INTERVIEW: Recording engineer Marcella Araica

She’s been called ‘the most captivating woman behind music’. Marcella Araica, or Ms. Lago, as she has been known since rapper Missy Elliot dubbed her ‘Marcy-a-lago’ (after Italian sports car, the Lamborghini Murcielago) has, in the space of nine years, notched up credits on over 100 chart-topping hits. Still in her 20s, Araica has recorded and mixed songs for Britney Spears, Madonna, Nelly Furtado, Usher, Joe Jonas and Missy Elliot. She has worked alongside production glitterati Timbaland, Danja, and Polow Da Don and, as her agency points out, has already accomplished what most engineers strive to achieve in a lifetime.

Like many young kids, Araica hadn’t considered a career in engineering. “Music had always been my passion in life but I never said: ‘when I grow up I want to be an engineer,’ she recalls. “It wasn’t until some time after high school that I really started to understand what one was by researching the various roles within a recording studio.

Araica’s obsession with music eventually inspired her to have a go at making her own tracks in a basic home studio. While looking to hone her production skills, the Orlando-based school of music and film, Full Sail University, came onto her radar. “I went to visit the school and I walked into a real recording studio with a real console,” she continues. “They had an Amek 9098 in there, and an SSL board, and I really got the feel of what it felt like to be in a studio. It was at that moment that I realised that I wanted to be in that room, creating and manipulating sounds and making tracks come about. That was the start of it all. It was a moment of clarity, when I knew exactly what I wanted.”

Six months later, Araica moved to Orlando and enrolled on Full Sail’s renowned audio engineering course, which has spawned numerous other high profile industry figures, including 2011 sound mixing Oscar-winner, Gary A. Rizzo. Not only did she graduate from Full Sail with honours, but was recognised with the Advanced Recording Engineer Award, which is bestowed upon just one deserving student each semester. She was also honoured for perfect attendance.

Back in Miami, despite her impeccable academic credentials, Araica found local studios resistant to the idea of taking on a new apprentice. Request after request was met with denial, but there was one facility that she refused to give up on – The Hit Factory. Araica petitioned the legendary studio with the same diligence she had applied to her studies, and after a period of relentless phone calls, she was finally accepted as an intern in March 2002.

Settling into her new role, Araica found herself faced with four-hour commutes and working days that were so long she often had to sleep on the studio floor. Nevertheless, she met the challenge with a smile, and it wasn’t long before her dedication caught the eye of Demacio ‘Demo’ Castellon, who involved Araica in his projects with local and upcoming talent. Two months into her internship, when Missy Elliot arrived at The Hit Factory unannounced, it was he who backed Araica and recommended her as the stand-in engineer.

“I was just sort of doing the regular assistant duties such as cleaning, getting coffee, freshening the flowers and so on,” recalls Araica. “And then one day Missy Elliot called up the studio manager and said: ‘I’ll be there in 15 minutes’. She didn’t have a studio booked or anything and the manager came to me and said: ‘I need someone there on the session in the room right now’. He asked me if I was ready and I said, ‘absolutely’. I mean, I was nervous but I just said I was ready regardless of whether I was or not. I remember asking myself over and over if I was actually ready. I didn’t really know but I just thought: ‘I’m gonna do this’.”

Go-To Engineer
In fact, the session went so well that when Missy Elliot returned to the studio a few days later, she requested Araica by name. Elliot was bowled over by her lightening-fast command of Pro Tools, and subsequently spent many productive hours with the budding engineer before telling every artist she knew, including fellow rapper and illustrious music producer Timbaland, about her. Turning up at The Hit Factory to witness her abilities for himself, ‘Tim’, as Araica fondly refers to him, was equally as impressed. Unwilling to lose her to another producer, he immediately made her his full-time, ‘go-to’ engineer. Since then she has mixed some of his biggest hits, including tracks from his platinum-selling 2007 album, Shock Value, which features contributions from the likes of Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtardo.

Through Timbaland, Araica met Floyd Nathanial Hills, AKA Danja, the phenomenally successful producer who preceded her in progressing from apprentice to hitmaker under Timbaland’s watchful eye. Danja soon began to appreciate her skill and commitment and the pair formed an enduring partnership that continues to this day. Together, they have worked on numerous hits including Gimme More by Britney Spears, 4 Minutes by Madonna and Pink’s Sober, for which they were honoured with the prestigious ASCAP Songwriting Award. Building on this success, they recently launched the independent label, N.A.R.S. (New Age Rock Stars) which began 2011 with four signed artists – singer/songwriters Kevin Cossum and Luke James and rappers Wyld Money and Cali Stylz.

All this begs the question: to what does Araica attribute her success? “I think one of the reasons I’ve been so successful is because of the diversity of music that I understand. I’m into every kind of music; I’m in the car right now and although it’s off, I’ve been playing classical music. I also listen to country a lot, too. So I have been able to really understand what kind of beats and what kind of sounds are home to genres in which I’ve worked. When I am in the studio, I try to experiment and really find the right equipment to use on sounds in my mixes. I think that is a type of producing because you’re actually forming the sounds that make up the song. The producer is the one who creates the beat of the music, but as an engineer, you have to think like a producer; you have to think: ‘okay, how do I take what they did and magnify it by ten?’ Because that’s what they’re looking for, they don’t want someone to come in after them and just throw paint on what they’ve done. They’ve sketched out a picture and you have to colour it in carefully.

“Through working with Timbaland and Danja, I’ve had the chance to go even further by manipulating sounds and creating new ones. I completely morph the whole sound out and they trust me to do it. It’s a really fun experience.”