With a list of credits and Grammy awards with artists such as D’Angelo, The Roots, Kamasi Washington, Common, Angélique Kidjo, Alicia Keys, and Jon Batiste, one might assume Russell Elevado is a hard-working producer/engineer/mixer. That assumption would be correct. We caught up soon after he finished producing and engineering Animal Collective's Isn’t It Now? and I got to pick his brain about keeping an analog workflow in this digital age, as well as his quest for the sounds he desires.

We both started with analog tape at the beginning. I know when you were engineering D'Angelo, it was all about working old school.

Well, yeah. I started interning in 1986. Pro Tools wasn't even a thought at that time. Then I worked my way up from interning, to assisting, to engineering and eventually I went out on my own. But back then, when I was assisting, I'd put the calibration – tones up, and align the tape machines. I’d “zero” the board, make sure the patchbay was clean, and be ready for the engineer to come. I'd be responsible for recalling mixes, so I'd be documenting all the settings in the outboard gear and console used. It was a whole different world. When digital first started coming in, Pro Tools specifically, it was when I was working on [D'Angelo's album] Voodoo. But I was still trying to master analog, so there was no way I was going to switch suddenly to digital; besides the fact that the first Pro Tools system sounded like shit. [Alesis] ADAT or [Tascam] DA-88 converters sounded way better. I wasn't about to switch. It became my thing. I thought, “You guys are fooling yourselves.” The workflow was different – looking at a screen versus being more intuitive and done by ear. I'm all about analog. I grew up on vinyl, collecting and listening to albums. Vinyl still rules, as far as sounds.

I get irritated with it. We finish a record, and then I'm listening to the test pressing and there are all these clicks and pops.

It pisses me off, too. It's more prevalent nowadays. I'm a stickler. I need to listen to the test pressings before we give the okay. Absolutely. If I'm working on the album, I try to make it to the vinyl stage. But if I can't make it, sometimes I'm disappointed in the way it turns out, as far as surface noise or the quality of the pressing. Most of the time I have been lucky, but I have found moments on a couple of albums that wasn't up to par.

It's frustrating.

It's very frustrating. Even on older sessions. I worked on an album by Common, Like Water For Chocolate. When they pressed it, the CD had more of what I liked in my original mixes than how it got transferred to vinyl. It's disappointing. The quality control isn't how it was when vinyl was flourishing.

How are you working now? Are you able to do a lot of sessions on tape still?

It varies from year to year. Sometimes it'll be 50-50, but it's never 100 percent working on tape. Like Animal Collective, for instance: I was ecstatic when they said that they would want to try to do everything to tape. I said, "Yeah, let's go." Unfortunately, the budgets are the worst these days. Some people have a problem spending the extra money to budget to use tape, or even to print to tape. Luckily, with most of my clients, if I say, "I think this would benefit from printing it to 1/2-inch tape," they usually will go with my direction. I guess most of the people that ask me to work with them probably want me to do tape in the beginning. I'm lucky. I've carved a deep niche.

But sticking with it to any degree, through this era, takes a bit of a bit of work.

Yes, that's a good point. My manager at the time was telling me, “You should do your own Pro Tools studio.” Everybody was doing it. I wasn't getting any work, and there was this period where Pro Tools became the default and the standard. Clients were leaning towards people that were doing it in the box because it seemed like that's where everything was going in the industry, and they didn’t have to book a studio anymore. For a three or four year period, I was not that busy at all. I'm glad I stuck it through. I was still not willing to do a Pro Tools studio. But I eventually had to do my own studio, because the budgets were nothing. People were willing to pay my rate, but then I'd say, "Okay, what studio do you want to book?" And they'd say, "What? Studio? We don't have a budget to go in the studio. We have only enough for you."

Famously, you spent quite a long time on D'Angelo's Black Messiah. I interviewed Ben Kane [Tape Op #139] about some of that. He said, "I'd be doing other projects, then that would pop up and take me away."

Yeah, me and Ben, we stuck it out through that whole thing. But it paid off because a lot of people like that album. We got a Grammy [for Best R&B Album]. Ironically, if there was any project that would have benefited from being in the box with instant recallability, it would have been that one because of all the overdubs and the “mixing as we go” style that developed. Every time we changed to another song, we'd have to recall the whole board and change my settings because on certain songs we were in a virtual mid-mix scenario, where the mix would change slightly with each overdub session. For a lot of the songs that we knew were going to be on the album, every time D'Angelo wanted to change it, we effectively had to put the mix back up how it was the last time so we could make further adjustments. Or come to find D’Angelo liked a previous mix that was two or three versions old.

The mixing process became part of the tracking process?

Exactly. It was pretty intense. We would make safety copies of everything. We had a lot of safeties of the multitracks. Eventually we had to lock Pro Tools to tape. If it was going to go past 48 [tracks], we couldn't squeeze anything else onto the tape. We'd find any room on the tape. "Okay. The hi-hat track is free for two minutes. We could put the guitar solo there."

Oh, yeah. I don't miss that! [laughter]

But we tried our best to stay on tape through the whole thing. Certainly, [with] Voodoo, we were mixing from tape, but by the time of Black Messiah, in 2014, it didn't make sense to try to kill ourselves. Everything hit tape, and we were locking Pro Tools to 48 tracks of tape for the mixing.

How long would it take for everything to sync up?

We had the [TimeLine] Lynx [Time Code Modules] for synchronizing the two machines together with time code [SMPTE]. The pain in the ass is when I’m trying to get a level that would only happen at the first part of the bridge, and I’d have to keep rewinding and waiting for everything to lock up. But locking from the top of the song, and if you wait for the second machine to stop, to park, then press play and it's only a three second lag. But it's the rewinding that's the pain, because the second deck is rewinding slower than the main. The main will park first, and then you're waiting for the other to park.

One of the techniques I'm sure you were doing was to make a third reel of a reduction mix and open tracks.

Absolutely. Any time D'Angelo would do vocals we would give him his own 24-track reel; he always does vocals to tape. We would give him two or three stems and he would have the rest of the tape to do vocals.

You guys taught D'Angelo how to do the punch-ins?

We did do it together when we first started working, during Brown Sugar, but after a while he said, "Let me try it myself. Show me how to do it." He knew he could be more efficient and faster, not that he was shy to sing around me! It was not that at all.

Less communication lag.

Absolutely. Which takes away from the creativity.

Did you set him up with a remote out on the floor or in the control room?

He would sit right at the board in the control room.

He could adjust his mix.

Exactly, yeah. Have the remote right there. Sometimes we'd be on an SSL where he could arm right from the console, which was nice. He still, to this day, only does vocals on tape. Isn't that crazy?

Comping vocals in digital is something I'd miss!

Yeah, it makes it easier, right?

What's your process now with Pro Tools? I only use it as a multitrack. I've never bought a plug-in. It's only whatever was stock when I bought it, and I'm still using Pro Tools 10. [Pro Tools 10 was superseded by version 11 in 2013. -Ed.]

Oh my!

I'm using the PCIe cards, not using any plug-ins, and my computer's completely stable. I use the internet and Pro Tools on it and that's it. There was no need for me to go to [Pro Tools] Ultimate and get the subscription and all that. I'm using it as a multitrack. It sounds great. I'm using Dangerous [Music] converters [CONVERT-AD], and their clocking is unbelievable. I used to use Apogees before that. I compared it with different clockings, and I even compared different clocks with Dangerous, as well as the Burl Audio and a couple of different converters. There are subtle differences. They all sound the same, kind of.

Russell in front of Tape Deck
Russell photographed by @eduardobinato

It sure is different than comparing tape decks.

Exactly, yeah. Something about the Dangerous had a real tight sound. It seemed the most natural sound, to me. The bass is solid and precise, and everything sounds more open instead of this digital sound that's pressing against your face or something.

It wasn't that the digital part of Pro Tools was bad in the beginning, it was the converters getting the sound in and out.

That was the main issue for me. I loved the editing. There are some cool plug-ins; the ones that are doing something only a digital plug-in can do, like warping a sound, sound correction, or surgical stuff; things that I wouldn't be able to do with analog gear. There are some spatial plug-ins I heard that make the sound seem like it's behind your head. That's pretty cool.

Are you using a console with your Pro Tools rig?

It's a hybrid. I have a Quad/Eight [Electronics] sidecar, a Helios [Electronics] sidecar, and 32 channels of summing, which is also by Dangerous Music [2-Bus].

And you have outboard gear?

Oh, yeah, I've got a ton of shit. [laughs] I even have two Studer multitrack tape machines. I've been collecting compressors, EQs, mics, pedals, and tape echoes for years. But yeah, everything is processed all through my gear, with no plug-ins at all, and that's it.

When you go to work in other studios, do you have to make sure they have exactly what you want to work with?

Yeah. Normally these days, I look for a Neve console. Not that there are many J's [SSL 9000J] left in New York. Electric Lady [Studios] has a J console, but since everything's moved so far into Pro Tools it's harder for me to do a mix solely on the console. It's not as convenient to do revisions if I want to use the board for my automation instead of running automation in Pro Tools. My only automation is really levels and mutes, so these days I'm looking for a nice, fat-sounding console, which is normally a Neve. And then I'll make sure they have enough outboard. I do have a rolling rack and a box of pedals that go with me to different studios. The rack doesn't live in my studio. I'll take it if I'm at Electric Lady or The Bunker Studio. There are only a few studios that I really work at in New York: The Bunker Studio, Electric Lady Studios, and Ben Kane's studio, Electric Garden.

Electric Garden is beautiful there, isn't it?

It's an excellent studio. Ben’s like my protege, so he acquired the same taste in equipment. He runs a tight ship.

And The Bunker too. Some great people work over there.

Excellent staff. The [Neve] console is nice. We did the Animal Collective record [Isn’t It Now?] there.

How did the process work with Animal Collective? I know they'd generated a lot of the ideas during the previous record.

Russell and Animal Collective Groupshot
Russell with Animal Collective

Yeah, they had been playing some of these songs live for about a year. By the time they got in the studio, they just nailed it. They knew how to play them. As it was developing during the shows, they were saving their patches that they had in the Nord [synthesizer]. The only things sequenced were some of the keyboards, so they were playing to some of the keyboard beds. Then we'd either replace it or keep it, and I would process it so it didn't sound like a digital Nord – I tried to analog it. And other parts that they had done we replaced with the keyboards they had at The Bunker, because they have a shitload of vintage keyboards.

Oh, fun.

There was a lot of replacing digital sounds with other analog keyboards. We did a lot of cool reverse tape tricks, recording a lot of reverse reverbs and reverse echoes.

Those Nord keyboards are a blessing and a curse, aren't they?

I know. Exactly.

I can't believe the amount of clocking noise and such that I hear on those.

Oh, I know. I warmed them up a lot by processing them. I love guitar pedals and amps. If I'm looking for a tone I'll put it through an amp, or I'll put it through some pedal.

That's one of the dangers right now. Many sources are direct or virtual instruments. They're all full range tones and they're not spatially oriented.

Yeah, absolutely. They'll print the reverbs with it and I'm like, "Come on!" It's the worst. That's what makes it cheesy, when they put the fucking reverb on.

You and I know that because we survived the '80s. [laughs]

Yeah, totally.

If you're taking the Nord and re-amping, are you putting mics further away to get a little depth?

It depends on the sound. I'm more of a close mic engineer than trying to capture the room. Because I find I'm not sure if I want that ambience to stay, so I'd rather have it as dry as possible.

So, you're not adding ambience to ambience?

Exactly. Or if I'm distorting it, and distortion's compressing that instrument, it's making the room sound louder. If I know I'm going for a big room sound, then I'll try to book a big room for drums. But if I know it's not going to be a John Bonham sound for the whole album, I tend to put the drummer in the booth.

Animal Collective is a great example of that, because everything's usually kind of tight and focused.

Definitely, definitely. But for this we wanted two different kits set up. It was one kit in the booth, and then a smaller kit outside with everybody else. For certain songs we would switch up the drums. The one that was outside was featuring more of an old-school sound, with less microphones and more tone of the room. We always had that set up the whole time – two different sounds.

Those are perfect options.


Listening to the D'Angelo or Animal Collective records you've done, there's a certain tone. It's not a darkness, but to me the transients on a lot of your material aren't spikey sounding or edgy.

Right. You can keep turning it up and it's not going to hurt. That's what I want people to do. They can listen to it at low volumes, but if they're listening really loud it still works. When I'm mixing, I don't like it when something is making my ears hurt. That's a real conscious thing that I have. I do a lot of riding [the faders] for mixing. I don't use anything on the mix bus, ever. All of my transients and my dynamics are done with fader moves.

Compression plays a big role on how these transients act.

Well, individual compression on each instrument. But I'd never use anything on the mix bus.

You're one of the few people who doesn't. I'm the same; if I'm mixing analog I don't.

You don't either? Really? That's great.

In the box I do, but very lightly. On my console I stopped using bus inserts because one thing I want to do is to be able to print lots of stems and then rework a mix from the analog mix if needed.

Exactly. I don't do a lot of hip-hop anymore, but when I would do a hip-hop session, I would put the Neve or SSL compressor on the mix to get a little more volume, and I’d make it a little edgier for the mix. But even then, I would only put the compressor on towards the end of the mix. Besides that, I don't like it because I feel I keep painting myself into a corner. I tried it, because a lot of engineers that I assisted were doing it. But it didn't work for me, so I stopped doing it.

You went to IAR [Institute of Audio Research] way back, started interning, and then assisting. A lot of what you learned happened during the assisting years, I assume?

Oh, yes, absolutely. I didn't learn that much at IAR, but it definitely got me in the door.

But they got you interning in studios.

They got me into the door. Absolutely. The fact that I had that school on my resume, they would probably choose me over someone just walking in the door. But everything was learned through assisting. When I would try to work at a studio, I always wanted to make sure that if it wasn't booked I could work on my own stuff. That was a must, and that's how I learned. I would stay for hours by myself and record bands. I’d go down to the East Village to the music clubs and bars and see if there was a band that was cool. I would ask them, "Do you want to go into the studio for a night for free?"

Who wouldn't?

I would record them, I'd have these tapes, and I'd mix these songs over and over. That's where I learned everything. I did learn from a lot of cool engineers: Michael Barbiero, Bob Rosa, and Bruce A. Miller. I definitely had a good cross-section of engineers that were working on pop, jazz, R&B, and house music. I cut my teeth on a lot of house mixes. That was a great experience, and thinking back, that was a big learning time. I was working with David Morales and Frankie Knuckles [Francis Warren Nicholls Jr.]. They're like gods in the house music scene.


If I had to set up a mix for David or Frankie, I would set up four different delay throws, all timed – dotted eighth [note], quarter, whatever – and then I'd set up a couple of different effects channels like phasers and such. I'd set up a whole bunch of effects so that if we needed it, he would have it ready to go. Watching them use what I'd just set up for them, and creating the remix right in front of me, that was a big impact on me. I didn't realize it was impacting me until later, because I realized that I was doing the same thing: Creating break moments, creating a part in the music where, "Whoa, what's happening here?" Dropping the beat, for example. I feel I have a good knack for when I can drop the bass down for a second, or drop bass and drums down for a second, to create this whole mood in the song. I definitely learned a lot from that about creating moods in the song, as well as creating a vibe.

That's like an extension of dub mixing.


I know there must be people out there doing it, but I don't see a lot of people working in live remixing. Print a few passes and edit them together.

Absolutely. That's a great point. Yeah, I never thought of it that way. It's exactly like that.

Performance-based mixing.

Absolutely. Yeah

You're still working in this way, aren't you?

Oh, definitely. Because I hear it not being just a static thing a lot of times. Sometimes, of course, it's going to be static: The guitar is going through a phaser. But I know my gear so well that I know I could make it sound a little extra special and tweak it as it's going down.

You get hired because people love the records you've worked on. But do you ever get pushback when they realize that that is how it's going to go?

You mean like they thought they wanted my sound, but then they're like, "Oh, wait, maybe not."


I have gotten that a few times. Not a lot.

With just specific parts of the song, or a sound, or whole mixes?

Luckily it wasn't anybody that was too popular. It seemed like there was a darkness to it that they didn't like. I was telling them, “Well, that's how I'm hearing it. Let me know if I could change it or anything." But I think he was just taken aback from the whole approach, because it was so radically different than what he had in mind somehow. I don't know. But, every once in a while, I get someone where I went a direction on an instrument or a vocal, and they're like, "Oh, I was hearing it a little bit cleaner or brighter." I have no problem changing that. But I have a good feel. Most of my clients want me to do my thing, and I end up becoming a fan of theirs. I'm so lucky that I can say that. The people that are coming to me make music that I would probably end up really liking. I'm lucky to be working on varied music as well. My third Grammy was with Angélique Kidjo. It was our third album [Celia] together, that won in the World Music category [in 2020]. Recently, I won a Latin Grammy for the Brazilian artist Xenia. And then there's Jon Batiste. We Are was pretty much a pop album and I got an Album of the Year Grammy.

Yeah, that was huge. It deserved it!

Oh, thanks. And then there's D'Angelo, which is completely different. I'm lucky. I was trying not to get pigeonholed, and I managed to do that. I had never even heard of Animal Collective. They called me, and I listened to their music before we had a meeting. I was like, "Yeah, cool." They wanted to do it analog, and I said, "Great. Let's do it. You're calling the right person." And it came out great. It was a great experience.

What was your impression of their previous records?

I really liked their other albums; they were very varied as well. Nothing I heard was anything like what I had worked on before. I was like, "Okay, so they know some of my records. What am I going to do with these guys?" It's not soul music. I like it. It's alternative rock, and I hear all the influences that they're doing, from the reggae groups to The Beatles. I knew I could do something with them. I was pretty excited, because it was so different. I wasn't sure what to expect, but they were so cool and very hard working in the studio that we got along really well. They were so on point. I barely had to say anything, but they’ve been a band for 20 years, so they really knew how to play together. They have that certain magic that happens with so many years of experience playing as a band.

How many days was that project?

We tracked for only eight days. I prepped the mixes at my place, and then we did another week or so together, finishing up the mixes back at The Bunker Studio.

Yeah. That's no D'Angelo record. [laughter]

No. Not at all. We were going through two songs a day during the recordings. I don't think they ever did more than three takes. If there was a fourth take, that was pretty rare. They knew what they wanted. The sounds were coming along fast. It was a pleasure to work on it.

I assume that's a co-production, credit-wise?

Yeah, I've got a producer credit on it.

Would you prefer to always be producing or co-producing?

These days, when I know I'm adding quite a bit to it and I feel I deserve it, I will ask for it. I feel if you're an exceptional mixing engineer it's like production these days. The sound of the album is just as important as the songs. A lot of people don't realize that. Some people do; they appreciate it and know what it takes to make a great-sounding album. There are plenty of people that don't. They haven't thought through it.

Have you been in the middle of a session and thought, "I should be listed as a producer or co-producer on this, at this point." Have you found a latitude to ask that?

Yeah, I have asked that. It was a pretty big client, and I felt disrespected because I definitely was a producer on the album. There was no doubt about it. I was sore about it, but I'm over it now. [laughter] But it was a slap in the face. So, what if they don't get all the credit? Give me some of the credit because I deserve it. I worked hard on it, and I damn well produced this with them. Even a co-producer credit for a really good mixer – and I feel I am a good mixer – I deserve it, and I shouldn't have a problem getting it.

What have you been working on lately?

I was working with BadBadNotGood and a few artists they’ve been working with. I've been helping to mix a couple songs here and there for various different artists. I’m also in the midst of a very big project that I can’t reveal yet. I'm constantly working. I just finished another Kamasi Washington album.

What was your role with Kamasi Washington's upcoming album?

Just mixing.

And that's how you began working with him?

Yeah, exactly. He called me to do an EP that was released at a museum. We got to do a 5.1 surround mix of it. Mixing him is challenging because there are two drummers, sometimes there are two bass players, multiple horns, keyboards, guitar player, choirs, and orchestra. It's huge, but it's great!

Russell turning knobs
Photograph by DARIO RASPUDIC

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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