Tony Maserati, Pop Royalty's Favorite Engineer, Mixes Jason Mraz with UA Hardware and Software
Tony Maserati’s renowned chops as a mixing engineer have helped a huge and diverse array of musicians achieve household name status. Maserati’s best known credits include the likes of Lady Gaga, Sting, Mariah Carey, The Notorious B.I.G., Alicia Keys, The Black Eyed Peas, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, and many illustrious stars. Maserati has also crafted tracks for jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, dancehall star Sean Paul, and pop-rap pioneers DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, not to mention mixing an impressive array of motion picture soundtracks as well.
Maserati’s latest high-profile project is Jason Mraz’s Love Is a Four Letter Word, a project he expertly crafted with the help of a host of Universal Audio tools. Here’s what he had to say about learning to mix one piece of gear at a time, honing his workflow thanks to inspiration from a Black Eyed Pea, and how a single UAD plug-in inspired his approach to one of Jason Mraz’s powerful new tracks.
What’s your overall mixing process like?
I spend a lot of time getting to know the music — so my process may actually be a little slower than that of other mixing engineers. Often if I get five songs delivered to me, I’ll open up all five over a two- or three-day period and start feeling out where they are all going and how the arrangements work. Then I start digging in and finding out where the music takes me. I always try to let the song tell me what to do.
What was your approach to mixing Jason Mraz’s latest album?
Joe Chiccarelli produced and recorded Love Is a Four Letter Word. Joe is wonderful, so it was no surprise that the tracks came to me in great shape. Jason had been working on the songs for quite some time and playing them live, so I also knew that there was history to the material and that the songs had been thoroughly refined. Throughout the process, I wanted to pay close attention to the interpretations and arrangements. Also, because I had worked on Jason’s previous record, I had knowledge of his audience. I kept all of those things in mind when I was working.
“I used the 1176 Limiting Amplifier, which I’ve had for many years and used on Jason’s last album as well — almost exclusively for his lead vocals.”
How did that approach manifest once you started working?
Jason is very interpretive both vocally and on guitar, so listening closely to his performance really told me where the emotions of the mix needed to go. From there, I tried to directly start from where Joe left off with his rough mixes. I always listen to the rough mixes that I’m given and then start making choices that support the direction that the artist and producer have chosen — and don’t distract from that direction.
Some of my clients will intentionally add everything to the mix, and it’ll be my job to choose what bits and pieces work best — they’ll just give me tons of material to work with and know that I’m going to edit as part of my mixing process. On the other end of things, there are some producers I work with who I don’t know that well and I’ll end up staying very close to their original arrangement. It varies depending on the relationship I have with them.
What Universal Audio hardware did you use on the album?
I used the 1176 Limiting Amplifier, which I’ve had for many years and used on Jason’s last album as well — almost exclusively for his lead vocals. On this record, I used it a little less for lead vocals and more on other instruments. I’ll use my 1176 on everything from bass to vocals to snare drums.
What about software?
I use two UAD-2 cards in my tower right now, so I’m constantly using UAD plug-ins. I use the Cambridge EQ quite often, and the Studer A800 [tape emulation] as well. I also like to use the LA-2A, LA-3A, and Fairchild 670 compressors, and the Ampex ATR-102 tape emulation — those are probably my every-day plug-ins that I’ll use on nearly everything I do. There’s a variety of other plug-ins that I use quite often as well — the UAD Roland RE-201 Space Echo, and EMT 140 and EMT 250 reverbs. I use them all quite a bit.
How exactly do you use the 1176 in your work?
I mix in Pro Tools and use 32 channels of hardware inserts. I can place a hardware insert directly over a channel before or after plug-in software, so I can use it in tandem with other things — or I can put other analog hardware in the chain as well. Often I’ll set up the 1176 in parallel, so I’ll have access to the signal for the lead vocal both with the 1176 and without it, and then I can mix the two together.
That sounds like quite an arsenal.
I started with one card, but it wasn’t enough. [Laughs.] I use this stuff a lot, so I really need a lot of processing power.
Do you still use a lot of vintage hardware gear as well?
I do. As I mentioned, I have those 32 channels of hardware inserts and my mix chain is heavily analog. It goes through a Shadow Hills mastering compressor, a Chandler Curve Bender EQ, a Pendulum Audio PL-2 limiter, and then finally my vintage V76 line amplifiers before it goes to my Black Lion Sparrow A/D converters. Analog is still very much how I hear things.
Can you elaborate on how you approach processing vocals?
Jason Mraz, for example, already has great mic technique and he’s generally recorded well, so I don’t need to do too much. I might apply some subtractive equalization with the UAD Cambridge EQ, which is one of my favorite digital parametric EQs. From there, I might go out to one of my vintage Neve EQs to add a boost. I generally use software for subtractive EQ and analog hardware for EQ boosting — some of my favorite hardware EQs are Neves, SSLs, or my GML EQ. Then I’ll add compression with the Universal Audio 1176, the Chandler Zener, or even the Retro Instruments Sta-Level. Those are my usual vocal chains, but a lot of it does depend on who the singer is and how it was recorded. I don’t like to box myself in. I’ll use whatever tools I need to get the right energy out of the vocal.
“UA products have always come highly recommended. People say, 'I really like the sound of it. It’s always useful and it doesn’t disappoint sonically.' It’s important to have that vetting.”
Can you describe one time when a particular piece of gear or plug-in inspired you in an interesting way?
On Jason’s album, there’s a song called “The World As I See It” that worked that way. It was one of the earlier songs that we had done and I approached it by using a lot of the UAD Studer A800 plug-in, which had just come out. One of the things I loved about that plug-in was that it had these fantastic presets. There’s a vintage 15 IPS/456/+6 setting that I use quite a lot. They’ve also got a saturated 15 IPS/GP9 [setting] that I use often, and a lo-fi function that sounds great as well. It even has a “cassette deck” setting that I love. They all have a great distortion sound to them. It’s just a little bit of sizzle, but not in an annoying way — more of a nice, rounded-off edge.
I wanted the record to have an analog sound to it, but since it wasn’t recorded on analog tape, my approach was to explore the engineering of A800 plug-in itself and go deep into it to get the sound I was looking for.
How do you decide which plug-ins to try out?
I, and a lot of my colleagues, make decisions based on what we discuss with each other. I don’t have a lot of time to go online and read blogs, so regardless of whether it’s hardware or software, I rely on my colleagues and members of the audio engineering community to help me make those decisions. I have to say that UA products have always come highly recommended. People say, “I really like the sound of it. It’s always useful and it doesn’t disappoint sonically.” It’s important to have that vetting.
Beyond that, I generally don’t go after plug-ins because of the name. I’m more interested in how the plug-in works with the sounds I’m already using. The cassette setting on the A800, for example, can give a Wurlitzer a nice, overdriven sound. In practice, I may duplicate that Wurlitzer track and also use a different group of plug-ins to process the duplicate — and then mix the two split tracks back together. I do a lot of additive stuff like that. So the goal isn’t always to capture an authentic vintage sound.
How long does it take you to master a new plug-in?
Whether it’s plug-ins or hardware, it usually takes me two or three months to get used to something. I’ll use it, turn it off, turn it back on, and eventually really get to know it. The Shadow Hill mastering compressor that I’m using right now is something that I picked up for the Jason Mraz album. It took me two months of working with it for Jason and on other projects to really get to know it and like it.
The same goes for UAD plug-ins. I’m checking out things like the Trident A-Range and Pultec [EQ plug-ins] to see how they all play nicely together, and to see what plug-ins complement which other pieces of hardware and software.
Will.i.am seems like one of your longtime collaborators. What’s it like working with him?
I did the Black Eyed Peas’ album Elephunk almost completely and I did several tracks on Monkey Business as well — and I mixed Will’s solo record. His work is fantastic. The speed at which he creates his arrangements is incredible, and that’s been a big influence on me. Will doesn’t stop reworking and evolving his arrangements and refashioning songs until right before we go to mastering. Watching him work has, in a lot of ways, led me to my current methodology.
“If you just spend time with a vocal track and try lots of different pieces of gear or plug-ins on it, you can learn a tremendous amount ... That experience will make you that much faster when it actually comes time to do a full mix.”
When I started working with Will, I was mixing on an SSL console. When you’re changing an arrangement constantly and you’re using a big console where the automation is based on time code, you can edit that automation data, but it’s not easy and it’s not that accurate. So I stopped using large-format consoles in some ways because of my work with Will. Now, even though I sum with an analog setup, I don’t use automation on a large console.
What do you use instead?
I use Pro Tools automation with D-Command. It allows the arrangement to be changed at any point and I never lose settings that I had previously. It’s just faster.
How do you adjust what you do when you’re working with more electronic artists like Will, Britney Spears, or Lady Gaga, as opposed to something more organic?
That sort of material has to be high energy, but I still try to make sure that my mix is compelling, that the artist shines, and that we communicate emotion. I’ve used quite a bit of analog processing on the Lady Gaga material. Fernando Garibay was the primary producer on her record, and he came to me with sessions where the rough mixes just needed to be bumped up and tweaked here and there with a little leveling and riding of the vocals. Analog processing allowed me to manipulate the tracks and gain a bit more breathing room.
How has your mixing work changed from the early days working with the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff and your current work with people like Jason and Lady Gaga?
It’s changed dramatically in terms of methodology and equipment. In those days, records were all done on analog consoles with analog gear, and Pro Tools was essentially just a storage medium. In many cases, we were still using tape. The speed with which I can work on music has also changed, but I’m essentially doing the same thing on the artistic and creative side, and that’s bringing out the best that the song can be and making the song and artist as compelling as possible - and trying to attract an audience in the process. The essentials haven’t changed.
What advice could you offer to up-and-coming mix engineers?
I often tell my assistant engineers to spend less time trying to actually mix and more time learning about the tools that they have available to them. Too often, young engineers mix records for their friends and feel that they need to mix an entire song or even a whole album. The reality is that, if you just spend time with a vocal track and try lots of different pieces of gear or plug-ins on it, you can learn a tremendous amount. You begin to internalize which tools and which settings create various interesting effects. That experience will make you that much faster when it actually comes time to do a full mix.
Tony Maserati Photos courtesy of David Goggin.
Jason Mraz, Tony Maserati, and Joe Chiccarelli photo courtesy of Ana Gilbert Photography.
— Michael Gallant