Welcome to Liner Notes, a new feature series which will focus on highlighting the often overlooked creative efforts of studio engineers. The album booklet may be dead, but we’ll try to keep its spirit alive. Please don’t forget to read your liner notes, kids.
The older I get, the more complex my interactions with family become. Trying to balance my need for independence with a desire to be considered “worthy” is taxing, especially after abandoning my virtually free graduate school education to publish my silly music opinions on the internet. I knew I had their approval for such an obviously difficult pursuit, but blogs? While I’m by no means successful at this, having loved ones recognize your momentum is deeply gratifying.
I’ve only experienced a small number of victories in my creative venture, so I imagine Elton Chueng felt quite vindicated when he was sitting next to his parents as they watched Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book win the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album.
“It was important for my family to see that,” he recalls, and I can hear the weight of that achievement in his voice. “You know, my mom didn’t really approve of me dropping out of college, but I was so stubborn she couldn’t stop me,” he continues, “having my family look over after it’s announced on live television and see my reaction validated that decision; all my choices good and bad." He wasn’t able to take in the moment for too long, as his phone immediately exploded from congratulatory messages and died shortly after.
You might be unfamiliar with Elton Chueng, who operates under the moniker L10MixedIt, but you’ve heard his work. If you’re a fan of Chance, Noname or Smino, his work behind the boards has graced your ears. He’s one of many eclectic players fueling Chicago's musical renaissance. In his case, he’s found a way to capture the essence of his artists’ personalities in their voice and transmit their musings as if it were a fireside chat.
Last month, I caught up with L10 as he was riding to the studio one morning, probably to mix vocals, and in the process learned more about caring for your craft than I ever expected from an Uber experience.
What got you into music and engineering specifically?
I started with music in high school. Me and some of my homies were trying to make it as rappers. We would freestyle in the hallways, or try to at least. We started recording stuff on laptops and I always enjoyed recording them and putting all my energy into making it sound good. So much so that it became like an obsession. I wanted all of our stuff to sound professional like it was on the radio. In college, I was lost as fuck. I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I wasn’t interested in my academics. So, after years of taking classes and not being able to find a career that wouldn’t make me miserable, I decided to drop out of school, quit my job and pursue music. I started interning at Classick Studios here in Chicago and after a few months, I met this kid named Chance and started running sessions for him. Long story short, I kept that relationship up and the rest is kinda history from there with Acid Rap.
I’ve read some other interviews with you that focus on your work with Chance, so I want to dig into other stuff. What were you using to mix back in the day?
Like in high school and stuff, man, so I found this crack of Cool Edit Pro 2.0 because I read that Cash Money used to use it, (laughs) No Limit too. I’m not even sure how I found it, but I was really into computer games back then so finding a crack wasn’t that difficult. I’d just record people off of that and fake mixed like I knew what I was doing. When I started interning and using Pro Tools, I had zero knowledge of it but I kinda got a hold on it now.
It’s funny you say you “kinda got a hold on it now” given some of the stuff you’ve mixed (laughs).
With music or any kind of art really, you never want to limit yourself and act like you know everything. It comes down to how willing you are to learn. There’s never only one way to do something, especially with art. So when I say I kinda got the hang of it, that’s what I really mean. I’m always finding new ways to record and shortcuts in the software. My mind is constantly looking for new ways to innovate sound engineering.
One thing I’ve noticed in your mixes is the intricacy of the vocal work. Is that the focus of your mix when you sit down to work on it?
I’m really glad you mentioned that, actually, 'cause at one point in my career I was like, “Damn, I wanna be the master of vocals.” That’s one of the things I pay attention to the most. For example, when I’m mixing Noname, I want her to sound as if she’s in the room. When she speaks to me, I’m paying attention to how she sounds. She has a warm, nurturing voice, so I want to capture that, whether it’s with microphone placement or whatever. Same thing with Smino too. I’ll tilt a mic all different types of ways if I hear something I don’t like and record them like I REALLY care because I do. I think that’s something that’s very undervalued: how you record somebody. I’m a little meticulous about how I record artists because I feel like they should sound natural. I want their voice to be the same if you hear them live. As natural as possible is the goal, for recording and mixing.
For "Shadow Man" on Noname’s Telefone album, we had to re-record everyone’s verses except for Noname because she was the only one I had initially recorded. All the other verses were initially recorded by someone else at the same multi-million dollar facility, but I cared enough to make sure her mic placement was right and her levels were good. That song turned out incredible once we got everyone else in to re-cut their verses. Moral of the story: care.
Is there a difference between recording, say, Noname and Smino? Do you have a different mindset?
Well, everybody’s different, so you have to adjust. Both of them work relatively fast, so my mindset is to keep up and make it as easy as possible for them to get their ideas out. Efficiency is key. Noname really knows what she wants with a record, so I don’t want to waste her time. They’re artists too, so you have to be patient to help them get their vision out. Patience is something that comes naturally for me, so it’s easy to sit back and let them get their artistry out. I’m not going to say anything unless I really feel like it would sound better to do another take or re-record. Artists need space to be themselves. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re listening for.
Moving to Smino, specifically, how did you meet him?
I met him interning at Classick Studios when he was still rapping under his government name. Classick used to operate out of the basement of a house, so we would just hang out there all the time, practically living in the house. We were cool then, but when he came back to Chicago in like 2012-13 he was on a roll, met Monte [Booker], and was cranking out music. One day he was like, “Man, I know you got a lot going on, but would you like to be my engineer?” "Definitely" was the only answer (laughs). I was rocking with his music for awhile and wanted to help him grow his talent as much as possible. He’s a drummer first and foremost, works with other instruments like the keys and was even making beats at one point so his talent is deep. I was actually talking to him the other day and he said he was getting back into crafting beats.
What were the blkswn sessions like? Was there a vibe or mindset you tried to cultivate?
Oh yeah, blkswn was in the making for like two-to-three years, so it was one hell of a long journey. It was really just us trapping out of Classick Studios and renting out Airbnbs to mix up the vibe. “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up” was recorded in a wide-open living room and you can kinda hear the reflections of the room in the mix. I made it work, though (laughs). Most of the recording was done in LA and Chicago, but we would have to book week-long lock-outs to buckle down. We’re all friends so it wasn’t super intense. I don’t think it ever actually felt like work; just hanging out. Working together like that really got us in sync. I started to understand his influences, which made his artistic vision clearer. He’s a huge André 3000 fan, T-Pain and old school Ludacris, too. We both grew up on that shit. And, not to get too meta, but the fact that he knows that I understand him adds a level of comfort when we’re creating.
We had a free-form mentality during those sessions. Smino would lay down a track, then Monte would cook a beat on the speakers right there and—boom—we’d have another track twenty minutes later.
Are there any creative moments on blkswn you’re particularly proud of?
I actually tweeted a screenshot from Pro Tools not too long ago and the comment was “major moves on this one pimpin” (laughs). I didn’t want to forget that one. I made people guess what song that was, but it was “Glass Flows." I spent an entire day just on the vocals for that track. Cleaning them up and panning… so much panning between Smino and Rayvn Lenae. When I heard their verses, I visualized a push-and-pull concept to the song, so I wanted the mix to reflect that. So as Rayvn’s verse fades out to the left, for example, Smino’s is coming in from the right and rests in the middle. And their vocals are doing that constantly. I wanted this whole album to be a wild sonic adventure and I hope that’s what people get out of it. I’m glad that Smino and Monte are getting so much recognition from this project 'cause they deserve it. They’ve worked hella hard on blkswn and it’s great to see the world receiving so well.
Was there anything unorthodox about your team’s workflow for blkswn?
This might not be what you expect, but the main unorthodoxy is that sometimes I’ll just get out of the way. Smino’s so talented with knowing exactly what he wants in a song that after we record, I’ll get up and just let him get his ideas out for effects and drops. After that, I’ll clean it up and add my spin to it.
Looking more broadly, it seems like engineers are starting to get more recognition from fans and media. Do you agree?
It’s a beautiful thing. It’s something I’ve had conversations about with LBoogie from THEMpeople, who produced “Father Son Holy Smoke.” He engineers for Mick Jenkins. I think it’s due time for this recognition. I want to help push it forward and see where it goes. Shoutout to Alex Tumay for doing what he’s doing because he really crafted a sound for Young Thug, that shit is crazy. I remember he reached out after Coloring Book and showed love for my mixing on Acid Rap. He said that was such a classic for him, and that was dope because I respect him and his work. Shoutout to Seth Firkins (Future’s engineer). All the stuff these guys work on sounds incredible.
Real shit, trap music back [in the day] definitely doesn’t sound like trap music now. These guys are molding a sound and it’s making trap music sound so futuristic. I feel like they did it the right way, by letting their work speak for them and not being corny about spreading their name. It’s cool that my name is getting a little bit of notoriety as well, and I appreciate the people that appreciate my work.
Who’s an engineer you admire that isn’t getting as much light as they should?
Bryan Schwaller, Ravyn Lenae’s engineer who works here at Classick Studios. That man goes crazy with her vocal mixes. I feel like once you’re used to an artist’s sound, you’re taking a risk letting someone else mix it because who would know your sound better than the person that’s in the studio with you all the time? I think it’s a good thing for artists to have their own engineer mix vocals for features so they can keep the essence of their sound. When I got a Bieber vocal or a T-Pain vocal for a feature, I don’t touch them because they were mixed and they sound like how they’re supposed to sound. Who am I to say Bieber’s engineer didn’t make him sound like Bieber? In my case, Smino and Noname won’t ever send out vocals without me touching them, and that relationship is dope because it’s reassurance for the artist to know they’ll never sound trash. It’s for sure a cheat code. I am a cheat code.
Who else have you been mixing besides the people we already know?
Mostly the rest of the Zero Fatigue collective. Monte Booker, we’ve got Bari and his MSTRGLSS EP coming soon, Jay2 is also wrapping up his project. These guys really have something special up their sleeve. What else am I working on? Singles for Johnny Balik, amazing artist. Cam O'bi’s Grown Ass Kid album, ridiculous. I haven’t worked with him directly, but I’d love to work with theMIND, super talented and the world needs to get hip. The way he did his entire verse sounding like he was drunk on “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up” blew me away and it really helped bring the vision of the song to life.
Do you draw inspiration from non-hip-hop genres?
Growing up, I was big into R&B. All the '90s and early 2000s jams from Boyz II Men, Jagged Edge, Jaheim, you name it. Any type of music with soul inspires me and I feel like that soul was missing from music for a while, so I’m fortunate to be working with Smino and Noname to help bring that back.
Is that going to play a factor as you continue to push and develop Chicago’s music scene?
I hope so. I want to grow this community the way Dungeon Family and all those artists in Atlanta did. Build a foundation and keep cultivating the local talent. Once this wave of artists becomes established, I want to reach back to the ones who are in the position we were in. From this point forward, my focus is to grow Chicago’s music scene so that everyone knows what Chicago has to say.