By: Chris Ambrosi
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the brightest minds in the industry, Neal Pogue. If you haven’t heard this name before, then make sure you’re paying attention. In March, Neal Pogue made history by becoming the first African American mix engineer to win Best Dance Album for his work on Kaytranada’s album Bubba, claiming his 3rd Grammy win to date. This Grammy win comes a year after Neal won for his work on 2020’s Best Rap...
By: Chris Ambrosi
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the brightest minds in the industry, Neal Pogue. If you haven’t heard this name before, then make sure you’re paying attention. In March, Neal Pogue made history by becoming the first African American mix engineer to win Best Dance Album for his work on Kaytranada’s album Bubba, claiming his 3rd Grammy win to date. This Grammy win comes a year after Neal won for his work on 2020’s Best Rap Album: Igor by Tyler, the Creator. Apart from being a Grammy Award-Winning mixer/producer/engineer, Neal Pogue is no stranger to working with some of the best in the game: Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Tyler, The Creator, Outkast, Earth Wind & Fire, to name a few. With more releases on the way this year than ever before, now is the time to learn everything about Neal before he takes over the world!
How was it working with Kaytranada?
It was great, he’s such an easy-going guy, such a laid-back guy, he knows what he wants and if he wants something, he speaks up, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t say anything. He really left me room to do what I felt and if he had one little note that really mattered to him, he would say it. But I mean every song I mixed on that album wasn’t painstaking, it was easy, it was fun, I had a blast. Plus mixing songs that are really great, that just makes everything better. And to just have The Recording Academy and the voters putting that stamp on it; I thought that was great. That’s the reward man: for people to see how hard we worked on it and to just recognize the great songs.
Was this your first time working with Kaytranada?
Yeah, the first time! Since then, there’s another project we’ve been working on but it’s not out yet. He has been sitting on it for over a year now. But yeah he’s always working, he’s such a busy guy. He’s always doing his DJ gigs, or doing remixes for people so he’s always busy, so I understand that it takes a while to get projects done.
When you received “10%”, did you know it would become an instant hit?
I was hoping because it was such a good project. But there’s so much music out there and this album was his debut on a major label. And being that a major label picked him up I thought, “Okay that’s a great sign. Maybe that will mean they will put the marketing to it”. Because he has such a great underground following, it was time for him to, what I call, “come above ground”. In a bigger way because there are some people who didn’t know about him, and there were a lot of people surprisingly who did know about him. So I thought that was a great sign too - that he does have a pretty good fanbase, so putting him up on a bigger stage was I think…it was definitely time. So that being said, I was hoping that drew attention to all the great things he was doing.
Last year you won Best Rap Album for Igor with Tyler, the Creator, and then this year’s Best Dance/Electronic Album. What’s next? What should we be keeping our eyes on?
Yeah, it’s great, my very first Grammy was for mixing Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and then my second Grammy was for Igor, then my third and fourth Grammy is for Best Dance Album and Best Dance Single so now I’m like, okay that’s pretty cool. Three of my Grammy’s are for an album and one is for a single so I’m doing pretty good. And it feels good. And to be the first African American to win Best Dance Album is a great feeling too because normally when it comes to mixing, a lot of African American mixers are not in the dance field, so just being that is great. As far as Best Dance Single, I think I’m the second; the first is Jimmy Douglas. But for Best Dance Album, I’m the first, so that’s a good feeling.
Who have you not worked with that you would love to?
It’s so funny, right now, the one person that’s been on my mind that I would like to mix for is Alicia Keys. I don’t know why but for 2021 that’s been on my mind. I would really like to work with her because she hasn’t hit that pinnacle yet of that great album, even though she’s done some great, great work. But for some reason, I think she’s on her way to hitting that bullseye and I definitely want to be part of that. I think I saw this documentary on her late last year, and I just love the way she thinks, love the way she creates - I just think she hasn’t written that great album yet you know? Now she’s older and she’s on her way to creating something truly amazing. Man, I just want to work with her.
You went from a drummer to a producer to a mixing engineer. How do you think that musical path helped shape you and your sound?
Starting off in bands as a drummer, I was always being the producer in the band because I have always been creative and into how a song is arranged, and how things are made. I’ve always been that guy in the band. I think that led my path to where I am now. Even in the studio as a young teenager in New Jersey, we would go to little cheap 4 and 8-track studios that were like two towns away in Jersey and we’d go there and make our little demos. I was always the guy who was interested in the engineering aspect of it. After we’re done, I’m the guy that’s listening and looking at the engineer and how he does everything, and being intrigued by how things are mixed. I’ve always been that guy. Everybody else, they’ll go to the store after we’re done or they’ll go home, but I’m the guy that just sits there and really wants to see how it’s all done. Always been, with love, going into the studio and seeing how the mics were placed on the drums. I was that guy so that led me to my path here, not knowing that that would lead me to engineering. Because I always think like a producer, which I still am, but as far as the engineering side, I never thought about being an engineer really, it’s funny how that led me to where I am.
I moved out here to California in 1984 with another band member. We were a pop duo called The Bopsies, which we kind of modeled ourselves after Billy Joel and Hall and Oates. We were completely pop, I played drums and he was playing keys. And we’d add other guys in once we got in the studio, but as far as the actual band, it was just me and him. So we moved to California, and things didn’t work out how we saw it. And you know, looking for the record deal and all that didn’t work out. So he ended up moving back to New Jersey and I stayed in California because it had this magnetic energy so I had to say. So I said let me try going to engineering school, because I figured that would help me produce my own records, still not thinking about, “Oh I’m going to be an engineer and mixer”. I thought, “Let me go to engineering school, so I can learn how to engineer my own records as a producer”. But low and behold, God had a different plan for me. So I got out of engineering school, started interning at studios, and then finally got a job at a big studio called Larrabee Sound. I ended up working there for a couple of years, and then I got out on my own and started engineering first and mixing after.
But long story short, or short story long, it molded me into who I am now. Being a drummer, I’m the guy who keeps the pulse, tempo, and the groove locked in. But at the same time, I’m paying attention to what everyone is doing. I’m responsible for what the bass line is doing, the guitar, everyone. My brain is on them and sometimes the guitar player is in his own brain, and the keyboard player is in their own brain, so me and the bass player have to be locked in. So that definitely helped me get into mixing because I still think like a drummer, cause I’m listening to everything so I’m aware of what everything and everyone should be doing.
And then I was the kid that was in my bedroom with headphones on who was always listening to records. I would be reading the credits on the vinyl as I’m listening to all these records while listening to what the instrumentation is doing. I would listen to how things are panned, but still not aware that I’m going to be this engineer, but I’m listening to how things are sonically laid out. You know, I was listening to processing, listening to reverbs, echoes, and delays. Not knowing what this processing is, I didn’t know it was called reverb at the time, and I didn’t know it was called delay. I didn’t know about a phaser or flanger or any of that but I’m hearing these sounds and paying attention to them. So once I become a mixer years later, I fall right into place. I’m always thinking about the past too when I’m mixing records; I’m always thinking about the past. I’m not thinking about what people are doing currently, because to me everything from the past leads up to now. I’m always going back and bringing forward.
Nothing had a name before there was sound. You could go to a big canyon and you can yell and hear the reverberation, if you go into the bathroom you’ll hear a small slap. But we’re not thinking about that. Then you go to a bigger Grand Canyon and then you hear the echo. We’re not knowing what the terminology is but all those little things, if they stay in your head, they can mold you and you can apply that and become creative. And yes, it’s just a journey man, I think it’s great.
Do you find it useful to have fresh ears around you when mixing?
No, I really don’t. It’s me, myself, and I. A lot of guys nowadays have 1 or 2 assistants around them to bounce off of, or they’ll have a second guy that helps them mix. But no, it’s just me. Sometimes the process takes longer because it’s just me, but at the same time, it’s satisfying too.
Do you find yourself using analog or digital more?
I try to find a healthy balance. As far as analog, there are projects that have the proper budgets that I can go in and work on an analog board. Like Tyler and Kaytranada: they have the budgets where I can go in and work on the board, but then there are other projects where I can’t go in and have to stay home and mix in the box. But thank god I do come from the analog world, where I can come and apply that to the digital world so it doesn’t sound so digital. I still take the fundamentals of analog and apply that to my mixes, so I’m grateful for that.
Editing tape and editing a song down to a radio version - those are things I use to do back in the day. Songs from ’70s, 80’s, and 90’s…a lot of that is tape. All that you hear was edited with a razor blade and that’s a whole other art form that I miss; I use to love doing that. Once you mix a song down to two tracks, and if you need to edit it, you need to take the razor blade out, edit the tape, and if the hook is too long, cut it down. We didn’t have the luxury of having Pro Tools where you can sit there and edit inside of the waveforms.
If you weren’t a mix engineer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I don’t know man, I never had a B plan. This was it. Never had anything to fall back on, I don’t believe in falling back on things. I believe if you have a dream, do it. It doesn’t work out for a lot of people but that’s just me. I just love that A plan.
Are there any releases coming up that you are excited about?
A couple of new songs for Doja Cat, working on mixes for Baby Rose - doing an EP. Mixing for They, mixing an album for Baby Jake, finished an album for Leikeli47. Mixing an EP for Jelly. Just finished an album for The Marías. Mixing an album for a group called Black Star Kids, like a 21st-century new wave black punk group. Just got a call for Space Jam 2. Producing a song for Andra Day, who won a Golden Globe for the Billie Holiday story and she’s nominated for an Oscar. MJ Rodriguez, I produced and co-wrote a song with her; she was on the hit show called Pose.
Neal Pogue is an incredible Mixer/Producer/Engineer, but he's an even better human being. Click here to listen to Spotify, and here to go to Tidal, to listen to the playlist featuring Neal's best work!