Interview with Dave Pensado
Dave pensado is a man who requires minimal introduction. He’s a world class mix engineer who’s worked on countless hit records. He’s also a teacher & mentor to an entire generation of successful mix engineers (including Jaycen Joshua, Dylan “3D” Dresdow, Ethan Willoughby, Ariel Chobaz & more).
Dave was kind enough to take time out of busy schedule to join us and answer some questions. Enjoy.
I went to bed at 3am last night. When did you go to bed? What does your average week look like?
I’m still awake, I didn’t go to bed. I work about 105 hours a week, every day is 14 hours to around the clock. When I get on a roll I don’t like to stop. It’s not unusual after two weeks to slow down for a day or two though.
Let’s do the quick bio thing. Did you grow up in a musical family? Start playing early? See yourself as a mixer?
I was involved with music very early on. My mom was a gifted musician, and I learned a lot from her. I don’t know if I was particularly predisposed to mixing – really, I don’t even look at myself as a mixer, I look at myself as a guy who makes records. I just don’t participate in the entire process. I usually come in at the later part. But I don’t separate the different categories of engineering – it’s all just the process of making the record. For me, I enjoy every part of the process, but I tend to find myself at the mixing stage. For a while I thought I’d be playing on the records. Going from playing to engineering is not that big of a step though. A number of engineers started this way. We were broke musicians, we couldn’t hire an engineer.
Cool. Let’s talk “Pensado’s Place.” You’re making accomplished individuals very accessible. You’re exposing tons of great information. Why is it that you seem to have no qualms about revealing so many of your techniques?
It’s good to reiterate the point: I’m not selling my engineering, I’m selling my taste.
Even though Jaycen learned some engineering from me, he came to me with incredible taste. Dylan also has taste. I pick them because of their taste. They absorbed their engineering skills over time. The unique thing is that none of my assistants sound like me. We work together so much, and I hear little things in their mixes – but they’re their own people, and should be. If we were painters, and we decided to study art at a college, one of the problems is that artists sometimes come out third rate copy of their teachers. Some teachers grade from the perspective of what they feel is good. But it’s really about aesthetic.
This is a good time to let the readers know, if you have two hours available, the best use of your time is to listen to as many records as possible instead of just learning techniques. That time comes after immersing yourself in records you enjoy. Create a set of references. There’s an old myth that says whenever you buy an acoustic guitar, set it in front of your speakers and play the best music you know and let the guitar absorb it, and the wood will retain that sound. Mixers need that same sort of thing. Get your own taste and then study.
It really can’t be said enough. So, where do you see the show going? It seems to be gaining popularity – it’s a fantastic show. What’s the goal?
I don’t want every Pensado’s Place episode perfect for every human – I want each one for certain things. I want each episode to have a timeless appeal – I don’t want them to be irrelevant in a year. It’s not just about mixing, but everything around the profession. One of the concepts behind the show is the question: once you make a mix, what the heck do you do with it?
I’m going to have A&Rs on the show, people on the business side. Even an art professor from UCLA because the brain has the same components; creativity is creativity, and I want different perspectives. I might have a show on successful mix engineer’s hobbies, and how those hobbies can make you a better engineer. I hope the entertainment makes it accessible to everyone, but not every episode is aimed at everyone.
I cook. Little known fact. What’s your hobby?
Photography. I use a lot of visual metaphors for mixing.
What is the future of “Pensado’s Place.” Do you have a definite plan, an indefinite plan?
I see it having a definite future. I may hand it off to someone else, but as long as people care, it’ll still be on. It’s all about hanging with my friends. I’ve always envisioned the show having an importance – it might morph, it might change just like our industry changes and our profession of mixing has changed.
Mixing in 2011 is 60% different than mixing in the 90s. I’ll have people on the show to help us feel into the future – it’s how to make a living – it’s how to learn – it’s a broad, almost impossible task, but it’s fun. What people don’t know is that I don’t allow the show to be edited. It’s live because that’s who we [my guest's and I] are. Only time there would be an edit is if a guest said something that he later thought was uncomfortable.
Pensado’s Place is really much more than Dave Pensado. You have a great team. Herb is fantastic.
I’ve known Herb 20 years, just being in his presence is fun for me. I think if you look at the guests and the interaction with Herb and I – they all start out a little nervous and then settle in. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished starting out with nothing. Now the show takes 20 people. If you add up all the views on YouTube, and all the episodes everywhere they’re viewed, we’re probably going to hit – well, a lot of views. I couldn’t put it together without Will and Herb, and Ryan, Ben and Ian. I get the glory but they do the real leg work. My wife filters through the questions.
I’m sure you get a lot of emails and comments.
I get about 300 emails – I don’t have time to respond every time someone contacts me. So, to everyone reading this, know that even if I don’t respond, I read every single email.
You were once quoted saying that mixing R&B is more challenging than rock. The sound of rock seems to have adopted a lot of pop trends, influenced by hip-hop. Do you feel rock mixing has changed? How so? Is it still easier?
I still stand by that statement. However, when I first made the statement, I assumed that people would print the rest of what I said! To clarify, the difference is that in the rock world, all of the effort to get quality is in the tracking. In the R&B world, everything is left for mixing. Tracking for R&B is just “get it to tape” – it’s a fix-in-the-mix philosophy, but in a lot of Pop, mixing is an integral part of the production. What I mean, is the producer is creating sounds, he’s mixing as he goes. When I get an R&B or Pop record in, the session has plugins on every track; he mixed as he went. Then I have to sort through all of that and pick it apart.
On the rock side, it’s rare that I get plugins on the tracks because the information is in the live capture. An incredible skill and talent has gone into getting the tracking right on the way in. I personally think the most intricate skill is required for tracking, a good tracking engineer can rival the best mixing engineer. Having said that, as to which is harder, I’m totally capable of screwing up either; they require different skill sets. The one thing that I’ve always maintained a great mixer should do is find the energy, the emotion, and what makes the song unique. Manny kind of went into that a bit, and I was mesmerized listening to his answers. At the end of the day mixing is not manipulation of sound – it’s emotion.
Very early in my career, I think I’d been engineering for 3 weeks, I did a bagpipe album for the top bagpiper in the world – it sounded like someone stomping through a field of cats. It was difficult to wrap my head around because when I EQ’d it (to smooth out the sound) the whole sound went away. So I accepted it and just turned to the playing. The album was well received – turns out that figuring out the emotion is what made it successful.
Our job is to ease the pain a bit in our culture. Even not so esoterically, what people remember is the emotion and the feeling they get from a song. Therein lies the secret to selling records, and perhaps why we’re not selling records now.
At what point do you say “I’m done” with a mix? What’s the feel?
I started mixing 35 years ago and I’m still waiting to finish a couple of those mixes. You don’t finish, you just run out of time. In classical and jazz, it may be possible to finish a mix. Currently with the internet, by the time you finish, by the end of the night, it’s obsolete. I enjoy staying ahead of trends, and contributing to the advancement of trends. But these trends always change. And really, you can hear a song a million different ways. I’ve actually recently gone and redone some mixes from a few months ago.
What trends have you stayed on the cutting edge of?
Two years ago I was predicting a shift and trend toward euro dance invading hip hop.
Another trend, Rock – just to stir the pot – I don’t think there is any Rock anymore, at least not that’s easily accessible. Rock is now Pop music with turned down guitars and sweet effects. The last great Rock record was Queens of The Stone Age. Rock is now pop with guitars instead of synthesizers. The drums aren’t even live.
Do you see more sample replacement or programming in Rock?
What’s the difference? When you change out the drums and make the drum timing so perfect, all you’ve done is create a programmed part. With live drums, you get the drummer, and you don’t dick with it. Maybe a couple nudges – but perfectly timed drum tracks is an anathema to Rock.
With R&B you have a steady drum track. We don’t rely on the drums to create the rhythm, we play against the perfect rhythm. You have things that move around it, that make it pocket. In Rock, the drum track should move. The drums on the Rolling Stones music, everybody’s following Keith – and that works. Had you quantized Charlies’ drums, then, Keith would have been out of time. The argument is not live or programmed, it’s perfect or emotional.
I once got the idea that ambiance is about one third of a mix. I have yet to feel other wise. To me, room, reverb, delay makes or breaks a mix. Where does it fall along your scale? How long do you spend crafting ambiance?
I spend an inordinate amount of time making ambiances. There’s two pan pots, there’s left and right and front to rear. The front to rear is imaginary – a person is at the other end of a gymnasium, and they yell – the initial sound hits my ear and my brain calculates where they are, 50-100ms. I get that early reflection, which cues my ear to the location and size of the space. With careful manipulation of reverb, echo, pre-delay, early reflections, you can place things pretty accurately.
In the world of recordings – the sound is already fictitious in a sense. How important is accuracy when designing ambience?
Accuracy is important to a mix. If everything is in the same audio plane, it’s hard to distinguish things. You can’t really hear two sounds at the same time, so process is to direct the listener’s ear where and when you want it. Sometimes you want the groove, sometimes the singer. Much like a great painting, the artist directs your eye around the canvas, you don’t see the whole thing at the same time. Ambiance allows me to do things like place the singer up front, or the bass behind the kick. You need the singer up front to make her commanding like we did for Christina Aguilera in Beautiful. Through the production, performance, and my mixing, we crafted something that takes your ear where we wanted it to go – which in this case was the vocal. That vocal was usually the first take. I would put that up against everything – and I needed it to absorb the listener’s attention.
How in the universe did you get the kick drum on Rick Ross ‘Deeper Than Rap’ so prominent, and maintain it through the mastering process? What do you do to prepare for the brickwall?
Philosophical answer – I don’t think in terms of volumes. There’s different elements available to us as mixers: power comes from low end, the speaker that creates low end is ten times the surface, the amp that controls low end is huge, the tweeter is 60 watts. What that tells you is that all that energy gives you the impression of power.
In Rock music, credibility is guitars. Rock engineers will add low end to the guitar for power – Andy Wallace does it with drums – Chris Lord-Alge does it with guitars. In Chris’s case, he’s a genius at making the vocal sit on top, but not compete. He crafts a spot where the vocals can convey their energy. It’s something I study all the time. CLA and I have been on the same album, I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes if I’m doing R&B, I’ll use the vocal as a fill with a rhythmic delay at bars 8 or 16 – it’s the ‘here comes the chorus’ cue.
I’m not actually thinking about the kick drum, I’m thinking about power and credibility. We might have more high end in a pop mix, because the high end gives the feeling of expensiveness. What’s most important though is the concept.
Going back to the idea of ambience, Allen Mireson used nonlinear delays on vocals to lay the vocalist in the pocket. Reverb plays a very important timing role. Silence, the holes where there’s no music – can be as precious as the moments where there is music – if you fill all of the silence with reverb, it becomes monotonous.
I’ll take a reverb and put a gate after it, and I’ll side chain the reverb to the vocal – so the reverb turns off when the vocalist stops singing. I’ve been known to draw it out even [automate the reverb return level]. Another thing, on a verse if you’re not quite getting that excitement, rather than rolling the low end off of the reverb, use a harmonizer before the reverb, and kick it up an octave.
Chris Athens turned me on to a technique of tucking pitch shifted clones of the lead track in at the end of lines to re-emphasize the harmonic moments.
Sure, nothing is sacred if you’re working on feel.
Double mic techniques? Vocals?
I might use more than one mic if I have to capture a singer and I’ve only got one take. I have two mics to maybe have some options later.
How about splitting a guitar to different amps?
On a guitar, I might split the signal to an amp that gives different information. Some amps have a good treble sound, making the upper strings for lead parts sound good – others have a good bass sound for rhythm parts. It’s just getting different parts of the sound, and the creativity is picking and choosing how to use it.
Do you think this kind of stuff can be overkill sometimes?
I get tracks where the producer couldn’t make up his mind. 250 tracks, I could mix that, but it takes forever. I’m a believer in commitment – the trade off of not having something you want to change later is not as important as capturing the moment as is. Sometimes you miss out, but the commitment is more. Mixing is a couple of thousand commitments – I don’t do 5 mixes, I do the one I want to hear.
Tracking is an environment where you are capturing a moment in time, that moment contains sonic information – it contains everything like a snapshot. Sometimes you get a snapshot where your eyes are closed, sometimes you get one peeing behind a bush – but when you see the whole album you get the feel for that moment in time.
Most mixes I have one day to do. I could spend a day repairing or I can spend time mixing. If I do 3 hours of repair and fifteen hours of mixing, that will be better than 3 hours of mixing and fifteen hours of repair. Tracking isn’t about perfect or imperfect – its about giving the mixer the best material for the end results.
You’ve taken a lot of your time to share your techniques with everyone – I wanted to share a few of mine. I’ll get a lot of sequenced hi-hats, that just hit dead on the beat and it’s the same sample again & again – no change in texture, so I’ll use subtle flanging and panning to add some movement to them.
I like that – you can use the pencil tool to draw in subtle panning too. We used to do a similar thing back in the day using a Marshall Time Bucket Brigade delay. Anything that enhances the groove is great. Trying to put motion into something static.
For club music, sometimes I’m sending the entire mix minus the kick drum to it’s own buss – and putting buss compression on the whole mix minus the kick.
Another way to solve that is a dance technique, side chain the competitive elements to the kick, and compresses them more when the kick hits. I’ll put all the keyboards on an aux and sidechain from the kick. Especially with 4 on the floor Hip Hop.
Here’s a weird one. In good 808 sounds I hear what sounds like a “wind” sound coming off of the release. I think its the result of passing broadband noise through the 808 filters – it’s the ring the filters produce. I make 2 duplicates of the 808, and put SPL De-Verb on one of the duplicates, and flip the other duplicate out of phase. This leaves the ring behind. Then I can EQ, compress or delay that wind tone and mix it back into the original sound.
With 808s and simple wave shape sounds, the first thing I teach my assistants is don’t reach for an EQ if it’s a simple wave form – just do it with loudness. Put it where you want and take out what you don’t like.
I do some phase manipulation tricks, but I’m hesitant to share them because they’re pretty advanced and can get you in a lot of trouble. Take the same signal, mult it and pan one hard left, one hard right, and feed that to an aux. Then flip one side out of phase – and then put a pan on it that pans so fast you can’t hear it.
A lot of times if I get a drum loop, I’ll isolate a sound that’s too loud and flip it out of phase and blend it back in. Any time I’m working with samples that are blended or layered, I’ll check the phase.
You’re famously quoted saying “It’s better to sound new than to sound good.” I remember being at AES with Tony Maserati playing a recent mix, and a bunch of engineers vibed him for the amount of compression on the lead vocals, but at the same time he had 200 tracks of audio working – it was a modern sounding mix and he needed to make the vocals present.
“It’s better to sound new, than to sound good. But the great ones do both.” is the actual statement. To beat a dead horse – Which would you rather have, the world’s greatest mix that sells 3 copies, or the world’s worst that sell’s 5 million. Audio engineers only make a small part of the audience. But if you can, why not try to do both?
Now, as for the compression – if I have 200 tracks, the first thing I reach for is not a compressor. It’s the mute button. It’s also rare that I’ll keep stereo basses as stereo.
I once did a mix that had 12 shaker parts, I muted 10 of them, the producer came in and said “Holy cow how did you get all those shakers to work? Now they’re all clear.” He hadn’t realized ten of them were muted!
Let’s say I’m an artist and I have the resources to hire any mixing engineer. Why should I hire Dave Pensado?
Any mixer that has had success will tell you that a big part of the process is having the arrogance (confidence) to think that your taste is always right. If you don’t have that, don’t join this profession. Once you feel what you do is right, it produces the answer of “because I’m the best.” The proper forum is to ask other engineers why I’m good. I can’t give the answer without sounding conceited and arrogant. With artists, we as engineers have their career and well being in our hands, if you don’t have the confidence to assure them, they’re not going to work with you. Ultimately, your job is to make them a shit load of a money.