18x Grammy and 3x Latin Grammy winner Serban Ghenea has mixed everyone from Beyoncé to Dua Lipa to Bruno Mars. We talked to Serban about his #1 advice for mix engineers and his latest Grammy wins for Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Beck’s Hyperspace.
As of early 2021, Serban Ghenea has mixed a jaw-dropping 188 (!) #1 US Billboard hits. His list of clients is an almost complete history of 21st century pop music: Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Dua Lipa, Adele, Justin Timberlake, Sia, Ed Sheeran, Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry, Ariane Grande, Selena Gomez, Sam Smith, James Blunt, Maroon 5, Lorde, The Weeknd – the list goes on and on. Any attempt to list even just the most famous names would be impossibly long.
This year, Serban won two more Grammys: Album of the Year for Taylor Swift’s Folklore, and Best Engineered Album for Beck’s Hyperspace. When we talked, the first thing on our mind was the gap between how many hit songs he’s mixed – and how low-profile he is online.
Serban, congratulations on winning! You’re one of the most in-demand mix engineers in the world (an understatement!) – but there isn’t much about you online. Hardly any interviews, no masterclasses. Do you keep it that way on purpose?
Well, I just don’t have the time… The amount of work I do – I mean, it’s just me and my engineer John Hanes, who helps prep everything and print all the mix passes and stems after the mix is done. Some days I work until 11 o’clock at night.
But I guess I’m also just less interested in the social media side of it. I just want to let the work speak for itself.
If you hadn’t become a mix engineer, what do you think you would have become?
I was a musician originally, you know. I was playing guitar. So I would have been on the other side of the glass, as they say.
I grew up in Montreal, and I went to college at Concordia University to study music. I was playing and teaching guitar, and it wasn’t until after I graduated that I got seriously into engineering.
McGill University had a graduate sound recording program, which I went to for one year. Then I met Teddy Riley, and moved to Virginia Beach where I got to work with Blackstreet [Serban engineered for Blackstreet’s breakthrough album Another Level and #1 hit “No Diggity” in 1996].
Is there any approach or set of techniques that you use across different artists? If there’s one thing you think anyone mixing should pay attention to, what would it be?
I really have no bag of tricks. Everything is a different treatment. It depends so much on the genre, and on the specific artist and song. The song dictates what you need to do.
So if I had to say one thing – I would say, make sure that the song itself is first. So many people concentrate on, you know, drums and kick and snare sounds, etc. And when you do that, it’s easy to miss the most important question – does the song come across? It needs to come across and affect people emotionally, otherwise you haven’t done your job.
For any given song, you need to listen and figure what it is in the song that affects you, what it is that touches you – and then try to maximize that. You need to find whatever is the special thing about that song. It’s going to be something different in each song, so you need to discover it and maximize it. It’s a subjective thing, but hopefully it’s going to affect others in the way that it affects you.
Is it the same with the tools you use? With different artists like Taylor Swift versus Beck – do you have a toolkit you use every time, or is it song by song?
Song by song. Every time you’re going to find something a bit different that works. I use a ton of Waves on a regular basis, but some specific ones that come to mind right away are R-Comp, H-Delay, the DeEssers, and the Waves reverbs – I really like the convolution reverbs.
Again, I don’t have like a bag of tricks. I pick up what I need for the job, and what I love that with Waves is there’s always something for everything you need at any time.
What album that you did not mix gives you goosebumps?
It’s hard to answer, there’s so many… But one of my favorite albums is John Mayer’s Continuum. I love that album.
Funny, we’ve just interviewed Manny Marroquin, who mixed that album, and he singled it out as being important to him personally: he said it changed his approach to mixing.
Yes, I love the songs on that record. The whole thing is really nicely done.
How about music from before your time as an engineer – any song or album from the more distant past that you wish you could have gone back in time and mixed?
Oh, probably Thriller. I worked with Michael, much later of course, but I’d always been a huge fan. I’m a massive fan of [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones as well. That album is just insanely good. The songs are incredible, some of the best players in the world were on it. And sonically – it’s unbelievable. Everything about it is just amazing.
Thank you Serban, and congratulations!
Thank you, I appreciate it!