It's an anomaly that few Spanish engineers work outside of Spain and few Latin music engineers are Spanish. George Shilling discusses Rafa Sardina's unique profile at Abbey Road's revamped Studio One
RAFA SARDINA IS an LA-based engineer with an impressive client list and a couple of Grammy's under his belt. He has worked with names such as Macy Gray, Angie Stone and Dru Hill and has engineered a number of movie score and soundtrack recordings. He was recently ensconced in Abbey Road's recently-refurbished Studio One for three days of orchestral recording.
Q How did you get started in the music business?
I started doing live sound for mainly folk, world and jazz music in Northern Spain and the south of France. I was doing live sound for an artist, and he happened to need an assistant in his studio, so I started fooling around there, once he knew he could trust me. Being in a small studio was a great experience; I didn't have the constraints of bigger studios which have more rules about how you do things. That was my beginning.
Afterwards I studied for a while in the
United States and I happened to have the big opportunity of getting
an internship at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles. It wasn't really planned, it just happened. I was studying recording engineering; I wanted to learn more about different aspects, even music! I play guitar and bass--I still play. That was why I got into the business. After a few years--I think this happens to every engineer, especially when you start engineering--you stop playing. You don't have the time. I've tried to get back to playing and it really helps to focus more on the main reason why all of us are in this business.
Q Did you assist on any particularly notable sessions?
The second week I was working at Ocean Way was the prerecording for the Academy Awards, and it was a really big orchestra with lots of invited people, from Celine Dion to Natalie Cole. It was seven days of non-stop recording. That I think was the best thing about Ocean Way. At the beginning of the nineties, it was one of the few studios that, because of the nature of the room acoustics, had a lot of bands. It allowed you to use the room as an instrument, and learn miking techniques, which doesn't really happen any more.
Q What happened after Ocean Way?
I got my break with a very good friend of mine--and still a very good client of mine--Camara Kambon, a great producer. He's involved in scoring for movies and R&B and hip-hop music. Back then I started doing work for Dr Dre and Dru Hill. At the beginning Dru Hill was a big client, he was number one in the Billboard charts, and that was a great thing for me.
Q Did you take projects back to Ocean Way?
Some of them I did, I really like the kind of environment they have. It's a very old school type of studio. The whole environment reflects that, the colours of the décor. The technical department is just exceptional, and that's one of the main factors of working in any studio--how good the people are. There's rarely anything that doesn't work. Plus the acoustics are amazing. They are smart enough not to try to modify something that was really good from the very beginning. That happens way too often, even in the United States, so many rooms have been remodelled, and they tear the floor apart just to realise later on that the floor was a big part of the sound. Over a year ago, half of Ocean Way became Cello, but I still consider them Ocean Way, and they still smell the same!
Q What is your philosophy when recording an artist?
I try to connect people. Besides working on how you approach a project sonically, I think the most important thing is how you make the client feel during the session, how you build their confidence. Because I think that's the biggest risk, having insecurities. They are always going to happen, but helping the client, the way you interact and how you respond to their music, even how you form your opinion of what they are doing. I wouldn't say I'm a diplomat, the opposite in a way, but you have to express yourself in a way that something positive can come from a situation. When you think something should be done differently, you have to make the client realise on their own, that, 'Yeah, that's the way to go.' You can't really tell them... sometimes you can, but it depends on personalities. Most often you have to suggest it so they realise.
Q You have won Grammy's for your work with Luis Miguel. Who is he?
He's an international artist with a Latin background. I have been working with him for four years and have done four albums with him. He is a big artist in Latin America, and in Spain. He does a big range of musical styles, including orchestral recording and even Mariachi.
Q And how was it to work with Macy Gray?
She's such a sweet girl, she really has a talent. She's very spontaneous, the kind of artist where you'd better have the first take, even if it's with the talkback microphone or something, because she's quite brilliant.
Q Is she interested in what happens in the control room?
Not that much, she's just interested in the result, which is what most people can hear.
Q What's your favourite console?
For tracking I have plenty of my own gear to work with, I have old Neve 1073s, APIs, Mastering Lab preamps which I love. In those circumstances I don't rely that much on the mixer, I just use it for bringing back the tracks. But for tracking I love old Neves. I like 8032s, APIs, those types of console. Even though, in the world of new mixers, I think the SSL 9000, even for tracking, it's one of the best. And for mixing the 9000 is my first choice. I think the automation is quite brilliant and you can move fast.
Q What other gear do you have?
I have a couple of microphones, I have a Neumann U48, which is pretty rare. It's like a U47 but with figure-8 and cardioid.
Q Do you always use the 48 for vocals?
No, I try not to. I love U47s, Telefunken 250s, and C12s, and M49s work great with some singers. If I haven't worked with an artist before I try to put up a couple of microphones because you always find surprises, you surprise yourself. I have been trying all types of microphones, a 58 or Audio Technica. And I love the Sony C800, and the new Neumanns, the 149 and the less expensive TLM103, they all sound really great given the right application.
Q What kind of monitoring do you use?
I've been using JBL monitors for the last year. I work with JBL testing speakers, and I think they are quite brilliant. Monitoring is like food, different people like very different things. The JBL LSR28Ps are the mid-sized ones. I usually take a pair of them with me. I still use NS10s but they just stopped making them, and the ones at home I just blew before this trip! I like to use big main monitors but only in the few places where I know how they sound and how they translate. In the land of big monitors it can be really tricky, because from studio to studio, or even in the same studio it has happened to me when you go back they are not calibrated right. So you have to be really aware of that and rely on the small monitors.
Q How loud do you listen?
About average... sometimes I crank it really loud, like with my NS10s! Often with small monitors I match them with a self-powered JBL subwoofer which I can turn on or off. That really helps me, especially for mixing. I usually monitor with it turned off, but then switch it on when I need to really check something.
Q How do you approach mixing?
I like to push up the faders and work really fast on the different elements, on everything. Most often I pull everything down again and work in a more progressive way, but at the very beginning I try to be very fast, because it brings the spontaneity and you don't lose focus on what's good about the music. And once you grab that very moment, it's clear in your head, you can really approach the rest of the mix. I hate that kind of approach where you put overheads, kick, and you're only listening to the drums. For me, I like to pull everything up, work on a few different things and go from there. Lately I've been doing a few different things; with Pro Tools especially, there is a tendency to have way too many tracks. And that's where you really spend some time, which has nothing really to do with the mix. It has to do with housekeeping and production issues when you have to decide what elements of what you have really make it to the mix. I actually don't like to spend more than a day, tops, on a mix.
Q Do you still use analogue tape?
Yes, because there is a difference in sound. It's not better or worse, I'm not stuck in the past. But certain instruments really benefit from analogue. At Ocean Way they have the Ampex ATR124s which really have a phenomenal low-end. Sadly, not that many projects agree to use analogue, because most producers know it's going to slow down the creative process, they are going to have to wait for the tape to rewind, they know they are going to be limited. With editing, I still cut tape, but they know it's not going to be done in five seconds. People use Pro Tools, or Cubase or any of these systems on their own, and they expect you to be as fast as they are, if not better. And if it's a low-budget project, it adds to the cost to work analogue, especially because you are going to use analogue plus another format, and people prefer just to use the 'plus'.
Q Do you use Pro Tools?
Yes I have my own Pro Tools. And it's a great tool, when you don't abuse it. It has to be a tool, when people forget that, that's when you start getting into trouble. I think the one aspect that suffers most in a project is not having a definite product. Because of the nature of Pro Tools, not having the limitations of tape, many people have a hard time committing, they have too many options. Lately I have been mixing lots of stuff from Pro Tools, where people just bring endless numbers of tracks...
Q How do you deal with that?
I have to make the final decisions at the mixing stage, and I think that's kind of fresh for them too. When you listen to the project for the first time you don't have time to worry too much, so you get more ruthless, and you get what really impresses you about the project.
Q How do you prevent the situation of having endless takes in the first place?
Erasing! That's the only way. Once I get a few takes I comp, and I force myself to erase.
Q Doesn't that sometimes lead to conflict with the artist when they know you have more tracks available?
Yes, even if you work on analogue they don't believe you if you say you've run out of tracks!
Q How do you like surround work?
I think it's very satisfying. I'm still not sure about how it translates in homes. I worked on a lot of films in 5.1 and even 6.1. And I have compared Dolby and dts, and dts is a much higher-quality encoding. Although when you put a DVD on it defaults to Dolby, I guess because they were the first. I think there is a market for audio only 5.1, but I don't know how big it is. How you set up your speakers in the home is going to be the biggest fight, with wives--the first time I brought my speakers into the living room my wife wouldn't let me put any speakers at the back. My setup is imperfect, so what chance is there of other people getting it right? I went to a theatre playback and it sounded unbalanced. It turned out that everything was out of calibration. That is my only fear...
Q Is there any new equipment that has caught your eye?
I really like the Sony sampling reverb, I've been using that quite a lot lately. It's quite limited, but it works great, especially if you are working with an orchestra and you want to sweeten what you've got.
Q Where is your home studio?
I live in Woodland Hills in Los Angeles. I have a room within my garage which is my preproduction room where I work with artists and the place where I listen to stuff. I have a fairly professional setup with patchbays, so when I bring my own gear into my home I can interface everything pretty quickly. Everything is in racks, and I have a ProControl so I can very easily plug everything in 15 minutes and I'm rolling. Otherwise I wouldn't do it, I couldn't go through the hassle.
Q Do you use an assistant at home?
Sometimes I do, but not very often. I've been freelancing so often that I haven't had a chance to work at home that much. Even with artists I have been developing, I've been working outside my home. It's nice to work at home but you've got to be disciplined. There is the danger of either not doing much work or working too much.
Q You do development work?
Yes, usually it comes through a referral. That's what I think record labels are interested in now, I think they stopped a big deal of their A&R searching, they depend more and more on producers. And I think more producers, engineers and DJs are becoming A&R men. I enjoy it; if you really believe in a project and get it signed it can be very rewarding.
Q Who would you like to work with?
Sting. And I would have liked to engineer something with Frank Sinatra. I assisted on one session with him and got to meet him. Al Schmitt invited me to the session.