Phil Tan at his home base, the Ninja Beat Club.

With an estimated 275 million albums and singles sold, 24 number one Billboard Hot 100 hits, 3 Grammys®, and nearly 300 album credits over the past decade, there are few modern engineers who can touch Phil Tan’s recent track record. From his humble beginnings in the mid-90s Atlanta urban music scene, the Malaysian-born Tan launched his meteoric career working with longtime partner and friend Jermaine Dupri (JD), and quickly amassed a collection of hits with Usher, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, the Neptunes, Outkast, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Wiz Khalifa, Katy Perry, and countless others. With true pop anthems like Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”, Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like it’s Hot”, Fergie’s “London Bridge”, and Rihanna’s “S.O.S.” under his belt, perhaps more remarkable is Phil’s humble demeanor. Ever gracious, curious, and almost zen-like in nature, Phil is as likeable in person as he is talented behind the boards. We sat down to chat with him during a rare break between mixing sessions. 

When we were researching your background, we came across a quote where you said you were either going to be a comic book artist or a music professional.  How did you decide?

Well, I think it had to do with a little bit of, for lack of a better word, laziness. I realized I could listen to music all day long, and that I’d be happy doing it. But if I had to draw or paint or design, I don’t know that I would enjoy it as much, long term. So that’s kind of why music won out.

About what age was that?

I was 18.

And what were you listening to at that time, musically? 

A bunch of different stuff. It’s a bit weird, because I didn’t get introduced to popular music until probably middle school. I come from Malaysia, and from a very straight, Christian family. We weren’t really allowed to have much pop music in our household. I didn’t actually even have a stereo until I was 14. But a friend of mine had a brother who studied in Oxford, England. He would send records and stuff back home, and that was my introduction to Western pop music. Later, when I lived in Canada, my brother-in-law introduced me to a lot of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Rock or pop, or the whole gamut?

Mostly rock.

Phil Tan's 2009 Full Sail Hall of Fame profile.

Do you remember a record or two at that time that blew your mind?

I think Def Leppard’s Pyromania would have to be one. [Laughs.]  I knew very little about the recording process at the time. This is probably around ’83. And listening to [that record] closely just made me ask a lot of questions… it was kind of like this whole new world opened up, so to speak.

So pretty early on, you wanted to be on the engineering and production side of things? As opposed to playing or singing?

Well I don’t think anyone wants to hear me sing.  [Laughs.]  And we didn’t have a lot of disposable income, so the only instrument we had in the house was this old, upright piano that was always out of tune. At that time I wasn’t particularly interested in music. But my mom made me take piano lessons, which I hated, but she made me keep at it. And I’m glad I did, because it’s been pretty helpful.

So fast forwarding to 18, you’re out of high school, and you at some point made a conscious decision that you’re going to be an engineer, because you went to Full Sail University, and you studied. Tell me about that process.

I looked at bunch of different schools and colleges, and I was actually accepted to Berklee in Boston. But I couldn’t quite afford to go. So I looked around, and Full Sail was a small, accredited school, outside of Orlando, Florida, with a short program. I think it was eight months long.

So that was the early ‘90s, and you were probably working on mostly analog gear.

Yeah, 1989. And one of the digital things they had was the Synclavier. But console-wise, they had an SSL. They had a Neve VR. They had a Sony MXP-3036, I think. And a bunch of Neoteks. It was a very small school at the time. I didn’t go back there for 15 years. And when I finally did go back, they gave me a tour of the new facilities, and the part that I remembered took about five minutes, and the rest of the tour took about an hour and a half. It’s massive now. The campus is like, 190 acres. Most of the kids that [graduate] Full Sail today won’t work in facilities anywhere near the quality of [the school’s] studios.

But that experience provided your formal training on recording consoles, hardware, mics, pres, compressors, and the like…

Yeah. Although I have to say, this isn’t really the kind of work that you learn in school, if you know what I mean. You can talk about what an EQ knob does, but you don’t really know until you’ve used it a thousand times. But school was fine.

Back then, the industry wasn’t as, how would you say, open, as it is at the moment. There are a lot more [opportunities] now. But back then it was a pretty small community of people doing this stuff. No studio manager would just hire you off the street, though. They would want to know that you had some sort of training or educational background in this area.

“You can talk about what an EQ knob does, but you don’t really know until you’ve used it a thousand times.”

So, once you graduated, it was relatively quickly that you started working with Jermaine Dupri. How did that come about?

Yeah, it’s kind of weird. When I was school, I had always planned on going to L.A. or New York. Because that’s were all the action is, or at least that’s what I thought. But there was this one studio manager in Atlanta, and he was the only one that took my calls.  When I got to actually speak to him I said, “Hey, I’m in school, and to graduate I need an internship. Can I come do it at your studio?” And he said, “Sure. Just understand that I’m not going to be offering you a job.” That studio was called Soundscape. And the gentleman, his name is Jon Marett, he owned the studio at the time.

But he told you right up front, “Hey, look kid, I’m not going to give you a job. Don’t even think about it.” But you did.

Right. I started working sessions, and they liked me, so they kept inviting me back. But I was never officially employed. It was just on a contractor basis, you know, “Hey we got this session for a couple of weeks, they’re going to do this or that…” and it was a very small staff. It was Jon, his wife, the office manager, and a chief engineer, and that was that.

During the day, the chief engineer, he would do all the day sessions. And then there would be night sessions that he would basically hire independent contractors for. And I just happened to be one of those [night session engineers].

But it was at that studio where I met a lot of people I still work with today… JD, Outkast, Dallas Austin, Rico Wade, Organized Noise, TLC, Usher, all these people. We all kind of grew up together, so to speak.

So there was a lot of major talent coming through that small, humble Soundscape studio.

Oh yeah. It was just one of those very lucky, right-place, right-time type of things.

And you eventually approached producer Jermaine Dupri and basically said, “Hey, let me tackle one of these songs from you. Why don’t you let me see what I can do with it. 

Actually it was a remix, I think. I’d seen JD as a client in the studio, so we’d hang out, talk a little bit, and we hit it off. He’d just had a big record with the first Kriss Kross album. At that point in time, his dad, who was his manager, took the job as the Vice President of Urban Music at Columbia Records. So they worked out a deal to where Jermaine was going to get an imprint distributed through Columbia.

Anyway, Jermaine is a little different from a lot of other producers, in the sense that he wants total consistency. A lot of producers that I know, they would just hire from a group of engineers, depending on the session that they had and who was available. But JD didn’t like the idea of not knowing who was going to be engineering his sessions. So he just said, “If you would be interested, I’d like you to be my full-time guy.” And at the time, it’s not like there was a whole lot for me to do, so yeah, I took the job.

So that was all at Soundscape, then?

That was all at Soundscape. But he also built a small recording space at his house. From ’94 to about ’99, all the records that he worked on were recorded out of that little room at his house. We would mix at other studios, with better systems for critical listening. But most of the recording was done at his house.

Where else were you mixing?

Let’s see, LA Reid had a studio in his guest house. It used to be called Studio LaCoco. Coco was his dog. We used to go mix there quite a bit. Then that house got sold to Usher, and Usher renamed it Hitland. Silent Sound is another studio we liked. That’s still one of my favorite places here in the city. But now I mix in my own place.

What’s the name of your place?

We don’t have an official name. But in the credits, just for fun, we’re listing it as the Ninja Beat Club.

So let’s talk mixing. Back in your early days it was JD, Usher, and Mariah Carey. Sort of late ‘90s R&B sound, and the instrumentation was MIDI and sample-based: MIDI keys, drum machines, and the like. Things you would expect for that genre. That seemed like that was a large part of the first chapter of your career?

Sure. Yeah, there was literally no time to do much else. Because I was recording and mixing everything that we did for years. 

You were doing recording and mixing at the time. But you eventually burned out on tracking, and now you’re just mixing. What burned you out?

The hours. When you’re writing a song, it’s hard to put a timetable on it. I know some writers who can [work on tight schedules], but the people that we worked with weren’t always like that. So whenever the muse struck — it could be 6 p.m., it could be 3 a.m. — you just had to be ready for it. And years of that just kind of wore on me a little bit.

From the mix perspective, what helped you forge your early style? Or were you basically helping JD and other Atlanta producers fulfill their vision? How did you approach it?

Actually I don’t know that there was much conscious thought that went into it, in all honesty. When I worked with someone like JD, for some reason, the two of us were always kind of on the same wavelength. So I always had a pretty good idea where the song was headed. So you just try to make it as good as it can be. And to make sure that it was going to be competitive with all the other [producers]. There’s a little bit of, how would you say, friendly competition, among all the people who make records in the same community. So if Jermaine would hear a Dallas Austin record that he thought was great, then he would try to up his game. Or he might hear something that Teddy Riley produced and would say, “Phil, how did he get that drum to hit so hard?”

Phil Tan and longtime colleague
and friend, Jermaine Dupri

So you had to do the forensics, and figure it out and say, “Look, I can get Teddy Riley’s drum sound, plus one.”

Something like that, yeah.

So vocals are obviously the centerpiece in R&B mixing. What’s the typical vocal chain for recording artists like Usher and Mariah Carey?

I’m going to give you a very long-winded answer. When Mariah was signed to Columbia records, when she was still with the Sony label, she had a very specific setup made for her. It was the Sony C-800, but I think it was specifically modified for her by the Sony technicians. So it’s a one-of-a-kind Sony mic. And she had this special “top secret” travel case of like a mic preamp, EQ and compressor, but it had no labels on it. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it. And it had an A-to-D converter that went straight to the PCM 3348, a Sony tape machine at the time. So Mariah had basically her own, proprietary vocal chain for all recordings.

As far as the other artists like Usher, we had a couple of  “go-to” choices as far as mic pres and whatnot to try. We had a Neumann, an M 149, and an AKG Tube. So those would primarily be the mics for the vocal duties, usually feeding a John Hardy M-1 preamp.

And that’s for Usher, Monica, and all of your late ‘90s / early 2000’s R&B hits?

Yeah. It was primarily those two vocal mikes. The Neumann and the AKG. 

Then at some point your transition to doing hip-hop: Snoop, Ludacris, Outkast, some of the Neptunes productions, obviously. How did that happen?

Well, again a lot of these introductions came as a result of my association with Jermaine. So for example with the Neptunes, he had hired them to produce a song for Bow Wow’s second album. So that’s how I met [the Neptunes’] Chad and Pharrell. I guess they liked what I did, so they started calling me to work on their stuff, with Snoop and Gwen Stefani and others. As for Ludacris, he’s an Atlanta guy, and I’ve known him since he was a DJ at the radio station here. So it’s kind of one of those all-growing-up-together type of things.

More than that, I think some of the guys here [in Atlanta] like to keep things local, as much as possible. They understand their role in the community, and like to work with people in the community, and keep it “in the family” so to speak. Of course, these days, that’s not always allowed. The labels [and their] budgets dictate what can and cannot happen. 

So hip-hop music is obviously so much about the low end. But your mixes seem to find ways to fit a lot more into it. So pretend someone has never mixed hip-hop. How does it differ? How do you start your mix? Do you pull the kick up and then craft everything around the giant kick?

Well, you’re probably not going to like this answer, but it all depends. Everything is a case-by-case thing. And I don’t necessarily have a rule as to how I go about things. Mainly because I don’t want myself to get bored or stale.

Most of the time, I don’t get to hear a record until it’s in front of me ready to be mixed. So what I try to do is just leave an open mind and say, “OK, well, I’m listening to this right now for the first time. I’m going to form my opinions and let the music tell me what it may need.”

But generally, if it’s a very vocal-driven song, like a Mariah, I would probably actually start with her vocal first, and then everything else kind of goes around it.  With rap stuff, the drums, more often than not, will be the first things I deal with.

“Mariah had this special “top secret” travel case of like a mic preamp, EQ and compressor, but it had no labels on it. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it.”

So with Mariah you would start with vocals, obviously, and then with let’s say, Snoop’s “Drop it Like it’s Hot,” as an example, what would you start with? The giant kick, or the unique mouth-clicking noises? Sorry I don’t know what to call them.

Well, yeah, clicking noises is a good way to put it. I don’t know, actually. But [“Drop it Like it’s Hot”] was so unusual. It’s so sparse. Every part has a very vital role in the arrangement. But I’m guessing I probably started with the 808. That 808 kick was actually pretty unique. Because it’s not just a kick, it actually plays a melody. So we have to make sure that all the right frequencies are there, to convey that melody. So basically instead of treating it like a drum, I treated it as a bass.

EQing it on your SSL or…?

Well, let me think, because with the Neptunes a lot of times [the projects] don’t always stay in one place. The songs kind of roam around a little bit. I think I started on an SSL, yes. And then eventually I took it home, tried a few things there before sending it off to Chad and Pharell.

But the Neptunes don’t have a set procedure in terms of how they work. So there would be times where I’d get tracks that both Chad and Pharrell have both OK’d, but separately. And they don’t necessarily always work together. Someone starts an idea, gives it to the other guy, and then the other guy does something else and gives it back. That kind of stuff.

And you get tracks that maybe neither of them have both heard in the same context?

Correct. So I think Pharrell started that song, and recorded Snoop’s vocals. Then Chad and I sat together, and he did some additional parts, and we sent it back to Pharrell, and then to Snoop’s people, and then we finished it all in L.A. 

“Drop It Like It’s Hot” was a song where there was nothing like it on the radio at the time, and even to this day. It’s a really unique song, sonically and creatively, for hip-hop, or even pop music altogether. 

Yeah, I think that might have been Snoop’s first Hot 100 Number One record.  I think everybody was quite excited about it.

Then you recorded the hit Gwen Stefani track, “Hollaback Girl”?

That was also a Neptunes track. But I was only mixing at the time, not recording. I think Gwen has her engineers that specifically record her. The only thing I can remember on that track is that Pharrell gave me the song and told me “OK, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to not use any compression.”

Oh, really? There was no compression used on “Hollaback Girl.”

Yeah. So basically, any compression you hear is from mastering — we used zero compression — plus whatever compression already existed from the samples in the song. The kick drum drove me nuts, by the way. Because it was a distorted sample. 

And you wanted to clean it up?

I did.

How does that work, when you have an opinion that differs from the producers’, especially when they’re big hit producers? It’s probably like an itch you really want to scratch, but can’t?

Right. The thing is, with that particular one, that particular kick sound was so, how would you say? Like, integral to the feel of the song. And I did try to change it, and it just never worked out… I was never able to find a sample that could replace the way the original felt.

So Pharrell let you try to clean it up, but you ended up back where it started.

Right. Yes. I think a lot of times engineers tend to be very technical, but most of what I try to rely on is how things feel. So if you go in there, and it’s [technically] right, but it doesn’t feel good, I would pull all the faders down and start over.

So you’ll do that when mixing? You’ll just pull everything down and rebuild.

Yeah. There’s no reason to continue. If it’s not working, then you might as well start over.

What if the producer is feeling it and you’re not? I guess that depends on your personal relationships and such. 

Well, that’s OK. See, ultimately I have to remember that what I do is provide a service. So ultimately it’s their call, how they want it to be. If it’s not their call then it may be the artist’s call. They’re the ones whose face is on the album cover, they’re the ones that have to go market and promote this record, and they have to be proud of it. So it needs to be something that they’re happy with, much more so than what I’m happy with. So that’s kind of how I look at it.

"This is an ongoing, educational process for me.
Everyday, you learn something new,
hopefully, and you learn better ways to do things."

So a couple other big pop hits are Rihanna’s “S.O.S.” and then Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Both of them were sort of the top hits of their respective years.  Obviously with different producers on both of those. For “S.O.S.”, because it’s based on the Soft Cell “Tainted Love” sample, how did you approach that mix?

That was actually a really odd one. First of all, [producers] J.R. Rotem and the Stargate guys, they are fantastic at what they do. Almost everything that I get from them is extremely well-recorded, extremely well organized, and the picture is already very clear where it needs to be. So really, from a mixing standpoint, you’re just trying to make sure that it shines.

“S.O.S.” was actually the first song I mixed for J.R. I didn’t know him personally at the time, and I’m not sure he knew me. Jay Brown at the label sent me the tracks. I mixed it. I sent it back to Jay. The next thing I know I get a call and Jay says, “Send it to mastering.” I go, “Wait. We’re not changing anything? Everybody’s happy?” That was that. It was the first pass of the mix.

What did you do technically to get that sort of banging, breathing club sound to the track, without having it be overly compressed and annoying? What did you use?

Actually, that was on an SSL 4000G+ console. Yeah, so that was back in around 2006, when I was using Pro Tools for playback, but doing my mixing on the console. Some of the stuff, the really like, precise stuff that I can’t do with analog equipment, I would use plug-ins, like notch filters or de-essers. But everything else was on a console.

What’s one of your favorite recent mixes that you’ve done? You’ve done so many, so maybe that’s hard to answer?

Yeah, that would be hard to answer. I don’t listen to my mixes after they get done, actually. Once they’re finished and I’ve turned it in, I almost never listen to them again. 

“For the listener to remain interested throughout the song, you’ve gotta create little events. Sometimes they’re subtle, and sometimes more aggressive, but they should probably happen throughout the song.”

You don’t listen to them critically, you mean? Because you have to hear them on the radio and such, because they’re all over the place…

No, I actually don’t listen to them at all. So if it comes on the radio, I turn the channel.

Why is that?

Because I’m going to find fault with it, let’s put it that way. This is an ongoing, educational process for me. Everyday, you learn something new, hopefully, and you learn better ways to do things. And when you get done with a song or a mix, unless it’s one of those high priority records that has to come out next week, it takes a little while for it to come out, and in that time, I’ve — it sounds kind of stupid — but let’s say I’ve evolved, maybe. 

No, that makes total sense.

And then when I listen to it I would go, “Oh, I would have done that differently. That should have been done differently,” and “Why did I do that?” That kind of stuff. So I try not to beat myself up, if you will, by listening to them again.

It sounds like you’re constantly sharpening the sword, then.

Well, I’m doing something with the sword. I don’t know if it’s getting sharpened [laughs]… but I’m examining it.

With modern pop music, things are getting so squashed, frequency-wise and compression-wise… to the point of distortion and absurdity. Do you feel like it’s just pushing too far? 

Here’s the thing. Usually what happens is that during the recording process, the artist or label executive will tell the recording engineer, “Hey, make a rough mix of this.” And more often than not they will say, “Please make it loud.” 

So the easiest thing [for the recording engineer] to do — and again, most of these guys, they’ve worked all day, it’s probably 4 a.m. by the time they’re wrapping up — and the easiest thing is just to slap a limiter and crank it up. And what happens is that most of the time, this particular version of the song is what gets circulated among that little group of people making this record. They get used to hearing it a certain way.

So by the time this song comes to me, or any mix engineer, you can’t really turn in a mix that’s not at least as loud as what they gave you for a reference.  Sometimes they just don’t know enough to be able to think or say, “Hey, just because something isn’t louder doesn’t mean it’s worse.” So they sometimes mistakenly use the loud angle as a reference point for a good mix.

And that’s unfortunate.

Well, what I typically do is I will create a loud version that gets approved by everybody. I use your Precision Limiter Plug-In for this quite a bit, actually. But I also print a “non-loud” version for the mastering engineer. So they usually get two passes from me.

And what do you like about the UAD Precision Series? What draws you to them in particular versus other plug-ins?

The simple answer is that the Precision Series plug-ins get the job done, and done well. They’ve got flexible features, simple controls, and they just sound great.

So you give the label a “loud version” using the Precision Limiter to make them happy, then give the mastering engineer the “non-loud” version to more delicately handle the request to “make it loud.”

Right. But there have been times where the mastering engineer says, “Hey, you know what? Your loud version actually sounds pretty good, and I didn’t do anything with it, so we’re going to go with that.” So that’s a choice, and I’m fine with that.

So you mentioned using UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins, and I know you’ve had a UAD-2 QUAD DSP Accelerator Card for a little while now.

Yeah, I’m loving the UAD-2 plug-ins. There were three producer/engineers in particular that raved about the UAD for years, Dean Coleman, Miles Walker, and Joe Chiccarrelli, and they really got me interested in checking it out.

Are there any UAD plug-ins that are now becoming “go-to” for you?

Well because I’m an SSL console guy, your SSL plug-ins, in particular the SSL G Series Bus Compressor is basically always in use. That buss compressor is a must-have. And the Studer® A800 Multitrack Tape Recorder plug-in is just terrific. 

You obviously did lots of recording to tape way back when, so you had the chance to work on Studers. How does the UAD plug-in version compare?

Yeah. I think the plug-in is spot on. It’s certainly gets used a lot. I used to use it as a first instance for every track, but there have been times when I’ve dragged it over to other spots in the chain, just to experiment, and it’s worked. So it just kind of depends. A lot of it is just me listening to stuff and going, “Hey, I could use it there, let’s try something here. No, that doesn’t sound quite right, etc.” So it kind of depends on whatever I’m hearing that the track needs.

And the UAD-2 FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor Plug-In before the Studer, that was one of the analog emulation-type of plug-ins that I would go to quite a bit, too — strapping it on individual tracks or instrument subgroups.

On what instruments would you specifically apply the FATSO plug-in?

It depends, but I would say probably bass is probably where I use it the most. But it really depends on the sound. I grew up listening to mostly analog records. And for the first ten years of my career it was almost entirely analog. So I think I’m always trying to find that analog grit and character — I guess I just like hearing that. And that’s the good thing about the UAD stuff, is I feel like I’m actually getting that analog sound.

That’s good to hear. We work very hard at it. 

I’m sure you do. The stuff is incredible. There are several versions of the stereo SSL compressor. Waves obviously has one, even Digi has their own, Impact, and so forth. But the one I always go to is the UAD version. It sounds just like the hardware to me. 

“There are several [plug-in] versions of the stereo SSL buss compressor… But the one I always go to is the UAD version. It sounds just like the hardware to me.”

What about the other UAD plug-ins? EQs? Compressors? Special Effects?

Aside from the SSL, FATSO and Studer plug-ins, when I’m looking for something a little bit out of the box, that’s kind of what I look to UAD for… the Roland® RE-201 Space Echo, the Moog® Multimode Filter, etc.

How would you typically use the Moog filter?

Again, I think it depends on what I’m thinking at the time. And what I’m thinking at the time is completely random. So I’ve used both the Moog and the Space Echo in all sorts of ways. Sometimes I’m using these to create a space for an element to fit, or stand out in the mix. Sometimes it’s automated sweeps and delays. Sometimes to create a mood or sound that fits what the song is trying to communicate. 

For me, with mixing, one of the more important things is to try to create a balance for the elements that are in the middle. The kick drum, the snare, the vocal and the bass, they’re all essentially fighting for a good part of that space.

The center position. So you start there?

Exactly. So once those elements get solidified, everything else can kind of get worked in around them. Then, for the listener to remain interested throughout the song, you’ve gotta create little events. Sometimes they’re subtle, and sometimes you gotta be a little bit more aggressive, but they should probably happen throughout the song. And those types of little instances or events are what I’m looking for to try to create interest. And that’s where I often grab for the UAD plug-ins. Like the EP-34 Tape Echo. The weirder stuff… an echo here, a weird filtered noise there.

What about UA hardware? You’ve probably done your tour of duty on things like the 1176LN Limiting Amplifier and LA-2A Leveling Amplifier.

Of course. Like I said, during the first part of my career I was working with analog gear almost exclusively. Almost every studio I visited had at least a couple of 1176’s and LA-2A’s. They’re legendary. I’d use the 1176 on almost anything, but mostly drums, bass and guitars. You know, things that need a bit of crunch. Sometimes background vocals too. The LA-2A I’d use mostly for smoother stuff, like vocals.

Phil Tan with his UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins.

Do you still use either of them today? 

I just don’t use that hardware very much these days. I do have a LA-610 Channel Strip that gets used from time to time, when I’m recording. Almost all I do these days is mix, though.

So a common question from our readers is how to break into the business. What would you say they should do, or what would you say they should not do?

Well, I’d have to say that it’s a lot tougher now, to break in, although there are probably a lot more [smaller] opportunities. It’s a very different time now than it was when I started. There are also a lot more people, I think, graduating from these recording programs — but probably not as many jobs available overall. And I’ll be the first to admit that me breaking in was really just, again, kind of a lucky thing. I just happened to be in a city that was booming in terms of establishing its musical identity. And the community that was here, I was able to come up and ride the wave with it. 

But I think the key for me, in the early days, was always trying to find available studio time to practice. And the price of admission to professional products has come down considerably. Not to mention the time required. Back in the day, for example, if you wanted to create a reverse reverb, you had to flip the tape over, and it was like a 10-minute process. Now, at a click of a mouse it’s done. And I think now, because of that availability of technology, people can practice their craft much more easily.

So practice is very important. 

Absolutely. This is a craft. It’s not a static thing. You do not suddenly learn everything. You have to continue to get better at it. And for you to get better at it, you have to continue to work at it. So I would say practice is a pretty important thing. That way, when the opportunity does in fact present itself, you’re going to be completely comfortable with what you’re able to do.

And I think the other thing would be to learn how to manage both success and failures. I guess really it’s managing expectations.  Try not to get too high, or get too low, when things go right or wrong. Because if you want to be in this for the long haul, it’s going to be an up-and-down ride. It’s never going to be particularly smooth.

It’s sounds like you have a busy schedule for mixing, as you have had for almost a decade now.

Yeah, I’m lucky in that regard. Although, as I mentioned before, the budgets have come down. So I’m doing more independent records now than ever before. Which is actually kind of fun, because most of the time it’s a lot less convoluted a process. It’s just a smaller group of people you’re working with. Versus a big project where you have multiple producers, songwriters, arrangers, artists, management, label execs, and sometimes even mom and dad. All kinds of people that you have to basically make happy.

So you can work with a smaller, more organic group, doing maybe more creative things.

Yes. We’re in a big industry reset, of sorts, at the moment. And it’s something that can bring both bad and good — depending on how you see things. 

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Harper, Jonathan Kagi, Full Sail University, and Phil Tan. "Red shirt" image taken from Inside The Mix with Phil Tan (insidethemix.com).