Producer-engineer Young Guru on what good sound sounds like

The Audiophiliac has a sit-down with Young Guru.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Young Guru at NYU Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Last Wednesday, I went to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU to meet with Young Guru. He was in New York with The Recording Academy's Grammy U 13-city tour visiting colleges across the country. The tour started on April 8 in Philadelphia and concludes on April 28 in Memphis. Young Guru has collaborated with Beyonce, Drake, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Snoop Dogg, among others.

I didn't know how much time I would have with the engineer/producer/DJ, so I went straight to the heart of the matter and asked him to define what good sound sounds like, and he said, "Something that gives you a pleasurable emotion, but it doesn't have to be a song. It might be waves crashing on a beach. For my music, or hip hop in general, it should have a strong bottom end, with clarity and depth. For me, that's it."

I'm not a hip hop guy, but I know the sound has to feel right, and Young Guru said it has to have a great vibe. He doesn't like overproduced records with sound that gets in the way. By "overproduced," he means there's too much stuff going on, and that sometimes happens when the artist, producer, and engineer were battling each other. Young Guru put it this way, "I like it when it's cohesive and all of one thing." He counts A Tribe Called Quest's engineer/producer Bob Power as a major influence because, "He got the bottom end right." I think the group's second record, "The Low End Theory," sounds amazing!

When I asked about the best way to listen to his work, he laughed and said, "In the studio, but obviously that can't happen, so a great hi-fi is the best." He likes WAV files or CDs, and was less thrilled with MP3s that have been passed around the Internet a couple of times. He said, "We want the best listening environment, but most people hear music on computer speakers or ear buds." As an engineer, he thinks it's important to know how people listen, but he wants to bring them back to high-fidelity.

I couldn't agree more, so I brought up the idea of releasing less dynamically compressed and maximally compressed mixes and letting people buy what they want. Young Guru wasn't surprised by my two-mix solution and said, "You can suggest it [less compression], but I'm not sure it would be important to the artist -- it's their budget, their money, and their time -- and the engineer is not the person who determines that. I don't fight the formats, I just try to educate people about what sounds better."

Young Guru likes LPs, but he knows their sound quality depends on who mastered it. Defining good sound is always difficult, and he admits that even for engineers it's not easy, and when they say something sounds good what they really mean is it sounds like what they're used to. That's not so different from everybody else; engineers like what they like, it's their taste. Regarding the analog vs. digital divide, Young Guru said, "You have to bow down to the fact that there is a generation that grew up with CDs, and they don't hear the warmth of vinyl. All you can do is present it to them, and I like that I see a lot of younger guys in record stores searching for new music."