Loved the interview, seems like a real person and some one I’d like to be like, Thank you to Phil and you for the inside track!!!!!!

  • jose vasquez

    Great. Interview

  • Felix Postma

    Excellent!! Phil seems such a zen guy.

  • robertgmartin

    Thanks Guys. Great information. Thanks for sharing and your generosity of time.

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