Mixing, Emotion & “Cutting Out the Bullshit”: A Talk with Former Frank Ocean Engineer Jeff Ellis

By | Posted September 6, 2017
For revered engineer Jeff Ellis, great mixing is the product of great living—and breaking chains.
2017-09-06-jeff-ellis-interview

Parking at Bedrock.LA is an exercise in inefficiency. Rather than conform to normalcy, the designers of the inconspicuous Echo Park studio doubled the spaces lengthwise, leaving visitors with three options: block someone in, submit yourself to obstruction, or be that jackass who uses two spaces.

Though he sits at his console just meters away, Jeff Ellis is antithetical to the lot, as is his approach to mixing. Working on albums as varied as Kate Nash’s Girl Talk, Injury Reserve’s Floss, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Channel Orange has made him clear about his objectives, confident in his execution, and constantly in search of inspiration.

“I’ve tried to cut out the bullshit that comes with mixing,” he tells me once we’re settled inside. Jeff assumed residency here almost two years ago and his room still retains the eccentric aura of previous tenants Flying Lotus and "Weird Al" Yankovic. An assortment of Christmas lights and lava lamps create the sort of dim ambiance you’d expect from a psychedelic speakeasy. The parchment-like hue of a globe in the corner suggests it aided seafarers post-Magellan (it didn’t), while the collection of spent liquor at its base confirms it helped Jeff post-mixing. Above the console hang his Platinum and Gold plaques for work on “Thinkin Bout You” and Channel Orange respectively, while the scribbles that would become “Bad Religion” are framed on the adjacent wall, centered prominently near the ceiling. The walls of his recording-booth-turned-lounge-area are littered with Polaroids documenting his time here.

As he offers stories behind a few of the images, he doesn’t even mention the Rihanna poster that reads “I love you Jeff” above her signature. Two television screens line a corner of the repurposed booth, one playing a muted episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the other a live feed of earth from the International Space Station. “I set it up like this to have a relaxed environment,” he tells me, adding, “I make artists come here to mix their album, so I can’t have a regular studio space.”

There’s an initial difficulty reconciling the space’s incandescence with his “no nonsense” first impression, but Jeff’s goal is to maximize creativity not curtail fun. “Much of the status quo of mixing records doesn’t lead to the best version of the art that is the album,” he confesses. “It’s been the norm to hire a mixer, send them the files, they do their thing, and then send the shit back. The mixer might never even meet the artist.”

Ellis has experienced the polarities of artist involvement, from traveling with Frank Ocean for five years to mixing records for artists who couldn’t name him if their publishing points were on the line, but he admits he’s been guilty of this practice, too. “I’m sitting in here alone mixing a fucking song for someone I’ve never even met? With no knowledge of their personality?”

Jeff Ellis

For Ellis, art is about self-discovery and being honest about your needs to achieve your goals. “There’s only one way I can do a great job and I’ve figured out my way. Other people have systems that work for them, and that’s great, but my system is centered on collaboration. Whoever is pushing the aesthetic of the album needs to be with me when we’re mixing. Those conversations can’t be duplicated,” said Ellis.

This part of our conversation began a diatribe against “email chain” mixing, a process in which A&Rs, managers, publicists, executives, artists, and engineers announce their opinions auction-style for weeks in a vortex of ‘CC’s. “If I have to read forty emails to mix a song, I’m already bored at that point and it’s not going to be the best version of my work,” Ellis explained, pairing this sentiment with the caveat that he might not actually be the best person to mix an album.

For some artists, the demands of touring prevent them from being in the studio the way Jeff requires and “that’s fine.” He insists on being transparent about his productivity needs and knows he can’t deliver outside those parameters. “[Another] one of my tenants of music is staying healthy, whether that’s exercise or eating right, [because] your brain is what’s filtering sounds through the speakers. If that organ isn’t optimized, you probably won’t do your best work. That’s the reason I don’t work more than eight hours a day anymore, I get burnt out.”

A brief conversation with Jeff proves his approach to health is more than half-hearted resolutions and dietary embellishments. The day before we met at the studio, his Instagram was filled exclusively with footage of a jiu-jitsu tournament, a sport which occupies his time outside of the studio. “The way I look at it is like this,” he says, “If you’re climbing just one mountain, your whole day is obsessed with analyzing how well you did at that. But, if you’re climbing two different mountains at once, you can get different experiences. It can be snowy on one and sunny on the other. So, if I’m having a shitty day at music, it’s okay. I’ll be going to jiu-jitsu practice later and I know that’s going to be cool. I can’t get too wrapped up in my art if I want it to be the best version of itself.”

Eccentric Uncles and Un-squandering Opportunities

Spending an extended period of time around Jeff Ellis can highlight deficiencies in your own workflow, but he admits he didn’t always have this dedication to a craft. Starting at a young age, he would “bank on his intelligence,” doing the minimum amount of work in school to keep passing grades. He coasted on his brain’s momentum until he graduated college with little direction or hope. “I went to college in Tucson, AZ and graduated with a finance degree,” he begins, “Straight C student, 2.999 GPA, I couldn’t even get a 3.0.”

He’s all laughs now, but in the months following graduation, he felt a sense of shame towards his performance. “In your early twenties, parts of your brain start kicking on that weren’t active before, so [when I graduated] I started to realize I’d had these amazing opportunities with my education and I just half-assed it.”  

The desire to create music was germinating inside him for years at this point, but he was still hesitant to act. “I never considered becoming an artist of any type,” he admits, candidly. “Other people do that shit. I’m the safe, ‘go-to-college’ guy. I mean, I got a degree in finance.” He soon discovered ‘safety’ didn’t insert meaning into his life as he’d hoped and fell into an ‘early twenties existential crisis’ as he calls it. Making music, and obsessing over the sounds of others, was his only refuge from the mundanity.    

Growing up in the partial isolation of the Arizona desert, Jeff wasn’t exposed to contemporary, forward-thinking music in his youth. Early music memories include listening to his mother’s Beach Boys tapes and singing along to Whitney Houston. It wasn’t until later that other music would find him. As he entered his teen years, his friends put him on to surf music, which has an “exotic allure” for kids who are used to sand without tides. Realizing the wealth of music at his disposal, the floodgates of discovery opened and Jeff binged.

Jeff Ellis

Once he found his oasis in music, though, singular albums controlled his free time. “I would find something I really like and only listen to that,” Ellis said. “My entire sophomore year of high school, I only listened to Kid A by Radiohead and junior year was Rage Against the Machine’s debut.” The same sense of exclusivity he applied to music as a fan manifests in Ellis’ work today. He prefers to mix whole projects over singles and dedicates himself fully to one assignment at a time.

After learning guitar at thirteen, his instrument collection would grow through high school, college, and his brief bout with a “nine-to-five.” At the time of his existential crisis, Ellis would cope with his job’s banality in “The War Room,” a spare bedroom in his apartment that housed recording apparatuses, drum machines, and any music-related equipment: “I would just go in there and make beats, play instruments, try to figure software out. This was pre-YouTube tutorials, so I couldn’t hop online and figure out ways to make my songs sound better. Even in the midst of being miserable, it still didn’t occur to me that I could just say ‘Fuck this job’ and move to Hollywood.”

As the finance job grew more stressful and his options seemed to disappear, Jeff recalls a conversation with his uncle that started his trajectory towards becoming a preeminent engineer:

“One day I was on the phone with my uncle—I have a crazy rock ‘n roll uncle, who was listening to me complain about my job. He stopped me and said, ‘Why don’t you go be one of those engineer guys who touch the buttons and shit?’ At that point, my hatred for my job and my fear of staying there for the rest of my life were stronger than the fear of trying something crazy, like this. So I called my parents, told them what I wanted to do and they were supportive, thankfully. Definitely concerned, but willing to trust me. So I quit my job and went to recording school.”

Classical Training, Unorthodox Execution

Jeff found his niche at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Arizona. After excelling in the program, he graduated a year later with a 4.0 GPA. Unlike finance, a degree in audio engineering doesn’t translate to a job after graduation. After immediately being thrown into the internship gauntlet, though, he caught a stroke of luck.

“There’s this super famous studio in Hollywood, originally called United Western Recorders, on 6000 Sunset,” Ellis said. “The Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds there, The Mamas and The Papas came through there, lots of people. That closed down and was about to reopen as EastWest Studios. It’s got a lot of history and they needed interns right as I was looking for an opportunity. I did well enough at the school that they gave me an interview. I interviewed and somehow got it, even though I was probably dying of nerves. And that was my first job at a recording studio.”

Ellis traveled the classic route of an engineer; first interning, then graduating to a runner, essentially a formalization of his internship, until finally becoming an assistant. In light of his past ingratitude, Jeff stresses the debt he owes to EastWest Studios: “It’s a unique place because it’s not just an ‘x’ genre studio. There’s top-level music made there across genres. Thankfully I was working under the best producers, best engineers, and some of the top artists at the time. There’s only a handful of those studios left, with even fewer internships and runner positions, so I’m grateful I was able to take advantage of that opportunity while it still existed.”  

His gracious attitude comes with a hint of uncertainty for his craft’s future, as he sees opportunities evaporate for the next generation of engineers. “People coming up simply don’t have access to brilliant engineers of the past,” Ellis explained. “The studios closed down, the engineers retired because they couldn’t make a living anymore. It’s sad, really, because someone trying to be an engineer now has a tough time trying to find that wisdom from previous generations. I’m just glad I could slip in.”

Jeff would spend the next two years working as an assistant, absorbing the lessons of engineers and producers such as Robbes Stieglitz (Toni Braxton, Van Halen) and Ken Sluiter (Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers). I ask how he balances the tested methods of the past with a penchant for experimentation clear in his work: “I try to put myself outside the box and not just do what was done before I got here. Take the lessons from the past, but have no problem doing it your own way. If I’m doing something I think is dope and it’s not working though, I’ll abandon it. There’s no ego attached to experimenting.”

For Jeff, experimenting is also intimately related to insecurity:

“Remember how I said I was so insecure in college I couldn’t even walk into an open mic night? You can’t let good art out if you’re too insecure to express yourself fully. I can’t be sitting there, insecure, thinking, ‘Oh, am I gonna do a good job?’ But it’s really tough to not, you know? Think about the best songwriters. They aren’t too insecure to express themselves, they let the chips fall as they will and that gives an honesty to their writing we fall in love with. Mixing is the same way, as crazy as that sounds. If I think I’m going to offend an artist with a vocal effect, or the way I’m doing this weird panning thing, or the level of the bass, I’m already scared to do what I feel is right. There might be a famous-ass musician standing behind me watching what I’m doing, and I have to have the confidence to not fuck it up. But if I’m scared I’m gonna fuck it up, I will. So now I’m finding ways to be happy and confident in all areas of my life so I can put that energy towards music. We put chains on ourselves that get in the way of making art and I’m working on breaking those chains.”  

All-Purpose Mixer and the Centrality of Voice

Jeff admits he sounds a bit “extra” when discussing the way he makes art, but he’s far from a strip-mall motivationalist. His approach comes from surviving the tests of studio life and freelancing. After working at EastWest Studios for roughly two years, he began receiving offers from artists to come work with them. While Jeff has always been open to new experiences, the money wasn’t right at the time. He was hit with a few “embarrassingly low” offers to leave the studio before he found the appropriate way to exit. “Saying no is powerful lesson itself,” Ellis said. “If I’d said ‘yes’ to some of those early offers, I would have never met Frank Ocean.”

One night during his third year at the studio, Ellis was thrown into the ring to record Ocean’s vocals. Frank’s guy didn’t show, and frequent Ocean collaborator Om’Mas Keith said, “This guy Jeff will do it.” “I just popped in and ended up working with Frank for five years after that,” he reveals. “This was right after Nostalgia, Ultra, so he hadn’t exploded yet, but there was something special enough about him that I thought it was worth leaving the security of the studio to follow him around.”

Sadly, that’s as much as Ellis was willing to share about his time working with Ocean, stressing his respect for the artist’s privacy and refusing to betray their mutual trust. While that may be disappointing for those hoping to uncover the specific sorcery behind Frank’s music, Jeff’s been perfecting his philosophy of mixing and has guidance for young engineers struggling to make decisions in a mix:

“Music nowadays can be pretty experimental, so the 'right' answer for a mix is kinda vague and the artist and I need to talk about that. I might do something really aggressive and an artist says, 'I don’t know if I like that.' Well, let’s talk about why you don’t like that. We have to explore if that’s rooted in an insecurity, did I come up with a 'sus' idea, sometimes that’s it. Sometimes you try something that just doesn’t work. It’s easy to make mixing safe, because no one wants to waste time working on a song, but I think the best mixes are the ones that are aggressive and experimental. Unless it’s over the top, of course. I never want a mix to be what’s dope about the song. Most of what I mix sounds great beforehand because it’s great production, I’ve been lucky enough to work with incredibly talented musicians and producers.”

Jeff’s job description has expanded over the years, far beyond his uncle’s initial idea of “pushing buttons and shit.” When I ask him to distill the purpose of an engineer, he offers two grounding principles: “Be whatever you can to facilitate getting the music from this person’s mind into the world. Create the least amount of blockage from their heart to the speakers.”

Often, Jeff finds himself repairing artists’ psyches as much as their patches.

When it came time to part ways and leave the tranquility of his studio space for the chaos of that parking lot, I was stuck looming over the ubiquity it takes to be a relevant engineer in 2017. An engineer can do next to nothing one session, “sitting on the couch just looping a track while an artist is writing” as Jeff recalls, to almost playing the role of a “father” figure and controlling the session, blurring the lines between engineer, producer, and friend.

As I backed out of the two parking spaces my car occupied, I was reminded that most of us are lucky to perfect one role.

Like this article? DJBooth is committed to quality music journalism, never clickbait. You can join us by downloading our app or following us on Facebook or Twitter.


Related Articles


By , who becomes more convinced every day life is just an ad-lib.
There are comments

Sample Text - Sample Link
0:00
3:00
Shrink
Hide

Best of DJBooth

Trending Articles

More Hip Hop News