LOS ANGELES, CA—“I love to be a little bit nervous about the next project,” says Grammy and Latin Grammy Award-winning engineer, mixer and producer Rafa Sardina. “People ask, wouldn’t you be more comfortable just mixing the pop stuff? Sure, but that’s not why I got into this.”
Variety is what keeps things interesting for Sardina: “You start challenging your mindset of how you do things. It helps you stretch creatively, and not ever preconceive anything.”
He began to realize that he enjoyed facing new challenges while in the middle of studying medicine in his native Spain. “I pictured myself doing the same thing over and over again,” he says. He’d had his first studio experience at age 15, when his band recorded an album. “Music was my dream,” he says, and so he dropped out.
Sardina, who has operated out of his Los Angeles area home-based After Hours Studios for over a decade, also working at studios around the world, has an eclectic client list: Beyonce, Elvis Costello & The Roots. Michael Jackson, Rodrigo Y Roots, Michael Jackson, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Placido Domingo, Celine Dion, Harry Connick Jr., Josh Groban, Mariah Carey, Shakira, Dr. Dre and on and on. He has garnered 12 Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards from over 35 nominations in recognition of his work with Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Luis Miguel, Clare Fischer Big Band, Illya Kuriaki The Valderramas and Alejandro Sanz.
By the time you read this, he may well have picked up more awards, having recently been nominated for five Latin Grammys, which will be given out on November 17, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for a project with Diego Torres. “I’m most happy about Producer of the Year,” he says, “because it was for an array of different projects, from Latin to flamenco to an opera I produced.”
Almost every day brings a new project in a different genre. “I’m finishing another opera with Placido Domingo. I just finished mixing a big Christmas special with a big band, with Jordan Smith. I went from mixing that to a rock project. Yesterday, I mixed a pop tune; next I’m working on a Latin artist, Alejandro Fernandez.”
At After Hours, a 48-fader SSL Duality mixing console manages Sardina’s hybrid analog/digital workflow, which combines menus of plug-ins with a wall of racked and stacked outboard processing equipment. But when he installed the Duality several years ago, it changed the acoustic balance of the room.
“The room was really, really great when it was conceived. We were happily surprised. I had a much smaller console and half of the gear, but it kept growing,” he says. The bigger desk and the racks of gear forced Sardina to move from the room’s ideal listening position, so he recently called on Hanson Hsu, principal at Delta H Design, to consult on acoustic treatment and the ideal juxtaposition of console, monitors and gear.
“I told him about the issues that I was having and how I wanted to resolve them. I told him about the idea of moving the console forward,” says Sardina, who reports that Hsu brought in some of his ZR Acoustics products, which employ what the company describes as quantum technology.
“I don’t know what the science is behind it,” he says, “but there is nothing like trying it. We just did it temporarily, putting them in, taking them out, then taking only one side out, and it was a real eye opener. The difference was quite dramatic.” The treatments are currently being given a custom finish and will be permanently installed soon, he says.
His mix setup offers him the flexibility demanded by the constant flow of different projects. “In terms of patching, certain things appear in specific places. I have channels where I have a set of compressors or EQs on the SSL, but I also have something else—maybe one is in the insert but the other is in the line input, and I can bypass or patch it out. That simplifies the process.”
Without having options already wired and ready to be selected, he continues, it would be too complicated to jump from one project to the next: “Especially because these days, I do so many recalls.”
On the hardware side, Sardina favors a variety of outboard devices. “I like the InnerTUBE Audio stuff; their compressors are so musical. I love the Avedis Audio stuff so much, the preamps and the EQ, the A27 and the A15. The preset curves that the EQs have are super musical.”
But among his absolute favorites is the Klein + Hummel UE-100 from the 1960s—a beefy box full of tubes that offers four bands of EQ and filtering. He has 10 of them, but with the Plugin Alliance’s recent release of Lindell Audio’s emulation, the TE-100, he is considering letting some go.
“I use lots of plug-ins,” he reports. “I love the IZotope stuff. There new Neutron is very creative. I’m already finding uses for it that have to do with how you place things in the stereo mix and in the distance, but based on doing automation in one instrument so it affects the perception of another. It’s sort of like sidechaining and keying the EQ of another instrument based on something else. I’ve been experimenting with it and it’s a new open window.”
Delta H Design