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Page 2: Inside Track: 21 Savage 'A Lot'

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

'A Lot'

  • Written by Shayaa Joseph, Jermaine Cole, Dacoury Natche, Anthony White & Shelia Young.
  • Produced by DJ Dahi & J White.

A composite screen capture showing the entire Pro Tools Edit window for Maddmix's mix of 'A Lot'.A composite screen capture showing the entire Pro Tools Edit window for Maddmix's mix of 'A Lot'.Maddox illustrates his mix approach with a detailed look at 'A Lot', the lead track and lead single from the album. The song samples the 1971 cover, by the band East Of Underground, of the 1970 song 'I Love You For All Seasons', originally performed by the Fuzz and written by Sheila Young. The rest of the music of 'A Lot' was co-written and produced by DJ Dhali and J White. Surprisingly, the mix session for the sparse-sounding track contains 78 tracks, but the first 39 of these are Maddox's template tracks, including effects and subgroup auxes and mix print tracks. Track 40, 'Lead All', is a master aux track to which all vocals in the track are sent, and 41, 'MadVoxComp', is its double, with parallel compression and limiting. Below that are six 21 Savage vocal tracks (42-47, purple), three J Cole vocal tracks (48-50, dark blue), four vocal ad lib tracks (51-54, pink), 12 drum and percussion tracks (55-66), five vocal sample tracks (67-71) and seven synth tracks (72-78). Each of the groups mentioned here feeds its own aux track, and in many cases there is an additional Master Fader track controlling the bus level entering these auxes.

Tracks 15-39 are aux effect tracks and Master Faders from Maddox's template, with reverbs, delays and also distortion; of these, only tracks 15-26 are active in the 'A Lot' session. All aux effect tracks go to the 'All EFX M' Master Fader and then to the 'All EFX M' aux (track 14). Tracks 6, 8, 10 and 12 (red) are the main group aux tracks Maddox describes in his account of gain staging, above, each with its accompanying Master Fader; these are all sent to an SSL Sigma summing mixer, the output of which comes back up on 'Mix Bus' (6), and is then printed on track 5. The top five tracks are mix print tracks (blue), with tracks 1-4 consisting of, says Maddox, "rough mixes and references for the arrangements of the J Cole version".

A high resolution Pro Tools Edit window screenshot is available to download as a ZIP file (see right-hand Media sidebar).

A Lot Of Plug-ins

Although there are relatively few plug-ins on the drums and hardly any on the music, Maddox uses dozens on the vocals. 21 Savage's five vocal aux tracks, for example, all pass through a signal chain comprising Antares Auto-Tune, UAD 1176LN E, Waves Renaissance Vox, FabFilter Pro-DS, Waves C6, another Pro-DS, FabFilter Pro-Q2 and another C6, with only the latter one or two plug-ins dropping out on a couple of tracks.

All these tracks go the '21 Lead' aux (42), which has nine plug-ins, including compressors, de-essers, and four(!) more instances of Pro-Q2, as well as four sends. Both 21 Savage and J Cole's aux group vocal tracks then go to a vocal aux called 'MadVoxComp', and from there to the 'All Vocals' aux, each of which hosts two plug-ins; so in total, every 21 Savage vocal track passes through 19 to 21 insert plug-ins, as well as being sent to up to seven auxes. The situation with J Cole is even more elaborate, though complicated by the fact that some of the sends came with the vocal session that Maddox received from Cole's engineer.

"I guess my thought process behind my mixing is kind of messy!" laughs Maddox. "The thing is that I will start with adding compression and EQ on a vocal, and then if I hear something else that needs correcting, I will just add another compressor or EQ. I never go back and take plug-ins off or reset them, because I don't want to go back on what I already have, because I might mess it up. So I just keep going forward and adding plug-ins until I get the sound I want. That works for me. Some people like mixing with very few plug-ins, but I will mix with whatever I need to get what I want.

"The plug-ins I have on these inserts I use frequently. I guess you could call them my clean-up plug-ins. The 1176LN worked on 21's vocals in this session. I may also use the UAD Tube-Tech CL 1B or the Waves RCompressor. In this session the 1176 made 21's vocals really full and in your face. Next is the RVox, which is also is a good plug-in for bringing the vocals up front and making them really full. It is very subtle, but it makes a big difference. If I feel like the vocal does not sit up front enough I put that on, compress it a little bit, and it usually fixes the problem for me. The 1176 has a similar function, but I use it more for actual compression and the RVox more for tone and to make it sound bigger.

"Next is the Pro-DS, which as a de-esser obviously helps with the sibilance. Some vocals have more sibilance than others, and sometimes I use just one, but in this case I felt I needed two. I love using multiband compressors, and the C6 is here for some general compression, but there always are some frequencies that need adjusting, but that I don't want to take out with an EQ, because you need those frequencies. When I use a multiband, I find the frequency that bugs me, and set a threshold, so the frequency is only dipped when it needs to be dipped. If you look at my C6 plug-ins, they often address harsh frequencies that a de-esser can't take out. I'll have a really tight notch on the C6, and then just compress that frequency a couple of dB."

Lead Vocal Bus

Of the '21 Lead' aux, Maddox says: "There are four instances of the Pro-Q2 on the signal chain, which is again an example of me working cumulatively. I now use the Pro-Q3 a lot, which is a dynamic EQ, which can do pretty much the same thing as the C6. Then insert 4 is the McDSP MC404 multiband compressor, which I use pretty often, and then I have the Eiosis Air EQ, the C6, the Kush Clariphonic EQ and the SSL G EQ. I use different EQs for different purposes. The Q2 has unlimited bands, so I use that to search and dip frequencies I don't like. I really like the high end on the Air, which opens up the vocal and makes it sound really good. I also often do some scooping in the lower mid-range with the Air, because it does a really good job of that. I use the Clariphonic mainly for the Clarity knob, which widens the vocal just by having that on. I really like that on vocals and use that in almost every session.

Maddox's distinctive approach to mixing means that he almost never removes or modifies an existing plug-in, but instead adds further plug-ins in series. The bus to which all of 21 Savage's vocals were routed thus ended up with four FabFilter Pro‑Q2 equalisers, creating a complex composite EQ curve.Maddox's distinctive approach to mixing means that he almost never removes or modifies an existing plug-in, but instead adds further plug-ins in series. The bus to which all of 21 Savage's vocals were routed thus ended up with four FabFilter Pro‑Q2 equalisers, creating a complex composite EQ curve.

"The sends go to several aux effect tracks with delays and reverbs, but for this project they told me that they wanted the keep the vocals pretty dry, so I didn't use much reverb. Mostly just a small room reverb really subtly in the background to give it some space. The main reverbs that I have in my template are the Slate Digital VerbSuite Classics. They have great emulations of popular reverbs like the Bricasti and so on, that sound really good. I also use the UAD Lexicon 480 a lot. Those are my go-to reverbs. I occasionally use the Waves RVerb and TrueVerb. My main delays are the Soundtoys EchoBoy and the Waves H-Delay. For distortion I use the Soundtoys Decapitator and Devil-Loc, sometimes the Dada Life Sausage Fattener, which is fun, and the distortion pedal in the Waves GTR3 Stomps plug-in.

Maddox uses Waves' C6 multiband dynamics processor to tame troublesome resonances, as here in J Cole's vocal.Maddox uses Waves' C6 multiband dynamics processor to tame troublesome resonances, as here in J Cole's vocal."The session was originally a 21 Savage track, and they later decided to add J Cole. His engineer sent me J Cole's vocal session with reverbs and delays already set, so I pretty much imported his vocal auxes, and just matched that to the mix that I had already going. However, the inserts are all mine, and similar to what I used on 21. There also are four Pro-Q2s here, plus two instances of the C6 multiband, and the Clariphonic EQ. The 'Slap' is a send to one of my aux effect tracks, just with a 30-millisecond EchoBoy delay, to widen the vocals a bit. I stripped all the other sends down, to match J Cole's vocals with a track that was more on the dry side, and actually disabled all the sends apart from the 'Slap' on the J Cole aux group track, 'Leads'. Finally, both '21 Leads' and 'Leads' go to the 'Lead All' [40] and parallel 'MadVoxComp' [41] tracks, and the latter has the Waves CLA-76 and L1, both for more presence and volume."

Music Masters

With regards to the drums, Maddox says: "Track 57 [orange] is the 808, and track 58 the kick, and track 59 the kick duplicate for parallel compression, coming from the Waves SSL Compressor, and it also has the Waves PuigTec EQP-1A. The 808 track has the Waves RCompressor and Pro-Q2. The rest of the drum tracks don't have any plug-ins. As I mentioned, I tend to not do very much to the backing track. The producers do a lot of the EQ and compression; it's part of production nowadays. When they are sending me the files, everything sounds pretty good. I may just EQ something here and there to fit what they do in the mix that I am doing, but there won't be a lot of riding levels, and for panning I also tend to follow the production as it came to me. Incidentally, I mentioned gain staging earlier on, and you can see on these tracks what kind of levels I am after.

"All drums go to the 'C Drums Master [Fader]' [55] and the 'C Drums' aux [56], and on the latter I have five plug-ins: the UAD API 2500, Waves NLS Channel, Slate Virtual Mix Rack, UAD Neve Preamp and Plugin Alliance Black Box Analog Design. This signal chain is fairly common on my drum aux parallel. The 2500 compressor just adds some glue. I don't like to compress the drums too much, because otherwise you end up flattening transients. The NLS and Virtual Mix Rack both add harmonics, and most of the heavy lifting is done by the Black Box, with the Saturation knob — it makes the drums sound round and full.

"There are no plug-ins at all on the individual music tracks, which all go to the 'Synth All' aux [and its associated Master Fader], and for some reason I did the processing on the master, using the Waves Doubler, the Brainworx bx_shredspread, and the UAD Tube-Tech CL1B compressor. The Brainworx gets the music to spread a little, to make space for the vocals."

The Final Touches

Parallel word‑length reduction using Avid's Lo‑Fi plug-in helps to bring the vocal to the front of the mix.Parallel word‑length reduction using Avid's Lo‑Fi plug-in helps to bring the vocal to the front of the mix.As explained earlier, the 'All Music', 'All Drums' and and 'All Vox Master' subgroups were each routed through Maddox's SSL Sigma and back into Pro Tools on the 'Mix Bus' track. Each of the three aux tracks has a few plug-ins, and the 'Mix Bus' has a fairly involved signal chain.

"'All Vox' has the Avid Lo‑Fi and Waves RCompressor.I take the Sample Size down to 15 [bits] with the Lo‑Fi, which is a trick I learned from Jaycen. It works like a form of compression, and makes the vocals a bit more up-front and louder. The RCompressor is set to a ratio of 2.56 and is there to keep the vocals in place. 'All Drums' has the Acustica Diamond, in a special edition made for Dave Pensado. I felt that the drums needed a little more 100Hz, so I boosted with that plug‑in. I like the way it works on the low end. I also used the Lo‑Fi on here, on the same 15-bit Sample Size setting as with the vocals.

"I use the signal chain on the mix bus in most sessions. It starts with the iZotope Ozone 7, using the EQ, Exciter, Dynamics and the Imager for the top end. I kind of transferred these settings from Ozone 4, and then tweaked them, because the two plug-in versions don't sound the same. After that it's the Clariphonics EQ, Brainworx bx_digital V3 Modus EQ, Stillwell Audio Event Horizon and FabFilter Pro‑L. The Clariphonic EQ opens the overall mix up a little, and the Brainworx has a spreader for more stereo width. Sometimes I automate the Brainworx, for example making the choruses wider if that needs to be more of a moment. Pensado put me onto the Event Horizon. I use the Soft Clip button for gain. Finally, the Pro‑L is there to keep the signal in check. I sent all tracks to Colin Leonard at SING Mastering in Atlanta for mastering."

Maddox is a fan of the UBK Kush Audio Clariphonic parallel equaliser.Maddox is a fan of the UBK Kush Audio Clariphonic parallel equaliser.