After rising through the vibrant New York studio scene of the ’90s, Ann Mincieli developed a 25‑year partnership with the biggest R&B star of the 21st Century, and now has her own state‑of‑the‑art Manhattan studio.
“She’s the female version of Prince!” says Ann Mincieli of Alicia Keys. “If you listen to the production on her records, it’s cross‑genre. You might hear a distorted Wurli. You might hear a distorted Moog, and John Mayer comes up to her and goes, ‘Hey, how did you make that guitar tone? It sounds just like Prince on “Purple Rain”!’ and she goes: ‘It’s not a guitar. It’s my Moog going through a distortion pedal and an amp.’
“I realised that the type of engineer I wanted to be, where we’re painting a sonic picture on each record, was the type of producer Alicia was. So that’s why we started to work together, and grow together. I wanted to be constantly evolving, getting into the depths of engineering.”
Keys and Mincieli have been growing together across more than two decades and an incredible amount of recorded music — far more than has ever seen the light of day, in fact. “We start with a blank piece of paper for each album, and for some albums we do 240 songs, 90 songs. Each album is a journey, and sometimes it evolves so that by the end it’s completely different than what her vision was, but that’s the beauty of her.
“You sell millions and millions of records and you’re the biggest‑selling R&B act of the millennium, but also you want to continue to grow musically. I feel like years ago, artists did that more, like your David Bowies and your Led Zeppelins. Now it’s just like this formula where you’re told: this won’t work on streaming, you got to do a radio edit, you can’t have a guitar solo any more, it won’t get played on radio. It takes away from what we really subconsciously love about music, which is musicians getting in a room and just playing and making magic.
“We had a good guitar player in recently and he’s like, ‘But I played the first hook. Can’t you just copy and paste it to the other hooks?’ and she’s like, ‘No, we want you to play it down, that way we get the human element and feel of how you play. It is not the same each time.’ Your eight‑bar loop might be an eight‑bar loop, but it drifts within the eight bars. Every bar might be a little bit of a different tempo and that’s fine. That’s how she works.
“She has no rules, which is the beauty of it. Ninety‑nine percent of the time, she’ll never take a track that’s pulled up on a hard drive that someone has brought in. it’s about making these songs from scratch and collaborating, and you got to be able to play with her and rock with her. So, a lot of times you do need musical chops. You can’t just be copying and pasting and fake your way through it because she loves to arrange, if you listen to her songs. On two songs we worked on with Emeli Sandé, called ‘Not Even The King’ and ‘101’, those are one take. What we captured — even the delay throws — is the take that’s going on the record. So I have to make sure I have these magnet mics by DPA in the piano and I can close the lid. And the bleed is controlled, I can have some control over my piano mics. My EQ on them is that the voice ain’t bleeding into them!”
A part of Mincieli’s role with Keys is as an enabler, creating an environment that allows the artist to go wherever inspiration takes her. “She has 15 keyboards set up, no matter where we work around the world. We go to Peter Gabriel’s studio [Real World] in Bath and spend three weeks there. We ship all our gear, take a day to set up, we have two assistants that travel with us. She has her own Pro Tools rig that loads up all her sounds and all of her virtual synths, and I have my rig; this way, she can load all her sounds and I could be loading a song up. We don’t have to clash, we can be working independently. Then all her libraries aren’t on my rig, taking up all the space — because the sound library is huge. And that’s how we roll.
“And she has old keyboards from Mellotrons to Jupiter‑8s... We might not travel with those, but we definitely will travel with the newer version of a Mellotron. We might take our Juno‑106s, our Juno‑60s, all of our Dave Smith Prophet Six, Prophet 10, Prophet X, all of that stuff. We load everything up on a console. We route it into my Pro Tools. And then she sits and programs by herself. She uses the [Akai] MPC, she uses [Native Instruments] Battery, and she sits and she programs and sometimes she’s in a room by herself. We leave and she has the freedom to write in there, so she walks around and is playing and experimenting. And then when she needs us, she’ll say ‘Hey I want to record this!’
“She used to sequence a lot of her keyboards in her Pro Tools rig. But now she’s like, ‘I just play this one time and it’s recorded. Why do I even need a sequencer?’ There’s something about her swing even that these sequencers can’t mimic, even if she wants a quantise. So she just plays her stuff down.
“And then there are times where she starts off on a piano, and she plays to a click. And her tempo drifts even though you’re playing to a click, right? She’s a human. So I have to then go in and mark every bar and make the click track rise and fall. And her piano is really dictating the tempo. Then the drummer...