Mixing Engineer Lu Diaz on Mixing Major Key
Mixing engineer and producer Lu Diaz is based in Miami Florida. He is a three-time Grammy Award winner who is credited with over 30 platinum and gold record awards. In 2016 he won his third Grammy for his mixing work on Morgan Heritage’s Grammy Award winning album “Strictly Roots” and mixed Dj Khaled’s ninth studio album “Major Key” which debuted #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. We discuss mixing Dj Khaled’s Major Key Album
How long have you worked with Dj Khaled as a mixing engineer?
A long time! Lol We have been working together since about 2005, about 12 years!
What was different about working with him on this album as opposed to the other albums?
I have to say this was very different in several respects. For one this album in my opinion is probably Khaled’s best work so far, but more importantly his new found fame has giving his music a significantly broader audience. The other big difference was I basically mixed 70% of the songs in my home studio and we booked out Circle House Studios in Miami and worked together on the other 30% there.
As a mixing engineer how difficult is it to mix so many different features and make them sound like they were all in the studio together?”
Well I guess after working as with Khaled for so many album, it sort of become second nature. I like to call it organized chaos. As the mixing engineer you are not only in charge of the music sounding great but that the mix sessions are running as smooth as possible. To me the greatest assets to run a smooth sessions for mixing is protools. Mixing in the box allows me to jump from song to song and keep things moving along. With Khaled’s projects in particular there are so many moving parts because of all of the featured artist involved, that as a mixing engineer you really need to be on your game. The way I get all of these artist to sound cohesive is really a combination of what I just mentioned and really at the end of the day experience. Not only the experience of mixing music for 20 years but also working with a lot of these artist in Dj Khaled’s past albums. I pretty much know what to expect from who.
Since Dj khaled is always dropping these monster songs with so much energy and bottom, How do you achieve that every in every mix?
Its all in the kick and the 808 fitting together. I’ve battled with this concept my whole career. There’s many different techniques that have worked for me and I tend to use many of them when I’m working on hip hop records. Side-chaining, phase reversal, limiting, multi-band compression and sound layering are a few of my approaches.
How much processing did you do across the mixes on this album?
Not more or less than what I usually do, but when it comes to hip-hop, most of my focus goes to the music. Although the vocal is the most important part of the mix and should be the star of the show, the music is the backdrop that enhances the story and can make or break the overall experience of the song.
Often mixing engineers comment that working on vocals is the hardest aspect of mixing, how difficult was is to work on the vocals specifically on this project?
Yes I have to agree here, as a mixing engineer mixing vocals is probably one of the biggest challenges in the process. I guess because we are now on the 9th album and I have definitely been around the block enough, it has become much easier for me. With that said there are always some challenges with how the vocals were recorded that can throw you curve balls. One good example was Jeremih’s vocal on “Do You Mind” there is all this crazy distortion on his vocal because when it was recorded the engineer didn’t hear that the pre-amp was getting overdriven. So what do we do…. we pray!! Lol no but seriously you really need to get creative with instances like that. A lot of the distortion is still there on the final mix but I tried to blend him in and cover up as much of it with out it sounding obvious.
So the question I’m sure you get all the time, how do you get the drums to sound so freakin BIG?
Like I just mentioned, the thing that I do a lot is compress and sometimes limit the low end on an 808 and as I listen to the mix, I’m always playing with the compressor threshold and gain back and forth till I find that sweet spot right at the edge of a cliff. I don’t like to add too much compression or limiting because I want my mastering engineer to do some of that on his end. As a drummer and now as a mixing engineer, I’ve always been a fan of big sounding drums, so over the years I’ve given a lot of my focus on how to achieve that and I’ve just gotten really good at it! Lol
We always hear Dj Khaled say he wants his music to bigger, how do you reconcile that still put out clean sounding mixes?
Well one of the mistakes many young mixing engineers make, is they listen to what their clients say and they take them literally. One of the most important things you will learn in this business is when to and when not to take you’re clients request literal. After all these years, I’ve learned that what you’re trying to put forward is a feeling. What you’re doing is maximizing as much of the energy of the song for the listener. The average listener doesn’t really know what we do, but if it makes them jump in their seats when the music comes in, then I feel like I did my job. It is all about the songs with Khaled. So little things matter – a tiny 1% may not not seem like a a lot, but that’s the difference between gold and platinum.
How did you mix Major Key to sound good on all audio devices?
I listen to my mixes on my phone sometimes, but I’m not really expecting an 808 at 40 hertz to translate. I’m listening more for the lead vocal and kick snare balance. Make sure those three elements have a nice comfortable balance. I will definitely do a car test because I’m a huge believer in it. I think most people spend a lot of their time listening to music in cars. I know I do, which means I have learned what a good mix is supposed to sound like in my car. It definitely gives you and instant perspective change and that is so good to do while you’re mixing. Mixing engineers are always trying to make their mixes sound good on every set of speakers, but the honest truth is that it’s not really possible. It’s more about making choices. For example a project like Major is going to be heard a variety of systems, but where it’s going to resonate with people is going to be in the club! So if you spend too much time focusing on how the 808 translates on you iPhone, you might miss the most important place it should translates. Just saying. Lol People definitely listen to music on their phone’s speakers, but most of the attention there is on the lyrics. I don’t think anybody’s going to get the full experience of a mixed song over a phone speakers.
What are your monitors of choice, and which monitors did you use to mix Major Key?
A lot of mixing engineer’s tend to rate monitors, gear, microphone by their sticker price, but I try to just listen and make decisions on what I hear and like. I’m a huge fan of the Yamaha HS5’s, I got six pairs of them. They’re inexpensive speakers, but they’re really punchy and they remind me of the NS-10. For main I used the Genelec 1036B double 18″ woofers. These bad boys can reproduce low frequencies like 40, 35 hertz amazingly. You want to know how the low end of the mix is sounding or better yet feeling? Well these monitors will tell you exactly that. That’s why I love them so much.
What skill set you possess has had the greatest impact on your mixing engineer career?
Musicality. I started as musician, playing with bands and that taught me rhythm, progressions and structure. Musicality always given me an advantage. The ability to not only make a song sound great, but to make it feel great!