Phil Tan: Sharing Some R&B Secrets
Stefan Hedengren, May 2012

Phil Tan is an award winning Atlanta-based mixing engineer with no less than three Grammy Awards for his work with Mariah Carey, Ludacris and Rihanna. But his list doesn't end there, it almost goes on forever with artists like Common, Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, Outkast, Jay-Z, Aretha....

We had the fortune to take some of Phil Tan's time to ask him about the elements of an R&B/hip hop mix and how he approaches a new track.

Do you do recording these days or is it mostly mixing?
I don't do much recording anymore. I don't enjoy the production process as much so I usually stick to mixing. I live in Atlanta and mostly work with pop, R&B and hip hop.

For instance, split a vocal signal and send one of them to Vintage Amp Room and mix it in with the original. It might give you an interesting texture.

Hip hop and R&B typically use more sparse arrangements compared to something like modern pop. How does that affect the mix?

I think sparse is sometimes better because the parts that are there need to do a better job to hold everything together. If the track is really busy, with a lot of elements, it's more a matter of trying to find space for them to do their 'job' in the mix, so to speak. I don't know if there's a particular approach. It's more of a song to song thing. It depends on the tempo of the song, the key of the song, how the different parts coexist with each other. That's all done on a case to case basis. And then sometimes the first approach isn't always right.

Do you find yourself starting over with the mix then?
Yes. At a certain point you let the creators of the music get involved. I like to ask for their input and perspective. If they say "well, this isn't really what we had in mind", then I'll try a different approach.

Almost always, the first thing I do is filter out the low end. The way I do it is I just start from the bottom and turn the frequency knob up until I hear a difference.

Are you one of those guys who starts the mix with all faders down?
It depends on the song. If it's a very vocal-centric song then I might start with the vocal, but if it's a rap song, the beat, the drums are probably the first thing I'll start with. Usually I like to start with the elements in the middle: kick, snare, bass and the lead vocal. Those are all usually important elements that need to find space to coexist. When that space is in balance, usually the other elements fall a little easier in line.

With the way we're making music today, with computers, do you find yourself adding stuff as you go along when you mix?
Sometimes the "quality control" isn't there. It used to be that you had to go to a recording studio, with proper engineers and equipment. Now with a laptop and a USB microphone you can record anywhere. Sometimes people adopt an "it's good enough" mentality so the quality of the tracks might not be as well recorded as they could be. So if someone gives me a string patch and I know that I have a better sound, I will replace it.

On an EQ knob it might say +15 and sometimes you need that +15 to go where you need to go.

Let's talk gear. What's your setup like?
Pretty simple. It's based around a Pro Tools rig with a D-Control. I monitor mainly through Dynaudio M1's. I have a few outboard pieces that I like: a Manley Variable-Mu, Inward Connections EQ. At heart I'm still an analog guy and I think that's why I'm drawn to you, Softube.

I know you're a fan of saturation plugins. Do you have any specific tips on how to use them?
When I get a track that's perhaps a little too 'digital' in nature, I'd looking for something to give it a little more personality. Saturation plugins are a way to get closer to that. It's like different colors on your palette.

What do you typically use on your master bus?
I used to use a multiband but recently started to shy away from it. The Manley and the Inward Connections might go on there. As far as plugins, Slate Digital might go on there, the Oxford Inflator might go on there. It really depends. But usually what I will do is print a second, less compressed version for the mastering engineer so they have a couple of options.

The first is probably going to be EQ, trying to clean out as much of the unnecessary stuff. Usually the low mids or the very low end that the microphone might capture. After that, compression.

Obviously in your field the vocal is really important. Do you have any vocal-specific tips to share?
The first is probably going to be EQ, trying to clean out as much of the unnecessary stuff. Usually the low mids or the very low end that the microphone might capture. After that, compression. A favorite on the vocal is the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor, I use that all the time. As a mixer you're at the mercy of what you're given. You might get a great track where you don't really have to do anything at all, but you might also get something that's really overcompressed or have too much of something. It's harder to work on but ultimately the goal is to get the message across. That's how I approach it, the emotion. Even if it sounds wrong but it feels right, then it's not necessarily wrong.

You mentioned the Tube-Tech CL1B, what other Softube plugins do you use?
The FET Compressor. I used that quite a bit on Jill Scott's album. I use the Spring Reverb a lot. I use the Tube Delay.

Usually I like to start with the elements in the middle: kick, snare, bass and the lead vocal. Those are all usually important elements that need to find space to coexist.

What would you typically use the FET Compressor on?
I will try it on vocals. I use it on guitars. It's actually a really good all-round compressor. If I'm looking for something a little bit edgier, that's what I might try.

For the young aspiring engineer at home that maybe want to step up and get into the business, what would your advice be?
See if you can find a way to do something else! Musical artists don't make a lot of money making music anymore, unless you're a superstar. They probably make more from touring and merch sales. For the people doing this at home: You must separate yourself from the pack. Also, practice your skills. Luck helps a bit too.

Share some Phil Tan tips!
First of all, use a high pass filter, or low cut, to clean out the unwanted low rumbly stuff. Besides the kick drum and the bass, very little happens beneath 100 Hz or so. Sometimes up to 150 Hz. Almost always, the first thing I do is filter out the low end. The way I do it is I just start from the bottom and turn the frequency knob up until I hear a difference. Right where I hear a difference is where I basically stop. That will help considerably in terms of creating space.

One of the things I find difficult to fix in the mix is overcompression. Many younger engineer or producers tend to overuse preset settings without thinking about it. Make the effort to tailor it. You can start with the preset but take a little time to customize those settings specifically for the element that you're working on.

How do you approach compression?
There are a couple of ways I look at it. One is to control the dynamics of the element and the other is just to make sure that it doesn't go overboard. Limiting, basically.

Also there's coloring. Just looking at your lineup of products: the f, the Summit Audio TLA-100A Compressor, the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor etc. They all have distinct personalities and colors. Different flavors, basically. When you're trying to find the right combination for the material you're working on it's nice to have a few options. It's those tiny little things that adds depth to a mix.

Any more Phil Tan tips?
I think sometimes we pay too much attention to mixing. Pay attention to the recording process. Better recordings will result in better mixes. Learn microphone techniques and see how things sound when mic'd a certain way. Learn why your space or room matters when recording. Work on getting better and you will have better recordings. Even if you're working with soft synths, maybe experiment and run your tracks through outboard preamps and hardware, and see if they sound better. The point, again, is to separate yourself from the pack. If you're using a patch that's been used by 500 other people before you, why would anyone care?

So if you get something that's very sterile recorded. How do you give it that extra spice?
You can add more colors, more layers to the painting, with compression, EQ or saturation. There are no set rules, whatever works. On an EQ knob it might say +15 and sometimes you need that +15 to go where you need to go.

Another thing to maybe try is use processing for things that it's not designed for. You can come up with some happy accidents that way. For instance, split a vocal signal and send one of them to Vintage Amp Room and mix it in with the original. It might give you an interesting texture. Go for something that's unexpected. There's nothing wrong with running a vocal through a guitar amp, for example, if it works and gives you something cool!

How do you deal with kick and bass?
With any element that has a transient, like kick and snare, you want to make sure it doesn't get killed by compression by leaving enough time for the attack to come through. It also depends on the sound. You make your judgement based on which part of the frequency range the sound occupies. Sometimes in hip hop you may have two or three different kicks and each has a different job. I think transient control can really make a difference.

Bass is probably the hardest for me. It really depends on the sound and what it's doing in the track. I think you have to treat different types of basses differently. What you'd do with an acoustic won't be what you do with an electric. And with all the different types of synth bass tones, they all probably have to be addressed differently.

Reverb and delays. Do you have any typical approach to that? How do you create space?

I'm not as much of a reverb person as I am a delay person. To me, reverb sometimes clutter things up a bit. If I had a choice I would often go with a delay and use it as a reverb itself. As far as the timing of the reverb, it really depends on how it feels. The predelay is usually set to the tempo of the song, but I find the actual reverb time usually isn't. And I think reverb is also a lot about color. Spring Reverb, for instance, will have a very different color than a plate reverb. I tend to prefer spring reverbs for guitars, for example, and plates or halls for vocals.

You can create your own reverbs and maybe create something special. Set a speaker in a room and mic it. Old school. In our studio we have a hallway with a speaker in it and we sometimes do that. That way you have something in your song no one else has.

As far as delays, you can do so much with it. It's just a matter of how much time you want to spend tinkering, I think. Check out the Delay Designer in Logic, for example. The options can be limitless.

You said reverbs sometimes clutter up things. Would you say that you use reverbs more on sparse arrangements than on full-blown pop songs?
It depends. If it's a rap song you almost never use a reverb unless you're going for something really specific. Like an FX or an impact thing. I think a good guy to listen to in terms of reverb use is Trevor Horn.

It's a different time today. There seems to be so much low end in commercial production these days and if you have a reverb tail lingering it might clutter and not work. You can also EQ the reverb for the particular sound you're going for to make sure everything fits together.

And with those wise words we're letting Phil Tan get back to work. And we are definitely going to pick up that Jill Scott album. Not because of the FET Compressor on vocals, just because she's great!

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