At the heart of master-showman Pitbull’s concert is an exhilarating multilayered mix driven by award-winning front of house and recording engineer, Wil Madera. In the 10 years since Wil began working with “Mr. Worldwide,” the tours and rapid succession of hit songs have resulted in a massive cross-cultural following. For Wil, every nuance is crucial as he fine-tunes the mix to support the nonstop party atmosphere of the shows.
Wil was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He discovered his passion for music while studying classical music and opera in a high school. However, more than mastering traditional compositions, Wil became intrigued by sound quality and signal flows. He soon realized that his calling was to create sound and music. After graduation, Wil attended the Institute of Audio Research [IAR] in New York, where he studied studio mixing and production. He spent the next few years serving as a front of house engineer at theaters while honing his recording skills working in studios.
In 2006, Wil mixed monitors and front of house at a small New York club for Omar Tavarez, Pitbull’s first drummer. Omar liked Wil’s work and introduced him to Pitbull, who invited him to join his team. Wil’s first Pitbull show was at the high-profile Calle Ocho Festival in Miami, and they have worked together ever since.
Between tour dates, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Wil about life on the road and in the studio with Pitbull.
[MM] How would you describe the atmosphere at a Pitbull concert?
[Wil] Most of Pit’s songs are party songs. It’s a high-energy show from start to finish. Almost all of our songs are more than 100 BPM [beats per minute].
What really makes his shows unique, though, is his personality and how he approaches the audience. He gets really into it, and it’s like wow! Sometimes I feel people aren’t expecting a full show with a live band and dancers. They think it’s just going to be some rapper out there, but the music, lights, videos and the way he talks to the crowd all interact to give them a great experience.
The other thing is that Pit’s shows always have a strong motivational element and positive vibe. He tells the people in the audience to follow their dreams and never quit. The music is super happy, and he gets everyone to forget about their problems and just party.
[MM] Does his positive message also impact the touring group?
[Wil] Absolutely! Pitbull keeps us positive, so we continually try to improve everything we do. Every day, we strive to be better and do better. He says that getting too comfortable sets people up for failure. Every year, every department—lighting, video and sound—improves. That includes Pitbull. This tour is our best so far. Trying to improve our work keeps us awake and engaged. We’ve definitely seen it on this tour.
[MM] How does the front of house mix help immerse the audience in a party environment?
[Wil] I try not to lose any of the energy that Pitbull puts out. Even though we’re in arenas and stadiums, I like to keep a club vibe going. Part of that is making sure everybody is happy with the low-end. I don’t want to hurt people with overwhelming bass frequencies. I like a nice low-end, like in a club, with a nice attack on the drums. I also focus on the clarity of each individual instrument on stage with the DJ. That helps me transmit Pitbull’s energy to the crowd.
I try to find that sweet spot in every venue we go into. Our JBL VTX 25-II line array helps a lot. I know the system so well now that it makes my mixing go smoothly and helps me maintain consistency. The low-end can change a lot song-to-song, so I make sure to blend it with the rest of the sound to keep the rhythms balanced. The V25-II allows me to convey exactly what I want.
[MM] How many musicians are on stage with Pitbull?
[Wil] We have live drums, bass, keyboards and percussion—four musicians plus a DJ. The tricky part, and what makes us unique, is having a live band and a DJ. Working with Pitbull all these years, I’ve figured out how to blend the band with the recorded tracks and the DJ. I go for the vibe of making sure everything is heard, but with the live rhythm of punchy drums and live bass that keeps my low-end consistent. You can hear everything very clearly, including Pit’s vocals and the live band.
[MM] Are there any technical challenges on the tour?
[Wil] There are always challenges. I would say that the biggest one is going into different venues every day and trying to keep the sound the same. Once you have your mix dialed in, it should sound the same everywhere. It becomes a matter of tuning the PA, so the mix sounds right every single night. That’s how I maintain consistency in the live shows. Fortunately, we have the help of Jesus Canton, who travels with me and is my right-hand man when it comes to live sound.
[MM] You’ve been recognized with several awards for your work. Can you tell me about them?
[Wil] In 2016, I received the Pensado Award in the Live/FOH category for my work on Pitbull’s “Bad Man” tour. We also won a Latin GRAMMY® Award for “Best Urban Performance” for “Echa Pa’lla (Manos Pa’rriba).” I co-wrote the song with Papayo, our percussionist, and mixed the vocals. I was also part of an album by Gente de Zona that won a Latin GRAMMY.
It’s very humbling and exciting to receive these honors. I’m not going to lie, doing work that the industry recognizes really feels good. More than anything, though, it makes me want to work harder.
[MM] Do you have a specific role when you work in the recording studio with Pitbull?
[Wil] It’s different with different projects. Sometimes I’m the recording engineer, and other times, I produce and mix. I co-produced “We Are Strong,” the first song on Pitbull’s latest album, “Climate Change.” I also mix other artists.
[MM] Where is the studio where you work?
[Wil] When I started working with Pitbull, I moved from New York to Miami, and we built a studio there. That’s where we work most of the time. We go in and record with different players, but most of the time, I work with the same team. Papayo and I work together in the studio a lot of the time.
When we’re on the road, we actually travel with a mobile studio. We set it up in a hotel room and are always producing and recording. We try to always keep ourselves busy. We even work on the plane!
[MM] What kind of gear do you have in your traveling studio?
[Wil] We have a Mac Pro Tower with Pro Tools, Logic Pro, FL Studio and a rack of gear. Our reference monitors are JBL LSR305s. We like to travel with the 305s, because they’re very compact and sound amazing. We’ve mixed a lot of music through those little monitors. Besides, we love that they’re called 305s, because it really relates to us [305 is the area code in Miami].
[MM] Do you also have a studio at home?
[Wil] I do, but to be honest, I don’t play any actual instruments. I just use my mouse to make notes when I’m producing. I don’t physically work with artists or musicians in my home studio. I only mix and produce. If I need help with live instruments or anything else, I send the tracks out to musicians, and they send them back to me. I have a pair of the great new JBL 705P studio monitors there.
[MM] Do you have a preference for studio or live work?
[Wil] I have a passion for both. I like the studio because it’s calmer, but I also love the rush of live sound. There’s always something happening in live production. You have to figure things out quickly when there’s an issue, and I kind of like that. Then, in the studio, it’s fun because it’s all about creating sounds and mixing. There are challenges with both of them. They’re different, but each is compelling in its own way.
[MM] Does knowing Pitbull’s music so well from recording it help you create live mixes?
[Wil] Yes. Plugin wise, EQ wise and with reverb, I try everything in the studio first before bringing it into a live show. Let’s say I find a nice sound for the kick drum in the studio and have a chain of EQs, compressors and all that. I’ll copy the settings and try to recreate it for our live sound. Now, more than ever, it’s possible to translate sound from one environment to another.
[MM] Do you have an underlying approach to your work?
[Wil] Definitely. I try to create a unique sound for everything I work on. That’s the most important thing to me. Even with my live kick sound, I like it to be my own. I don’t imitate anyone. I always go for what I feel in my heart; that’s what I want to create.
[MM] Do you have a dream project you’d like to develop?
[Wil] Yes, I’ve been thinking about producing a whole album on my own. I’m hoping to do it by New Year’s and have different artists perform on it. That’s my goal. Thankfully, I’m connected to many Latin artists through working with Pitbull. He always introduces us and encourages us to network. One day, I had the idea to make an album with everyone on it and see what happens. It’s one of my dreams to be recognized as a producer, and I’m going to try my hardest to make it happen.
[MM] Does music like Pitbull’s help bridge cultural differences between Latin and mainstream American music?
[Wil] It does a lot; it unites everybody. Now you have rhythms from Latin music in American music. There are country songs with Latin rhythm parts and Reggaeton blending Latin rhythms and hip-hop. I feel like right now everything in music is about fusion, which is really cool, especially for young kids. It opens their minds to other cultures and makes them feel like they can do so much more. Music really does bring people together.
Many thanks to Wil for sharing his insights on working with Pitbull. Check out this video in which Wil discusses mixing Pitbull’s live sound on VTX.
Do you work as a recording and front of house engineer? Share how they compare in the comments.