Urban music is often a springboard for new producers and engineers, and 21 Savage's chart-topping album was no exception.
Atlanta trap is problematic for those who believe(d) that hit songs necessarily involve a verse-chorus structure and a catchy hook. Many trap hits lack any discernible song structure or hook, instead getting by on vibe and the flow of the rapping. Melodic and harmonic ingredients tend to be pared down to a couple of keyboard parts and/or a sample, with the 808 replacing the bass, hard-hitting kicks, a fairly thin-sounding snare and prominent hi-hats. As a result there's often very little happening in the mid-range.
The trend has also created opportunities for new producers and mix engineers, and as a result, the Inside Track series has recently featured more and more hitherto unknown mixers. 21 Savage's I Am > I Was ticks all the aforementioned boxes, from the musical style to the fact that 12 of the 16 tracks on the deluxe version of the album were mixed by a relatively unknown mixer. I Am > I Was also features the usual huge posse of producers, from the well-known (Boi-1da, Metro Boomin, and the seemingly ubiquitous Louis Bell) to the obscure, plus a parade of all-star guest artists including J Cole, Childish Gambino, Post Malone, Travis Scott and more.
The full name of the unknown mixer in question is Chanbuny Maddox Chhim, aka Maddmix, who works from a studio in his house in Atlanta. "My parents were from Cambodia, and lived there during the time Pol Pot was in power," he explains. "They were fortunate to have survived and to escape the Khmer Rouge regime. They had sponsors from Richmond, Virginia, so they settled there for a bit, and then made their way to South Carolina, which is where I was born and raised, and they still live. Nobody in the family was musically inclined, but I played trumpet and French horn as a teenager, and then tried to make beats, using Fruity Loops, and recording into Cool Edit Pro and Sonar. Local rappers came to me to record their songs, and I noticed that I was better at the more technical side of making music. So in 2010, when I was 20, I went to Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida, where I spent two years doing the Recording Arts programme.
"After finishing Full Sail I moved to Los Angeles, and tried to find an internship. It was really hard to get into a studio, but just as I applied at Larrabee Studios they needed a new runner. So for one and a half years I was getting food, coffee, cleaning toilets, all the fun stuff you do as an intern! Then Jaycen Joshua's main assistant left, and I got a chance to work closely with Jaycen, which I did for three and a half years. I left Larrabee in the summer of 2017 to become freelance and worked for a year out of Fab Factory Recording Studio. Because I was working remotely more and more, I decided towards the end of 2018 to move to Atlanta, because it's closer to my family."
Atlanta is the urban music centre of the world, and as the new kid on the block of a sizeable music scene, Maddox could easily have struggled after arriving. Luckily, though, his previous experience had given him a head start. "Because I had been handling Jaycen's professional emails and client relationships, I had kept close relationships with his clients, especially managers and A&R people. After arriving in Atlanta, Ericka Coulter of Epic contacted me, and said there was a project that urgently needed to be mixed. I mixed one song, and they loved it, so I went to the studio where 21 was working to meet him and his team. Everything was cool, and I offered to work in the studio there as well, but they said: 'The mixes you did at home were pretty good!' So I mixed the rest of the project in my studio over two weeks, late November to early December."
Maddox worked on the mixes alone, while keeping in close contact with Epic's A&R people, Jennifer Goicoechea and Ericka Coulter, and 21's engineer, Mac Attkisson. "Mac recorded 21 at a studio in Atlanta called Tree Sound, and he put all the files together, and gave them to me on a hard drive, so there was no chance of the tracks leaking, something which 21 was very concerned about. Mac would hand me the vocals with the instrumentals, the latter as individual track outs. After that, all I really had to do was organise my workflow, and start mixing. I did about a mix a day, and would get feedback from Jennifer and Ericka, and they would play the tracks for 21 to get his notes, which were also sent to me.
"I usually prepped the session the day before I mixed it, and the actual mixing would then take me four to six hours, depending on the song. Prepping and organisation were very important. I wanted the sessions organised to suit my workflow, to be efficient and be able to knock out these mixes as fast as possible. Nowadays people want things really fast! That means organisation is a key thing in general.
"The first thing I do when I open the session is to go through all the tracks and listen to see what's what, and I will then organise the session according to how I like it, which is the vocals at the top, then the drums and then the music. Once I have done that I'll import my mixing template, which includes aux effect and group tracks, and master tracks. These go above the vocals, so I end up with my mix bus and master tracks at the top. I'll also do the colour-coding and sending audio tracks to aux subgroups and so on.
"I usually get a rough mix, or reference track, from the producer or artist, and when I open the session I will A/B that against the reference mix, to get an idea of what they want, but also to make sure there's nothing missing in the session, and to compare levels. Once I've done all that, I start mixing, and then it's a matter of beating the reference. That's my job. Of course I take on board what I'm asked to do, and with 21 there were remarks like, 'We like it like this, so keep it like this,' but also, 'Do your thing and make it better!' That was a fine line to walk. These guys will usually have listened to the demo for months, so I tend to keep the production — ie. the music and drums — as close to the reference as possible."
"The main foundation of hip-hop is drums, so with every mix I did for 21, I made sure that the drums are hitting hard and sounding big and full, and then everything else found a place around that. This meant that I started with mixing the drums, got them to a good place, and after that I brought in the music, and finally the vocals. If at the end of that process anything needed more massaging, I would go over the entire mix again and tweak things here and there. Doing it in this order didn't normally lead to problems, because these tracks usually don't have a lot of mid-range, which makes it easy to mix in the vocals. In fact, they're pretty sparse in general, giving me a lot of room to do what was needed.
"Getting the drums and the 808 in particular to sit right is a matter of gain staging. I use the same approach for every mix that I do, with pretty much the same levels in every mix — I'm talking drum levels, 808 levels, kick levels, music levels, vocal levels — and that translates pretty well across all mix sessions. To get to those levels I sometimes have to clip-gain tracks up or down. Many of the producers work in Fruity Loops and put a limiter on everything, and their tracks come in at zero, so are really loud. If you start mixing from that point, you'll be overloading the mix bus, so that requires a lot of clip gaining down.
"My gain staging process is kind of hard to explain, as I learned it from observing Jaycen, but I usually have auxes called 'All Vocals', 'All Music' and 'All Drums', and I look at those and watch the levels and make sure they're not overloading. My 'All Drums' usually is the loudest, and is almost hitting red in Pro Tools. My 'All Music' and 'All Vocals' aux tracks usually are halfway up the meter. The meters in Pro Tools 12 and 2018 are a bit different, I think there's more headroom in those newer versions. But if the levels are too high, I pull the relevant tracks down with clip gain. I then check the mix bus and make sure it's all good.
"The biggest issue is the 808, because that usually is what overloads the mix bus. When there's too much low-end information taking up all the space, there's not enough headroom for music and vocals. So I tend to start mixing the drums with setting the level of the 808 and the kick, and once you have that right, the rest of the mix is really easy. I often duplicate the 808 track, and I smash the copy with a compressor and/or distort it, to get some harmonics, like around 100Hz, so you can also hear the 808 on non-hi-fi systems. I'll then blend the duplicate track in with the original track."
"The heart of my system is a MacBook Pro with Pro Tools," says Chanbuny Maddox Chhim, "which is plugged into my Apogee Symphony I/O, and from there the signal goes to my SSL Sigma SuperAnalogue mixer, and then to my Grace m905 monitor controller, which feeds my monitors, the ATC SCM25As and Yamaha NS10s. I also have the KRK VXT4s, which I don't use very much. My SSL Sigma gives me that analogue sound. Running the signal through analogue circuitry makes a subtle difference. It adds a little bit of width and openness to my mixes, and my low end is definitely more round and full. When I was at Larrabee, I was around both working on consoles and working off your laptop, and if you can find a plug-in, or in my case some outboard, that can recreate what an SSL is doing, you can mix off a laptop.
"I know the ATCs from working with Jaycen, who was listening to them the entire time I was with him. When I was at Fab Factory I was on the ATCs all the time, because I was in a treated room, which sounded great, plus I could play as loud as I wanted! However, although I have treated my room in Atlanta with some acoustic panels, it still does not sound too great, and I have not quite gotten used to it yet. So when I am in here I start mixing on my headphones, the open-backed Sennheiser HD 800S, and then I'll flick to the ATCs, and then the NS10s, and then I go back to the headphones.
"I spend probably 60 percent of my time mixing on my headphones, mainly because I can judge the low end better on them. I dial that in with the headphones on. The thing with low end is that many people don't have access to hi-fi speakers, which means that I also have to reference on things that people actually listen on. So in addition to my headphones, I'll also listen to really crappy ear pods, and I do a lot of referencing on my laptop speakers. If I can hear some bass on the laptop and the ear pods I know I'm in the right ballpark! But at the moment I am trying to decide whether I want to work in an outside studio again, or build a studio in my house."