John Legend's silky, R&B-tinged sound has revitalised soul music. Mix engineer Tony Maserati explains how he crafted that sound for Legend's hit 'Save Room'.
Née Tony Masciarotte (pronounced, indeed, 'Maserati'), Italian-American mixer Tony Maserati cut his engineering teeth in the '80s at Sigma Sound Studios in New York, where he worked with a variety of R&B and dance acts, among them Whitney Houston, Lisa Lisa and Tom Tom Club. He went independent in 1989, initially working as an engineer, mixer and producer, but soon specialising in mixing. After two decades in commercial studios, Maserati is now building his own studio north of New York, called Una Volta, but he's still a regular in the biggest studios on both east and west coasts.
As a mixer, Maserati helped shape the New York hip-hop and R&B sound. His work is typified by a huge low end and a smooth, velvety high. Maserati's mix credits run into the many hundreds, among them kd Lang, Mary J Blige, David Bowie, Usher, Puff Daddy, Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, R Kelly, Maxwell, Destiny's Child, Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Lil' Kim and Will Smith. In 2004 he received a Grammy Award for his work on Beyoncé Knowles' smash hit 'Crazy In Love', as well as four Grammy nominations for the Black Eyed Peas album Elephunk. "I have always worked in R&B, hip-hop and pop, all of which are very collaborative, and we stretch the boundaries of the technology," he says. "Even in the days when we were using analogue tape, we were triggering samples, gating, working with loops, and so on. In recent years, the rock genre is coming closer to us; it's exploring technology as well now."
For SOS 's Inside Track feature, Tony Maserati chose to spill the beans on John Legend's hit 'Save Room', which he mixed using Pro Tools and a Neve VR80 desk at New York's Chung King Studios.
Unlike many engineers and mixers, Tony Maserati is not content to work with plug-ins alone: not because he misses the hands-on control of an analogue desk, but because he thinks that hardware outboard gear sounds better. "Today the hip-hop and R&B genres really stretch digital technology, using plug-ins and doing everything in the box. For me, I don't mix in the box. It's not a matter of not having all buttons and fades at my immediate disposal, because I do a lot of mixing in my head. I store things I need to do in my mind, so I don't necessarily need to be able to grab two buttons at the same time. The issue for me with working in the box is that I've not been able to capture the same amount of sonic detail in my mixes.
"So I work in a hybrid way, in a box and with an analogue desk and hardware inserts. I'll do automation and pre-summing in the box, like my drums will come out of Pro Tools in four or six tracks, and here at Una Volta I will put them through one of my two 12-channel Neve sidecars with 33114 EQs. I also have Chandler and Dangerous Music summing boxes. Summing outside of the DAW simply gives me much better sound quality. Although, high-definition digital has made an enormous difference. I love it when people send me tracks in 88.2kHz. I can hear the difference and love it!
"With regards to the plug-in versus outboard gear debate, to my ears internal EQ doesn't sound as smooth as the Neve EQs. I tend to use in-the-box EQ primarily for cutting, to notch things out. I don't do a lot of boosting with plug-ins, although I do use the [Sony] Oxford sometimes. I love the Waves and Sound Toys effects, and have been using TC stuff a lot recently, particularly their new Vintage Reverb plug-ins. But I only rely on plug-in compression to control the gain, like on a guitar where I can put the attack time really short, so it will catch some of the transients that an analogue compressor maybe won't. But for sound I use the Neve 33609, Chandler TG1, Dbx 160a, LA3A, Pendulum ES8, Distressor, GML8200 and so on. In general, I rely quite a bit on outboard stuff."
Writers: John Legend, will.i.am, Jessyca Wilson, Buddy Buie, James B Cobb
Producers: John Legend, will.i.am
Tony Maserati: "The first thing I do when I receive a mix is open the file and 'Save As'. I never write over the file that's sent to me. I often work with will.i.am, and with his stuff I normally also save his plug-in settings to a separate folder. That allows me to freely change any settings he had, usually toning down some of his EQ, or taking out some of his plug-ins, because I'm going to replace it with outboard. Will tends to be a lot more heavy-handed with the plug-ins than I. We both know how the other tends to work, and he expects me to tweak his plug-ins. He had a lot of plug-ins on 'Save Room', and his reference mix sounded great, so I wanted to keep close to what he had, so all Will's plug-ins remained in the mix."
"This track is based on a loop of a sample of guitarist Gabor Szabo's cover of the Classics IV hit 'Stormy'. Will probably put this together on the road when in his bus. The loop is on track 18, and on track 16 is the same loop, but with all top end filtered out, so it functions as the bass track — there's no other bass on the song. The two loops run throughout the track, although track 18 drops out in the verses, so there it's just the low-end loop. On track 16, the McDSP Filter Bank F2 takes out everything above 2.84kHz, and on track 18 the F2 takes out lows at 146.6Hz and rolls off high end above 18kHz.
"Track 16 also has a [Waves] Renaissance Bass plug-in on it, to enhance the bass. Both the Renaissance and the F2 came from Will. My work would mainly have been on the outboard and I would have boosted quite a bit of low, and compressed things with an LA2A and a Neve, to keep things full and round. Will uses the Renaissance quite a lot, but I'm not crazy about it. I think it adds artifacts that are not there in the original sound. It reminds me of the Dbx Subharmonic Synthesizer that everyone was using in the late '80s and early '90s.
"Both loops are in mono, which is why I also apply the TC Works Chorus on track 18, the loop with the entire frequency spectrum, routed as aux on 19. The TC opens things up a little bit, adding a reverb-like effect. I wanted the sound to come from both speakers. The speed is pretty slow, 0.35Hz — I never go above 1Hz. I didn't want it too bright, which is why there's a 6dB cut at 12kHz in the filter.
"The TC Works Chorus-Delay is one of my favourite plug-ins because of its subtlety. I will also use it for layering things, sending several tracks to it. TC are best at doing choruses. Even back in the day when they had their stomp boxes, their choruses, and those made by Roland, were the best. The Rolands were more outrageous sounding, while the TCs were more precise. For years I used the TC1210, in fact I still have one, as a spreader. This plug-in is almost identical to the 1210. I'm nevertheless trying to get TC to reissue the 1210 as a plug-in."
These days, it's not only mastering engineers who are complaining about the 'loudness wars'. As a mix engineer, Tony Maserati is suffering fall-out from the same phenomenon. "Something that's become a real problem recently is the maximising thing and the degree of distortion that comes with it. It really pisses me off. I work very hard to get the same impact without the distortion, but I'm finding that I can't do that any more. The ears of my clients are trained for distortion now. It's a really disturbing thing. Some guys just don't give a crap and they are crunching the shit out of rough mixes. It gets in the way of the actual performance, and yet artists often think these crunched, crappy-assed mixes are really hot, and it becomes a problem for me to match them without the distortion. One record I'm working on at the moment is for a great young artist for Motown, with a great producer, but all the rough mixes are maximised way beyond anything I would ever do. And because the artist is young, and because she's only ever listened to MP3, it's tough to help her understand that we don't want distortion before it gets mastered."
Drums: Waves Renaissance Equaliser, Digirack Expander/Gate II, TC Reverb One
"The most important thing when you are working with a loop is that everything has to match that loop. All the additional instrumentation has to sound as if it's coming from that loop, unless the loop is used for just one section. So after working on the loop, I focused on the drums. In addition to the drums in the loop, there are machine drums (tracks 5-15) and live drums (tracks 20-35). The live drums sounded great and added a lot of vibe, but I didn't want them to change the groove too much. The machine drum is the groove template, and I ran the live drums through Beat Detective and lined them up to the machine drums.
"There's an 808 clap sample on track 5, and Will had two kicks, on 7 and 8. I added a kick on 5. My kick is punchy, his kicks are usually rounder; one of them is a 909. As for treatments, on the snare on track 23 I used an API EQ, probably boosting 3dB at around 10kHz and also around 80 or 110Hz, which gives a nice top and bottom. I'm also using the Renaissance Equaliser to take out some boxiness at 248Hz and add a bit of high, starting at 5.7kHz. Plus I have the Digirack Expander/Gate II on the snare on track 24, trying to control some of the excess rattle.
"I'm also sending tracks 23 and 24 to busses 47, 48 and 64. Some of the other tracks are sent to those busses as well, like the overheads (29-30) and the stairwell ambient mic (32). They are all then routed to the Reverb One on aux 6, track 36. I'm closing that reverb with the snare top, which is a simple, old-school way of gating reverb. [Track] 64 is my 'key' buss, which triggers (opens) the Digirack Expander/Gate II, on 36 — the Reverb One. I'm triggering the gate with only one signal, the snare top, which allows me to control the ambience a lot more. This is very much the way I would use an analogue gate."
Horns and guitars: Digirack D-Verb, Waves Renaissance Compressor, McDSP Filter Bank E6
"The horns are on 38-40, and there's a Digirack D-Verb on them via aux 2 on track 41. I'm sure that it came from Will, as I don't generally use the D-Verb. In this case I liked the sound, and it was such a short path that it worked for what it was. The plug-in was set at a very short decay time, 110ms, with a pre-delay of 40ms, so all it gives is a little bit of a slap.
"The guitars are on 43-45. The [Waves] Renaissance Compressor on 43 probably comes from Will, but I tweaked it greatly, so now it's doing a lot less and is considerably more refined. My compression is only reducing 3dB, whereas I'm sure Will was not only reducing substantially more, but also adding a lot of gain. I went outboard as well with the guitars and probably used a Neve 33609, and perhaps an LA3A and the Chandler TG1. The McDSP Filter Bank E6 EQ is working on 43, and I'm reducing low frequency from 48.4Hz and dipping with the smallest Q at 229Hz. That's me trying to get the guitar to work with the loop."
Vocals: McDSP Filter Bank E6, Waves Renaissance Compressor, Renaissance EQ, L1 Ultramaximiser
"The song has two lead vocal comps, on tracks 48 and 49. You can see that I'm using a lot of plug-ins on those: I'm doing a lot of drastic stuff. They were probably recorded on two different occasions with two different engineers who didn't take the time to match the performances by using the same microphone and signal chains. I get really pissed at this lack of effort on the part of recordists — there are standards in engineering. John Legend is a phenomenal vocalist and before he comes into your room to record, you should reach out to other engineers who have recorded with him to find out what they used — especially, of course, the guy who recorded the song that you're going to be overdubbing onto! That's what I did, the first time I recorded John.
"We liked the lead vocal, it had an energy that we did not want to give up, but it's not recorded consistently. You can even see on the screen that the levels are all over the place. So I spent a lot of time and energy pushing and pulling all over the place to compensate for frequency anomalies and to make the two takes sound the same, as well as to force all the energy out of the vocals that is in there. On track 48 I have a Filter Bank EQ that's pushing a ton of bottom and taking off some top. The Renaissance Compressor is trying to make sense of that, levelling things out a bit with a really slow attack.
"I don't normally use the L1 Ultramaximiser on a lead voice, but it was probably already there, and I'm using it to get some intelligibility and energy from the vocal. The Renaissance is boosting above 9k and the McDSP is cutting around there as well. I think it's because I'm compensating for the L1, which is doing something I'm not entirely happy with. A lot of what I'm doing is simply compensating for a poor recording.
"Lastly I throw on the R4 Renaissance EQ, probably because after mixing for a couple of days, I felt that it needed a little bit more top, and I did not want to change my settings on the outboard, which was probably my GML 8200. I'm also EQ-ing on the board. So I'm being heavy-handed, also with the effects on track 49, in trying to match these two tracks. I was really fighting until we got something out of it, and I think we accomplished that. The end result sounds pretty good."