Of 'Rare', Maserati notes, "Nolan and I have worked together since I mixed Nick Jonas's hit song 'Jealous' in 2014. Since then he has learned certain things from me and I have learned about the ways that he works. If you look at some of his EQs in 'Rare', they were similar to what I do. For example, his stuff already had quite a bit of subtractive EQ on it. So together we have this very fast working environment. Nolan's mix of 'Rare' came in with many of his settings and effects printed, and this meant that a lot of my work consisted of editing what he had done. That's a slightly different scenario than some of the other songs, which required me to do more of my stuff right away.
"The first thing I do when I get a song is what I call an 'open bounce'. It's simply a matter of opening the session in my facility, and I send a stereo bounce of that to the producer, and ask: 'Is this right?' If I receive a song as a Pro Tools session, normally the only issue is plug-in compatibility, but if a producer is working in another DAW, stemming out is not a perfect system. The computer may glitch and the hi-hats may be out of time, or a part may be missing. It might sound weird to me, but you'll be surprised how many things sound weird, and are the way the producer wants them. The last thing I want to do is mix a session that's incorrect!
"My assistants, Miles Comaskey and Najeeb Jones, check everything in the session and communicate with the person who is delivering the files. Getting all the files can be a time-consuming process! They make sure the session is exactly as it's supposed to be, also to meet my requirements: so they clean, de-ess, comp and so on, and they load my aux effect tracks and in general lay the session out according to my preferences. It would slow me down if I had to create an aux effect track every time I want to add a reverb or delay. For a while I tried pulling waveforms onto template audio tracks, but I don't bother with that any more, because every song, every session and every vocal take is different. It's easier to start from scratch when I am working on audio tracks. It never worked for me to do exactly the same thing twice. My work is creative. My clients hire me for my aesthetic, my honesty and my creativity. They don't hire me necessarily for the intricacies of engineering. But, of course, I am the last engineer in the chain before the mastering engineer."
"Once the session is ready to mix," continues Maserati, "generally what I do is listen to it over and over. I just loop the song, while obviously paying close attention to the producer's rough mix. In the case of 'Rare', the producers, the artist, and her A&R and management had listened to the rough for two years. You have to pay attention to that. So I listen repeatedly on loop, I make mental notes and I make physical notes with ideas, like for a delay throw, or an EQ change and so on. I do my best not to stop and keep going. If I don't finish EQ'ing the pre-chorus, I don't stop, but come back to it the next time it plays. I'm figuring out what the best thing is for the song emotionally, and I'm sketching things in."
"This whole sketching process takes me a couple of hours. Quite often at this point I get my second [engineer] in, while I take an ear break. I need another set of ears to make sure I did not destroy something good. Once I have the gain structure together and the overall framework of the mix sketched out, I go back to the rough, to determine whether I have not changed the vibe somewhere, and if I did, to make sure it is for a good reason. My next step is to start to fill in the details. I'm adding drum samples, and am working on the drums and bass. I'm EQ'ing or clip gaining syllables in the vocals, automating EQ, using faders, adding all sorts of plug-ins, all to make sure that the vocal is intelligible all the way down the line. I do the same on the guitar and other instruments.
"I add things that I call 'trick of the ear'. Sometimes your ear needs to be tricked, and sometimes that trick is a delay throw, or removing the reverb for a moment, or cutting a snare or a hi-hat. It wakes up your ears. Those are the kind of details that I'm doing when I'm getting close. When I'm done with all this, I send the mix to the producer, and ask for feedback. They will then send me their notes. Generally speaking, it takes me two days to do a mix. It's rare that I can finish a mix in one day, because I like to live with it, and play it in my car and in my home, and so on."
Tony Maserati: "I listen, and ask myself: 'What frequencies does this guitar part not need, and yet still retain the energy that the part needs to have?' And I pull back that frequency."
Tony Maserati's mix session of 'Rare' is sizable, at 167 tracks, and a significant expansion on the 119 tracks of Lambroza's original, which included effect prints. [We've split this into 3 screenshots and you can find hi-res versions in the attached ZIP folder.]
Maserati's mix session starts with eight master and mix print tracks, followed by 10 group tracks for drums, bass, guitar, keys, synths, strings, horns, vocals, backing vocals and effects. Underneath are the audio tracks, in the same order as said group tracks, with directly related aux effect and aux group tracks added in the sections themselves. Right at the bottom of the session are the nine aux effect tracks from Maserati's template that were actually used in the session.
One striking aspect of the session is that apart from a Waves Doubler on a Mellotron organ track, there are no plug-ins at all on the piano, keys, strings and horns, only a few in the master section, and a limited number on the drums, bass and guitar tracks. By contrast, there are four inserts on the 'Live Drum' group track, to which Maserati sent all of Lambroza's 1950s and 1960s drum samples — and there are tons of plug-ins on the vocal audio and group tracks.
"There are very few plug-ins on the drum audio tracks, because Nolan printed all his effects. Often, I was only clip-gaining, and sometimes I split audio over two separate tracks to handle each track slightly differently. There are some instances of the Pro‑Q2, for subtractive EQ. The 'Live Drums' aux has a more involved chain, starting with the Waves NS1 Noise Suppressor, which is not doing much, followed by the UAD A800 [tape simulator], which is the greatest thing. It adds a bit of width, I think because it fakes wow and flutter. The Pro‑Q2 takes off some top and bottom, and the SoundToys Radiator adds a bit of room noise. Nolan put on the 'Drum Slap' aux, with the UAD ATR102, which is a great effect. I love it. Nolan also added the UAD RealVerb, which is one of my favourite reverbs. The 'Kick Print', 'Snare Print' and 'Clap Print' tracks all have sends to the C2 aux; that used to go to an Alan Smart C2 limiter, but I now use the Waves SSL compressor. All drums and drum effect tracks are sent to the 'Drums Group' aux, which has Waves L1 limiter, which is catching peaks, making sure nothing overloads."
"Many of the vocal tracks have the same chain on the inserts: Waves Q10 EQ, Waves Renaissance Compressor, Waves REQ6, FabFilter Pro‑DS, Waves CLA‑2A and the Pro‑Q2. This chain emerged from Nolan and I going back and forth. It's something he started, and that I then developed. In the verse vocals, the Q10 rolls off below 100Hz and pushes slightly at 400Hz and at 4kHz. I love the RCompressor. It reminds me of the dbx 160X. It's more flexible, but has a similar quality. It works great for a vocalist like Selena, to make her voice sound bigger and to add more excitement. It's set to a ratio of nearly 7, but in places where she's not hitting the threshold her voice is gaining by 5dB. We're doing a serious amount of squashing to get as much energy out of her voice as possible! The REQ6 pushes a little at 203Hz, and the Pro‑DS is my favourite de-esser these days. Nolan favours the Massey, so I inserted the Pro‑DS. The CLA‑2A also comes from Nolan. I prefer the UAD LA‑2A, but the CLA‑2A worked, so I edited it. The Pro‑Q2 at the end pushes a little at 600Hz and 8kHz, plus there's a high shelf at 10kHz.
"The verse audio tracks all go to the 'Verse SG' aux, on which I have the Slate Virtual Mix Rack, with the Revival Sonic Enhancer, and Virtual Channel. The Revival adds some thickness to her voice, and the Virtual Channel is set to the US A console, and has a bit of Drive.
"There are similar chains for the pre-chorus and chorus vocals, each with their own aux group track, and I adjusted the settings as required. The 'Chorus SG' aux also has the FabFilter Pro‑MB before the VMR, and it's dipping above 6.3kHz, because Selena was pushing harder in the choruses, and I needed to control that. On the VMR on the 'Chorus SG' track I added a High Lift module and the settings say why: Big and Present. All lead vocals go to the 'Vocal Group' aux, and, like the 'Backing Vocal Group', that has the Softube Tube-Tech PE 1C, pushing some high frequencies."
"All group aux tracks go to the 'Mix Buss' near the top of the session, and this has the T-RackS EQ. Nolan really liked that, so I kept it, and edited it. I added the UAD Chandler CurveBender EQ, pushing at 10kHz and adding some 50Hz. On inserts 3 and 4 I have my hardware Pendulum ES8 tube limiter.
"All group tracks also go to a 'Parallel Mix Buss', which has the Brainworx bx_digital V3 EQ, to give it a little bit more Mid-Sides spread. Inserts 7 and 8 on the 'Parallel Mix Buss' go to a pair of hardware Chandler RS124 compressors. Both 'Mix Buss' tracks go to the 'Master 2' track, which has the iZotope Ozone 8 Vintage Limiter, just catching some peaks, to make sure the master print is not overloaded.
"The mix print track is called 'Rare In Progress7', and it is what I sent to Chris Gehringer, who mastered the track. The mix print track also goes to the 'Limiter' aux, which has the Oxford Inflator and FabFilter Pro‑L2, to create a fake master which I purely used to send to clients for listening purposes, at about -9 LUFS."
'Rare' was written and recorded at Nolan Lambroza's Home Away From Home studio, which changed location in 2018, when he bought a $2.6m mansion in Los Angeles, "to house my studio and publishing company. It's the hub, the incubator. There are several writing rooms, where other producers work. In my studio I have Barefoot MicroMain 27 and Yamaha NS10 monitors, with Bryston 3B amp, and a Grace Design M905 monitor controller. I work in Pro Tools, running on the new iMac desktop, with a Lynx Aurora N interface, and Avid HD Native Thunderbolt and UAD Satellite. I do most of my processing in the box, but my outboard consists of a Chandler TG2 and Chandler TG Microphone Cassette — the latter incorporates the TG1 Limiter, TG2 pre-amp, and Curve Bender EQ. I use that on my vocal mics, which are two AKG C414s, a Telefunken AR51 and a custom-made ELAM 251. The mics go into the Chandler, then a UREI 1176LN and via my Lynx Aurora into the computer.
"I also have an Avalon 737 mic pre, which I use for my bass guitar, and I use the UA 4-710d mic pre for my piano and to run the Kemper Profiler amp through, for guitars. My 1967 Strat and my keyboards are my main pieces of gear when it comes to creating. The three keyboards I use the most are my Mellotron, and the Roland Juno 106 and Juno 60. I also have a Dave Smith Prophet 08, and a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak. I like these keyboards, because once you understand a bit about ADSR and envelopes, you just operate some knobs, and they are easy and quick to operate. With digital menus you can spend 10 minutes trying to edit the attack of a sound. When you're writing and have people with you in the room, you want to be able to just go.
"My main software synths are UVI Workstation, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and Native Instruments Kontakt, the latter mainly for strings and drums. I also sometimes use reFX Nexus and Native Instruments Absynth. I've been using UVI Workstation as my main in-the-box instrument for a while, because it has so many great keyboards and drum sounds, but I now feel a need to expand and try other things. However, one of the things I have learnt is that everybody has the same stuff. It comes down to being inspired."
"Generally speaking, people send me over–maximised rough mixes," says Maserati. "They've been pushing all the way. I had a mix come in at -3 LUFS once! What I need to do is bring it back. Usually this means a lot of subtractive EQ, something which nobody does. I listen, and ask myself: 'What frequencies does this guitar part not need, and yet still retain the energy that the part needs to have?' And I pull back that frequency. I do the same thing with the bass, the keys, the strings. Subtractive EQ is functional rather than aesthetic. I listen with everything in, and try not to solo, though I may mute an individual track to see if it supplies a particular frequency I'm looking for. But I can't hear how much to reduce a particular frequency if I don't listen to the whole mix.
"Once again, I'm doing broad strokes, and not detailed work. I can try another EQ later on, or add some kick sample. But at this point I'm thinking more of whether the kick is supporting the emotion. The question is: 'What can I lose and not change the energy of the mix?' If all an acoustic guitar needs to do is add some energy and tinkle in the high end, I lower frequencies in the acoustic guitar part below 400Hz, and I let other parts dominate the 200-500 Hz range. I don't want mud. Most people would only boost the higher frequencies to bring out that guitar tinkle, and they end up with a build-up in the lower frequencies. The whole point is to sculpt holes, without losing energy, and all of a sudden you're hearing detail and parts have breathing space. These days I almost only use the FabFilter Pro‑Q2 and Pro‑Q3 for subtractive EQ."
These days I almost only use the FabFilter Pro‑Q2 and Pro‑Q3 for subtractive EQ.
In addition, Maserati's subtractive EQ process isn't only about improving clarity and impact. "Subtractive EQ is part of gain-staging, which is always a big concern. Gain-staging is supremely important to me in every way, in the box, with my hardware inserts, and when I'm summing externally. Many sessions that I get to mix don't have the gain structure where I want it to be, and they tend to be far too hot. Few producers today understand gain staging, and I often get stuff that's out of whack. An effect return may be at zero, but the send at -32. That's completely the wrong way of doing it, both for signal-to-noise and gain structure.
"I'm clip gaining [adjusting the level of individual clips in Pro Tools], and compressing, and lowering the faders in the entire mix to get a better gain structure for my mix bus and in my aux tracks. I may also clip gain the entire mix, but you have to remember that if you clip gain 10dB down, you then need to rework the threshold of any particular plug-in the producer has put on. Sometimes bringing the fader down is the best method [because the gain change takes place post-insert]. Subtractive EQ is part of this, because the frequency content affects it a lot. Lower frequencies push a lot more voltage than higher frequencies, so if your song has a big bottom end, you have to control that in a different way. Pulling back frequencies naturally frees up headroom.
"I am always thinking about headroom. In every minute, in everything I do, headroom is a constant concern. In general, my methodology is to start lower, because it's a lot easier to push levels than remove levels a month later. I'm using all possible sources to judge headroom and gain staging: my ears, the TC Electronics Clarity M, I have VU meters, when I am summing I use the meters on the desk, and so on. I pay attention to where the kick hits, where the snare hits, what the level of the vocal is, and so on. I need tools to tell me where I stand, but my ears are the ultimate judge."
Still only 29, Nolan Lambroza, aka Sir Nolan, is already a production star in the LA music world. "I was born in DC, and my parents are American, but we moved to Sweden when I was three, and to Surrey in the UK when I was six. My Dad had a thing about everyone in the family needing to learn how to play piano, so I had lessons, but got bored with the scales and started to improvise. Eventually I rebelled, and picked up the guitar, and became really good at that. Now I'm so grateful for the piano lessons, because when you're producing, a lot of what you're doing is playing keys.
"At age 17, I went to Berklee College Of Music in Boston, where I studied Music Business, with guitar as my focus instrument. Figuring out what you don't want to do is as important as knowing what you do want to do, and while at Berklee I played in a band, and realised that I did not want to be on stage and did not want to be an artist. My friend and fellow band member Bryce Vine and another member in the band were writing and producing the music in the studio, and from being around them I decided that I wanted to be a songwriter, and also do arrangement and production. I started messing with Logic, but what I did sounded nothing like what's on the radio. I really wanted to understand the art of production, and became obsessed with that.
"Because of my Music Business direction, I did some internships in LA, working at the RCA publicity department, and the Atlantic Records radio department, and the Sony ATV publishing department, and I became friends with Serge Courtois, who is a great mixer. When I returned to Berklee after my internships I couldn't wait to get out in the real world. After graduating, I moved to LA and just cold emailed and cold tweeted and cold messaged everybody in the music business. One person who got back to me was Nasri [Atwey], who is in a production group called the Messengers, together with Adam Messinger. They had a small studio in North Hollywood, and I started working with them and some other people there. They liked that I could play instruments!
"I signed my first publishing deal with them in 2012. They were very insular, so I didn't meet many people through them, but I did learn to write a million songs, and how to get better at production. We had an intense couple of years together, and the first big project they had in their pocket was writing songs for a Justin Bieber album. I tried really hard and made beats non-stop, for hours and hours, every single day. One day Nasri told me Justin was cutting a song we had done, and it was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it!' The next day we heard Justin had dropped the song again.
"The only thing to do was to write more songs, and it becomes a bit of a numbers game, where you write tons of songs, and some of the best ones never find a home for a long time. Eventually we did land two songs on Justin's Believe album. This was 2013.
"There's all this glamour and shininess in the music industry, but what you really want is to lock down with a few people who believe in you, and who want to work with you. Even if you did not get the placement, they will turn up again at your studio to work with you. Those are the people that you'll make better music with, not the people higher up who may have five minutes for you. A good example is my manager, Lucas Keller. When I met him a few years ago, his company, Milk & Honey, was very small. But he had time for me. Now his company is huge, and very successful."