Meet the Man Who Expertly Mixed Burna Boy’s ‘African Giant’: Interview

“It was just amazing to sit in the room with Burna Boy for the first time.”
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Jesse Ray Ernster Interview, 2019, Burna Boy, African Giant

Jesse Ray Ernster is a bit of perfectionist, but he’s working on it. Born in Winnipeg, and now based in LA, the 27-year-old mixing engineer—who’s worked with Kanye West and Burna Boy—has been focused on moving from the technical to the creative. His passion seeps through as he breaks down his newfound creative process.

“These days, I’m trying to approach things less from a technical space and more from a creative, musical space,” he tells me. “I’m opening up sessions and moving things around organically, pushing the faders up in tempo with the drums, just boom boom. Pushing things in tempo and allowing the speaker cones to push air out, and just baiting some excitement. A lot of music can be static these days, and I like to get in there and shake it up.”

Ernster’s venturing into the engineering space, coming from a musician’s family, was a matter of fate. “My parents are musicians, so I grew up with both of them playing in bands, making music, making records,” he recalls. “My dad was an early adopter of ProTools in the ‘90s, and he made records. He was a fantastic musician, producer, engineer, mixer. I grew up in the environment, and I had no choice, I was screwed [laughs]. I was born into it, and I love it.”

Most recently, Ernster mixed Burna Boy’s voluminous African Giant. Mixing from LA to London, Jesse brought out and punched up the color of Burna’s vibrant sound. Though he regards himself as reserved in the studio, during his time with Burna Boy, Jesse came to life as Burna’s jubilant personality brought the best out of him, and the best out of each track on African Giant.

“He’s one of those radiant personalities that just lights up the room,” Ernster says of Burna. “He’s a star! He’s incredibly compassionate. He’ll smile or tell a joke, and the room will be roaring. He’s a terrific dancer. He’ll get up—the mix is just playing back—and he’ll start dancing.”

As for what he hopes fans pick up on when they press play on African Giant, Ernster’s main desire is for listeners to tune into Burna Boy’s stories. “There is nothing disingenuous,” he assures me. “There’s some deep subject matter in there. Aside from the fact that the melodies are amazing and the production is fantastic, there’s some really serious things. It’s quite educational when you dig in and start learning about the history of Nigeria.”

Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: How did you first find out what an engineer does?

Jesse Ray Ernster: My parents are musicians, so I grew up with both of them playing in bands, making music, making records. My dad was an early adopter of ProTools in the ‘90s, and he made records. He was a fantastic musician, producer, engineer, mixer. I grew up in the environment, and I had no choice, I was screwed [laughs]. I was born into it, and I love it. It’s always been the only thing I cared about.

When did you discover you had a knack for mixing?

The pivot into solely mixing has been a transition over the last ten years. Growing up, I played lead guitar as well as drums, piano, and bass. I was in rock bands and playing and recording. Eventually, I loved the studio side of it more. I pivoted into a producing, mixing role. After doing that for a quite a while, I learned that I was enjoying the end of the process. I was almost rushing through the producing process because I enjoyed the mixing stage so much. I feel like that is my strong suit.

Can you describe mixing to our readers?

Essentially, I am a finalizer. I take a finished record when a producer and an artist have completed a recording, and I turn the knobs and make everything sound shiny, audible, as loud and as punchy as possible, and just overall awesome. At that point, once the artist has signed off, then the job of a mixer is to format and deliver several different versions to the label, as well as stem files—a laundry list of deliverables that has to be sent out. But, yeah, turning knobs and sending files [laughs].

Mixing is about the fine details. Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Does that bite you in the ass?

Absolutely! It can be incredibly challenging to get the songs to fit together the right way and also to know when to walk away. You can spend so much time on something, especially if it’s a higher pressure situation [or] there’s a lot at stake. You tend to put hours and hours into something, and the major fear there is you lose perspective. As soon as you put more than four hours into a mix, you’re not hearing it fresh anymore. You might be going down some rabbit holes. Those situations are when you get fixated on an element of the mix that’s not necessarily the focal point. It’s not about any particular instrument; it’s about the cohesive picture that you’re putting together. It’s about how every element of a mix and an arrangement works together to present the message of the song and tell the artist’s story.

These days, I’m trying to approach things less from a technical space and more from a creative, musical space. I’m opening up sessions and moving things around organically, pushing the faders up in tempo with the drums, just boom boom. Pushing things in tempo and allowing the speaker cones to push air out, and just baiting some excitement. A lot of music can be static these days, and I like to get in there and shake it up.

How did you link up with Burna Boy?

I was introduced to Burna Boy’s music when I was in Uganda, working and engineering with Kanye West last year. I heard about this guy, and it was just really exciting. It was fresh to my ears, this sort of Afrofusion sound that he has. It was just ridiculous! I was immediately a fan. Essentially, when I got back from that trip, it just happened to be a coincidence that I was shopping around for a manager, and the guys that I landed with happened to manage Burna Boy as well. 

Talk to me about the process of mixing African Giant.

When it got time to start mixing, it was a matter of collecting all the puzzle pieces. Burna worked with a pile of incredible producers and a lot of different artists on this album. There were a lot of different contacts I had to get hold of to get all the files. The first stage was getting 20 songs worth of stems together. Once that happened, I mixed most of the record here in LA. Then we all decided it would be great to finish the record together in the UK. We flew out to London, and we pulled up the record and listened to it start-to-finish. Within a couple of days, we were all just really happy. It was just amazing to sit in the room with Burna Boy for the first time. This is the second album I’ve done with him, but we just got to meet for the first time.

Burna Boy, African Giant, 2019

What is it like working with Burna?

He is amazing. He’s one of those radiant personalities that lights up the room. He’s a star! He’s incredibly compassionate. He’ll smile or tell a joke, and the room will be roaring. He’s a terrific dancer. He’ll get up—the mix is just playing back—and he’ll start dancing like, “Alright!” When we sat down to begin the mixing stage, I’m always a little bit reserved and just ready to work and stay pretty focused in, but he eased the tension right away by getting up and dancing. That set the pace for a fun few days in the studio, finishing up the album.

What’s one thing you want listeners to know—or pay attention to—when they press play on the album?

Listen to the stories that this guy is telling. There is nothing disingenuous. Not only the lyrical content alone but the cohesion between the words and the way that the music sounds, and the cohesion between those words and the visuals. There’s some deep subject matter in there. Aside from the fact that the melodies are amazing and the production is fantastic, there’s some really serious things. It’s quite educational when you dig in and start learning about the history of Nigeria. It’s really disturbing to learn about how that came to be. There’s a lot of real stuff in there, and you gotta listen in. 

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