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Inside Track: 21 Savage 'A Lot'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Maddmix
Published March 2019
By Paul Tingen

Chanbuny Maddox 'Maddmix' Chhim in his Atlanta home studio.Chanbuny Maddox 'Maddmix' Chhim in his Atlanta home studio.Photo: Dennis Nop

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.

'A Lot' — written by Shayaa Joseph, Jermaine Cole, Dacoury Natche, Anthony White & Shelia Young. Produced by DJ Dahi & J White.'A Lot' — written by Shayaa Joseph, Jermaine Cole, Dacoury Natche, Anthony White & Shelia Young. Produced by DJ Dahi & J White.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 Way Up

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."

Helping Hands

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...

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Published March 2019