David Isaac sits at mixing console

David Isaac is a three-time GRAMMY®-winning producer and engineer. Born in Detroit, David has spent three decades burning up the R&B and Jazz charts as both an engineer and musician. An avid UAD-1 and UAD-2 user, David took the time to discuss his recent GRAMMY®-nominated collaboration, Marcus, with jazz bassist Marcus Miller. And he couldn’t be a nicer guy.

Tell me a little about your background. What got you started down this road?

I was interested in music from day one. A memory that I can see like it was yesterday: I was a little baby staring through the bars of my crib at a turntable, watching that record go around and around. A few years later I found that record! It was Ray Charles, "I'm Busted.” That’s the first thing that I can remember. By the age of five I probably had a hundred 45s (records, for you youngsters)! From that point, coming up in Detroit in the '60s when Motown was taking over the world, when you looked around it was like a boot camp everywhere. Everybody in Detroit was hoping to be noticed by someone from Motown by singing under the streetlights, practicing dance steps, or talking about who they spotted driving by in a Cadillac! If you weren’t talking about music, you were talking about working in the factories. So for me, I gravitated to music, and did everything I could to absorb as much of it as I could. I watched every television show, and listened to every pop radio station. That was the initial start.

I learned to play guitar in the third grade, and I started to play bass in junior high. At 14, I had the opportunity to watch and work in the studio with the pop/funk group Parliament. A year later I was working across the country, and having my share of the ups and downs of the music industry. At the age of 17, I was in my first home and within two weeks I had all of my musical instruments stolen from me. It discouraged me for a minute. But after spending some time in an automotive factory, I realized that I needed to get myself back to music. I started to work on my songwriting on the assembly line, attend MIDI seminars, and read books on engineering to familiarize myself with the terminology that I needed. I enrolled in an engineering school, but after I passed the first semester, the school extended the program and ended it with the promise of an internship. I thought to myself, “Instead of doing another year, then a year on internship, I'll find a studio and start interning now." So I did that, and about a year later I was working with Anita Baker. That is what set me on the path to engineering.

That was all in Detroit?

Yeah. I'm in L.A. now. I moved here around '92.

You learned on analog gear. Did you take to digital technology right away? Were you excited about it?

Yeah, I started in the days of analog. MIDI was new on the scene, and sequences and sounds were saved on huge floppy disks that didn’t hold a lot of info, especially compared to what we have today with hard drives. I took to the digital world right away because I always wanted to stay on the cutting edge of technology, and anything that allowed me to work faster with more power would always excite me.

When software like Pro Tools and Logic hit the scene years ago, and recording to a hard drives became the choice over 2" reels, Marcus Miller and I would try some of everything. We tried Paris, DA-88, ADAT, Logic and other formats to see what we liked. As the industry changed, we had to invite it into the way we worked. We needed something that would allow us to recall music quickly because sometimes we would be working on an album and a film simultaneously. It would take all day to stop working on the album, switch the 2" reels and recall everything to show directors or producers the different cues that we were doing for a film. Then we would go back to working on the album after they would leave.

We often spoke of the day when all of the effects and automation would travel with a project and song instead of automation and patch work being stored on a separate disk and chart at a studio. I only wish I had invested in a few of the companies back then! [Laughs.] The question in the beginning was, when would the software duplications of hardware begin to match and truly sound like their analog counterparts? Within the last four or five years, they've reach that point! Now for some plug-ins you will have to place both on a console, fader to fader, to really A/B it and hear a difference.

It seems like you’re in close partnership with Marcus Miller.

I guess so. As I said earlier, I moved here around '92, and I was out here for maybe about six to eight months before he moved to Los Angeles. We met shortly after, and since then I’ve worked on most of the projects he’s involved in.

David Isaac in a chair
Let's talk about this album, Marcus. Did you use any UA gear on the album?

Yeah, I used the UAD-1. Now I have a UAD-2.

Do you have any favorite plug-ins?

I always use the LA-2A, the 1176, and I just love the Neve 88RS Channel. Oh! The EMT 140, too! I would always gravitate toward those just because they remind me of home and the analog days. I love what you guys are doing with some of the newer plug-ins also.

Where did you track that album?

If I remember correctly, some of the tracks were done at Hannibal Studio, Threshold Studio in Santa Monica, and for half of the songs the foundations are actually software instruments.

Where did you mix it?

For that project, I mixed a few songs at home, some at Westlake Studios, we gave a couple to my protégé Taka Honda, and some to a few other engineers.

Did you mix all in the box, in Logic?

Yes I mixed it all in the box, in Logic 7 at that time. I’ve mixed in the box for years. Now it’s Logic 8 and Pro Tools. Sometimes I’ll mix a song in both formats to just to get the best of both worlds when it comes to plug-ins.

Do you work differently when you're working in a rock-pop arena, as opposed to jazz?

I would say that it was different ten to twelve years ago, but nowadays I think that the “in the box” approach makes it all the same. Record everything beautifully into the computer with analog gear, and use the technology, the internet and servers, for all that it is from there.

Earlier you told me that Marcus recorded much of this new album while he was on tour.

Some was done or written on tour. Some had foundations that were recorded in Los Angeles, then shaped, sculpted, and pulled together on the road.

What was his recording setup on the road?

At that time he would use his Apogee Mini-Me, an M-box with his laptop. It wouldn't be that intricate. For horns or clarinet, he would probably use one of the mics from the road equipment.

Does he record into Pro Tools?

Now he records into and uses Pro Tools, but Logic is his main choice for writing and has been for years.

Did he record on the road because he had a lot of energy going, and he didn't want to wait until he got off tour to record?

Yeah. Marcus always said that sleep was over-rated … so he doesn't sleep much [laughs]. He can be in the south of France and call me and say, “I’m going to work after the show tonight!” Then the next morning I’ll have a message or call saying, “I’m going to find a place to upload the track to you.”

Tell me about the track "Free."

"Free" is the song that we had Corinne Bailey Rae guest on. I used the Dimension D on the acoustic guitar for Paul Jackson, Jr. I wanted to give it that actual Dimension D trademark chorus from the '80s. With a hint of that, it worked perfectly because there wasn’t much going on in the intro of the song except the Rhodes, Corinne, and Paul. I used it a bit on the background vocals also to widen them a bit, sent them through a reverb to push them back into the mix, which made them just float through the mix.

Have you used the Neve plugs?

I used the Neve 33609 on the remake of Stevie Wonder's of "Higher Ground." I wanted to make the drums, bass, horns, and Marcus pop out. I wanted the track to pump the way it normally would if I was using the actual hardware piece. Since I was mixing at home I was able to use the plug-in version, and it worked out great! It was like having a Neve without it taking up any space in my house! [Laughs]

"When I heard the UAD EMT 140, and the A, B, and C selections, I instantly remembered standing in a chamber in Detroit. It was that close."

Do you generally approach the plug-ins like you would the actual hardware?

Yes. Most engineers know what pieces they want to use for a given vocal or instrument, or a sound. If time allows, sometimes you can try new things in a session. For me to stay current as the world evolved to plug-ins, I wanted to know what would be my go-to plug-ins just like the hardware pieces that I used. Also, I needed to know that the plug-ins could stand up to a producer questioning if they were good enough to do the job. The cool thing about some plug-ins is that they offer more than what you got with the hardware pieces, without hiss. This allows you to use it like the actual hardware and then some.

You mentioned you use the EMT 140. Any particular sessions you can comment on?

Yeah. I used it on "Milky Way." With that one, I used the Space Echo first, on a couple of synth parts, to give it a '70s Billy-Preston/Edgar-Winter type effect. Once I got it to sound the way I wanted it to, I ran the tracks through the EMT140 to push them back into the track, which gave them that spacey sound that I was looking for.

Did you use real Plates previously?

Yeah, back as an intern in Detroit, I had to clean, dust, and polish them [laughs]. Little Davy Cinderfella had to change the lights in the chambers, and keep them all nice and neat. The intro to Michael Jackson’s Thriller always reminded me of that walk down the dark steps when a light was out. Anyway, to stand in the room as the engineer sent sound to it was amazing! Once you were back in the control room and hear what it sounds like in the track would be even more amazing. When I heard the UAD EMT 140, and the A, B, and C selections, I instantly remembered standing in a chamber in Detroit. It was that close.

You do a lot of the drum and synth programming on Marcus’ albums?

Based on the way the world is now with servers and the internet, it's really a back-and-forth process until we get close to mixing. Then at a certain point he hands it over to me and I send the mixes back to him. We’ve worked together closely in the analog days so much that it's gotten to the point now, I believe, where he knows that once he gives it to me it's going to sound like a record when he hears it again.

Do you do pre-mixes for the mastering engineer?

Most times I like to send Marcus--and any other artist that I work with--a pre-mastered version so they can play it in their home, studio, or car, and vibe on it for a while to get a sense of what it will sound like either on the radio, or mastered. Sometimes, I’ll send a copy of it to the mastering engineer too, so they will know what we've been listening to throughout the project. Some artist's or producer's project may last for months, and they don't want to be startled or shocked when something comes back a little more aggressive or smoother from mastering.

Have you ever had that experience?

Only a couple times, back in the day, but not lately. If it's in L.A. I’m usually at the mastering session, or we’ll refer it to someone reliable out of state.

What’s next for David Isaac?

I’m about to mix a DVD of SMV (Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten), a CD project for bassist Jon Reshard, and finish my own CD release putting the UAD through the paces. My project is a pop/funk CD, so I want to see if I can fool the analog and tube aficionados with the fatness and warmth that I can get from plug-ins!