Photo: Will Yip Instagram
Philly Producer/Engineer Will Yip Works Harder Than You
Will Yip just might be the hardest working man in the music business. You won’t see him on tour. You won’t see his name on a marquee. You might not ever see him at all, unless you venture into the subterranean Studio 4 in Conshohocken, Pa., just a few minutes outside of Philadelphia. That’s where he is for about 13 hours a day. The other hours he’s probably mixing at home - something he does to force himself to leave the studio at some point at least.
You’ve probably heard his work, though. If you’ve listened to any record even tangentially related to punk, hardcore, emo, indie rock and beyond within the last 10 years, you’ve more that likely listened to one of his albums. The likes of Circa Survive, The Menzingers, Turnstile and Title Fight have been going to Will for his studio knowledge, his unique way of bringing out the best of artists, his creative vision and his insane work ethic.
Yip is a co-owner of Studio 4, the studio he dreamed of working at as a teenager, and one of the most sought-after producers in rock music. Professionally speaking, he’s come a long way from the kid recording in his mom’s basement, the one who finessed his way into internships, and the one who cleaned out a back room to record bands on his own time. His first exposure to the recording world began by playing drums in a band when he was 12.
“I just love being in the studio,” Yip says. “I love building. I love the behind-the-scenes of putting together music and f***ing with stuff, and just messing with ideas and seeing it from the first note recorded to the final mix. That’s why I don’t tour. I just want to create all day.”
He started recording his friends’ bands in his mom’s basement in Northeast Philly. In high school, he helped out at a nearby studio, making a few bucks an hour, watching and learning as much as possible. When college rolled around, he faced a choice: Go to the Ivy League school and pursue the “comfortable” life his parents wanted for him, or go to the state school and study engineering, a much more uncertain path.
He decided on the latter, going to Temple University to study under Phil Nicolo, co-owner of Studio 4 and Yip’s eventual business partner, himself an adjunct professor at Temple. Yip’s parents, hard-working immigrants from China, were concerned as any parent would be, they always supported him and his passion. After all, he had it all mapped out.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get in with Phil,’” Yip says. He speaks fast and excitedly. “’I’m going to meet Phil, and somehow I’m going to work at Studio 4.’ That was my dream job.”
Yip had first heard of Studio 4 as the place responsible for some of his favorite albums from artists like Boys II Men, The Fugees and Lauryn Hill. Nicolo, a GRAMMY winner, had also worked with royalty like John Lennon and Bob Dylan over his decades-spanning career.
So, he knew he wanted to end up at Studio 4, but he also knew he had to get a little more experience under his belt before he took that shot. So he hit up a now-defunct studio in South Philly called Indre Recording.
“I remember just like it was yesterday - I was 18,” he said. “I emailed the studio manager, her name was Jennifer… and I said, ‘I’d love to intern. I’m this, this and this. I have skills in recording. I’ve done it for the last six years of my life.’ And she was just like, ‘No, we’re full.’ And that was it. It was harsh. It was real. It was the first time someone said no to me like that. Because I always thought I presented well, in terms of, like, what I could do. Free work – who doesn’t want that?”
There's something in the air in this studio right now... A bit of magic. I listened to this band's music for years while writing/filming and now I'm witnessing music being made that will soundtrack something I'll be directing. Pretty humbling/inspiring. pic.twitter.com/n0QpVa7559
— RYAN MACKFALL (@ryanCRASHBURN) May 16, 2019
Yip is exceptionally friendly and nice, but he’s not the type to take a loss when he knows he can get the win. So, he took something he had previously recorded in the basement, along with $600 – just about every penny he had at the time – and bet on himself hard.
“So I brought $600 with me, and I said, ‘I want to book mastering time,’” Yip said. “For songs that were already mastered! I just wanted to get through the door, to talk to someone!”
He played the songs for an engineer there, and he was immediately impressed.
“He was working on them, and he goes, ‘Dude, this sounds really good, where was this recorded?’ Oh, my mom’s basement,” Yip says. “He’s like, ‘What? This sounds better than some of the stuff recorded in our big room.’”
That gig lead to recording sessions and live shows. As he continued to learn by doing, he found his opportunity to get in front of Nicolo as he originally planned when he picked Temple, this time with a little more experience under his belt.
“I took Phil’s class, and the first class, I went to him and said, ‘I want to work for you. I’ll work for free,’ Yip says. “He gets that a lot. He had a line of kids. But again, I knew I was going to kill it. And he was like, ‘Alright, just show up.’ He has an open-door policy, so I showed up. And I don’t think I’ve ever stopped showing up since.”
“Once out of 3 or 400 students, you have someone who’s got it,” Nicolo says. “I don’t want to have a huge ego, but he reminded me of me at Temple. Will was that guy. I could tell he was just really on top of the ball.”
Nicolo was working with Lauryn Hill at the time. Hill is an artist both he and Yip say has a tendency to “push” her colleagues. That “it” that Yip had was something Nicolo recognized as the mark of a truly talented producer who goes beyond just turning knobs, and it became prevalent while working with Hill.
“He became my right-hand man with Lauryn Hill,” Nicolo says. “Talk about going through the trenches. If you can keep up with that s***, man, you’re in… It’s the psychological side. Anyone can figure out where to put a hi-hat or mic an amp. But it’s hard to get an artist to appreciate what you do and get what they want when they’re not putting it in correct terms. That’s an engineer. And Will did that.”
It’s that unique ability to almost connect with his artists on a symbiotic level that makes him such a good engineer. He becomes a member of the band and a teammate.
“My goal is to read their minds, to get inside their minds and then work with them to create – not even just follow direction – but just create what that vision is, you know?” -Will Yip
“He gets the best out of you,” says Tom May, guitarist/vocalist of the Menzingers, who first worked with Yip for the band’s 2017 LP After the Party, and is working with him again for their next album due out this year. “The kind of stuff that you didn’t know was really going to be there in the first place. And he’s just so good at making an environment that’s conducive to creating with all egos to the side. It’s a wild thing.”
The way Yip puts it, he doesn’t want to create a “Will Yip record” or even a “Studio 4 record.” He wants to make the best record that band can make in that environment.
“I’m very in the process, and I think that’s why artists kind of trust me,” Yip says. “I always tell guys that I’ve recorded with a lot of producers before. I’ve recorded with so many engineers, and I’ve tried not to be everything that I hated in those experiences. I want someone that I can trust. And I know when you trust someone that’s manning this side of the board for you, and you trust someone saying, ‘Nah, man, that’s good,’ that’s the coolest thing. That’s the safest thing. It’s like trusting your partner.”
In a lot of ways, Yip is still the kid in his mom’s basement recording his friends. His highest aspirations are to work with people who inspire him, who are fun to be around and who make music he gets genuinely stoked on. As he puts it, he doesn’t want to “chase” anything, like a paycheck or prestige. Instead, he wants to create an environment of positivity, mutual respect and creativity. That’s why artists flock from all over the globe to work with him.
“You don’t meet that many people who are like Will,” May says. “I’ve never really worked with that many people like him. He’s just so excited and ready to go. He’s able to focus better than anyone that I’ve ever worked with on anything in my life, including any schooling, jobs, the music business, working on records, everything. I’ve never seen someone who’s able to maintain that type of attention span and attention to detail, as well as managing a roomful of personalities at the same time. It’s really kind of incredible.”
“He works constantly at the highest level, and that’s what it takes,” Nicolo says. “Of people who get into this industry, why are only 2 percent of us successful? Because you have to have that mentality and that work ethic and the ability. It’s not all pushing the pencil. You gotta have the ability. He does, and he puts in the time.”
Today, Yip’s reputation is far greater than just a producer. He’s started two record labels so he can support artists he believes in, but who might be working with limited resources. On Wikipedia, he’s “veteran producer Will Yip.” On Pitchfork, he’s “influential producer Will Yip.” These are titles typically given to folks far older than Yip, a youthful 32.
But he is a veteran. It just didn’t take him long to get there. While some of his peers have been in the business for longer than he’s been alive, his breakneck pace has allowed him to create more albums than some people will make in a lifetime, some of them GRAMMY-nominated.
And he is influential, more than he thought he would be, and in ways beyond the walls of his studio or the words of music blogs.
“I was in L.A., and I was out there for a Tigers Jaw show,” he says. “I was just by the merch table talking to couple guys, and a couple guys came by to meet me, which is crazy. L.A. - the other side of the country. This Asian dude comes up to me and says, ‘Hey dude, I’m, like, shaking right now. I can’t believe you’re here.’ I wish I would’ve taken down his information or socials so I could hit him up. But he was like, ‘Dude, you’re the reason why I think I can be an engineer. No other engineers look like me or look like you. And for you to do all of my favorite bands, I think I can do it.’ I’m like … that f***ed me up.”
Yip’s only plan was to make music with his friends forever. Being a representative for kids who look like him wasn’t a torch he planned on carrying, and it took him a while to accept it, but now he’s embraced it. It’s not that he’s playing some Mr. Modest, it’s that he’s spent so much time in his studio world that he maybe didn’t notice how much the rest of he music world grew to respect him.
“I hate talking about myself. I hate it. It’s not what I do,” he says. “All this stuff and meeting this kid, I’m like, holy s*** man. There’s so many talented kids. What if I got too scared if I got bummed out or took whatever job offer, or went to Penn, which I could’ve went to instead of Temple, and just made money, worked in my brother’s firm—and he’s very successful and cool, but what if I did that instead? I was that close to that thought sometimes when things weren’t going the best, even though I knew I wanted to work in music. If letting that fear of not doing something because you don’t see other people that look like you doing it, that’s f***ing crushing, man.”