Editor’s note: As part of our 2018 Legacy series, we looked at individuals in the arts community who’ve left a lasting footprint. Gail O’Neill profiled Phil Tan, director of music recording at Callanwolde’s Rick Baker School of Music and Music Recording, and a sound mixer for such clients as Mariah Carey, Ludacris, Toni Braxton, Rihanna and OutKast. He talks about his musical journey and how he sees his role in the studio as a “chef for music.”
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Phil Tan’s minimalist recording studio — in a converted barn at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, where he’s director of the music recording program at the Rick Baker School of Music and Music Recording — becomes a welcome refuge as lightning flashes, the skies roil and rain blows sideways outside.
When a thunderclap of biblical proportion threatens to raise the roof, it’s not even clear if the sound and the fury have registered on Tan’s Richter scale until he quietly murmurs, “Man, that was vicious.” By the same token, his tone is so matter-of-fact, he may as well have been asking for paper instead of plastic at a supermarket checkout.
In an industry that’s predicated on bringing the noise, funk, hype and drama all day, every day, Tan has a reputation for being the calm in the center of the storm. And in an arena that’s no stranger to supersized egos and shameless self-promotion, he’s the rare insider who acknowledges that it takes a village to rock the house.
A sound mixer whose work accounts for 300 million albums and singles sold in the United States with an economic impact of more than $1 billion dollars, Tan says, “The stars have to align for any project to become successful. Songwriters, producers, arrangers, performers, recording engineers, mastering engineers, marketing people, radio DJs and the artist all play a part in promoting any song. I’m just a very small part of it.”
Tan mastered the art of staying small while interning at Soundscape Inc., the Atlanta-based recording studio at which Jon Marrett gave him a critical first break in 1988. “The rules were clear,” says Tan. “Stay out of the way. Shut up. And don’t do anything unless asked.”
Fortunately, he never confused the job description with being inconsequential, and after two days in the studio, 38 Special guitarist Jeff Carlisi and drummer Jack Gordon noticed the kid’s stable, calm personality.
“We gravitated to him because he was so centered,” says Carlisi, with whom Tan remains friends nearly 30 years later. “Phil did everything from setting the consoles for the next session to cleaning out ashtrays. He kept his ears open. He wanted to learn. He was always very attentive to our needs. He was a consummate professional as an intern.”
Tan attributes his early success to being in the right place at the right time as artists like Toni Braxton, OutKast and Organized Noise were at the vanguard of a new sound in the ATL. Producer/songwriters L.A. Reid and Babyface were early-adopters. And after collaborating with Jermaine Dupri on an album for the female quartet Xcape, Tan became his go-to audio engineer. “Jermaine is the prime reason I have a career,” says Tan, who’s not prone to hyperbole.
Anthony Hamilton, who met Tan when recording the debut album Coming From Where I’m From, calls him the “quietest loudest” speaking man ever born. “Phil taught me that when you’re in a room with a lot of loudspeakers, if you talk softly you’re on a different frequency, so you can get your point across.”
A three-time Grammy Award winner for his work on Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, Ludacris’ Release Therapy and Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World),” Tan nearly missed his life’s calling in an effort to fulfill his father’s dreams.
He was raised in Malaysia by strict Catholic parents who didn’t allow secular music in their home. His exposure to Western music came compliments of a friend whose older brother, then an Oxford University student, sent punk and rock albums home to Asia from the U.K. BBC Radio broadcasts and Top 40 shows from the States helped round out the pop culture picture. From the start, Tan recognized that sound had the power to change his mood.
He loved art as a child and wanted to be a comic-book illustrator when he grew up. But by the time he enrolled at the University of Alberta in 1988, Tan resolved to put aside any childish yearnings in favor of a more lucrative career path. Though he thrived academically, he wasn’t wired to be a businessman.
He credits his older sister and brother-in-law for freeing him to reconnect with his heart’s desire by asking, “What do you want to do with yourself?” when they saw him floundering at school. After one semester in Edmonton, Tan transferred to Full Sail University’s Recording Arts program in Florida, figuring that the eight-month curriculum would allow him to complete his course load and get a job quickly.
The decision didn’t go over well back home.
“My parents were not supportive of my decision to abandon my business studies,” he says. “Ten years into my career, every time I called home my dad would be like, ‘When are you going back to school?’ I understand what they wanted for me, but it’s not what I wanted for myself.”
Tan is fairly certain that his parents still don’t fully understand what it means to be a sound mixer — but neither do most non-musicians.
“When people ask what I do,” he says, “I tell them I’m a chef for music. I take all the different ingredients that people give me [voice, drums, bass, keyboards, guitars, pads, sound effects] and try to put it together in the right proportions and, hopefully, create a dish that is palatable to the listener.”
An accomplished amateur chef, Tan says that too much processing, auto-tune, effects, equalization, compression and limiting on a sound track is comparable to “adding too much salt or spice to an otherwise pristine piece of meat or produce. The core of the flavor gets lost, and it becomes something else.”
All of which begs the question, can the maestro (who admits to having “two left feet” on the dance floor) still tune into music the way he did back in the day?
“There’s a bit of analysis mixed with pure enjoyment,” he says. “Some songs are made so you want to analyze them, and others just feel good. Back to the food analogy — there are times when you eat at a restaurant and try to break down how a particular dish was made. And then there’s times when you take a bite and go, ‘It’s heavenly! I don’t really care how it’s made.’”