With a resume that stretches from here to the moon, Tony Maserati hardly needs an introduction. He has credits as a mix engineer for everything from classic 90s music by Mary J Blige and Notorious B.I.G to today’s hits like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and the new Beyoncé album. 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, what do you think has changed about the music scene as it pertains to your work?
Making music and connecting with an audience is always the main objective of a mix engineer, so the job that I do hasn’t really been changed, despite technological advances. But the most noticeable change 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. The value of music is now completely in the hands of the audiences. As much as people might feel that a song is great, they don’t believe 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 mix engineers suffer the most from the current financial situation in music, seeing as audiences aren’t often aware of their contributions?
I think a lot of it is about education. The unfortunate thing is that someone like Beyoncé makes it look so easy. She’s an incredible artist, but people need to understand that she’s been doing it since she was eight years old, and the reason why she’s so good is because she’s a craftswoman who employs the best in the business to help hone the music she hears in her head. But those people need to make a living to continue doing it. Very rarely is an album that people want to hear made solely by five 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, 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 created for me in my early 20s. I’ve also 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? When you pull up a Beyoncé mix, do you still implement techniques that you used to mix Mary J Blige twenty years ago?
Popular culture has changed. The Mary J Blige 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 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 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 twenty 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, do you hearken back to techniques of old for that, or not?
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?
I think that you’ll find that most people who work in the music industry have to go through a period of learning. It happened to me in New York for a number of years. I spent a lot of time honing my craft and getting to a point where I could mix without thinking about it. It’s normal for mixers are in the studio fourteen hours a day. 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 the success into something. 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 which one of those tracks or albums will be successful. 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.
In order work with the kind of clientele you mix for, is it necessary to have a particular kind of relationship with labels or artists?
There’s a lot of different ways of going about that, but the best thing to do is to find a producer who you like and get along with. Also, find people who you can train under, which is what I did. 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, and every person involved is hoping for different things: the artist wants you to help 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 mix engineer, that comes in the form of competition and popular culture that moves very quickly.
What do you think makes for a good mix engineer?
I spend a lot of time mastering the technical side of what I do, and I 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.
You’ve received multiple Grammy awards, but it’s not always clear to people whether a mixer gets a Grammy trophy when it’s the artist who wins the actual award. Do you take home a trophy for the records you mix? And many have you won?
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 two at this point, for being a part of the production team. They’re all difficult to win, but after having been nominated five times for “Best Engineer Non-Classical” it would be nice to win one (laughs).
As someone who’s a known advocate for Waves plugins, you’re also outspoken about your use of Universal Audio plugins. How do you balance advocating both of these competing companies? Also, can you tell me about your Waves Signature Series plugins?
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 plugins. I don’t look at Waves and UA as being in competition, although they likely do. 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.
The Maserati Signature Series that we developed was the first of that line and took eight months to make. 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.
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 Decapitator , to hold the levels steady. I use the API and SSL plugins on 25% of my 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 Renaissance Compressor and REQ are good as well.
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 Series 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.
How do you tend to deal with the clutter that occurs in the mid-range frequencies?
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. The basics of what a mix engineer does is relational manipulation. I’m manipulating the relationships between frequencies in musical instruments.
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, so I had to untangle a lot of that to give it some life and air. I used a lot of plugins 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 things like that off.