I try every day to remember the things that got me going, the things that I liked, when I was a kid buying records.
As a mixer, you have to have a mindset now that says, “I can fix anything.” Because with all the tools we have today, you really can.
Overnight success almost never is. It’s true that, suddenly, David Pensado’s name seems to be everywhere, and people who haven’t been paying attention might surmise that all his recent recognition has come out of the blue. The truth is, this talented mixer has labored in the trenches for years, turning out a steady stream of Top 10 records for the likes of Brian McKnight, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, Warren G, Sisqo, Bel Biv Devoe, and many others, along with soundtrack album cuts for films such as White Men Can’t Jump, Hurricane, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Men of Honor. It’s just that, lately, Pensado’s records have garnered new attention, thanks in part to the high-profile mix he did for Christina Aguilera, Mya, Li’l Kim and Pink — the four young divas who graced the hit remake of “Lady Marmalade.” Featured on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, “Lady Marmalade” charted Number One on Billboard‘s Hot 100, Top 40 Tracks and Hot 100 Airplay.
Meanwhile, Pensado is hardly breaking stride in the six- or seven-days-a-week studio schedule that he has maintained for many years. There’s no doubt that this guy is a hard worker. He’s also highly well-read on subjects that range from geology, in which he has a degree, to painting, mathematics and poetry. He’s also an accomplished photographer whose work has been purchased by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
For several years, this Renaissance man’s mix room of choice has been Studio Cat The Enterprise in Burbank, Calif. We met there early one June afternoon for a chat before he started the day’s work: a mix for new RCA artist Mercy Street.
Where did your nickname “Hard Drive” come from?
Richard Wolf, who was part of the production team of Wolf & Epic, gave it to me. I like to work hard, and I tend to push real hard in the studio. Richard, who was always fascinated by my Southern accent, heard me say “hard drive” and liked the way it sounded. Then the guys from Bell Biv Devoe, who were always complaining that we were pushing them too hard on the sessions, picked up on it and put “Hard Drive” in my album credits. In the hip hop community, of course, everyone had a nickname, and since no one could remember Pensado, people started calling for that “hard drive engineer.” And, of course, from the day that they came out, I was heavily into computers for recording, so the name had a double meaning.
How long have you been engineering?
I started in the late ’70s, in Atlanta.
How did that happen?
When I was really young, my mom taught me guitar, and I played with a lot of groups. After a while, I started looking around at the state that these musicians, who were 15 years older than me, were in. They had less than I did — which was nothing. And I started thinking, “Man, I gotta figure out some other way to do this.” I didn’t want to be 50 years old with nothing, but I still wanted to do music.
And just by the hand of God, I met Paul Davis and Phil Benton, who had a studio in Atlanta called Monarch Sound. They’d heard some live stuff I’d done and really liked it. Phil was an engineer who had become a producer and was looking to get out of the engineering elements. Paul was a singer and songwriter who’d had a lot of big records, like “I Go Crazy” and “Cool Night.” The first project I worked on at their studio was a group called Brick, and we had a successful record.
They taught you how to be a recording engineer?
Yeah. As a musician, I was always the guy in my band to set up for the live stuff…
You mean the P.A. equipment?
Yes, and a big chunk of that translates over to recording. Particularly the need for speed, the need to avoid panic, the need to work well under pressure — those are all good assets to have when you start on this side of the recording world.
It’s funny, though; before that, it had never dawned on me that I could be an engineer. I always thought that was something for those revered, special geniuses I’d read about in magazines. I didn’t realize that all it required was a little taste, a decent personality and a willingness to learn. I was lucky; at Monarch, I had a one-on-one classroom. Phil was a great engineer, and he and Paul were both very patient with me.
Paul was a pop and country artist, but he also loved technology. We had one of the first drum machines, we got the first Synclavier, we were always the first with new equipment.
How did you end up in L.A.?
If you want to be a sailor, you don’t move to Kansas, you move someplace with an ocean. I think if you want to be a recording engineer, your options would be, in descending order: Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and London.
Being originally from Tampa, Florida, the thought of snow didn’t appeal to me. Country music didn’t appeal to me, and the thought of gray skies didn’t appeal to me. That left Los Angeles. But there was a fear factor in moving to Los Angeles, where I’d have to compete against guys who were legends to me — guys like Jon Gass, that quality of engineer. But I got frustrated, and felt I couldn’t go any further in Atlanta. Finally, that frustration surpassed my fear.
Luckily, I met Herb Trawick, who introduced me to Kevin Fleming, the VP at Island Records, and then Kevin introduced me to Wolf & Epic. Three months later, we had a Number One song, BBD’s “Do Me Baby.” It was pretty easy after that.
Wait a minute. That’s too simple. It’s not that easy for an engineer to keep getting work.
Well, you’ve got to remember that, at that time, there weren’t a lot of engineers who stood up and proudly proclaimed that they wanted to do hip hop. But that’s where my head was at; it’s what I wanted to do.
When we made “Do Me Baby,” we made a record that didn’t sound like anything else. It was a function of Wolf & Epic’s vision. And it was a function of the fact that I had just come out of the club scene in Atlanta. I had 10 years of hip hop sensibility — making loops and stuff like that. Big bottom was everything there, even though at that time there was no bottom end on the radio. Also, I was a Quincy Jones and Earth, Wind & Fire fanatic. I loved that sparkly kind of top end.
So, “Do Me Baby” was the first song to hit radio that had this massive club bottom, hip hop sensibility in the middle, and this real smoothed-out, classy, Quincy Jones-type top.
Where did you mix that?
I mixed that particular song at Alpha Studios. They had a Calrec console, but I am such a fan of SSL automation that I actually talked Denny, the owner, into installing SSL automation on that console.
SSL has treated me really well over the years; I can’t say enough good things about them. I love other consoles, too, but I have to say that SSL has always been my favorite. Especially the 9000 J Series. I think it’s the last great analog console.
Were you an instant convert to the J Series?
Yeah. I’ve got a mentality that likes new. I mean, I will use new things that don’t work just because they’re new!
You were also an instant convert to drum machines and sampling.
The first time that I heard a drum machine, it was, “Wow, I like this!” I’d been doing live music, which I still enjoy to do, but there was something about the control that machines gave that was really appealing to me right from the start. And at that time, of course, drummers were not very humble. [Laughs.] Since then, a lot of live players have become more humble.
I worked on my first rap record in the late ’70s, and I’m not going to pretend that I could understand it — I’m from a different culture. But the music got me right away. It was an eye-opener. The idea of taking a record, putting it on a turntable and creating something new out of that was captivating to me.
I truly see no difference in the skill in doing that and the skill in sitting down on piano and playing Mozart. Of course, one requires a massive commitment and dedication to training and study; I respect anyone who can spend the bulk of their life mastering a craft. But in terms of the talent and creativity, I see no difference.
It’s amazing what some of the producers I’ve worked with can create. And obviously, I’m not alone in liking it — look at how the general public responds. There was a time when I was the only guy doing hip hop in Atlanta — no one else wanted to. I got work not necessarily because I was good, but because I was the only one willing to do it! Now, it’s to the point where if you took R&B and hip hop out of the recording business, there are not many studios that could sustain an income.
It takes a certain personality to successfully do hip hop and rap sessions. For one thing, it requires a lot of patience. You have to be pretty relaxed, and you have to be comfortable with having a lot of people around you almost all the time.
I approach it somewhat like I do the live thing — the more, the merrier. There’s definitely something fun about doing something good and having a roomful of people get excited about it. Look at it this way: If I’ve got 50 people in my control room watching what I’m doing and one of those is my client, I’ve got 49 new clients next week.
I grew up in a Spanish family; there were always a lot of people around. The ability to concentrate in the face of all those people and all that Latin noise was something that I got as a child. It doesn’t bother me. In fact, I enjoy it. I hate working alone.
I don’t know about other mixers, but for me, if my clients don’t show up, I mix a lot more conservatively. When they’re there, I can try anything, look over at them and say “What do you think?” Nine times out of 10, they’ll go, “That’s cool, but what if…” and then take my idea to another level. Multiply that times a day’s worth of ideas, and you have a completely different mix than you would if you were working alone.
I don’t want to belabor the point, but I will leave you with this thought: I’ve got engineer friends who consider the client a nuisance. I mean, would you go to a doctor who considered you a nuisance? Like you were only there to further his research?
In our profession, when you get so far on the technical side, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of who is buying our records. I try every day to remember the things that got me going, the things that I liked, when I was a kid buying records.
I’ve always wondered how it is that engineers, who traditionally don’t dance, are able to make records that make people want to dance.
Actually, I do dance. And if more engineers would get out to a club and dance once in a while, maybe we would have some better records! Look, I am who I am. I don’t try to dress like my clients. I don’t try to talk like my clients. But, we’re making records for 14- to 24-year-olds. At the end of the day, it’s about some groove and hook. You used to be able to say groove and melody, but now it’s groove and hook. That’s what people buy. If you don’t hit them over the head with a great groove and hooks, you are not doing your job. One of the reasons rap has been so successful is that it’s reduced that concept to its barest minimum.
I think for popular music to work for kids, you need to have something that strokes their hormones — something that gets them going. It needs to be kind of angry about something. Not politically angry, necessarily, but just pissed that your girlfriend left you, pissed that the police hassle you all the time, or pissed about this or that. When it’s bitter angry, it doesn’t really appeal to the masses, it appeals to a smaller group of people. That’s okay, but we’re talking in terms of appealing to a lot of people. And thirdly, I think it needs to be naughty without being vulgar. Naughty changes from generation to generation — what was considered vulgar in the ’50s is not even considered naughty now. If you get those three elements, you’ve got good pop music. And rap music has done that brilliantly. It’s reduced music to those elements, the basic groove and hook.
Working as much as you do, when do you find time to check out other people’s music?
I listen a lot to radio. I live about 30 minutes from the studio, so I get in about an hour a day listening to radio. And I leave MTV and MTV2 and BET on my TV screen while I’m working. If something catches my eye, I’ll turn the sound up.
To be successful as a mixer, you have to be competitive. To sustain a career, you really have to grow and reinvent yourself. You have to love music so much that without knowing it, you search out the new things, and then you have to have an attitude that allows you to turn loose of your old ideas very quickly and easily.
One of the many cool things about hip hop is, we’ve got the only fans in the world where, if you use a snare sound that you used three months ago on some hit, they’ll call you on it. They’ll go, “That’s the snare from OPP, man. Why couldn’t you think of a better snare?” The only time our fans will give you any slack is if you use something that they recognize, but you use it in a more creative way. They’ll go, “Man, I give you points for that.”
One sentence you’ll never hear in a hip hop session is, “You can’t do that — this is hip hop!” If you pull out an MPC3000 and go to program the drums on a rock session, you’re going to hear, “It’s a rock band. You can’t do that.” Hip hop, you can bring in Slash. You can bring in live drummers and dead drummers — whatever you want to do is fine. Not only is it fine, you are considered a genius for doing it!
You love computers but you still mix to half-inch analog tape on a Studer machine.
I love Quantegy GP9. What I do is, I listen to the output of the 2-track machine while I’m printing to tape. There is always a sweet spot somewhere between plus 6 and plus 20, where as you increase the level to tape, the signal saturates the tape and it gives you this wonderful tape compression. It takes that digital Pro Tools sound and gives it another quality. So I take the master fader on my console and just crank it up, while I’m listening to the output of the 2-track, until I go, “That’s it.”
I mean, meters are useless if you’ve got ears. There were times that the guys who taught me wouldn’t let me use meters. I’d go, “How do I tell if it’s too hot?” “Well, you hear distortion!” “How do I tell if the level is too low?” “You hear tape hiss!” Anything in between is fine!
Do you have any tricks for coping with over-the-top numbers of tracks?
I study the rough mix, and then I visually try to locate the meat and potatoes of the mix. I find the kick, snare, bass, the pads, lead vocal, background vocals…and I try to construct a mix with that small number of elements.
My 9000 is so big, part of it is in another ZIP code, so I set it up with 50 channels on either side of me. I put my important tracks near the center of the console, because when I get off-axis, my monitoring isn’t as accurate. Drums and percussion go to the left and vocals to the right. Things that don’t play very often end up out in the nether regions. Luckily, with Pro Tools you can set up a lot of that visually, because you can look at a track and see that it only plays once in a song.
Do you use the board dynamics on the 9k much?
There are some things that you can’t find any better compressor for. I don’t like gating, so I rarely use the gates, unless I am going for a special effect like getting a little tick on the kick drum. But I use the compressor on a lot of synthesizers and other instruments. Because I have so much outboard gear, I don’t use it on vocals or drums.
Let’s talk about vocals. What are some of your favorite vocal compressors?
I use my Gates Sta-Level on almost all my vocals. There are some singers I work with that it just loves — Brian McKnight, Christina Aguilera. Because it was designed to control the output of a mono radio station, it was more a “set it and forget it”-type piece of gear, with a lot of the controls on the inside. But my friend Kevin Mills, who owns Larrabee Studios, had one of his staff modify it for me. So the internal parameters I don’t need to change too much, and on the front, the controls are almost identical to an LA-2A’s.
I love the Tube-Tech on vocals. And I like the CompressorBank, a plug-in by McDsp — especially the 670 presets that emulate the Fairchild. And I love the Waves C4 plug-ins. I use the plug-in called C4 a lot. It’s a 4-band parametric with an incredible compressor on each band. So, not only do I get to choose my frequency, my bandwidth on four different bands and my level, but I get to choose all my compression parameters with a compressor that’s designed to emulate not one, but all of the great classics.
The way I use it is, when a singer is singing kind of low, I’ll have it take some of the mud out. But when they’re singing harder in the vamp and it gets more midrange-y, I’ll set it to automatically dip out that 3k for me. It saves me time in mixing because that compressor catches a lot of it.
You often split your vocal tracks as they come into the console, so that you can use both a vintage, tube-processing chain and a high-tech, modern processing chain. That probably explains why the vocals on your mixes avoid that unfortunate “rip your head off” sound and, instead, seem to have more body to them.
Thank you for the compliment! Usually, I’ll have anywhere from two to four faders — mults of the lead vocal — with each of those faders receiving the same vocal information. On one fader, I’ll have my low-tech analog chain. I’ll use the Gates, or an LA-2A, something with tube processing. I’ll also maybe use a Neve 1073 on that fader. On the fader next to it, I’ll go with a high-tech chain, maybe FilterBank, maybe CompressorBank or the Waves C4. I might use an Avalon 2055 on that chain, or if we go to three faders, I might have an all-Avalon chain. As the song progresses, generally the verses are sung kind of low and breathy, so we’ll go to the high-tech chain a little more for that. In the parts where they’re singing louder, and maybe getting a little screechy, then I’ll go to the tube part of the chain for some nice, rich harmonics. Or maybe not. You listen and see what you like best, because now you’ve got different options for different phrases.
I just sit there and move the faders. In some places, all the faders might be up on one phrase — you just try different combinations. The more you do it, the faster you’ll get. The first time you try it, you’ll add another two hours to your mix! But then it becomes almost like second nature, because as you are setting up each chain, you’re listening and thinking about it.
The same with drums. You can have the main kick drum fader, and another fader where you compress the dogsnot out of the kick and add a lot of top end to it. Then, maybe in the chorus you add in a little bit of that second chain. It gives a tiny bit more attack to that programmed kick drum, as if the drummer was hitting it harder.
You can expand the concept into any piece of information. [Laughs.] I’m lucky because I’ve got 104 inputs on my 9k. If you don’t, you’ll have to use that technique more judiciously.
What about the dilemma of level control vs. intelligibility of lyrics? There are a lot of hip hop-type songs these days where lyrics seem to get lost in overcompression.
What you’re hearing is not necessarily bad compression, but just overall bad engineering. I have to say that I think our profession is heading in a new direction. When I first started out, the stuff I was given to mix was pristine. Mixing was a different occupation back then. You basically had 24 tracks — sometimes a little more — that were pretty much perfect, and you spent a few hours with a very small amount of gear to mix them. Nowadays, I would say that 80 percent of the producers I work with have a home studio. They engineer their songs themselves, and their skills vary, in terms of engineering, from horrible to incredibly amazing.
Mixing is now a different profession, in that we have to do a lot of repair work. We have to straighten out a lot of problems — from overcompression to where everybody and their mother went out and bought the Avalon 737, took that right-hand knob and cranked it up 1,800 dB. We get these incredibly bright vocals.
Now, I happen to think that the 737 is one of the best pieces of equipment ever made, and it’s one of my first recommendations when anybody asks me what to buy for a home studio. But, the problem is that a lot of the young producers I work with don’t have the monitoring capability to hear how much top end or how much compression — or whatever — that they’re adding. So a lot of the time, what you’re hearing when vocals are unintelligible is lack of skill on the mixer’s part to straighten out problems they were given by an overzealous producer recording his own tracks.
As a mixer, you have to have a mindset now that says, “I can fix anything.” Because with all the tools we have today, you really can.
You can fix overcompression?
Yes. I go into Pro Tools and I type in the level on every syllable. I uncompress what the compressor did. And I automate the EQ on every syllable. I’ve got FilterBank sitting there, and I automate the top end back into just that syllable. On a four-minute song, to fix a lead vocal with just the most horrible compression takes me about two hours. The average is about 45 minutes.
I think any engineer who complains about having to do that will probably be an engineer who is not working in a few years. Because that’s the future. If you develop that skill set, of being able to fix anything and then mixing it, you’ll be working a lot.
The upside about all this is that these are the best times for creative people, because you can just turn on a computer and get your ideas down. I encourage my producers not to worry about the sonics. Just bring me anything that’s creative and I’ll fix it.
You’re a brave man.
I would rather have a great song and poor engineering than the best-engineered crappy song any day.
Okay, enough of fixing, and back to mixing. What are some of your favorite vocal effects?
I love the Eventide Orville. I used the Orville on all of the vocals on “Lady Marmalade.” I like to chain a lot of effects together — a Harmonizer with a delay, with a reverb unit — I almost always have effects on my effects. With the Orville, I can do it all within the unit. And their harmonizing presets are the best ever for vocals.
What’s that Roland Dimension D in your rack for?
I use it on bass and on rap vocals. It’s one of my favorite pieces of gear. I loved “C’Est la Vie,” by Robbie Nevil, and what I got from that record is a hundred ways to use the Dimension D.
What about background vocals? Any tricks there?
I’ve got this little box, a BOSS EH-50, that an engineer named Ed Seay hipped me to. I paid 50 dollars for it, and I use it on my backgrounds. It’s like an enhancer. It gives you just the top end, like an Aphex Aural Exciter. So rather than put a chorus on the whole vocal, I just chorus the EH-50 signal so my chorus isn’t getting all the mud. There’s only one setting to use though — you can’t use any of the other buttons.
And that would be?
The last button on the right — Expander 2. Super glue it in and make sure that nobody hits any other button.
What are some things you use to get all those big bass sounds?
I use the Moog parametric, which you don’t see too much on bass. Also, I use API 550s, the Pultec EQP-1A and a plug-in made by Waves called MaxxBass, which saves my butt a lot of times. If you get a pure sine wave sound, you can create enough upper harmonics to actually hear it on a 3-inch speaker. And if you get a sound that’s all upper-frequency range, the MaxxBass will give you the sub stuff. For the sub stuff, I also like to use a dbx 120XDS, a boom box we used to use in the clubs.
What are some of your current favorite reverbs and effects?
I use the Eventide 2016, like Mick Guzauski does — the “Stereo Room.” On toms, I use the “Room” program, but there’s something about the stereo room that’s great on some vocalists.
I use the DP4 Plus a lot. The presets I like are called “Big Acoustic Guitar” and “Electric Tines.”
The Korg A1 is great for guitar effects. It’s a chained effect, not unlike the Roland DEP-5, where on a particular preset, you’ve got distortion, an EQ, a compressor, a delay and a spring reverb, and you have control over all of them. I use a setting called “Blues Vibe,” and I love “Wankadelic.”
I use the Roland SDE-330 a lot; Dexter Simmons turned me on to it. Dexter also gave me a Spatializer, which is incredible. I love putting things outside the speaker plane. I’ve got several pieces of gear that will let me do that. One of them is the Behringer Edison stereo image processor — the best $200 you’ll ever spend. Also the Ultrafex II, an enhancer/exciter that also has the spatial component.
And the Forat F16 is my little secret weapon. Ben and Bruce at Forat are two of the brightest guys on earth.
As hard as you work, and as long as you’ve been doing it, do you still feel lucky to be an engineer?
The profession of engineering is unique in that you have to be technical and creative at the same time. It’s hard to imagine Picasso designing the first computer. It’s also hard to imagine Bill Gates painting “Guernica.” And as a mixer you have to be Bill Gates for 30 seconds, then Picasso for 30 seconds. You’re constantly shifting back and forth.
That’s why there are not that many really great mixers — God didn’t create too many people with that particular ability. In another culture, in another time, people who have it would be doomed to be freaks! The gift of equal left brain/right brain power in any other time would probably be an undesirable quality. But, at this point in time and place, it’s a good freak of nature to be. Because, luckily, there’s a profession called mixing…
Dave says he’ll answer questions from readers. If you’ve got one for him, then send it via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maureen Droney is Mix‘s L.A. editor.
Selected Mixing Credits
Christina Aguilera: “When You Put Your Hands on Me” and “Somebody’s Somebody” on Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Missy Elliot & Pink: “Lady Marmalade” (first single from Moulin Rouge soundtrack)
Black Men United: “U Will Know” (on Jason’s Lyric soundtrack — introduced D’Angelo to the music world)
Destiny’s Child:Survivor (four tracks including “Emotion,” their next single)
Macy Gray: “Why Didn’t You Call Me”Remix
Enrique Iglesias: “Alabao” (Enrique)
K-Ci & JoJo:X (seven tracks)
Brian McKnight: “Win” (on Men Of Honor soundtrack)
Mya: “Where The Dream Takes You” (on Atlantis soundtrack)
Sisqo: “Enchantment Passing Through” (on Unleash the Dragon)
Take 6: “Biggest Part of Me” Remix