RACHEL ALINA

Mixing Engineer
on community in audio, tuning acoustics, critical listening

portrait by Maggie Lynn Negrete

portrait by Maggie Lynn Negrete

February 12, 2018
interview by Madeleine Campbell

“Any entertainment industry that has so much focus and limelight and showbiz of any kind will have fear and egos, but basic goodness is always the foundation.”

You studied audio engineering in school?
Yes. I grew up as a classical musician and I was deep in the classical world but also got really into computer programming at a young age. I found out what audio engineering was when I was at the summer performance program at Berklee [College of Music] and just never left.

After school, did you go straight into full-time mixing?
Well, after that I was planning to move to Los Angeles but decided I was gonna go kick it with my folks for a bit before I moved because I had been so busy finishing up school. I was a baby, too; I was only 20. They live just down the shore outside of Atlantic City, which is the shore town to Philadelphia. My plan was to stay down there for maybe six months. There was a blues bar on the bay that had three stages. I did live sound during college so I went there to see if I could pick up some gigs while I was in town. They were impressed I was a Berklee grad and it turns out the head tech was planning on leaving—he was sick of the job—so within three weeks of just stopping home, I was now head tech at this venue. But I knew I wanted to be a studio engineer and a friend told me about a studio up the road, so I hit them up. It was where Shelly Yakus had started doing all his work. You should look up his credits. He was Jimmy Iovine’s right hand man. He was the number one mix call in the world for a really long time. He has golden ears. So yeah, at that time he had recently moved into this studio outside of Atlantic City and was looking for a new assistant. So within a month, I was head tech at a club and assisting Shelly Yakus. That was basically my five-year plan and it happened in a month. This was in 2003. 2003 in Philadelphia was a crazy time. That’s when Jill Scott was making her records, Serban Ghenea and Larry Gold were around, Jazzy Jeff, RJD2, Man Man. That’s around the time Diplo and Lowbudget’s Hollertronix parties were happening. The Roots were down there. Amos Lee had just gotten signed and was just about to go on tour with Norah Jones. There was one little corner in Philly with a place called The Fire that had an open mic once a week and all of these people would come out. That’s when I met and started working with Devin Greenwood, the producer I cut my teeth with. Catty-corner from that was the Aqualounge, where they’d have an MC open mic. Not the west Philly Aqua Lounge; this was 4th and Girard. I was leaving one night pretty late to head back down the shore and heard ?uestlove was sitting down at the drums. There was the Five Spot, too. I was mostly down the shore in the studio so I missed a lot but that was the vibe of the community that I was in. The importance of being in community really can inform everything we do.

For real! Community is so powerful.
Which reminds me of something I want to circle back to eventually, something that really lights a fire under my ass. But I’ll come back to that.

Ok! I’m curious what attracted you to mixing versus tracking or mastering?
One of the reasons I love mixing is that it’s my way of supporting another person’s creative process. I have my own creative process, too. I’m a poet and I make digital art and I know what it’s like to finish a project and be in the creative process, to go through the ups and downs of it, the questioning and it’s kinda like, that’s part of the deal, you know? It’s not that you’re doing anything right or wrong. It just kinda is what it is. Sometimes it just pops out like boom! But you can never expect something or plan for something, necessarily. Like I just finished [writing] a book recently and to be in those final stages and to have it not be in my hands at all is the scariest fucking thing I can possibly imagine. But at the same time, with mixing, perspective is huge, so it is also important to have a mixing engineer, to put it in someone else’s hands. It’s a scary thing so I really try to just recognize that and honor that as much as possible in the mixing process. I have my own creative space where I’m completely selfish and for me, mixing is almost like a Bhakti yoga selfless thing where it’s my craft and I’ve been honing these skills and working and it’s not for me—it’s for somebody else. Any entertainment industry that has so much focus and limelight and showbiz of any kind will have fear and egos, but basic goodness is always the foundation. I mean, I do work in the mainstream and I focus on creative integrity at the same time.

Where is your studio?
It’s in Dumbo, Brooklyn. This one is newer to me. My last home base was [Waterfront Studios], the church up in Hudson. After that I started freelancing and working out of these two studios in this basement in Dumbo. It’s one of the last remaining music collectives in the city because everything is now so expensive. It’s a huge building. It’s only six or seven stories high but it takes up an entire city block. It’s such a solid building. I don’t want to blow up anyone’s spot down there, but there are 6 or 7 studios in my close community, and that’s not even half of how many spaces are down there, and everyone’s sick at what they do.

That must be a big basement.
It’s a big basement and behind every single door is a treasure trove. As I was leaving the church, spending more time down by the city, I was doing all of my mixing between home and Arun [Pandian]’s studio, Signal Corps Recording. I’m really into very old, esoteric vintage equipment and there are only really a few people who are in on it and Arun is one of them. Even just a studio with a console isn’t gonna cut it for me. I need really specific equipment. So I started working out of Arun’s more and when a space opened up down the hall, I moved in. So I have my mix room which is all digital, a room tuned with my acoustician, and then Arun’s is across the hall and I do all of my analog processing there and then finish the mix at my spot. I always print analog processing now, anyways. To have an artist tied to paying studio time for an analog recall to turn up a shaker is just ridiculous. To stay mobile, too, it’s important for me to go to artists for changes sometimes rather than they come to me.

So you start in your space then you move to Arun’s space?
Well...it kinda changes. My assistant sets up the sessions. Lately, I’ve been working so much on the acoustics of my room that I’ve been doing less analog processing. I’ve only been doing barebones what I need to do at Arun’s because I want to be in my room as much as possible to work on the acoustics. My ideal workflow is, once the session is set up, to take it into the analog world and go through the tracks and see what the basic recording is like and see if I need to do any analog processing to those basic tracks. Then take that and print any processing back in and mix in Pro Tools.

Rachel at Arun’s Pandian’s Signal Corps Recording

Rachel at Arun’s Pandian’s Signal Corps Recording

I see what you’re saying.
It’s almost like prepping your clay when you’re sculpting. I wanna get in there and make sure everything’s good. This is a process Henry Hirsch at the church taught me. Henry's one of those hardcore analog guys. Being in a private production studio with him for years, and we were working all the time, we’d always run up against something. Sometimes the answer just isn't analog, though, sometimes it's digital. For example, the mixes I’m working in right now, they sounded good but there was something about the vocal that made me think, “I’m just not hearing something I wanna hear.” I put a Tidal playlist on shuffle and started listening to different things and taking note of when I was hearing what I was hearing in my head for the vocal and I realized, “Oh, I think I’m hearing the Sonnox Oxford Inflator on this vocal,” and I went in and put it on just a little bit and said, “Yup! That’s what I was hearing.”

I’m hoping I can work in analog someday.
Being completely analog, cutting a record fully on tape, is amazing. But every morning started with me going in and aligning the tape machine. It gets very expensive so you really have to have a big budget for that and that just doesn’t exist in the music industry anymore. If you do have that budget you should be spending it on health insurance for your musicians!

I’ve been buying my own gear for the first time over the past year and I’ve truly been starting from scratch. People will ask me, “Do you work on tape?” and I say, “No and I don’t see that happening.” It feels like where I am it’s just not in the cards for most people.
You know, you could do something like a Tascam TSR-8, on a friend tip. Get a friend and do one track on a TSR-8 completely. That’s a pretty low-cost situation. That was my first real creative tape experience.

Is that an 8-track?
Yeah. It’s a small thing, kinda prosumer, 1/2”. Probably from the mid to late ‘80s. One of my favorite things about the TSR-8 is the noise reduction system and the ability to turn it on or off as you like. To quote the manual: “The dbx is a wide range compression-expansion system...” By recording with the dbx on and playing back and sending it into the computer with it off, or vice versa, you can use this system for creative results.

It’s not a global on/off, but in banks of 4, so if you’re sticking to a full tape project, you could in theory use the effect on just parts of the recording. This would likely get tricky with bouncing if you’re recording lots of tracks, but you get the idea. On John Francis’ record Vineyard, Devin Greenwood and I were using a blend of it there.

What’s also very cool about the Tascam TSR-8 is the opening description on the first page of the manual includes:

Recording is an art as well as a science. As a result, your finished product may be judged more by artistic criteria than technical performance. Art is the province of the artist and TASCAM can make no guarantee that the TSR-8, by itself, will assure the quality of your work. Your skill as a technician and your abilities as an artist will be significant factors in the results you achieve.

The experience of fully cutting something to tape and realizing you have three more things you wanna record and you only have two tracks—that means you have to make some decisions. You may have to take four tracks and bounce them down to two and then record those three. You have to get really creative. And I mean, you have a physical piece of tape in a box and that’s the music you’re working on. It’s not a file on a hard drive. Technology is really changing musicianship in a lot of ways, which is kinda crazy, but the musicianship required to do tape for real is just...what a wake up call. I think everyone should have that experience.

Speaking of gear, how did you go about building your collection of gear and your own space?
That’s the thing that’s kinda crazy—I don’t really have my own collection of gear. The gear I’m into is so esoteric, you would need hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on it. There is a community around that type of equipment. I’d rather have my own space where I put all my money into acoustical treatment, software, my laptop. I put all my money into very digital things and renting Arun’s studio. You really have to maintain this stuff properly. Where I started getting clarity around this was working with Henry and working with his Helios console. And I think I actually talk about this on—well, did I mention since we started talking recently I became a SoundToys artist?

Yes! Congratulations. That’s exciting.
Yeah, it’s cool! I love SoundToys plugins so much. On the their website, I talk a little bit about the Helios because SoundToys and their plugin called the Decapitator helps me get that sound. When I first worked on that Helios console, it was a really life changing experience for me. Henry restored it with Dave Amels and Stephen Masucci, and they just killed it. The speakers were ATC200s and they were actually prototypes so they didn’t even sound like any others. The room was literally built for them and this Helios. It was such an incredible listening environment. When I was in that room, I could hear everything. It was clarity like I didn’t understand before. It was as if I’d been looking through a slightly dirty pair of glasses my whole life and someone finally cleaned my lenses. It was some Plato Allegory of the Cave type shit. It was crazy. Now I’m in the city, I use Arun’s because he’s in the same type of gear. Again, I like to stay in community. Arun and I listen to each other’s projects all the time, give each other feedback and shit. I’d rather build community than be on my own island just because I have to own some gear. Some people think they have to buy all the gear. If you have the same gear taste as somebody, rent their studio. They probably need their studio rented.

For sure. It benefits both sides.
I’ve thought a lot about getting a console. When it comes down to it, I’m always focused on my artists. Right now, the right decision for my artists is for me to work on my acoustics more or upgrade my computer rig or something like that.

When you say “work on your acoustics more,” what does that actually look like? What does that mean for you?
Oh god, it can be painful. I moved into the room that was available to me but it’s not a room that I built. Really, unless you build the room yourself, you’re always going to be fighting with your acoustics. I also have an incredible acoustician, John [Chester], that I’ve built two other studios with. I know what it’s gonna sound like at the end of a tuned studio with him and I know how it’s gonna get there. I always mix all the way through so I’m really connected to what the sound of the space is. Every change we make, I hear how it changes and I can give him proper comments about it.

Before I even took the room, I asked him to come in and check it out. He came by and said he thought we could make it work. We brought some speakers in and moved them around to different places in the room and listened and decided where we felt happiest. From there, he took some readings and we did it one step at a time. We got some [Eco-Core] from Acoustimac because we needed low end absorption. He cut some wood spacers and I cut the Eco-Core into triangles. We went in and stuffed the corners with it, with the wood spacers in between every layer of triangle. We did some more readings, moved some panels around and then he went home to think about it. He hit me up later and said, “Listen we really have to do something about this.” And he was right! There was so much stuff going on in the low end that there were all these modes cancelling each other out and you couldn’t hear the bass at all in the mix position. When we put the absorption in the corners, it helped a lot but not nearly as much as we needed it to.

How’d you handle that?
At that point we built out the back wall by, I think, 18 inches. There’s a six-inch air gap between the wall and the insulation and then it’s 12 inches of insulation. Then there’s a wood frame around that with very breathable, white acoustical fabric stretched across it. It almost looks like a white wall but it’s not actually. It’s acoustical fabric that has 12 inches of fuzz, of absorption, and a six-inch air gap. That helped tremendously. At that point we could start putting some clouds in to help focus things. Then I still wanted to tighten up the low end a bit so we kind of bumped it up a bit to slightly better low end absorption. I forget what that was but it was like $1,000 for three panels. But then I got to the point again where I knew there could be more clarity in the low end. I wasn’t totally happy with where my speakers were placed in terms of my stereo imaging. I wanted them to be slightly further apart. But for the low end it was better for them to be closer. Finally I was like, “Fuck this. If I’m gonna keep going right now, I at least want my stereo image to be wide like I want it to be.” So I moved them and said, “Let’s tune this!” We are kind of at a pause at the moment while John finishes up another studio buildout project that we’ve been working on.

When you say “taking a reading,” what are you actually reading?
John sends pink noise through the speakers. He’ll do sweeps that go up or down the whole frequency spectrum that will show a waterfall graph that shows how the frequency ranges are reverberating in the room. He also has a microphone set up to see how it’s reading in the room. He takes that microphone and crawls around on the floor and goes to all the different corners of the room and sees what’s going on and where the most offensive spots are. That’s the spot you probably want to absorb, where the most build up is. It’s hard. It’s really hard.

I’m at a point where I’m thinking a lot about listening and how I listen. What do you recommend for people who are trying to hone their listening skills and improve the way they listen to their mixes?
Ah, there are so many things. One thing is to start to listen to how things relate to each other. EQ your kick drum while listening to the bass. Think about frequency masking. This almost starts at production. I’ll get tracks in from young producers where the mix isn’t totally popping yet because they have two keyboard parts that are overlapping each other, for example. They change one of the keyboard parts to an electric guitar part in a different register and it fits together better. So there’s that. When you’re actually in the mix, listen in different places. Earbuds are my go-to to hear where my vocal sybillences are at. You can do a lot of fine tuning of your balances when you’re listening on ear buds, too. I listen in my car mostly for the low end. My room sounds too good. A lot of times if there’s bass proximity on a vocal take and it even passes in tracking, it’s because the artist is in a lo-fi situation and they’re vibing up on the microphone and don’t hear it as an issue, it sounds cool in that environment. I’ll be in my great, tuned listening environment and it will sound boomy. I tighten it in a bit and think I have it under control but then I get in my car and it still might sound boomy.

So you’re translating things you didn’t record or produce before you start to do anything with it?
Well, as part of doing something with it. I just read an interview in Tape Op with Bob Olhsson from Motown, who said there were 10 or 15 mixes of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and they put out the best one. Sometimes shit takes time. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. But anyways, listen to how things are relating to each other and listen in a lot of different places. You can be chasing your tail around just sticking to your studio. I have my studio where I do the bulk of my work and within my studio I have my ATC monitors and a pair of Avantone Mixcubes, the active ones, for reference. I also have a really shitty pair of Altec computer speakers. They’re like $26. I use them when I’m working on hip-hop music. I always have my earbuds and a pair of Direct Isolation EX-29 headphones—can’t finish a mix without those. I have my old project speakers, Event PS8s, at home. When I get home, I listen to what I worked on that day through those. Then I run back and forth to my car during the day. I listen in a lot of different places. It’s important because it’s so easy to lose perspective.

Oh before I forget to remind you, what was the thing you wanted to come back to? On the topic of community?
Ah, yes! I keep coming back to community. What I was going to say is that I feel as though—and it’s not really a feeling so much as what I’m seeing—there’s been a real break in mentorship in our craft and in the music industry. It comes from a lot of things.

Why do you think this has happened?
I’ve thought a lot about this. A big split happened. Pro Tools started happening and people started making projects off tape. Just as that was happening, the people who weren’t really into the computers started hating and the people who were really skilled at computers started hating back so a divide happened in the craft of engineering. It was kind of minor. I’m sure that’s happened in film and other industries. But then the music industry tanked. Record sales were tanking. I think emotions got even more heightened across the board. Prosumer gear was coming up. Young musicians weren’t getting record deals for enough money to really go in the studio for as long as they needed to. They could take that money, live on it for a year and buy Pro Tools and have an unlimited creative process. People started doing that and some of it sounded terrible. Yeah, maybe they could have learned something from having a mentor but the mentors were basically like, “You’re contributing to me losing my income,” so a huge break in mentorship started happening. Now it’s at a point where so many people are disconnected from the roots of their craft. I teach a course called The Art of Mixing online through Berklee and that’s a higher-level class. A lot of students don’t truly understand what gainstaging is and it’s because they haven’t been on that equipment. So I teach for Berklee and I’m committed to making time for it. It’s important to me. I make myself available. And sometimes I end up talking about a lot of recording basics but that’s what they need to know. The break in mentorship really bums me out but at the same time, on the other side of it, I see we have the opportunity to be a global community of a rainbow which is making great music. I know the other side is really beautiful.

I spoke on a panel about women in the music industry at the Girls Club on the Lower East Side. I was so empowered by the girls there. I think it was the week that Beyonce’s “Formation” video came out. They were having a discussion about it and I was like, “Damn. You girls are amazing.” I realized that I never had a woman mentor, ever, in what I do. I’ve worked with so many incredible women but never a mentor. That’s when I hit up Berklee. I went straight to the teacher, Rich Mendelson, who was my mentor when I was there. I unloaded to him about the experience I had just had. I said, “Rich, I never had a female mentor. I want to make myself available to other women.” And truthfully, not just other women, the community as a whole. I hate the “this vs that” mentality; there are men in my community who are some of my biggest inspirations, too, some of the most loving, compassionate, brilliant people I know. I’m talking about inclusivity, I’m talking about everybody. But I see things changing and there’s nothing that anyone can do to stop it but it’s important to look at ways of guiding that path.
- - - - -

www.rachelalina.com

Listen to some of Rachel’s mixes here.


- Women in Sound 2019 -