Remixing isn’t the right term. When artists like Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and “Little” Louie Vega get their hands on a track, strip it of everything but vocals, and produce an entirely new musical arrangement, they’re doing a lot more than mixing.
Operating for more than a decade as Masters at Work, the two have helped define the Nuyorican sound and have applied their skills and spice to a remarkably large and diverse pool of artists, including Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lisa Stansfield, George Benson and Debbie Gibson. They recently put together a double album, Our Time is Comin‘, that includes some of their best work from the past and new tracks from Shaggy, Patti Austin and Roy Ayers. Mix caught up with Gonzalez and Vega by phone from a New York recording studio as they were putting the final touches on their new record.
Many people put remixers and writers in separate containers, yet you two are both. What have you learned about songwriting through your remixing work?
Louie Vega: When we remix, we are actually writing, producing and arranging new music. Doing as many as a few thousand remixes, we have had plenty of practice. So we have learned a lot, but always looking to learn more. We have learned to work with singers, musicians and engineers.
Kenny Gonzalez: Basically, when we remix, we never use any of the original tracks, so we write new music and use the original vocals.
How has digital technology affected the way a remix session is handled?
Vega: Thank God for Pro Tools; we use it all the time.
Gonzalez: I still love the analog tape. Even though there are plug-ins, Pro Tools still does not simulate tape. On the other hand, the digital tools work for vocals, bouncing tracks and music. You could never do that on 2-inch tape!
You have project studios in your homes. How do you interface with the larger studios where you complete your work?
Gonzalez: I do all the pre-production at my house. I don’t bother with a computer at home. I have both an MPC-2000 and 3000, and I drop all my beats and tracks to disk. When we go into the studio, I get my engineer to suck it all into Pro Tools. We create our arrangements in Pro Tools and then get on with our work. We’ve done a couple of projects entirely in Pro Tools; it’s great for riding vocals. Most of the time, though, I keep the drum machine stuff and music automated on the board, so I end up with a mixture of Pro Tools tracks and live MIDI stuff.
What monitors do you use?
Vega: Consistent sound is the most important thing, so at my home studio I use only Tannoy speakers. I use System 15 for main reference with B400 subwoofer; 800As with a subwoofer for near-field.
Gonzalez: Tannoys are dope. I’ve always loved their sound — very true. In my house, I’ve got the Tannoy System 1200/B400. The end result always sounds exactly like what you heard in the room you were working in.
You must have some interesting stories to tell, given the level of talent you’ve worked with over the years.
Both: Watching Tommy Li Puma produce George Benson in the studio was like getting a crash course in producing. Co-producing “The Ghetto: El Barrio” with him in the studio was very special. When we remixed Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” we were blown away by the way it was recorded. When we brought the track up, it sounded just like the record; Michael’s voice just needed a little reverb. When we put the faders up and lined them up at 0, the mix was perfect. Bruce Swedien is “the man.”
Recording Eddie Palmieri in our studio for the Nuyorican Soul project was tremendous. He did his tracks in one take. Arranging background vocals with Luther Vandross for BeBe Winan’s Thank You record, Luther knew exactly what he wanted — the different notes for everyone, stacking the sounds. He is a genius.