Straight Out of Pittsburgh: Producer E. Dan Builds a Thriving Hip-Hop Scene


Throughout hip-hop’s storied past, a handful of cities—New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Oakland—have battled for artistic supremacy. Now, thanks to the pioneering efforts of producer and studio owner E. Dan, another has risen to prominence—Pittsburgh. Since opening ID Labs studio in 2003, E. Dan has recorded and produced some of the biggest hits to come out of the ‘steel city.’ Recent credits include Wiz Khalifa’s classic 2010 mixtape Kush & Orange Juice, a huge chunk of his gold major-label debut Rolling Papers, plus Mac Miller’s Best Day Ever mixtape and #1 debutBlue Slide Park. Thanks to a thriving scene, growing talent base, and a little help from iZotope technology, E. Dan’s dream of owning the premiere hip-hop studio in Pittsburgh has come true—proving that, “if you build it,” they will truly come.

Creating a Scene

Back in 2003, the irrepressible artistic vibrancy of Pittsburgh was missing something—a place where local hip-hop musicians could collaborate and hone their craft in a space that both understood and promoted their artistic visions. E. Dan sought to build a studio that would rival those found in major markets like New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.

E. Dan’s inspiration for ID Labs stems from his time as an underground musician. As a former independent artist, he knows the struggle of getting music to the people. “When I was coming up as a DJ/producer in a local hip-hop group, we were never able to find a studio that we felt comfortable in, or that had any engineers that understood the music we were making,” he remembers. “That led to me creating ID Labs. As things grew over the years, we became the first dedicated hip-hop studio in town. Eventually, everyone in the scene started making their way to us.”

"As things grew over the years, we became the first dedicated hip-hop studio in town. Eventually, everyone in the scene started making their way to us."

Pittsburgh might seem like an unlikely breeding ground for hip-hop talent, but with a recent infusion of artists—both musical and otherwise—the city is enjoying a modern day renaissance. “Pittsburgh has been a great city to live in for a long time,” says E. Dan. “People are starting to realize all that the city has to offer. There’s an amazing mix of people and industries here. Pittsburgh delivers all the benefits of a big city, like art programs and a diverse population, without any of the congestion or inflated real estate that you get with other cities.”

Working With Hip-Hop’s Elite

ID Labs continues to facilitate the local music scene, and now boasts a repertoire of A-listers and up-starts who display unmistakable vision and dedication to their music—Wiz Kahlifa and Mac Miller foremost among them. “I admire artists that have a clear and unique vision of what they want to do and who they want to be,” expresses E. Dan. “I do my best work when I’m facilitating someone else’s creativity and ideas, and helping them bring those things to light in the best possible form. I tend to gravitate towards artists that have their own sound and aesthetic early on.”

In addition to running ID Labs, E. Dan also does A&R work for Rostrum Records. His passion for music and the talent of his native city are the perfect combination for discovering new artists. Whether he’s working in the studio or helping local musicians launch their careers, E. Dan works tirelessly. “I can’t remember not feeling slammed really,” he confesses. “The focus has changed a bit, but I always have an overwhelming list of things to do. I’m a dedicated husband and father and that thankfully gives me a reason to shut down at some point every day and just live life.  Otherwise I’d probably never leave the studio.”

Studio Techniques

Working with some of the industry’s most respected and recognizable names in hip-hop has afforded E. Dan a unique perspective on what it takes to create artful, sonically rich records that satisfy both artists and audiences. When asked about the process of assembling Wiz Khalifa’s vocal chain, E. Dan discusses the particulars of hardware, software, and how iZotope is an integral part of the process. “My recording chain with Wiz is generally a Sony C-800G into a Great River pre, then a Tube Tech CL1B,” he describes. “His engineer in LA uses a vintage 251 Neve pre into a distressor.  My mixing chain for him has varied quite a bit over the years, but most recently it’s been Slate VCC, UAD 1176AE, Fab Filter Pro Q, Waves Redesser, then maybe a UAD Pultec or Soundtoys Decapitator. I’ve been using Ozone on my stereo background vocal busses to add some frequency-dependent spatial stuff from the imaging section. Ozone is such a powerful tool.”

Any musician, producer or engineer worth his salt knows that the way of distributing and listening to music has changed. When asked about how his studio meets the sonic challenges of Internet releases, E. Dan shares how he optimizes music for digital distribution: “I try to make a mix sound great coming out of my speakers, where I’m most comfortable hearing things and most confident in what I’m hearing,” he states. “If I can accomplish a mix that sounds great to me in my room, I have confidence that it will work for any medium. It comes down to knowing your room and speakers intimately and having a reasonably good listening environment. I spent many years mixing in a less-than-great room, but I knew it like the back of my hand. When I built my current facility last year, my main concern was having as accurate a control room as my budget would allow.”

To ensure that every track he puts his name to accurately represents the quality of the artist, and of his studio, E. Dan turns to iZotope. “Right now I utilize Trash, Vinyl and Ozone,” he explains. “I love Vinyl as an EQ tool. Josh Berg (Mac’s engineer) and I used it extensively for Mac’s ad-lib tracks on his last album, Watching Movies With The Sound Off. It gave us the perfect lo-fi, filtered sound for those tracks.”

“I’ve been using Trash on 808 kick drums and bass sounds quite a bit,” E. Dan continues. “There are so many great presets, I can just scroll through them with the track playing until I come across one that fits almost perfectly, then go into the settings and adjust a few things from there. On mixes that I just can’t seem to get to ‘gel’ or that need an extra push, I’ve been using Ozone as the last or near to last plug-in on my master bus. The harmonic exciter is great for dialing in just the right amount of extra oomph at whatever frequency you feel is lacking. And the imaging section is great for adding some energy ‘outside’ of the speakers on the upper-mids and highs.”

"Ozone’s harmonic exciter is great for dialing in just the right amount of extra oomph at whatever frequency you feel is lacking."

Although E. Dan uses several iZotope products extensively, he—like every music industry veteran—has his favorite pieces of gear. “Ozone is a great ‘desert island’ plug,” he relates. “I don’t generally go for plug-ins that seem to do a lot of different things all at once, but with the modular nature of the interface, and the fact that it does a lot of different things very well it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal.”

When talking about the future of iZotope in his work, E. Dan offers an insider scoop on an upcoming Wiz Khalifa album that features iZotope gear. “There’s a particular track on Wiz’s new album produced by Arthur McArthur that I used Trash to brutally mangle the 808 and lead synth sound. The record won’t be out until August, so I can’t share it yet—but keep a look out for it!”