Interview with Andrew Dawson
Andrew Dawson is a Grammy-Award winning engineer and producer. A fast rising-star on the scene, Andrew’s credits include Kanye West, Common, T.I., Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Lil Wayne, Drake, Rick Ross, Erykah Badu & more.
He’s been the primary tracking & mix engineer for the last 4 Kanye West albums, including the latest, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Andrew kindly took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me – Engineer to Engineer – discussing his history, his approach, and the future…
You’re living in LA now, but you are originally from Minnesota.
I’ve been living in LA for 3 years now. I went to Berklee in Boston, and lived in New York for 6 years working at Sony, Hit Factory, Quad, and Legacy. All of those spots started closing down, and it’s too freaking expensive to live there. I was thinking that I was going to move to LA more and more.
I understand the feeling, but it’s intimidating to make that kind of move. Did you have any leads?
I had been freelancing since I was like 23. The numbers just started making sense to go freelance. When I moved out here, I never really had problems getting work. Once I made the decision to move, I was out here a week later working with Common! LA’s awesome.
What I’ve been able to do in LA – what a lot of the mixers are doing now – is have my own facility on Sunset, two blocks away from Hollywood Highland. It’s not like I’m going to track orchestras in there, but it works. It’s about 1100 sq ft, has a nice lounge etc… that would be like ten stacks a month in NY. I’m in the heart of it all. People are cool with stopping by my studio to work, and I don’t have to drop 2 grand a day on a big room. It allows me to mix at a comfortable pace. With my clients, I charge my fee and a facility fee. The facility fee simply covers my overhead costs.
Let’s talk about your professional path. What was the route?
I’ve been working at studios and doing live sound since High School. I was doing outdoor concert festivals – 500 to 600 people a day. I don’t know why anyone would hire me at 16, but I did FOH – large shows with 5 monitor mixes and such. I worked in a studio as a coffee boy even before attending Berklee. I did a lot of live sound for summer tours. While attending Berklee, I worked for Lexicon. When I left, I interviewed at the Hit Factory and Sony Music. Because of the live sound stuff and the Lexicon gig, I was like, I don’t want to be an intern – I kind of want to start as an assistant. The studio manager said if I can get down here and learn the rooms, I’d have a chance.
I literally moved from Boston to NY in a week, took the job at Sony Music Studios and in 2 or 3 months I was assisting. At that place they had 7 mixing rooms, 4 mastering rooms, sound stage, tie lines between everything, 2 inch tape reels, Pro Tools. If I couldn’t handle that, I was toast. It was probably the hardest place to work as an assistant engineer. It was awesome being able to work there though. I never became anybody’s regular assistant, but I worked with guys like Bob Power and Tony Maserati. I remember learning a lot from Dexter Simmons too.
Do you mix with an intern or assistant now?
I mix completely by myself. I prefer to mix by myself. In my studio, I have the space for a board, but didn’t put one in. It’s a production/mixing room that looks almost like a mastering facility. I’m mixing ITB, then using some analog gear and summing mixers – the hybrid system.
Tell me more about your work with Lexicon.
I worked with Lexicon during my last 2 years at Berklee. I started off as an alpha tester, they brought me in to break their gear. I would try updates, going through every single patch and preset. Then I worked in their marketing department, and also did the delay presets for the 960L. I don’t have a 960L – maybe they’ll give me some kind of retro deal.
I know asking this is like asking to pick your favorite kid, but what’s your favorite mix?
A producer asked me the other day what songs I had mixed. I had to pause and think; I couldn’t remember. I started flipping through my catalog and came across Common’s record “So Far to Go” on Finding Forever. I like that one because that song is out on J Dilla’s album, but I did my own take on it. The other was esoteric, which was cool, and mine was super boom bap. It was cool getting to do my own take on it. Kanye’s “Gone,” a lot on Late Registration – “Crack Music” has a big horn section and strings, it was a big production and I had to mix everything together to make it work.
Ok – now, I’m going to pick my favorite Andrew Dawson mix. My personal favorite is “Be”, not just because it’s a great mix, but because it’s so unpredictable. In a traditional Hip Hop mix, the vocals, drums, and bass will be right upfront – and the synths will sit in the background. Here, you have the bass in the middle of the room, and the synths are super dry and upfront.
Interestingly enough that was how the bass was recorded. I didn’t close mic it at all – I had one mic 8ft back. It was all in the tracking – no eq no compression. that’s just straight in. I liked it so that’s how it stayed. The synths were super dry to contrast the bass.
I also feel that “Be” really captures the sound of the entire album. Did you hear the rest of the album before mixing it?
Manny (Marroquin) mixed everything except the intro, “Be”. Kanye and Common had me mix “Be,” not as a concession, but like “let’s give Drew a shot”. I had never heard any of Manny’s mixes. Which is usually the way it is. I wish I would have!
Any choice Plug-ins?
Echoboy, Decapitor to bring out mids for keys and 808s. Just off the top of my head.
I use a lot of waves stuff when I mix.
I’ve gone back and forth on Waves – but I love their noise reduction program Z-Noise.
I don’t really use noise reduction software. I do it manually, with cuts and cross-fades. I’ll sound replace manually by hand, and I’m faster doing it that way than pulling up sound replacer. It’s a little tedious, but the results are better. On the Kanye album, like with “Gorgeous,” a lot of the original tracking was not to a click. Kanye played live out of the ASR. We tried a grid, but had to go by ear and hand. I’m fast at doing it that way.
What do you feel is your strongest asset as an engineer/producer?
I’ve been really successful in the sense that I just get it. Some people need to be told what to do – with me you can drop off the track and I’ll just take it where it needs to go. Whether that’s swapping drums or replacing parts, changing the arrangement, or leaving it and getting the sound right. I take that perfectionist level – I will work til I’m blue in the face. I think that’s why I’ve been successful, whether it’s Common, Ye, POS, or Destiny’s Child. I help them go where they want to go musically. A lot of mixers make it about them, but I’m an extension of the artist’s hand.
It’s funny – I find myself in the opposite corner. I find people will hire me specifically for “my” sound – until recently I didn’t even realize I had “a sound.”
Well, on the flip side, I do what sounds right to me. I guess I’ve been lucky that my taste seems to work for others. The more I try to do a mix like someone else, the worse it becomes. I have an extended top and bottom, kind of like Clearmountain, the opposite of a Chris Lord-Alge mix which is very mid-centric. I love CLA’s mixes, but I could never emulate them. Once I started doing what sounded right to me, it all worked out.
Credit wise, you have traditionally been more of a tracking guy, but now it seems like you’re getting more into mixing and production.
I’ve been mixing more the last couple of years. Though, I’ve been mixing for a long time. “Be” was like 6 years ago. The last two or three years I’ve been mixing a lot – the only person i really track for now is Kanye. But I’ve been doing more and more production lately. I see in the future doing more mixing and production, but I still track and enjoy it. Actually I just tracked for this artist Melissa Nkonda at a studio in Belgium – ICP Studios. They had Neumann’s I never knew existed, Vintage M7s, this weird Neumann breadbox mic – plus tons of old AKGs, Sonys, and Telefunkens. She hired the best session players, strings, and horns. It was the first time I had tracked drums in years.
Europe has an incredible audio scene. I feel like a lot of American pop is taking on stuff that Europe has been doing for years.
I feel you on some of that, they’re more hip to certain sounds. At the same time, I feel like I get people from Europe contacting me for my American sound – over here it’s a little dirtier.
You produced the new Chamillionare single – “When Ya On.” That strikes me as one of those tracks that sounds very simple, but actually has a ton of stuff going on.
The beat is the harpsichord, piano, piano run, transition, snare, distorted sub kick, kick, washy hats, chopped loop distorted. It’s really less than 20 tracks. Not sure about the vocal tracks, I didn’t mix it. When I talked to Chamillionare I was like “you do know I have a couple Grammy’s for mixing.” But he’s got his crew.
The hard panned vocals during the chorus caught me off guard.
I like the panned out vocals, Usher does it a lot. The verse is dead center, and then just two doubles panned super wide for the chorus.
Do you feel like we’re in a new generation of engineers? I mean, you have people like Mike Dean being featured in magazines? Was there such thing as a celebrity engineer ten, fifteen years ago?
Mike Dean is super heavily involved in production. He has co-production on like every song on “Dark Twisted Fantasy”. I’ve got co-production on “Power”. It is a new thing where you’ve got mixers and engineers who are super hip. I mean Mike Dean produced Scarface, he’s been producing for a while. When Ye employs him to mix, a lot of time they’re in the middle of making a song and they need someone to flip it out for them.
A lot more engineers are doing that these days. I’ll get mixes and do drops, change synth parts, change kicks, change loops, change arrangements. I mean anything I think I can hear to make it better. 90 percent of people like it. If they don’t, I’ll put it back to how it was. Also, today, a lot of production lives in the mix itself.
Dark Twisted Fantasy is complete – now you are moving on to produce P.O.S’s next project.
I’m producing POS’s entire project. I’m sort of acting as co-executive producer. For production he still has his guys like Lazer Beak and Cecil Otter. Meanwhile I’m tracking, I’m mixing, I’m doing beats, I’m working with other beats. Between him and I he’ll have an idea, and I’ll take it where it needs to go. We’re trying to push it with new sounds and new techniques – he’s been really inspired by the whole modern electro super crazy synths and filters. We’re still incorporating that drum-n-bass 150bpm and up stuff too. The way he works with those tempos and rhythms is really incredible – the way he catches flows.
That whole Doomtree collective is amazing. And their fan-base is incredible too. They’re so far from mainstream – very little national radio or tv play, yet they have this incredible, dedicated following.
Doomtree did a show two or three months ago at the Roxy. They did a three hour show and everyone was rockin’ ’til the very end. They could bring out the current or older stuff, and they still had everyone following. Where we’re going, Stef (P.O.S) and I, it’s a fine line. We still have songs his fans will love, but also still push boundaries. This album is not going to be a pop format album. A couple songs will have the two minute intros, but not everything can have that kind of intro. I’m really happy with how it’s turning out, we work really well together. When we started working together he was quieter than I thought he would be, but we can communicate unspoken – this needs this and that needs that – yep totally.
Do you still work with Indie acts?
Absolutely. I’m booked pretty consistently, so I book farther in advance now, but I try to answer every inquiry and generally make an effort to work with people. I welcome new endeavors.
Thank you Drew for taking the time to chat with us! We look forward to listening to your new projects and wish you much continued success.
Andrew Dawson can be found and contacted through his own website: SoundEQ.com.
[UPDATE 3/27/2012: Check out Andrew Dawson’s follow-up interview with us!]
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