Life-changing moments, those pivotal episodes that shape who we are and what we do, come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as momentous and well-planned as the decision to attend university followed by law school, or they can be as accidental and seemingly unknowing as visiting a petting zoo as a six-year-old and later becoming a veterinarian. Everybody has a story.
For award-winning producer/engineer Rafa Sardina, a handful of key moments and decisions stand out, leading him on a circuitous route from a childhood in a small fishing town in the northern Basque region of Spain to a dream life in Los Angeles, recording and mixing the likes of Stevie Wonder, Luis Miguel, Alejandro Sanz, D’Angelo, Calle 9 and many, many others.
But for those moments, Sardina could very well be a doctor today. Or an architect. Or, it seems, just about anything he put his mind to. But his first love was music.
Moment Number 1: At the age of 6, Sardina stole his younger sister’s guitar. She hit him with it and took it back. He persisted and kept sneaking it away, falling in love with the sound and the tone. She would later go to a music conservatory for piano and today plays professionally. At age 8, he told his mother that he wanted to be a professional musician.
Moment Number 2: At the age of 15, his parents moved from Spain to San Diego. He didn’t like it and only stayed a couple months before returning home. He stayed with relatives and friends, finished school, spent a year in Ireland, came home, played in bands. At 16, he visited his first professional recording studio in San Sebastian, near France, with a cousin who played drums and whose band had just signed a record deal. Sardina tagged along, and he got the bug.
Moment Number 3: Still, Sardina was in his late teens and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he went to medical school. In his fourth year, at age 20 (he was always the youngest in his class) and during a residency, he dropped out. “I thought, ‘It’s now or never. I’m about to lose my opportunity to be a musician/producer,’” he says. “I really felt that way, and I dropped out right before the final. I just decided that I had to do this.”
He already had a base in music. During his second year of med school, Sardina had hooked up with a local promoter, Jose Angel, who had him engineer front of house and monitors for local acts, later exposing him to international touring. He soon realized that if he wanted to make a career in music production and recording, he needed some form of education; he needed to learn the lingo. He scraped and saved and soon flew into Chillicothe, Ohio, for a three-week recording certificate program at The Recording Workshop. It was all he could afford. Back in Spain, he saved up more money and soon found himself in Orlando, Fla., at Full Sail University.
Moment Number 4: He excelled at Full Sail, back in the late 1980s when the school had an SSL console off-campus and had just purchased its first Neve VR. He became proficient on the Synclavier. Four weeks from graduation, he arranged a 24-hour trip to Los Angeles for interviews. Again, it was all the time he could afford. He met with Record Plant and Westlake, then ended his day at Ocean Way, a facility he readily admits had become something of an obsession with him.
“I had a meeting with Jack Walsh in the office right above the sign,” Sardina recalls. “Jack told me in that meeting that basically I didn’t know shit. [Laughs.] I met Allen [Sides] briefly. That was it. By the end I was trying to convince him of my value; I could repair any cable. I’m a jack of all trades. He basically told me no, there was no position. So I was leaving the office—nice to meet you and all that—and as I left I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t get in.’ I turned around and went back into the office, and I told Jack that I needed to work here, to do something here, no matter what because I had a flight back to Orlando. I wouldn’t graduate for four weeks. He actually pulled out a calendar and said, ‘Okay, in four weeks, let’s pick a day for you to start. And that was the beginning of my journey here.’ I am very grateful that they took a chance on me.”
Moment Number 5: After five years at Ocean Way, Sardina decided to go independent, establishing Fishbone Productions in 2001 and his first iteration of After Hours Studio, his home base, soon after. He hired longtime friend and former Ocean Way studio manager Claris Sayadian-Dodge as his manager, and he was soon booked constantly, working in studios all over town, all over the country and around the world.
He has since worked on major film scores, multi-platinum pop hits, an opera or two, live multichannel broadcasts and a wide range of Latin music encompassing every country in the Americas. He has earned 35 Grammy nominations (including Latin Grammys), winning 13 times. And now he is on the cover of Mix, a magazine he picked up while on a return visit to his parents in San Diego at age 19, first exposing him to a much, much larger world of recording.
Focus on the Artist
Sardina credits a cousin in Spain, who later would die in a helicopter crash, as being his first major influence in music and in life. He credits his experience in Spain working front of house and monitors as providing a foundation for his production and engineering success. And he credits his time at Ocean Way among world-class producer and engineers, in particular the tutelage of owner Allen Sides, as teaching him about the human factor in recording.
All those moments and all those influences stood Sardina well when, after five years at Ocean Way, he decided to go independent. He had a range of clients at that point, and had worked on music for films as well as with artists like Dr. Dre and Dru Hill. It wasn’t a sudden decision, he says; it happened organically, and Ocean Way was supportive. “Allen Sides told me early on that he didn’t see me as a staff engineer on down the line. He wanted me to come back as a client.”
Sardina continued working in studios all over town, occasionally in New York, Miami and London, spending a couple of years carting around his traveling racks and soaking up what worked and what didn’t in his favorite spaces. While his racks were at home between gigs, he began putting together his first studio in a former house.
“I got to the point where I wanted my own creative space,” he says. “I could see that the industry was changing, and it was changing rapidly. I saw Rick Rubin and all these guys building their own rooms, and I saw that it was moving in a different direction. I figured that I would be out of the loop if I didn’t have my own creative space. My first studio was in my previous house, just a tiny room, tracking little things, like drums in the hallway. I started producing things on smaller budgets. One thing led to another, and I realized that I needed a much bigger, more professional room, with the right sonics.”
He also wanted privacy for himself and his clients and preferred a large property so that he could build a studio as a separate structure, from the ground up. After looking at more than a hundred properties, he got a call from his wife while in session at Record Plant. He sheepishly asked the client if it would be okay to disappear for a few hours; they had been looking so long. It didn’t have a separate structure, but it did have privacy, and it did have a three-car garage with a second floor above it. They bought the house, and on the recommendation of Sayadian-Dodge, he hired architects from Com-pos-it in Los Angeles.
“We took the garage, the adjacent room, and we expanded it a little bit,” Sardina says of the birth of After Hours Studio. “Then we took the upstairs for office and bathroom and lounge. Downstairs I have the control room and iso booth, which is large enough for tracking. I have a sound lock upstairs and downstairs. It’s totally isolated, and it has worked out great.
“I just tracked Vinnie Colaiuta in there last week,” he continues. “The ceiling is high enough, and drums sound really good in that room. We got lucky, to tell the truth. I tracked all the singers here for D’Angelo on Black Messiah, and all of the horns were tracked here in my iso booth. It just works.”
He already had most of his gear, enough to populate a rear-wall outboard rack and fill up his loaded Pro Tools system. He has embraced an analog-plus-digital workflow (he never participated in the analog-versus-digital debate) from his first exposure to the Synclavier on through his adoption of the first iteration of Pro Tools. They are all useful, he has found.
A few years ago he put in an SSL Duality console and large Augspurger monitors, to accompany his ATC 50s and a variety of other monitor options. The room underwent a light tuning with Hanson Hsu of Delta H Design and ZR Acoustics. The most notable change was the installation of a cloud above the mix position to help improve imaging with the change in console and monitors. The late Vincent Van Haaff, a friend, helped him with his HVAC returns as related to the sound lock and UPS electrical. “It works brilliantly,” Sardina says. “I still have Vincent’s hand drawings of how it would work.”
Sardina also was an early adopter of Sonarworks, a reference monitor-headphone plug-in that enables him to create some consistency in his frequent travels to other studios. He is a big fan of Avedis and Manley, and enjoys the back-and-forth communication he has with each. He is fundamentally a man of science, and he appreciates being allowed to have input into product design. But he is also at his roots an artist, and he wanted his space to be familiar and comfortable for the types of clients he worked with.
“The artist has to feel comfortable, in an environment where they feel safe enough to expose themselves and create,” Sardina says. “There has to be a level of comfort and empathy for their process, which might be different from another artist or from what you’re used to. You have to be adaptable. And, from the sonic standpoint, you have to provide the combination of producer and engineer—you have to have a producer’s mind to be a great engineer—in creating a sonic landscape that helps them express themselves.”
Today, Sardina is quite happy with his workaday life, whether in recent big band sessions at Avatar Studio A in New York, at Criteria in Miami with Alejandro Sanz or at home with D’Angelo. In his spare time, he serves as chairman of the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing, and he is a founding member and vice chairman of CPI (Circulo de Productores e Ingenieros), the equivalent organization representing Producers & Engineers in Latin America, Brazil, Spain and Portugal.
It’s that sense of community that drives him, the idea of raising the art and working closely with artists from the beginning of the creative process. He likes producing, and he likes being involved from songwriting on forward. He will never be the Fifth Beatle, he laughs, but still…
“You need to become one of them, and the artist needs to feel that you are one of them,” he says in summation. “You become connected to them without them telling you. Then you become a collaborator. That’s how relationships are created in the industry, and I’m very proud that I have lots and lots of repeat clients, some of them for decades.”