The music industry today has evolved far beyond the limits of yesteryears, adapting to technological advancements and changes in listener habits. It is a dynamic landscape where talent, innovation, and business acumen intersect. The modern industry is driven by digital platforms, streaming services, and social media, influencing the way music is created, distributed, and consumed.
Despite the challenges brought about by these changes, the industry’s relevance and influence remain undiminished. It continues to be a powerful medium for artistic expression, cultural representation, and commercial success. Amid this vibrant backdrop, individuals with unique skills and vision are shaping the future of music. One such visionary is Yilun Zhang.
Yilun “Jason” Zhang, professionally known as H.A.O., is a beacon of modern musicianship. He is a remarkable recording engineer whose achievements in the music industry have left a lasting impact. He has worked on various projects with different artists and producers, contributing his expertise and attention to detail to ensure the success of each project. One of his most notable works is his contribution to the hit song “Already Best Friend” by Jack Harlow featuring Chris Brown.
As a recording engineer, Zhang worked closely with Grammy-winning, multi-diamond producer Larrance Dopson, ensuring that the song’s recording process was smooth and efficient. His contribution to the song’s sound quality was invaluable, resulting in its impressive success with 153 million plays on Spotify and 28 million views on YouTube.
Mr. Zhang’s expertise as a recording engineer has also been showcased in his work on Penny Eau’s single “Password: Temptation,” which was performed on BBC Radio Merseyside. His attention to detail in the recording process ensured that the sound quality was top-notch, making it a memorable performance for the audience.
His outstanding achievements also include the legendary Isley Brothers’ latest album “Make Me Say It Again Girl.” Mr. Zhang was involved in the album’s writing and recording process from start to finish. He recorded on tracks #2, #3, and #9 and played a crucial role in creating the album’s high-quality sound. The music video for “The Plug” has 6.6 million views on YouTube, and the album reached #1 on the Billboard Adult R&B Airplay chart for three weeks, demonstrating its chart-topping success. Mr. Zhang’s work on “Make Me Say It Again Girl” showcases his expertise as a recording engineer and producer, leaving an indelible mark on the music industry.
In the music industry, Mr. Zhang’s achievements as a recording engineer cannot be understated. His dedication to his craft has made him a sought-after recording engineer and producer, contributing to the success of various chart-topping hits. Mr. Zhang’s work is a testament to the importance of having skilled recording engineers in the music industry, ensuring that the quality of music produced remains high.
We had the privilege of delving deeper into Zhang’s sophisticated engineering style through an enlightening interview. The conversation underscored his philosophy in the technical aspects of music production. It also illuminated his unique approach to problem-solving and his readiness to break with convention in service of the music.
How do you approach the process of creating a sophisticated and polished sound in your engineering work, and what techniques do you use to achieve that sound?
Firstly, I will begin by identifying the problem. Whether it’s excessively sharp, overly bright, requires more reverb, etc., the issue needs to be pinpointed. Next, I will choose the appropriate tool. Different tools possess distinct characteristics, so it’s crucial to know which tool will adequately address the problem. For instance, a tube compressor sounds different from an optical compressor. If a fast compressor is what you’re after, an optical compressor might not deliver based on my experience.
At this stage, the process isn’t so much about attaining the sound but understanding the sound internally. Once that’s accomplished, I can sift through my bag of tricks for a solution. A common mistake among new engineers is to use audio effects for the sake of flaunting a certain gear. I’m staunchly against this approach. It gives the impression that the song is serving the gear, instead of the other way around, which shouldn’t be the case.
Can you discuss a time when you used a unique or unconventional technique to achieve a specific sound in your engineering work?
The most extraordinary recording session we undertook involved drum recording. Using a secondary kick drum, absent of a drum head, against the main kick drum (forming a sort of tunnel) is a traditional method of lending a sense of space and punch to the drums. However, we took this technique to another level. We lined up five kick drums and placed a microphone between each pair. The result was an ultra-low and vibrant kick sound that took us all by surprise.
Unfortunately, the outcome was too muddy. It didn’t fit seamlessly into the song, but we did manage to incorporate it into one of the bridge sections as an auditory treat. It’s moments like these that made me fall head over heels for engineering.
How do you balance the technical precision required for engineering with the emotional expression and artistry of the music you’re working on, and how has your experience living in Beijing and Los Angeles influenced your music and production style?
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion of being “technically correct” in engineering. The technical aspect should always be in service to the song. Aside from overloading the digital interface, there isn’t a definitive wrong technique as long as the outcome is exceptional. A subpar recording environment can still yield a fantastic song if the performance is spot on. I believe our job as engineers is to capture the moment in its most superior form, not necessarily adhering to conventional methods.
Being exposed to different types of music from Los Angeles and Beijing truly broadened my perspective, allowing me to appreciate a wider variety of musical styles.
What role does attention to detail play in your engineering work, and how do you ensure that every aspect of a recording is polished and refined?
Paying attention to detail is a quality that can sustain your career, and there’s no secret formula for it. It merely requires mental strength. Maintaining focus at all times is crucial, as is being organized. This way, you establish a system that helps keep your focus while also providing a sense of how far along you are in a project.
One strategy I use to stay focused is the ‘save session’ key command. Every few minutes, I’ll hit “Command + S” as a way to check in with myself. Upon wrapping up a session, I’ll listen to the final product from start to finish. I’ll check for the edits or adjustments I made when I began the session, such as basic EQ and fades.
How do you use automation and other techniques to create a dynamic and engaging sound in your engineering work?
To be entirely honest, I don’t utilize automation extensively in the engineering process. These days, computers have the power to handle hundreds of tracks. If I want to change the setting in a plugin, I will place it on a different channel for peace of mind, so I don’t have to remember there’s another automation layer in the track. Certain production tricks require automation, such as filter sweeps or reverb swells, but these can be executed during the production process. In short, automation isn’t a necessity in today’s world to achieve a dynamic and engaging sound.
Can you discuss a specific project where you focused on creating a particular mood or atmosphere through your engineering work, and how did you achieve that effect?
I recall a session where the artist was a hardcore Fleetwood Mac fan. We used their song “Dreams” as our reference to create a similar vibe for the artist’s new song. We sought a loose, easy, yet full sound. Upon researching the gear Fleetwood Mac used for that song, we found they used a lot of vintage equipment, which was modern for their time.
We made use of as much vintage gear as possible, fortunate to be in a large studio stocked with all sorts of old treasures. Since we were aiming for a warm and smooth feel, we avoided fast-responding gear like FET compressors and ran all tracks through a tape machine to infuse more of a vintage feel.
Achieving a specific feel involves trial and error. It requires testing all the options at your disposal. As long as you have a clear idea of the desired sound, there’s a way to accomplish it.
How do you use EQ, compression, and other tools to achieve a balanced and cohesive sound in your engineering work?
In my engineering work, the key goal is to achieve a balanced and cohesive sound. I employ tools like EQ, compression, reverb, and delay to shape the individual elements of a mix, fostering harmony. EQ allows me to carve out the frequency spectrum, boosting or cutting specific frequencies to allocate each element its unique space. Compression helps control dynamic range, guaranteeing a consistent and refined sound. Reverb imparts depth and a sense of space, while delay contributes dimension and motion.
Achieving balance and cohesion demands attentive listening, experimentation, and a firm grasp of the artist’s vision. Collaborating with artists is a crucial part of my process. It helps me comprehend their objectives and emotions, ensuring the mix aligns seamlessly with their vision.
Through accumulated experience and ongoing learning, I’ve honed a versatile skill set and acquired an understanding of various genres. Each project I undertake presents a new opportunity for growth and learning.
What advice would you give to aspiring engineers who want to develop a sophisticated and polished engineering style, and what skills and techniques should they focus on developing?
Maintain your curiosity at all times. In engineering, there aren’t many rigid techniques; what’s required is patience, attention to detail, and a wealth of experience. The first two come naturally, while the third requires consistent effort.
Always strive to try new things and learn new techniques. This approach not only enhances your expertise but also prolongs your career in this industry. By fostering a mindset of continuous learning, you can keep your skills and knowledge fresh and relevant.