Pro Techniques 03.01.2003


Pro Techniques from Serban Ghenea

By Randy Alberts


Serban Ghenea

Reading production credits, Grammy nominations, and chart positions is one way to gauge a mixer's talents. Reading how an online audio forum treats them is another, as this recent heated exchange on the state of hip-hop mixing illustrates:

axe24: You obviously know nothing about mixing OR hip-hop, that record sounds like sh#%, just horrible, horrible!

DV91b: Ok, I must really suck then. I've been spending 6-12 hours a night for years in the studio now on my hip-hop & R&B mixes, so I don't know anything. Maybe you can do it for me, then??? I'm sure it will only take you a couple of minutes, axe.

jmpz1: Hey Axe, another tip for ya....if you CARE about hip-hop or any music for that matter, look for records mixed by Serban Ghenea and pay close attention to the tightness of the Low End and the volume of the Vocal and Snare.

It'd be a blast winning a Grammy or three and being interviewed backstage, but hunches are that Serban Ghenea might dig that one engineer’s opinion as much as any others.

Leaving Romania in 1973 at the age of four, maturing as a musician and engineer in Montreal, and now living and working in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Ghenea offers a broad experience palette and mild manner few in hip-hop, R&B, rock, jazz, and pop can resist. He studied jazz at music school, played in funk and R&B bands in college, and honed his early engineering chops under New Jack Swing man Teddy Riley, so mixing it all up is what this peer-recognized, Pro Tools-only mixer is all about.

"I love to blend the elements of different musical styles that may not normally exist together in order to create a new sound for the artist and make it their own," says Ghenea, who mixed ten projects last year resulting in 13 Grammy Awards nominations [see this months feature story]. "'Artist A' shouldn't sound like 'Artist C' just because a producer or mixer has their own signature sound. I like to pattern my work after producer Mutt Lange's and want to be something like his equivalent as a mixer. Unless you knew it you'd never guess going back that albums by artists like AC/DC, Billy Ocean, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Def Leppard, and the Backstreet Boys were all produced by Mutt Lange. There's no common thread among those sounds and styles except that they all sound awesome and they all had huge success."

Greetings from the Hippest Beach
Ghenea, who often works with his Virginia Beach producer neighbors the Neptunes, mixed Grammy-nominated projects last year for Floetry, Justin Timberlake, 'NSYNC, Jill Scott, Musiq, Britney Spears, and Grits. The latter, a "hip-hop duo from Nashville" typical of the pan-musical vibe he works best in, was up for Best Rock Gospel Album honors. And if a new artist he's working with now sounds as good as Ghenea says he does, you may well be reading about Kenna (Columbia) this time next year in DigiZine's Grammy 2004 cover story.

"It's the craziest stuff," Ghenea says, "a cross between Beatles White Album and Sergeant Pepper and 1980s U2, Depeche Mode, Bowie and Cars, and 1990s hip-hop. He's from Virginia Beach, too; Chad [Hugo] from the Neptunes produced it and I recorded and mixed it. It's as fresh and new-sounding as the first Alanis Morissette album was."


Pro Technique 1 —
Better session organization: When young is old again

It's said often by Pro Tools mixers and engineers generally over 30 to Pro Tools engineers generally under 30: Organize those Pro Tools sessions! Ghenea says he used to spend fully one-third of his billable time searching for, rearranging, and compartmentalizing tracks on the more scattered Pro Tools sessions he’s handed before he’d even touched a fader. "Starting a mix with as many as 70 or 80 vocal tracks scattered everywhere used to drive me up the wall," he says.

The busy mixer says he works on so many concurrent projects at a given time that the issue of sorting through unorganized Pro Tools sessions became enough of a problem to hire a right-hand man. John Hanes now does the distilling for him in order to let Ghenea focus on what he's paid to do — mix— but they both encourage their clients to shape up those sessions all the same.

"A lot of engineers coming up today never worked with 2-inch, 24-track," he says patiently. "We would fill up 24 tracks, then make a slave reel of the important things we came up with on the first reel, then we'd transfer all those as a rough stereo pair on a new second reel and be left with 20 tracks to keep going. At the end of the day we'd have two or three reels of tape and lots of detailed track notes with everything we needed to do a mix from scratch."

Ghenea offers his younger Pro Tools sisters and brothers a tried-and-true old school method that can literally save thousands of dollars a day when all that hard work piles up on him at final mix or remix. "New engineers today haven't completely grasped the context of a slave reel in the digital realm or of using playlists and secondary sessions that simplify things at the mix stage a great deal. You know it's always been said you’re really not a recording engineer until you've had to mix. It would be very helpful for everybody, especially new Pro Tools engineers, to follow some basic track organization rules when it comes to recording with Pro Tools."

We all know who we are, don't we? First, set up a session and cut all your rhythm music tracks and save that as "Song XYZ Instrument Tracking," the digital equivalent of a master 2-inch multitrack reel. Bounce all those tracks down to a stereo rough mix pair, import those two tracks into a new session named "Song XYZ Background Vocal Tracking" and leave that "master reel" untouched for the meantime. Make sure the new session has the same start time, tempo, and all pertinent session criteria and start recording background vocals for days.

"You might end up with as many as 30 or 40 tracks of backgrounds; that's fine," he continues. "A lot of people now will even track four or five tracks of the same note just to get it really thick. Four- and five-part harmonies tracked in this way really add up but that way you can even blend each note of the background vocal into its own stereo pair. Now you've got your slave reel which has the master music tracks included as mix stems [movie sound term for tracks delivered in groups of stereo pairs to the mix stage in case of late changes] and you've got your working slave session where you cut all your vocals with every note in the background vocal blend available. Five-part harmonies, let's say, at four tracks per note and you've got 20 tracks of vocals which you've now comped down to eight or ten tracks. Now you take those eight or ten comped tracks and create a third session named ‘Song XYZ Lead Vocal Tracking/Comp.'"


New lead vocal playlist


Ghenea says to then import the original stereo rhythm track and either a stereo background vocals stem or the eight or ten stereo background blended note vocals from the "Background Vocals" session to this third Pro Tools session. Track the lead vocalist for as many times as CPU allows and then with vocals recorded and comped go back to the original tracking session and import the new lead vocal comps.

"By now you may have recorded up to 100 tracks or more and comped it down to maybe 25 or 30 tracks in the master session, which is awesome," he says. "It makes it so much easier for the mixer and takes out the guesswork that can lead to your missing an important part or finding out it's missing from the final session but was a big part of the original demo everyone's listening to. When you're getting ready to send out that master session to the mixer you should remove the unused regions from the session, then go 'Save session copy in' to another drive which eliminates any unneeded files. That can take a session down from 2 or 3GB to something very manageable. If you organize things right, you'll end up with a Pro Tools session folder which has a master, a work slave, a second vocal work slave session, and a combination of all three of those sessions into your final mix master session file."

Ghenea also notes that it is key at this stage to end up with manageable sessions to work with but to still be able to go back to previous work sessions to make changes and re-import the result into a final Pro Tools master session file.

Pro Technique 2 —
Cutting out silences and maximizing voice count

Another tip offered complete with an analog analogy is Ghenea's advice to first chop, then reallocate music tracks to maximize resources. Something akin to recording zero signal over musical silences on analog tape tracks to simplify non-automated mixdowns, he suggests locating where certain tracks may not be sounding and then cutting and deleting those segments out.


Voice allocation menu

"A MIXplus system has a maximum stated track count of 64," explains Ghenea, "but by cleaning up tracks and using Pro Tools' voice-sharing controls, I've been able to play as many as 70- and 80-track vocal sessions from one hard drive. You might even have 150 tracks for a song but they're not all playing at once, so if you're careful about organization you can figure out that there are a lot of regions on tracks that are empty. What I do is create a new playlist for every track; it's easy to do. Once you open a session from the beginning, just hit '‘All groups' and create a duplicate playlist; now the original playlist stays unaltered so you have that to refer back to if you need to later. Now you're on the new duplicated playlist and you trim away all the empty spaces. The audio file is there but there's nothing going on so there's no reason for that to be there eating up a voice for a whole verse or chorus or whatever."

Ghenea goes on to suggest a situation in which there are Verse 1 background vocals on tracks 1 and 2 and Chorus 1 backgrounds on 3 and 4 that don't play at the same time. When each track's voice allocation control is set to the default "Auto," then Pro Tools automatically allocates the sequential tracks to voices 1-2 and 3-4 because the audio files for each run the length of the song. Cut out and trash the unused segments of each track, then assign the background vocal verse and chorus tracks manually to "Voices 1 and 2" at the left side of the each track's display.

"You might save as much as 50% of your voices if you really stay on top of what's happening on each track at all times," concludes the helpful Ghenea, who starts production soon on the next Jewel record. "Now you can have upwards of 80 or 90 tracks on a MIXplus or 160+ tracks on a Pro Tools|HD system, for instance, if you stay very organized."