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In The Studio: An Interview With Grammy Winning Engineer/Producer Andrew Dawson
His history, his approach, and the future
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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.

Waves stuff?

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.

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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.

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Dark Twisted Fantasy is complete - now you are moving on to produce POS.‘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.

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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.

Matthew Weiss records, mixes, and masters music in the Philadelphia, New York, and Boston areas. Find out more about him here.

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