Keith Harris and John D Norten: Versatile With Style
Eleanor Goldfield, April 2014

Keith Harris' credits are as diverse as they are impressive. From Madonna, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey to Cee Lo, Busta Rhymes, Taboo and will.i.am. Harris works closely with engineer John D Norten, and we pay them both a visit in Keith Harris' LA studio.

Grammy award winning producer Keith Harris and engineer John D Norten don't fit into any specific genre or style, and that's just how they like it. In fact, Keith Harris doesn't fit into any one job description either. He describes himself as a producer, musician, musical director, and writer. When it comes to recording and mixing, Harris works closely with engineer John D Norten whose history fits well into this broad spectrum paradigm. Norten's career as an engineer/mixer started with his own industrial rock music and now consists of a who's who of pop and urban artists, including the Backstreet Boys, Lady Gaga, Prince, Macy Gray, Cheryl Cole, will.i.am and Cee Lo. I sat down with both of them in Harris' Los Angeles studio to talk more about their work.

I like things that challenge me to think outside the box and not just be called a beat maker or a genre producer but a producer.

What projects are you currently working on?
Keith: "Currently I'm working with Estelle on her new album. I'm also working with a soul/R&B artist named Goapale, a new artist, Stori, signed to Motown, and singer/songwriter Leah McFall, signed to Columbia UK."

John: "I mix most of Keith's work. We recently did a lot of work with Cee Lo. I'm currently mixing Estelle's whole new album as well as Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas—his solo album and singles. So, I'm a free-lance mixer and engineer. I work very closely with Keith and some other outside projects as well."

How do you approach writing for each artist, each genre that you work with? Do you have a signature?
Keith: "It depends on the artist—where they are, as far as the topline melody. Because you want the song to reflect what they're going through, what's personal to them and what they're feeling. You have to also be conscious of who you're trying to sell the song to. You can't have it be so personal to the artist that the everyday person can't feel it as well."

I started out on analog gear so I know how it sounds, and something that I really like about the Softube products is that they do great analog emulation.

John: "Since my background is more in rock and my career has landed me more on the pop/urban side of things, I'm definitely, as a mixer and engineer, proficient and comfortable in both worlds."

Keith: "Bottom line, we like to mix and produce music. No matter what it is. I like things that challenge me to think outside the box and not just be called a beat maker or a genre producer, but a producer. I strive to be able to be that guy that can do anything."

Keith, talk to me a little bit about your workflow as a song writer and producer.
"I have my partner, DQ, David Quiñones and what we do is kind of like a factory. He's really good with lyrics and vocal production. So what we do is go into his room and write out melodies, just piano and a vocal. Once we get the song structure down, we can write and record vocals over there while the musicians come over here and we work on the music. We bounce it back and forth like that until it's done."

So John, tell me a bit about your mixing style and how Softube factors into it.
"Most of my mixing these days is in the box. It's evolved to be in the box, which isn't a problem for me because I've always been into technology. Because of this however, the software is very important to me. I started out on analog gear so I know how it sounds, and something that I really like about the Softube products is that they do great analog emulation. Softube first came onto my radar through the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor. I used the original hardware a lot during tracking and found the plug-in to be a great software version of it. From there, I discovered the Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer. The market is saturated with people who just make good basic EQs, but the thing about the Softube software, like the Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer and the Trident A-Range is that they have these accurate analog emulations that allow people like me who mix more in the box to get closer to that analog feel.

Softube first came onto my radar through the Tube-Tech CL 1B. I used the original hardware a lot during tracking and found the plug-in to be a great software version of it.

For drums, I like the Summit Audio Grand Channel. The thing that I really like is that they have a mix knob, so you can do parallel compression, which is always sort of a challenge in the box. Sometimes when you try to do parallel compression inside of Pro Tools, the reported delay compensation isn't really what it says it is, so you'll get phasing and stuff like that. The mix knob on the Summit gives you the ability to do digital parallel compression. It's a great blend of analog sound with digital workflow. It shows that they're thinking beyond just simply trying to copy old gear. The distortion of the saturation on there is another thing I really like.

I'd have to say my two favorites are the Trident A-Range and the Summit Audio Grand Channel. However, I've been getting into the Abbey Road Studios Brilliance Pack as well, adding it whenever I need some extra hi-end and sparkle."

Freelance recording and mix engineer, pro audio writer.
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