These days, some professional mixing and recording engineers are doing work for major labels completely missed the analogue age. Others are still mixing on consoles. We have come to a point where there really is no “right” or “wrong” in terms of mixing. Some tracks are mixed so perfectly that they are not signed off on by the label because they are lacking something “distinct” or “of a raw nature.” Other times, indie songs are mixed by a band itself and find their way to the top, where at that point the label just has someone remix the single for mainstream radio. (For example compare the normal and radio mixes of Gotye “Somebody That I Used to Know.)
NYC based mixing and recording engineer Liu Ortiz has seen it from all sides of the music and business spectrum. Starting out at such a young age of 16 as an engineer, his career has placed him with a perfect balance (at still a young age) with a ton of knowledge in both the digital and analogue worlds. He has worked on tracks with and for artists such as Mary J. Blige, Pink, Luther Vandross, Christina Aguilera, and even RZA to name a few, and was quite a successful engineer at the Hit Factory in New York City.
Coming from the world of Cubase and Pro Tools, and after hearing all the buzz about the full feature-set of SONAR X3, Liu decided to give SONAR X3 a whirl on a new track by Jennifer Hudson feat. R Kelley for RCA Records. After mixing the track, he found himself gravitating towards the workflow so he continued the journey onto another project called The Summer Set; a very well established band from Scottsdale Arizona who are quickly making waves internationally. I recently got a chance to visit with Liu at the new Cakewalk Room which is ironically enough in the old Hit Factory where he often worked. Liu showed me some of his new mixes, showed me where his picture and plaques were on the wall, and even gave me a few interesting stories about some of the “good ole days” featuring Missy Elliot, Queen Latifah and Sean Puffy Combs [don’t worry Liu – I’ll never tell 😉
Cakewalk Artist Relations: Since you grew up on analogue consoles, what are there big sonic differences you hear now that you mix “in the box”?
Liu Ortiz: Well in the beginning way back when DAWs first started, I noticed that no matter what I did as I progressed with more plugins and inserts of each channel, the mix coming out the box would progressively get thinner; especially with vocals. I couldn’t really do much to fix that problem until not too long ago where technology has progressed with DAWs and computers in general. Now, I can pretty much faithfully emulate hardware with EQ’s and compressors of pretty much all the consoles I have worked on in the past.
Neve and SSL’s had such distinctive qualities about them similar in comparison to that of Strats and Les Pauls. Since I worked on both extensively, I remember all the little nuances that each series had. So when I am mixing I just try my best to EQ with those particular traits in mind since they were my personal favorites. Pretty much all DAWs now are inherently very neutral, so I can dial in whatever tone I want and don’t have to worry about the vocals or guitars becoming shrill. I really appreciate technology now and just concentrate on crafting the best mix possible. I must add that it is pretty amazing to me that SONAR X3 has a Console Emulator built into every bus and every track – this blew me away.
Cakewalk Artist Relations: How do you approach mixes such as your mix for the Jennifer Hudson track [feat. R. Kelly]? Do you use a lot of buses and plugins in general?
Liu Ortiz: I try to keep it as simple as possible. I still prescribe to that belief that the more busses and subgroups you use, the noisier the signal will be. On all of my tracks, I put the EQ before the compressor and I always approach each instrument and track as a smaller part of a whole mix. I always subgroup vocals like in the old days on a console; main hooks, bridge, backgrounds, harmonies, etc. I really just like to make sure the source material is as clean as possible after the EQ-ing and Compressing though sometime I do go for distortion on occasion for example on the snare or the bass.
Cakewalk Artist Relations: What are some of the tricks you use in the digital world mixing that you learned in the analogue world?
Liu Ortiz: I love the fact that I can write pans in as I hear them in my head!! I found SONAR so useful for writing-in automations such as panning. Back in the analog days you would put a pan-scanner on it and just let it rip. There are a lot of tricks that have translated from my analogue education into the digital world, and I highly recommend anyone just getting into mixing to study as much of the analogue criteria as possible. Here is one: sometimes I take mono guitars and split them [or rather copy them] until I have three. I pan the outer ones left and right and then take the center track and put it out of phase. From there, I will bring it up until I get the desired stereo effect. For a long time DAWs didn’t have phase channels and it drove me crazy, now there are phasing options everywhere and I use them all the time. There are many tricks experimenting with phase that can open up mixes.
Cakewalk Artist Relations: What does a typical lead vocal chain look like for you in mixing? How do you get the vocals to sit just right in terms of levels and effects?
Liu Ortiz: When it comes to vocals, the cleaner the better for me. I really work hard to make sure that they are level and pristine. I even go through each track and gain-up or gain-down each part so that at any level you can hear the vocal above the mix. I will get into very detailed gaining with certain words and pronunciations – like surgery. Like I said earlier, I also subgroup all the background, harmony and lead vocals that belong together, and then on each sub I add additional EQ > Compression > De-esser – in that order. On my sends for this Jennifer Hudson mix I used Breverb, Nomad Blue and Renaissance Reverbs. I actually had never tried Breverb but it is amazing for vocals. It’s a very subtle reverb that does not sound cheap and tinny – it meshes in well with tracks like reverb should. As for delays, I love the Nomad Blue delays, they are amazing!! The fact that the Nomad bundle comes with SONAR X3 is such a great things for anyone shopping for DAWs. I have been using it for years and I just keep going back to it even after all these new plugins come out. It’s like the Waves renaissance collection – timeless. I also use PSP’s Pcm 42’s and 81’s quite often as well.
Cakewalk Artist Relations: What are some of the features in SONAR that you like opposed to other DAWs?
Liu Ortiz: I really like the quickness of the workflow. Any new system takes a bit to get used to, but with the feature of being able to import and modify key commands it has been smoother than expected. I like the ProChannel a lot – it is very versatile and sounds great. I find the audio engine itself sounds amazing when comparing it to mixes from other DAWs as well. Automation with track lanes are a great feature and editing is really fast and easy. I also love how this DAW is rock solid in terms of stability. I am running a lot of tracks with some hefty processing and it has not flinched on me once.
Cakewalk Artist Relations: You used to mix in the Hit Factory which is the new Cakewalk NYC Headquarters. We know Michael Jackson, P Diddy, Missy Elliot among many other famous musicians used it as a playground. We have to ask: can you share a good [clean] story of “back in the day”? 😉
Liu Ortiz: I have many great memories and subtle stories from my favorite working artist Luther Vandross. He was so classy and just a sweet man in general. His engineer was Ray Bardani who is an incredible gentleman himself and an amazing engineer as well. Anyway Luther was just so cool, while I was mixing a song for him he would just come in and listen to the mix. He was very easy and relaxed in that way, if he had any ideas he would convey them in such a way to you like he was an older relative. He also expected you to be as creative as possible. When he passed away I felt so horrible, because whenever I would run in to him from that point on in the studio. Her would order food in his session and call me to invite me to eat with him and Ray. No matter what studio where be it be here in NY or LA.
Cakewalk Artist Relations: Are you still working with just Major Label artists these days?
Liu Ortiz: No. This game has changed significantly, and although I do a lot of work for Major Labels I will listen to ANY artists. Some of the best stuff comes in from artists around the world who are not on a label. I will only work with artists that I think I can do a great job on and who have potential, but there are no “status” barometers in my world when it comes to working with great artists. I am very well versed in just about every single genre from POP, to Metal and everything between. I have engineered and mixed it all, so I understand the arrangement and concepts from within “the songs” itself.
The bandwidth has gotten greater, so I often mix tracks from artists all over the world who can upload tracks to me. And now that I am on SONAR X3 with built in Gobbler, it should be even easier to worth with artists from afar. Any artist can reach out to me through email at firstname.lastname@example.org and point me to their current work so I can take a listen and get back to them.