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Inside Track: Stormzy 'Hide & Seek'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Leandro ‘Dro’ Hidalgo By Paul Tingen
Published January 2023

Leandro ‘Dro’ Hidalgo.Leandro ‘Dro’ Hidalgo.

With hit albums for Dave, Wizkid and now Stormzy, Brazilian‑American mixer Leandro Hidalgo is at the top of his game.

“I always say: ‘If you want to find out how to be an amazing assistant, be an engineer for a day, and have an assistant.’ You will know everything you want that assistant to do. When you go back to being an assistant, you will be handing the engineer things before he even thinks of them.

“Similarly, if you want to learn how to be a great mixer, be a producer or an artist for a day, and you will know what they want from a mixer. Most mixers view their job purely from a mixer standpoint. But I’m also looking at it from an artist/producer standpoint, because I have played all roles. I record, I write demos, I produce, and I mix. I have done it all, A to Z.”

Leandro ‘Dro’ Hidalgo’s multi‑disciplinary approach to his work is in evidence on his Instagram account, where he still bills himself as a “musician/band”. But his credits as a drummer, engineer, writer and producer notwithstanding, it is his work as a mixer that has in recent years attracted the most attention. In 2020, Hidalgo mixed almost all of Made In Lagos, the breakthrough album in the west of Nigerian singer Wizkid, who has already been a household name in Africa for many years.

Next up, Hidalgo got to mix the whole of Dave’s most recent album, We’re All Alone In This Together (2021). And at the end of 2022 Wizkid’s More Love Less Ego was released, entirely mixed by Hidalgo, along with Stormzy’s third studio album, This Is What I Mean. Hidalgo mixed seven of the album’s 12 songs, including the lead single, ‘Hide & Seek’ and the epic eight‑minute long album opener ‘Fire + Water’.

In The Rough

Perhaps because of his experience as a producer, Hidalgo feels no need to stamp his own mark on his mixes. “I love it when people say, ‘Make it sound like the rough,’ because it is a challenge. Many people I know hate that statement, but I think it is awesome. To make a song sound better, and still keep the magic of where it was, is an art. It is harder to do as a mixer than to change a bunch of stuff, and make it sound different.

Leandro ‘Dro’ Hidalgo: I love it when people say, ‘Make it sound like the rough,’ because it is a challenge. Many people I know hate that statement, but I think it is awesome.

“My job as a mixer is to keep the magic alive. Again, this comes from me recording and producing. I have been in the room when this magic was created. There’s this energy bubble, which is like a forcefield, and you record it into this little digital thing called a computer. It is alive. You can almost feel the energy that was in the room. And then you give it to a mixer, and sometimes it dies completely. The energy is done. You can kill that magic easily.

“People complain that ‘make it sound like the rough’ is about demo‑itis, and that may be the case. But not always. Producers know how to make the music feel, and that is what it is about. All these people that geek out over plug‑ins and all this other stuff, it is cool. I used to do the same. But I am so much more focused now on how the song makes me feel than on doing this little notch where some frequencies are clashing. Who cares. Sometimes that stuff is what makes it sound good!”

Love From Brazil

Hidalgo appears to have a strong connection with UK‑based artists, because in addition to Dave and Stormzy, he’s also worked with Skepta and KSI. The common thread here is the influence of African music, to which Hidalgo has taken a particular liking. He is one of the go‑to mixers in the US when it comes to Afrobeat, something which is directly related to his Brazilian background.

“I was born in Brazil, and my family moved to Miami when I was five,” explains Hidalgo. “Music and dancing are central to Brazilian culture, so I was around that a lot, and at middle school I started playing drums. I also got interested in music production — I started reading SOS in great detail! — and went to Full Sail in 2011‑12. After that I interned at Alexus Records, with Rico Love. He has a group of producers called Division One, and they’d make beats on their computers every day, with me being the floating person in the room. I learned a lot from them and Rico. I’m sure they had no idea that I spent a lot of time taking notes!

“I moved to LA in 2014, and worked at the Record Plant, where Rose Mann‑Cherney gave me a chance to work as an intern, and this led to me meeting top mixer Dave Pensado. I worked with him for nearly two years [Pensado kicked off the Inside Track series in January 2007:]. After that I worked for most of one and a half years with producer Brody Brown. He was one of the main writers on Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic album [2016]. I learned a lot about mixing and music production from both Dave and Brody.”

Four In One

Hidalgo first met Wizkid in 2015, when the singer was in LA working on his major‑label debut Sounds From The Other Side. It woke Hidalgo up to the parallels between Afrobeat and his Brazilian background. “After meeting Wiz, I learned a lot about my own culture that I did not even know. How much African influence there is in our culture, and how much of our culture stems from specifically the Yoruba tribe, the main tribe in Nigeria. All of it made sense to me.

“However, when I listened to early Afrobeat, the music felt amazing, but sounded really bad. They were recording on terrible equipment, and doing things they were not supposed to be doing. At the same time, when you do something really wrong it can become right. For example, Wiz’s vocals tended to be super over‑compressed. When I started working with him, if I did not compress his vocals that hard, he would be like: ‘Dude, something is off.’ So I had to learn how to give him what he was looking for, while at the same time improving the sonics. I read that mixer Seth Firkins wanted to take Future’s music to a place where it could sonically compete with the mainstream. I felt the same with Wiz. My idea was to take this amazing music and make it compete with the likes of Dua Lipa and Beyoncé and so on.”

Made In Lagos was nominated for a Grammy, and made it to many lists of best albums of 2020. And, as usually happens, one good thing led to another. “We were mixing Wiz’s album in Amsterdam, and when P2J came along as executive producer, it changed the album completely. P2J then introduced me to Dave, because he worked on his album as well. I did one song for Dave, and they liked it and kept sending me more stuff to mix. It ended up with me mixing the entire album. P2J also did a song for Stormzy, and with me already having mixed Dave’s album, it made it easier for Stormzy’s team to trust me.

“The first song I mixed for Stormzy was given to me as a test, and if I passed it, it’d unlock me mixing many other songs as well. The song was ‘Fire + Water’, and at eight minutes long, it was definitely a challenge! For a mixer, a song of that length is complicated. It’s essentially four songs rolled into one, and how do you mix a track that has screaming lead guitar in one section, and almost turns into Afrobeat at the end, and yet doesn’t? How do you get that to sonically make sense? How do you do the transitions, and how do you send all that through one mix bus? In fact, I ended up using two mix buses.”

Play Your Cards Right

At the time of writing, Stormzy’s new album was still under wraps, but it’s clear that the rapper has changed musical direction. The mood is introspective, Stormzy is singing more than rapping, the arrangements are spacious and delicate and made to sound like a real band, and the production is delicate and gorgeous. According to Hidalgo, the entire album takes a similar direction.

'This Is What I Mean' is Stormzy’s third full‑length album.'This Is What I Mean' is Stormzy’s third full‑length album.“Everything I have worked on for the album was very musical, very progressive. One of my favourite old songs of Stormzy is ‘Wiley Flow’, and it’s very dramatic with intense rapping, but this new album is so different. It is all about beautiful melodies, beautiful sonics, tons of space, a lot of musicianship and so on. I was listening to the tracks as they came in, and I was amazed. And the instructions I got started with, ‘Our goal is to make this album as musical and sonically pleasing as possible. We don’t care about hard or loud.’ The other thing they said was, ‘We really like where we are, it just needs to be mixed.’ In a way it is saying: here is this house of cards that we built, go make it better. But if you build a house of cards and you take one card out of position, the entire house is coming down. So you have to be very careful of what you do.

“Working on this album was very different from most of the albums that I work on in several respects. I normally have direct communication with the artist and the producers, but with this album I only dealt with his label people and two engineers, Joel Peters and Calum Landau. There was a big group of producers that had contributed, so I think it was easier to funnel everything down to the engineers. Generally I prefer to speak with the artist, especially when you are receiving notes that are not in technical terms. When you get notes like: ‘Hey can you make it sweeter?’ I like to talk with the artist, because something that he or she will tell me outside of that sentence is going to provide some kind of contextual value that will lead me into the right direction. But luckily Cal sent me very detailed notes that made it easy for me to get to the end goal, which is to make the artist happy and make the song sound as best as it can be.”

Getting It Together

“My perspective as a mixer is that I begin where the tracking engineer signed off. My starting point is the rough mix. Initially I was sent stems, but when I loaded them into a Pro Tools session and compared that to the demo, and A/B’ed the two, I thought, ‘No way’. They were not the same. Things were not there. So I asked for the Pro Tools sessions, and after that it was pretty smooth sailing, because I could carry on from where they had left off.

“However, the sessions had many plug‑ins, more than I would normally use. This whole album was one of those were I had to do a lot of work with what was there, which I don’t necessarily do normally. It’s why this album was a challenge, and also really rewarding. Also, in some cases I could see from the track names that they had printed effects, and then added plug‑ins on top of that. Clearly, they had committed quite a number of things because it’s how they liked them, so my job was to enhance this, not to go all the way back and then recreate a whole different thing.

This composite screen capture shows the entire Pro Tools Edit window for Leandro Hidalgo’s mix of ‘Hide & Seek’.This composite screen capture shows the entire Pro Tools Edit window for Leandro Hidalgo’s mix of ‘Hide & Seek’.“The scenario I was in actually took longer, because I have to experiment a lot more, and make sure I don’t destabilise the house of cards that they built. I might take a couple of their plug‑ins off to hear how drastic they work, and put them back on, or try a couple of things myself that I don’t usually do. In all it would take me maybe eight to 10 hours per session to get the whole thing together, though I don’t work on one session all the time. My brain starts getting fogged up, and I don’t really know where my reference point is any more. So I jump between sessions a lot. I might work on five different songs in one day.

“I also jump around the session itself when I mix. I am definitely not systematic at all. I am doing whatever I hear needs doing. Sometimes the drums need the most work, sometimes the music, sometimes the vocals need. Usually, the vocals need the most work. Producers at this level know how to make the drums smack and music sound good, so I don’t have to spend as much time on that. Generally speaking the vocal is what ties the whole thing together, so I focus on that, and amplify the music and the drums a little bit. They don’t tend to need such heavy lifting. But again, every song is different.”

‘Hide & Seek’

Hidalgo’s mix session for ‘Hide & Seek’ contains about 90 tracks. From top to bottom in the Edit window, these are a master section of three tracks, fed by All Vox and All Beats group tracks; six aux vocal effects tracks; Stormzy’s vocal tracks, consisting of audio tracks, group aux tracks and one aux effect track; the tracks of the other vocalists Ayanna, Oxlade, Teni and Owen Cutts; the drums, with 23 audio tracks and three aux tracks; and the music, with 16 audio tracks and two aux tracks, which include guitar by Jack Shepherd and keyboards by PRGRSHN. The song was produced by the latter, along with Owen Cutts, P2J and Calum Landau.

Download a hi-res detailed view of the Pro Tools edit window.

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Hidalgo: “This is fairly typical for the way I organise my sessions. I like to have my master tracks with the mix bus at the top, followed by aux vocal effects, in green. All but one of these aux tracks came with the session. I’d never used the iZotope Neoverb, but they were happy with it, so I was not going to change it. Other vocal aux effect tracks had the Valhalla Vintage Verb and Valhalla Room, ModDelay 3, and I added the Voxcom aux, with the Waves CLA‑76 compressor and FabFilter Pro‑L 1 limiter for compression.

“My colour coding is male vocals in bright blue, female vocals in purple or pink, aux group tracks yellow, bass in green, drums in red, and instruments in beige. This sometimes gets messed up when I’m sent new vocals while I’m mixing, and when this happens, I’ll give them a strange colour, like lime green or something, so I can recognise them easily. Vocal samples tend to live at the bottom of the session, amongst the music elements, because they tend to be part of the instrumental.

“As I mentioned earlier, I don’t mix in a particular order, like starting with the drums. Because of the house of cards situation, I had to comb through everything in this session, and make sure everything had its place. I added some of my own plug‑ins to the many plug‑ins that were already there, but in many cases I worked with the existing plug‑ins, and my work consisted of getting the best out of them. This involved a lot of backing things off, because of the brief to make it sound natural and beautiful.”

Stormzy (standing) with engineers Calum Landau (left) and Joel Peters (far right), executive producer Tendai Senyange (centre), #Merky Records A&R Jermaine Agyako and producer PRGRSHN (front).Stormzy (standing) with engineers Calum Landau (left) and Joel Peters (far right), executive producer Tendai Senyange (centre), #Merky Records A&R Jermaine Agyako and producer PRGRSHN (front).Photo: Zebie


Stormzy’s vocals are sent to two self‑explanatory aux group tracks, Stormzy Rap LV and Stormzy Sing LV, and there’s an additional SIDE aux effects track with the Waves Doubler 2 and S1 Imager plug‑ins. “The Purple Audio Alliance MC77 and ProCompressor came with the session, and I adjusted the settings. I’d rather use the UAD 1176, but these worked pretty good as well. There’s an Oeksound Soothe 2, and if you look at the settings, the main thing is easy to miss, which is that the mix is set to 10 percent. It’s so important to turn that mix knob down on that plug‑in, because it can just as easily ruin the vocal as improve it. People overhype this plug‑in a little bit, but it’s very powerful, if used properly. People think, ‘Just put it on’ and that’s it, and have the mix knob at 100 percent. But when you do that, it’s reshaping the vocal and making it sound like someone else. But the goal is to make it sound like the vocalist. There’s also a FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, with some small dips, which are part of the repair work I did.

Leandro Hidalgo inherited lengthy plug‑in chains on many tracks, and added more of his own, but often set things so that individual plug‑ins were doing relatively little. The Oeksound Soothe plug‑in on Stormzy’s vocal is a good example: the Mix is set to just 10 percent.Leandro Hidalgo inherited lengthy plug‑in chains on many tracks, and added more of his own, but often set things so that individual plug‑ins were doing relatively little. The Oeksound Soothe plug‑in on Stormzy’s vocal is a good example: the Mix is set to just 10 percent.

“There’s an Ayanna Vocal New bus, with a ProCompressor and the Valhalla VintageVerb, and another similar track, Ayana LV1, with tons of plug‑ins, including the Waves X‑Noise, iZotope Ozone 9 Exciter, and many more. Again, when it comes with that many plug‑ins, all I usually did was back off most of what these plug‑ins were doing. There’s another Ayanna vocal track that has some plug‑ins I added, the UAD LA‑2A, FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, Waves C6, Valhalla VintageVerb and Soundtoys PanMan. Many of them don’t change the tonal characteristics too much.

“All vocal group buses are sent to the All Vocal bus, to which I added the Avid Lo‑Fi, set to be barely audible, and the Slate Virtual Mix Rack, only using the Virtual Channel, to make it more analogue sounding, but again, barely touching. I have met mixers who did less, with fewer plug‑ins, and they made their stuff sound so good. The common theme is that these mixers get the most out of the few plug‑ins that they were using, versus adding 10 plug‑ins and trying to figure out what to do with them.”


Brainworx’s bx_subsynth v2 was used to fill out the low end on the bass.Brainworx’s bx_subsynth v2 was used to fill out the low end on the bass.“The plug‑ins on the bass were also in part already there. I inserted the Brainworx bx_subsynth. I felt that the bass was lacking a little bit in the sub region, so I added some low‑end harmonics. I turned down the subharmonics knob from 50 to 40 and then set the 24‑36 Hz knob to 45 percent, and the 36‑56 Hz knob to 65 percent. Those numbers seem a little high, but the thing is that this plug‑in is based on the input level, which was low with the bass. Also, if you look on the left, the global mix is down to 51 percent. I also added the Waves RCompressor, which I side‑chained to the kick.

“All drums and percusion go to the All Drums bus, to which I added the SSL Native Drumstrip. The Drive in the Low Frequency Enhancer section is set to high, but the mix is set to very dry. It’s a similar situation with the High Frequency Enhancer, where there is some Drive added, but the Amount is really low. Overall, the plug‑in gave the drums some nice sheen on the high end, and a tiny little bit of poke for the kick drum around 150Hz, but it is not like a gigantic jump.

“There’s a huge difference between plug‑ins for production and plug‑ins for mixing. The Avid EQ3 7‑band on the Fender Rhodes, for instance, is set pretty drastic. That is a production thing. In a mix you would never add 5.9dB of a shelf from 1.29kHz all the way up. So the production team did that. I added a side‑chain using the Waves RCompressor, keyed to the kick, because this Rhodes has a lot of lower mids, which clashes with the upper part of the kick drum.

“All the instruments are sent to the All Music bus, to which I added the Brainworx bx_saturator v2, which is a Mid‑Sides saturation plug‑in. It gives a little bit of extra width, to whatever is going on in the music, primarily in the saturation. Again, only by a tiny bit. On the Pro‑Q 3 I am dipping mids, like 0.89Hz at 280Hz and 1dB at just above 6kHz. I’m clearing a tiny little bit of space for vocals to sit on top of the music.”

Mix Bus

“The mix bus is entirely mine. I add it fairly early when I am mixing, and it then evolves with the mix. When I put the plug‑ins on the mix bus, they are usually zeroed, and I then start to adjust them as necessary. I bring my mixes up to competitive level in terms of loudness with the mix bus, and I check that with the iZotope Insight on the master track. I don’t expect a mastering engineer to make my stuff louder. On the contrary, I ask them to keep it pretty similar.

“My mix bus chain starts with the UAD Neve 1073, which bumps up the volume, because I like to have a healthy signal going into my mastering bus. The Soundtheory Gulfoss is barely touching it, I have it on 4 percent. The API 2500 allows me to increase the level further without crunching anything. The Pultec EQP‑1A adds a dB of volume, and my final step is the iZotope Ozone 9 Maximizer. I also use the dynamic EQ in Ozone, to soften some frequencies that might be hitting the Maximizer too aggressively. It just helps me get more juice out of the Maximizer without things sounding squashed.

“Once I’m done, the mastering engineer can add value by having a perspective of the overall album, and to keep the cohesiveness of the songs, EQ‑wise. Sometimes they know how to give it a nice little warm hug. I have a couple of guys I really trust, and every time I send them something, it’s a bit better. It’s like a safety net. Also, file delivery to labels is very difficult, because of all the different platforms. You have to master for iTunes and Spotify and so on, and you have to encode it a certain way, and you have to be able to add IRC codes into all these files. Mastering engineers are doing a lot of that stuff. I’m sure their assistants are doing all that for them, and we’re thankful for that!”  

The Importance Of References

“What often happens is that people are on a wave, have worked for the whole day, and probably have not heard an outside song for hours, so they’re forgetting to reference,” says Leandro Hidalgo. And, once again, this experience as a producer helps inform his mixing process. “I do that all the time. During mixing I have Magic AB on my mix bus, and I go back and forth between songs. I play DJ. I close my eyes and put on songs that if I was a DJ, I’d play next to the song that I’m currently working on. When my song comes on, the energy should be better, and it needs to feel better. It needs to have a lift and be noticeably different.

“For this song my references were Dua Lipa’s ‘Levitating’, Drake’s ‘Controlla’, and J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Mr Eazi’s ‘Como Un Bebé’. The references help me recentre my mind when I’m deep in the mixes. I know all three songs very well and have heard them around the world in many different listening environments. I also often use DJ Khaled’s ‘Wild Thoughts’, Burna Boy’s ‘Anybody’ and my mix of Wizkid’s new song ‘Wow’.

Studio Dro

Leandro Hidalgo mixes at his private studio in Los Angeles. “I’m in the process of remodelling my studio, with acoustic panels being replaced and the floor and the roof being redone. With regards to gear, I’m all in the box, no outboard, though I have a [Sequential] Prophet X synth. I run a Hackintosh with Pro Tools, and have a [Apogee] Symphony I/O Mk2, the black one. I also have an old silver [Universal Audio] Apollo Twin, and a UAD‑2 Satellite, which I think is a 4, and my Twin is a 2, so I have six cards of DSP for UAD.

“Nine months ago I bought PMC 8‑2 monitors. I used to have the Focal Twin 6 Be monitors. It’s what I mixed Made In Lagos on. I did the Wizkid and all the Stormzy stuff on the PMCs. I never enjoyed listening to PMCs until their 8‑2 and 6‑2 monitors came out. They’re the new cool speakers to have now, but I have heard more exciting speakers, with more character. So they’re not the most fun speakers to listen to, but for me they are the best tool for the job. I like the way they make me work. The way they translate outside the room is perfect.”