In the Box: DJ Swivel

DJ Swivel started out working turntables but gravitated toward mixing and producing after an influential internship with Ken "Duro" Ifill, which led him to work with today's biggest pop stars, including serving as Beyoncé's personal engineer.

Before entering high school, Jordan Young learned to play violin, trumpet, and bass guitar, instinctively gravitating toward music in his youth. However, it wasn’t until Young began experimenting with turntables that he found his true calling. He excelled at crafting crowd-moving mixes and was already DJing at the highly esteemed Guvernment Club in Toronto while he was still a teenager. It was clear that his creativity could not solely be contained by DJing, though, as this practice quickly evolved into an affinity for music production of his own doing. Seemingly by fate, Young’s high school offered him an introduction to the subtleties of the recording arts at its on-site recording studio.

Now, Young is known in the studio world as “DJ Swivel” and has an extremely accomplished résumé, having mixed, produced, and engineered some of today’s finest talent. Young is most well known for being Beyoncé’s personal engineer, for working on her latest album “4,” and for his appearance on the artist’s double platinum-certified I Am … World Tour DVD. He also has loaned his expertise to the likes of Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, and Whitney Houston, and has even done work on a posthumous Michael Jackson record.

Young’s turning point occurred when he decided to ditch his first choice in college to pursue an education in recording arts at Full Sail University, directing his energies toward more fulfilling production work and honing his talents. Garnering attention as a tireless student, Young landed an internship with the acclaimed engineer Ken “Duro” Ifill. Under Ifill’s tutelage, Young developed into a noted and sought-after talent in today’s hip-hop scene.

Get In Media: Your internship with Duro was a pivotal moment in your career. How did you get your internship and what lessons did you learn?
Jordan Young: Full Sail actually helped with the internship. The placement program notified me of it. I submitted my résumé and got an email back from his assistant at the time saying they loved it, except they had an issue with the fact that I mentioned being a DJ on my résumé. They felt that DJs were more likely to leak music; they couldn’t risk it and advised me to revise my résumé for future jobs. After that, I basically begged for an interview, and eventually, Duro’s assistant agreed to let me come in to meet them. I started working a few weeks later. I learned just about my entire foundation, not only as an engineer and mixer, but also as a businessperson, while working for Duro. His knowledge of the music business is incredible; even to this day, I always look to him for advice when I’m making certain decisions that could affect my career.

GIM: Did your time with Duro result in your first job engineering?
JY: Absolutely. My first paid engineering gigs came when I started on Fabolous’ fourth album, “From Nothin’ to Somethin’.” Fab was signed to Duro’s label and was always at our studio. We eventually built a friendship, and I started engineering his album because I was the guy who was always around. This was seven months after I started interning.

GIM: What led you to choose pursuing a recording arts degree?
JY: I initially did a year of college in Canada, but I had always wanted to go to Full Sail. I learned about Full Sail in my high school music class through a research paper on postsecondary education options in music. I assumed that since I was from Canada that the tuition would prove too expensive, or the move to Florida would prove to be too much. After a frustrating first year of college, I knew I wasn’t in the right place. I knew I had to go to an American school, so I could get my foot in the door to work in the U.S. So, I made the decision with my mom; I decided I would pay every dollar I had ever saved towards the tuition, and my mom helped out with the rest.  

GIM: Are there any studio or business misconceptions you overcame in the process of moving from student to professional?
JY: [Ponders] Honestly, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I came into the business with an open mind. I was prepared for long hours and lots of runs. I sort of just took it one day at a time.

To me, it’s all about workflow. If you’re more comfortable adding hardware inserts and twisting knobs, go that route. If you’re like me and prefer the flexibility of the “in-box,” go that route. They’re just two different paths to the same finish line.

GIM: Did your time with Duro result in your first job engineering?
JY: Absolutely. My first paid engineering gigs came when I started on Fabolous’ fourth album, “From Nothin’ to Somethin.’” Fab was signed to Duro’s label and was always at our studio. We eventually built a friendship, and I started engineering his album because I was the guy who was always around. This was seven months after I started interning.

GIM: What do you think the studios and recording executives are looking for in the next generation of engineers?
JY: Most major studios aren’t looking for engineers. They’re looking for assistants who get along with clients, know the rooms inside and out, and never have an issue they can’t solve. I hate to say it, but most record executives are honestly looking at who’s going to be cheapest while still being able to deliver. It’s a business. Budgets aren’t the same as they used to be, so corners get cut everywhere. Engineers get less, studios get less, and artists get less.

GIM: As technology advances, mixes and productions can be done digitally in an increasingly “in-box” fashion. Is anything lost in translation between the analog and digital world?
JY: Not anymore. And I’ve had this argument with gear-heads a million times. There is literally no difference in a plug-in compressor and an outboard compressor anymore. The plug-ins are so good. I’ve done tests between hardware 1176s and various versions of plug-in 1176s (Waves, UAD), and all of them sound identical. Maybe if you have a vintage piece of gear, it will add some dusty character, but, for the most part, it’s all the same.  

To me, it’s all about workflow. If you’re more comfortable adding hardware inserts and twisting knobs, go that route. If you’re like me and prefer the flexibility of the “in-box,” go that route. They’re just two different paths to the same finish line. Over the last year or so, I’ve completely gone in the box. I used to be in the box for everything but reverbs, but now that the reverb plug-ins from Lexicon sound so great, it’s just easier. Mixing in the box gives so much more flexibility, too. I just finished a mix that I started in a studio on an airplane, and I had no issues. I used a bus-powered drive, laptop, Apogee Duet 2, and a great pair of Sennheiser HD650 headphones. I think I’m the first mixer ever to credit a flight number to a mix. [Laughs]

I submitted my résumé and got an email back from his assistant at the time saying they loved it, except they had an issue with the fact that I mentioned being a DJ on my résumé. They felt that DJs were more likely to leak music; they couldn’t risk it and advised me to revise my résumé for future jobs.

GIM: What gear or plug-ins can you not live without?
JY: Waves Mercury, SoundToys bundle, and Lexicon PCM Native Reverbs. For vocals, in most cases, I need Auto-Tune and VocALign for fixing errors. Sometimes, I’ll use Melodyne as well. I also use some creative things, such as Vari-fi, SansAmp, and a few other top-secret ones!

GIM: Who are your favorite producers and engineers? What defines a good mix for you?
JY: I have a lot of favorite producers in various genres. When it comes to pop music, Dr. Luke and Max Martin are the best, and they have the results to prove it. They are just much better than everyone else at making catchy hits consistently. For urban music, Dr. Dre has always been my favorite—not only as a producer but as a mixer, too. His grasp of the sonics in music is unparalleled. Other mixers that I think are great are: Duro, of course, Tony Maserati, and I like Manny Marroquin’s work as well.

A good mix to me is all about balance. In many cases, the production quality nowadays is so good that there isn’t a ton of stuff you need to do to the tracks. However, finding the right balance between the kicks and snares, the bass, and melodic instruments is important. Volume and left/right imaging are the most important things in a great mix. Once you have a great balance, then I think it’s cool when mixers are able to add their own creative touches to things. Sometimes adding drops or a cool delay or whatever.  I always try to add my fingerprint somewhere without changing the record.

GIM: Your ability to mix quickly is widely discussed. Is the pressure to deliver mixes rapidly something that drives you?
JY: I think I mix quickly, but I don’t necessarily think it’s any quicker than most other mixers. Depending on the song, a mix could take anywhere from just a few hours, 12 hours, or even a few days. I do think delivering quickly is important to the client, though. Oftentimes, the mixing stage is rushed to make a release date, so getting it done in a timely manner just reduces the stress that the client and/or label are already dealing with. Just don’t rush the mix. Do it right.

GIM: Do you have advice for engineers, producers, or musicians to create a more efficient workflow?
JY: Well, my workflow is easy. I work until I’ve finished everything. Then, take a personal day. I don’t waste much time in the studio. I’ll take a break to eat or rest my ears if I’ve been listening for too long or a bit loudly, but for the most part, I go in and do what I’m there to do.

GIM: You’ve worked with a wealth of today’s top talent from Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige to Kanye West. What’s been your favorite project to work on?
JY: Beyoncé’s album “4.” by far. Mostly because I had a lot of breathing room when it came to being creative on the engineering side. There were a lot of songs that I would add effects to, create drops, add vocal effects, and even add some drum programming. There were many times when I would implement creative decisions that I felt the song needed first, and then play them for her. She would either like or not like my additions, and we’d go from there. But I was given a fairly long leash when it came to contributing creatively.

GIM: What are you working on now?
JY: Right now, I’m mixing the debut album for a great artist named Jenna Andrews on Def Jam. It’s hard to describe exactly what sort of sound she has, because she’s in a league of her own. Jenna’s voice is so unique—it’s amazing. Her record sounds like Portishead meets a James Bond soundtrack. Really cool and interesting. Look for that soon! I’m also doing a lot of my own writing and production.

Careers in Music: Making the Album

Producing an album is a four-step process: recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Which is your forté?

GIM: What advice would you give to prospective engineers with nontraditional backgrounds?
JY: The most important things to help you move up in the business when first starting out are to: always be available; never say no; work for free and be happy about it; and, finally, just be cool. I always advise young people getting into the business to work at studios or with like-minded people. Look for people who share the same tastes in music as you. If you love Jazz music but are working in a hip-hop studio, odds are you won’t understand the culture of hip-hop, so artists won’t be able to connect with you as well. Whereas, if you worked in a studio that has a lot of Jazz clients, you’d be able to fit right in. Building a good relationship with artists is a very important thing. Think of it from their perspective: which engineer would you rather use if they both do the same thing? The one who likes your music, or the one who doesn’t?

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