Neal H. Pogue - Life's Paths and Mixing Travels

Engineers tend to remind me of the bass player of the band. They're usually laid back with a sense of control and calmness. Most importantly, they're usually not too cocky...usually. Such is the case with engineer/producer Neal H. Pogue. If you're not an industry insider, you may not know him by name. One thing for sure, though, is that you know him by mix as he has probably worked on one of your favorite songs or albums.

His discography is too long to mention here (Outkast, TLC, N.E.R.D, Nicki Minaj to name a few) but he's quick to casually admit, "I can never remember what I worked on last week or will be working on for the upcoming week if someone asks me." To most that may come off as a verbal nonchalant shrug. To me that is telling that Neal is in the moment with laser sharp focus on the project at hand. That's pretty rare in this day and age of microwave music and multiple distractions forcing us to "multi-task".

Born in New Jersey then eventually venturing out to Los Angeles and Atlanta, Neal never considered a career as an engineer. He started off as a drummer then life happened...

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What year did you start engineering?
I officially started engineering on my own after interning in 1989.

So two years out of school you were on your own mixing?
No, I started recording first before I got into mixing.

What were some of the companies you interned for?
My first gig was with Randy Jackson (Michael Jackson's brother) who had his personal studio in Beverly Hills. I started with him in ’88 and stayed for a year. I then moved to Larrabee Sound Studios and worked there for a year. After that, the Larrabee owner told me I was ready to go out on my own. He saw it before I did! He was recommending me for certain gigs to people who were looking for a mixer. He would say “yea, use Neal!” (laughs). Taavi Mote is the guy from which I learned pretty much everything I know while working under him at Larrabee.

My first solo mixing gig was for a Jazz guy named Jeff Lorber for a song called ‘Heartbreaker’. From there, I started getting calls for other things. 

My first outside gig was with Bobby Brown after ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ came out. He was looking for someone to do some tracking and mixing so Louil Silas referred me. Back then Bobby was wild so he [Silas] figured I’d be a good match for him being that I’m calm…it turned out to be good.

It’s funny because Bobby is how I got to Atlanta from Cali. He was living in Atlanta and was just passing through Cali at the time. He liked what I did on the single we were working on, then said “hey, why don’t you come back to Georgia with me?”. At first I didn’t know what to think because I had never been down there. I initially had visions of the Ku Klux Klan (laughs)…. I had never been to the South. I went with plans of only staying for three months and it eventually turned into working on his self-titled album that came out after ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. He had a label deal going through MCA so he had his own artists and that’s when I thought “wow, this is gonna be a whole other level”. I was there for a total of 12 years.

I also felt something special was about to happen in Atlanta because everyone was moving there including L.A. Reid and Babyface. On top of that, Los Angeles was starting to feel congested with regard to competing for engineering work. 

From there, that led to me working with Organized Noize, Outkast and that whole thing. 

It’s funny how at times you plan your life out in a specific way in your mind and it turns out completely different than you expected. Often for the better.
Yea, sometimes you go down a completely different road. Be careful what you ask for, because it may turn into something else.

Going back to when you first started engineering, what was the first board you ever learned how to mix on?
SSL - Solid State Logic

I’m not sure if you remember the first song you ever mixed but after listening back, do you remember your initial reaction?
I don’t remember but it was mostly getting the client’s approval. It sounded good to me but the not knowing if the client will be satisfied. I feel the same way to this day. I don’t know if it’s insecurity or not wanting to get too ahead of myself.

I think that’s important because it shows you care about your client as well as the outcome.
Yea…because they hire me for my sound but at the same time I want it to be a collaborative thing. It is a service.

You don’t confine yourself to one genre. Is that intentional?
I think it’s a blessing. As a kid, I listened to all genres. Listening to radio, I was attracted to everything from rap to pop to funk to rock to folk as long as it had a good melody. Anything that had a good groove, I was attracted. The Carpenters…it didn't matter.

It’s funny…growing up at that time in Jersey going to high school, there were a lot of genre cliques. Everyone had their [boom]boxes blasting their genre taking pride in what they were listening to. Each clique would never cross that line regarding what they were playing. They were dedicated to their genre.

Do you think that was a bad thing?
Yea, I thought it was weird because I listened to everything. But back then, you dare not say that you were listening to Abba. I was a music junky. I think that helped me in the end because I have no problem mixing any genre. I take pride in not being stuck inside of a box.

What is the difference in approach you take when mixing a rock record compared to a hip hop record?
I always start with the drums regardless of what I’m mixing. Everything is based around the beat. [The drums] may not be as loud depending on the genre. In punk, the drums may not be as loud …maybe it comes from me being a drummer.

What was the first song you heard that made you want to be a part of the music industry and where were you when you heard it?
I grew up in the 45 (rpm) era. People think the singles market is a new thing but we’re just coming back around full circle. But the first single…I don’t know. There were so many. Man…I was attracted to the brand/labels more than anything. But what song?? I’d have to say The Jackson 5. They inspired me. Even not knowing how I wanted to be involved, I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.

What was your first production gig?
There was a group on Capitol Records called ‘New Version of Soul’. It was around ’91 or ’92. That was my first credit on a major label. It was short lived but that was my first production gig. I mixed most of the album.

I know this topic has been beat to death but I’m gonna ask you anyway. Which do you prefer when it comes to mixing, analog or digital?
I’m always gonna pick analog. All the early Outkast records were analog and there is a reason why people are still attracted to it. People don’t realize that was tape.

Up to what point were they using tape? Stankonia?
My first Pro Tools gig... period ...was ‘The Love Below’. Everything up until then was analog. Outakst’s first Pro Tools album was ‘The Love Below’.

Can you personally tell the difference between a record mixed analog vs. in-the-box?
Listen to (Outkast's) 'Aquemini', then listen to ‘The Love Below’ and you tell me.

As a passive listener, it's hard to separate mixing from production from songwriting….
I understand. But I have a feeling you will feel it. It’s hard to explain. You will definitely feel it.

What plugin or piece of gear can't you live without?
Izotope Ozone…for compression over the stereo bus.

In your opinion, what’s the most misused effect you hear on recordings?
Compression. That is the most misused component of music. Period. People don’t know when to use it and when not to use it. People think that is what they should reach for first.

At what point in your process does compression come to my mind?
It depends. I use it for different things. I use it for attack, or dynamics. Sometimes I use it for EQ…I’ve had to study compression for years to get it right. Different brands have their own unique sound. Each compressor doesn’t sound the same. You have to figure out the sound of each brand and know when to use it. It’s the same as people thinking you can use one mic for every voice. No. You can’t do that. But that’s just years of practice and trial and error.

Do you prefer mixing or producing?
Producing.

Why?
Because I’m in control. Not in an “ego” way but more in a creative way if you know what I mean. With mixing, I’m working for the client. 

Under the radar band we should look out for? Who are you listening to right now?
Busty and the Bass. They are a 9-piece band out of Montreal. They’re a hybrid of things…soul, rap. They can also come across as jazzy. Not in a dangerous way though. It all makes sense. The album I produced drops in September.

I see you just wrapped up mixing ‘Flower Boy’ for Tyler the Creator. What’s the biggest misconception you think people have about Tyler?
(Everyone thinks) that he’s nutty and out of control. He’s actually in full control of what he’s doing. He’s very very smart. He’s a brilliant guy.

What’s your favorite track from the album?
Garden Shed. This is one of the best albums of the summer. I will hold myself back from saying it is “THE” album of the summer!

Outside of music, what inspires you?
The movie business. That is the next phase of production I want to get into. That is my next challenge.

What specifically draws you to the movie business?
The storytelling. The music game is storytelling but what’s put on record is not put in videos. It’s abstract. It’s never what it is. With movies, it’s a fantasy world and what is written down is what you have to put on the screen.

Funny you mention that. What comes to mind is the Outkast ‘Hey Ya’ video where the visuals are completely opposite of the song content.
Yea, exactly.

What would you say to the 16-year-old version of you?
Don’t go to college and go straight to engineering school. If I knew what I know now, I would’ve went to engineering school right out of high school and started sooner.

I think about this a lot. I think certain events lead us to other events you know….
Yea, it’s true! I wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking to you if I went to school earlier. Nothing would be the same as it is now. But to answer your question, that’s what I would say to my 16-year-old self (laughs).

That recurring dream you have, what is it about?
I used to have this recurring dream about going through different doors.

Random doors?
No, doors in the house where I lived. There was nobody there but me. It felt like everyone was gone. I have no idea what that all meant.

What sound do you love?
Lush strings….an orchestra.

What sound do you hate?
A high-pitched sine wave.

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