Hitmaker of the Month: Master Mixer Serban Ghenea Keeps the Weeknd, Doja Cat and Ariana Grande in His Own Mix

Serban Ghenea’s studio is a 25-minute drive from his home in Virginia Beach. “Otherwise,” the prolific mix engineer says over the phone, “I would never be able to stop working.” His commute notwithstanding, Ghenea’s productivity is tremendous. Thus far, his unerring mixing touch has resulted in just under 200 No. 1 singles and albums, 18 Grammys and three Latin Grammys.

Seven of this year’s 25 most consumed songs have been mixed by Ghenea: the Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” and “Blinding Lights,” Doja Cat featuring Saweetie’s “Kiss Me More,” Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” “Leave the Door Open” by the Bruno Mars/Anderson .Paak duo Silk Sonic, Ariana Grande’s “34+35” and the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay.” To date, these songs have been streamed more than 19 million times in 2021.

In August of 2021, Ghenea had 10 songs he mixed among the top 20 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Now he can claim the No. 1 song of Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time Hot 100 Chart, the Weeknd’s aforementioned “Blinding Lights,” on his list of formidable credits as well.

“The Weeknd sounds amazing,” says Ghenea of the stems he receives pre-mix. “He sounds like he sounds. He’s very specific and particular about what he wants to hear, and that’s most really great singers. They know how they want to come across.”

Ghenea had his first chart-topper in 1996 with Blackstreet’s multi-platinum “No Diggity,” alongside producer Teddy Riley, with whom he began his career. In the quarter-century since, Ghenea has become the go-to mixer for a wide range of artists, including Ariana Grande, the Backstreet Boys, Michael Jackson, Mark Ronson, BTS, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift.

“I learned early on that if you try to put a specific sound on something, you end up shortchanging yourself and dating yourself,” says Ghenea. “Having worked with so many artists from the beginning of their careers, helping them shape their sound and develop their signature, it’s a matter of making sure you are getting people to where they’re trying to go without imposing your sound. That way you don’t get dated and nobody’s tired of your sound.”

Ghenea is competing against himself with three of the songs he has mixed vying for the Grammy for record of the year: “Kiss Me More,” “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and “Leave the Door Open.” He is also in the running for album of the year with Doja Cat’s “Planet Her (Deluxe)” and Lil Nas X’s “Montero.”

Doja Cat and Lil Nas X are among the newer artists on Ghenea’s clientele list. About artists with whom he doesn’t have history yet, Ghenea says, “You’ve got to be a little more careful and try to figure out what it is they’re trying to do.

“If it’s someone you’re familiar with, it’s not that difficult because you know what they like and what they don’t like, what sets them off and what they’re expecting, and what they should sound like — and if they don’t like it, they’ll tell you. Ariana, certain things bother her. She might get irritated with certain frequencies in her voice. I remember those things. Bruno, certain notes he likes to hit, I want to make those pleasing to him. A lot of times, the first pass is where the mix ends up, then I tweak things along the way.”

Ghenea has been working with Mars since “Uptown Funk,” where he was the last in a string of mix engineers. He has been part of Mars and .Paak’s Silk Sonic project since December 2020 with “Leave the Door Open,” which took a number of months of trial and error and rerecording before everyone involved was happy with the result.

“It was one of those things where you knew it was cool once you got there,” says Ghenea. “A lot of people use the mix process to figure out what the production needs to be, especially when you’re carving a completely new sound or doing something fresh and different. You don’t really know what it is until you find it, and sometimes, you don’t know how to explain it either. It’s like a big exploration.”

Ghenea draws an analogy between mixing/rerecording and painting a wall. “You touch things up on one wall, and the worst scuffs are fixed, but then the lesser scuffs become obvious, so now you have to fix those. When that wall is fresh and new and shiny, whatever was next to it doesn’t look so good anymore. In the process of mixing, the things you thought were cool before, when you keep going, you realize, ‘Oh man, I don’t know, I think we need to redo those.’”

 

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