Critical listening and constant communication – the keys to successful mix & mastering

Jong-Pil Gu shares his views on immersive audio and the art of collaboration in song engineering 

Seoul, South Korea – The “rise and rise” of K-Pop globally continues. Not only are the stage show presentations punchy and precise, but so too the soundtracks, mixed/mastered with acute attention to detail and emotion. Amphion’s South Korean partner, Gearlounge, as well as having its own studio production suite, has a network of leading engineers they supply too, and kindly introduced Amphion to an award-winning professional in the industry – Jong-Pil Gu. His philosophy focuses on the primacy “listening” – not only via the “right gear”, but equally-important, the process of “creative-collaboration” between the artist’s, producer’s, and engineer’s vision of the song. 

Jong-Pil Gu: Born in Seoul, South Korea, and now with more than 21-years in the industry, can we ask you to look back and tell us of some of your achievements, highlights, and influencers in this time …

Since 2009, I had worked for SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s largest entertainment companies, as a recording and mixing engineer for ten years. Then I established my own studio – though I have kept my ties with SM Entertainment, and recently worked on megastar BoA’s Japan release of “Every Heart”. All fellow engineers that work in the industry are my mentors. (I hold high-regard for whoever can work in the industry under their own name and have a long career.) Lee Jae-Hoon, who’s currently working at Baekseok University as a professor, taught me the fundamentals and professionalism needed to be an engineer. In 2020 and 2021, I was fortunate to win Best Engineer of the Year from MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards).

Klang Studio: When did you establish your own studio, and what made you decide to go independent ? What is Klang Studio’s core equipment list and types of music genres you work with ? 

I launched Klang Studio back in September 2019. I believe it was the obvious next step and challenge for an engineer. I use Amphion Two18, + BaseTwo25, Protools HD, API 8200+7400 Summing Mixer, Dangerous Music Compressor, Lavry AD122-95 Mk3, and more. Although I mainly work with K-Pop music, I occasionally work with Hip-Hop and R&B musicians, and have previously worked on several songs which ended up in TV series. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to work on a film/tv soundtrack for yet, I hope to venture into that area in the future. 

Digital Jump: The move from analogue to digital recording saw the rise of Project + Bedroom studios. Artists/engineers could record in homes or in a special space – rather than a commercial studio. How do you view these changes ? What’s Klang Studio’s “special point/s” ? 

I think it was only natural. Now that creating music is more accessible, there is better potential for even more creative and innovative sounds. I can’t wait to hear what the future holds for music.Klang Studio has a precise monitoring set-up to provide the perfect listening experience for all types of new sounds. And also, we have a large variety of plug-ins.  

Immersive Audio: Spatial Audio + Dolby Atmos was the “big news” in June 2021. Described as the “next generation” in music consumption, what’s your opinion of this format ? Do you see engineers and studios rapidly taking this up ? What do you see as its merits or challenges ? 

It intrigued me. I think it will be a new challenge for engineers. As a fraternity, we enjoy discussing and sharing new information and the implementation and usage of spatial audio in a listener’s daily life. One of its many merits is that new technology provides an endless amount of creativity. Also, producers and sound designers can trial several different ideas in search of the perfect balance. A possible downside is that spatial audio does not directly lead to the listener’s capabilities to focus on music better. It’s cool, but in most cases, there is often no follow-through with new technology, so I hope for something that can heighten the listening experience.  

Artist & Producer & Engineer Synergy: Tell us a little about your method for working with clients ie. how you run the studio-sessions with them. Do you have a process for drawing out their “best” ? Who have been some of the notable or memorable artists/producers you’ve worked with ? 

Honestly, there is nothing special, but I do request a rough mix in most cases. Whether the session is virtually conducted or artists visit my studio, they have been listening to the song countless times by that point. So having the rough mix can more easily guide the session towards what the artists want emotionally and musically – while minimizing the chance of mis-communication. In cases such as IU and Zico – both great artists and producers – they always explain the details beforehand, from the concept behind the song, sonic direction, and intentions of their vocal performance. Hence, all I have to do is to follow their guidance.  

K-Pop | J-Pop | C-Pop: K-Pop seems to be cutting through to international audiences more so than J-Pop or C-Pop. What do you put this down to ? 

I put it down to the great artists. The essential ingredient is the countless hours of practice, which results in a perfect balance of vocal ability and performance. K-Pop should not be defined simply as a song. It is a unique genre that blends complicated music structures, sound, stage costumes, choreography, and music video into a single package. And I think that K-Pop has a better understanding and history behind it than J-Pop and C-Pop. Yes, of course. There are amazingly talented producers and artists who are lesser-known in Korea. And I have been enjoying working with all of them.  

Tracking & Mixing: Every engineer has their own approach to recording. How would you describe your own technique + workflow ? Do you need to work to specific producer guidelines or do you have the freedom to “create” ? How important is engineer | producer communication ? 

There is nothing too unique about me to describe in detail. I often route my ProTools session file as if I am working on an analog desk as I have learned the fundamentals of signal flow on the SSL console. I always emphasize the importance of a ‘rough mix’ as I mentioned above. I use it as the direction to better create.  

Engineer’s Philosophy: What’s your definition of a good mixdown? How do you negotiate to find the balance between others’ preferences? Mixing is to mix different elements in a song to make them sound better. How would you describe the process of mixing? How do you rest when you get stuck? With the global pandemic, there are a lot of artists that are working from their homes. Does communicating virtually affect the result? 

A good mix is the result of a quality recording, composition, and arrangement. But once the original sources of recording are tempered and processed heavily, it already has lost its potential of being a good mixdown. It is always my priority to understand what others prefer through constant communication. However, when it’s hard to understand, I will share some reference tracks and explain my perspective to help find the middle ground.  

Mixing’s purpose is to make an enjoyable song more enjoyable or emphasize the vocalists and their lyrics if it carries the song’s weight. Moreover, it is important to find the songs’ balance, not by any other definition, but the balance that suits best for an individual song. When I get stuck, I simply play the song at a low level and listen to what I have worked on until that moment in an infinite loop. I get a lot of ideas that way. I believe that there is no music to be created without communication. Communication makes a huge difference in the result. There can be, of course, conflicts amongst collaborators but the music that we listen to is the circumstantial consequence of the communication.  

Amphion Loudspeakers: What studio monitor models are you using now ? Have you noticed a significant difference to your sonic results and workflow as a result ? What would you describe as their most significant merits ? How have producers responded to your Amphion mixes ? 

I have been using Two18 together with BaseTwo25. In my opinion, my mixdown sounds more balanced than before. I think the most evident advantages of using Amphion are the transparent representation of the sound, acoustic separation, precise mid-range, and the ability to monitor low frequency using BaseTwo25 as the extension. Other producers could not be more pleased. The best part of it is their ability to adapt despite the environment. It could translate the sound from my recording studio to their studio flawlessly.  

Beautifully honest: This is Amphion’s mantra. Is the Amphion speaker’s clarity as good as they say? For mixing engineers, the importance of mid-range clarity could never be exaggerated. How does the Amphion speakers’ mid-range differ from other manufacturers? 

They’re as good as people say ! It provides me with the perfect balance of sounds despite how loud the level are. Moreover, I always try to paint a picture of the song during mixing, and they help me paint a very clear one. First of all, my approach towards mixing vocal and mid-range has significantly changed ever since I have used Amphion. Finding the middle ground between how the mix sounded in speakers compared to a car or portable listening devices has always been a challenge. However, Amphion speakers have given my workflow huge differences.  

Final Comment: What advice would you give to the new generation of mixing engineers? 

The most essential ability is to acquire is “what sounds good”. Once you can achieve this skill, it will be easier to find your own style as an engineer. Never compare yourselves to others and be confident in yourself.  

For more information about Klang Studio
For more information about Gearlounge
For more information about Two18 studio monitors
For more information about BaseTwo25 bass extension system