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Manny Marroquin

Mixing For Kanye West & Alicia Keys
Published May 2005
By Dan Daley

Manny Marroquin at the SSL 9000K desk in his 'home' studio: Larrabee North Studios in North Hollywood.Manny Marroquin at the SSL 9000K desk in his 'home' studio: Larrabee North Studios in North Hollywood.

You might not know his name, but you've definitely heard his work: Manny Marroquin is the mix engineer of choice for leading artists in both urban and rock music.

In an industry where specialist mixers sometimes achieve celebrity in their own right, Manny Marroquin has purposely kept his profile low. However, the 33-year-old Guatemalan native has created a discography that makes one wonder if it took more effort to keep it quiet than it would have done to promote it. Marroquin's credits include not only R&B and hip-hop, but more than a sprinkling of rock and pop. He's worked on recent albums from Kanye West and Alicia Keys, Grammy winners for Best Rap Album and Best R&B Album respectively, and he has garnered previous Grammy nominations for tracks for Cher, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton.

Producers including Babyface, R Kelly, Rick Nowels and Daryl Simmons have turned their work over to him to be mixed, most often on the SSL 9000K desk at his 'home' studio, Larrabee Studios in North Hollywood. Other artists whose records his deft touch has enhanced include Usher, Mario, Maroon 5, Carlos Santana, Janet Jackson, the Nappy Roots, Lee Ann Rimes, Will Smith, Cher and Seal.Manny Marroquin: Usher album cover.

Breaking In

Marroquin began mixing full time about six years ago, after a stint engineering at various Southern California studios. He moved from Guatemala City to Los Angeles with his family when he was nine, at the height of an intense civil war that gripped Guatemala and much of the rest of Central American in the 1970s and '80s. "I don't think it affected me like it could have," he says. "I don't remember it as shocking or scary. War... was just a part of life then."

In LA, Marroquin was a student at Hamilton High School, a magnet school for students showing talent in the arts. He went into high school as a drummer; by the time he was a year away from graduation, he had the keys to the school's recording studio, where he would record demos for other students on its Tascam eight-track deck and Ramsa mixer. "I knew that after graduation I wanted to... mix," he says. "I didn't really know what a mixer did, but I knew that I wanted to mix."

Despite several offers of college scholarships, Marroquin followed a teacher's advice to get an entry-level job at a studio. Upon graduation, and much to the consternation of his mother, he began working as a runner at Enterprise Studios in LA. "My first day there was the best and worst day of my life," he recalls. "The best because I was at a huge studio; the worst because I was cleaning bathrooms. At that point I made it my mission to get out of the 'runner business' as soon as possible."

There was no one magic moment that enabled him to transition from assistant engineering to the first chair. Rather, he remembers it as a progression of projects, each more complex than the last, and meeting a succession of producers to whom he could prove himself. As a result, he says, "I treat every mix as if it is my last and never take anything for granted."At the age of 16, playing the drums.At the age of 16, playing the drums.

Rules Of The Road

Rap and hip-hop seem to Marroquin to have more facets than other genres. "Rock, for instance, has certain rules," he explains. "You have guitars, drums and vocals. If the kit is recorded well, you're not going to change the sound of it that much. Why would you want to, unless you were trying for a specific sound?

"Urban music, though, that's the Wild West, man. The sounds can be very varied, from so many different sources, and all of them encourage you to get more creative with how you put them together. The percussion is made up of a lot of samples from a lot of different sources, so, unlike a drum kit, if you change the balance slightly between kick and snare and hi-hat — for example, if you make the hat 2dB hotter than it would normally be — the feel of the track changes. You move the fader a half dB and nothing's the same. Rock's about sound and sonics and the song; urban's about the feel and the vibe."

Rap and hip-hop mixes are almost like mysteries to be solved with non-verbal clues, which Marroquin enjoys following. "It's often about using samplers and loops to capture an older feel," he says. "Like Alicia Keys. She's a big fan of old R&B sounds. On 'You Don't Know My Name' [one of four hit singles on Keys' Diary... LP that Marroquin mixed] there was a sample in there from the original recording of the song by the Moments. It's surrounded by a bunch of other tracks and the misconception is that all you're supposed to hear is the 'boom'. But with this particular song it wasn't about the boom, like other more pronounced hip-hop tracks. You dig deeper and you find that sample and that's what makes it all make sense. If one of those tracks isn't balanced right, you lose it."

Interestingly, Marroquin liked the way that that LP's progress through numerous studios in LA, New York, London, Paris and Amsterdam upset his routine — just enough, he says, to put an edge on his mixes that he wouldn't have gotten staying in his own studio. "It's good to get out now and then," he says. "I was following the production around, and I would ride the cab at night through the streets of the cities. You get inspired in a different way."

One On One

The discography on Manny Marroquin's web site at www.mannymarroquin.com takes the trouble to list the specific tracks he worked on for each artist's project. This degree of transparency is unusual these days, especially in urban music genres, where credits are often a meaningless recitation that fails to separate posse members and hangers-on from front-line engineers and musicians.

"It seems like it gets out of hand sometimes," he says, on that topic. "I think it has to do with being organised — or not. When you're young you don't really know how the whole record-making process works, and more people can learn it on their own now because they can record at home. There are so many people involved in productions that it's hard to know who to give credit to. They don't realise that you can create a better sound and a better feel in the studio with one or two guys working consistently on the same project together. Really great music is the result of collaboration, but there's a point at which too many collaborators can diminish the outcome, lose some of the focus. I think sometimes that the business gets to the point where lives get so crazy that they just don't have the time to work like a team. It's like a luxury these days for producers to be able to bring one engineer everywhere he has to be to work on an entire album from start to finish."

I mention that mixing is something of a solitary profession. Marroquin, however, views it as something more akin to a one-on-one tutorial, an opportunity to spend time with an artist and a producer, learning about the nature of the project and the aspirations for its outcome as much by listening to them talk as listening to the track elements.

"Every time I mix with someone, I learn so much just by talking with them and getting a sense of the personality — theirs and the project's," he explains. "If I'm going to style their record — and that's really what a mixer is, a stylist for records — I need to know something about them as people and as artists. The mix is an extension of the artist's or producer's vision, and I have to become a bit like a mind-reader to understand what it is they're trying to get across."

Kanye West

Kanye West has become a household name as an artist — his very public frustrations at missing out on new artist honours throughout 2004 seemed to have made his Grammy win in February as much a vindication as a prize. But Marroquin regards West first as the exceptional producer that he is, citing his work with Jay-Z in particular. Marroquin mixed virtually all of West's Grammy-winning The College Dropout LP, including the singles 'Through The Wire', 'All Falls Down' and 'Jesus Walks'. "He wanted one person to mix the album," he says. "That's a rare thing these days, but I hope it becomes more common again because of the consistency you get in the end. I see this as a trend — in the 1990s I used to get one or two songs on a record; now more often than not I'm getting half the record or more. It's not me — it's the idea that working with a consistent team can give you a better result."

Some of Manny Marroquin's 'favourite toys', including Neve 1066 preamps upgraded to 1073s by Brent Averill.Some of Manny Marroquin's 'favourite toys', including Neve 1066 preamps upgraded to 1073s by Brent Averill.

Kanye West's 'Through The Wire' would have been a challenge to any engineer. The track was about the serious car accident that left the artist's jaw wired shut during the recording schedule. "It does sound unique, yeah — it's hard to sing when you can't open your mouth," Marroquin chuckles. He used a Sony C800 condenser microphone to take advantage of the Sony's higher sensitivity under the circumstances, but running it through his usual signal chain of a Neve 1073 EQ and a Tube-tech CL1B compressor straight into Pro Tools.

On West's record and others, Marroquin finds that creating stems as he mixes makes for more efficient mixes later on. Based on an audio post-production methodology, he'll create submixes of guitars, drums, percussion, keys and even background vocals. The key, says Marroquin, is to compress these stems, rather than the overall stereo mix. "I'll send individual elements, like the kick and snare, to their own compressors," he explains. "I'll put them on separate busses and send them to a Fairchild 670. For example, I'll put all the drums through that to give them some 'glue' and then make a stem out of them with the bass. You can also get a compression-like effect without squashing the tracks by using EQ. As you know, compression brings out certain frequencies in different instruments, so you find them and you tweak them with EQ. I like the way guitars sound through a Neve 33609 and a Motown EQ to bring out a pleasant high end."

For Usher's 'Can You Handle It' from the Confessions album, he applied an anti-sibilance technique he says is painstaking but worth the effort. "One of the hardest things to do is to get rid of sibilance using only EQ without affecting the presense of the vocal," he says. "It's an art. I use a Dbx 902 de-esser, which is one of the best-sounding de-essers out there. But it only has one frequency per curve. So I do the de-essing using the SSL EQs through a side-chain. They allow you to really key in on the affected frequencies. Then you send the output to a compressor preset for the frequencies you've been tweaking, and when those frequencies trigger the compressor, they get backed down into the track where they belong. I learned that technique from [the late] Barney Perkins, who used to use it on a lot of the Babyface and LA Reid stuff he worked on. I was a huge Teddy Reilly fan — the New Jack Swing sound, I loved that sound even before I started working on SSL consoles and I found that he built his sound around the G-series compressor. I started using that compressor and it was love right from the beginning. Now, the XL reduces the amount of outboard gear that I need to use because of its great musical-sounding dynamics section."Manny Marroquin got into engineering at high school.Manny Marroquin got into engineering at high school.

From Maroon To Pink

Unlike some hip-hop and R&B mixers, Marroquin also feels quite at home on rock tracks. He recorded and mixed Maroon 5's contribution to the Spiderman 2 soundtrack, and their track on a Sly & The Family Stone tribute record, the classic 'Everyday People'. "I tell you, it was hard to do because of Arrested Development's version of that song, which really set the bar," he says. "So we decided to take the real indie-rock approach to the sound, putting a lot of the tracks through foot pedals and distortion. And we used programmed drums, so we have this contrast of the essence of garage rock and the essence of hip-hop on the same track. The tricky thing is to do all this and keep them sounding like Maroon 5 — a pop band doing a soul music track with a garage-band vibe."

Carlos Santana's 'Game Of Love' was a huge European hit that Marroquin says had nothing to do with hip-hop or Latin genres. "We kept the emphasis off the kick and snare and put it on the guitars and bass," he says. "With the drums, the kit sounds more cohesive, with less individual emphasis on the kick and snare, like you get in urban music. I'll use the sub-compression a lot more, to give the 'glue' effect and also to add the kind of analogue tone that compression brings to a track."

Marroquin also worked on singer Pink's first album, produced in 1997 by Babyface and the hip-hop team Presidential Campaign. The record, which spawned the minor hit 'Most Girls', was "Pink before she was Pink", he says, as the singer was developing both a persona and a performance style. In keeping with her own sharp edges, Marroquin used a combination of pro reverbs, including an AMS and Lexicon 480L and 224XL units, and the clangy spring reverb from a Fender guitar amp. "Hip-hop can tend to have very little reverb, and what there is is short," he says. "When I get kind of off-the-wall records, I like to play with spring reverbs. They're cool-sounding. You can make it short and tight with a gate and it adds tone and depth to the sound without washing it out. I also EQ the reverb return. I listen for the frequency where the reverb matches the input signal and tweak that. When you have one thing in a crowded mix you really want to bring out but adding EQ would make it sound too harsh, put it through a spring reverb. They're noisy, but thank God for gates."

Marroquin picked up a Grammy nomination for Cher's 'Love One Another', which, like all Cher records, required vocals very far out in front. "The problem with that is that it's easy for the vocals to get separated from the rest of the track," he cautions. "What I would do is add tube compression to the vocal. That adds warmth on the low end, around 150Hz, better than EQ can give you there. With Cher, she already has a lot of low-mid tone to her voice, so I would go to the high-mids with an Avalon 2055 equaliser and add a little there."Manny Marroquin

Lee Ann Rimes' vast dynamic range led Marroquin to automate a slew of EQs and compressors even as he manually rode the fader on her vocal. "The problem really was that the vocal recording was overcompressed in places," he says. "Which I can understand because of how big and dynamic her voice is. Like many women singers with big voices — Toni Braxton is also like that — the louder they get, the less you have to do to the vocal. By the finale I'd have nothing on the track at all. You can often fix over-compressed vocals, but it's tedious. You EQ the problem areas out and then compensate for the lost volume with more level. The key is to pay attention to the lines leading up to the problem spot and the one after it. Think of them as a line on a curve instead of a square. You trick the ear with gradual changes before and after the problem part."

What It's All About

Marroquin cites a number of influences as a mixer, including Bob Powers and Bob Clearmountain, who he says "changed the game forever on how mixers work and are regarded by the rest of the industry". What seems curious, though, is why Marroquin's discography, so full of urban rock and pop artists, lacks Latino names. "I'm not sure, I never really thought about it," he replies. "It's funny — I worked with Ricky Martin, but I did his English-language stuff, not the Spanish. I remember when I was first starting out, people would tell me 'Don't do this, you speak with an accent, you're not white, you're a foreigner.' Some people thought I should be a technician; they didn't think I could hold my own with someone like Madonna in a control room. But I never thought like that, and I never took any of those comments personally. I think people were trying to help me avoid getting hurt or disappointed. But I'll tell you what — it really comes down to what comes from the heart. It's not about money or status. It's about music."

Published May 2005