For the past 20 years, three-time GRAMMY® Award winner Lu Diaz has been mixing and producing some of the biggest artists in the music business. He has over 40 Gold and Platinum Awards and, along with his brother, Hugo, is responsible for launching Cuban rapper Pitbull to fame. In 2016, Diaz won his third GRAMMY® for his mix work on Morgan Heritage’s GRAMMY®-winning album, “Strickly Roots.”
Diaz sat down with Avid’s Adam Lebowski and Heather Waters to talk about producing, developing talent and the Pro Tools features he can’t live without.
You have a multi-faceted career. How would you describe what you do?
What I do, regardless of the role that I may be in, is basic at the core: help the artist I work with to bring their vision to life. All artists have a vision and an instinct that they want the world to hear and feel. I have these things called “knowledge” and “craft” that I have honed over the course of my career. I use these skills to help them achieve their goal. Whether I am mixing, producing or managing, I try to be as transparent as possible. When my brother and I signed Pitbull in 2001, he was really a Hip-Hop artist. As I got to learn more and more about what his goals were and what was important to him, I began to think of him as an international artist, with a much broader appeal. At first, he wasn’t too receptive to the idea, but as he grew as an artist, his perspective changed. Little by little, he began to see the vision he inspired in us. We just pointed him in the right musical direction and the rest is history! From a mixing perspective, Kodak Black is a perfect example. He comes from the mind that his records shouldn’t be mixed. Lol! You can imagine the challenge that presents for me. We’ve had some good conversations about mixing, so he has grown in that aspect. Mixing his last three albums, I had to push aside much of what I want to hear with the mixes and govern myself more by the feel of the mp3s he takes home after his vocal sessions. So, transparency is crucial for a project like Kodak.
Your music is immensely successful and heard around the world. What’s your crowning achievement?
You know people always ask me what is your favorite song you’ve mixed or produced etc., but if I am answering that question honestly, I would have to say that making my mark on the musical landscape is really what makes me feel accomplished. Although I’ve been so fortunate to have had a part of many successful artists, like my brother and I signing Pitbull to our label, recording and mixing songs for so many big artists—at the end of the day—the collective participation in these projects and careers is what is truly gratifying to me.
You’re known as someone who has a knack for developing artists. What is artist development and what’s the key to doing it well?
Artists are just people with a unique talent and more importantly, a desire to tell a story. If you can stay focused on that throughout the process, the odds are really in your favor. Now, I know that’s a general answer, but it really is a true statement. Plainly and simply: you really need to believe this person you are working with is a star. You need to be a fan of their music and story. With that said, you need to be flexible in your approach. No two artists are alike, so when you take on an artist’s career you really need to adapt to their story.
Having worked with Pitbull, DJ Khaled, and so many others, do you believe there is a formula for creating music with mass appeal?
If there’s a formula, I want a copy ASAP!! Lol!! Are there things that work musically or sonically speaking? Yes, of course, but musical and/or sonic tricks are just that. In my opinion, the mass appeal comes from a great song at the core. No matter what kind of music you are making, the one common thread 99% of the time, is the honesty and relatability of a great written song. Now, beyond that, there is a huge role producers, recording engineers, mixers and mastering engineers play in amplifying the feeling and power of a great song!
As an engineer and producer, how does Pro Tools help you develop musical ideas whether you are building a track from scratch or polishing a final mix?
Pro Tools for me is literally at the center of almost every aspect of creating and mixing my music. Even when I use an external sequencing software, I am wired into Pro Tools via rewire and always tweaking sounds as I go along in the creative process. Pro Tools has always just made sense to me. Now, when it comes to mixing, there is literally no other software I have ever used. Pro Tools is simply the standard.
What aspects of a mix do you obsess over?
Getting kicks and 808 subs to work together!!! LoL! In my line of work, I deal with 808s and subs quite a bit. A couple of the ways I get them to work together are side chain compression and high pass EQing. Kicks and subs tend to have phasing issues that cancel out each other’s frequencies, which make it frustrating and difficult to control. Let’s assume you have a kick that has a lot of sub harmonic information. With a high pass filter, I’ll roll off everything from, say 60hz down, to mute those sub frequencies that may be problematic when I introduce the sub (808) on top of it. In a case where a kick and sub bass are working well together, but overload the low end, I will use a side chain compressor on the 808/sub bass and trigger the side chain compressor with the kick. This allows the kick to really punch through without overloading the low end. Keep in mind, these are not an exact science, but for the most part they do work in helping you fit these elements together.
What projects are you currently working on?
Last month, I finished Kodak Black’s “Heart Break Kodak” album and next month, I’m off to Nashville to work with reggae group Morgan Heritage on a very cool project. They are recording a greatest hits album with a country flare and I’m going to do some mixing work on it. I love the merging of musical styles, so I’m excited about this project. Their new single “Pineapple Wine,” which I mixed, is out now and showcases this new sound. I’m also managing a new artist out of New Jersey Tony Mike and we are getting ready to drop his next single, “Slide on Me” featuring Torry Lanez. I mixed and produced, along with my partner Juan Peña (The NGiNEARS). And finally, we started some work on Dj Khaled’s next album, “Father of Asahd” and will probably be working on that sometime this spring.
What are your top 5 features that you always use in Pro Tools? Can you give examples?
Tough to narrow it down to five, but ok.
1.) In Pro Tools 2018, I love the new “track preset” feature. It is literally saving me a ton of time. Two big thumbs up! I would always use a template to start my mixes and now, I can just drop presets as I go into my mix sessions. I’ve already accumulated a ton of presets; it just gets better.
2.) I’m a huge fan of region groups. Moving audio groups around is so fast and easy. I use it to line up two track vocal sessions to the spread-out music files all the time, flying hooks around and doing tricked out edits.
3.) Track Commit is another huge time saver. I can’t tell you how much time it has saved me creating my stem sessions.
4.) The VCA is another feature I love using. To really control your gain structure, the VCA is essential. Unlike an AUX group, a VCA lowers the fader of the individual tracks in relation to each other. This is important because if you group tracks through an AUX, you can potentially overload one of them. If you just lower the AUX track, you are just lowering an overloaded signal. To get rid of overload, distortion, peaking, etc., a VCA will help you achieve a better gain structure. I personally use it a lot to do volume trims to my entire mix when I’m hitting the master bus too hard. I love it!
5.) Clip Effects is another awesome feature that really took my workflow to another level. I usually do a 30-minute speed mix where I get the initial placement and sound of the core elements. Then, I’ll even out the vocals a bit and sit back and listen. This process has become even faster with clip effects. A little gating, compression and EQ on the fly works great!!