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Masters Behind the Mix: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse Into Music Making With Engineer Tim Latham

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Masters Behind the Mix: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse Into Music Making With Engineer Tim Latham
By Ebonie Smith

Ever wonder how your favorite songs are made? Ever wonder what happens between the time it takes your favorite artist to record a song and the time it plays on your radio? The process of making music is a specialized art, and there are a handful of amazing technicians working behind the scenes to help engineer the hits we all love and enjoy.

We recently sat down with Grammy Award-winning recording and mixing engineer Tim Latham. In 2008 Latham received a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for his work on the Broadway musical In The Heights. In addition to his work in musical theater, he has worked on albums and singles for artists such as Kid Rock, Gym Class Heroes and The Roots. He recently received another Grammy award for work on the original cast recording for Hamilton: An American Musical.

Latham’s insight into the world of music production and technology is astounding. Check out some of the highlights from our conversation and learn more about the process that helps create the music you love!

When did you first realize that you had a passion for engineering music for artists/musicians?

My first year at Berklee [College of Music]. It was probably 1986 or 1987, and there was one album in particular… Peter Gabriel’s So. That was the record that really caught my ear. The dimension to it really jumped out to me. I wanted to know how Kevin Killen made that record. [Kevin Killen is credited as “Engineer” in the accompanying liners notes for the album.] Then, I applied to get into the Music Production and Engineering program at Berklee, and I was accepted. 

Where did you first begin to cultivate your skills as an engineer? Are there any specific studios or mentors of note?

The first job I got when I came out of Berklee was at a studio that produced music for karaoke machines. The company basically made soundalikes of [popular songs]. I basically learned more in [my first three months working there] than I did at any prior point in my career. On some of the records, they had the original engineers recutting the tracks. So, I got to see exactly how they cut the tracks originally. I was just a sponge absorbing everything around me. There’s no substitute for experience. To get that much experience over that variety of genres was really eye-opening for me. 

Who are some of the producers and engineers who have inspired you throughout your career?

Bruce Swedien, George Massenburg, Al Schmitt and Tom Dowd are the top ones for me. Those are the guys who I always looked up to and always enjoyed their work.  

You’ve watched hip hop come of age, and you helped to shape its growth process. What are some of the most important transitions you’ve seen in hip hop production?

I love to see [producers and engineers expand] on it instead of standing still. I really loved what came out of Virginia with Missy Elliott. That was huge for me. That was like the next big leap after the [hip hop] I had the privilege of working on, which was all the Native Tongues [records]. Also, I always did love what was coming out of the Dr. Dre camp as well... And recently Pharrell [Williams]. I just love what he’s doing. I like the [artists] who—without any intention of doing sowind up breaking the mold. 

What is a piece of advice that you would offer to any producer/engineer looking to get into production?

Just listen to a lot of music. That’s literally the best piece of advice I can give. Listen, listen, listen, listen to music. And as you’re developing your craft, treat everything like it’s going to be the big hit for you. Never brush anything aside. Take everything very seriously because you never know who’s going to hear it. 

You mixed the Hamilton: An American Musical cast album at the Atlantic Records Studios in New York City. What is your most memorable experience from post-production? 

It’s kind of a blur. It was 33 eight-hour days back to back... After we were finished and had the listening party… to watch [the ensemble cast] and their faces [during the event] was absolutely priceless. They had never heard it finished. That, to me, was a really special moment to watch the expressions on their faces as they were hearing themselves [on record] for the first time. It was just awesome. 

Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots are credited as executive producers on the cast album? Given your work on some of the band's earlier albums, how was it collaborating with them again for this project?

It was like coming home! To be back in the room with them after twenty years was a treat. It was helpful to have a few extra pairs of ears that are tuned into hip hop to make sure we didn't stray too far away from a beat-centric feel. I think we found and stayed in the very narrow lane where Broadway meets hip hop!

From memes to Buzzfeed posts and tweets, Hamilton has had a tremendous impact on youth and pop culture. Would you say that hip hop and the musical have helped transform the way youth relate to topics in American history?

I sure hope so because it’s a great story. It’s a true story, and it’s 100% historically accurate. I think it’s a great introduction to early American history. I can’t give Lin-Manuel Miranda enough adulation for taking such a bold step and pulling it off. It’s a very bold... brave idea. It’s a remarkable record, and it’s all because of the hard work Lin and Alex [Lacamoire] put in the six years leading up to the making of the record. We cut the record and mixed it quickly, but it was also six years of preparation to get it to the point where we could do it that quickly. 

What were some of your goals for the mixing of this project? What did you set out to achieve?

The record had to sound appealing to audience members who would go to the show. It also had to be appealing to people who would never see the show, who have a minimal interest in Broadway but are hip hop fans. So there was a pretty narrow path that we had to walk, where [the album] had to appeal to both sides. 

What’s your favorite piece of gear?

Oddly enough, I’m not a gearhead. I am just not that guy. My favorite piece of gear is just the most appropriate one for the task at hand… The results are more important to me than the process. 

How do you continue to learn and strengthen your craft?

I think my goal is… to never ever rest on my laurels and always continue to learn. Sometimes I open up sessions that are a few years old to remind myself specifically what I did on them… I try to think about what I would have done differently… and also [I review] things I may have forgotten. I then listen to Spotify to learn what’s current… just keeping my ears open. I listen to what’s going on out there to make sure I’m not getting stale… and dated.   

  • Check out this dynamic discussion with 'Hamilton' mixing engineer Tim Latham. Learn more about the behind-the-scenes studio process....
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Ebonie Smith's picture
on February 29, 2016 - 4:23pm

Ever wonder how your favorite songs are made? Ever wonder what happens between the time it takes your favorite artist to record a song and the time it plays on your radio? The process of making music is a specialized art, and there are a handful of amazing technicians working behind the scenes to help engineer the hits we all love and enjoy.

We recently sat down with Grammy Award-winning recording and mixing engineer Tim Latham. In 2008 Latham received a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for his work on the Broadway musical In The Heights. In addition to his work in musical theater, he has worked on albums and singles for artists such as Kid Rock, Gym Class Heroes and The Roots. He recently received another Grammy award for work on the original cast recording for Hamilton: An American Musical.

Latham’s insight into the world of music production and technology is astounding. Check out some of the highlights from our conversation and learn more about the process that helps create the music you love!

When did you first realize that you had a passion for engineering music for artists/musicians?

My first year at Berklee [College of Music]. It was probably 1986 or 1987, and there was one album in particular… Peter Gabriel’s So. That was the record that really caught my ear. The dimension to it really jumped out to me. I wanted to know how Kevin Killen made that record. [Kevin Killen is credited as “Engineer” in the accompanying liners notes for the album.] Then, I applied to get into the Music Production and Engineering program at Berklee, and I was accepted. 

Where did you first begin to cultivate your skills as an engineer? Are there any specific studios or mentors of note?

The first job I got when I came out of Berklee was at a studio that produced music for karaoke machines. The company basically made soundalikes of [popular songs]. I basically learned more in [my first three months working there] than I did at any prior point in my career. On some of the records, they had the original engineers recutting the tracks. So, I got to see exactly how they cut the tracks originally. I was just a sponge absorbing everything around me. There’s no substitute for experience. To get that much experience over that variety of genres was really eye-opening for me. 

Who are some of the producers and engineers who have inspired you throughout your career?

Bruce Swedien, George Massenburg, Al Schmitt and Tom Dowd are the top ones for me. Those are the guys who I always looked up to and always enjoyed their work.  

You’ve watched hip hop come of age, and you helped to shape its growth process. What are some of the most important transitions you’ve seen in hip hop production?

I love to see [producers and engineers expand] on it instead of standing still. I really loved what came out of Virginia with Missy Elliott. That was huge for me. That was like the next big leap after the [hip hop] I had the privilege of working on, which was all the Native Tongues [records]. Also, I always did love what was coming out of the Dr. Dre camp as well... And recently Pharrell [Williams]. I just love what he’s doing. I like the [artists] who—without any intention of doing sowind up breaking the mold. 

What is a piece of advice that you would offer to any producer/engineer looking to get into production?

Just listen to a lot of music. That’s literally the best piece of advice I can give. Listen, listen, listen, listen to music. And as you’re developing your craft, treat everything like it’s going to be the big hit for you. Never brush anything aside. Take everything very seriously because you never know who’s going to hear it. 

You mixed the Hamilton: An American Musical cast album at the Atlantic Records Studios in New York City. What is your most memorable experience from post-production? 

It’s kind of a blur. It was 33 eight-hour days back to back... After we were finished and had the listening party… to watch [the ensemble cast] and their faces [during the event] was absolutely priceless. They had never heard it finished. That, to me, was a really special moment to watch the expressions on their faces as they were hearing themselves [on record] for the first time. It was just awesome. 

Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots are credited as executive producers on the cast album? Given your work on some of the band's earlier albums, how was it collaborating with them again for this project?

It was like coming home! To be back in the room with them after twenty years was a treat. It was helpful to have a few extra pairs of ears that are tuned into hip hop to make sure we didn't stray too far away from a beat-centric feel. I think we found and stayed in the very narrow lane where Broadway meets hip hop!

From memes to Buzzfeed posts and tweets, Hamilton has had a tremendous impact on youth and pop culture. Would you say that hip hop and the musical have helped transform the way youth relate to topics in American history?

I sure hope so because it’s a great story. It’s a true story, and it’s 100% historically accurate. I think it’s a great introduction to early American history. I can’t give Lin-Manuel Miranda enough adulation for taking such a bold step and pulling it off. It’s a very bold... brave idea. It’s a remarkable record, and it’s all because of the hard work Lin and Alex [Lacamoire] put in the six years leading up to the making of the record. We cut the record and mixed it quickly, but it was also six years of preparation to get it to the point where we could do it that quickly. 

What were some of your goals for the mixing of this project? What did you set out to achieve?

The record had to sound appealing to audience members who would go to the show. It also had to be appealing to people who would never see the show, who have a minimal interest in Broadway but are hip hop fans. So there was a pretty narrow path that we had to walk, where [the album] had to appeal to both sides. 

What’s your favorite piece of gear?

Oddly enough, I’m not a gearhead. I am just not that guy. My favorite piece of gear is just the most appropriate one for the task at hand… The results are more important to me than the process. 

How do you continue to learn and strengthen your craft?

I think my goal is… to never ever rest on my laurels and always continue to learn. Sometimes I open up sessions that are a few years old to remind myself specifically what I did on them… I try to think about what I would have done differently… and also [I review] things I may have forgotten. I then listen to Spotify to learn what’s current… just keeping my ears open. I listen to what’s going on out there to make sure I’m not getting stale… and dated.   

Post Media: 
Artist: 
Missy Elliott
Short Title: 
Masters Behind the Mix - Part V
List in home page: 
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