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Marcella “Ms. Lago” Araica is a world-class producer and audio engineer credited for mixing more than 100 chart-topping hits. Throughout her 20-year career, she’s worked with superstars such as Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Usher, Missy Elliot and many more.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Ms. Lago for our 20 Questions series, where we discussed her journey in the music industry, from studying at Full Sail and landing her first job at The Hit Factory to opening her own studio and founding N.A.R.S. Records. Read on to learn about what gear she’s been using lately, her go-to vocal chain and her advice for up-and-coming engineers.
1. How did you get started making music?
I've always loved music, but I had stage fright so I didn’t like performing in front of everybody. In high school, I started hanging out with a group of friends that were into making music. Some of them made beats, others were rappers and performers. They taught me about producing and working behind the scenes. I think that's where I really started pursuing music. I wasn't great, but I was pursuing it and I knew that I wanted to have a career in it.
I remember meeting with my guidance counselor. They were trying to put the pressure on me like, “What are you going to do after high school?” I told them I wanted to make music and they were like, “In what way? You don't play an instrument.” I'm like, “I can play on this MPC,” but to them, that wasn't music. It was a really hard door to get through. A lot of colleges weren't really looking to have anybody attend if they weren't professionally trained on an instrument or singing.
Two and a half years after I graduated high school, I got introduced to Full Sail University, which is where I learned about audio engineering. I was very interested in pursuing a career as a producer, but they really opened my eyes to other roles in the studio. I was really intrigued by the engineers who were able to capture and balance all of the sounds. That really set my trajectory from the beginning.
2. How did that lead you to where you are today?
I got an Associates of Science degree in Recording and Engineering from Full Sail, but when I started, I was a “ground zero” student. I didn't even know what an XLR was. I didn't know the difference between dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones. I didn't know anything, so I had to learn it all from the ground up. It was a great foundation for me to enter the business. I felt like I was on solid ground.
Having that opportunity really allowed me to be confident in making the decision to pursue engineering. I was like, “I don't really know if producing beats is going to be my thing,” because I was just so intrigued by everything on the engineering side. I was like, “This is exactly what I want to do—I want to record.” I didn’t know I wanted to mix yet. I really just wanted to know how to be the best recording engineer.
3. After you graduated from Full Sail, you got a job at the Hit Factory. What was that like?
I graduated on the 8th of February, 2002. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already! Three weeks after I graduated, I scored an interview with the Studio Manager at The Hit Factory, Trevor Fletcher, which I totally bombed. I was so nervous. Anybody who knows Trevor will tell you he’s a great guy when you get to know him—but when you don’t know him, he can be very intimidating.
I wanted that job so bad. Looking back at myself 20 years ago, I think I was just trying too hard to give the perfect answers. Obviously, I got the job, but after leaving the interview, I didn’t think I was going to get it. Trevor made me sweat it out for a day or two before he called me and asked, “How soon can you start?”
It was a quick transition, which I know is not an easy task to get done. There are kids that I mentor now who are just trying to get their foot in the door after graduation, so for me to get into The Hit Factory in just three weeks was a big deal.
4. Wow, that is a big deal. Do you attribute it to luck or was it all part of your plan?
I made the connection way in advance. I started reaching out to The Hit Factory when I was three or four months into my program at Full Sail. I just wanted to introduce myself to let them know I was a current student and that I would love to get a job there when I graduated.
I followed up again about halfway through my program, just to ask if I could take a tour of the facilities, which one of my teachers recommended. I didn’t get to meet Trevor that day, but I met his assistant and she gave me a walkthrough. When I drove through the gates of the Hit Factory and walked into that building with all the records on the wall. I was like, “I’ve got to get here.” Then when we started walking through all the studios, I was like, “This is insane.” It was five rooms of superb glory—just consoles and microphones and outboard gear everywhere. I was such a total nerd about it. It felt like when you first meet somebody and you just have this feeling of like, “Oh my God, this is the one.” It was love at first sight.
5. What are some of the lessons you learned while working at The Hit Factory that have stayed with you over the years?
One of the things that Trevor taught me when I first started there was that you can teach anybody how to run the equipment—it’s all about your personality and the energy that you bring into the room. That’s something that stuck with me in every session, whether I was a general assistant walking in with some food, the assistant engineer sitting in the back like a fly on the wall, or when I became the person in the chair, running the session as a recording engineer. The artists, producers, songwriters and even record label executives expect a certain type of vibe, energy and even service.
Another thing I learned at The Hit Factory is that you should always have a solution. If you don’t know something, find the answer. You’ve got to make sure you’re representing the studio in the right way. Even as a freelancer, you’re not representing a company, you are the company. So it’s important that you always maintain a level of professionalism and keep the energy level up. Even if something goes wrong, try to find a solution quickly. The “I don’t know” response just isn’t in my textbook. Now that I'm in a position where I have a business and employees, that's something that I try to drill into their heads. If something goes wrong, the answer is not, “I don’t know;” it's, “I’ll find out.”
6. You recorded Missy Elliott early in your career while working at The Hit Factory. What was that like?
Two months after I was hired as a general assistant, I remember Trevor calling me into his office. I thought I was in trouble for something. I walked in and he was like, “Are you ready?” I didn't know if it was a trick question, but something just told me to say yes. So I'm like, “Yeah, I'm ready. What's up?” He said Missy Elliot was on the way and he wanted me to be the assistant in the room. There were other general assistants who had been there for almost a year who had never gotten a shot. I think my confidence really allowed him to feel like, “Okay, I'm gonna give her a shot.” After that first session, I guess I did such a good job that Missy’s assistant called Trevor and said, “Missy was really digging Marcella and wants her to be in all the sessions.”
After a few more sessions, Missy showed up to the studio one day ready to record and her engineer was running late. She said, “I have an idea and I don’t want to lose it. Can you record me?” Of course, I said yes, but I really wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t proficient enough with Pro Tools yet. I knew enough to get around, but on a scale from one to 10, I was at probably a three or four. I completely bombed the session. I was trying to fly her vocals in slip mode instead of grid mode so nothing was lining up correctly. It was a nightmare. She ended up kicking me out of the room.
7. That sounds devastating. How did you handle it?
It was awful. I really thought I was going to get fired. I couldn’t sleep for a few days after that. I had a friend that was working at The Hit Factory with me and he had a Pro Tools rig at his house. He was like, “I'm gonna make sure you're ready next time. I want you to come in and engineer some sessions at the house, that way you can practice.” So that's what I did on my days off. I would literally be there like 12, 15 hours a day, just recording local artists and getting really good at Pro Tools. He taught me all of the hotkeys and quick commands and everything.
A few months later, my opportunity to record Missy came when her engineer was running late again, only this time, she didn’t want me to record her. She was like, “Maybe I’ll just wait for my engineer to come.” I was like, “No, I can do it! Trust me! Let me have another chance!” She agreed and when we got in the room, she was like, “Let’s see what you got.” I was like a totally different person. I was running Pro Tools like a total pro—I was whipping work, flying vocals, throwing up effects. She’s like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even believe it! You went from being slow as a turtle to being a Lambo!” She started calling me “Murcielago” after the Lamborghini model, which is where I got the nickname, “Ms. Lago.”
8. Tell me a little bit about your studio, The Dream Asylum.
The Dream Asylum is a studio that I co-own with my partner, Danja. It's a boutique three-room facility, which we opened in 2014. I work in Studio Y, which has a 72-channel SSL 9000 J. In Studio X, which is Danja’s room, he used to have a 40-channel SSL 9000 J, but we recently switched to a simple Avid setup since he mostly does production and vocal recording. Then in Studio Z, which is a smaller room we typically use for vocal production, we’ve got an SSL Matrix.
As for monitoring, I have Yamaha NS-10s in all the rooms and we have the Barefoot Sound MicroMain27s in Studio X and Y. All of the studios are using custom Augspurgers for the mains. We’ve got lots of goodies when it comes to outboard gear, too. Studio X has an API 512c preamp for recording. For compressors, we have a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, as well as an AMS Neve 33609. We also have an Eventide H8000 effects processor. I have a lot of the same gear in Studio Y, as well as a pair of dbx 160X compressors and a GML 8200 EQ. In Studio Z, we have an Avalon VT-737 channel strip, an AMS Neve 1081 mic pre, and another Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor for vocal tracking.
9. What do you think separates Dream Asylum from other studios?
Danja and I are both so big on vibe—vibe is everything. We train our employees to make sure that the client is first and foremost, always. That means making sure that everything is set up in the room as far as pencils, pads, water and making sure everything's in stock. We're really big on lighting here and have multi-colored lighting in every room.
We have murals that were painted on all of the walls. As soon as you walk into Dream Asylum, you're going to be greeted by this enormous fish tank in the lobby area, then you walk down a hallway that's covered in murals from a very gifted artist friend of mine that unfortunately passed away a few years ago. It kind of gives the illusion of where you're in a dream. It's a very cool place for everybody that works here.
But our staff really makes this place what it is. They’re just an amazing group of people that know how to problem solve and are always 100% on their toes, ready for anything that’s being thrown their way. A few times, I’ve had sessions that felt like they would never end, just working around the clock, but our staff are just warriors. They really make it happen, they’re just amazing.
10. What drew you to the SSL 9000J console in Studio Y?
The SSL 9000J was an easy choice for me because when I was working at The Hit Factory, that was the room I worked out of the most. It’s also the console that I worked on the most at Full Sail, so I had a great knowledge of the signal flow. I just love the sound of the SSL 9000J. Some of the greatest producers that I know worked on SSL consoles, like Dr. Dre. He was producing, recording and mixing some iconic albums on an SSL. For me, that was it—I wanted to go with the SSL.
11. Tell me about your monitoring setup.
I’ve got a pair of Yamaha NS-10s that I use. Those are the monitors that my ear grew accustomed to over the years. I spent so many years working on NS-10s at The Hit Factory and they were in most studios that I would work out of while traveling. My ear was tuned to being able to understand the translation that was happening.
I also have a pair of Barefoot Sound MicroMain27 monitors, which came later. That was another one of those “love at first listen” situations. Barefoot monitors give me a really clear point of view of what I’m listening to. And of course, the options that you get with the different voices are great, like the Cube, Hi-Fi and Old School settings. I don’t have room on my console for a pair of Auratones, but the Cube setting on the Barefoots gives me a pretty similar translation. Barefoot just makes a really great monitor. I don’t see myself changing from Barefoot monitors probably ever unless they come out with a new model.
I also have a pair of custom Augspurger monitors. Some of the best studios that I’ve ever worked out of had Augspurgers in them. I just love the frequency response that they give. A lot of people have strong opinions about studio monitors, but for me, 20 years in, I have no regrets.
12. What are some of your favorite microphones to use?
I work on a lot of hip-hop so obviously, the Neumann U 87 is a big go-to for me. Also the Sony C-800G. The Telefunken U47 is another great mic that I love to use from time to time. A lot of times, I choose these microphones based on the artist’s tone. For instance, if I was working with an artist that had more of a lower register in their vocal, I would use the C-800 because it kind of brings out some of the high-end and the clarity in the vocal that I would need. I also love using the Shure SM7B for some quick scratch vocals. I introduced an artist to the SM7B and he loved it so much he ended up recording his entire album on it. He bought one of his own because he loves being able to hold the mic while he’s performing.
13. What are some of your favorite EQs to use?
The only outboard EQ that I’m really using nowadays is the GML 8200, just to put some extra shine on a record or add that low-end on the stereo bus. As far as plug-ins, the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 is one of my favorites. Oeksound Soothe2 is another one that I'm starting to feel like I can’t live without. The Waves H-EQ is another one that I use. It’s been around for a while but I had a hand in the beta version in the early days, so I do love that EQ.
14. How about compressors?
I’ve got three outboard compressors that I love using: the Tube-Tech CL 1B, the Neve 33609 and the dbx 160X. I have the Universal Audio versions of those plug-ins as well and I love using them. Another plug-in I love using is the Fairchild 660. I love putting those either on a drum bus or just on the kick. The Universal Audio 1176 is another compressor that I love using, especially on snares or vocals. I love using a lot of the CLA plugins, like the 1176, the LA-2A and the LA-3A. There are just so many great plug-ins now. I remember when I first started, Waves was everything but it’s just grown so much now.
15. How about reverbs, delays and effects?
I love Valhalla reverbs. Some of the Abbey Road reverbs are pretty cool, although you have to really dial in on some of those to get exactly what you want. And believe it or not, the Renaissance Reverb is cool, too. I love that entire Renaissance package. If you're just starting out and want to move outside of some Avid plugins, get that Renaissance package, it'll really go a long way.
For delays, I love anything SoundToys makes, like the EchoBoy or the Crystalizer. From Waves, I love the H-Delay. Even the regular Avid delays work well from time to time when I just want something subtle or simple. Those are my go-to effects. If you open up a session, you’ll definitely see those living there.
16. What's your go-to signal chain for vocals?
For the mic, I would use either the Sony C-800G or the Telefunken U47. My go-to preamp would be the Neve 1081 or the API 512c, just based on the tone of the singer. If they have a warmer voice I’ll probably use the 512c. From time to time, I’ll also use the Avalon VT-737 because it’s in all of my rooms. But no matter what, I’m always using the Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor on all of my vocals.
17. What's a typical day in the studio like for you?
Now that I’m a mom, I don’t work seven days a week anymore like when I first started. I'm here five or six days out of the week. But my day really depends on what we’re doing. If I’m mixing a song for the first time that day, I just listen to the song over and over to get a feel for the emotion. Mixing is a technical job, but when I go into a mix, I don’t sit down and think of it as a technical position. It’s a very creative and emotional job for me.
Next, I start to focus on what I need to do technically; where do I need to make some changes; what do I need to fix; where are the problem areas. Once I do that, I start to dive into the session; soloing up parts; pulling up the vocals; seeing where I need to make edits and clean things up, like getting rid of headphone bleed.
From there, I just work until I feel like I need to take a break. I try to be very conscious of how long I'm mixing a record and take breaks to rest my ears. Working with fatigued ears can really set you back. If you haven’t done it, try mixing for two or three hours, then step away and come back and listen to your mix. You’ll be like, “What the heck is that? What have I been doing for the last couple of hours?”
18. What inspired you to start a record label?
N.A.R.S. Records was an idea that both Danja and I had back in 2006, but we didn't officially launch it until 2008. At this time, he and I had already been working together for about five years and we had seen how record companies would sign artists and not develop them. We knew that there was a need for not just finding great talent, but developing them in the right way. A lot of artists are great, but we help develop them into shining stars.
Starting this record company, we wanted to find talent with potential and point them in the right direction. We place them with the right vocal coaches and choreographers or movement coaches—we put the right team behind them to make sure they’re elevated to where they should be. I think a lot of times, these record companies sign artists who aren’t ready and they end up getting shelved. You never hear from them. So we wanted to create a safe space for artists to really get the knowledge of everything it takes to be an artist.
19. What advice would you give to an up-and-coming engineer?
My advice would be to make sure that you love what you do. Don’t just do it for cool points, because at the end of the day, if you’re not really in this, it will reflect in your work. I get a lot of people that come in here wanting a job as an assistant, but their real goal is to be an artist or a producer—and that’s cool, but this is not the door you should be walking through. Make sure your decisions are in line with your passion.
This is a very cutthroat business. I've been through the fire, but I'm still here, 20 years later. Don’t let one bad session deter you. If this is truly what you want to do, you just do it. You deal with the obstacles that are in front of you by going through them. Don't worry about figuring out how to get over them, just get through it.
20. Are you working on any exciting projects right now that you’re able to talk about?
In the last year, Danja and I signed three new artists to N.A.R.S. Records. We have an artist by the name of Jade Omari, who’s an incredible songwriter and singer who can perform the heck out of a record. She writes it all. R&B, Pop, Rap, and even Latin records! We also have a hip-hop duo by the name of 3Fortiori. They’re this eclectic, fully energized group who just do it all. And we have another artist in development named Brendo 5k who is super talented from Cookeville, TN. We’re working on projects for all three of them right now and we’re all super excited.
Want to learn more about Marcella Araica's work in the studio? Subscribe to PLAYBACK for an exclusive Five Sounds With interview, where she discusses her work with Britney Spears, Timbaland, Usher, and more.
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