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Denise Barbarita Interview

Denise Barbarita is a songwriter, producer, and long time NYC audio engineering veteran. Denise began her career as an in-house at studios Right Track, The Looking Glass, and Battery; and eventually moved on to become a staple engineer at Kampo Recordings.

She learned by assisting engineers such as Bob Power, Josiah Gluck, David Baker, and James Farber, while contributing to classic albums such as “Kundun” by Philip Glass, “Things Fall Apart” by The Roots, “Capital Punishment” by Big Pun, “Future 2 Future” by Herbie Hancock, and “Black Diamond” by Angie Stone.

Denise has recently opened up her own recording space called MONOLisa which is currently home to artists such as Krissy Krissy and Joell Ortiz.

This interview is something special for me. Not only is Denise and incredibly accomplished engineer but she is also someone I would consider a mentor and good friend. Let’s get started.

You’ve been in the game since the 90s. How do you feel the aesthetics of various genres like Hip Hop, Rock, etc., have changed over the years?

I think hip-hop hasn’t changed a ton overall since the 90’s. I’m pretty sure there are folks still rocking MPC 2Ks, or 4Ks… {laughs}. Sadly, to me hip hop as an artform has been dumbed down a lot. The last artist that really turned my ear as something “different” was Eminem. How long ago was that? I feel like MAINSTREAM hip-hop has become more about product placement than music or message. Of course, that’s my humble opinion and your readers are welcome to hate on me for that last bit. I’m OK with that.

If anything, sonically, I think rock has been influenced a ton by hip-hop. The kick/snare has become waaaaay more prominent and upfront since the 90’s. Vocals are way shinier and upfront. Production-wise rock has been getting more “grid based,” but how much is that because of ProTools? Hard to say.

Country music has become pop-ified. Today’s contemporary country is basically a pop record with a banjo in it.

Indie rock, IMHO, is the one place where I feel like there’s still an element of surprise. It’s a different mindset. It’s not so much about making millions as it is about making a movement. It’s about being cool. What exactly does that mean? I don’t know, I’ve never been cool. {laughs loudly}.

What do you do to stay current, both from a musical perspective and music industry perspective?

In terms of staying current, I listen to a ton of music. All genres. I also like to hear live music because I get an idea of what’s going on in town… keep an ear out for new trends… I try to keep up with whoever the mainstream darling of the week is, so I understand what clients mean when they say “I want the mix to sound like a cross between ___ and ___.” But truthfully, I’m more of an indie rock soul.

I feel like right now, industry-wide, we’re still in the tail end of our own “market correction” that began, at least in NYC around 9/11. Studios that haven’t gone under have streamlined operations, new smaller engineer run studios are popping up everywhere, freelance engineers are having to correct their own rates based on what labels or indie are able to pay, studios too! Lots of freelancers have opened their own production rooms as well, figuring they will be more competitive that way.

Labels are still trying to figure out how to market the artists they have and the whole playing field has been democratized in such a huge way that’s it’s become super hard to get your music heard over the din. The truth is, there is no magic bullet. there is no distribution model or marketing model that works in a bonafide way any longer. You can throw money at an artist, get them product placement deals from here to China but you might still only sell 100 records and play to almost empty rooms all throughout a tour.

DIY artists constantly asking themselves if they can make a living making records or being a band… They can spend $10K on a record and tour the country but will they recoup that investment?

Hard to say.

This business has never been easy. There have always been music industry douchebags selling pots of gold and unicorns, but these days there’s a need to stand out from the crowd. Girls like Miley [Cyrus] resort to twerking, some DIY bands make nerdy videos or comedy sketches, I mean really whatever you can do, DO IT. At the end of the day though? It’s about the product. and that product is the MUSIC.

You currently work with rapper Joell Ortiz, indie rocker Krissy Krissy, and a whole lot of off-Broadway Musicals. And this jumping between vastly different styles has been a theme of your whole career. What do you do to reset your “head space” when flip flopping between hardcore Underground Rap and Musical Theatre?

{Laughs again and sighs} Yeah.  The art of mixing is the same in any genre. The difference is the color and the shape. So to me, it’s not really THAT hard. It’s about finding what the important elements of a song are and really hitting those elements home. Is there an aesthetic difference? Absolutely. The reverb choices, the placement of the drums, the placements of instruments, vocal tuning and treatment… vastly different, but the overall job itself is the same.

In terms of head space? If I’m going from one extreme to another in a matter of days… like I mix a jazz record one day and the next I’m mixing a punk band, I start the day off listening to references for that style. Usually I ask the artist for references anyway so I can get inside their heads in terms of their tastes. So, that’s it really. If it’s music that straddles styles… music that doesn’t have a defined genre, that can be a little more tricky, but truth be told, the fact that I work on all manner of styles make it EASIER to deal with those type of projects.

Early on you earned a reputation for being something of a vocal coach, not just a tracking engineer. Do you still see yourself in that role?

I’ll start here: Singers have the hardest job. It all rides on them. In the studio, patience is a virtue. I’ve seen vocalists come in super thrilled and leave dejected and in tears, and vice versa. A lot depends on whether they have someone who knows how to motivate them. Many producers (outside of musical theater) today don’t have that skill.

Do you find the role changes when working with Musical Theatre versus working with R&B/Pop?

Musical theater singers are absolute pros who have been coached and preened and prodded for years. There is a ton of training involved and 9 times out of ten, there is a producer or composer or arranger who is coaching the singer in a MT recording situation. Also, in a cast album situation, these singers have been performing the show LIVE 8 times a week for a month or 2 months… or a year! They know the material inside and out and they have spent years training to be human singing machines. I am in utter awe of many of the singers I’ve worked with in the musical theater community.


They are amazing people who are unbelievably talented and dedicated. They have dedicated their lives to this genre and to this line of work. Musical theater people are some of the most hard working people I know, and over the past 2 years, I have been inspired beyond belief. Not just by the singers, but by the composers, arrangers and producers, writers… Just plain amazing.

In R&B/Pop, not so much. Most singers are self taught, if taught at all. Many were chosen not for their singing ability but because they have “the right look.” Much different. The music is generally not very challenging, but to someone who isn’t a singer? It’s challenging.

My feeling is, as a vocalist and a vocal coach, I try to instill confidence in the singer I’m working with. I can feel if she is struggling, if she is straining, if she is starting to turn to the dark side. I FEEL it, so I try to give simple and positive feedback for every take. I use it as a teaching forum, if a singer improves working with me, awesome! I want her to gain confidence with every session, not dread each session.

What’s more rewarding: tracking and mixing in the top of the line studios, or having your own space?

They both have their merits and ego boosting appeal, that being said, Having my own space hands down is more rewarding.

MONOLisa is a recent development. What are some of the challenges you face in opening up and maintaining your own studio? When is it better to rent space out of an already established studio and when is it better to run your own?

Oh My God – the FIRST session I had where the client was attending the session, it was the coldest day of the year and our pipes froze (no running water, no flushing toilet) I was mortified!


But, we got through it. {Laughs}.

A lot of this question is based on an individual’s budget and whether you own your own gear or not. If you do NOT own your own gear, then renting a space with gear, or committing to a share is probably a better bet. Once you have your own gear pile amassed, you have to figure out what your monthly income is, what your monthly household expenditures are, then figure out the top amount you can afford for your own space. Add to that, what is it going to cost for room treatment? for decor? for additional gear? a build out? It’s daunting.

The biggest challenge was finding the space that was affordable and didn’t require a full on build out.


The next was figuring out how to place things in the room and how to treat the room in an affordable manner.


The next challenge was — oh right I need gear insurance, and liability insurance, and… (All that boring stuff)


What do I charge per hour?

(still grappling with that one)

Then once you’re open, the first thought that runs through your head is, “is anyone coming?” {nervous laughs}. Luckily they did!

I’m not going to lie, there’s a lot of panic involved, especially if you’re having a bum month, and every studio has a bum month from time to time, so you need to make sure there’s at least some form of cash or credit (preferably cash) that can be used in an emergency.

Let’s talk shop. You have a seemingly infinite arsenal of reverb and delay techniques. What are some of the ambiences you use for vocals on styles of music that call for audible delay/reverb — such as experimental rock?

Eventide and analog spring reverb all the way baby. I’ve always adored Eventides, even though they are a touch noisy. I also like iZotope trash and Ohmforce’s ohmicide and predatohm for mangling. I’m toying with buying the plugin H3000, I have 2 eventide 3500’s already, but having the plug-in could prove useful as well. One can never have enough. I also really enjoy McDSPs revolver for many things. It’s very user friendly and there are a ton of options.

How do you approach vocal ambience on styles that generally favor a drier sound like Hip-Hop?

Hmm… it’s usually a combination of delay and a short reverb. I find delay does more to thicken the vocal if dry processing is necessary. I like to choose reverbs based on their sonic elements. In that I mean, some reverbs are honkier or brighter than others, I’ll EQ the reverb to fit the vocalist’s timbre (or change it) and the reverb time I choose is usually the same as what I’m using for the snare. I know that sounds somewhat crazy but it works for me!

You’ve done a number of mixes where there seems to be endless guitar layers. How do you go about tracking and mixing records where you need to balance upwards of eight, nine, ten guitar parts?

Or 15 or 20! I’m most happy surrounded by tons of guitar tracks {laughs}!

In terms of tracking, I work with the instrumentalist to determine the mic choice and amp choice. When tracking amps live, I ALWAYS record a clean DI track along with the mic’d signal. The reason being that sometimes, a song can morph and be altered into a whole new sonic landscape than original intended. Having that clean DI has been a life saver in many instances. Some are re-amped or sometimes, we track in the box with NI Guitar rig or something similar… in that case, the dry signal is already there and I can change it later if needed. Labeling is super important.

It’s always about contrast. We will use 3 or 4 different guitars with different opposing set-ups, 1 pass will be a les paul through the ampeg, 1 pass will be a tele through the MB studio preamp… Maybe rhythm tracks we’ll have a squeaky bit and and thick bit… Sometimes we double rhythm tracks an octave up (meaning the guitar player starts in 1st position playing big dumb chords, then plays an inversion around the 5th position or higher, same chord, different fingering). It’s really important to do the the ODs and listen to the amp sounds IN CONTEXT with the program material. If your drums disappear once you start playing, it doesn’t really matter how good the guitar sounds by itself.

In terms of mixing, I cut them all off below 80 Hz. Some I cut off a little more, around 100 or 150 Hz, usually the high frequency solo or small texture parts, then the balancing begins.

I always start with the vocal in mixing, then add the drums, then bass, then the guitars.

I tend to go through them first and clean up any finger noise bits and that sort of stuff. I’ll figure out the pairings, then panning, always checking the relationship with the snare and the vocal to make sure they aren’t changing the character of each… it’s a process.

In your opinion what defines a “great” snare sound in a Rock record?

A great snare sound is one which doesn’t overpower the vocal, or get lost in a sea of guitars. However you make that happen, it’s perfect.

Lastly, there’s a lot of places to record in NY. What does MONOLisa bring to the table that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else?

That’s a hard question. There are many studios that are amazing in NYC. And I love them, and still book them. At the end of the day, is it the gear, the personnel or the atmosphere that is most important?

I think all 3 are important. Equally.

What won’t you find at other studios on the regular? Me!

I’m a stickler for detail, I’ve created a safe and comfortable atmosphere to create. The gear works, and I also make a killer espresso. Where else will you get that? {Laughs}

I can personally attest to all of that, particularly the espresso. Thanks for the interview D, looking forward to seeing you again soon!

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch:

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