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An Interview with Veronica Ferraro, Mixing Engineer for Murmuration Nation
Do you know what a mixing engineer does in the process of making an album? The mix makes or breaks the entire thing! For a closer look at why I chose Veronica Ferraro, please enjoy Adrian Carter’s insightful interview with this world class mixing engineer.
Murmuration Nation is the most recent credit for French mix engineer Veronica Ferraro, widely renowned for her work with pop superstars like Pink! and David Guetta. Backstage at Emily’s recent show in New York City, Ferraro agreed to sit down and share some of her insights into her creative process, digital vs. analog, and mixing Murmuration Nation.
“When you work on an entire album like Emily’s, it’s a different vision. It’s going to be a story. It’s not just a compilation of songs. It’s a whole thing working together, written at the same time. That takes a whole other approach.” – Veronica Ferraro
A: How did you get into the mixing and engineering world?
V: I started over thirty years ago actually in 1986 because of my family. My parents were musicians and my uncle was an engineer. I knew really young that I wanted to play with buttons and lights and music. It’s a long story, but I started working exclusively as a mixer maybe twelve years ago. Before, I was doing production work: recording, some mixing, some music—really all the stuff an engineer can do. Then I decided to focus on one thing only and try and do it the best I could possibly do it. To me, mixing was the most exciting. So, I started to buy some equipment—I’m a big fan of equipment—compressors, EQ—that’s my world.
A: So, you’re an analog fan? You like having all the buttons and knobs.
V: Yeah, exactly. When I started out, it was all analog, so tapes—no digital. I was in the middle of the transition to digital so I have those two worlds in me. This knowledge is good for me because I can handle both sides. I work with some analog and some digital; I think that makes the difference. If you are only in the digital world, you are restricted in the way that the production will sound. Most of the big artists go to studios to try and get this analog feeling, this real feeling. But it’s something else happening that they’re missing.
A: Speaking of big artists, 2010 was a big year for you.
V: Yes, in 2010 I had a Grammy nomination with David Guetta for the song “When Love Takes Over” featuring Kelly Rowland. Since then, I do a lot of mixing worldwide, a lot of American stuff. I also met Billy Mann who is my manager at MannCom Creative Partners. Billy actually introduced me to Emily so that was the beginning of this project. Emily called me about a year ago now and we began just talking on the phone. She said that she wanted to do an R&B style record. She loved hip hop, folk, and real acoustic music and she wanted to mix those flavors. So, she wanted somebody who could handle all of those styles of music but keep their feet in the real, acoustic world. I was that kind of person and I was really excited to get to work.
A: How does your approach change when you’re mixing a solo acoustic performance versus a large-scale pop production?
V: The approach is the same, but the way it sounds—to get the result you want—the way you go about it will be different. If you’re working with real instruments, like what’s happening on Murmuration Nation, real instruments and real musicians in a real recording studio, it’s much easier. This mix was fantastic because they originally recorded in a real room with a real engineer making the sound great at the beginning of the recording process. That is not the standard these days because people are recording at home by themselves or they are just replacing everything with virtual instruments. When it’s a real recording and it’s well recorded, it makes the mix a lot easier and better, obviously. My work today as a mixer is kind of difficult because most artists don’t go to real studios anymore. There’s no big budget for that. So many people are doing records, I mean, everybody’s doing a record today. But when they want to step up, when they want to be played on radio, they need a good mix. You can’t really do that on your own on your computer. It works for EDM music to a point, but when it comes to real recording with singers and stuff, you need to go to a mixer. On Emily’s record, because it sounded incredible sonically from the start, I was able to just say, “Ok, where are we going artistically?” It’s not like I had to fix it before I started the mix. That was the very cool part of this project.
A: It’s a nice change of pace from performing surgery on people’s Soundcloud demos.
V: Yeah, that’s always a problem. When you work on virtual stuff, laptop kind of stuff, it doesn’t sound real. It’s hard to get something that’s not there out of this fake sound. It’s like a hologram. When you see it far away, you say, “Oh, this person is there.” But when you come up close and try to touch it, there’s nobody there. It’s the same for sound and it makes my work more difficult. But sometimes you get a great album like Emily’s to work on.
A: Emily came to visit you at your home studio outside Paris during the mixing phase; how did you work together?
V: She came to visit me at the beginning and I was honestly surprised by that at first. Usually, I mix on my own first, but she came right at the beginning of the mixing process. Usually, especially when you’re just starting on a mix, you don’t want the artist to be behind you for many reasons. You need to start working. But funnily, that was the best thing that could have happened because this album is so intense. She could tell me about every song herself and in-person. We spent time listening to every song together, listening to every drum pattern. Emily explained each song like, “I wrote the song because of this, this is the atmosphere I’d like to have, this is the vision I have for this song.” We just started to figure out how she wanted it to sound as a complete thing. And that was really nice to finally have that approach with the artist at the beginning before going into the mix. It’s rare.
A: So, you usually work something up on your own then go back and forth with the artist?
V: Yes. It depends though. If an artist comes to me to do a single because they want to be played on Top 40 radio or whatever, they’ll send me the stems or a rough demo and I’ll do what’s expected to be done on this kind of song and send it back to the artist or the record company. We’ll exchange emails or stream live and go back and forth for a bit and that’s the way it works. When you work on an entire album like Emily’s, it’s a different vision. It’s going to be a story. It’s not just a compilation of songs. It’s a whole thing working together, written at the same time. That takes a whole other approach. How will this sound in its entirety? What are the singles? Maybe, let’s make more of a radio mix for those…It’s a different approach.
“To me, the vocal lead was the key. Emily’s vocals were the central thing that would not move on this record. Everything orbited around her vocal.” – Veronica Ferraro
A: What were some of the challenges for you as a mixer in telling this story?
V: The challenge was that not every song sounded the same; there was a lot of difference. It needed to tie together. To me, the vocal lead was the key. Emily’s vocals were the central thing that would not move on this record. Everything orbited around her vocal. That was quite important. There are so many things happening everywhere, but you still have Emily in the center of the mix singing the song. Each of the song itself could be played with only a guitar and vocal. If you imagine that and build on top of it with all the other instruments, you have a foundation to work with.
A: Do you like to mix in a sequence? Do you completely finish one song before moving on to the next?
V: Usually, I’m doing work on three or four songs at the same time. I’ll start on one and once I don’t have any more new, fresh ideas, I’ll jump to a new one, then come back. I like to do that. It’s really cool to be able to do that because when you’re working, you’re working only when you have new ideas and you’re feeling inspired. Otherwise, you can spend hours doing not a whole lot just because your mind is not focused on the song. You’ve been listening to it all day so you’re done with it. You want to move to something else.
A: What was your favorite song to mix?
V: Probably the first song that I started to work on, “Ok Corral.” I spent a long time on it because it was the beginning and the beginning is always a longer process. You’re looking for what’s going to work, what will be the central ideas on this album? The further you get into the album, the more you mix, the better you understand—you’re building—“Ah, now I understand, this goes there, that goes here, that makes sense!” “Fly” was my other favorite to work on. Those were the two songs that I was really focused on. And then the last one I did, the duet, “Long Haul.” That was a mostly folk song which was cool. It was a little different from what I usually do.
A: When your working day is over, are you still able to listen to music for fun? Do you even want to by the end of the day?
V: There are two ways of listening to music. When I start working on an album I like to listen to stuff that is in the same field just to get in the mood. Like, if I do an EDM track or if I do a folk song, I won’t be in the same mood for both. So, I try to put myself into the right musical style. In the studio, I’m listening to the way it’s mixed, but at home, I don’t do that. At home, I want to have another world when I’m out of the studio. I don’t listen to the mix. But then usually I’ll have crazy ideas outside the studio; I’ll hear a song while I’m shopping and suddenly (snaps her fingers) “Oh! That’s the idea I was looking for!” You know? Your brain is still working even when you take the music away. You need to rest your hearing and your mind, but it’s still processing constantly until the end of the album.
A: A lot of people have this notion of mixing as a purely technical endeavor, but it’s very much a creative process.
V: Exactly. I’m constantly asking questions. I’ll think, “I want to use this reverb. Why am I going to use this reverb? Because this reverb is going to provide that natural space. What is that space for? It will speak with the lyrics, with the music or style.” You’re constantly asking questions and staying creative.
A: Do you have an all-time favorite record, a perfect mix in your mind?
V: It’s hard to say. I actually wouldn’t say that. I’m always listening to new music. It goes from a Norwegian pianist to EDM to folk. So, no. It’s moving all the time. I hate putting a stick in something. I change. Whatever I’m doing, I myself change. So, I can’t be like, “Oh, I used to love this mix or that song.” Maybe, it won’t be fantastic ten years from now. The way we listen to music changes. The style evolves. I don’t like to be stuck in something. I try to be very, very animal in the way I mix. Stick to the feeling only. I think technically after forty years, I know how to do things, so what’s left is just being creative. Being creative is based on being inspired. I try to keep instincts first.
A: Was it harder to trust yourself when you were first starting out, or was that natural instinct in place from the beginning?
V: Oh sure. When you first start working on mixing, you’re very technical. It’s a lot to learn. You go back and forth a lot. But the more you know what to do, the more you can dig into the perspective of the music. The more I mixed, the more it became about the philosophy of the music and not just technical mixing. It’s easier now. I take longer too. I have a much longer process. I used to work like, one day, one song, ok, it’s done. Now, I like to take my time. I like to dig and try things. Sometimes they are crazy, sometimes really shitty. But, I like to go there! I like to push it, push it, push it. There’s a point where it’s too much and you need to come back. But I don’t want to leave a mix without having explored all of the options.
A: For someone so focused on the present in their work, do have a hard time going back and listening to your old work? Do you want to change certain things?
V: Well, there are always things you could have done differently. I don’t really play back my mixes. If I like an artist personally, I listen on my Bose headphones in the lounge and not really in the studio. I don’t want to get into, “Hmm, I hear this EQ’ing issue, maybe I should have…” No.
A: That’ll drive you crazy.
V: Exactly. But some of the work I do listen to. I enjoy listening at home with my husband and with my friends. But mostly, I try not to play the music back. Or sometimes, again, when I’m shopping, I’ll hear a song I worked on and I’ll be thinking, “Oh, I like this song.” And after a moment, I think, “Wait, did I do this song? Oh yeah! I did.” It’s quite funny, because I erase it from my brain. I’ve mixed it. It’s done
A: Do you remember the first time you heard your own work in the wild or on the radio?
V: The first time? No. But I do remember what I really think of as the beginning which was “When Love Takes Over.” That song really turned me to another world. It changed so much for me—the Grammy nomination, the U.S. manager, mixing worldwide. Before, I’d hear some of my work on French radio or whatever, but it’s really a different world now. That song means a lot to me. It changed my life. It’s like that [Indeep] song, “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.” Except the DJ was Guetta and the song changed my life. I can really say that—last night a DJ saved my life!
A: So, I have to ask you about the Murmuration Nation bonus track, “J’aurais Voulu”—how did Emily do with her French?
V: (Laughs) The French was great! It was very poetic. But, American accent. Of course. But the way it is written, it’s very interesting. You can tell it is not written by a native French speaker. A native French speaker would organize the words differently. But it turned out in in this really great, poetic way. I was like, “Wow, I’ve never heard French like that.” And that’s great. The language itself makes more space in the spectrum of a record than English so you can’t work the same way exactly too.
A: Tell me about your home studio.
V: Well, I wouldn’t say home studio because it’s a real studio, but it’s “at home” (laughs). My husband and I made it together. He is a mastering engineer. He has his own mastering room and I have my own mixing room. We decided to have it at home. We bought a big house in the south of France. It’s separate—my house and the studio. It’s really cool to have this. You’re not creative ten hours a day, all the time. I can use my creative time only and only mix when I’m really feeling it. I can switch. I enjoy being at home. It was a great experience to have Emily there too. I don’t have artists come to my home very often. It takes a lot of budget to fly from America, but Emily did. I really enjoy receiving people in my place. It’s more like a friendship and a sharing moment when an artist is in your place with you.
A: Do you and your husband work together? Does he ever master your work?
V: Oh yeah. Mostly. But I’m really cool if someone wants to have someone else master my work. But he knows me. He knows what I’m doing. And I learn from him. I listen to what he’s doing and learn so I can say, “I’m doing this in the mixing phase next time so you don’t have to do it later.” We know each other so well, musically.
A: No fighting like cats and dogs? You’re able to work together as husband and wife?
V: No, no. He’s mastering and I’m mixing. It’s completely different. And we work separately; we have separate rooms. I don’t like mastering. It’s like, “Ok, this is not my job. Please, go and do your shit. It’s not for me.” And he doesn’t like mixing. But sometimes he’ll just come to my room and we’ll have a glass of wine together and we’ll listen to mixes. He’ll say, “Oh yeah, that’s great or…” and he’ll start to offer ideas. And if he starts to give ideas, it’s usually because I’m stuck in something and I’m asking his opinion. Sometimes, I say, “No. I don’t like what you’re saying. I don’t want to do that.” Or, I say, “Maybe, I’ll try…(shrugs) Ok, I’ll try.” He doesn’t do it often, but when he does, it’s nice to have another person coming into the room with very good intentions who can give you very good ideas. Sometimes, I take his idea and go back to my mix and it’s like, “Ah, he’s right!”
A: Does mixing get lonely?
V: No. I hate working with other people to be honest. I like to work alone. First, because it’s faster. Second, I’m moving from my technical side to my creative side, back and forth, at all times. I need to be alone for that. But to be honest, it’s good to have somebody come in at the end with new perspective. During the mix, when my brain is listening to technical and creative at the same time, that is a lot for one person. At the end, someone can come in and say, “Ok, now it is my turn to finalize this.” I can step back and say, “Yeah, that’s great. I love it.” Or, “Ok, I have one more note of my own.” But really, I like to explore on my own.
“… I like to take my time. I like to dig and try things. Sometimes they are crazy, sometimes really shitty. But, I like to go there! I like to push it, push it, push it…I don’t want to leave a mix without having explored all of the options.” – Veronica Ferraro