When Engineer/Mixer and Producer Dean Nelson started as the Full-Time Pro-Tools and Production Instructor and Curriculum Advisor in January 2011, he wasn’t just making a career change; he was making a drastic lifestyle change. Until the previous December, Dean served as day-to-day Engineer and Mixer to internationally known musician and producer Beck, perhaps best recognized for his classic song “Loser.” Previously, Dean spent five years as an engineer and assistant to famed mixer Jack Joseph Puig.
Working in sunny Los Angeles near the beaches of Malibu and making records with some of the world’s most acclaimed artists would likely be any aspiring audio engineer’s dream job. Yet, Dean says, “Coming back to OIART from Los Angeles was in retrospect an easy choice. It was an opportunity to give back to an institution that allowed me to get started in an amazing career. I am able to share knowledge that was traditionally passed on in an apprenticeship manner. A lot has been lost in the home studio era. The cultivation of craftsmanship in record making from one generation to the next is lost when you’re working alone. I felt that I could bring that back. I like the idea of shaping the future of record making.”
Dean becomes one of a growing list of successful OIART alumni from the past 28 years returning to teach full-time at the school – arriving familiar with proven OIART teaching methods and fresh from years of top echelon industry experience. Dean not only performs in-class instruction, but provides one on one engineering and production mentoring daily to students in a purpose-built Pro Tools equipped studio. OIART Dean of Studies Peter Kryshtalovich observed, “The range and depth of his engineering and production experiences are astonishing. This year's students have already worn a path to his door - he's a superb mentor and instructor.”
"I loved my time at OIART"
Raised in Greenville, NC, Dean graduated with Honors from OIART in 2000. By his own admission Dean had very little experience in audio before enrolling. “I was djing at the time. All I had was two turntables, a mixer and gang of vinyl! My parents are big music fans, so I grew up on lots of Beatles, Dylan, and Rolling Stones;” the latter a group Dean would eventually work with, but more on that later. “I loved my time at OIART. I had already spent a couple years in college and was enthused to dive in to a program that I was really excited about, as opposed to a general college curriculum. What appealed to me most was the amount of hands of experience, lab time and the direct connection and access to the instructors and teaching assistants. I got a broad view of everything 'sound,’ from the tech side –soldering - to psychoacoustics, film/post, and of course music recording. Engineering, mixing and producing was my goal for sure. There were a couple moments when post occurred to me, but it didn't last very long!”
He relocated to Los Angeles upon landing his first gig as a runner at Ocean Studios in Burbank later that year. “I felt ready to enter the industry, but I didn’t expect things would turn out the way they did for me. I'm still amazed at getting a call from a studio in LA! At the very least I knew the drive cross country would be worth it. I was in North Carolina and one of the thoughts I had was ‘why couldn't they find someone in LA?’”
Ocean had previously employed three other OIART grads, and the studio had such a positive experience that Dean was quickly welcomed into the fold. He wasn’t at the studio long before he began assisting on projects for producers Johnny K (Disturbed), Neal Avron (Fall Out Boy), Mark Trombino (Jimmy Eat World), Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontaigne), and most notably on the 2x Grammy Winning album “Fallen” by Evanescence, including the hit “Bring Me To Life,” produced by Dave Fortman. Thrown in to top level sessions right out of school despite having no previous experience before OIART, Dean relied heavily on his education to pull through. “I had the fundamentals, especially signal flow. I knew how to learn unfamiliar gear - opening a manual if needed to figure it out, but also knowing when and how to ask questions of the techs. The session organization skills I learned were invaluable.”
Dean subsequently moved on to Chalice Studios in Hollywood, the newest and most popular studio in the city at the time, to assume the role of Staff Assistant/Engineer. This led to a position at the legendary Ocean Way Studios on Sunset Boulevard. Nelson spent five years at Ocean Way exclusively assisting producer, mixer and engineer Jack Joseph Puig, known for his work with The Black Crowes, No Doubt, Weezer, and John Mayer. Puig’s engineering and production work on the album “Spilt Milk” by Jellyfish is widely considered amongst the finest in rock history. Dean recalls, “I was hired by Ocean Way and just happened to land in Jack's room!”
On working with Jack Joseph Puig
The experience was life changing. Working together in perhaps the most spectacular and well-equipped mix room on the planet, (VIEW IMAGE) some of their clients included The (aforementioned) Rolling Stones, Fergie (on the Grammy nominated hit, "Big Girls Don't Cry"), Mary J. Blige, Panic at the Disco, Eric Clapton, Dashboard Confessional, U2 and many others. “My role was assistant engineer, then as I gained his trust and confidence I could do a lot of things to make his job easier; taking care of all technical aspects so he could just sit down and mix and be creative as he would like. This meant getting a song prepped and ready to mix, including the initial mixing and balancing. Then there was dealing with the artist and label, getting the final mixes off to mastering, and communicating with the mastering engineers.”
Over time, Puig embraced the role of mentor to the younger engineer, spending countless hours explaining the engineering and production secrets behind his legendary recordings. “He taught me how to listen, how to feel if a mix or a song was correct. There were hours spent on subtle changes. He taught me about tone; why to use a specific piece of gear, what’s that piece's personality? How to create texture, implied power verses real power, the relationships between frequencies and instrumentation. He taught me to understand what the most important aspect of the song is. Besides the featured vocal, there could be some element that has been pushed back in the rough mix by the band, and it could be a key element in making the song work! These days a rough mix is not just a rough mix. With Digital Audio Workstations such as Pro Tools, you are always tweaking a mix as you go through the tracking phase. So where a band ends up before mixing is generally no mistake, but on the other hand they could be really off!”
Many of the sessions were memorable; “We mixed most of the Rolling Stones’ record 'Bigger Bang,' and it was an unexpected thrill to record a last minute background vocal part for Mick, then record Keith on a piano part. I think the first song Jack mixed, they came in and listened and pretty much had only one change. That was fairly simple in comparison to one of the longest sessions we did for a successful British artist named Daniel Bedingfield. We spent six months on the record, and most days were crazy long, 14-16 hours. The last month we worked straight with no days off. The budget being open ended, we had in 6 session drummers for one song, all of them great! Vinnie Colaiuta, Brian McLeod, Joey Waronker, etc... We would spend hours on one guitar tone and sound, and 20 of those sounds blew my mind. Jack is an amazing engineer!”
In addition to his engineering duties, Dean collaborated with Puig and software developer Waves on the first Producer/Mixer-developed Pro Tools plug-ins, the acclaimed PuigChild and PuigTec (which notably included a ‘preset’ named after Dean - “Dean’s Vocal”). Based on pieces from Puig’s legendary collection of pristine vintage outboard equipment, they were a result of hours of careful listening and tweaking. Waves received a 2011 Technical Grammy Award for industry leadership, creativity and innovation.
On working with Beck
After five years working alongside Puig, Dean was offered the position as engineer and mixer for artist Beck. In this role, Nelson recorded and most often mixed an array of projects including Charlotte Gainsbourg's "IRM", Jamie Lidell's "Compass", Stephen Malkamus and the Jicks forthcoming album, the collaboration with Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes) for Twilight's Saga: Eclipse, "Bad Blood" for the HBO Original Series True Blood Soundtrack, Vol. 2., the upcoming solo album by Sonic Youth founding member Thurston Moore, and Beck's versions of his songs contributed to the “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” soundtrack and movie. Dean was also at the desk for all but one of Beck’s “The Record Club” projects (see them at www.beck.com). These intense sessions, in which an entire classic album would be covered in one day, featured guest artists such as Feist, Devendra Banhart, members of Wilco, St. Vincent, Tortoise, Nigel Godrich and a rotating cast of others.
“Working with Beck, I had to really step up in terms of my recording, engineering and mixing chops. Beck is a musician/artist first, so he hears in his head were he wants to go and I've got to get there. Trust me he knows what sounds right! You don't work with Nigel Godrich and not know the possibilities of the sonic landscape!” Godrich was Beck’s previous engineer, famous for his engineering and production work on every Radiohead album, but also highly regarded for Paul McCartney’s “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” and several Beck albums including “Sea Change.”
“With Jack and his engineering strong suit, he could help me if I was not dialing in the sound to his satisfaction, he would come in and tweak. With Beck I had to do it on my own… and fast! You always had to be ready to record, and not the obvious. There was a lot of experimentation, and lots of writing happening. There were always new lyrics, arrangements, and instrumentation. You would have to get down all ideas.”
With a comfortable and productive working relationship, Beck didn’t let Dean go easily. They worked together pretty much until Dean boarded the plane with his family to Canada, cutting records with Pavement’s Stephen Malkamus and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Barely settled in Canada, Dean is still mixing several projects, and has been recording and producing Canadian artist Buck 65, better known to CBC listeners as host Rich Terfry.
Dean is clearly embracing his new role at OIART, and his new life. “I’m enjoying the challenge of analyzing and having to explain the reasons for mixing/EQing/editing things a certain way that I have just done on gut reaction. It is gratifying to share my experience and knowledge and seeing the reactions of the students as they get to a level of the fundamentals being second nature.”
Dean says his primary goal as an instructor is “to set the bar and prepare the students to exceed the industry standards. I hope to inspire the students to be creative and experiment, but to think fast and efficiently; to help them understand how to capture a moment in time, and get a performance out of an artist. I can show the students the mistakes I made… and let them make other ones!”
“OIART provided me with such an incredible foundation in engineering and recording, for that matter 'sound,' that allowed me to work my way into the legendary Los Angeles record making community and make a successful career. I feel I've been very fortunate, and I wanted to give back to an amazing institution that got me up to speed in a year.”
“Record making is an incredible art and OIART understands that.”
Developing a Waves Plugin for Pro Tools
“Working on the Waves plugins was extremely educational and insightful. We started off by re-tubing Jack's Fairchild 670 (a compressor famous for its use on Beatles albums) and getting it tuned up, and then we sent it off to Waves in Israel. The tech team over there spec'd it out and compared the unit to the original spec charts, measuring all the components. They replicated its sound and behaviour, and then came up with the algorithms and blocks for a beta version. This I believe took about 6 months. Mike Fradis and a couple of the Waves guys came to Ocean Way with the beta version and we began listening, “A/B”ing with the two 670's in the room and continued tweaking from there. We basically had the plug in with the hood off - harmonic distortion, gain settings. One of Jack's first comments was it should have the Fairchild 'thing,' or x factor appear immediately once it is inserted into the signal chain, even bypassed (mixers will often insert a piece of gear into the chain for its specific sound - even when it isn’t actually acting). We would just start changing the values in the block until it sounded like a Fairchild. It was mind blowing how they translated Jack's sonic interpretations into 1's and 0's. It made me really appreciate the world of digital and technical chops, in the same sense of how old studios would hot rod their personal gear.”