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Inside Track: Steve Lacy 'Bad Habit'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Neal Pogue By Paul Tingen
Published December 2022

Inside Track: Steve Lacy

Want a hit that transcends genres? Hire a mix engineer who does the same — as Steve Lacy did with Neal Pogue.

Steve Lacy’s song ‘Bad Habit’ has the honour of being the first to top five different Billboard genre charts at the same time — the Hot R&B/Hip‑Hop Songs, Hot R&B Songs, Hot Rock & Aternative Songs, Hot Rock Songs and Hot Alternative Songs charts — as well as all five American streaming, airplay and sales‑based rankings. It reached number one in the main US Hot 100 singles chart after spending a month at number two and, at the time of going to press, could be found in the UK top 10.

This genre‑crossing hit is a strange mashup of rock, R&B, indie pop and hip‑hop, with some unusual ingredients including messy‑sounding drums, a heavy bass, a repetitive guitar part that has been described as “evoking a car engine struggling to turn over”, haphazard‑sounding vocals mixed relatively far to the back, and a chaotic breakdown at the end. It lacks the typical trappings of modern hit songs: no 808s, no hard‑hitting drums, no ultra‑tight, quantised synth and sample‑dominated arrangements, no Auto‑Tune, no in‑your‑face hooks. What the song does have is attitude, which is most likely the reason for its initial popularity on TikTok and subsequent commercial success.

The Real Thing

Steve Lacy has form when it comes to releasing low‑budget, DIY material. His first EP, Steve Lacy’s Demo (2017) was made entirely on an iPhone, using GarageBand to edit. The singer, guitarist and producer also did everything himself, including mixing, on his first solo album, Apollo XXI (2019). But while he handled most of the songwriting and production on his second album and major‑label debut Gemini Rights (2022), he had more outside help this time, including several co‑writers and producers, musicians, and an engineer and a big‑name mixer.

Gemini Rights, which contains ‘Bad Habit’, was mixed by Neal Pogue, who, despite his five Grammy Award wins and a hugely impressive list of credits, is not part of the go‑to elite for pop mixes dominated by Serban Ghenea, Manny Marroquin and a handful of others. “It’s hard to get to number one, especially for me, a guy who does not do very pop‑driven stuff,” he says. “I kind of mix the cool kids, and the cool kids don’t go to number one all the time. I do the non‑trendy stuff. I am who I am. I don’t pretend to be something that I am not. I don’t chase things. I’m just blessed to get calls to mix stuff that I like. I’m at a point in my career now where I can pick and choose what I want to work on, and what I don’t. I come from a musician and producer standpoint. I’m a mixer‑producer. I’m heavily into melody, I’m heavily into grooves, and if I don’t like it, it’s hard for me to work on it.

“I like to work with genuine, unpretentious artists, like Steve Lacy. A song like ‘Bad Habit’ is just a genuine song that comes from a pure, innocent place. For example, his vocals are not Auto‑Tuned. It’s a different type of pop that feels more like punk or new wave, and does not have a place in anything. It creates its own place. That’s why it’s been number one in so many different charts. You can’t put it in a box.”

Purple Palace

Neal Pogue.Neal Pogue.Originally from New Jersey, Neal Pogue started out as a drummer, and moved to California, where he studied at the Sound Master Recording school. After that he was given a break by Michael Jackson’s brother Randy. Pogue interned at Larrabee Sound Studios and went on to establish himself as one of the US’s top engineers, mixers and producers, with credits like Outkast, André 3000, Pink, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Macy Gray, Haim, Doja Cat and Tyler, the Creator. While he predominantly works as a mixer, Pogue has also worked an arranger, composer and/or producer with Earth, Wind & Fire, Nelly Furtado, Busty and the Bass, and many others.

Pogue has moved back and forth between Atlanta and Los Angeles during his career, and his current studio is in LA. It is called The HotPurplePettingZoo, because, he says, it has “purple fur on the walls and when people come in they start petting the walls. And with all the equipment in here it gets kind of warm.”

It’s not only the name and the purple fur that are unusual. Some of his gear choices are unconventional, particularly his JBL monitors, and a notable feature is the rack of well‑worn vinyl. “I have to have these records near me,” says the mixer‑producer. “Most of the vinyl in this room is from my childhood home. It inspires me, because as a kid, I used to spend hours in my room listening to these records. The sound and feeling of those old ’70s and ’80s records is what inspires me to mix. If you compare vinyl to CD or streaming, they have a totally different sound. Years ago, I compared a Talking Heads vinyl record to the same CD, and I was blown away by how much the vinyl sounded superior. Of course, we like the clean CD sound, but the low end of the vinyl was amazing. I was in my early ’20s, and it was a wake‑up call.”

Thirty years later, Pogue’s outlook on mixing is still heavily influenced by his experiences with vinyl records. “There are songs that I heard in the 1970s, or the ’80s, where I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that little part back there.’ Because everything wasn’t in your face. It was a different mixing style. I guess that’s why people say that my mixing is so different, because I have an old‑school way of doing it. People say, ‘You mix like an artist.’ I guess it is because I’m not ready to turn everything up. When I’m mixing, I think of dimensions. I look at it as going inside a space, and there’s something in front of you, but also over there, and over there.

“I love mixes where you may hear something years later that you never noticed. I think that’s cool because there are times when we give away too much in mixes. Many producers and artists want everything to be heard the first time, and it doesn’t make the song more interesting. It’s such a psychological thing, because if you hear everything the first time, if everything is right there on that wall, why do you want to go back and see it again? There’s something about hidden gems.”

In & Out Of The Box

HotPurplePettingZoo is set up for working in the box, and the only outboard consists of a Universal Audio LA‑610 channel strip for cutting vocals. He has two sets of monitors, by JBL and Reftone (see box), a Mackie Big Knob Studio monitor controller, his Avid HD I/O interface, and a Mac running Pro Tools. “It’s come down to budgets. Whenever I mix Tyler, the Creator, I mix on a board in a studio. The same when I mix Kaytranada. When I have the budget, I’ll go to The Mix Room or to Paramount. The room I like to use at Paramount has an old SSL E Series, that sounds really good. I mixed Tyler’s Flower Boy [2017] and Igor [2019] on that board. In The Mix Room they have an SSL J Series, and I mixed some of Igor and all of Tyler’s Call Me If You Get Lost [2021] on that board. It’s between those two places. But when the budget is not there, I mix at home.

The current incarnation of Neal Pogue’s HotPurplePettingZoo studio.The current incarnation of Neal Pogue’s HotPurplePettingZoo studio.

“It’s always about the sonics,” he says of his fondness for analogue gear. “It’s not a romantic attachment to the process. It’s something that I want to hear or feel in a particular moment. Or that is a reminder of something, that makes me think back, ‘Oh, it’d be great to use that for that particular sound.’ It’s hard to even explain. Analogue just feels warm and soft. Like when you go to an LA‑2A, it has this sound, which is hard to get otherwise. The plug‑ins are closer now, but when you go to the real deal, it brings you something else.”

Even when Pogue is mixing in a studio, though, he doesn’t always choose to patch in the hardware. “It just depends on what type of mood or headspace I’m in. If I’m in a mood where I want use the outboard gear more, I’ll go that route. But most of the time I’m in the box because I’m in a groove, I’m right here, and I’m just going. It can be hard and disturb my flow to turn round and patch something in. In the box everything is right at my fingertips.”

To get the same feeling when mixing in the box, Pogue often uses plug‑ins that evoke gear from the past. “It’s not rocket science. It’s about depth and balance and making sure a mix resonates in a certain way. I came up in the era of new‑wave‑punk‑pop, which is what Steve’s stuff sounds like, so it’s easier for me to know what he’s going for. I also try to make things sound cohesive, and sometimes this means that I have to talk to my clients, as in, ‘Let’s not have everything in your face making it hard to figure out what’s happening.’ Many clients want their vocals super‑loud, and I’m like, ‘Where does that leave room for the music?’ Or they want it to sound exactly like the rough, which makes me say, ‘What am I doing here? Why don’t you master the rough then?’

“Sometimes the rough does not sound particularly good, so why would I want to match that? My name goes on it as well. I can’t do that. Sometimes people have lived with the rough for months, and you change one thing, and they think it’s all wrong. If that’s the case, I may go back to the rough and try to find out what it is they’re so focused on. It can be the simplest thing. ‘Ah, there’s one synth that’s really loud.’ So I turn it up, and they go, ‘OK, that’s right.’ They’ve had one little thing hit them over the head for months, and if I match that, I can put my own thing on the rest of the mix.”

Into The Groove

In the case of Steve Lacy, though, it seems artist and mixer were on the same page from the start. “Steve wants his vocals in a certain space, not too loud. He wants the vocals and the music to be as one. That’s what I love too. I was really ecstatic that he wanted his vocals like that. I think what I brought to his songs was mostly depth. They’re not complicated songs. They’re straightforward, simple songs.

‘Bad Habit’ is Steve Lacy’s breakthrough hit.‘Bad Habit’ is Steve Lacy’s breakthrough hit.“The focus of ‘Bad Habit’ is the main guitar, and everything else supports that. That guitar is hooky. It’s that guitar that keeps you there. Of course, everybody listens differently, and it’s subjective. But for me that guitar is the focus of that track. My job was to make sure I brought it out and kept it edgy, and balanced it with the vocals and the other instruments. The song is predominantly about the guitar, the bass and the vocal, and there also are drums and several synth tracks. The groove is like the glue that keeps it all together.

“When I mix an entire album, as with Gemini Rights, it is a process, but I still approach each song differently. I don’t use templates. I create every mix from scratch because I’m always reaching for something different. I like to be creative. I’m not saying that I reach for different plug‑ins all the time, because I do have my go‑to things. But sometimes I’m in a different mood and I’ll look for something else. I have so many plug‑ins now that I forget what I have and sometimes I’m like, ‘Let me try something new,’ and I’m just scrolling and searching.

“Once I have finished the first pass of a mix, I’ll send it to the client and they send me back their notes. With Steve, it was minimal things, like ‘Turn up the guitar a little bit more,’ or ‘Turn my vocal down,’ which surprised me as most artists want their vocals turned up. I mix many albums, and don’t do many single mixes. But I still approach each song differently. People may go, ‘Really?’ But yeah, I’m old school. I look at an album as a TV series, and each song as a different episode.

“I always start mixing by organising my session to suit my personal flow, first by giving tracks my own colours. The drums are always at the top, in black, and after that I have the bass in blue, the guitars in orange. If there are pianos they are dark green, if there’s a Rhodes it’s a slightly lighter green, and synths are in much brighter green. It’s how I envision it. Strings will be light blue, male vocals are red, female vocals, pink, and backgrounds are in the purple world. I’ve been doing that for years.

Neal Pogue: I look at an album as a TV series, and each song as a different episode.

When he’s not mixing on an actual SSL console, Neal Pogue makes heavy use of Waves’ SSL Channel plug‑in.When he’s not mixing on an actual SSL console, Neal Pogue makes heavy use of Waves’ SSL Channel plug‑in.“Once I have the session organised the way I want it, I’ll start the mix by working on the drums first, and then the bass. Because I’m a drummer, it is always about the groove first. In the case of ‘Bad Habit’, because it’s a guitar‑driven track, I then worked on the guitars, and after that I worked on the keys. The keys are not really that loud in this song, they’re kinda under everything else, but they cut through. And then it’s vocals and harmonies, and what is left.”

Kick Up

“In this session, the drums was mostly about the kick. My go‑to for the kick is the Waves SSL EQ, which I use first on almost everything, and that my ears are just used to hearing. The bass has to be very big these days. It is such a hip‑hop era that low end can’t be skimpy. In this track, to keep the bass sounding round, I inserted the UAD Fairchild compressor, and after that a Waves SSL EQ. Waves have a new SSL plug‑in, the EV2, that I used as well, plus the McDSP CB101 compressor on the back of that. I normally don’t do that. Maybe there was something that I needed to control.

The Waves Infected Mushroom signature plug‑in saw plenty of use in the mix of ‘Bad Habit’.The Waves Infected Mushroom signature plug‑in saw plenty of use in the mix of ‘Bad Habit’.“I had the Waves Infected Mushroom on the main guitar that drives the song. I love that plug‑in. It has different things on it, a compressor, an EQ, an Imager, and something called Body, which makes things sound fuller. On this guitar I used it to add a little bit more edge. All compressors sound completely different, but this compressor makes things punch more. The Push button also gave the guitar a little bit more crunch.

“After that I had the Waves Scheps 73 EQ, where I added a little more high end. I didn’t want it to be overbearing, so I just added some more edge without going too far. After that I put on a Kilohearts Chorus. I also had a UAD API 550A EQ on the guitar aux track, adding more low end at 200Hz, plus a Soundtoys Decapitator. All the main guitars on the verses and choruses went through this aux. There also were three to four synths that are doing small parts, and I put an Infected Mushroom and API on each of them, and there’s an Infected Mushroom Wider on a Moog track.

“The lead vocal has the UAD Fairchild 670, for that analogue sound. It is such a lo‑fi sounding song, so I wanted to keep that. It needed to stay in that realm. That throwback feel is what makes the song sound cool. After that the vocals went through the Waves API 550A, and the Waves SSL Channel, to filter out some of the highs, because they were a little too bright. At the end there’s a Soundtoys MicroShift to widen the vocal a little bit more. I didn’t really do much to the background vocals, because they sounded pretty cool.

UA’s Fairchild 670 emulation was used to give the lead vocal some vintage‑style compression.UA’s Fairchild 670 emulation was used to give the lead vocal some vintage‑style compression.“On the master bus I usually have the Waves L2 and the [iZotope] Ozone 9, and recently the Ozone 10. In Ozone I love to use the EQ, the Maximizer, and the Imager. My master bus remains more the same in each session than the chains on the track inserts. I guess it’s like using the same paint brush on the master bus every time. Many mixers take things off their master bus before sending it to mastering, but I don’t understand that. If they do all that work to put stuff on the master bus, then why take it off? For me it’s part of my sound, and that’s what goes to the mastering engineer. For Gemini Rights it was Mike Bozzi, at Bernie Grundman Mastering, who I like working with in general.

“No, there aren’t many plug‑ins in my sessions. You can see that I’m really simplistic when it comes to plug‑ins. I’m a boring mixer! I never feel the need to add a lot of stuff. The new‑school approach, where they just reach and reach and reach for new plug‑ins, it’s a mystery to me. Each to his own, and it’s all very subjective, but the more minimalistic I can keep it to get the feel I’m after, the more I like it.”  

Speaking Of Speakers

“My main monitors are the JBL 708Ps,” says Neal Pogue. “I was never a JBL fan. One day, a friend of mine called me up because he got a gig with JBL, and they were about to come out with these speakers, the 708P and 705P, and they had revamped everything. But I didn’t like JBL at all, I didn’t like how their speakers were designed and how they sounded. I didn’t like the EQ curve. So I went to the headquarters and sat down sceptical, and they put on this song, and I was blown away. I was looking for the subwoofer, and they said, ‘There is no subwoofer.’ I thought, ‘OK, I need to take these home because there must be some trickery going on here.’ I brought them home in my room to see if it would sound different, and they sounded so real, I was like, ‘Wow.’ What you put in is what you get out. I also use the smaller nearfield JBL 705P speakers when I go to another studio.

"My other speakers are Reftones, which are Auratone‑like speakers, but they sound much better than Auratones. It’s so funny. I now have two speaker types that I was never a fan of!”