Platinum Sound Studio Tour

Justin: Hi, this is Justin from Sonic Scoop. I’m here with Serge Tsai at Platinum Sound Studios in New York City.

Serge has worked with pretty much any Hip Hop artist you can name. He won a Grammy for a record he did with Estelle and Kanye West. He started off with Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonda, who built out this place, Platinum Sound.

He has worked with Akon, Ray Quan, Lil — no, not Lil Cam, but Lil Wayne, both of the Lil’s. A tremendous amount of cool records, but also, you know, Mick Jagger is on there, Bono has been a client, Melissa Etheridge.

Serge: You know, all over the map. From Japan, to Africa, to the Caribbean, Europe, Holland, England, it’s all over.

Justin: Yeah. And right now, you’ve been doing something with DMC, with DMC it’s more of a rock thing, right?

Serge: Yeah, DMC is working with this rock group called “Kill Generation,” and that’s like, completely a whole other world. It’s heavy rock stuff with DMC spitting on it.

Justin: So tell us a little bit about how you got started, and how you got hooked up with Wyclef and Jerry Wonda who built this place out.

You came from Suriname, right? And you do audio in Suriname?

Serge: Yes, my friend this was way, way, way, way back, and they needed a sound man. I did that for a couple of years doing live sound, and then I came to New York in ’89 to come to school to the Institute of Audio Research, and while I was in school, I took an internship at Chung King, and that was an amazing experience, and then I went to Europe, and back to Suriname, worked on a couple of things, and then came back in ’95.

Got a job in a studio in Brooklyn called Funky Slice, and that’s where I met Jerry. The drummer of The Fugees, Don, he was the night time manager at the studio, so Jerry came into the studio and he invited me to come to his studio in New Jersey called Booga Basement, because they had the same console. They had an MCI console. That’s what they did the score on.

So he invited me to come to his studio in Brooklyn, and that — the rest is history.

Justin: Interesting, working on MCI, no automation, right?

Serge: No, no automation, you had five people standing and running tape and you know, cutting that later like, do all of your drops live.

Justin: So when you were first working with Jerry Wonda, Wyclef, John, these guys were already kind of a big deal, and they came out two years earlier, so they’re kind of at the height —

Serge: Yeah, they had a label, and they had part of GMB on there, they had a couple of rappers, and they had City High. So it was a lot of work, so it was cool. Every day we’d go to the Booga Basement, track with these guys, and then most of the work they would go mix it at the Hit Factory, and I wasn’t that main mixer yet.

So — but then I got a chance to mix one record of City High. I did the “What Would you Do record, and that record went number one on the charts on Billboard. That kind of gave me a break. It was first record that went number one from me, and first record that was Grammy nominated.

Justin: So you’ve been getting Grammy nominations for about fifteen years straight? That’s cool.

I think probably one of the biggest ones, there’s a big Sound on Sound article of you where you’re talking about making Hips Don’t Lie, and that was your huge one.

Serge: Oh yeah, Hips Don’t Lie was a monster. That was Godzilla.

Justin: I know! Still know, I think as soon as I say those words, people just hear it in their heads. That one wasn’t a Grammy winner, was it?

Serge: No, it didn’t win, but it was nominated, it had a few nominations. That year it was Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett I believe that won that Grammy.

Justin: If you’re losing to those guys, it’s kind of —

Serge: Yeah, a nomination to me is already — it’s a blessing, because to be in the same group with those people? That’s amazing to me.

Justin: Now when you hooked up with Jerry Wonda and Wyclef and you started building out this space, are there any pieces of gear that you absolutely had to have in here?

Serge: Oh yeah, look. That’s my rack. Some of the pieces I have in there I’ve had since the beginning. It’s Apogee. The Apogee that I have had for sixteen years. It’s the Apogee SE converter. That’s an amazing piece.

Justin: I’m seeing a Fatso and two Distressors. What are you using those on?

Serge: Aw, man, Fatsos, I use on vocals a lot. I don’t know, like, you can’t just put a pinpoint on that and say, “Oh, I always use that on that,” a lot of what you see here is what Jerry and Clef saw all the studios they’d worked — a lot of that is in the rooms, and I know everything that’s in these rooms. I’ve been here from the beginning, and I was here when we built it.

Especially now with all the digital stuff, the plug-ins, you evolve. Your workflow is a little different now. So before, the workflow, everything was analog. Everything was on the console, and tape machines, now in Pro Tools, a lot of processing you do inside the box.

Still, this is still, you know, very important in the whole process. This shapes the sound, especially going in, if you have a good front end, and this is like, you can’t have a better front end than an SSL.

I’m a hybrid kind of guy. I do stuff on the board, and I end up back in Pro Tools anyway, so you do the stuff, you end up doing stems, bringing them — so the key is to make — the workflow is different.

Before, people would spend days on one record. Now, people want to come in, here’s the two track, when do we start cutting vocals? Then you get the files for the record later. Years ago, you couldn’t do that. To even start doing vocals, you had to track the beat, put it on tape… It was a whole process.

So the workflow is different. Mixes used to take longer as well. You used to spend two days on a mix, sometimes three days on a mix. That was normal. Now people want to mix in five, six hours, you’re like, “Are you done now?”

So…

Justin: One interesting thing I think people think of a Pro Tools session more and more like they think of a Word Processor, where “I just want to open it up and the mix is still there, and we’re going to change that one thing.”

Does some of the mix kind of live in the box and then you bring it out here for the final tweaks, or do you sometimes undo what’s happening in the mix to start fresh on the console? How do you like to approach that?

Serge: If the people like the rough mix, I try to just improve on the rough mix. I’m not going to try to reinvent the mix, because the people have been living with it, they like it, there’s something they like about it, so I’m always going to go to that. That’s my go-to point.

Then from there, you build — you know, from if you want to make it a little tighter, hotter, depending on what you go for in that particular case.

Justin: Do you often end up bringing just stereo groups of instruments out into the board or is more about breaking them all out?

Serge: Honestly, lately it’s just certain things go on the board, and you go, “I’ll go right back into Pro Tools.”

Justin: Then you can kind of print it in.

Serge: Right, then you have that. If you need to change, then you do that same process again, but usually once I do that, the changes are being made within the DAW.

This is easier. Like, if somebody wants to change, you’ve got to take the mix down, so everything is recalled. Whatever you did on the board, you recall it or you save it, but then you send the mix, they like it, and then two days later they want to make one change.

“Bring this up.”

So what do you do? You’ve got to pull back the mix… That takes a couple of hours just to pull it back up, so then the people though, they don’t have the budgets for that no more, then when in Pro Tools, in ten minutes, you have the change.

Justin: It’s a great hybrid strategy where you can still work on the tools that you’re comfortable with and love the sound of, but you can adapt and do all of those things that people in the digital age expect, which is hey, let’s open up the mix the way we left it.

I love that you can do both.

The mixes, when you’re printing them, are you printing them super hot, or are you leaving headroom for a mastering engineer, and is mastering still a big part of your process?

Serge: The mastering engineer is crucial. Very crucial, and I try to have good relationships with mastering engineers, and they kind of tell you what they expect from you.

So I print hot. I’m going to tell you honestly, I print hot. The reason why, usually when you get a rough mix, it’s usually slammed. Slammed. Everything is red. So you’ve got to compete — your mix has to compete to that rough mix. Right?

So if you come with a mix and it’s just the meters — the balance could be great, but if it ain’t slamming, nine out of ten, the client be like, “my rough mix is harder than that.”

So you sit with that dilemma. I would love to leave lots of headroom for the mastering engineer, but unfortunately, that’s not the luxury we have these days, because people do their rough mixes and just slam them, so that’s what they hear, that’s what they’re used to. They’re used to living it all the way up there.

Justin: Well, there’s two things, it could be meanwhile, they just turn down the level of the rough mix, your mix would sound better, or sometimes, maybe that hard limiting is just part of the sound they’re looking for because it’s part of what they grew up with hearing stuff on the radio —

Serge: Exactly. People these days don’t have the ear of judging it, “Oh, well, you know, if I turn my rock mix down,” no, they don’t have that.

Justin: Honestly, to me, I listen to say, if a Lil Wayne record comes on and it’s not slammed, it doesn’t sound right. I feel like it’s part of the genre.

It’s interesting to hear some of the recent Bruno Mars stuff and some of the Mark Ronson stuff, I’m starting to hear some dynamics starting to come back in. Have there been any clients of yours who are into that kind of more open feel, or do you get —

Serge: You do. You get guys who say, “Man, please don’t put a limiter on my mix.” You have guys like that who are aware of those kind of things, but like, that’s rare these days. You know, but we do have dynamics in our mixes. It’s not that we slam it like that, my meters still go up and down, you know, it’s not that I’m living here.

Justin: So how do you give that impression of dynamics in a really banging, limited, compressed mix, how do you give that feeling of dynamics? What do you look for to do that job?

Serge: See, when it was tape, right? And you would slam the tape, it would create this tape compression. Right? Now in the digital age, everything is always slamming. But you kind of create that with parallel compression, parallel stuff, multi-band compressions, and that kind of stuff.

So you can compress the low end without even affecting the top end. Like that kind of stuff creates that kind of feel to it. There’s many different ways of getting there.

For example, kicks. On a kick drum, you can parallel tone with it, and let’s say the key is in E, and you can go to a 42Hz, that’s an E, and you trigger the kick with a 42Hz underneath it.

You put a bottom floor together with the kick that will create that floor. It’s just the foundation. Then you can build — it’s easier to build on top of that. So that’s the way to — one way of achieving it, and I have dynamic filters I use and all kinds of stuff.

Justin: When you use something like a frequency dependent compressor, what are the most common things you’d use a multi-band or frequency dependent compressor on?

Serge: You want to know which one?

Justin: Yeah, or either way, which tool are you using or what are you using it on first off?

Serge: There’s this plug-in McDSP makes, ML4000. I love that. That’s one of my favorite multi-band compressor. UAD has a couple. They’ve got the precision multi-band compression stuff.

McDSP is my favorite one.

Justin: Cool stuff man. One last thing I wanted to ask, back when we were talking about building out this space, are there any key things that you absolutely have to have in a studio, whether it’s the design of the space or gear wise, what are the essential things that you need to have in the studio to be able to work?

Serge: The acoustics of the room is crucial. The listening environment, especially mixing, is so crucial, it’s the listening environment, your monitoring, are absolutely crucial. Absolutely.

You can shape the sound however, but if what you hear, if that’s not what you get out, then you’re — I mean, if you know — you know, if you know how you say the shortcomings of the room, but if the space, acoustically is well done, to me, that’s crucial.

Justin: I noticed you’ve got these NS10s, these are the Adam S4s, and then the wall mounted ones are…?

Serge: Those are Augspurgers.

Justin: And which ones of these do you think you spend most of the time on when you’re mixing?

Serge: I live on the Adams lately. I’ve evolved to. I used to use Genelecs.

Justin: What made you switch?

Serge: I believe that you have to evolve. I can’t be on Genelecs forever. To me, this is three way. Genelec was a two way speaker. I used to mix on 1032s, which are two way speakers.

I did a lot of hit records on those, but then I got introduced to these Adams, and they’re a three way, and the mid-range in them is no return. I can’t go back.

Justin: Alright, well Serge, this is an amazing space, thanks again for taking us on a tour and sitting down with us far awhile. Great to have you here on Sonic Scoop.

Platinum Sound, Serge Tsai, check it out. Amazing records coming out of this space.

Serge: Thanks to Sonic Scoop!

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