The life and work of a music producer and audio engineer are largely unseen to the public eye. These roles, while not as arguably glamorous as the role of a movie director or music artist, are just as important and ultimately provide the necessary foundation of a given project. Without a producer or engineer, the music and sounds featured on albums and in film would lack its crystal clear quality. Fred Oliveira is one such producer who has gained international recognition within his industry thanks to his work mixing on widely popular movies such as La La Land and The Choice, two films featuring critically praised soundtracks. We had the opportunity to ask the renowned producer Oliveira about his most ambitious achievements as well as where his career goes from here given his recent successes.
Now that you have internationally cemented yourself as an educated and highly skilled audio engineer and producer, looking back, what have been some of the more difficult projects you have worked on and how did you learn from those?
Oliveira: Learning is a constant. Every single project I have worked on this far has given me the chance to learn something new. Perhaps the most difficult one was the very first film I ever mixed because it had a very tight deadline. It has become evident that being competent in my craft is crucial, but ultimately, understanding what is expected of me is the most important thing. It keeps me from spending time on unnecessary tasks and focuses my attention on what the client deems important to realize their vision. In my experience, the bigger projects have been the least stressful. I have come to realize that the people with a successful track record, and years of experience, usually surround themselves with capable professionals who they trust, therefore there’s an underlying level of confidence that the project will be completed and that its quality is the guiding factor. Projects that don’t have the luxury of a huge budget tend to be a little more agitated, because monetary and time constraints force you to prioritize and get creative. So the lesson there is to always tackle what’s most important first, and make notes of what is secondary so that if time permits, you can go back to it.
Given that you have assisted in mixing the music for major films such as La La Land and The Choice, how does mixing and producing audio for a movie differ from producing for an artist’s song or album?
Oliveira: These are certainly different things. While working on a record, I sometimes feel it is part of my job to add texture and depth to the music so that it can create a picture in the listener’s mind. I get to be creative with reverb, delay, distortion and the placement of certain elements across the stereo field, so that it can create moments that are surprising and exciting. A movie already presents this image to the viewer, so it’s important to remember that often, the picture takes precedence over the audio. Audio and video should not compete but complement one another. If an element is moving on the screen from left to right, a car going by, for example, its sound has to follow it. There are times when things sound purposely out of place to create contradiction or highlight and underlying mood, but usually the sound serves the picture. My job is to support it, make it believable and sometimes enhance the image with sound.
Do you find yourself having a preference between digital and analog equipment?
Oliveira: That is the topic most engineers I know could spend hours elaborating on. For me, the short answer is yes, I have a preference but that preference is dictated by the job. If I need to be mobile, be able to record and mix at different locations, in different countries, then I chose digital. If I anticipate the need to do mix revisions in very little time, or if I’m collaborating with someone who is not always in the same room, digital is also the way to go. However, If I have enough time allocated to start and finish a project in the same studio, if the end goal is to be unique and if I get the luxury of spending a few hours tweaking knobs, then analog is my preference. My current rig is a mixture of a few analog pieces and a whole arsenal of digital tools. The majority of the plugins I use recurrently are digital recreations of analog gear that I am familiar with. That way, when I go into a different studio and I see that piece of gear on the rack, I can quickly patch it in and chose to go analog for specific instrument, but if I have to leave the studio and continue working, I can go back to digital and get very similar results. There are some compressors for example, that if given the choice, I would always go for the analog version. I have gotten comfortable with editing in the digital domain and prefer to do so using a computer as opposed to slicing analog tape. If I were to ignore the particularities of each job, I think the fidelity of analog to digital (and digital to analog) conversion has improved so much that, in my mind, leaning to either side is now a matter of flavor and tonal characteristics, but not a matter of quality.
In your opinion will digital ever fully replace analog and what else do you see changing in the industry?
Oliveira: It may very well, but then again the past still echoes in the present, even if in subtle ways. For instance, a lot of the terminology that came to be when analog tape machines were the industry standard is still in use today. Terms like “splicing” or “cutting” still signify editing of digital audio, “rolling” still means recording, and these date back to when all we had were tape reels and razor blades. The same is true about the artifacts of phasing, flanging, and delay, which still exist, but now in digital form. The new generations of audio engineers may never get to touch a tape machine but I’m sure it’ll still be part of the history of recording. In terms of what’s still to come, I’m not entirely certain, but I have noticed the pro audio industry following the same tend we see in the consumer market. A large number of people now don’t normally own music in physical format, instead, they have subscriptions to services like Apple Music or Spotify. A lot of audio plugin manufacturers have started offering subscriptions to their products as an alternative to purchasing a perpetual license. While it still seems strange to me, we will soon get to a time when updates to computer operating systems and software happen so often that these subscriptions might just start to make sense. Though I secretly hope there will always be a group of people who, like Steve Albini, are set on keeping the analog tradition alive.
What skills or characteristics have helped you become an accomplished producer and mixer?
Oliveira: I think that I am naturally curious about electronics and the inner workings of things, so the technical part of my job is largely served by that. I’m always reading and trying out something different when I’m recording or mixing. But in all truth, it seems that being able to converse well and create a rapport with whom I’m working, is what’s been truly essential. Creative individuals tend to be protective of their art and what it stands for, so once they realize I’m of the same mind and my goal is to help them capture this essence and make it available to other people, we become a team. Listening to the artist is very important and by simply doing that, encouraging them to express their ideas, they will also become interested in what I think I can bring to the table.
How do you effectively work with artists like Miguel Mateos (Argentina) or Robin Rimbaud (UK) who come from various cultural backgrounds and have different musical tastes?
Oliveira: Music is such an interesting language because even though different styles can be quite distinctive, everything is created using the same material. One of the professors I learned from used to say, “there are only 12 notes to choose from,” meaning that you can organize them differently and use rhythmic variations but we’re all choosing from the same pallet. I’ve met musicians from so many different countries and backgrounds, but sure enough, we have always found common ground. In many ways, I’ve felt closer to them than to people I’ve known for a long time. In the end, it really comes down to letting the artist do what they do best. Making them feel comfortable and making sure creativity is not interrupted, but encouraged. Sometimes you simply shine a light on something they’ve been overlooking, like a transition from a verse to a chorus in a song, you point it out or offer a suggestion, and suddenly they’re looking at it from a new perspective and the puzzle is solved.
Are there any big or noteworthy projects you are currently working on?
Oliveira: I have been recording some new material for a language learning mobile app. I love the idea behind it and it’s also something different from what I’ve done before. The app is called LingoZING! and it consists of taking comic books from different parts of the world and giving the characters voices in different languages. I think it’s a great example of using technology for an educational purpose while still creating an enjoyable experience for the user. I’m excited I get to be a part of it and I wish this was something that existed when I was growing up.
You have recently done some work that is featured on YouTube. What can you tell us about that?
Oliveira: I have done several recordings for a YouTube Channel called Society Of Virtue. It is comedy series that plays on parodies of superheroes, exaggerating the recurring cliches and putting a not so subtle twist on them. The scripts touch on issues like sexuality and gender, and are brilliantly written by Ian SBV. He is the creator of the series and has had enormous success with his previous channel. It is always amusing to record the voices for these episodes and it is done in a way that allows us to get instant feedback on how effective the jokes are. We bring the voice actors into the studio and they are seeing the script for the first time. As we read through the lines together if everyone bursts out laughing than we know instantly it’s going to be a good episode. I also find it interesting that the intention is to keep the series solely online, and everyone involved knows it is meant for YouTube. It is fascinating to contribute to something that people can watch for free, and that its success allows it to not only be sustainable endeavor, but also a profitable one.