With a resume that stretches from here to the moon, Tony Maserati hardly needs an introduction for those in the pro audio world. However, for those just getting into it, it might help to mention that he has credits as a mix engineer for everything from classic hip-hop and RnB records of the 90′s by the likes of Mary J Blidge and Notorious BIG to today’s smashes like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and the new Beyonce album. So naturally, I was very happy that he accommodated an interview at his studio in North Hollywood.
As someone who has been mixing for so many years, through 4 different decades, what do you think as has changed about the music scene as it pertains to your work?
Given the fact that making music and connecting with an audience is always the main objective of what mixers do, the job that I do hasn’t really been changed, despite technological advances. But the most noticeable thing that has changed is that we now have a scattered audience, which has created more of a leveled playing field for mixers. But it’s also removed a lot of financial incentives for people who sell the music. Because of technology, we’ve created an environment where you can create and release music on your own, but the value of that music is completely in the hands of the audiences. As much as people might feel that it’s a wonderful song, they don’t believe that they should pay for it, which puts people who make that music in a weird situation, because we have bills to pay. Even the artist who worked his whole life to create the music receives little or no pay for it. So the hard part is that the audience thinks we should do this solely for the love of music, which we do, but we still have to pay our mortgages and such.
Do you think that mix engineers suffers the most from that kind of situation, seeing as audiences often don’t even have a clue that professional records need mixing, and that the artist needs a team of people to deliver a record?
I think a lot of it is about education. The unfortunate thing is that someone like Beyonce makes it look so easy. Shes an incredible artist. But people need to understand that she’s been doing it since she was 8 years old, and the reason why she’s so good is because she’s a craft-man who employs the best in the business to help hone the music that she hears in her head, and those people need to make a living to continue doing it. Very rarely is an album that people want to hear made solely by 5 guys in a garage. I think many audience members still think that an artist goes into the studio on Monday and has a finished album on Saturday, but that’s not how it is.
With so many years in front of your speakers, monitoring at loud levels at times, do you have to be mindful of the health of your ears at this point in your life?
I’ve been mindful of my ears for my whole career. I started doing live sound and had ear-plugs formed for me in my early 20s. I’ve created my own techniques that allow my ears to rest, and continually take vitamins to support the health of my ears. Yes, our ears have a finite life expectancy, but that’s the case whether we listen to music or not. My father couldn’t hear well in his later years, and that’s not unusual. But this is my job, and I intend to keep doing it.
Can you tell me how time has changed your mixing practices? Some of you iconic mixes of the 90s were for Mary J Blige , an urban artist, and today you’re mixing Beyonce, yet another urban act with a pop flair. If you pulled up a Beyonce mix, would you still be implementing techniques from 20 years ago today?
Popular culture has changed. The Mary J records were done on analog tape, in a time when hip-hop was in it’s infancy, and wasn’t an accepted commercial product. I was lucky enough to be working in hip-hop and RnB when that was the only place where innovation was happening. It was a fringe element of popular culture, and it wasn’t until the success of the likes of R Kelly, Mary J and the Bad Boy camp that people started to pay attention. In those days, people didn’t think I was an engineer and they didn’t acknowledge me as doing anything at all. They thought “you’re not recording drums. You’re recording machines and using samples“. So it became my mission to prove that they didn’t know anything.
The wonderful thing about music and art is that it has history. If Picasso was alive today, he probably wouldn’t s paint the way he did in 1940. He might not even have used paint brushes. But his artistic sensibilities would still be his own, even if his techniques changed due to technology. The same goes for me. It would be foolish for me to mix music the way I did 20 years ago, since popular culture has evolved.
So if Jay Z says he wants to create a throw-back 90s vibe with a new album of his, as opposed to his latest album, do you hearken back to techniques of old for that projector no?
I’d definitely incorporate my new techniques. Also, I can’t imagine Jay saying to me, “let’s record on 24-track tape“. If he did say that, it would be in context of how we could reference that 90s sound, in the same way that a poet references a poem from a 100 years prior in order to extend the meaning and depth of what he’s writing.
What was it like for you when the shift took place from being an underground mixer to working on mainstream records and being in demand? After all, there are a lot of mix engineers who have operated in the world of underground and indie music for decades, and make a good living off of it. When the change came for you, did you have to make any adjustments?
I think that you’ll find that for most people who work in the music industry, there’s a period of learning. I went through that in New York for a number of years. I spent a lot of years honing my craft and getting to a point where I could do it without thinking about it. We’re in the room for 14 hours a day, which is normal. You aren’t going to think, “Now that I worked on a record that did really well commercially, I have to think or act different“. You just keep doing what you do. When all the records I worked on in the 90′s became part of a cultural phenomena, I never thought that I had to parlay it into something, or change anything. I was just exhausted from working constantly. You just hand off your art and hope that people will treasure it, and you don’t even have a clue about which one of those tracks or albums will be successful. You can only hope that people accept and pay for it. So I can’t say I did anything other than worry about how to pay my rent and what my next project was going to be. I don’t know many artists that devise a plan of how to get on top, and the same goes for my peers. I still feel that way, that I have bills to pay, family to spend time with and such. And all the while, you do work with amazing artists.
Does getting to work with the kind of big-name clientele that you mix for have to do with having a particular kind of relationship with labels or artists?
There’s a lot of different ways of going about that. I’ve been lucky on a bunch of different occasions, and recognized my own opportunities. But the best thing to do is to find a producer who you like and get along with. Find people who you can train under. I did that. You can’t just call up somebody at a label. No-one gives you a job like that. People employ you because you can bring something to their project. Period. And every person involved in a project is hoping for different things. The artist wants you to help them bring their creative vision to fruition. The manager is hoping that you’ll not only do that, but also put a sonic stamp on it that equates to a certain number of sales. The label is looking for security in your past, and hoping that you’ll do your best work. It’s no different than the manager of a baseball team who’s counting on someone to bat clean-up and take it all home. But they never know if the guy is going to strike out or hit it over the wall, because there’s always a pitcher involved, and as a mixer, that comes in the form of competition and popular culture that moves very quickly. So when that time came around for us, we were all in the right place and ready. It’s the same way an athlete goes and out onto a pitch and sometimes he knocks it out of the park, and sometimes it goes wrong and he thinks, “Dammit, I know I was swinging right. What happened?“.
A question that might sound vague, but still pops up a lot among aspiring mixers, is “what makes a good mix engineer?”. Is it a technical mastery of the skills requeired or more about attaining the highest form of your own artistic expression? Some people know all the technical aspects of compression, EQ, distortion and gear, but still don’t have a resume that reflects that their work is in demand. What do you think separates the amateurs from the pros?
I spend a lot of time mastering the technical side of what I do, and do my homework about popular culture. But it’s due to my history in this business that I can stand back and say “I don’t care that people can’t tell that this sound is a guitar. What matters is the energy that the sound brings to the song“. That’s what I teach my assistants and young engineers. Being a good mixer doesn’t mean that you tweak and EQ like I do. It means that your primary endeavor is to bring out the song in all it’s importance and emotive points so that it connects with the intended audience in the right way. It doesn’t matter if the kick drum is good or bad. What matters is that it works for the song.
A note-worthy part of your resume is that you’ve received multiple Grammy awards and nominations. But for a lot of people, that can be a bit ambiguous, since it’s never clear whether an engineer gets a Grammy trophy for mixing a record that an artists wins for. Do you take home a trophy for the records you mix, or only for the category of engineering?
There was a point where they started giving Grammy’s to the production team involved in a Grammy win. So I was up for Record Of The Year this year for “Blurred Lines“, along with the entire production team for that record. My total nominations are twelve. Five of them were for “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical“. I’d love to win one of those. I’ve gotten 2 at this point, for being a part of the production team. They’re all difficult to win, but having been nominated 5 times for “Best Engineer Non-Classical” it would be nice to win one.
As someone who’s a known advocate for Waves plugins, and has his own plugin bundle with them, you’re also outspoken about your use of UA plugins. How do you balance advocating both of these competing companies?
It’s not competitive to me at all. My affiliation with Waves comes from the fact that they make great products, and they asked me to be a part of the development team for their product. The Maserati Signature Series that we developed was the first of that line, and we did it together. I can’t tell you how much it meant that they asked me to be involved, and gave me the time to work on something that would be useful to young engineers and producers. That’s the reason I made it. It wasn’t developed for me, but rather for those who don’t have the time to tweak everything. It took 8 months to develop. So I don’t look at Waves and UA as being in competition, although they likely do, since they exist in the same market. I don’t live there though, even though I have my name on certain plugins. But it’s not my job to put UA out of business just because I work with Waves. And I don’t think it’s Waves life goal to put UA out of business either. I think there’s healthy competition, and that they do many things differently. If I had create an analogy for it, I’d use SSL and Neve. I don’t think there’s anyone in our business that would say either of those companies should have been unsuccessful. The fact that they were both successful added to our business and helped our crafts, and I think the same goes for Waves and UAD.
Do you have any favorites in the Waves and UA bundles?
I have many. I use the C4 everyday on many tracks, as well as the Kramer Pie compressor and other plugins from the Kramer bundle. I use the L2 on subgroups, as well as after a distortion plugin like Fabfilter Saturn or Soundtoys’ Distressor, to hold the levels steady. I use the API and SSL plugins on 25% of a total tracks. I know that UA have also made their own API and SSL plugins, but I don’t use those. I like the Doubler too. The RCompressor and REQ are good as well.
But on UA’s side, I use the Fairchild everyday, mostly on vocals. I use their LA2A stuff a lot, as well as the LA3a, the 33609, their Neve EQ and the Studder 800 plugin.
A lot of the producers who send me mixes have already done a pre-mix, and they use a lot of all-in-one plugins, like the CLA stuff. Although I like those plugins, they’re a bit much for me given the tweaker I am. So I generally take that off, and use individual plugins to create a similar sound. Audioease’s Altiverb is a regular for me, and I use some Eventide things as well.
I’ve heard other mix engineers talk about the difficulty of dealing with the mid-range frequencies, since many sounds, like pianos, tend to occupy this area frequently. How do you tend to deal with the clutter that occurs there?
If there’s a definition of the basics that a mix engineer does, it’s the relational manipulation. I’m manipulating the relationships between frequencies in musical instruments. I use compression and subtractive EQ to control those areas. “Control” doesn’t mean “remove”. That means that I make the decisions on where and how loud they are.
Can you tell me about some of the things you’re working on before we wrap up?
I just recently did a project with Jessie J. Just one song, which was produced by Jonas Jerberg. He had used a lot of maximization and dynamic destruction, and I had to untangle a lot of that to give it some life and air, which I used a lot of plugins for, like the UA LA2A and Neve compressor. A lot times, as I mentioned before, producers will use all-in-one plugins like Izotope Ozone to enhance stuff, and sometimes I’ll have to take some things out.