If you want a career as a mix engineer, Kanye West and Beyonce are pretty good artists to have on your resume. I’m sure many would love to observe these recording sessions, let alone be involved with them.
More than a fly on the wall, Andrew Dawson has been mixing and engineering (and more) tracks that have hit the music industry hard.
I was very tempted to title this ‘Sound Advice’ but didn’t want any of my awful puns to deter readers, so hopefully you read past this sentence now! Because, truly, Andrew Dawson has some spot on advice, and is someone with an incredibly admirable work ethic and discography.
Dawson attended Berklee College of Music and then went on to take a job at Sony in New York City. He has since applied his skills in engineering, mixing, and producing. Remember a little ol’ track called ‘Power’ by Kanye West? Dawson earned a co-production credit for the track, and has worked with West for eight years, earning three Grammy Awards and six nominations. He has worked with artists such as Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kimbra, Common, and, recently, Pet Shop Boys. I am incredibly happy to bring you an interview with Andrew Dawson!
Farah Joan Fard: As a former classical pianist, what made you decide to delve into mixing and engineering?
Andrew Dawson: I was playing piano from the age of five, but I’ve always had a fascination with the technical side of recordings. I remember hearing A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and just being in awe of the bottom end. I wanted to find out how to achieve that myself, and I began experimenting with 4 track recorders and early MIDI sequencers. It was creative both from a sonic standpoint and a writing one. Something about the combination of technology and artistry has always seemed to captivate me.
FJF: If I remember correctly, you came to speak at an intro MP&E class I was taking with Stephen Webber, maybe four years ago? You gave a story of how you found your way into a studio by making yourself helpful and useful to others. Correct me if I am wrong…and could you elaborate, in your own words?
AD: Well, a lot of it has to do with anticipating what people need. You should be able to do something without the person having to ask, so that they can focus on what they should be doing and not on you. I think this awareness – in addition to really knowing my way around the studio and Pro Tools – was what put me ahead of the rest. I was working out of Sony Music Studios and Kanye West wasn’t happy with any of the engineers he was working with – he fired about five in a very short period of time. I was next on the list, and I’ve been working with him since. You really need to pay attention, read people, learn their likes and dislikes, and see how they are reacting to what is going on.
FJF: You prefer to work on projects that have meaning. How is that defined for you?
AD: Someone who really believes in what they are doing. It can be a fun record, it can be a serious record, whatever the intention – so long as they believe in it and are passionate about it! Because I am passionate about making music. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with many artists and on many projects that have had this kind of meaning.
FJF: West seems to have quite a reputation in the music industry. I’m not sure how much of it is fair. Honestly, I never thought I would like his work until a friend of mine introduced it to me when I was in college, and I enjoyed it. Then, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, and there are some tracks there that I found to be so great from a musical and production standpoint! How is it to work in a creative environment with him?
AD: Kanye really brings out the best in people, and that is a true sign of a great producer. When you’re in the studio with Kanye, it’s a one hundred percent creative atmosphere. There is the sense that there are no boundaries, anything is possible, and as a result a lot of ideas come out of those sessions. They are always productive. Definitely, Kanye for makes some crazy good beats, but he’s always very aware of the musical side of the songs as well.
FJF: I get this question a lot so I am wondering what you think…Auto-Tune. Industry standard, necessary evil…?
AD: It’s both. You can use Auto-Tune as an effect, but you can also use it as a proper pitch correction. There’s the functional and creative part of it, and that’s a choice one makes depending on the production. I love the sonic effect of Auto-Tune when turned to “eleven”, your voice starts to resemble a synthesizer. There is a downside, though, and sadly lots of people are relying on it as a crutch for lazy vocal performances and that’s really not ideal.
FJF: While in school I often heard that “there are button pushers and creative types and a mixture of the two”. This seems awfully black and white, but I did see some who were great engineers, but not so much on the creative side and the opposite as well. Is this a bad stereotype? Is being a sound engineer creative enough in its own right?
AD: The way records are being made today, if you’re a creative type you have to be a ‘button pusher’ to get the sound you want. So much depends on the sonic aspect of it, and the boundaries are becoming more and more blurred. As a result, everyone seems to be a jack of all trades (these days). It works from both sides too – if you’re an engineer, you have to be aware of how to put together songs to do well in the business nowadays. Often your songwriting or production sensibilities will inform your mix or engineering decisions. There are very few places left for pure “technical guys”.
FJF: A lot of music production students get discouraged–interning and fetching coffee and cleaning to get a job that may pay you minimum wage at first…when, at the same time, your friends are getting paid internships and well paying office jobs can get frustrating. When I was an intern at one place I was told, “they don’t pay because every wants to be here because it’s cool”. I think this is a model seen often in the entertainment industry, but what do you think about it? Any words of encouragement?
AD: Don’t do it simply for having a “cool job” – that soon becomes very transparent and those guys get weeded out fast. I hate to say it, but being a music engineer / producer / musician is a lifestyle – it’s very challenging and something you have to choose knowing there will be sacrifices in other areas of your life you have to make. There are crazy hours, often with no sense of holidays or weekends for little to no money for a while. If you are really smart, passionate, eager and willing you will find yourself getting promoted or favored with time. I think a common misconception among new interns is the notion: “oh man, if they could only hear how good of an engineer/producer I am!”. To be honest, initially, no one really cares how good you are. We are just looking for the right attitude, personality, and eagerness to learn and help. Make the person you are assisting/working with life easier, or job less stressful, and they will want you around all the time. Your time will come.
If you really want it, you need to realize that you always have a lot to learn – learn from observing and listening.
FJF: A lot of people express that the music industry is changing, and more power is going back to the artists. Do you agree?
AD: In some aspects yes, while in others no. Actually, I think that the consumer now has more power than ever. The consumer now expects and gets everything on demand, and with an almost infinite amount of choices. If you happen to be an artist that a consumer wants then there are more avenues available for you to get music to them. In this way, the consumer is empowering the artist, as are the technical advances of the time. Yet in most cases, artists still need help in reaching that audience – it can be overwhelming, and they need to be allowed to focus on creating and being artists.
FJF: What projects are you working on now and in the near future?
AD: I have just finished up Producing, Engineering and Mixing the Pet Shop Boys new album. In the works are VersaEmerge – who, like fun., are on Fueled By Ramen – P.O.S. and recently POP ETC (formerly known as The Morning Benders).
Check out his website!