“Painting the sound of the song” for some of pop’s biggest hitmakers

By Michael Gallant

When engineer and mixer Marcella Araica steps into the recording studio tonight to mix Beyoncé’s latest track, chances are she won’t be thinking about producers, record labels or the millions who will soon hear her sonic craft. More likely, she’ll be too busy channeling Pablo Picasso. “I always compare mixing to painting,” she says, resting in her New York hotel lobby less than an hour before the session. “I take what’s been given to me and I three-dimensionalize it. I lift it up. I splash on colors—compression, EQ, effects. I’m always painting the sound of the song.”

The deftness with which she crafts her aural canvases has made the 30-year-old Araica a top-call engineer for a vast array of artists. Her credits include stars like Madonna, 50 Cent, Usher, Whitney Houston, Duran Duran, Britney Spears, Nicole Scherzinger and Mariah Carey, to name just a few. She is best known for her collaborations with star producers Tim “Timbaland” Mosley and Nate “Danja” Hills; the latter is her professional partner in the studio and in their joint-venture imprint New Age Rock Stars Records. Araica also continues to develop her newest project, the Red Bottoms Foundation. “It’s geared toward empowering women through mentorship programs,” she describes. “I plan to have webisodes available where you can be in the studio with me, where we can mix a song together.”

Araica began her career in Orlando, Fla., graduating from the Full Sail Production and Recording Program and winning the school’s Advanced Recording Engineer Award. After landing an internship at Miami’s Hit Factory recording studio, she earned her stripes as an assistant engineer for artists like Missy Elliott. Araica has become accustomed to working with A-list stars, but she admits that at the moment her mind is on tonight’s Beyoncé session. “I’m a huge fan and I haven’t worked with her, so this is very important to me,” she says. “It’s a pinnacle.” Though she didn’t hint if the creative spirits of Picasso or Monet would be guiding her tonight, Araica did speak to us about her painterly adventures behind the board so far.

Did you face resistance as a woman?

I never realized until I went to school that engineering was such a male-dominated profession. I was in a class of 165, and 160 were male. I did get a lot of flack, a lot of people saying I’d never make it and that this was just not something that women did. I felt I had to prove myself not 100 times more, but 1,000 times because of that.

How did you do that?

When I landed the internship at the Hit Factory, I knew it was going to be dirty work and I didn’t mind. I did whatever it took. My days would start at 6 a.m. to open the studio, clear out the rooms, paint walls, blow leaves out of the parking lot. Once a TAD 15 speaker blew in one of the studios at 2 a.m., and the assistant engineer asked me to help him bring it downstairs. It’s pretty heavy, but I’m a strong cookie. When I picked it up, he said, “Sorry, I forgot you’re a woman. Put it down.” I had some words with him—actually ended up cussing him out. (laughs) I was working so hard at that point, and I had never shown a sign of weakness. That comment upset me, but our interaction also created a new relationship.

What’s the engineer’s role?

My job is to understand who I’m recording. I just finished recording with Joe Jonas. I wasn’t familiar with his stuff, so I listened a lot before we started working together—specifically for his vocal sound. He’s got this cool, clear pop feel, but he can also get into this soulful rock sound. That’s how I knew what microphones, mic preamps and vibe setting to use. It also helps when I’m figuring out how much compression to use on an artist’s vocals. I’m not a big fan of compressing to tape heavily while I’m recording. But sometimes you have to, depending on the dynamic range of the singer and his or her mic technique.

Give us an example.

Mary J. Blige gets so into the song that she moves around a lot as she’s singing, and you can hear that when she’s recording. It’s the job of the mixer and the sound engineer to make sure that her vocal sounds strong and forward the whole time—otherwise you’ll hear volume dips as she moves away from the mic. And with Mary, she has that great voice where her verses might be quiet, but then at the chorus her ad-libs could be screaming at you. So you have to get the compression just right to make it sound balanced.

What mics do you like?

What works for one artist often won’t work for another, so I always set up four or five different mics. They can range anywhere from the Sony C-800 and the Neumann U 87 and U 67 to the Shure SM7 and the SM58. I love the SM58—it’s one of my favorites, but it has to be right for the voice and the song we’re doing.

Any studio horror stories?

The other day I was mixing my artist Luke James and the power went out. I was done with the mix, but I hadn’t yet saved the parameters of the mixing board. When the power went back on, it spiked through the board and all the faders just went crazy. All of my EQs were out, my routing to stereo busses was wiped, my effects sends were gone and so were all my levels. The good thing was that I had already printed a mix that everyone involved had approved. So I had to calm down first. (laughs) I listened to the printed version and brought back the levels, A- and B-ing between the printed version and the mix. It took me two hours to bring it back. I had a similar circumstance in London mixing for Natasha Bedingfield—which was even crazier. The power had gone out and I basically had 45 minutes to bring the mix back before Natasha and her management were coming by to listen. I had printed a mix reference, so I was basically doing the A and B thing again. Thankfully, they showed up 10 minutes late—when they walked in I had just finished.

How did you meet Danja?

I’d been working with Timbaland for a few years and he was thinking about retiring, so he brought in Danja to join the team and follow in his footsteps. The first time I met him in the studio, he walked over to Tim’s equipment and started messing around on the Korg Triton keyboard. In 10 minutes he created a beat that was phenomenal. I remember thinking, “Who is this kid?” Danja and I would be in the studio with each other for 12 hours a day, so we started growing with each other.

How did the partnership evolve?

Tim’s music would come out of the speakers and smack you in the face. The challenge with Danja in the beginning was that he could make phenomenal beats, but his music came out of the speakers sounding tiny. So I’d tell him, “Give me your parts and I’ll rough mix them for you and make them sound bigger than life.” Given that I had this studio at my fingertips 12 hours a day, I started mixing his music more and more and getting a feel for the sounds he likes. That’s how I became his sole engineer—I learned who he was as a producer. We met Keri Hilson a few months later when Tim signed her to his label [Mosley Music]. I have a 300GB hard drive of music that nobody will ever hear, because for the first six months we would just go into the studio and create. That’s how I got to learn Keri, and how I got to be such a big part of her music and album-making process. I became so familiar with her voice, recording and mixing, that Tim trusted nobody else to mix her vocals.

Recall your favorite sessions.

Working on the album Loose [2006] with Nelly Furtado was like family meeting at the clubhouse every day. All those records came out of a vibe session. I worked with Timbaland, [sound engineer] Demo and Danja on that project. Demo had a 64-channel SSL 9000 J mixing console and we were recording to two Pro Tools HD 4 systems. Danja and Tim would work on building tracks on their keyboards with headphones on—I’d be recording Danja and Demo would be recording Tim—so they wouldn’t know what each other was working on. But when it was time to put the tracks on the speakers and present what they’d made, it all made sense. There was a lot of, “Let’s put this part in here and shift this there,” and it would come together as a song. Then Nelly would come in and sing. The product that’s out there was based on vibe and pure free spirit. That was one of my favorite projects.

Do you prefer analog recording?

I’m lucky because when I got into the business, tape machines were still around, but being slowly pushed out the door. I did sessions with two-inch tape, and with mixers who printed to half-inch. I got to understand the sound of it. The thing I love about analog boards like the SSL 9000 or a Neve is the headroom. The more you push an analog board, the better it sounds. On a digital board, you can’t push the stereo bus without it distorting. I’m an aggressive mixer and like things to hit hard and be in your face. I don’t need a board to stop me from doing that.

How do you create a great mix?

When I’m preparing for a mix session, I dress the part of the song. If it’s a heartbreak song, I’ll dress as though I’m going through a heartbreak. If it’s a party song, I’m all dressed up to go out and my makeup is done. I’ll set up my room to fit, too—if it’s a love song, I’ll have roses everywhere and a machine that creates stars on the ceiling. I like to create the appropriate atmosphere and feel the right sort of energy for the song, because how I feel is going into the record. I love to mix—that’s my moment. And once you’re done, it’s history. It’s how our kids and our kids’ kids are going to hear it, and that’s a big thing for me.

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