Behind Chart-Topping Hits: How Yilun Zhang’s Engineering and Producing Skills Helped Shape the Sound of Today’s Music Industry

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Yilun “Jason” Zhang is a remarkable recording engineer whose achievements in the music industry have left a lasting impact. He has worked on various projects with different artists and producers, contributing his expertise and attention to detail to ensure the success of each project. One of his most notable works is his contribution to the hit song “Already Best Friends” by Jack Harlow featuring Chris Brown.


As a recording engineer, Mr. Zhang worked closely with Grammy-winning, multi-diamond producer Larrance Dopson, ensuring that the song’s recording process was smooth and efficient. His contribution to the song’s sound quality was invaluable, resulting in its impressive success with 153 million plays on Spotify and 28 million views on YouTube.


Mr. Zhang’s expertise as a recording engineer has also been showcased in his work on Penny Eau’s single “Password: Temptation,” which was performed on BBC Radio Merseyside. His attention to detail in the recording process ensured that the sound quality was top-notch, making it a memorable performance for the audience.

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His outstanding achievements also include the legendary Isley Brothers’ latest album “Make Me Say It Again Girl.” Mr. Zhang was involved in the album’s writing and recording process from start to finish. He recorded on tracks #2, #3, and #9 and played a crucial role in creating the album’s high-quality sound. The music video for “The Plug” has 6.6 million views on YouTube, and the album reached #1 on the Billboard Adult R&B Airplay chart for 3 weeks, demonstrating its chart-topping success. Mr. Zhang’s work on “Make Me Say It Again Girl” showcases his expertise as a recording engineer and producer, leaving an indelible mark on the music industry.


Mr. Zhang’s achievements as a recording engineer cannot be understated. His dedication to his craft has made him a sought-after recording engineer and producer, contributing to the success of various chart-topping hits. Mr. Zhang’s work is a testament to the importance of having skilled recording engineers in the music industry, ensuring that the quality of music produced remains high.


Thanks for taking the team to speak with us. As an engineer, how do you prioritize and manage your workload when working on multiple projects at once?


It is the norm to work on multiple projects at the same time. The music industry’s turnaround time can vary, and sometimes, a project from a year ago can pop up and request new edits. File management helps a lot when that happens. Being able to find the session fast and start working really saves time. I manage my files by artist and projects. Every artist and project has a separate folder. 


When I have multiple work thrown in at the same time, I usually prioritize them by deadline then workload. If a project has a close deadline, of course, I am going to work on that first. I will then start with a project that requires the least amount of work to start with. Easy work can really help me get in the zone of focus and have the feeling of accomplishment. Easy work is usually done to bounce out a different version or where edits need to be done. That is usually the least ear-consuming part. So, when I move on to the harder part, I will still have a fresh ear to make sonic tweeks.


How do you establish a good working relationship with the artists you collaborate with, and what role does communication play in that relationship?


A good relationship is key – maintaining a good working relationship in the music business is no different than maintaining a normal relationship. Alway be respectful, care about each other, and extend the conversation beyond work. This would help building a solid relationship. 


Communication is also important. During sessions, I will make sure I understood or try my best to interpret artists requests and tips. When I first started out, I was scared to ask some of the questions when I was confused about something, and so I would try to hide it because I see my mentors not asking questions and know what to do. Soon, I realized musicians are humans too. It’s better to ask and be clear than trying to figure it out yourself. In time, a mysterious bond will be built and things will become unsaid – that is through working with an artist for a long time and knowing all of their habits and pet peeves. Rome was not built in a day.  


What are some key technical skills that every engineer should have, and how have you honed these skills over time?


I think engineers are very technical. So knowing some basic music theory and musical terms will be very helpful. When there’s a session with musicians and they say, “start from the second half of the song where that sixth major chord is,” knowing what that means would save you a lot of trouble. Especially if you can overhear the conversation when they are figuring out the part, you can catch on to what’s happening and what’s going to happen even faster. That will make the workflow a lot faster. 


I cannot tell you how surprised some artists were when I knew what was happening right when they just figured out what to record. I learned all this by being a musician aside from being an engineer. I would be thinking about the same thing in the same term when I produce. But it’s not that hard – a 2-hour video on YouTube and some practice is all you need.


How do you tailor your engineering approach to different genres of music, and what unique challenges do each genre present?

The hardest part is changing your taste. Obviously, different gears tend to fit different genres. Picking the right gear is definitely the first thing to do. Listen to different genres, and summarize the sonic characters, then try using gears that can recreate that sound. A great example would be if you are recording for a song that has an 80s feel. Try to use a tube mic instead of a condenser mic, because a tube mic has a warm mid-range and high end that you can hear throughout 80s music. 


The challenge is to know the sound and the tricks needed to recreate the sound. That requires a lot of experience. If I was to engineer a session for a genre I don’t really know, I would do some research beforehand. I will listen to music in that genre, look up what the typical recording gear for that genre is, and pick out gears that I could potentially use and try different gears during soundchecks. When I was recording for The Isley Brothers, I listened to a lot of the old records they had. For “There Will Never Be,” I decided to follow the old R&B approach for vocals using gears that were popularly used in their time like the vintage U47 tube mic for the choir.


What do you consider to be the most important qualities for success in the music industry as an engineer?


Ironically, the most important quality for engineers, in my opinion, is to read the room. Don’t get me wrong – there are many technical difficulties for audio engineers, and it takes years, even decades, to hone. However, the most important part of the job is to communicate and work with musicians and artists, be a part of the team, and do the right thing at the right time. If you can’t match their workflow and read the room, no matter how good you are technically, there is always going to be a glass ceiling. 


Another important quality for engineers would be knowing when to go deeper and when not to. Of course, being a perfectionist can always help improve the material you have, but I am sure a lot of engineers have been in a situation where we would tweak the smallest detail for hours. Sometimes, that is necessary, but most of the time it’s not. Having a clear head at all times and knowing how to spend the time on what matters are very important. Let go of the small details. That, in my opinion, makes the perfect imperfection of music.


Can you speak to any particular moments or experiences in your career that have had a significant impact on your approach to engineering and performance?


My first session with 1500 or Nothin’ as a recording engineer was the most magical and educational session I have ever had. I was an assistant back then, and being in the same room with Grammy-winning producers and songwriters for a songwriting session was eye-opening for me. The next thing I remember was Rance (Larrance Dopson) asking me if I can engineer for a songwriter, Tayler Green, because they were one engineer short. I, of course, said yes, then my brain almost started panicking. I was excited about recording a songwriter and also nervous for being in the pilot seat for the first time in a real working experience. I soon cleared my head, opened up my template, and got ready for the session. I was lucky Tayler Green is moderate and patient. I made many mistakes – not being able to prioritize the artist and the workflow being not as effective and also some template upgrades in order to work faster. That was the first time I was introduced to the concept of working with an artist. Fresh out of the school, I was all about craft, and that experience opened my eyes to a more practical side of engineering.


What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in engineering and performance in the music industry?


In this line of work, you have to be consistent, patient, and hardworking. Unlike many other jobs, the music business can be unpredictable. You’ll never know what your schedule is like and never know when the opportunity will present itself. But if you really love it, do the best you can every day. There will be light at the end of the tunnel.

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