The importance of having a quality sound engineer work on your project can’t be stressed enough. For those looking to explore new sounds and textures in their music, finding the right person to tweak the vocals and shape the overall sonics can do wonders in terms of creating a one-of-a-kind product. For those whose primary focus is looking to break out from among a sea of aspiring artists, a clean mix can be the difference between getting a longer look and having people scroll past without so much as a glance. Many times, the biggest hits come from artists who recognize this as fact and move accordingly, often willing to go the extra mile if that’s what it takes to secure the perfect finished product.
“I’ve had somebody drive all the way from Portland, Oregon for me to mix their song,” said Bigg Boo, who’s become a staple in LA’s hip-hop scene by working behind the boards with an abundance of artists. “I’ve got clients who drive for hours to work with me, from Lancaster to San Diego, even the Valley. Like, do you know how many studios you passing up?”
Along with Bigg Boo, Crook has become one of the go-to engineers in the city, having spent the past seven years perfecting his craft and building his reputation. For him, the biggest moment of affirmation arrived one day at Nipsey Hussle’s studio, while he was mixing J-Stone’s 25/8 No Breaks mixtape and found himself sitting among some of hip-hop’s household names.
“I saw T.I., Tiny, Dom Kennedy, they all came through just fucking with Nipsey,” Crook said. “There was one time I was mixing J-Stone’s music, and T.I. came up to me and asked what I was working on. I told him I was working with J-Stone, and he was like, ‘let me hear it.’ He put on the headphones, and then he said, ‘this shit is dope, that sounds clean.’ It just gave me so much confidence.”
For the most part, a sound engineer’s contributions to a track happens in one of two ways. Like Crook did on J-Stone’s mixtape, often the engineer will handle the recording process directly, tracking while the artist is in the booth to optimize their vocal performance and ensure they’re on the same page. Other times, an artist will record themselves over the beat and ship off the rough draft to be mixed and mastered, sometimes even handling the entire transaction without ever meeting in person.
Crook prefers the first method of working with an artist; not only because he loves being in the studio as often as possible, but because it keeps potential miscommunications to a minimum.
“Being with the artist, that’s way easier,” he said. “That way, they can tell me how they want it to sound, what kind of effects they want. I feel like sometimes with artists sending me stuff, I’ll mix it and send it back, and they’ll be like ‘oh, can you make a drop here,’ so I’ll have to go back and make a revision. It’s just easier when we’re together.”
Once an artist and an engineer have an established relationship, however, at times it can be simpler to exchange files over the internet and trust that it will come out right. Von Don, an LA native who often spends time working in Atlanta, frequently collaborates with Kee Riche$ and has built a strong rapport with him over the years. Now that Von knows what the Compton rapper wants to emphasize in his music, he doesn’t mind receiving a package via email for him to polish, so the two can work regardless of what city he’s in at the moment.
“With Kee and a lot of his music, I know his style now that I’ve been working with him for so long,” he said. “So if he ever records and sends it to me, I have no issues capturing his sound, since I know what he’s going for.”
Building that tight-knit connection can take time, but Bigg Boo mentioned how essential it is for a beginning engineer to attach themselves to an artist early on, and develop their skills simultaneously. At the outset of his career, he found himself linking up with Almighty Suspect, Frosty Da Snowman and Drakeo the Ruler, and while his strategy has paid off over time, he’s not afraid to admit his shortcomings when they first got started.
“I was fucking their shit up, I’m not even gonna lie,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not what it is now, but people still considered it good quality. But to me, I was like ‘man, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ I didn’t even know how to fly a hook, bro. I just had a love for it.”
Crook found the Shaq to his Kobe in Rucci, the standout rapper from Inglewood with whom he’s spent countless hours in the studio and just now traveled the country as part of Shoreline Mafia’s Only The Xclusives tour. The two have become a formidable duo, and Crook mentioned how their similar workflow allows them to pump out songs at a blistering pace whenever they connect.
“Rucci doesn’t write, he freestyles everything,” he said. “He goes in the booth and he’ll tell me ‘Crook I’m ready,’ and I’m like cool, I already got all the settings ready. He’ll go in there and freestyle maybe two bars, and be like ‘stop, go back to that,’ and off those two bars he’ll keep it going. He has a good memory, he’s smart as fuck.”
Crook vividly remembers the times when it wasn’t as easy for him to record, due to his daytime job that was eating away at too much of his time. After unsuccessfully trying to balance the two commitments for years, he finally quit his job this past April to pursue engineering full-time, somewhat due to Rucci’s relentless studio schedule and Crook’s inability to stay away.
“I would work 14 hour shifts, so I’d get off work and be like ‘fuck the studio, I’m tired,’” he said. “It got to a point where I couldn’t do that; the money was good, but I wasn’t chasing my dreams. I started leading up to [quitting], like I would go to work late, or I’d just not show up at all because Rucci would hit me up like ‘yo, we got a session tonight,’ and I’m like ‘fuck, I got work.’”
The three engineers had mixed feelings about how easy it is to become financially successful in their field. Crook mentioned how tough it can be to make steady income in the beginning, which had made him hesitant to quit his job until the results became too loud to ignore. For Bigg Boo, though, the long-term earning prospects are brighter than they would be as a rapper, due to it being easier to remain a consistent presence as the years go by.
“As far as engineering, I could do this for the rest of my life,” he said. “With a rapper, I feel like it could be good now and maybe in ten years, so the money thing works both ways. A rapper might get it faster, but I feel like the engineer would win in the long run, because 30 years from now I could still be doing this and producing the same quality.”
Von pointed to the fact that the inventory of people with skill behind the boards is much less crowded, making it easier to build a network robust enough to ensure it’s never hard to find work.
“It’s a scarcity for engineers right now, it’s not a lot of good ones,” he said. “If you’re a good engineer, financially you will be fine. Because once you do good work one time, they’ll continuously book you, they’ll tell friends and A&R’s, labels would get a hold of you and start booking you for bigger artists. It’s very well possible to make good money as an engineer.”
“Good work” isn’t simply limited to delivering a quality end result, however. Especially when recording live in the studio, Von stressed the importance of keeping up with an artist who’s constantly ready to go, and that having to spend too much time adjusting the controls and adding effects could get you booted before you get to press the big red button.
“Be fast. If you’re going to be a tracking engineer, that’s how you’ll win,” Von said emphatically. “A lot of artists like Rucci, Lil Baby, Young Thug..., they’re freestyling in the booth, so when they want to punch in, you’ve got to be quick enough to keep them rolling. If you’re too slow, they’re going to kick you out the studio, like ‘get up, you’re a waste of my time and my money.’ I’ve seen it happen.”
On the flipside, Von said there are definitely things an artist can do that could turn him off from wanting to work on a project. Along with rude personalities or an entitled attitude from someone in the studio, he mentioned how receiving a poor quality recording in his inbox can make him less willing to work with a client, or compel him to turn it down entirely.
“If I get all the files and they’re not properly recorded or properly sent to me, it doesn’t matter how much money you’re paying me, I’ll turn it down,” he said. “You’re not giving me the tools to do my job, and I don’t want to put my name on something that I know I can’t take to its full potential.”
It’s one of the reasons Bigg Boo prefers to collaborate for the duration of the project, allowing him can record the artist himself and ensure that everything is set up and organized as it should be. Still, artists who expect him to do too much can irritate him, and occasionally lead to problems in the studio.
“People be thinking I’m superman sometimes, and want me to do some outrageous shit,” he said. “I mean, I could take your track to another level, but i can’t take it to Pluto.”
Despite the bumps, however, all three engineers are happy with their journeys thus far, and stated how their fascination of turning a rough piece of potential into a platinum plaque has always kept them energized. For Von, who earned a degree in Audio Engineering and Sound Production from SAE Institute of Technology in Atlanta, it’s required intense commitment to get to where he needed to be, even though he never felt like he was outmatched.
“I don’t want to say it was hard, but it was hard work,” he said. “It just took a lot of attention to detail, because it was something I never really did. When I first pulled up Pro Tools on the screen, I was like ‘what am I looking at, this is crazy.’ It definitely took some patience and some time to understand it.”
Big Boo chose not to go the school route, but still emphasized the overwhelming dedication it took for him to become a master at what he does.
“I learned hands on, staying up, recording Suspect and Frosty’s songs,” he said. “While they weren’t there, I’m working on their vocals for hours, just sitting there like ‘oh, if I do this, if I do that.’ Perfect your craft, and put the hours in. In order for you to be a professional engineer, you gotta hit that 10,000 hour mark.”
For all the devotion and meticulous work that goes into building a track into its full potential, it’s certainly fair to say the typical engineer doesn’t get enough credit when looking at hip-hop today. Von Don believes that is starting to change as social media has made it easier for people like Alex Tumay to stand up and claim their work, but still feels like more people should be aware of the crucial role they play in the recording process.
“If I was to pull up a song from your favorite artist, and take off all the effects and the mixing, and let you hear it with just their raw voice, you’d think it was garbage,” he said with a laugh. “I would never leak somebody’s music, but if that were to happen, a lot of their fans would disappear. So I definitely feel like engineers need more credit.”