Gloria Kaba is a Ghanaian-American engineer, producer, mixer, and writer with over 14 years of experience in the studio. She's best known for her work with A Tribe Called Quest and Solange, but has built an impressive list of credits that include Madonna, Beyoncé, André 3000, Kanye West, Anderson Paak, Dirty Projectors, Frank Ocean, and more.
We recently spoke with Gloria for our ongoing 20 Questions series. The conversation started with a bit about her background in the industry before turning to her favorite microphones, why she prefers working in-the-box, and her secret weapon for capturing reverb at the Power Station.
1. How did you get started making records?
As a young person, I took guitar and piano lessons. As I got older, I knew I had an affinity for music, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do yet. It started out with me writing songs and making beats.
Once I got to college — I went to Temple University in Philadelphia — I started taking recording classes and interning at studios. That’s when I started to learn about the role of the engineer. Once I got into the studio and saw all of the gear, I knew that was exactly where I needed to be.
After graduation, I moved back home. I’m originally from Jersey so it was easy for me to commute to New York, where I took a job at a studio. I started as a runner and worked my way up to assistant engineer. After six years, I went freelance.
2. Tell us a little bit about your studio.
I work primarily at home. I have a modest setup where I do some mixing, writing, and producing. It’s pretty simple, I’m working off of my Mac and an Apollo Twin. At home, I work primarily in-the-box, so everything is pretty contained.
But, I’ve been lucky enough to frequent some studios in the city. I love working at Electric Garden in Brooklyn. It’s got a very cool vibe and great gear. I’m also one of the engineers at Power Station at Berklee NYC, which was formerly Avatar Studios. When I’m in the studio I like to take advantage of the console, gear, and mics as much as I can but when I’m at home, it’s a very simple set-up.
3. What made you choose the setup you have now?
I try to keep my set-up as portable as possible so that I can just grab my laptop and my interface and I’m ready to go. Since I often work at studios, I’ve never had to expand on my setup.
It’s also way easier to recall a mix in the box. I can open a session anywhere I go, so it really came down to what was the most efficient way to work. It all comes down to convenience.
It also makes it easier to work with other people when I’m writing. I’ve been doing a lot of virtual writing sessions over the last few months because of COVID. It’s been really helpful being familiar with a few different DAWs because everybody has their own preferences. My rig makes it much easier to collaborate.
4. What’s your favorite part of the process?
I’m a creator first, so I love the beginning. I also love the end because I love mixing too, which I think is an extension of the creative process. I love sitting down and getting into the head of an artist. My preference is to work in the same room with someone when we’re creating. I love working from scratch, finding inspiration, and experimenting with different sounds, textures, and techniques.
5. What’s your philosophy on producing?
My mantra is, “Anything goes.” There are no rules when we’re creating. Let’s try everything and be as weird as possible. Let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
Sometimes I’ve done some really weird stuff that didn’t work. We loved it the night before, but the next morning when you come in and listen, you’re like, “Yeah, that’s not it.” But, the beauty of it is that it can inspire something else. Maybe we go in a different direction or pull back and not be as weird. But I’m all about trying everything. Anything goes.
6. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
I was on a session at Power Station, and there’s a back stairwell. Because of the way it’s built, it has a great reverb sound. It’s actually set up so you can patch it from the control room and send a signal to the space. The other option is actually going into the stairwell and performing, but no one ever really does that.
The producer had this idea to get percussion sounds in the stairwell. It sounded great, kind of evolved from simple percussion to body slapping and weird mouth noises. We ended up getting some really cool sounds, but that’s definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done.
7. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
Every day is different. It really depends on what I’m doing that day. I could be mixing at home or recording in the studio. I try to create some kind of structure when I can. I wake up pretty early in the morning, eat a good breakfast, and work out. I happen to be the most creative earlier in the day so I may do some journaling or writing. Then I will pull up whatever projects I’m working on at the time. I try to create a routine to give me a sense of structure because work is different every day.
8. What are some of your favorite mics to use in the studio?
I’m always reaching for the Shure SM7B for vocals when I’m home. That was our go-to vocal mic on A Tribe Called Quest’s last project. It’s an affordable mic and it sounds great. When I’m in the studio, my go-to’s are Neumann tube mics. I love the U67 and the U47. The U87 is a studio workhorse too, I grab that pretty often.
10. What about compressors?
As far as hardware, I love Distressors, those are my favorite. I’m a big fan of the 1176 too. Sometimes I use the UAD emulation which sounds really good. The CL 1B is my go-to for vocals. For software, I really love the Softube TLA-100. I’ve been using that a lot lately.
11. What’s one piece of gear that you can’t live without?
Honestly, I would say my laptop. Because I work primarily in the box, if I have my laptop I can work anywhere. Who knew there would come a time where you could make an album, distribute, promote your music, and engage with your fans without a label or a staff of a dozen people. I can do anything with my laptop.
12. What’s your go-to instrument when you’re feeling inspired?
It would have to be my MIDI keyboard or Akai MPC1000. I use the MPC as a controller when programming drums. I use a lot of virtual instruments. My favorites are the Arturia vintage keyboards and Spectrasonics Omnisphere. I’m also picking up the guitar again.
13. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
I do a lot of exercise and yoga. I’m trying to read more too. I like to meditate. I love traveling. Hopefully, we can get back to that, eventually. It’s an expensive hobby, but it’s something I love to do. My favorite places to visit are Greece and Costa Rica.
I was told that I need to find a hobby. I was blessed to have my hobby turn into my career. Now the challenge is finding a hobby to keep me busy in my free time.
14. What’s your favorite place to eat?
I’m a huge foodie, but I’m a sucker for my mother’’s cooking, so I would have to say mom’s house.
15. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, it’s one of my favorite books. I’m reading a book right now called Girl, Woman, Other, which I’m really loving.
16. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
It’s so hard to pick just one album, but the first that popped into my head is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It’s a classic. It was a huge deal as a teenager to see Lauryn Hill, a black woman, breakthrough with such an amazing body of work that was rightfully rewarded. I work with a lot of young female R&B artists who weren’t old enough to experience the impact that project had when it was released. Lauryn Hill is always listed among their influences.
I know you said pick one but I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan, too. I just got into his album Fulfillingness' First Finale. It’s a tongue twister, but it’s a great record. I was recently reading about TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), the first, and largest multitimbral synthesizer. It was built by the production duo Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. They were pioneers of electronic music. This was the last project they did with Stevie and it’s become another one of my favorites.
17. Who's someone you look to as a source of inspiration, whether on a personal or professional level?
I would have to say, my mom. She taught me the value of hard work. She immigrated to America from Ghana in the early 1970s and worked to put herself through college. She was a single mom and worked two jobs as a nurse until my sisters and I were adults. She taught me a great deal about work ethic. It wasn’t anything that was explicitly said, but she showed us by example.
I think about how I can apply that work ethic to what I do. I’m blessed to say that I work at something I love to do. But I really think having that work ethic has contributed to my success. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be.
18. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
I think I’m better at getting to a particular sound or concept when I’m working with an artist. I’m better at collaborating. If I’m with an artist in a writing session and they say, “I heard this song the other day, it was really inspiring. I loved the drums on this one. And then I heard this other song and I loved the guitar sound. And I heard this other song and I loved the concept.”
I’m a lot better at pulling from these references and creating an original idea. I’m much better at using references as inspiration to get to the final product. I’m better at getting into an artist’s head or heart and being open to what they want to do.
19. What’s one of your favorite parts of your job?
One of my favorite parts, but also one of the most challenging, is conveying my vision. Either from a production standpoint to the way I approach a mix. Sure, I love starting a mix and have the artist or producer say, “Just do your thing. Whatever you think sounds good.”
But I also love being able to merge my vision with an artist’s vision. I love seeing it take shape, learning how to compromise but also deciding what to fight for. It’s really a dance. It’s so rewarding to hear the end product and think, “Wow, I never would have gotten to that on my own.”
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
This is easy — never stop studying. There’s always something new to learn. Over time, music evolves. Techniques and sounds change. Even now we are witnessing song structure veer away from what it’s been traditionally. You have to continue to study and learn from other people. Stay curious and be persistent. That’s my advice.
Want to check out some of Gloria Kaba's amazing work in the studio? Check out the tracks below from A Tribe Called Quest, Solange, Pusha T, and Amber Mark.