Sound as a science: mixing music with Alex Pavone

Alex Pavone has been interested in how music works since he was a kid. My mom would play Kiss FM, and I’d be listening to NSYNC in the back seat and think, 'This is cool, but I don’t know why.’” The pull persisted over the years, and eventually, Pavone decided he had to find out. Since then, he’s worked as a recording engineer and as a sound mixer for some of the biggest artists on the planet, including Post Malone, Justin Bieber, Kelly Rowland, Travis Scott, Wiz Khalifa, Mark Ronson, and Slipknot, to name a very select few. The latter band in particular was a big influence in his formative years, as was the hardcore and punk scene of the era.

Why did you gravitate towards hardcore and punk in the early days?

I was trying to figure out exactly what kind of music I was into. I just played whatever was on the radio with my mom, and then I remember my cousins Kyle and Connor, who lived in Michigan and were into the Midwest emo scene. They’d show me a lot of these bands whenever I would go visit, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I never heard anything like this before.’

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in music?

My cousin Kyle was the lead singer of a band called We Came as Romans, and whenever he came out on tour, he’d take me to the show and I got to see what happened backstage. I got to see all the instruments and how all the cables are run, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Maybe I’m not the artist. Maybe I’m the sound guy, or the lighting guy off to the side.’

Alex Pavone (left) with his cousin, lead singer of We Came as Romans, Kyle Pavone (right)

Did you ever try playing an instrument? Or you just figured out pretty quickly that you were born to help make music, but not necessarily play it?

I was really into drumming for a bit, and then I taught myself how to play the piano. But my focus was always less on writing a song and more on figuring out how this stuff actually works. I used to take a guitar and rip it apart to see its guts and cables and how it all worked. I would plug the guitar cable halfway in and hear how it buzzed and I’d ask myself why it did that. So I knew from an early stage that my lure was: ‘How do I get the biggest sounding drum kit? How do I make the guitar sound larger than life?’

How did your parents take it when you told them you wanted a career in music?

I’m so blessed to have such an amazing family and family life. My mom always saw that I had this gift, and she was the one who advocated for me. Regular schooling wasn’t the answer for me, I went to four different high schools. It’s not necessarily that I was a bad kid, simply my light bulb wasn’t going off. So my mom actually found this school out in Arizona called The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, and after getting an Associate’s degree, that’s where I went. I’ve never gone back to college since. It really worked out for me.

Do you remember what was your first big break?

The Conservatory program includes 9 months of schooling and 3 months on a collegiate internship. So once you finish up your schooling, you get paired with a counselor, and they reach out to recording studios in the major cities. I went to Los Angeles because that’s where I’m from and where I’m familiar with. I found this recording studio called Serenity West Recording, which I liked. It was a larger studio, but it wasn’t one of the huge ones; it wasn’t like Capital Records or Paramount. But I looked through their list and saw a lot of music and artists I liked.

Who was on the list?

Justin Bieber, Wiz Khalifa, Steve Angello, Zedd, and a lot of “producer-y-focused people.” But they also had a lot of songwriters. It was really cool. 

So you ended up interning at the studio. How was that experience?

It was a small operation, there were only five people. It was the owner, the manager, a head engineer named Mike, and then me, and another intern. And since it was so small, it was a lot easier to get recognized if you were good. But [it was] also a lot easier to show you when you screwed up. When I got there, I thought, ‘I didn’t go to a four-year college, this is all I’ve got. I’ve got to do whatever it takes to make sure this is a thing that’s going to work out for me.

You can’t control everything, but all you can control is the opportunities that are presented to you. So if those happen, you’ve got to be ready for it.’ 

Smart. So how did you​​ prepare yourself?

By making it painfully obvious to the studio manager any time I saw him that I knew my job and was ready for whatever. I would talk about Pro Tools; I would talk about plug-ins, and I would vocalize, ‘Hey, I have these talents, if you need me. I’m here, utilize me, I’m ready to go.’

And then the opportunity came and you were ready to go.

Yeah. We were doing a session with Post Malone. He was working on his album, Stoney, and one of the assistant engineers needed a day off, and no one else was available. So the studio manager called me and asked me to come by and run this session. I said yes, of course, hung up the phone, and felt a huge wave of anxiety and excitement at the same time. I kept thinking, ‘Alright, this is it. Are you going to perform? Are you going to flounder? What’s going to happen?’ 

What did end up happening?

It went great [laughs]. Everything was already set up, so when I got there, all I had to do was make sure nothing blew up and give these guys whatever they wanted and just be a good hang. Post was such an amazing guy–super sweet, talented, very inclusive, and I just made sure he was taken care of during those sessions. Afterward, I got a text from the studio manager saying that Post and his team really liked me and that I was going to be the main assistant for the rest of this project. That session is what catapulted me from intern to assistant.

And when did you become a recording engineer?

There were a couple of times when I worked these sessions and I sat there and looked around the room and saw the producer, the artist, the A&R person, but no engineer. Thirty minutes would go by and everyone would kind of look at me in the corner and ask, ‘Hey, you can run Pro Tools, right?’ And again, it’s one of those moments where you get to sit there and just try it. There’s never a formal, ‘I’m a recording engineer now.’ It came out of necessity. There were times, especially in the beginning, when things didn’t work out. But as I went on, I’d do a recording and be asked to come in again. 

Alex Pavone (far left) in the studio.

It must be a very exciting job to see the creative process, live with it, and kind of help shape the sound that defines our culture. 

All these people are just really talented, amazing artists that have a structure and platform. And the one thing I realized while I was working was that it’s really important to get on the same level as the artist immediately. Rappers, for example–like to move quickly because they don’t usually write a lot of stuff down, and they’ll go off of just pure inspiration. They just want to go, so I have to be ready for anything that they want. Versus working with a songwriter. If they have a 12-hour session, they’ll spend eight by themselves with an acoustic guitar, and then they’ll come out and spend just three minutes recording and be done. Every musician has a process and it’s really incredible to see it unfold. It’s not magic, but it is.

Is there any band or artist you’ve worked with that hasn’t necessarily broken big, but that you thought that they would, or that they have kind of a potential?

There is one. He’s not an artist, he’s a producer, and also he has already kind of blown up. Julia Lewis. Lovely guy. One of our studios, Studio C, was sponsored by Spotify, and they would just throw artists in there. Julia would come in and bring the coolest artists and ideas. He’d have a dope piano player and a boom bap-style rapper in one session, and in the next, he’d come with a xylophone and just explore it with a singer-songwriter. He just got signed to Quincy Jones’ label, and I’m so happy for him.

Were there any lessons you learned in these sessions that stayed with you and changed the way you viewed music as an art or the business of music-making?

The only thing you can’t predict is what’s going to happen during a session. You don’t know if you’re going to walk in and you think it’s going to be a chill session and then Pharrell shows up. Or someone smokes in the room and something catches on fire. You just don’t know. This is where I need to shout out to Michael Peterson. He was the head engineer there at the time, and he helped me a lot. Whenever I was struggling with something, he’d pull me aside and go through the list of things I could’ve done. If I’ve done them all, he’d just say that sometimes things don’t work. All you can control is how you react to things and how you handle things.

Let’s talk about Evercast. How did you get connected with the company? Guide us through what you’re doing over there.

In mid-2020, I was unemployed for a bit because there was no real work happening anywhere, especially in music. So I went on AngelList and–I kid you not–the first ad I saw was for a customer support representative position at Evercast. I looked at it and thought it was interesting. I loved the idea of streaming any content from anywhere, any place. Felt like the ultimate tool for collaborators. So I applied for the position and after a while, Brad Thomas reached out and asked me to interview. Funny enough, at some point during the interview, we left the room we were in and went to a different room, and Brad streamed a clip from Top Gun: Maverick. I was just sitting there thinking, ‘How is this coming from this dude’s computer? It looks so clean and crisp’. Eventually, I got hired, and my first position was working customer support. Coincidentally, some of my jobs were very similar to the work I was already doing as a studio engineer, just figuring out how things work and why and solving problems that came up during sessions. 

How did that evolve into doing mixes? Do you do them for movies or for music too? 

When I worked in the music industry, I strictly was a recording engineer. But towards the tail end of my studio career, I started offering mixes to local artists. And luckily I’ve had several in Los Angeles and Phoenix that have reached out that like the mixes I do. It’s fun, and honestly, I like it better than recording. I have the finished product, and my job is just to make them sound as good as humanly possible. So it goes back full circle to what I wanted to do with my cousin when I was a kid. I just get the stuff and then I see how far I can take it.

Alex Pavone at The NAMM Show.

How do music production and post-production benefit from a remote technology like Evercast?

One of the things I love most about Evercast is how much time is saved in mixing. With most final reviews, if you’re the artist and I’m mixing something for you, it’s hard to verbalize something that’s pure audio after you send me a track. Everyone has their own ears and interprets things their own way. For example, an artist may want their vocals to sound like an X track, and the drums to sound like a Y track.

Then the mixing engineer does their job, and they send it over to the artist. Inevitably, the artist comes back with a new set of notes. Like, ‘At four minutes and five seconds, turn the high hat down’. There’s a lot of back and forth to get on the same page. That means spending time and money. If I’m in an Evercast room and do the whole mix, I can tell everyone to hop into my room and we all listen to the mix together, no matter where we are. Plus, I’m sharing my DAW [Digital Audio Workstation], so they can see exactly when they want that thing changed. They can ask me to go back five seconds or go back to that pink blob right there, and I’ll do just that. It saves so much time.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

I’m just a really big fan of music. And some of the people that you meet and get to talk to–they can be the biggest artist on the planet, or they could just be a small town artist from your hometown that you just vibe with–I get to show them how great they really are. ​​Sometimes they have no idea. They think that they’re just up-and-coming, or that they're just laying down this track. The fact that I get to play a role in showing them the truest reflection of themselves is incredibly rewarding.

Final question and I do want you to suffer for a little bit, so tell me your top five desert island songs.

Man, that’s tough. Let’s see. Okay. The first song I will pick is actually a song called “Smoke Signals” by Phoebe Bridgers. That song I’m picking specifically because it’s sentimental to me and my fiancé; it’s one of the songs we really bonded over early in our relationship. I would also take the song “Lost in the Moment” by We Came as Romans in honor of my cousin and his music. I would bring the song “Mirror” by Porter Robinson. I like that one a lot. Why did you have to do this to me? Man, there are so many… I think I’m also going to do a song called “Sunlight” by From Indian Lakes. That’s going to be my recent song. I just really like the production on it. And I’ll also take “Big Lie” by Post Malone. That was one of the songs that I got to work on, and it’s just a cool beat. 

What if there’s an accident and you can only save one song?

Honestly, I would probably save the song “Lost in the Moment,” just for my cousin.

I thought you were going to say the Phoebe Bridgers one, so you could always think of your fiancé.

Well, I’m bringing her with me. I don’t care what you say, I’m stowing her aboard. She’s coming with me.

[All photos provided by Alex Pavone.]

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