The advent of digital recording and mixing technology has brought with it a wave of casual tinkerers hoping to cash in on a profession that the general public tends to see as nothing more than a cushy desk job. As the entertainment equivalent of Vatican City, a media hub like LA attracts all kinds of amateur producers, all of them with DJ sets this coming Thursday, and, of course, you’ve already been invited to all of them…
But professionals and purists in the worlds of music and film can tell the difference immediately, picking and choosing highly-skilled producers who have their own voice and who are more than capable of adapting their skills to any number of genres and projects.
The winds of professionalism blow fierce, but Fred Oliveira stands upright among these chosen few, a master producer with credits on some of the biggest movies of the last few years. He was kind enough to pull away from the mixing console long enough to have a chat, the both of us eager to discuss his illustrious career and get into some of the nitty gritty details of production in the modern age.
It’s a profession that simultaneously involves both technical and theoretical aspects. It requires an in-depth knowledge of sound and music, even down to the physics, as well as what role each of them play within movies. Fred had plenty to say on the nuanced differences between mixing for music versus mixing for film.
“These are certainly different things. While working on a record, I sometimes feel it is part of my job to add texture and depth to the music so that it can create a picture in the listener’s mind. I get to be creative with reverb, delay, distortion, and the placement of certain elements across the stereo field, so that it can create moments that are surprising and exciting. A movie already presents this image to the viewer, so it’s important to remember that often, the picture takes precedence over the audio. Audio and video should not compete but complement one another. If an element is moving on the screen from left to right, a car going by, for example, its sound has to follow it. There are times when things sound purposely out of place to create contradiction or highlight an underlying mood, but usually the sound serves the picture. My job is to support it, make it believable and enhance the image with sound.”
While speaking with Fred, it was clear that he knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s the feeling you get when you meet an honest mechanic who knows exactly what’s wrong with the car just by looking at it. And it makes perfect sense given Fred’s background. He has worked with multiple musical artists in incredibly varied genres, which has helped him to develop a unique approach for each project, making sure to enhance the artist’s vision, and not stifle it with show-offy slider moves and effects.
“I’ve met musicians from so many different countries and backgrounds, but sure enough, we have always found common ground. In many ways, I’ve felt closer to them than to people I’ve known for a long time. In the end, it really comes down to letting the artist do what they do best, making them feel comfortable and making sure creativity is not interrupted but encouraged. Sometimes you simply shine a light on something they’ve been overlooking, like a transition from a verse to a chorus in a song, you point it out or offer a suggestion, and suddenly they’re looking at it from a new perspective and the puzzle is solved.”
In 2016, Fred was presented with a special challenge: mixing the music for the Oscar-nominated musical La La Land, which earned 14 Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Original Score (which it won), Best Original Song (which it won), as well as nominations for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. Its director, Damien Chazelle, is well known for making music an extremely important aspect in his films, not only with La La Land, but also his 2014 hit Whiplash, which told the story of a frighteningly ambitious jazz drummer.
Staying busy is important to Fred, and his work ethic is obvious, even to an outsider like me. He’s always trying to improve– the mark of a true professional.
“Learning is a constant. Every single project I have worked on this far has given me the chance to learn something new. Perhaps the most difficult one was the very first film I ever mixed, because it had a very tight deadline. It has become evident that being competent in my craft is crucial, but, ultimately, understanding what is expected of me is the most important thing. It keeps me from spending time on unnecessary tasks and focuses my attention on what the client deems important.”
Now comes the point in the article where I admit to you, my dear reader, that I, myself, am a wannabe audiophile. I have spent countless hours researching everything from top-of-the-line DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) to hardware mixing consoles to USB audio interfaces to Eastern European expression control surfaces that look like pieces of modern art.
It’s a very interesting time for audio production, and if you take a look at any of the corresponding forums for any length of time, you’ll notice a singular, recurring argument that promises to rage on for the foreseeable: analog versus digital. I couldn’t help but ask Fred whether he had a personal preference.
“That is the topic most engineers I know could spend hours elaborating on. For me, the short answer is yes, I have a preference but that preference is dictated by the job. If I need to be mobile, be able to record and mix at different locations, in different countries, then I choose digital. If I anticipate the need to do mix revisions in very little time, or if I’m collaborating with someone who is not always in the same room, digital is also the way to go. However, If I have enough time allocated to start and finish a project in the same studio, if the end goal is to be unique, and if I get the luxury of spending a few hours tweaking knobs, then analog is my preference. My current rig is a mixture of a few analog pieces and a whole arsenal of digital tools. I have gotten comfortable with editing in the digital domain and prefer to do so using a computer as opposed to slicing analog tape. If I were to ignore the particularities of each job, I think the fidelity of analog-to-digital (and digital-to-analog) conversion has improved so much that, in my mind, leaning to either side is now a matter of flavor and tonal characteristics, but not a matter of quality.”
And when producers spend so much time working intently with hardware and software to help bring someone else’s ideas to the forefront, it can sometimes prove difficult to effectively collaborate with the many other people who have a say in where the piece goes and what it will end up looking like. But Fred has learned the secret: to maintain open lanes of communication at all times.
“I’m always reading and trying out something different when I’m recording or mixing. But in truth, it seems that being able to converse well and create a rapport with [the artist] is what’s been truly essential. Creative individuals tend to be protective of their art and what it stands for, so once they realize I’m of the same mind and my goal is to help them capture this essence and make it available to other people, we become a team. Listening to the artist is very important, and by simply doing that, encouraging them to express their ideas, they will also become interested in what I can bring to the table.”
Normally I would recommend going out of your way to take a listen to the featured artist’s work, but chances are you’ve already heard his work and know how expertly he handles a soundtrack. And if you’re the type who respects such intricate artistry, such finesse, the only thing to do now is to dig in even deeper and enjoy the range of his talent. Because Fred is far from a one-trick pony. In fact, he’s a chameleon. And those two aren’t even in the same genus.