Unless you’re a studio rat or music biz insider, you may not know Phil Tan’s name. But if you’re reading this magazine, you’re almost certainly familiar with the three-time Grammy Award-winning audio engineer’s work on albums such as Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi (Best Contemporary R&B Album, 2005), Ludacris‘ Release Therapy (Best Rap Album, 2006) and Rihanna‘s Only Girl (In the World) (Best Dance Recording, 2010).
Born in Malaysia, Tan has been a fixture on the Atlanta music scene for more than 20 years now, working alongside production titans such as Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, Organized Noize, L.A. Reid and Babyface during the urban music boom of the ’90s. He’s either mixed or recorded 25 singles that have reached #1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 chart (including Usher’s “Confessions Part II,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love and Katy Perry’s “Firework”), and 27 more that have reached #1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. All told, as an engineer, mixer, producer or remixer, Tan’s work has sold over 250 million records.
Like a lot of industry veterans, Tan is concerned about the music business, and in particular the way producers such as Austin and Butch Walker have had to move to L.A. to make a decent living in recent years. We recently sat down with him for an in-depth conversation on the evolution of the Atlanta music scene, and his ideas for reinvigorating it.
Tell me a little bit about your early interest in music.
As a music fan, I got really interested when I was in middle school. I was born and raised in Malaysia, and the arts there weren’t viewed as a viable career option. Developing countries tend to focus more on the sciences. Probably around ’84 or ’85, when I was 15 or so, is when I started taking it a bit more seriously.
What artists were inspiring to you at that time in your life?
Prince was a big one. He was incredibly creative, mixing all the different styles into something original. You hear hints of James Brown and Hendrix, but he really made it into something all his own. Today, with so much music being done with computers and trickery, you don’t always get that sense of the artistry behind records being made. Back then, it wasn’t all about the technical side of things. Even though I make my living on this side of the grass, it is still always about the performance for me.
Tell me about going to Full Sail University and what that experience did for your career?
You have to try to get into a studio, because nobody is going to hire you on the street. You need to have somebody say, “This guy has been through our program: He may be all right.” That’s really what it comes down to. At the time, Full Sail was such a small school. There were only two or three groups of classes. It was good for me in terms of making connections, but at the same time I think I learned more the first week after I left than I did while I was there. Still, I’m grateful for the experience I had.
You broke into the industry in the early ’90s, before Atlanta exploded on the urban music map. What was the business like when you first got started?
At the time, I think it was all new to everybody. At Downscape, the studio where I was interning, there were only four people on staff. Most of the sessions for R&B and urban music happened in the evenings. That’s where I met a lot of the people I still work with today, like Jermaine, L.A. Reid, Babyface, Dallas Austin, Outkast and Organized Noize. We all kind of grew up together.
Did you realize at the time that you were crafting a sound that would revolutionize the industry?
No, I think we were all just trying to find our own places in the universe. A lot of those records came about more collaboratively than the records we do today. There was a lot less, “Here’s your cameo and here’s my cameo, but we don’t really do a whole lot of stuff together unless there’s $20,000 on the table.” Everybody just hung out with each other. The facilities where we recorded had two big rooms and a smaller writing space, and there was always something happening in all of those rooms. LaFace Records had those two rooms blocked out for a long time, doing the Boomerang soundtrack, the first TLC album and the After 7 album all at the same time. We’d be hanging out one afternoon with TLC, then Dallas and Johnny Gill would show up. It was a very happy fun time, because everybody just hung out with everybody else.
How did working with Jermaine Dupri help your career blossom?
Jermaine is the biggest reason why I stayed in Atlanta and why I have a career in music. He was a client at Soundscape Studios, where I was an assistant. We met and hit it off. He was asked to do a remix for TLC, and apparently he had had some sessions with other engineers where it didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. I told him, “Look, I’m a young guy and there’s no pretense here, but give me a shot! I’ll do it for free and we’ll go from there.” We did that and two days later the track was on the radio. He had a massive hit with Kris Kross after that. His dad, who then got hired as Vice President of Urban Music at Columbia, was also his manager. He negotiated a production deal, and eventually it became a joint venture with So So Def.
Why do you and Jermaine work so well together?
Jermaine is different from most producers in that he values consistency. A lot of producers will hire whoever is available when they want to work. But he asked me if I would be interested in being “that guy” for him, and of course I said yes. We’d work 16 to 18 hours almost every day: I’d get up and go to the studio to mix, and he’d go do office stuff. After he was done, he’d show up at the studio, listen and tweak, then leave to start a recording session. After I got done, I’d go to his house– where his studio was– and we’d record all night. That went on for about five years.
How did the corporate domination of the music business around the turn of the century impact your business?
I think it impacts everybody all across the business because the budgets became different. There seemed to be more people doing the same thing that we’re doing. Record labels had more choices. A lot of it has to do with technology. With that happening we had to be more careful in how we went about what we did.
What impact did the digitalization of the field have on recording, engineering and producing?
There are good and bad things about it. On the one hand, a lot of tasks that once took a long time now don’t take very long at all. The flip side is that a lot of the people who are stewards of our industry don’t necessarily understand the technical side, and have started to devalue the people [who] make records. They have this view that engineers and producers are interchangeable: “We’ll just get someone who did something similar who will cost less money, a kid just out of school with a laptop who will give us the track for $1,500.” I don’t think they give a lot of credit to music lovers in terms of their sophistication. I think part of why music sales have gone down over the years is because of the quality of music. There is plenty of good music—I’m not trying to bash the fact that people don’t know how to make records, because in a lot of ways they make way more interesting records now than they ever did before. It’s just a lot harder to find it. The quality control filters aren’t in place like they used to be.
How do you stay ahead of the curve when the industry is so constantly changing?
I don’t actually know! I know that sounds stupid, but I just keep doing what I do. I wish I was different—I wish I was a little more set in my ways—but everything is a case-by-case thing for me. A lot of times when you have a hit record, people will come to you and ask you specifically to give them that hit record again. You have to explain to them that it doesn’t work that way. Their song is in a different key, with a different tempo and a different arrangement. I can’t use that same EQ setting on your vocal track that I did for Mariah Carey. I have to specifically address your song. The weird thing about it is that how I address the song would be completely different from the next guy. It just can’t be a set way every time. It’s a constant evolution because of technology. Technology companies have to eat too, so in order to do that they have to continue to make better products. But the end user is the king, and if they don’t like something they will let you know. The new version of ProTools has something called Clip Gain, and it’s been made into this big deal when other music software has had it for years. When I work with European clients who are using different forms of software, they will send me tracks that ProTools can’t handle, so I have to adapt.
How would you say the local music industry has changed over the past 20 years that you’ve been working in it?
The level of collaboration between different camps has gone down significantly. The budgets have also gone down significantly and, as a result, a lot of the studios have started to disappear, which is sad to me. The state of Georgia, from an economic point of view, hasn’t done a whole lot to try to keep a lot of our recording artists here. As soon as they make a name for themselves, they move away. You have to go where the work is. I’ve been stubborn, I guess. Fortunately for me, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
What would you like to see happen over the next 20 years to make the state of the Georgia music industry stronger?
Some sort of stimulus package would be good. Georgia Music Partners have gotten an OK from the state for a 20-30% tax credit for music-related projects, but the problem with that is that the number is set at half a million dollars. Very few recording projects spend a half a million dollars anymore, unless you are a major superstar act. The majority of records being made today are budgeted at less than $100,000, so none of these people will ever qualify for the tax credit.
So you’d like to see a tax credit for smaller projects?
Something! Studio owners and other local music-related businesses need to be able to get a little help if they need it. If you have a studio, it’s hard to keep it open if you can’t keep it booked. Paul at Tree Sound Studios is considering moving to Louisiana because they would allow him a tax credit there. R.E.M. is disbanded now, but their last album was recorded in Louisiana for that reason. Yes, they’re all rich, but they’re still businessmen looking at their bottom line. It made sense for them to go there. So some sort of tax credit would definitely be a big step forward.