Lu In Front of Console

Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Lu Diaz (Round 2)

Mix Engineer and Producer Lu Diaz is based in Miami Florida.

He is a three-time Grammy Award winner and is credited with over 30 platinum and gold record awards.

In 2016 Lu won his third Grammy for his mixing work on Morgan Heritage’s Grammy Award winning album “Strictly Roots”.  Recently Lu mixed Dj Khaled’s ninth studio album “Major Key” which debuted #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums.

​Lu and his younger brother Hugo (The Diaz Brothers) discovered and signed rapper Pitbull to their Diaz Brothers Music label, making that one of Lu’s biggest accomplishments over his vast career, which spans nearly 20 years.

​You can also find Lu on Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter

Hey Lu, How's it going?

Good man. Long time no talk, how are you doing?

I'm good. I checked our previous interview before getting on the phone with you, and it's been over three years since the last time we spoke

Damn, that long already? Time flies.

For sure. So let's just jump in. When I was speaking with Annette and getting this interview lined up, she was telling me that you're onto your 3rd Grammy win.

Yeah, this year I was fortunate to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album for my work with Morgan Heritage.

Congratulations!

Strictly Roots Cover Art

Thank you. This is the third album that I've worked on with Morgan Heritage but the first album since they left their label to start their own.

When we began work on “Strictly Roots” and after I had heard about 4 or 5 songs, I thought the album was really good, and I suggested that they submit for a Grammy nomination.

I just thought it would have been cool to get nominated, but when they won, I was blown away because it was so nice to see great talented, cool people like Morgan Heritage get their recognition.

I'm sure that winning just one Grammy feels great [Laughs] but to get your third must have been a great feeling.

Yeah man, it never gets old [Laughs].

The other thing is that you just finished wrapping up your work on DJ Khaled's latest album. Since he's blown up on SnapChat and is pretty much a household name now, you must be excited about the launch.

I couldn't be happier for Khaled. I've been working with him forever. I took a bit of a hiatus from his last couple albums (scheduling issues), and while I was away from that world, the SnapChat stuff happened. What a trip that was to see [Laughs]. It put him on a whole new level, and I couldn't be happier for my brother.

Lu & DJ Khaled Listening

Lu & DJ Khaled Listening

That's great to hear! I've got lots of questions about Khaled and your work, which we'll get into. But before we start, I wanted to let you know that for this interview, I decided to do something a little different. I sent an email to every Modern Mixing subscriber to see if they had any questions they wanted to ask you. I got a lot of replies, so I'm going to get through as many as I can. How does that sound?

Cool. That's perfect. I like that idea.

Okay, Daniel Simmons asks: "Hey Justin. My question for Lu is, When mixing the album for DJ Khaled, how difficult was it to mix all the different features [artists] and make them blend well together especially with the possibility that everyone recorded their verses at different locations?"

Right. That's a great question. I get asked that question a lot because of the nature of Khaled's projects and since I've been working with him for a long time [8 albums], I guess the simplest answer is that practice makes perfect.

Let's say your song has three different vocalists on it; you almost have to look at it like it's three different records. It just makes it a little bit harder of a job but it's not impossible.

Sometimes a camp will send you a vocal two-track with a lot of effects and adlibs on it while other camps will send nothing. So you just have to figure out which vocal tracks are going to get more or less of something. Again, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So why would they send you tracks with all the effects already on? Do they have a sound or sonic imprint that they don't want you to touch?

Some artists will just send the vocals, and you never hear from them, and you can pretty much do whatever you want, while other artists are very particular about the effects that they want.

Then there're artists like Busta Rhymes who is a really good friend of mine. We talk on the phone and go back and forth, and we can pretty much hash out what he wants right then and there.

It depends on the relationship I have with certain people.

This next question from Christian Quinonez and Reggie Marcus is somewhat similar. They want to know about retaining warmth and punch while making the track louder. Christian says, "A video on your site shows you mixing Khaled's single 'Welcome to my Hood'. He listened to the mix you had and said, 'I like it.. but can we just TURN EVERYTHING UP.' How do you approach this?"

[Laughs] So now we're getting into what I call the psychological aspect of this industry. Someone who can back me on this is Chris Athens, who masters all of Khaled's stuff. Chris and I have been dealing with Khaled's "I want it louder" for as long as we've worked together. But Khaled's grown a lot, not just as a producer, but as someone who understands audio and gain structure.

So now when I'm mixing, I keep a limiter on my master bus on smash so that when Khaled, producer, A&R or artist hears it, they're like "Wow, that sounds amazing" and when they leave the room, I bypass and go back to my mix.

I do go back and forth though to check the mix to see how it sounds with and without the limiter. That's how I keep clients happy while still maintaining the integrity of my mixes.

Cobey Mlambo asks, "I noticed on Dj Khaled's latest album - 'I got The Keys' that every track sounds like one bass and kick preset was used. How did you achieve that in your mixes? Thick, loud and pumping bass and kick without the kick fighting with the bass/808?"

Yeah, I guess what he's asking is how to get the kick and the sub/boom to fit all together. My whole career, I've been battling with the concept of trying to push as much low end into the mix as I can. There's a lot of different techniques like side-chaining, phase reversal, limiting, and multiband compression but I can't say that any one of those is "the answer."

There's not one preset for a kick or 808 because each song comes in from different producers who use all types of various kicks and basses. But what we were trying to achieve in each song is an even sound between all songs, which happens at various stages. I'll make sure that kick has the punch that I'm happy with and the boom that the song needs. Once it leaves my hands, it goes to Chris [Athens] who then balances everything out to make it sound more even and cohesive. But it's still a lot of work.

Listen, If there were one preset that I could put on every kick and boom in my life, I would have sixteen years of my life back [Laughs].

I wish it were that easy.

So basically, it's different for every situation?

Oh yeah, very different. I mean you might use the same compressor, but your settings are going to be different, you know what I saying?

Yea, for sure. Mike Jones & Louis Horacio Banda want to know your thoughts on getting clean and clear vocals.

When it comes to vocals, I sometimes get sessions sent to me, and the vocal chain is filled with every plugin ever made [Laughs], you know what I mean?

I'm like "Wow." I mean, I'm all about using something when you need it but I think the hardest thing to master in this industry is to accept that less is more. That doesn't mean, put a De-Esser on it and call it a day. I mean that you can put a compressor on the vocal but it doesn't mean you have to run five compressors in a row, then two deEssers, three EQs, distressors and on and on - it's just crazy.

Assuming the recording was done well, I try to keep as much of the vocal character intact; my first step is to fix things that jump out at me. For example, I'll look to fix the low end of the vocal and maybe the bitey 1kHz area that jumps out from time to time. Once you get it to the point where it sounds controlled, you can add an EQ to it, or an exciter, which might sound nicer on a particular vocal. There are times when I've had only 2 or 3 plugins on a vocal because the recording was so good. At the end of the day, “less is more” is always my approach.

Thanks for that great answer. And I've always noticed that the fewer plugins I've used, the happier I am with the results. In my sessions, I find that most of my plugin work will be on the critical areas like vocals, drums, bass, maybe busses, etc. and all other tracks have little to no processing. Would you say that's a similar theme with your sessions?

Yeah, I’d have to agree with you. I mean if you have a synth that's a big part of the record then, of course, you're going to give it as much attention. And just because you don't use a plugin on a sound doesn't mean you aren't giving it attention. Sometimes level and panning adjustment is plenty to achieve your objective.

When it comes to hip-hop, most of my focus within the music usually goes into the punch, smack, and bottom end, because I love it. I started as a drummer, and I want the mix to hit me right in the chest. With that said, though, the vocal should be the most important part of the mix and should sit center stage and yeah I’m a less is more type of mixer!

Lu and Khaled Mixing

Lu Diaz and DJ Khaled Mixing

Derrick Shorter asks, "When it comes to mixing vocals do you mix every vocal the same or a different approach depending on the genre of music and could you give us a few ideas, please"

Different in the sense of style like for example, I like hip hop vocals dry and sitting right in front of you. For singers, you're going to be dealing with maybe some pitch correction and much more effects like verbs and delays that bring out emotion and gives vocals life. But when it comes to fidelity my goal is always the same, the vocal need to sound strong but pleasant. It needs to match the personality of the song and needs to be the focus center of the mix.

Miles Jefferey & Latoyia Hockaday want to know what you're thoughts are on parallel compression - when do you use it and how you apply it?

[Laughs] Okay, it's funny that you mention that because I was just talking to a buddy of mine about this topic.

It's hard to answer because I have never been a big fan of parallel compression, and I honestly don’t even know why. There's definitely a place for it, and I know people who live and die by it, so I'm not knocking it at all. I've seen friends of mine who use it, and they've gotten amazing results. But for me, it’s just never been on the top of my list of go tos. Now, of course, I’ve used that technique before it’s just not very often for me.

When it comes to how to use it, I guess that's where everyone would differ. When I have a kick (for example) or anything that I think I want to parallel compress, I try to reach my goal before going that route. So I'll try and exhaust every option before I go and parallel compress something.

I always tell people, we [engineers] are all trying to get to the same destination, we're just going to take different routes.

Lu Diaz and DJ Khaled Mixing Major Key

Lu Diaz and DJ Khaled Mixing Major Key

Jarred Turnbow asks, "How do I go about compressing my mids and highs (concerning my hooks) without losing the overall reverb sound."

Hmm, I guess what he's trying to say is that when he multi-compresses vocals, it dims the reverb? When I start vocals one of the areas I pull back on is 1 kHz, but I'll purposely pull back a little too much, and then I listen to the mix and give some of the 1 kHz back.

As I'm blending it back, I'm listening, and I'll start taking some of it off again and arrive at a point where I can hear it, but it’s not jumping out at me. So it's a give and take. As I move through the mix, I take a break and come back to it; I'll add a little more and then later I might take some off again.

So I'm trying to find that balance where I'm not taking too much away and running into the problems where the vocals may sound too processed.

Also when you're doing something like that, it's important to take breaks because you're human. Even when you've been doing it for years, you can still lose perspective of things. You can only go for a few hours before you need to get up, go out and grab some coffee. When you come back and listen to it again, you'll hear things you didn't hear before.

Two questions for you here.

Reggie Marcus: "How do you get hip hop drums so punchy?"

Nick Padilla: "I would like to know how to get a fuller sound out of my drums."

I wish I could answer this question like "Oh it's this setting and that setting" but it isn't about that. The thing that I do a lot is compress the low end (maybe on an 808), then I'll make-up gain it little by little as I go on with the mix. It’s very similar to my approach with vocals. As I listen to the mix, I’m constantly added make-up gain or pulling back on my multi-band on the sub, till I find that sweet spot where it’s almost over the cliff!! (Laughs). But I don't like to apply too much compression so that I leave my mastering engineer a bit of it for him to smooth out.

It's honestly just about practice and getting your flight hours in. If you like a mix I did, throw it up and A/B it with your mix and then try to match the levels. Listen to the character and then start with an EQ, then add some compression. You have to work at this craft. I mean if you look at my kick settings for all the tracks on the “Major Key” album, all the settings are completely different. It's just about doing the work, getting better at it, and learning how to listen.

Yeah, I feel that's a common thread in this space where people are searching for a quick fix.

It's funny, but it also frustrates me because people ask me about it a lot, and it's so hard to answer - because there is no definitive answer. It's not like "Oh, put this plugin here and you're good" [Laughs]. If it were that easy, we'd all be rocking and rolling.

And even if you did use the same plugin on every kick you've ever mixed, the settings will never be the same.

Exactly! The most important part is listening to the sound and recognizing what it needs. That's really where it's at. There is no magic plugin.

Let's say you take someone with 20 years experience and someone with one day experience and you gave them all stock plugins from Avid. The 20-year veteran is going to run circles around you. It has nothing to do with the plugins - it's all experience.

Oh, that's an excellent point. Let's talk about stock plugins for a bit. That's another question I get asked quite a bit because, understandably, people don't have a lot of money to spend on 3rd party plugins. My general thoughts are that you can do great things with stock plugins, but there are also some limitations and that's where 3rd party plugins step in. What about you? Could you go into a Khaled mixing session and only use stock plugins? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Okay, we're going to keep it 100. Yes, I think you can achieve some great sounding mixes with stock plugins. This is also assuming that the sounds you get are good, the song is good and all of that.

But yeah I think I could use stock plugins and get a very decent mix. But it's just that in audio, 1% becomes 1000%. You know what I mean? Those tiny gains are so crucial for going from a good sounding mix to a great mix that just blows your mind. That's what all these 3rd party plugins can help us do.

Back in the day, if you didn't have an SSL console and you just had a basic set up at home, you were pretty much toast - there's no way you could compete with the pros. Today, it's a bit more of an even playing field. Even with stock plugins, you can put out a commercially viable record.

So if the question is "can you do a great mix with stock plugins?" then the answer is yes, but you can do an even greater mix with all the other stuff [Laughs].

Mixing Notes for DJ Khaled's Major Keys

Lu Diaz's Mixing Notes for DJ Khaled's 'Major Keys'

Yeah for sure. And it's funny that you mention that 1% = 1000% in audio because that's basically how I like to think about it. Essentially you learn and train to get to about 90%, and once you're at that level of understanding and quality, you kill for that 0.5% or 1% to make your mixes better. The average listener won't know the difference but to the engineer, it's a big deal.

Oh yeah. After all these years, I've learned that what you're trying to put forward is a feeling. What you're doing is maximizing as much of the energy of the song for the listener. Like you said, the average listener doesn't have a clue, but if it makes them jump back in their seat when the kick comes in, then I feel like I did my job because it adds that energy to the song. That's why those little things matter - a tiny 1% or 2% might not seem like a big deal but man that's the difference between gold and platinum.

Okay, let's talk about mix translation. I've got two questions for you.

Oreoluwa Sogbetun wants to know, "How do you mix your work to sound good on all audio devices."

And Richard Young asks, "Since so many apps are now available for mobile phones, should I be using my phone to check mixes? Or is that pointless? Do you ever use a cell phone to check a mix before finalizing your projects? Or what are the smallest speakers you use to check a mix before completing a project?"

That's a great question. I guess I do listen to it on my phone sometimes since I have the mixes on the phone, but I'm not expecting the boom or the low end to translate.

I'm just listening for vocal placement and to see if it feels right. But I definitely check my car. I'm a huge believer in a car check because ​I tend to spend a lot of time listening to music in ​my car.  So even if you have the shittiest system in the world, you know what a good record sounds like in that shitty system. When you listen to it in the car, it's like having a different room to hear a mix in.

Also, sometimes I'll check it in mono on an auratone

But I find as long as you have the studio, the car and maybe one more room, then you should sound good everywhere especially once it goes through mastering.

It also depends on priorities and who you're working with. When I'm working with Khaled, of course, I want it to sound good on the phone, but I want to sound good in the club, the radio, and the car. That's where people are going to jam to the record - not on their phone's speaker.

And plus, I don't remember the last time I heard someone go crazy over a kick drum while listening on their phone's speaker.

[Laughs] Exactly my point. People listen to music on their phones, but they're mostly listening to the lyrics. I don't think anybody's going to critique a mix or get inspired by a record over a phone speaker. You got to prioritize.

Here's an interesting question from Andrew Walker: "What is the absolute bare minimum environment (headphones, speakers, room) to do a proper mixdown? In other words, for someone mixing their own songs in the box, what can I get away with doing a mix on so that all elements are heard and treated properly?"

That's a great question too. I think that the most important thing is to have a space in your house where you don't have a lot of reflection. Not so dead that you don't hear one reflection at all but enough that it sounds controlled. You can throw up some bed comforters or anything that you have on hand to deaden the space that you're working in.

I'm a huge fan of the Yamaha HS5's, and I got six pairs of them. They're very reasonably priced, around $400-$500 for the pair, I think. They're cheap speakers, but they got the right punch for me - I love them. Then you can match them with the little subwoofer that they have. With this small system in your home studio, you can get a great mix, and it's not a lot of money.

Yamaha HS 50 Speakers

From there, it's all about getting used to your room and how things sound in your room. Even if you don't go with the Yamaha's, and you get something else, but you have a decently dead space, from there's, it's just about listening. Have your brain get used to that room and those monitors so that every time you hear something in there, you should know what it's supposed to sound like.

C Los N.S asks, " How do you correctly apply subtractive eq on any vocal?"

There isn’t a right or wrong way to apply subtractive eq the only thing. What I can say is that there is a common goal that most mix engineers want to achieve. Rolling out the low end, pull back any nasally sounding frequencies, boxy frequencies, and sibilance. That is what most mix engineers goals are, and we all achieve that in a myriad of ways.

As far as how to use an EQ to subtract or add frequencies, that is pretty self-explanatory. If you know how to use an EQ, then you know how to use an EQ….. Right?

I don't do too much EQing on vocals most of the time. For example, if you listen to Kendrick’s verse on “Holy Key” I'm only using an exciter. There's no EQ at all on those vocals.

So you won't even use an EQ for subtractive purposes?

No. The subtractive work I do comes from the multiband compressor. Sometimes I'll use both in series, but multiband compression can usually take care of it for me.

Another EQ question from John Wayne, "How do you carve out each sound so that it has its own place in the mix? Is that not an eq thing or is it just the sound/instrument itself?"

Part of it is a good producer who understands sound selection.

Sometimes someone will send me an 808 and a sub bass, and I'm like "which one are we running with?". There're all kinds of low-end flutter going on that they aren't hearing when they're making the beat on the laptop.

An experienced producer will send you tracks where everything gels nicely together, and it makes my job easy. But when you find yourself in a situation where there is a lot of stuff fighting for attention, it's all about making a choice after you consult with the producer or artist.

You have to decide what's going to be in the back or what get's pushed off to the side to make room for the vocal. You can accomplish a lot of that with volume, with EQ to thin things out, or compression to take some of the dynamics out the sound and push it back into the mix. It all depends on the sounds.

Since you touched on producers and them sending you files, let me ask you this question from Cameron Fritz: "What advice would you give a producer who's preparing to send their finished track to an audio engineer regarding compression, EQ, and the dos and don'ts of master channel plugins."

I would say to make sure that your sounds are clean and that they work together. But if you have some crazy effect that you used 15 different plugins to create, I would say to just print that track into Pro Tools with the plugins on. If you do do that, then there is an option to either recreate it or use the effect created by the producer. You spent so much time creating that sound, and if your mix engineer, for example, doesn’t have all of the plug ins, then the printed version is there. Sometimes I see producers obsess for hours over having their engineer recreate some crazy effect that they created instead of focusing on the mix.

One of the most important things, though, is to make sure that the vocals are recorded well. Clean, without any preamp distortion, as little room noise as possible, and that you're not squashing the vocal with too much compression. It's all really about common sense.​

Three very similar questions came in from Mandi, Jay Mayberry, and Matthew McCauley. Here's what Jay asked, "When it comes to mixing if you had to pick one particular talent or skill you possessed what would you say has had the greatest impact on your success as a mixer?"

I think musicality. I didn't start as an engineer - I started as a drummer. I played in bands; I understood rhythm, and I understood music. To me, musicality always gave me a leg up and the ability to not only make a song sound great, but to make it feel great!

Ian Nijdam and Dylan Watkins asked a similar question about the business aspect of your career. Here's Ian's question, "How do you get to work with such big artists? Do they come to you or do you go to them? How did you get connections?"

So the climb, yeah, when people ask me that, I always tell them that I have been very lucky. There's always an element of luck, but like they say you sometimes make your own luck. The best advice that I can give is that you have to be a people person. You have to be able to get along with all different types of individuals, and you also have to be confident in your abilities. Some people have the right skill set, but when it comes time to get in rooms with heavyweight stars, their nerves get the better of them. That's something that you have to work on, and I think it's important to mention.

For me, I was fortunate to have found Circle House studios when they had just built it. The studio is owned by the band Inner Circle, and those guys took me under their wing and gave me a tremendous opportunity. I was already working on my own and was operating in New York on some projects for Def Jam and needed to do recall mix, and my Client Peter Thomas sent me to their Studio. Circle House gave me a launching pad. As the studio grew, I grew with it and started to meet more and more people.

Another good tip (especially if you're a recording engineer) is to always do a little rough mix. While you're recording, do a little tweaking. Go ahead and make it sound good. What's going to happen is those people are going to be listening to that rough over and over and one day they're going to hire a big time mix engineer, and if that mix misses the mark, they're going to say "Man, I like the rough better." That's when you're going to get that call, and that's what happened with me. I did a couple of mixes; they hired a big-time engineer, but they were married to the demo so they called me and that's how I started my career.

DJ Khaled Snap Chats

DJ Khaled Snap Chats with Lu Diaz

Nice, I think that’s pretty much it. I do appreciate your time, and I'm humbled you guys reached out to me this time for the interview. Thanks a lot!

Yes, my pleasure J. I’ve been doing a little bit of press after the “Major Key” album release, so I made sure Annette reached out to you. The last interview I did with you, I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying how much they enjoyed the interview. There're not many people out there doing what you're doing for the audio community, so thank you.

In fact, I want to take the time to mention that here in the United States, Representative Joe Crowley of New York and Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, submitted to Congress the Allocation for Music Producers Act (AMP, H.R. 1457).

This bill is meant to create a statutory framework for producers, mixers, and engineers to receive partial royalty rights to the songs they work on.

If this is made into law, it could be huge for pro audio professionals and even bigger for the future careers of kids who are wanting to break into this industry.

Although I know Modern Mixing is based in Canada, I know you have a big audience in the United States.

Plus if this bill passes here, the hope is that other countries would follow. I encourage all of your American readers to visit this page where you can write your legislators!

Support The AMP Act!

Keep doing what you're doing J. and thank you very much!

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