Music

Meet the Father-Son Studio Engineers Music’s Superstars Rely On

As two of the music industry’s most in-demand studio engineers, Serban Ghenea and his son Alex Ghenea are accustomed to being grilled about their signature techniques, as if making a hit record is about following some mysterious magic recipe.

The truth, says Serban, 54, is both simpler and a bit more complicated than that. “It always comes down to what the artist is looking for, or the producer, and how to get there. And that means a lot of different things for different artists.”

It’s reasonable enough to think the Gheneas have some secret sauce. With a credit list that spans the mightiest voices in pop past and present — including Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson, Adele, Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake — and a staggering 19 Grammy Awards, Serban is one of the most prolific engineers in the world.

Alex, 28, has been a rising star ever since he remixed Adam Lambert’s “Better Than I Know Myself” in 2012 at age 15; since then, he has amassed a résumé of blockbuster credits with the likes of Ariana Grande, Khalid, blackbear, P!nk, Katy Perry and Selena Gomez.

Related

These days, the Gheneas — who take on projects independently, though they informally weigh in on each other’s work — both are based at MixStar Studios, a private facility in Virginia Beach, Va., operated by Serban and Grammy-winning engineer John Hanes. Recent MixStar projects include The Rolling Stones’ “Angry” (mixed by Serban) and Halsey and Suga’s “Lilith (Diablo IV Anthem)” (remixed by Alex).

At this year’s Grammys, the two have eight nominations between them — including competing nods (two for Serban, one for Alex) in the new best pop dance recording category. That’s already cause for celebration for the duo, who are characteristically humble when considering the possibility of both father and son taking home trophies. “We’ll figure that out if that happens,” Serban says. “I don’t want to jinx it.”

Alex, you grew up in the studio, watching your dad. Serban, what did you think when he started to express an interest in the work?

Serban Ghenea: From way back in the day, I would check my mixes in the car, listen to what I was working on the day before. It’s part of the process. He was in a car seat, and he’d be sitting there, listening, and asking, “What’s that sound?” And I’d be, “Oh, that’s a triangle.”

And he was interested in music. He played drums; he started playing early. By the time he was 16, I got him Logic and a Mac, just to learn to mess with it. I didn’t expect much, but next thing I know, I come in one day and he’s working on something that sounded familiar.

Alex Ghenea: A Demi Lovato song.

Serban: Yeah, “Skyscraper.” He found an a cappella [recording] online and built a whole new track around it, just with Logic. I was like, “Holy sh-t, what are you doing?” He said, “I’m just playing around.” I said, “Here, listen to these songs and see if you can figure out how they make them and try to re-create it.” And so, he did a remix. I never explained how to do that, and never expected it. We sent it over to Disney —

Alex: It led to an Adam Lambert remix.

Serban: That opened the door for him doing a ton of remixes.

Alex: I think I was about 15 years old.

Did your dad have to explain to you that this wasn’t the typical career trajectory?

Alex: When I was a kid, I remember specifically, he said, “Forget about music; you should go study business or go be a lawyer,” and I actually ended up going to business school and studying marketing and I married a lawyer. So, I kind of took his advice.

Serban: He was on a path of doing remixes, and he was collaborating with a bunch of different people. Then, when COVID-19 happened, he was living in Los Angeles, and he came back [to Virginia Beach] that March and then the lockdown happened. He never went back to L.A. A lot of people that he was working with were writers; he would do the demos and rough mixes. So, when he was here, he just started to do that work, and it turned into mixing. And then, next thing you know, he was doing… What was the first big one?

Alex: [Blackbear’s] “hot girl bummer” with Andrew Goldstein, whom I’d met many years prior, during a writing-producing phase when I was living out in L.A.

Serban, in what ways have you passed your craft on to Alex?

Serban: The technical part of it he kind of just absorbed, being around and seeing it being done. I’d let him pick apart sessions and look at how things were put together. And I mean, anyone can learn that. The hard part is the aesthetic and trying to figure out what you should do. What do you like? What do you think people like? What do you react to? You only get that through experience and through listening.

Alex: Some of that early advice he gave me was, “Listen to a lot of music. Listen to stuff you like, listen to stuff you don’t like, listen to new stuff, old stuff.” You have to have a very wide palette of things to reference when you’re working on all sorts of songs and genres.

How much do you work together in the studio?

Alex: We don’t specifically work together, but now we’re sometimes on the same albums. Like with Tove Lo [Dirt Femme], I did a good bit, and he did some. Troye Sivan [Something To Give Each Other], that was about half and half. So, we’re working on the same projects, but it’s more of, I’d say, a collaborative thing. If I’m working on something and I’m like, “I think I’m at a good stopping point,” or, “I don’t know where to go next,” it might be cool to go play it for my dad.

Serban: We have the same manager, but Alex has his own clients. I have my own clients.

Alex: The biggest collaboration is probably figuring out what we’re eating for lunch at the studio.

Serban and Alex Ghenea: Their Client Cosmos
Serban and Alex Ghenea have extensive mixing resumes — including shared clients like Ariana Grande, P!nk and Halsey.

How do you balance serving someone’s vision with stretching yourselves creatively?

Serban: It’s so different now than it was when I first started mixing on a console. People are very attached by the time it’s approved and ready for us to mix; the direction of the record is kind of set. You can’t go crazy and take it off the rails, so you need to figure out, like Alex said, what needs to be improved. What do you not want to mess with, because you don’t want to break it?

Every song’s got its own signature thing that makes it unique and attractive. Sometimes it’s a little riff; sometimes it’s the way the whole beat feels. Or there’s a melodic thing in there, or the sound of the vocal, or sometimes it’s all of the above. But, at the end of the day, you’re just trying to facilitate and help get it across the line depending on what [the artist is] looking to do.

Serban, you have seven Grammy nominations this year, and Alex, you’re nominated for the first time. What does that mean to you?

Serban: Back in the day, I was a guitar player. My perspective was always, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do something as a musician and get a Grammy?” I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now. It’s the highest level of recognition. It never gets old. It’s hard to describe, but it’s definitely an exciting and appreciative feeling, because so many amazing musicians don’t get the opportunity.

Alex: I remember at age 16 or 17, being able to go with my dad and see the whole thing and watch him win a few. Being around all the musicians and producers and seeing what that world is like, I remember always wanting to be a part of it, thinking, “Man, I hope one day I get to be up on the stage, or at least have a shot at being nominated.” To actually see that come to fruition is pretty humbling.

You’re up against each other for best pop dance recording — Serban for Bebe Rexha and David Guetta’s “One in a Million” and David Guetta, Anne-Marie and Coi Leray’s “Baby Don’t Hurt Me,” and Alex for Troye Sivan’s “Rush.” How does that feel?

Serban: Well, I hope he wins.

Alex: Just to be up there with [nominees] Calvin Harris and Kylie Minogue and all that, that’s already a win.

Serban: Yeah, the Grammy itself is not the end goal. It’s a nice recognition and pat on the back and makes you realize that maybe what you’re doing may be on the right path, but it’s not the end-all.

Alex: It’s confirmation that what you’re doing is in the right direction.

This story will appear in the Jan. 27, 2024, issue of Billboard.

Powered by Billboard.

Related Articles

Back to top button