A simple song and an outrageous video turned Robin Thicke from a star to a superstar — with the aid of master mixer Tony Maserati.
What do you do when you're an artist and songwriter wanting to break through to a larger audience, after 10 years of moderate success with mostly harmless soul and R&B music and a cuddly image that strongly appeals to women? From a musical perspective, Robin Thicke's answer was to take his cue from his biggest hero, Marvin Gaye. In 1977, Motown pushed Gaye to write a commercial song for a single, and his response was 'Got To Give It Up', which went on to become Gaye's third American number one. Thirty-five years later Thicke, with help from long-term collaborator and producer Pharrell Williams, reinvented the song, and the result was the biggest summer hit of 2013, outdoing even Daft Punk's monster hit 'Get Lucky' — which, by a strange coincidence, also features Pharrell, who appears to be everywhere at the moment.
At the time of writing, Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' had sold well over a million copies worldwide, and reached the number one spot in at least 14 countries, including the UK and the US. The song is undoubtedly ultra-catchy, but a major contributor to its success is clearly the accompanying video. Realising that there's no such thing as bad publicity and that there's nothing as attention-grabbing as nudity and a bit of controversy, Thicke and his team went for the jugular. The unrated version of the video has three models prancing about dressed only in skin-coloured G-strings, contrasting with a fully dressed Thicke, Pharrell and rapper TI. It has been called "eye-poppingly misogynist”, "horrible, misogynist bullshit”, "incredibly sexist” and so on. The fact that the lyrics contain lines like "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two,” added to the controversy. Clearly no more Mr Nice Guy for Thicke, who acknowledged in an interview that they "tried to do everything that was taboo”. Many feel that Thicke overstepped a line, blurred or not, and it remains to be seen how this will affect his image and career in the long term.
Controversial video and crude lyrics aside, there's been no argument over the appeal of the song itself. 'Blurred Lines' is an earworm-inducing masterpiece of commercial pop songwriting, aided by a production of staggering simplicity. The entire arrangement consists of only drums, percussion, bass and Fender Rhodes piano, plus the voices of Thicke, Pharrell and TI, and the mix is remarkably smooth and transparent.
Partly responsible for the addictive, silken sound of 'Blurred Lines' is mix engineer Tony Maserati. From Mirrorball Studios, his private facility in Los Angeles, he notes that he has worked with Thicke before, having mixed all 17 tracks on 2011's Love After War. Its follow-up Blurred Lines is the singer's sixth album, and his fifth on the Star Trak label founded by Pharrell and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes. Maserati mixed 14 songs for the album, "seven of which got on the record,” he says. "We started mixing last Christmas, and it was a long process. There were 100 different versions of 'Blurred Lines', mostly different edits, different endings, changes to the vocals, and so on. Throughout working with Robin, he has been fantastic. He's like a modern-day Marvin Gaye. He's super-talented and involved in every detail of his record, the arrangements, the production, playing many of the instruments, and so on.”
Maserati himself is also deserving of the description "super-talented”, and for many years now has been widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading mix engineers. Born Tony Masciarotte, he obtained an MA in Production and Engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and set the first steps of his studio career at Sigma Sound Studios in New York, before going independent in 1989. During his time in New York he's credited with being part-responsible for the sound of New York hip-hop and R&B, with his approach being described as "outhouse on the bottom, penthouse on the top” — the focus on big bass and classy high end. Songs Maserati has mixed have amassed sales of well over 100 million and earned him a Grammy Award and several further nominations. Amongst those that have benefitted from his expertise are Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jason Mraz, James Brown, Mariah Carey, Notorious BIG, Black Eyed Peas, Destiny's Child, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Pink, Alicia Keys, Taylor Swift and many, many more. Since moving to Los Angeles in the Summer of 2010, he has mixed three number one hits: in addition to 'Blurred Lines' there were Pink's 'Just Give Me A Reason' and Beyoncé's 'Best Thing I Never Had'.
Maserati previously featured in the Inside Track series in 2007, discussing his mix of John Legend's 'Save Room'. At the time he was working from his Una Volta studio in a barn in upstate New York, but relocated to Los Angeles after he got married and his wife asked: "So, when do we move back to civilisation?” At this point, recalls Maserati, "The choice was either New York or Los Angeles, and the latter offered many more opportunities insofar as space is concerned.”
A lot can change in six years, but the mixer maintains that, other than his move to LA and his employing more staff and spreading into other ventures (see 'Mirrorball' box), everything else has remained the same for him. Back in 2007 he stated he had not been "able to capture the same amount of sonic detail in my mixes” when mixing purely in digital, and so opted for an analogue-digital hybrid approach. Today he still feels that analogue gear can give him something that he can't get from digital, and he still by and large uses the same gear as six years ago, and continues to mix using the same hybrid method.
"In 2007 I was working out of my barn in upstate New York with virtually exactly the same setup as I have now,” noted Maserati. "I still have my Avid D-Command, so I can use faders, and it obviously allows me to map my plug-ins. I also still use hardware inserts and have all the outboard, and sum through a Neve Melbourne as well as the Chandler EMI Mini Mixer, going into my Telefunken V76 preamps. I also still have my favourite Tannoy DMT12 speakers and ProAc Studio 100 monitors. I have, however, added some new outboard gear during the last six years, like the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, the Chandler Curvebender EQ and the Pendulum PL2 Peak Limiter.”
Digging a little beneath the surface, however, it turns out that things aren't quite that straightforward. New technological developments in computer technology and audio software have clearly also impacted on Maserati's work. "It's true that plug-ins are getting better and better,” acknowledges the mixer. "We are now using Pro Tools HDX, and we have been beta testing version 11. We're using HD I/O [interfaces], and a lot of UAD stuff that has its own DSP, and my computers are faster and we're using solid-state drives. One thing that really makes a difference is that I now work a lot on my Retina display MacBook Pro. I have a duplicate set of plug-ins on it, and I can take it with me everywhere I go. I carry a great set of headphones with it, the Sennheiser HD600, a set of small powered speakers, the Pelonis Model 42s, and a DAC made by Black Lion, from which the signal goes XLR balanced into my monitors. It's the perfect setup for mobile mixing.
"Sometimes I work at my Dad's house, sometimes I am mixing in my barn in upstate New York, sometimes while travelling. Obviously the acoustic environments aren't great, so I send my mixes back to Mirrorball where my guys can listen to them and give me comments. I may ask them to send some elements through analogue gear, like put the vocals through a Chandler Zener or a Neve EQ, and they will print that and send it back to me. In fact, I mixed three songs for Alicia Keys completely in my laptop and I am currently working on some Beyoncé stuff that changes very quickly, so it would not make sense for me to take that out into the analogue domain. As a result I am mixing those entirely in the digital domain, and these mixes sound amazing. You would not be able to tell the difference!”
When asked the obvious question — why doesn't he go the whole hog and get rid of his analogue gear? — Maserati replies: "It's the headroom. I still understand the headroom better in the analogue world. I also still like compression better in the analogue world, as well as EQ. And I get things out of summing in the analogue domain that I don't get out of summing in the digital world. I have learned to work with both, but my understanding of the analogue world is still better. Many of my assistants don't understand analogue, they understand digital better, but as my understanding of digital gets better, my digital mixes get better. Nevertheless, my team and I will always be listening to the mixes and listening out for elements that are candidates for splitting out into the analogue world, because it may sound a bit constrained as a result of the recording techniques that were used or because of the production. I love the fact that we can still split it to analogue if we want.”
When discussing his current work with Beyoncé, Maserati touches on the constraints imposed by today's increasingly fast and flexible recording approaches, with clients changing elements in the songs while the mix is still in progress, and after the mixes are completed, demanding same-day turnarounds on additional changes to these mixes, sometimes weeks or even months later. All this makes the instant recall capacity of working in the box a necessity for many mixers. "The solution to that issue can be summarised in one word: teaboyaudio.com. It is recall software and an online recall database. Have a look at it, and you'll be blown away. Colin Miller has taken pictures of loads of pieces of gear [currently 1058 and counting, PT], without the knobs and then he took pics of the knobs themselves, and in his software he put the two together and this allows you to reproduce your mix very accurately. The software has representations of different versions of the GML EQs, of Neve EQs, certainly of all the equipment I have, and I guess of almost everything that's out there. They are all exact. Even when I used every piece of outboard in my studio for a mix it will take my team a maximum of 10 minutes to put that mix back together. It's incredible.”
'Blurred Lines' was mixed by Maserati in his room at Mirrorball, not in the box but with his trademark hybrid analogue/digital approach. "Most of the other songs I mixed for the album were done by Robin and his long-term collaborator, Pro-Jay, who works in Digital Performer, which means that I have to import his sessions as audio. His tracks are super-tight. If I put his rough mixes out of phase against the tracks in the session, and play them together, they nearly cancel each other out. You know how impossible that is? That almost never happens. Most of the time, the rough mix and the session that is sent to me don't sound the same at all. My assistants have to work to get it to sound like the rough, because the label always wants me to start from that. They are always referencing the rough. But sometimes my engineers have to call whoever did the session and ask what plug-ins they used, or for them to supply parts that are not in the session. You're listening to the rough and there's a piano in a certain section, and then you go, 'Wait a minute, there's no piano in this section in the session, find out where it is!' I can't even begin to tell you how that slows you down.
"But Pro-Jay's stuff comes in perfect, as did the 'Blurred Lines' session, which was recorded by Andrew Coleman, Pharrell's engineer. My contribution was just a matter of adjusting some small details, some reverb here and a little compression there, some EQ, and that was all. It was all very minor. Because this was such a simple track, with just 10 tracks of drums, a stereo bass, a Rhodes, and the vocals, it must have been one of the quickest, most straightforward mixes that went to number one that I have ever done.
"I began the mix like I always do, by doing a Save As, so I never save over what I am given and can always revert to that. I then listen to the song a few times, trying to figure out what I need to do, and after that I just dig in. As I'm listening I'll get ideas and implement them, or I'll write down some notes or make mental notes about how to finish the track.”
"All the drums have some very minor individual EQ on them, using the UAD 31102 and Avid EQ3. For example, I'm pushing 2.8dB at 1.25kHz on the kick, 2dB at 1.62k on the percussion with the EQ3, and there's a shelf of +3.8dB at 5.6k on the blocks. That's how subtle the stuff is. All 10 tracks of drums and percussion were also sent to an Alan Smart C2 hardware compressor and then summed back in and mixed in as parallel compression. During the mix the drums also went to the Chandler Mini Mixer for summing, which does not have an EQ on it, but I sent the 808 to the Neve Melbourne, which does have an EQ on each channel, and I pushed the upper frequencies at 10k, which is kind of weird. I probably wanted to give the 808 more definition. There is also a Real Tape Delay on an Aux on the claps, which I then mixed back in. There's also a D-Verb, which I'm not a great fan of, which was probably used on one of the percussion instruments.”
"I used a UAD LA2A compressor and a UAD Cambridge EQ on the bass, boosting at 89.4Hz and 4.02k and cutting at 306 and 504 Hz. On the Rhodes I have a UAD Fairchild compressor, the UAD Cambridge EQ, boosting at 1.35k and 9.19k, and a Sound Toys Decapitator. I also sent the Rhodes to my outboard Thermionic Culture Vulture as a parallel. The Decapitator and Culture Vulture make the Rhodes growl a little bit, which is cool. There's also a 'Woo' track, which I think is a human instrument, probably Pharrell, which had an Echo Boy and a Doubler on it.”
"There are 35 tracks of Robin's vocals. His lead takes up four or five tracks, and his ad libs seven. But the verses are separate from the pre-choruses and the choruses, and so on, and all his chorus vocals are stacked, which is why there are so many. The 'RobinSUB' tracks are submixes of his vocals for different sections and parts. Rob's vocals were treated very simply. The session came with RCompressor, Waves De-esser and the RChannel on his vocals, so I just tweaked them a little. I then put a C4 on, which I use a lot, and I also used a chorus effect from the Metaflanger, plus Echo Boy quarter- and eighth-note delays. For reverb I had an Echo Boy and Softube TSAR-1 reverb. It's a vocal chain I came up with during mixing of Jason Mraz. It's patented! It's a strange, ringy reverb in mono going straight to a dark chamber, with the blend being 80/20.
"As a hardware insert I also applied the Neve 3114, Chandler TG1 in the verses, the Culture Vulture and the Chandler Zener on his hooks. During mixing I also summed his vocals via two Neve EQs to boost at 330Hz, 2.7k and 10k and then the TG1 to limit them. I treated the vocals the same as on Robin's previous album, because his voice is very consistent. He knows how to work a microphone and there really was no need to change much. On Pharrell's voice I just had the Waves C4 and an RCompressor, and on TI I had a Waves RDe-esser, a Waves SSL EQ, an RCompressor, a UAD Cambridge EQ and a Waves CLA compressor, and no outboard.”
"The two-mix went through the Massey L2007 limiter and the Slate Digital FG-X mastering plug-in in the box, and outside via the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, using the Discrete and Nickel settings, with a ratio of 2:1 and a very slow attack and a quick release, and the Chandler Curve Bender, with which I'm just pushing a 2dB shelf at 10k. The PL2 is also doing some peak limiting, but not to make it louder. I don't get involved in the loudness wars. It's a mastering engineer's job to make it sound loud, not mine. I depend on the mastering engineers to make it sound really right for the marketplace, ie. to make sure it sits right for the club or the radio, depending on the kind of music. My job is simply to create a great-sounding mix, making sure all the elements work well together and are cohesive.”
Many mix engineers, and musicians, have decided that the best response to the crisis in the music industry is to downsize and work in-the-box from an office space or garden shed or barn. Tony Maserati, however, has gone the other way. Two and a half years ago, and half a year after his move from a barn in upstate New York to Los Angeles, he partnered up with songwriter Stefan Skarbek, and the two founded Mirrorball Entertainment. London-born Skarbek is well-known for his work with Amy Winehouse, and has also worked with the Spice Girls, Lily Allen, Seal, Pixie Lott and Basement Jaxx.
Mirrorball pools the studio and writing experience of Maserati and Skarbek, and the company bills itself as a "music publisher, production team and recording company” that is "committed to building the stars of tomorrow”. Mirrorball employs half a dozen staff, has signed a dozen artists and works with a handful of writers, and operates from a building in North Hollywood with several writing, production and mixing rooms, one of them being Maserati's mix room. So does Maserati think he has a feasible business model on his hands, or was he, perhaps, just feeling lonely working all by himself?
"Well yes,” he laughed, "I do get to talk to people much more now! But the entire building gives us a really great, cohesive, symbiotic environment where people can be creative at the highest level. Stefan has a writing room downstairs, and he can use my interns and engineers to get his business done. At least three of our engineers are also producers, so they can help some of the songwriters who are also artists to record their stuff. All of the engineers see and hear what I am doing, so they know what the top level should sound like. Also, sometimes I get so much work in that it's not possible to do it all by myself. One of the first projects we started on was mixing six Lady Gaga songs in five days. So I slept every day at the studio, as did four of the other guys, and I had their fresh perspectives, which was very helpful.
"As for the business model, I'm very aware that my success will have cycles, like every business has. I am very lucky with the success I have and with the successful projects that I worked on, in the past and currently, and hopefully in the future. But my feeling has always been that music is a collaborative effort, and with a solid team around me I can be more creative, have more fun, and all the work does not sit just on my shoulders. When an artist asks me to mix an entire album, I can suggest that I mix the songs that they think are the biggest singles, and my team will mix the other songs, and I will supervise those mixes. That way my client gets a full album mixed for the budget that they have, and my guys get paid and get mixing credits and also get to establish contacts with major labels, artists and managers. It's a win-win-win situation.”
As if top-level mix projects and his company Mirrorball Entertainment don't keep Maserati busy enough, he's also expanding in another direction, with a unique, mobile studio design, created in collaboration with Toronto acoustic designer Martin Pilchner of the company Pilchner-Schoustal. Maserati: "Martin and I call it Acoustic Workshop, and we think it will revolutionise the approach to building a studio, because it removes the tie between acoustic space and real estate. We'll soon be moving to a new space in Los Angeles, and I am not interested in building a traditional studio in it. If you rent a space and then spent $250,000 to build a studio in it, you can't take it with you when you leave again. So we've developed a modular studio design, with units that go down to a very small size. The units are quite thick, self-supporting, acoustically designed and have AC connections in them.
There are a variety of aesthetic coverings and they are completely self-standing, so the only connection with the building will be the floor.
"The main control room that we built is 22 x 19 feet, so it's quite large, and the ceiling height can be varied, because the blocks come in 2.5-feet units. Our concept is that one can use the same units for recording, mixing, mastering and post-production. The other thing is that you can completely define and then recreate the acoustics of your studio, wherever you want. If you want to move to another space you simply pack up and take the studio, and your sound, with you. It will completely change the way we look at the real estate involved with studios. We're still in development, and looking for additional partners, but we are fabricating the first workshop at the moment at Martin's workshop in Toronto. My aim is for our entire crew to have Acoustic Workshops modules in our new building in downtown Los Angeles, so people will be able to see them in action. From there I'm sure the idea will catch on, because it makes sense from both studio-acoustic and real-estate perspectives.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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