Los Angeles based, Paramount Studios mixer and producer, Yáng Young Tan, has been painting Asian and Western stages with her musical color. Participating in hits like Jackon and Stephanie’s “I Love You 3000 II” to Raveena’s “Rush,” her talents are clear in hip-hop and pop. Since coming from China to the states in 2014, her roster also boasts acts like J. Cole and AleXa, and we can’t wait for what we’ll hear from her next.
For EnVi, I spoke with Yáng Tan about her musical journey and the tools she uses, the importance of just trying things out despite limitations, and finding your personal touch as an artist.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For those who don’t know, can you briefly describe what you do as a music producer and mixer?
Yáng: The thing we do is bringing the vision of the artist into reality. Mixing is the very last step before going to the mastering. It’s kind of like, if you are preparing a dish and all the parts of the dish were prepared—the mixer is the one that puts them all together and then presents them nicely with balance. That’s what I do every day.
So how did you get started in music, and how and why did you eventually move into K-pop, since you’ve previously worked with musicians like Kanye and J. Cole?
Yáng: I didn’t purposely move to K-pop. It really was chance that I worked with Jackson Wang, previously from GOT7. I worked on his first solo album. I mixed the whole album. I was fortunate to know some friends from LA who worked on amazing things on K-pop and they just brought me the opportunity to mix their projects. It was a very unexpected gift for me. I have so much appreciation for K-pop and I am so fortunate. I would love to work on more in the future.
In terms of how I got into music, I was actually in an art program—fine arts—because my family are all artists and designers and they wanted me to do the same. I was in a high school attached to an art academy, but I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I felt like my talent wasn’t in fine arts. I was really into music. I always had a love for music.
I wanted to learn how to play piano, and I used to sneak into the classrooms. When my mom taught art classes, I would sneak into the piano classrooms and just secretly practice piano. I took lessons from a composer when I was a sophomore and I changed my major without my family knowing, because they didn’t know that I was taking classes. Then I applied for a music conservatory, and then also a university that offered a music and technology program. Eventually, I got accepted by the university. That got me really into the production side of the music.
Especially because it is a male-dominated field, do you have any advice about “making it” in the industry?
Yáng: A lot of people think that, as a female, it’s harder to “make it,” but I think the reality is it’s hard for everyone. The key is not to doubt yourself and just keep going. You will face a lot of challenges, the only key is to be consistent and never give up. That’s the best advice I’ll give to my younger self.
I think the only blockage for female creatives is that they think they are not capable. I think women are really capable of figuring things out, but if you are scared in the first place, it’ll be really hard to get better.
You’ve talked before in interviews about being traditionally trained in China, so in what ways does that make your work unique?
Yáng: My school was structured more towards classical music, and I got the chance to work with the China National Orchestra. I was touring with them for two years. You really learn how to set up everything, the balance, and a lot more than just recording one vocal in a studio versus how we had 122 channels at a time. It’s kind of like you started with a bigger scale and then you move into a more microscopic scale of one—[especially] for pop music now, it’s mostly the vocals, we’re very vocal focused.
It just taught me how to listen and I think that’s the biggest thing, but also there’s limitations. Back in the day, my mentor, she’s a composer—classically trained—she was like, “If you didn’t learn piano when you were three, there’s a very slim chance. You can make music, but you won’t be able to write.”
That was the limitation that I believed for the longest time until 2018, when I met J. Cole in a session. That’s how I got into music production. I learned more tricks instead of limiting myself in the box, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to write music. But there are so many ways nowadays, with technology and everything. And I do know music, I can play what I hear in my head. So, no matter how long you take, you will finally get there, but I think that was the limitation of classical training.
Is it different working with artists across genres, or do you carry a musical philosophy that allows you to easily adapt to any style?
Yáng: I used to think about how it’s supposed to sound, a lot, but I think it’s kind of like any genre of art, right? If you are in visual art, there’s a certain trend that goes on every year. You sort of have the eyes for it. Then for us, we’ll have the ears for it, and we listen to it. We kind of know what the taste is, what the trend is for the coming years, and you kind of adapt your own palette into it.
For me, it took me a long time to figure it out—I have a special palette. I always think about my mixing technique, which is more like Claude Monet’s paintings. I have that less clear, like shimmery, really grayed out color to it. That’s always my signature. That’s how I like to hear sounds.
For a different genre, you listen to a bunch of those songs and get what is its focal point. For K-pop, the vocal is the most important thing, and also different instrumentals, because they always have a big production. As long as you can grasp what the producer’s intention was, we can really make a song. Those are techniques, but at the end of the day, it’s how that song makes you feel.
When I was mixing Jackson’s and Stephanie’s, “I Love You 3000 II,” I was feeling that song as a love song. You listen to it in the winter, and you want to feel the warmth in you, so you have to bring that noise, bring that warmth into the vocal, so it’s less crispy, but more raspiness. A good mix is how you bring the emotional elements out.
Do you ever have times where you’re not inspired, like a creative block? How do you get through it?
Yáng: I actually procrastinate a lot, and I have a bad habit of finishing someone else’s project before mine, [especially] because I work as a mixer. Sometimes, it really kills the mood or creative side of me. When that happens, I’ll take a break, watch a movie, or I will watch some tutorials, like learning the technical side, like “how to use synthesizers” on YouTube.
Nine times out of ten, those people are really inspiring and that gets me hyped like, “Oh, I want to try this!” It’s kind of like learning how to do your makeup. [When] you watch a makeup tutorial, you’ll get really hyped up to try a new technique, right? So, it’s the same with music. I think watching other people do their magic helps.
Have you worked in the Chinese industry, and are there musical standouts there that Western audiences should also be noticing? Any dream collaborations?
Yáng: I do have a lot of people I want to work with. Lay from EXO, I love his recent direction of where he is going with his music. There’s also a lot of really cool indie artists that are coming out, and that’s what I’m really looking forward to. I think, because they are really international, they have a lot of intake of what’s going on in the Western world, so they can really try a lot of different things and I think it’s really cool.
I usually do New Music Friday on Spotify, so I usually will listen to them and then go through those artists. Of the top, Conan Gray is someone that I really want to work with, and Giveon. I’ve worked with him once, but I haven’t been able to really get into a very deep creative process with him. And FKA twigs. I really love her music. I worked with her once, like I recorded her, but I really wish that one day I can make music with her. That’ll be dope.
What is your ultimate goal with music? What do you strive for musically?
Yáng: My ultimate goal is to make music every day and just have fun with people. I recently started to think less about what I am achieving and more about enjoying the process of making music with friends. The vision I’m seeing is like, I can travel anywhere and look outside the windows, like glaciers or whatever, like a beautiful view. And then I’m making music, getting inspired every day. I think that’s my ultimate goal. I am sort of living in that state, where I can make music every day now. I hope that it can last, and all of the success or whatever that comes on along the way is the side effect. I’m living the life I want to live, if that makes sense.
This article originally appeared in our Women’s Issue, be sure to read it here!