In just seven years at hip-hop label Quality Control, Thomas 'Tillie' Mann has helped shape the sound of Atlanta rap.
"At the end of the day it is all about the feel of the record. Back in the analogue days, when you were on a desk, you were turning knobs until it felt right. By contrast, when you're looking at a computer screen, you think technical, about numbers and specific boosts and notches. Instead you have to bring back the musical side and just focus on how what you hear makes you feel. I used to mix super technical, but now I mix on feel. I close my eyes in front of the speakers and adjust things, and when I later look at the settings, they sometimes don't make sense. But they feel right."
I used to mix super technical, but now I mix on feel. I close my eyes in front of the speakers and adjust things, and when I later look at the settings, they sometimes don't make sense. But they feel right.
Speaking is Thomas Mann, better known as Tillie, and with his feel-based approach he is today one of Atlanta's star mixers. But his reach and activities go much further than that: he's also an A&R for Quality Control Music, the Atlantan label founded in 2013 by Kevin 'Coach K' Lee and Pierre 'Pee' Thomas, and has spent many years locked in studios engineering and helping artists hone their sound. In so doing he had a large hand in helping to develop the sounds of Atlanta trap acts like Migos, Quavo, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby.
There was a time when the engineer was close to the bottom of the pecking order in a recording studio, but because of the digital revolution, traditional studio roles have shifted and changed. As a result, we now not only have star mixers, from Serban Ghenea to Tom Elmhirst, but also star engineers, like Josh Gudwin (Justin Bieber) and Patrizio 'Teezio' Pigliapoco, who become an essential element of music-making machinery — particularly when they function as the right-hand man of an artist.
"There are indeed many engineers that move into a more front–row position," comments Mann, "because they take control of the room, and show themselves to be valuable. In my case, I started out as a producer and I was working with an artist called Rocko, who was managed by Coach K and signed to Def Jam. When I delivered my files, I saw how Rocko asked his engineer for his opinion.
"It was one reason why I started working more as an engineer, and when you spend a lot of time with artists in a room, you develop a relationship of trust. You grow together with them. When you're around someone 24/7 you become like family. In many situations the engineer becomes the most powerful person in the room. If you are a person who is kind of like a leader, and you show yourself to be valuable, you get in a position where you take control and help everybody come up with an end result.
"Coach K became my mentor, and I was involved with Quality Control from the beginning. The first record that I did for them was the song 'Hannah Montana' by Migos (2013). I worked on the remix of that. From then onwards I was always a part of the creative process of making records. I was always in meetings and discussing what songs would be released, for example. Coach K would often call me and ask me what I thought of certain records, and what was needed to improve them. One day in 2016 I joked that Quality Control didn't have an A&R, and perhaps I should do that. It became a thing from there!"
For more than half a decade, Mann has been at the heart of many things at Quality Control Music, including finding beats for artists to work with, recording vocals and developing vocal sounds, integrating the vocals with the beats, song structure and arrangement, mixing, choosing tracks for release, and so on. Mann's background allows him to play so many different roles.
Interestingly, before Mann rose to the top in Atlanta, the birthplace of 21st Century trap, he grew up in Detroit, Motown's home town, and the birthplace of 20th Century soul. Mann's mother was once a backup singer for George Clinton, and did many vocal sessions in Detroit studios, forcing a young Mann to take an interest in things he was hardly interested in.
"When I was a kid I could not stand being in the studio, because it completely blew my vibe. When you're a kid, you just want to play. But I started playing around with the gear in the studios and gradually became completely obsessed with recording and with making music. I learned to play drums and some guitar, and started working with local artists as an engineer."
When Mann was 16, his parents decided to move to Atlanta, for personal reasons, and it did not take Mann long to find out that he'd landed in one of the world's major centres for urban music. "Atlanta was coming out of the crunk era, with Soulja Boy and all the dance crazes. It also was around the same time that TI came out with the movie ATL. The urban community was very huge in Atlanta. So I was quarantined even then, working on my craft! I locked myself up in my studio and just made beats. I worked with rappers like Lil Scrappy and Rocko. I put my beats on CDs and handed them out everywhere I could, at supermarkets, outside clubs, and so on. In 2012 I was working as an engineer at CTE World, Young Jeezy's label, and another engineer who worked there asked me to fill in for him to do a session for a local artist named Black Boy The Kid at another studio. Black Boy became Rich The Kid, and he introduced me to Migos, and the rest is history."
Mann continues by explaining how his interests in both gear and music support each other when he's working with artists. "I am a tech head! I have tons of outboard, and I also have pretty much every plug–in ever made. After I wake up in the morning and have said my prayers, I look for what new plug–ins are out, and every time I find one that I think is worthwhile, I introduce it to the artist and producers I'm working with and say, 'You should try this!'
"The thing is, I grew up with '70s and '80s R&B, and '80s R&B particularly was super wet and super wide. This had a big impact on me. In the '00s rap music went through a phase when vocals were very dry, and I hated it. I like rap vocals to be wet and wide, and so I love trying out new effects, and combining them in a tasteful way. I approach vocals in an old-school way, because to me, rap vocals have to be produced.
"When you sit in a room together with an artist, you create a sound together. It's how Quavo and I created his sound. He is an engineer himself, and he knows what he wants. Once I learned what he liked and tuned into his energy, I could be a bridge between him and the technology, and I was like, 'OK, you want that sound, why not try this?' After that it was a back and forth between him and I. In general, there are always discussions with an artist about his or her sound and where it fits in with what's happening today.
"I always say to an artist that individuality is the biggest thing. I'm very upfront about the vocal not sounding like anyone else. Of course, because I also hear things as a producer, I know that arrangement is everything, and get involved in the arrangements — ie. shortening tracks — moving drops, muting some things, and so on. Some producers say that I turn their beats into something completely different by the time I have chopped and rearranged them. But of course, production and vocals both need to be great for a great track."
These days, Mann's work for the most part takes place at his studio. "Over the last three years I have invested heavily in my own studio, which is in my house and called Hit Gallery. I've spent a lot of time on the road with Lil Yachty, and we'd record in tons of different studios, and each may have different Pro Tools versions or one may have the Waves bundle and the other not. You always work with limitations with an external studio. So I built a studio where I don't have limitations, and everything is the way I want it to be. In the past I worked half-and-half between my own studio and Quality Control, but now I do almost everything in my own studio. Artists come here to track and I do most of my mixing here.
"I have two rooms in my studio. One is for writing and recording, and it has my guitar collection and tons of keyboards and synths and other instruments. I also have an entire production rack with preamps, an LA–2A and other outboard and Apollo converters, and so on. The other room is my mix room. It has Focal Twin6 Be monitors, which are my all-time favourite, and all my outboard and a Pro Tools rig. I don't always use my outboard, but when I do it's as an insert, or I will send stems out of Pro Tools and through my outboard and record them back in.
"I'm a big fan of analogue summing and my Rupert Neve 5059 Satellite 16:2 summing mixer is one of my favourite things in the world. It's amazing. Sometimes I will print an entire mix through the 5059. Most of what I do is in the box, but the outboard gives me a different texture when I need it. A prime example is when I'm working with a vocal that feels too bright, I might send it through the Tube–Tech CL‑1B. Outboard adds warmth and saturation, and the Neve gives me depth and width and punch and headroom that you simply can't get in the box. When I do an A/B comparison with digital, there's a big difference.
"Of course, the big issue with using analogue gear is recall, and this is another reason for me to build my own studio. When I'm mixing an album, I'm completely dedicated to that for the time I'm working on it, and it means that the outboard settings are pretty much the same. So if I'm asked to make any changes, they are easy to do. Because it's my own space, I don't have to worry about another engineer coming and changing some settings.
One of Mann's most prominent and recent achievements is his mix of Atlantan rapper Lil Baby's second album My Turn, which went to number one in the US and number six in the UK. Ironically, Mann didn't mix the album at Hit Gallery. "I mixed it in Durham in North Carolina, in a studio called Sound Pure. The reason was that my assistant and right-hand man, Princeton 'Perfect Harmony' Terry, had just had a baby boy. Normally I fly him to Atlanta, but in this case I mixed close to where he lives. Sound Pure actually is a music store, but they have an amazing studio, and they pulled some Focal monitors from their stock just for me to do Lil Baby's album.
"I was only given a week to mix the album, though in the end it took nearly two weeks. There were nearly 30 tracks to mix! With that amount of time pressure, I had to mix the album entirely in the box. Everything is always super–last–minute with urban music. Artists sometimes record stuff in the morning of the day they are supposed to turn things in. I'm often working right up against a deadline, or past a deadline!
"A lot of the time I record and mix the albums I work on, like with Lil Yachty and Migos, but with Lil Baby's album I wasn't really involved in the recordings. Most of the tracking was done by Matthew 'Mattazik Muzik' Robinson, who is a friend of mine, and he actually used one of my templates, which made mixing easier. It's definitely different if you mix songs that you didn't track yourself. When you've recorded stuff you know it's clean, but when it comes from somewhere else, you don't know. Sometimes there have been a dozen different tracking engineers on an album, and they can be amazing, OK, or bad.
"The first thing my assistant and I do when we get a session in to mix is organise everything. Usually it's my assistant who makes sure we get all the tracks and everything is lined up. Many records are not recorded to a grid, so we put everything in tempo, and then line it up to the grid. We also label and colour–code everything. Organisation is the biggest thing for me. If there's clutter all over the place in a session, I can't work with it.
"Step two is to listen to the rough, to what the energy and vibe are. Sometimes I will listen to a song for a few hours, just to feel the energy that the artist is trying to bring. I'm asking myself, 'What can I add?', and I make mental notes of what I want to do. In general, the instruction I'm given is to do my thing, but the reality is that most artists want you to do a glorified rough mix. They want the track to hit harder, and be cleaner, but they want the same energy. Quavo once said to me, 'I don't need you to start from a blank canvas. I need to you take what I gave you and polish that.' Artists are attached to the rough, even when it's bad, because it is what they have been hearing. I often do entirely different mixes, with tons of effects, that I think are better, but in the end I can't stray too far from the rough.
"Once I have organised the session and listened to the song and I know what I want to do, we go in and clean up the vocal. Often with rap songs the vocalists wear a lot of chains, or they have been recorded with many people in the room, or in dressing rooms, hotels, and so on. A lot of vocal recordings have a lot of stuff that you don't want, and that we need to clean up: we look at phase, do noise reduction, vocal restoration, using iZotope's RX audio repair plug–in, and things like that."