Engineer Andrew Dawson Takes Us Inside the Studio with Kanye West, Childish Gambino & More

After hearing what Andrew Dawson did to each album he mixed, you might develop a newfound appreciation for some of your favorite records.
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Andrew Dawson Interview, 2019

There are only three people with a credit on every single Kanye West album—Kanye, Mike Dean, and Andrew Dawson. That achievement alone is unique, but Dawson’s fingerprints are all over the past 15 years of hip-hop—and other genres. He mixed the entirety of Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, voice-acted Jimmy Carter on the hook for Lil Wayne’s “President Carter,” discovered the “21st century schizoid man” sample on “Power,” and has worked on everything from “Runaway” to “Run This Town” to “We Are Young” by fun. and “Hurricane” by Thirty Seconds to Mars.

Dawson, a three-time GRAMMY Award winner, is a hybrid engineer/mixer/producer, a “sauce-sprinkler,” and musical Swiss Army knife. Like others of his kind—Jay Electronica’s Mike Chav, who I interviewed for DJBooth earlier this year, or Kanye’s Mike Dean, who I smoked powerful blunts with a few years back—Dawson has a water-like quality to him, a good-naturedness to complement the sometimes brash attitudes of A-list artists.

Dawson’s humility belies a ferocious ability to punch in hours at the studio—a trait that carried him from a 24-year-old finishing unrequested rough mixes of “Jesus Walks” to the luxurious Los Angeles studio he owns today. Over the phone, I interviewed Dawson on his musical process and the biggest records he’s worked on, from “Hey Mama” to “Reborn”—a discussion for anyone interested in craft, how to mix albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and hip-hop history.

And, if you have a good pair of headphones, put them on—after hearing what Dawson did to each, you might develop a newfound appreciation for some of your favorite records.

Andrew Dawson Interview, 2019

ON MIXING DESTINY’S CHILD

One of the first big mixes I did was with Destiny’s Child on their last album, Destiny Fulfilled. I was 24 years old. I was the engineer, and I was cutting Beyoncé’s vocals. I think I cut three songs with Beyoncé that day.

At the end of the night, I would make rough mixes of the songs. I spent maybe 30 minutes on them to make it sound good. I sent the CD off to the record label. A month or two later, the A&R hit me up and asked, “How do you want your name to be credited for mixing on this record? We’re going to use your rough mix for the album. They just couldn’t beat it.” It was the song “Is She the Reason.”

It was cool enough to be cutting Beyoncé’s vocals, but [the selection] was the icing on the cake.

ON “JESUS WALKS” AND MEETING KANYE

Kanye had half of The College Dropout done when I started working with him. It was only my second day with him, but after he left the session, I stayed and made rough mixes of a few songs on the album. One of them was “Jesus Walks.”

I was like, “This track is dope.” But I felt like the rough mix at the time didn’t represent where the song could be. It deserved to be sounding super fire. So I took it on myself. I don’t remember specifically what I did. But they came back the next [day] and were like, “Whoa. This sounds great.” It had taken on a new light. There was a little more sparkle in people’s eyes when they were listening to it.

That’s where I’m a little different than your average mixer because I’ll dive in and do whatever it takes to make it better. If an artist hears the record in a new way, they might be inspired to try something new on it. I don’t think “Well I’m only a mixer…” Sometimes I’ll get a song and send it back with a completely different bridge, replaced the drums and replayed the bass, and most of the time they’re like “Yeah, we like it better too!” But even if not, I’ll say, “No problem, I’ll put it back the way you had it.”

ON ENGINEERING

The first stage of a record is engineering. The engineer is the person who’s probably with the artists and producers the most. They’re involved in the day-to-day creation of the album: recording the sounds, making sure the vocal takes sound right. They’re basically the frontend capture of all the information.

A big part about being an engineer is not just capturing the sounds properly, it’s [being] ready to capture them—when they’re about to cut a verse, you get the microphone ready, or when someone has an idea, they can just go bang on a keyboard. Your job as the engineer is to help remove all those creative barriers. Because if it takes an hour to get the idea out, you might have lost the spontaneity of the idea.

A lot of people think that engineering is just technical. But when you’re an engineer you’re part of the vibe: you have to be able to read a room, read an artist, read a producer. There’s a reason artists rock with the same engineer for a long time. It’s because that person has worked with them enough that they can anticipate what they want.

The way sounds are captured today in hip-hop and modern music, the engineering is a key part of the production itself. Are you going to have the drums distorted? Are they going to sound ambient? Are you going to capture the vocal intimate? Will you capture the background sound in the room? These are all production choices that are made in the engineering of the record.

ON 808S & HEARTBREAK

The great thing about working with Kanye is that he pushes the sonic boundaries and looks for new production styles every time. Every album you do with him keeps you on your toes. There’s no formula. We’re inventing new ways to do 808s and ways to process vocals and ways to do instrumentation. You have to figure it out on your own, which is the best way to work ever. Because you get to be fun and creative with it.

That was what I loved about 808s & Heartbreak. That was one of the first albums that had the 808s [drum sounds from an 808 machine] driving the chord and key changes. There were a lot of 808s in hip-hop before, but they usually carried the same note throughout the whole song. On 808s & Heartbreak, instead of the bass line, you had the 808s changing keys and doing chord changes of the songs. Now everybody can draw in all the pitch changes in FL Studio, but it wasn’t so easy back then!

If you’re making your own 808 and you pitch it up a third of a note, it might not be perfect, so you have to adjust it. I remember micro-tuning 808s and running them through different sample rate converters to get the specific pitch that I wanted—we’re talking about a few cents of a semitone [a step within a half note]. I remember doing that quite a bit with 808s & Heartbreak.

ON MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY

I found the King Crimson “21st Century Schizoid Man” sample on “Power.” I used to play in prog-rock bands, and that’s one of the songs we covered. It was this crazy brash sample. I remember playing it for Kanye in the studio, and he was like, “That is amazing! That needs to go in the song!” It brought the energy up great on the record.

On the more engineering tip, I remember for that album, I was tracking [Kid] Cudi’s vocals on “Gorgeous,” and I put a reverse reverb on his vocals. It sounded like a ghost, swelling into his vocals. That might have been the first time someone did that on his vocals—I remember him freaking out like, “Oh my God! That’s amazing!” It fit the song perfectly. He ended up rerecording the chorus, and I had to go back and match that exact effect. Now it’s one button click to do a reverse reverb, but it was a trick back then.

So just little things like that—adding a reverse reverb, doing all the vocal screw and chops, the stutter vocal effects on Nicki’s verse, the panning tricks. It’s not as earthshaking as writing a great 16 bars, but you’re a part of the process. It’s like the modern version of a band, and you’re the bass player or drummer.

ON MIXING

After engineering and recording, the next stage is mixing the record. The mixer’s job is to go through all the 40 or 100 tracks—the vocal takes, beat stems, multi-tracks, backgrounds, harmonies—and make sense of it all. The final mix needs to sound nice on studio speakers, but bump in the car, and also sound great on an iPhone speaker. I’ve got multiple sets of speakers in my studio. Sometimes I’ll listen on little Bluetooth speakers, or take the song home and listen in my car and make changes to it live.

Some mixers are a little bit more creative and will add cool effects or reverse a vocal or replace kick drums; some will give it some EQ [equalization] compression and call it a day.

A big part of mixing is to serve the artist rather than trying to make it something it isn’t. It’s trusting in the artist’s vision that they know what they’re doing. You try to be the “fifth Beatle”—an extension of the artist and what they want.

ON HOW TO MIX

I separate mixing into a “clean-up phase” and then the “creative phase.”

For the first phase, I make sure that I have all the parts. That they’re in the right spot, the crossfades are clean; there’s no egregious clicks or pops or scratches or outtakes that shouldn’t be there. I want that taken care of first so that I when I go into the creative mode, I don’t have to change brains and start dealing with that. On a record with 150-plus tracks, clean-up can be a solid 10 hours. Sometimes I’ll take a day and do the housecleaning phase.

If I have the luxury of time, I might wait a week. And then I come back to the record and begin the “creative phase.” I’ll do a four-to-six hour session where I get the 90% of the mix done. I’ll do the big brush strokes and capture the vibe of the track. And then the last four-to-six hours I’ll dial into the minutiae—the little vocal rides or delay throws or reverb effects.

ON MIXING “HEY MAMA”

An early mix I was super proud of was “Hey Mama” off Late Registration. That song has a drum loop with an 808, but I also had to fit in a LinnDrum sound with a pitch to it that was driving the melody and serving as the main bassline—that was driving the song. This is before trap 808s were driving everything.

And then you have the Jon Brion sparkle keys and all the cool sounds that come in and out. You got the drums, and Kanye’s vocals placed dead center, and then those effects are hard-panned left and right to sound stereo and grab your attention.

That mix still stands up well today, even though a lot of the production techniques and sounds in music are different now.

ON “SWAGGA LIKE US”

I mixed a few Wayne records—“Let the Beat Build,” “Comfortable,” the “Swagga Like Us” track on the T.I. album.

For “Swagga Like Us,” it’s got everybody’s verse—Jay, Wayne, T.I., Ye on it. And they had all recorded in different sessions, so I had to put them all together. I remember Wayne’s verse was tuned to the wrong key. There’s a couple of times he does a melody on that song, and I had to take his voice and manually change the pitch to fit the key.

It probably worked when he was cutting it, but that’s the mixer’s job—I have to look at the song overall with four verses. I can’t just change the key for one person. And that’s the important thing as the mixer. You got to do whatever it takes to make the record sound great.

ON “PRESIDENT CARTER”

I did the hook on “President Carter” on Tha Carter IV. I played the voice of Jimmy Carter. My friends Angel Aponte and Infamous produced it, and they were having a last-minute issue clearing that sample of the President Carter inaugural address. That was the hook of that song: “I, President Carter, President Carter.”

So the night before the album went to mastering, I went into the studio and voice acted the sample. So I got a hook on a Wayne track! I don’t know if they credited me, but I wasn’t worried—I wanted the track on there because my friends were producers on it and it was a good record.

ON BECAUSE THE INTERNET

Another big record I worked on was Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet. I mixed every track on that album—Gambino wanted continuity of the sound. That was pretty experimental as far as mixing goes. If you go back and listen to it, I remember some really interesting mix choices were made—the way effects blend into other things, big switch-ups within the song from chill to super aggressive. It was very difficult to achieve, but it was all done with a purpose.

The album is like a hi-fi [high-fidelity] hip-hop record. Like, “3005” has got so much extended low end it’s ridiculous. It’s almost like you can’t appreciate it unless you’re playing it on a crazy [speaker] system. There’s just some low notes in there that will just get lost. That was one of the sacrifices to make it sound bananas in hi-fi, rather than make it work on an iPhone.

ON “REBORN”

I remember hearing early demos of Kids See Ghosts and thinking, “This is going to be something special.” I mixed “Reborn” and a few other songs. As far as my creative process on the mixing, I felt like “Reborn” was very much a statement record from Cudi. He needed to be heard really well. So his vocal was the key to that—getting his voice to sound super intimate. Like we’re having a conversation. It’s the opposite of “stadium status.” You want to be in the room with Cudi, and he’s singing to you. So that’s the stage I set when mixing.

How did I do that? It was a lot to do with selective compression. Picking the right reverbs and ambiances to use. Even though people will say no reverb, you want a little bit, so you can choose the space you’re in. You can achieve intimacy with space, and that’s really what it was—the right space for Cudi’s voice to be on that record.

It takes years of experience. Mixing is a tough thing for people to get good at. You can read books, you can take master classes, but the only way is to just put in your 10,000 hours and practice.

That’s what I tell a lot of the artists I work with—I’m the studio rat. I spend all my time in the studio. I don’t do shows; I don’t go out on the road. So utilize that to your advantage. The sound or vibe that you’re explaining—I might have tried ten different ways before and have already found the best way to do it. So let me show this to you, see if you dig it, and we’ll tweak it from there. 

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