Fabian Marasciullo's mixes for the latest Lil Wayne album were so valuable he had to guard them at gunpoint.
Top urban mix engineer Fabian Marasciullo first featured in Inside Track in August 2008 (/sos/aug08/articles/insidetrack_0808.htm), when he discussed his mix of Flo Rida and T-Pain's mega-hit 'Low'. As he repeatedly emphasises, much has changed since then. Marasciullo has moved from Miami to Los Angeles, although he continues to divide his time between the two cities, mixing in the Hit Factory Criteria's Studio A and Record Plant Studio 2 or 4; he's currently building his own studio in LA. More importantly, for this article at least, he asserts that both the context in which he mixes and his approach to mixing itself have changed dramatically.
Three years ago, Marasciullo asserted that mixing was "all about frequencies and pockets and spacing. I am very scientific when I mix, and I don't even listen to the song. I break things down to ones and zeros.” Today, he remarks, "Times have changed, man, and this relates directly to my technical delivery. My work has gone from people waiting in line to get their stuff mixed to the projects for which we are getting full rates being far and few between. In general I'm not being paid like I used to, and this means that I'm much more selective about the kind of projects that I mix. Three years ago I'd mix anything that came my way, but now I only do the stuff that I love and that really want to do. That means that I now have a whole different outlook on mixing. In picking and choosing what I'm going to work on, my work is much less like a factory churning things out, and much more about passion and creativity.”
Budgetary constraints mean that top mixers are being used more sparingly by labels. "I have guys at the record labels telling me, 'We're not mixing albums any more, we're just mixing singles.' One of the best-selling artists I have worked with, who has sold millions, has been told by his record company that they won't release albums by him any more, only singles. This means that the labels can get away with investing much less in people. On top, the next week there will be someone else who they have found on the Internet. But the public likes albums, if you give them great albums to listen to. Look at the success of Adele's albums. An album is a body of work, which will retain value for many years. But the labels don't think of what will happen in five years. Modern technology has also made labels and A&R people and even artists confused about what exactly engineers and mixers do. With Pro Tools getting cheaper and cheaper, suddenly everybody is an engineer, even a kid who is quick with a computer. And the labels' latest theory is: 'Nobody can hear the fucking difference anyway!' With the loudness wars and MP3 and the quality of people's stereos having gone down, this is, to some degree, correct. But I still think that if you record and mix something at 100 percent and then cut it down to 50 percent, it's still far better than recording at 60 percent and cutting down to 30 percent.”
Marasciullo's work on Lil Wayne's best-selling album Tha Carter IV suggests that when labels do dare to invest in albums rather than just singles, the results can be very worthwhile. Marasciullo mixed all but one of the 21 tracks that make up the album, and he and Wayne pulled out all the stops to deliver an album with the best possible sonic quality. Whether this is a direct result or not is up for debate, but Tha Carter IV sold close to a million in the first week after its release at the end of August, while its first single, '6 Foot 7 Foot', went double platinum, and the more recent single, 'How To Love', went platinum in a week.
'How To Love' marks quite a dramatic change of direction for Lil Wayne, being predominantly an acoustic guitar/vocal track with the rapper singing, accompanied by some very deep, spacy drums, and some synths mixed very low. With Wayne currently being hip-hop's leading artist, Marasciullo is certain that it marks a new trend in urban music in general. "Wayne called me and was really enthusiastic, saying, 'I got the record, we are going to win Grammys!' When I went over, he played the song to me, and was performing it in the room, his arms up in the air, singing at the top of his lungs. It was an inspiring moment. When listening, I immediately thought: 'This is a really different record for him.' It's very organic, earthy, musical, and the way I mixed it, it has a lot of top end in it. Until now it wasn't really OK for a hip-hop record to have that much high end. But not everything has to be centred around an 808! This song allowed me to use a lot of the techniques I learned in my early career, like when I worked with Bruce Swedien on Michael Jackson's Invincible and with Britney Spears, all these pop things. Wayne is the biggest rapper in the US and he's a trendsetter, and him releasing a song like this will allow other artists and labels to put songs like these out. The face of hip-hop is changing; it does not have to be a set thing any more. I promise you that you'll see a lot of 'How To Loves' pop up next year!”
Marasciullo first worked with Wayne on his hit single 'Go DJ' from the rapper's fourth album Tha Carter (2004), and claims a small part in steering Wayne to the staggering success he currently enjoys. "He comes from the South, where it was common to have loads of vocal tracks on urban tracks. He'd have 10 or 12 tracks of screaming lead vocals, which could sound messy. So during the mix of 'Go DJ' we turned that down to one lead vocal, more in the New York style, and after that his career started going crazy. It was a good example of what a creative mix can do for an artist.”
Since then, Marasciullo has mixed a lot of Lil Wayne's stuff, including most of his best-selling album to date, the three-times-platinum Tha Carter III (2008), and the five-times-platinum single 'Lollipop', which won the pair a Grammy award each.
As is common in urban music, both Tha Carter III and IV employed a large collection of producers: Maestro, DJ Infamous, Bangladesh, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Cool & Dre, The Alchemist, Deezle and Jim Jonsin on III, and again Bangladesh and Cool & Dre, plus T-Minus, Willy Will, Polow da Don and more on IV. What's unusual is the reliance on a single mix engineer: Marasciullo. "Wayne is a very smart guy, and he understands the basics of putting an album together, top to bottom, including the importance of the mix. Wayne likes to work with a small, close circle of people around him. He records his vocals alone, with one engineer, Michael 'Banger' Cadahia, and he wanted me to mix all the songs. We are very close. He is the kind of artist who has the power to say: 'I have a picture in my head and I need Fabian to mix everything.' Luckily all the producers were cool with it. I actually mixed records before for most of them anyway, but there were a few for who I had never mixed, and they basically did not have a choice if they wanted their song on the album.
"Recordings for the album started a couple of years ago, but then Wayne had to go to jail [March 2010] and he continued work on it when he came out [November 2010]. We began mixing in May 2011 and continued until two weeks before the album was released [29 August, 2011]. If we'd had another two weeks, we'd have mixed for another two! Wayne was still not 100 percent satisfied with his performances, but it was time to turn it in. I mixed 27-28 songs in total. I had mixed Tha Carter III in the box, because we were going for an all-new sound, but the sound of IV as a whole is more organic, so I thought: 'Let's do it on the Neve at the Hit Factory Studio 1.' We had continuity, in that everything was mixed in that room, and I'd print stems of my mixes, and then I'd print the stereo mix to analogue tape. We did stuff that people don't really do any more, and I believe that you can hear it in the music. Also, with the studio culture dying on its feet, there are certain projects that have the budget to keep the lights on in studios for the rest of the year, and that's one consideration I had in going to a studio. I'm old school! But mainly this was a project in which we could really show what we can do, and do something different.”
Mixing Tha Carter IV in general, and 'How To Love' in particular, Marasciullo's working methods differed from those of three years ago, when he tended to begin a mix by working with the vocals and the producers' stereo roughs, and worked in the individual instrumental tracks later. "This time,” explains Marasciullo, "there was no set method, but in most cases I'd work with the whole session from the beginning. The main complication was that Wayne likes to challenge himself and always tries to do more and better. So even while I was mixing he wanted structures of songs changed and/or to add or replace vocals. This was one reason why the mixing took three and a half months [which averages about four days per song]. We were also always jumping between tracks. This was the challenging aspect of mixing on a board, because the Neve I was using doesn't even have recall. So I worked with stems, and my assistants kept it all together. Elizabeth Gallardo did most of that, and she really was the glue for the whole thing!
"When I began a mix, Wayne gave me his vocals, which he has recorded to the producer's two-track, and the producers would send me their full sessions. One issue that I'm increasingly dealing with these days is that I will get the sessions zero-ed out, meaning that all the effects are taken off. It aggravates me, because what am I going to do? Recreate what they did and then mix that? They've spent months putting effects on the track, and the artist has been living with this, so I prefer to start where they leave off. The engineer's job is to record and do a rough mix, and my job is to start with the rough mix, and then 'Go!' They come to me because of what I do, but I think it's super-important that I can start with what they have been hearing, whether it's right or wrong. If I can start with that they did and clean it up and then mix it, it saves me a lot of time.
"In the case of 'How To Love', Wayne had already done his vocals, and he didn't change them during the mix. He'd worked on this track a lot, it really was his baby, and his work was done. The producer [Noel 'Detail' Fisher] then sent me a file with all the individual tracks, and a rough mix which was very urban, very dark and muddy. But I saw it differently, and Wayne did too. In talking with him, I felt that he had a picture in his head of him sitting on stage with an acoustic guitar. It's not a rap record. I don't want to say that I wanted to do a pop mix, because that's a cliché, but I did want to make it as poppy as I could, while still making sure it would be respected when it's playing in the clubs. Spike Stent is one of my favourite mixers, and I love his top end, and so in a way I was aiming for a similar top end as he gets in his mixes. It's a different song for Wayne, and it works and is doing well on the radio. It is him being creative and he really is a rock star with this song. That's the direction he's going in.”
Written by Lil Wayne, Noel Fisher, LaMar Seymour, LaNelle Seymour, Preyan, Marcus Boyd.
Produced by Noel Fisher and Drum Up.
"This track took only two days to mix, mainly because Wayne didn't make any changes to his vocals during the mix. My mix centred around two things: I wanted to capture the essence of Wayne with an acoustic guitar, which are the two most important things in the track, and I wanted to brighten the track, and get away from the darkness of the original mix, which had a lot of information between 800 and 1500Hz — even the guitar sounded very heavy. It was almost like they put a low-pass filter at 7500Hz. It was really dark, and they wanted it that way, even though the track doesn't have a bass guitar; the bass information comes from sustained 808 notes.
"Normally I begin my mixes by working on the drums, and then the vocals, but in this case I began with the guitar and the vocals. The whole thing was about making these two talk to each other and making sure they weren't getting in each other's way. I wanted them both to have equal impact, and had to do a lot of ducking on Wayne's vocals to make him fit with the guitar. They had chosen a very airy guitar and Wayne's vocal is in exactly the same range, so I did a lot of subtractive EQ, as well as adding some high end. Again, I had the image of Wayne performing alone with an acoustic guitar, and in my mind I could picture him at the VMA Awards, standing with a guitar and singing.
"Working on the backing track involved taking out a lot of lower-mid frequencies and adding high end. The final record has many extreme high and extreme low frequencies. After I'd balanced the vocals and the guitar, I brought the synth strings in. My challenge was to make them sound really big when they come in at the end, and for the song still to be about the vocal and the guitar. After I'd brought in the strings, I muted everything, and worked on the drums. Regardless of whether it's a pop record or not, Wayne's stuff will still be played in the clubs, so I went right to work on the 808 and the kick drum and the snares. When I'd done the drums, I brought in the other synth tracks, and that was basically the whole record.
"I laid everything out on the Neve desk, but only used it for balancing and EQ. The Neve basically acted like a hybrid summing amp, because I had all the faders at zero. All the level adjustments were done in Pro Tools. All the tracks were stereo and had been panned hard and left in Pro Tools, so there was no need for panning on the desk either. Another thing I want to mention, because it is really important to me, is the Burl B2 Bomber A-D converter. For a long time I had the Lavry Gold 8000 converter, but people alerted me to the B2, and I fell in love with it. A lot of the sound of the album has to do with this particular piece of equipment and it's one of the key things for 'How To Love', as well. As I mix through the Neve, the mix comes back into Pro Tools via the B2, and I print to stems. And then I mix the stems again. For some reason, everything appears to sound better when it's printed back.”
Drums: Desk EQ, Digirack Compressor & Lo-Fi, Focusrite D2, Waves TransX, SSL Channel & Renaissance Reverb, UAD SPL Transient Designer & Neve 31102.
"In the screen shots [see screen 2], you can see that there are seven kick-drum tracks, starting at the top, 10 snare tracks, beginning at 'Molin7701/MO01' with an Aux 2 in the middle, a snap, a palm clap, a tom track and two hi-hat tracks ['Inst10_b01' and 'Inst52-b01']. These are all machine drums, so when balancing I didn't need to worry about the levels changing leading up to the chorus or towards the end. The drums are very intricate, and a lot of the treatments involved using compressors to keep things in place and subtractive EQ to filter specific frequencies out and make sure everything fit together. One thing that was surprising to me about this track is that the producers actually had things together with the phasing. Often when I get a track with loads of kicks, they are out of phase and I spend a lot of time cleaning things up. But in this case this wasn't necessary. Basically I began with the kicks, making sure they worked well with the sub kicks and getting the speakers cracking, and then I added in the snares and made sure that had the same amount of intensity. After that, I added the percussive stuff, like toms and hi-hats.
"The two first kick tracks at the top are the same 808 sound. The top one has the body filtered out of it and has a sharper attack. I EQ'ed it heavily on the board, around 90Hz and 230Hz. In the box I used the Digirack Compressor/limiter on that, the Focusrite D2 to take out extreme bottom and high end, and then the Waves TransX Wide to get more punch. The second one has a more natural 808 sound, and again has the Digirack Compressor/limiter and the D2, and then it has the Lo-Fi, which is one of my favourite plug-ins. It is what gives me my bottom end, at the very setting I gave you. It's a saturation thing, and it makes it sound as if you're hitting tape. You wouldn't believe what that particular setting does to an 808. You close your eyes, and it's mixed. From the Lo-Fi it goes to a UAD Neve, just to add a little bottom at 80Hz.
"The third kick track is 'OSK', or 'OpenSubKick', and is a normal kick sample with a very round sound. It has the same signal path as the 808 next to it: Digirack Compressor/limiter to D2 to Lo-Fi to Neve 31102, with slightly different settings. 'FO01/ForatD01' is a low-mid kick and has the UAD SPL Transient Designer. I love the UAD stuff. I use it on many things and I think it is amazing. The 'ThckBtmK1' has a higher punch, maybe between 1500Hz and 2k. The 'SharpPunchKick' only comes in once in a while, and sounds a bit like an 808 tom sound. It doesn't hit at the same time as the other kicks, and functions almost like a backbeat.
"Regarding the 12 tracks of snares, the first two tracks, '7701' and '7710', are claps, which I sharpened with the TransX Wide plug-in and the Transient Designer. Then there's an 808 snare and a whole bunch of snares to which I did very little: they just filled in the middle, all the way down to the snap track. Aux 2 has the RVerb with a short room reverb, to give the snap some space and vibe, because everything had been sounding very hard until this point. The main snare is next to the Aux, and next to that is the 'ThunkSnare', which actually was the most prominent one — it sounded like a wooden block. The other snare tracks were more fillers. I used the Waves SSL Channel plug-in on the Thunk Snare, with which I fed the UAD SPL Transient Designer. I added a lot of low end, because the SPL was kind of pulling that out, since it was making it a straight attack, and I wanted a heavy attack. The way it is now, it would probably hit a subwoofer, but it also has plenty of high-end crack.
"Aux 1 also had the RVerb, but on a plate setting, with a decay time that's a little bit longer than the room. A couple of the snares went to that. Everything has its own place, with some of them more to the front and others further back in the room. I'm bored with only having one reverb, and when you have 12 snares, what are you going to do with them? So I decided to give each one its own place. The rest of the drum tracks consist of the 'Gangster Toms', which were 808 toms, on which I had the Waves SSL Channel and the Digirack Compressor/Limiter, and the two hi-hat tracks. The first one was an open hat and the second one a closed hat, and I didn't do anything with them, other than some EQ on the board.”
Keyboards: Desk EQ, UAD Harrison EQ, Waves CLA Unplugged & Mondo Mod.
"There are 10 keyboard/sample tracks, six above the guitar and its aux track, and four below. '8989', 'BA01' and 'CLO01' are a kind of tremolo string sound, on which I added the Harrison32 and the Chris Lord-Alge Unplugged suite. When I worked with Bruce Swedien on Invincible, he talked a lot about the old Harrison stuff. When I saw this plug-in, I wanted to use it, and it's really cool. I did suggest that we replace these tracks with live strings, but they wanted to keep it like this. Towards the end I tried to make them as big as I could, and what you don't see here is that I did a lot of volume automation on the strings, as well as some of the other tracks, particularly the vocals. You may notice that the tracks look very contiguous and well-organised. That's because at this stage they have already been worked on a lot, with levels set, and then consolidated. I did a lot of pre-mixing and riding of the vocals and the strings — as I mentioned, I like to mix and print, and mix more and print again. Next to the strings are some brass tracks, and to the right of Aux 4, more keyboard tracks, with 'Big Club' being an analogue synth sound, then there's a lead sound, and the 'EgM1/2' tracks have a weird, wide bell sound, with the Waves Mondo Mod on them, which were put on by the producer, set to a tempo-based pan. Like the drums, mixing the instruments was a matter of level and EQ to make everything fit. They sounded good and worked well together, but apart from the strings I did keep them relatively far at the back.”
Guitar: Waves Renaissance EQ, SSL Channel, Renaissance Compressor & CLA Guitars, UAD Roland Dimension D.
"Again, my main challenge was to get the guitar and Wayne's voice talking to each other and working well together, and I mainly used EQ and compression for that. I had a Waves REQ on the guitar, taking out around 55Hz and 496Hz and adding top end around 11.5k, and that went into the Waves SSL Channel, then the RCompressor, not hitting it very hard, because the main compression came from the Chris Lord-Alge Guitars plug-in on a 'Push' setting. It's really cool, it brings the sound up front without squashing it. It works. The Chris Lord-Alge stuff is so good, man, that I feel like I'm cheating when I'm using it! There are three different settings for the bass, for the treble, compression, reverb, delay and pitch, and these presets work great. I had the reverb set to Arena and the pitch thing to Stereo. Next to the guitar is an Aux 4 track, on which I had the UAD Dimension D plug-in, which has the best chorus ever. I couldn't live without it. Aux 4 was purely there for the guitar.”
Vocals: McDSP Analog Channel, Waves De-esser, Renaissance EQ, Renaissance Compressor & C1, UAD Studer A800 & Empirical Labs Fatso, Dolby 740.
"The vocals consist of three 'Fixed' tracks that are fed to 'Wayne Vox', which really is an Aux track. Yes, there are a lot of plug-ins on the vocals! On the 'Fixed' channels, I have the McDSP Analog Channel to put some air in there at the top — I use the 30ips setting, bias at -10.4, nothing crazy — and the Waves De-esser, taking out what to my ears are low-mids. I do that even before I EQ anything. The signal chain on Wayne Vox begins with the REQ6, and the curve you see — cutting everything below 84Hz, dipping at 533Hz and adding high-mid and high end — is all about making it sit with the guitar. Then it's the RCompressor to control the overall level, and after that there's another de-esser, because a frequency around 13k was really bothering me, and the final insert is the Waves C1 compressor, which is automated, and comes in when he's singing louder. I use the de-essers strictly as a form of EQ. Wayne's esses aren't overbearing, so it's more a matter of me being very sensitive to specific frequencies, and taking them out any way I can. Finally there's a send to an Aux track on which I have the UAD Studer A800 and Empirical Labs Fatso plug-ins. The Studer plug-in kind of glues everything together. I really love it. The Fatso has a Tranny setting on it, and it allowed me to grab the 240Hz frequency and compress it. I love the way I control the low-mids with the Fatso.
"Underneath the 'Wayne Vox' track are several Aux tracks with delays and reverbs. I choose the reverbs, but Wayne does the delays. He's very particular about the delays on his voice and knows exactly on which words he wants repeat delays, and he sends these to me already done. So I don't touch them. You can see that there are two sets of the same thing, and three of them are muted. Basically it's because of the way I'm gating. I run all my vocals through the Dolby 740, which comes up on an effects track called 'Master 17'. The Dolby is a piece of outboard that I love. Every time one comes up on eBay, I buy it, so I now have 12 of them! I haven't found anything that can do what it does, which is giving me a particular shimmer on the vocals. It acts like a compressor, but it's actually an EQ. You can set it so that when the vocals are louder, they sound a bit brighter. The only issue is that they're very noisy, so I have to gate them. So for the delays to ring out cleanly at the end, I had to put the repeats on another output.”
Final mix: GML 8200, UAD Manley Massive Passive.
"The only other piece of outboard that I used, in addition to the 740, was the GML 8200 EQ, which went across the stereo bus. I monitor the stereo output of the Neve on the Aux 3 track. The signal goes out of the desk, through the GML, through the Burl B2, and via AES back into Pro Tools. I also have a UAD Manley Massive Passive on the insert of Aux 3. Underneath that is my print track, so Aux 3 feeds HTL2, on which I record all my mix passes, stems, and so on. I'll then open up a new session, load in these stem tracks and will continue working from there. Sometimes the stem session can be almost like a new mix, allowing me to free up the DSP on my computer and re-evaluate what more needs to be done. It gives me another layer of control. I don't normally go through the desk again for these stem mixes. But you know what? On this particular session, all the stems came back to zero, so I didn't do anything more with them.
"The session was in 24-bit/44.1kHz, and I printed the final stereo mix to an Ampex 350 tape machine, on GP9 tape, calibration +6/185. I was lucky, because the Hit Factory at one point bought all the remaining stock of GP9 tape. The signal went out of Pro Tools onto the Ampex, using the Antelope Isochrone Trinity clock, and then via the Burl 2 into another computer with a Pro Tools session. I had the second computer set to 96k to make sure that the element of tape was fully captured when going back into Pro Tools. We sent that 24/96 file to mastering, which was done by my friend Brian Gardner. He only did some minor tweaks, related to the ongoing volume wars. Brian and I split the difference between staying true to my mix and making sure that the tracks could compete with what's on the radio. Brian added more level, which means you have to take out bottom end. It's not 100 percent of what I wanted, but for me it was a happy compromise.” .
The making of The Carter IV was complicated by a number of extra-musical factors, including Lil Wayne's prison experience. "After he came out of jail,” recalls Fabian Marasciullo, "he immediately went on tour. It was like: 'Rockstar time!' He was ready to go out and live a little bit. He had been sitting down for more than half a year and didn't want to be inside any more, and certainly not in a windowless room, like a studio. This made life very difficult for Banger [Michael Cadahia], his tracking engineer, because he had to record a lot of the material in the tour bus or in his hotel or in whatever studio they could find in the town they happened to be in. The tour bus didn't have a real studio in it, so it was all makeshift and very improvised, which made it very challenging to have continuity while recording the album. It was a worst-case scenario to get some hi-fi stuff going!
"As I mentioned before, Wayne likes to work by himself, with his engineer, and do his own thing. The producers are rarely there while he is recording. Timbaland was an exception, he's very particular about his stuff, so Wayne and he spent a few days at The Hit Factory. Wayne tends to do his stuff over two-track MP3 mixes that the producers send him, and the funny thing is that he tends to edit these so much that when the producers later hear it, they're asking why he's rapping over the bridge part and the verse music has become the outro, or why two bars from the hook have become part of the verse, and so on. He's very hands-on and asks Banger to do the actual edits for him. With regards to the guest performers, T-Pain and John Legend came to the studio to record stuff there while Wayne was there too, but it's not the kind of collaboration where you picture everybody sitting in the studio together, with the producer there and, say, John Legend playing piano and Wayne doing his thing.
"Wayne's unwillingness to spend much time inside also created an interesting scenario for my work, because I could not get him to come to the studio to listen to my mixes! Normally I would have sent him my mixes via email, but Tha Carter III had been leaked four times, which led to a situation where I had to put the drives in a safe, with me being the only one with the key. They ended up really annoyed, because at the end of the project I went to Italy on honeymoon, with the key in my pocket, and so they had no access the drives! With the new album, there were no digital transfers — most of the producers didn't hear the tracks until after everything was mixed and ready to be released. Wayne would either take a break from touring to come into the studio, or we used iChat. In the studio my assistants were laughing, because I had a dummy drive there with nothing on it, marked 'Carter IV', as well as some drives marked 'Jazz Now', which made people think that they contained jazz compilations. In reality, I had the mix drives with me all the time, they never left my side. If something would have happened to me, Wayne would have lost all his mixes. But like everyone in Florida, I'm an avid gun carrier! It really is like the Wild West.”
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Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world’s biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee concert.