An interview with Rafa Sardina

Listen in on a conversation with Los Angeles based seven-time Grammy-winner mixer/engineer Rafa Sardina. The A-T endorserís eclectic and impressive client Macy Gray, Dru Hill, Jessy Moss, Mariah Carey, Luis Miguel, Juan Gabriel, Sheryl Crow, Soul Coughing, Marc Antoine, Angie Stone and Alejandro Sanz.

Photo Caption  

Photo Caption: Rafa Sardina is shown with an Audio-Technica AT4060 cardioid condenser tube microphone at his new After Hours Studio in Woodland Hills, CA. Photo by Ed Freeman. (This photo is property of Ed Freeman. Unauthorized use, alteration or reproduction of this photograph is strictly prohibited.)

'I donít go anywhere without my AT4060. It has become an essential part of my set-up.'

Recently we sat down for a conversation with Los Angeles based seven-time Grammy-winner mixer/engineer Rafa Sardina. The A-T endorserís eclectic and impressive client list includes Macy Gray, Dru Hill, Jessy Moss, Mariah Carey, Luis Miguel, Juan Gabriel, Sheryl Crow, Soul Coughing, Marc Antoine, Angie Stone and Alejandro Sanz.

Best known for pop/rock and R&B sounds, Sardina served his engineering apprenticeship at Hollywood's Ocean Way and Record One studios where he landed his first independent engineering gig with Warner mega star Luis Miguel. He has since collaborated with him on seven albums.

Sardina received two Latin Grammy Awards in 2000 for Album of the Year and Best Pop Album by Luis Miguel --"Amarte Es Un Placer" for WEA Intl. Subsequent Grammy nominations for Miguel's albums have followed in the years 2001 to 2003 and most recently for "33" in 2004. This year Warner superstar, Alejandro Sanz' album "No Es Lo Mismo," recorded by Sardina, won Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Album and last but not least, it took a trophy for Best-engineered album.

How did you get involved in the pro audio industry? Do you remember the moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do?

Rafa Sardina: I think I was very lucky to have my first studio experience at a very early age. I believe I was 15 when my cousinís band recorded their first album. It really made an impression on me. It really stuck with me.

How would you describe your style as a producer?
I think I am more of a ďvibeĒ producer. I like big sounds and really well thought out arrangements that help the artist and the song express the idea they are going for. I have worked in every genre, from R&B to rock, pop and anything in between. I enjoy all of themóeven though rock is in my blood.

Do you have a specific audio chain for vocals?
I have several; it all depends on the singer I am recording. These days I use the Audio-Technica AT4060 and AT4050 more than any other mics in my collection. They are such warm-sounding mics, but with the right amount of bite.

Do you play any instruments? How does that affect the way you work in the studio? How does it affect the way you produce an album?
I do play guitar and a little bass even though not at a level proficient enough to satisfy my own demands as a producer. I have to say though, that it is an indispensable tool in order to help with the arrangements and the ideas I go for when approaching a song.

Now that youíve had a chance to work in your new studio, After Hours, how do you like it? Do you find yourself still tweaking?
I think I will always be tweaking, but thatís the beauty of it. Every project presents new challenges and needs. I am extremely satisfied with After Hours and with the new value it offers me as an engineer and producer. I donít know what I would do without it!

Whatís your favorite console?
It depends, if itís for tracking, I like ballsy sounding consoles like apiís, vintage 80 series Neves. I donít quite need them because I own a wide selection of such modules, my own personal selection and go straight to tape.

For mixing, I love the SSL 9000 series console. For more orchestral, jazzy, or purely acoustic stuff I still favor old Neveís.

Whatís your favorite A-T microphone? Why?
Without any doubt, the AT4060. It is a spectacular mic on anything. It works wonders on vocals, guitar, as an overhead or room mic for drums. I have other basic A-T mics, like the AE3000 and the AE2500.

Any unusual uses of A-T mics?
Using the AE3000 literally mounted underneath a drum riser. It created an astonishing effect.

Do you feel the need to have all the latest toys out there, or do you prefer to stick with tried and true equipment?
It depends. I try to introduce something new on every project. That additional piece of gear, mic, or approach that makes you try different things and approach the recording differently. It provides you with wonderful surprises that you wouldnít experience otherwise.

Are there any particular pieces of gear that you feel are indispensable to your sound (i.e.: certain mic(s), particular reverb unit, comp unit, etc)?
I donít go anywhere without my AT4060. It has become an essential part of my set-up. I love to use my old Eventide SP-2016ís and also the newer unit they came out with, which is called the Princeton P-2016. As a preamp I love the Mastering Lab tube preís I own.

Do you have any miking tips or tricks?
I like to always work my placement very carefully. Itís an essential part of engineering. Mics are not intelligent; they rely on you to be positioned properly. Never forget that!

How do you maintain the health of your ears?
I try to give them a rest whenever Iím not working, and I wear earplugs in noisy environments Ö

What would you say is the biggest challenge in your work?
Being different, but in a good way, and convincing people that quality mattersÖ Try to go for audio excellence no matter what people tell you about MP3ís quality. I think every little bit matters; we canít give up now!

Do the live-sound engineers and studio engineers typically communicate about achieving a certain sound?
Usually not, but once in a while thereís interaction. I even had live sound engineers showing up in the final stages of mixing of a project to get the vibe of what needed to get achieved to represent the project live. Also these days most bigger tours have a programmer who takes care of getting and documenting the files and effects that will be needed live.

As an avid Pro Tools user, do you find yourself using analog occasionally?
I do, but not as often as, letís say, three years ago. There has definitely been an improvement in the quality of converters and the Pro Tools platform itself. Also, you learn to achieve the sonic qualities you are after with whatever tools you have. That has always been the situation, even before digital. You always performed your best and closest to your ultimate goal with whatever you had available and whichever budget was available.

Are there any producers you especially look up to?
Definitely people that have influenced me throughout my career like Trevor Horn, Mutt Lang, George Martin, Quincy Jones, Glynn Johns; and younger guys like Dr. Dre, Matt Wallace, Steve Lillywhite, Lulo Perez... And letís not forget my all-time hero, Bob Clearmountain.

What problems do you see inexperienced engineers/producers making and why... and what would you tell them? Any advice for beginners learning the ropes?
The most common mistake comes from the very basic point of view of ďproductionĒ itself. People tend to fill arrangement and production pitfalls with MORE, more tracks, more options, more everythingÖ Very often ďless is moreĒ if you work out the right arrangement and performance.

You must also have a good monitoring situation or your work wonít have a good point of reference. Most acute problems usually happen in the low end. The solution is definitely a good room treatment if you work in a home studio situation and the use of a subwoofer if you only reference on nearfield speakers.

What albums do you listen to at home?
All kinds of stuff. My music taste is pretty eclectic. I listen to rock, alternative, classical, hip/hop, jazz, country, blues. What excites me usually has a combination of elements including good sonic quality, strong songwriting and musicianship, impressive vocal performance and creative arrangements.

What are your hobbies outside of audio?
Hanginí out with my three-year-old is my biggest joy. Every day around him is a new adventure.

I like being near the ocean. I grew up near the oceanĖso itís in my blood. I also like going out and checking bands and enjoying a good evening of music. So, you could say hanginí out with musicians is in my blood too.