Rachel Alina – Mixing Engineer
What role has mentorship played in your development as a professional creative?
Rachel Alina is a Brooklyn-based mixing engineer, poet, and instructor at Berklee College of Music. She's worked on recordings for Katy Perry, King Garbage, Selena Gomez, Greg Wells, Helado Negro, Stephen Marley and others. She's worked in some of today's legendary studios and learned from the best in the music business.
In this interview, we talk about Rachel's path from graduation from Berklee up through today, discussing her mentors along the way. Rachel's experience with mentors of all kinds has given her an open approach to receiving and giving mentorship. Today she is both being mentored by those around her and mentoring others. Listen now.
Notes and Links:
Visit Rachel Alina's website here: http://www.rachelalina.com/
Preorder her book of poetry, Locals here: http://smarturl.it/locals-ifyouswim
Follow Rachel Alina on Twitter: @rachalina https://twitter.com/rachalina
And on Instagram: @rach.alina http://instagram.com/rach.alina
You can watch Rivers & Tides, the film Rachel mentions in the interview, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WP2AfqyOsI
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Evan: Let’s make an analogy. So you have like the, you’re going to bake a cake. You have the process where you measure out all the ingredients, like you’ve decided what you’re going to make that’s like the songwriting process. You come up with what you want it to be like. And then, tracking is like, measuring out all your ingredients and getting them all together. And then the mixing engineer, you’re putting them all together, so that the flavors come together in the way that the artist intended from the beginning. Maybe this is a terrible analogy?
Rachel: No, no! It’s great. I was actually going to use a food analogy as well. So I’m good.
Evan: We must both be hungry.
Rachel: Yeah, exactly. Internally, I am completely primed to run with this.
Host: This is Rachel Alina. She’s a mixing engineer with a pretty incredible resume. More on the long list of musicians that she’s worked with a little bit later. We’re going to start with our dessert, or at least with the dessert themed analogy to give us a little idea of what it is exactly that Rachel Alina does.
Rachel: They’ve made that decision of what kind of cake they’re making, you know. Whether it’s chocolate with vanilla frosting or buttercream frosting or whatever. Those are all things that the artist and the producer, those are decisions that they make. And as a mixing engineer, I will then take the cake. I might say hey, we need to add an extra layer of frosting. I might slightly alter the design on top. And so I pick up where they left off. I’m the one who plates the cake.
Evan: Nice! Okay, yeah, you’re plating the meal.
Rachel: Yeah, I’m pleading the meal. I also might sprinkle something else on top or just do something, do a little something that kind of completes it. I bring a new perspective. I do small finishing changes. But I’m not gonna make a decision like, you know, ‘buttercream frosting, what were you thinking?’ You know, I’m not gonna I’m not gonna ultimately change it.
Evan: You’re not changing ingredients. You’re just making sure that the all the ingredients come out the way that they’re supposed to, that they can all be perceived.
Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And I might sprinkle a little something extra on top to help that if needed.
Evan: Like a little, smoke smoked salt.
Rachel: Yeah, exactly. Or cayenne pepper actually, on chocolate? It opens up your taste buds.
Evan: Now we’re talking.
Host: You know, Rachel Alina is a great example of an invisible artist. Her job is to get out of the way. Most of us when we listen to music, we don’t notice the details that the mixing engineer has spent hours and hours refining, each instrument every sound on each track of an album. But her creative work and the work of any mixing engineer is essential to the music that we sometimes so passively enjoy.
And Rachel is great what she does, I’m pretty willing to bet that she’s worked on music that you have listened to. She’s been in the studio with the likes of Gabriel Garzon Montano, Katy Perry, Pink, Rivers Cuomo, Selena Gomez, King Garbage, Stephen Marley, Helado Negro, Dawn of MIDI, and the list just keeps going and going. Rachel currently works independently. She’s mixing records in her studio in Brooklyn, New York. But the path that has led her to this point, the years of her career leading up to where she is today is marked with guideposts or even better lighthouses. That’s a term which I pull from Rachel herself. And she’ll talk more about that later in the interview, these lighthouses, they’re the mentors that she has had along the way.
My name is Evan MacDonald. You’re listening to One Thing Real Quick. It’s a podcast in search of stories and insights from people who use creativity In practical ways every day. Each week I bring a single question to a creative leader, maybe a designer or a writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician, in the case of this week of mixing engineer and my question for Rachel, Alina is what role has mentorship played in your development as a professional creative.
I want to throw one thing out there before we get too much further. Rachel is someone with a lot of experience in a really specialized creative field. She knows what she’s talking about, and she’s going to speak her native language, which is the language of sound and audio engineering. If something goes over your head, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I had to look up a lot of this stuff after the interview was conducted. Just keep in mind that the greater theme here, this idea of mentorship applies, I believe, to any creative field.
So we’ll get started right away with her story at the point of Rachel’s graduation from Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Rachel: Right when I graduated, I had one of those magic things happen, where I had listed a five year plan and it all happened in three weeks. And my plan was so legit. Everyone was behind it, you know, my teachers. And I was very diligent, I always had a good plan. And I was going to move to LA, you know, because you move to New York, Nashville or LA. I decided to go down to the short town where I grew up and hang out with my parents for a little bit before I moved to the other side of the country. And basically Shelly Yakus who was brilliant legendary engineer who was Jimmy Iovine’s right hand man for over a decade.
Shelly had started working out of a studio that was sort of in the swamps, just just inland from where I grew up, and it was also about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. And Shelly needed a new assistant. So I started working for Shelley and I got schooled very early on.
Host: Now if you don’t know this name, Shelly Yakus is on no uncertain terms, a legend in the music and sound engineering world. Credits to his engineering and mixing work go back to the late 60s. Now as a warning, this episode is about to get real name-droppy. So if you have kids in the room, please use discretion. They’re going to hear all these names that you’re going to hear and they probably won’t recognize them. So you might start to feel a little bit old. Okay, so I’m just going to read this list and it’s by no means all inclusive: Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, U2, Alice Cooper, Cher, BB King, Stan Getz, John Lennon, the list goes on and on, multiple albums engineered or mixed or both for all these artists and just so many more.
Now, as you can imagine, stepping off the graduation stage from Berklee College of Music and into the studio. With Shelly Yakus, it’s hard to find a better mentor. Rachel worked full time with Shelly for a year and then off and on for the year after that, as she transitioned to nearby Philadelphia.
Rachel: So I moved in Philadelphia, I started making guerrilla records on like half-inch eight-tracks in a row house in South Philly, with like Man Man practicing next door. It was a wild time in Philadelphia. and like Diplo, was having his HOLLERTRONIX parties and you know. And you would, like, go to an MC open mic. And it’s like, “is that Questlove sitting down the drums?” And it was just.. Amos Lee was just getting signed.
And then I was a staff engineer for a little while in Philly, too. And I did live sound and clubs and stuff, too. And I realized that I was getting sort of a reputation of being good. But from my point of view, my abilities versus what I wanted to be doing... When I’m finished a mix, I’d be like, ‘this isn’t nearly what I want it to be. How can I have this reputation of being good.’ And I just felt like I was a big fish in a little pond in Philly. So I decided that I was going to throw everything in my car and move to LA.
And in LA, I again had this like magic lock where my first session in LA was on Katy Perry’s one of the boys. And I was working for a producer named Greg Wells, who was also brilliant producer and musician. I stayed at Greg’s for about a year even though I wasn’t really resonating with that recording element. But Greg and I just got along so well as people, and I just love him so much as a human, that we just loved working together. And the thing that I learned hanging around for that was really the creative process. I think. Like Greg kind of taught me the craft of creativity. Shelly taught me how to listen. And then Greg taught me how to be creative. But then, but then from there, I stopped working for Greg. And I was like, ‘Okay, so what’s next, Rachel?’
I’m just an East Coast kid. So I decided to come back. And I started working with Henry Hirsch, upstate, in Hudson, and he had this beautiful analog studio. And it was the first time I ever experienced he had this old Helios console.
Host: I want to put these new players in our story into context. Greg Wells. This is the guy that Rachel worked with closely when she was in Los Angeles. Greg is a producer and a musician. He’s an engineer. He’s like this mega music polymath. He has performance credits for all these different instruments, bass, drums, keys, guitar and a bunch of other stuff too. He’s got songwriting, credits and engineering, and producer, composer credits. On, all told, well over 100 albums. He’s worked with Adele and Keith Urban, Katy Perry and way too many to name here on this episode of our little podcast. He was nominated for a lot of Grammys, and he was awarded a Grammy for his work on the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman. And then there’s Henry Hirsch, who Rachel went to work with up in upstate New York. He’s a producer and engineer who’s worked with Mono, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, Michael Jackson, once again, a huge list of which we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Rachel: With Henry, that was when I learned the roots of my recording. You know, that was when I learned really, not technically, how the Beatles made their records, but creatively as musically as musicians.
Host: Following Rachel’s time working with Henry Hirsch, she began transitioning to being more independent, she was taking on more and more of her own projects, mixing records in her apartment in Hudson, and she spent some time working in Miami with Stephen Marley and others in the reggae scene. Eventually mostly settling in Brooklyn, where she mostly is today.
These days for schedule is packed with mixing projects, some personal creative work, there’s some poetry which will we’ll talk about that a little later in the episode. And then she’s also teaching at Berklee College of Music. Each week, she takes the train to Boston and spends a day teaching alongside some of the best in the music industry. For example, Prince Charles Alexander who was Puffy’s engineer for years, and he’s got multiple Grammys. Sean Slade, who worked on Radiohead first album. I mean, this place turns out people like Quincy Jones and Aimee Mann and St. Vincent and Brad Whitford and, and after teaching for a day, each week, this music school, she returns to her Brooklyn based studio to mix records.
Now this grueling routine is made in large part possible by a daily meditation practice. Which I mean, we could have just made this conversation all about meditation. She’s got a lot to say on the subject. But the more Rachel and I talked, the more and more I could see how her ideas about mentorship, her view of what a mentor is, how this has been such an important pillar in her creative career. And so now that we’ve told Rachel story, how she became the mixing engineer that she’s today, I want to start to uncover some of Rachel’s ideas, some of her insights about mentorship. How to be a mentor, how to receive mentorship. And we’ll hear what I believe is probably the most important function of a mentor. But first, a message from our sponsor.
Evan: You’ve talked about these stages in your career from Berkeley, to Shelley, to Greg to Henry to freelance. And it’s like you mark each of these things from your formal training years to your being more independent, as a freelancer. You mark each one of those stages by the mentor that was a part of that process, Shelly, Greg and Henry. And and I’m also curious how this idea of mentorship has continued because I know that you are teaching at Berklee right now. So you are essentially acting as a form of mentor in a in a formal setting, and so on.
Rachel: I am in a place right now that I hope to never leave actually. I hope that this isn’t, I mean, I can’t see it as as being...
Evan: Like, you’re not in transition.
Rachel: Yeah, I hope that I stay here at where I am a mentor. And I also still look to mentors. You know, like, I’m on faculty at Berklee now.
And it’s, and it’s interesting, because it is a small part of my life, because I’m still very much so in my career. And honestly, I’ve taken it as a woman in a man’s profession, I just sort of felt a responsibility to make myself available as a mentor. I spoke on a panel of women in the music industry out of girls club on the Lower East Side. And it was one of those things, you know, I have many of these moments in my life that I can think of where I think that I’m going to like be an inspiration or something. Or I’m going to help or whatever, you know, and I just I just leave utterly changed by the person that I thought I was going to help.
Evan: It’s like being on both sides of the mentorship, being a mentor being a mentee. Both both sides of that equation, add to to you as a professional and just as a human.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I just left that day feeling forever changed by how brilliant these... and and I can’t even really say young women, because some of these girls were like 10 years old. And then you know, and the discussions that we were having just completely just blew me away. And I realized that I had never had a woman mentor and that maybe that meant something. It’s not just for women, it’s for men to you know, I have an eye towards inclusive it always. And I had to accept that I am an important piece of that puzzle. And to make myself available. That’s I mean, it’s why I carve time out of what is a very busy schedule for for mentorship been to spend time at Berklee and, and it’s so worth it. You know, I mean, the everything about Berklee is incredible. Like the faculty, the students, they have a fantastic president Roger Brown, who’s just an inspiration, everything about it. Whatever I do, it’s just flooding my world with light and inspiration. And these brilliant people that I get to work with. Like, I’m on faculty with Susan Rogers, who is the woman who recorded Purple Rain, you know?
Rachel: I see her in the office, and I just looked at her... as and so many, all of the faculty at Berklee, I look to them, and I just admire them so much.
So I feel in a very real way that I’m still being mentored. And just from my community, you know, I mean, and even the community of other people working in the basement where my studio is, they’re just these brilliant producers and songwriters and musicians.
So I’m constantly asking them, ‘what are you doing?’ And it’s interesting that I’ve sort of joined this community of peers, I’m finding myself a peer to these people that I admire so strongly. But I still I feel as though, yes, I’m mentoring. And I’m also still receiving mentorship, and I hope that that will always be the case. If anything, maybe I just go back to just just receiving mentorship, not teaching anymore, you know, but, but I hope that they both always exist for me, in my life.
Evan: What advice would you give to someone that that may ask, let’s just say the question is, ‘how do I go about finding a mentor?’
Rachel: Well, I think one thing would be to recognize that it’s everywhere, you know? There are definitely days in New York City, when I’m just in my head and in my feelings, and walking around pretty grumpy.You know? And someone’s nice to me, in the store, when I’m going to buy coffee or whatever. Something happens, that causes a shift in me and causes an opening and helps me to catch myself? It helps me, and that person in that moment is a mentor. There are mentors everywhere. My father’s great mentor, to me, in terms of just personal integrity.
My mother is a great mentor to me in in terms of just wild passion, fighting for people, you know. And then in the moments that I need the mentorship of the quiet passion and fighting for people, then I look back to my dad.
Evan: It’s nice to have that contrast, so close at hand.
Rachel: They’re a good team. They’re good team.
Host: You know, to be honest, what I would actually call my very first mentor in terms of a person that I look to, and I thought ‘this is what I do.’ Not Shelly, or Berklee or, Greg, it was when I saw the Andy Goldsworthy, documentary Rivers and Tides. And I watched that, and I saw his process. And Andy Goldsworthy is an installation artists who works in nature, and time plays a big role in his work. And what happens to this work that you make in nature over time, and how does it change. And sometimes the thing that brings a piece to life will ultimately be the thing that causes its destruction as well.
Rachel: The first time that I saw that documentary, and this is nothing to say, because I make records. But I thought ‘this is what I do!’ Because he talks about intuitively having this interaction with the materials. And to me, it’s intuitively having an interaction with music, and letting the song take shape and letting the track take shape. Rather than ‘I’m trying to control everything,’ you know, it’s like I’m moving with it, and I’m interacting with it. So I would almost say that Andy Goldsworthy is really my my first mentor.
The mentors in my life via the direct mentorship, from Shelly or from Greg or from Henry, or indirect mentorship. Just, you know, some, like an artist that I admire, like Andy Goldsworthy or, you know, the person at the store, all of those, those are all giving me a place where I’m not alone, where this person goes through the same thing that I go through, they think about the same things that I think about. We’re on the same path together. So I think really mentorship has given me home, it’s given me a place that I can stay. And because I stayed, I’m still making records.
So I think mentorship, just, it’s the community, it gives us a home.
Evan: A lot of times when we think about a mentor, we think about an individual. And that like one on one. But what you’ve shared with us is that you see mentorship is being broader than that. It’s the community that you’re in, it’s your environment, it’s all these things. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
Rachel: Yeah, of course. I also kind of think of it as lighthouses a little bit. I think about light houses, in terms of people’s lighthouses a lot. And trying to like learn to keep the light on. But then there are times that I’m the one who’s lost, and I need to find a lighthouse, you know? So when I can, when I’m able to I keep my light on. And if I’m in a moment where I’m lost and see, then I look for somebody who is able to keep their light on at that given time. So it’s a back and forth type of thing. And it always exists within community.
And I also, I’m the type of person who I think I said this earlier, too, I fight for inclusivity always. I’m very much like, ‘we’re all in this together, can we stop pretending like we’re not in just fight for each other?’ And, I think that, as a mentor, there’s so many parts of making albums. That I was up all night, and I didn’t know what to do, and this microphone or that microphone, or like, this sub base or that sub base, or, like, you know, what’s my LUFS? or whatever it is. You know? That I’ve been back and forth on.
And through that process, I’ve come to a really grounded place of ‘this is what the answer is like,’ like I did the dance. And when I’m making myself available as a mentor, I see the people that I’m working with, you know, the younger producers and engineers, I see them going through that process. And I could tell them the answer, like quote unquote, “answer.” And sometimes I do tell them like, ‘well, this is what I’ve come to.’ They may come to something totally different. And that works for them. So as I provide, as I offer mentorship, I understand that in the people that I’m working with.
So it’s not like I’m telling someone what to do, or I’m showing them the way, or you know, because we’re all different. And I always encourage people who are working for me to do your own thing. Like, I’m interested in what you’re doing. You know, I know what I do. So when it comes to mentorship, you’re not trying to make little ‘yous.’ Like I like in terms of mentoring, I’m interested in what this person is going to do. I’m interested in how they surprise me and what they create and what they do. You know, and like, yeah, maybe they pick up some tricks for me that they end up using. Maybe there’s something that I do all the time and the lesson to them is ‘well, I definitely wouldn’t do that,’ you know. So even if people that I’m mentoring do things differently, you know, not that I’m teaching them to be me, I’m just, this is the path. I’m walking the path, you know? Like Hop on.
Rachel: But we think of mentorship in this very narrow lane. We think about the same craft. Because even like people who work in music, there’s the person who’s the manager, and there’s the person who’s the vocal producer, and you know, they’re all these different roles. But when I say the Andy Goldsworthy, even like just from his documentary, I would consider a certain indirect mentorship because I saw that as you know, and again, in my terminology as a lighthouse. But that’s, the creative process there is the same. That’s the sameness. With Henry, like, the actual making of the records was the sameness. With Greg, again, like really the creative process and music was was the sameness. With Shelly, it was a direct, the mixing was the sameness, you know?
Yeah. So so it really is. So it’s, it’s the community, and it’s that it’s that resting, that sort of safe harbor type of thing.
Host: This idea about community, all of us supporting each other. I really hope that idea stuck. She said something I find really profound. And I want to repeat it, she asked, ‘Can we all just fight for each other?’ That. That right there is what we should be looking for in mentors, and what we should be looking for in creative communities. To stick up for each other, to just fight for each other.
Rachel’s become the creative person she is today, because she curated mentors of all different kinds. People like Shelly Yakus, Greg Wells, and Henry Hirsch. And then inspirations like Andy Goldsworthy, and even those positive interactions she has on the street, or in a coffee shop. And she’s part of a community, a place that she calls home.
We’re starting to blur the lines a bit here, between mentorship and inspiration. And yes, I know inspiration is a different thing. But the thing I personally find compelling about Rachel’s view, is that there’s this openness, and it allows inspiration to be a kind of mentor.
Now, we had this interview, Rachel and I, almost two weeks ago. And then just the other day, she sent me this voice note. I’m not really going to preface it with... I’ll just play it for you.
Rachel: Hi, Evan! It’s Rachel Alina. I’ve been thinking about our conversation on mentorship. My description of it as home, and the metaphor of lighthouses. And realized that for me, the conversation can’t be complete. Without something a meditation teacher told me once, which is that a candle is lit by another flame. And that’s all.
Evan: You’ve got some poetry coming out?
Evan: Let’s talk about it!
Rachel: Yeah, and this is actually a great. It’s kind of a great segue, too, because I am publishing a book of poems called Locals. And it’s a short form, they’re polaroid poems. And it’s really about the first summer. It’s about that first summer after I graduated from Berklee, and I started working for Shelly Yakus.
And it’s about that time in my life at really like the bird like the birth of my craft, really, and learning how to make records in the studio. And during the time, I was working with an artist named Birdie Busch, and we went to the Studio one day, and we recorded some songs with one microphone. And those songs are being released with it.
And a wonderful illustrator Ashley Smestad-Vélez, she’s incredible. And she illustrated the book, she did an original illustration to every of my Polaroid poems. So it’s like 80 of them.
Rachel: Yeah. And it’s a book about about community, you know, and about this community where I learned how to make make records in. And, I also did that at a time where I was living in the town that I grew up in. So it’s also about ‘home’ and being local to a place. But more importantly, it’s about being local to people and to music and to craft. So yeah! It’s a wonderful little collection. It’s called Locals. It’s out on Styles upon Styles. May 24. I’m really excited about it.
Evan: Great! Well, we’ll put the link to information in the show notes so people can go check it out. And, yeah, congratulations! That’s really exciting.
Rachel: Thank you!
Host: If you’re looking for a mentor, or you know what, if you want to be a mentor yourself, start a conversation with someone about it. I’m always amazed at the response I get when I reach out to someone, basically randomly, someone whose work I admire. A direct, personalized compliment, it’s a great way to open a dialogue which could potentially lead to a mentoring relationship. I hope after listening to this, that we’re all a little more likely to reach upwards in search of mentorship from the people that we admire. But also that we’re willing to reach down to those who might be in need of a mentor. Rachel talked a little bit about this, this idea of being a mentor to someone else, and how that can be an incredibly rewarding exchange. And you know what, no matter how much experience you have, there is someone behind you looking for a lighthouse. So be that for someone else.
Check out the show notes for links to Rachel’s website and to her new book, which comes out this month. Definitely check that out. Follow One Thing Real Quick on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It’s at @OTRQpodcast. Please say hi. Tell us what you think!
If you’re new to this podcast, thanks for checking it out. This is our 16th episode, which means we’ve got a growing catalogue of conversations kind of like this one all focused on a different idea about creativity.
This is an independent podcast created by me, Evan MacDonald. John M. Craig is our associate producer. Music by yours truly.
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We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. My name is Evan MacDonald. Until next time.
Evan: Rachel, one last thing before we let you go. What are you reading? Do you have any books that you’d recommend?
Rachel: Right now, I am reading a few things and I always tend to have a few books running. I’m reading Alan Watts’ book, Nature Man Woman, which is wonderful. Anything Alan Watts is wonderful. I’m also reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told by Alex Haley, or as told to Alex Haley. And that’s something that I would strongly recommend anyone read. It’s brilliant.
Evan: Nice. I’ll check those out.