On August 8th, 2013, DJ Swivel participated in an online Q&A brought to you by Full Sail University. Swivel spent nearly three hours answering many of the 350 questions posed.
We weren’t kidding when we said you could ask Full Sail Recording Arts grad Jordan “DJ Swivel” Young anything, and hundreds of Facebook users did just that last Thursday afternoon, asking the GRAMMY-winning engineer (who’s recently worked with Jay Z and is Beyonce’s personal audio engineer) everything from “How can I find internships?” to “Is Jay Z really a member of the Illuminati?” Jokes aside (which he had a little fun with), DJ Swivel shared some great advice for aspiring producers, mixers, and engineers. Check out some highlights from the chat below; all of the questions he answered can be found in the DJ Swivel Facebook Chat thread on Full Sail University’s Facebook page.
Q: How did you get started in the industry?
A: My first major internship that I credit to everything was with Duro. Duro is an incredibly talented mixer, and also runs Desert Storm Records (Fabolous). He had a private studio, and I learned of the internship through Full Sail’s placement department. Sent a resume, nailed an interview, and multiple 100 hour weeks unpaid led me to where I am now.
Q: What is your advice on networking in the industry, or any industry for that matter? What is the best way to network without seeming like a fan? How do you network with someone you want to eventually work with?
A: In my experience, it all came from previous work. You work with one client, maybe their manager likes you and has another client, etc. Sort of a snowball effect. When you’re in the studio, not every moment is spent recording or mixing. Many times clients just want to hang out. Sometimes they ask about what you do, how long you’ve been doing it, etc. Those are the moments when you get to have a real conversation and slowly build the rapport. I’ve always tried my hardest to not come off as a fan, even though I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of my favorite artists. I almost never take photos or anything like that. (Regrettably sometimes.)
Q: What is your tip for how to get the opportunity to work on remixes for major artists?
A: In MOST cases (not all), the artist is not usually very involved in the remix process, other than a yes or no when they all come in. Usually remixes are created for the radio/promo staff who may want to push their current single to another radio format that the original doesn’t work for. Sometimes this breathes new life into a record. The spins from the remix count towards to spins of the original, so it helps with chart placement, etc. Having said that, the way to get in on the remix side of things is through the A&R’s/Marketing staff at the record labels.
Q: How did you get the job to work for Jay Z? Was it difficult?
A: Honestly, through Beyonce. I started working for her first (though I had worked with Jay in the past through my assisting of Duro). But to be able to engineer my own Jay Z session, I give all credit to Beyonce for recommending me!
Q: How is the environment in a professional studio setting with a client like Jay Z? As a fan of his work I know that he is known to record his main vocals in one take, so how long did it take him to come up with lyrics in his head and deliver them?
A: For his verse on [Rihanna’s] “Talk That Talk,” I remember we were watching college basketball in the studio, with the game on mute, and the beat just looping. He spent maybe 45 mins just nodding his head, then just got up and said “I’m ready” and went in and cut the verse. 2 takes. Then he came out, listened a few times, and went back in to change some of the lyrics. Then we added a biggie sample as an ad-lib and called it a night.
Q: I’m an international student at Full Sail, and I’m planning on finding an internship after I graduate. I know that most of the internships available for recording arts are unpaid. How do you survive during these times, financially and mentally?
A: I was fortunate enough to have a very supportive mother. But I also understand that’s not always an option, so I would say do the best you can. If you need a part time job as a bartender to cover your expenses while you spend the rest of your time in the studio, then you’ll do it for the benefit of your career. I’ve told this story before, but my first week, I worked over 120 hours. If you add that up, it’s 3 full time jobs. So maybe a 30-hour per week paid job, and 70 hours a week at the studio is doable, and you’re still getting 20 hours of sleep more than I was! Prioritize what’s important. For me my social life was low on the list the first 5 years.
Q: Did your networking during college help you get to the point you are now?
A: I do still have some relationships I developed from college. Though, the biggest help was from Full Sail quite honestly. The internship that I credit to my success (Duro), I learned of through Full Sail’s placement program. So definitely take the time to meet with your placement advisors, it can help.
Q: Is there a way I can intern with you? And if not, who do you recommend for internships?
A: For me, my focus has broadened so it’s no longer just engineering, there’s other business ventures, production etc. Which means I don’t feel as though I’d be able to give an intern the proper time/training at the moment. Though I am working on a few projects, one of which I will certainly notify placement at Full Sail if/when interns are needed. In the mean time, move to NYC/LA/Nashville/Atlanta and call or email every single studio telling them you love the idea of working for free for as long as necessary. Studios always need interns. If they’re saying no, try again in 3 months.
Q: What was your motivation while attending Full Sail? How do you stay strong, motivated, and encouraged?
A: I was never a homebody. I couldn’t wait to start my career. So being homesick was not quite an issue for me. I had one focus, and that was success. To the point that one of our large group projects at Full Sail that required help from 7 other group members, I took control and basically ended up doing the entire thing myself. LOL. I wanted things to be perfect. That’s the work ethic needed for a career like this.
Q: When mixing vocals, how do you usually approach them? Do you adjust the mix for the vocals or do you adjust the vocals for the mix? Or does it all depend on genre?
A: I always start vocals last, unless it’s some sort of acoustic ballad or something. Usually I try to get the beat right, and create space for a vocal, then once I add the vocal I’ll make necessary adjustments to the vocal EQ/FX wise to sit in the mix. In most cases the vocal recording is the worst part of a mix. Lots of home studios create this environment for non-engineers to be cutting vocals, which more often than not results in bad vocals. So I need to make them fit as opposed to the other way around.
Q: How much influence has the artist you’ve worked with had on you? And vice versa.
A: Every client I’ve worked with has helped shape my skills, abilities, and even further than that, my outlook on things. I’ve had really eye opening conversations with Bey, or Fab, or been in the room and listened to Kanye’s thoughts on something. Seeing the purpose behind the action starts to give clarity, and a different perspective on life. But, none of this is any different than the perspective anyone else gains from meeting new people, experiencing new things, etc. It all helps mold you as a person.
Q: If you’re a songwriter, what’s the best way to get your work tape in the hands of the right people so artists like Rihanna and Lana del Ray can sing them?
A: Try to connect with producers who are working with those artists. You’d be surprised at how far Twitter will take you. I have a meeting later today with a prominent person in music, all from a message on Twitter. Being in the same city as these producers, working in the same studios, people will start to recognize your face, and recognize what you’re doing there.
Q: How can I send you tracks and do you ever listen to incoming inquiries?
A: Yes I do, I prefer streamable links on twitter. @djswivel
Q: What was your most memorable moment as an engineer/producer?
A: I had the opportunity to do a bit of traveling with Beyonce, to UK and Australia. In the UK we recorded at Real World Studios (Peter Gabriel’s studio), up near a town called Bath. Our first night, we had a huge dinner with everyone on the trip (Jay and Kanye were working on Watch The Throne), and the studio put on a private fireworks display set to music. Will never forget that.
Q: What is your personal definition of success? Would you define it by the type of artists you work with or that you’re happy and fulfilled at the end of each day?
A: To me success is happiness. So as long as I love what I’m doing, being productive, and not harming anyone else, I’m successful. That’s not to say there aren’t ups and downs, but my overall feeling is that I love what I do.