Any definition of the “New York sound” that's front and center on so many of today's hits has to credit Tony Maserati with being one of its main authors; he's been seminal in the creation of a style sometimes described as “outhouse on the bottom, penthouse on the top.” Big, powerful bass paired with smooth, classy high end is Maserati's trademark; you've heard variations on cuts by R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim and Faith Evans, as well as by more mainstream chart-toppers Mariah Carey, Destiny's Child, Brian McKnight, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Alicia Keys.
Maserati started on the New York scene in the mid-'80s working with artists/producer Full Force, churning out records for the likes of Lisa Lisa and Cheryl “Pepsi” Reily. These days, he continues to be as busy as ever. Even in a field notoriously populated with dedicated workaholics, Maserati's especially focused and detail-oriented style attracts notice. His targeted approach to the job is evident in such hits as Ricky Martin's “She Bangs,” Mark Anthony's “I Need To Know” and R. Kelly's “I Wish.” Given his organized work habits and rather studious attitude toward technology, it's not too surprising to discover that, before left-turning into the studio world, the friendly and soft-spoken Maserati had decided to become a lawyer.
I spoke with him one Sunday afternoon in mid-September as he relaxed in his East Village apartment. He'd been up late the previous night mixing a new Alicia Keys release at Hit Factory's Studio 3, but after he made a quick run to the corner coffee shop for a double-strength cappuccino, we settled in for a chat.
I have to ask. Is Maserati your real name?
[Laughs.] Well, it's not the original spelling, but it's phonetically correct. It's how my Italian family name, Masciarotte, gets pronounced in English.
Let's go back to the beginning for a minute. You studied at Northeastern University in Boston, heading toward a law career, when you made a switch into music.
Yes. I was playing guitar and singing in a band while at school. When I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer, I switched to the Berklee College of Music and studied what was called “composition,” which was, to me, just songwriting. At the same time, for money, I started doing live sound. I ended up doing sound and lights for a 10-piece R&B revue: three singers, horns, two guitars — a totally wild show. We traveled with a P.A., and we'd do three different venues a week.
So, early on, you had a feel for R&B.
I was always into it. I grew up listening to it because my sister was a big R&B head — Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross. When Berklee started their program for production and engineering, I signed up. I loved it, and that's when I started listening to guys like Bob Clearmountain, Neil Dorfsman, Roger Nichols, Steve Hodge, and Jimmy [Jam] and Terry [Lewis].
When I finished school, I went right to New York, to the Power Station, trying to get a job. They didn't need anybody, but it turned out that there was a guy working there that I'd played hockey against when I was a kid. He suggested that I try Sigma, which, at the time, had a studio in Manhattan upstairs from the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Kind of another R&B connection, considering Sigma's Philly history.
It was totally luck for me. A lot of the other studios were doing the '80s rock thing, and that was all cool, but it doesn't exist anymore. Sigma was doing a lot of machine stuff, and a lot of remix stuff — Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, Steely Dan, Madonna; a lot of really cool music. We also did jingles in the morning. I got to work on everything from horns to strings, to vocals and mixing. Joe Tarsia was the owner and a great engineer from way back in the Philly days, so we all got really great training. And it was fun — Hank Meyer, the studio manager, would come up, on a whim, with things like “Margarita Day,” and all the clients would participate.
How'd you move up to the engineer's seat?
Glen Rosenstein, who is now a good friend of mine, was engineering for the production team of Full Force. He'd started a Ziggy Marley record with Chris and Tina from the Talking Heads, and Full Force needed some work done, so he was nice enough to recommend me. One of the things we worked on was a Samantha Fox single, which I somehow also ended up mixing, that went to like Number 3. And when Glen continued to be busy with other things, I continued to work with Full Force.
What happened after Sigma closed?
One thing I did was to immediately get into the role of coordinator for the Full Force guys. And doing that, I started booking all my favorite studios, so I got to work at them. We went to Skyline and to Hit Factory and all over town, and I got to know all the studios and to become friends with the people who ran them. That saved me, because when Full Force created their own facility in Brooklyn, and started using the guy who built it for them to engineer, I called up all the managers I'd become friends with and said, “I need work.”
And they all came through. Barbara Moutenot at Skyline, Laura King at Chung King, Troy and Danielle at Hit Factory — they'd call me with gigs. That's how I got hooked up with people like Heavy D, Brand Nubian, and Poke & Tone, who became some of my biggest clients.
It's an art: the way a talented studio manager can “cast” a session, pairing up clients with an engineer who will make the session go well and the studio look good.
That's absolutely right. Relationships are a lot of what this business is about.
Of course, you've also got to be good. I trained and worked the traditional 90-hour week, and I also studied very, very hard.
I would be on the subway every morning with my SSL manual, or whatever manual, reading it and marking it. I tell my assistants now: It's great to record your friends' bands, but don't just do that. Take a tape or a file and the manuals and work through a room's gear — the reverbs, the plug-ins. Keep working it over and over. I'd sit there with the gear for hours. I think that helped me become a mixer, and to be able to come up with things that were creative and new.
Where a lot of my counterparts were into getting a big “Power Station” drum sound, I was into looking for my own sounds. One of the conclusions I came to was that I couldn't do what Bob Clearmountain or Mick Guzauski does. To this day, if a client brings me something that I think someone else could do better, I'll tell them so. I'll say, “That sounds like a Mick Guzauski song; I think you should call him.” I don't do the lush, beautiful thing.
Okay, then, describe what you do do?
My stuff is harder, it's edgier, it's fat — more in line with the hip hop R&B thing. I worked with guys like Heavy and Puffy and D'vante and Poke & Tone. And because of what I had to do, I played a role in creating the modern R&B hip hop sound. My clients wanted a lot of bottom; they wanted it really heavy-sounding. And I wanted it to sound crystal-clear. The compromise is what I sound like now.
I got a lot of my ideas from others, of course, like Bruce Swedien and his Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones records. Bruce had the great top, and also some nice punch. He didn't have the crazy, heavy bottom that I needed for the hip hop stuff, but he knew how to make it pop. And Steve Hodge had a real ethereal spectrum and soundscape that I could never get but always tried to. And Mick [Guzauski] had [laughs] — I don't know what…Mick is a Martian, a genius from outer space. I cannot figure out what he does, and he's always using something that nobody else has.
Do you always work on SSL consoles?
Well, I used to say I could mix on a Mackie console in a bathroom. I think that's true of any good mixer. But now, the competition is really stiff and I use everything I can get, so I mix on an SSL J Series. I used to do a lot of work on the [Neve] VR — the Mary J. Blige stuff was on a VR — because I wasn't into the [SSL] G console with VCAs. I would gravitate toward anything that didn't have VCAs.
So the SSL J Series was a natural fit for you.
I jumped on it immediately because of its sonic difference and its flexibility. And its software worked really well. The automated EQ and dynamics in/out switching are especially useful when you've got a “difficult” vocal. I'll automate it to filter out low end on a talking part in the bridge, or to put a telephone sound in the intro. The insert in/out I'll use for the same thing, or maybe to add a different sound to an instrument to make it rise a bit in the hook.
I also have racks of Neve EQ. I own an old Neve 5316 console, a broadcast board that has 33114 EQs in it that I've rackmounted. A 33114 is a mic pre, line amp and EQ, similar to a 1081 as far as frequencies. It has switchable top between 15 and 6k, plenty of frequencies in the mids — although there's no Q control — and a low and high shelf, as well. It's got a lot of flexibility for a Neve, and typically I have a rack of eight of them with me. Or, like last night on the Alicia Keys session, they wanted an old sound, so I had all three of my racks.
Are you always mixing off of Pro Tools now?
Yes, and it works great with the J, because I can clock the console to an Aardvark Aardsync and clock the Pro Tools as well. They're both getting the same clock source, which means I'm frame-accurate. You can change the SSL to read 29.97, and, of course, Pro Tools will read anything. I run the console as my master, which is great, and which you can't do that with other consoles.
What do you mix to?
I still mix to half-inch. I prefer a Studer 820, but I'll mix to an ATR, and even an MCI.
I've been using BASF 900 [tape]; it seems to stand up well. I don't hit tape that hard; I record at plus 6 over 185. When the new formulas came out, there was this whole thing about plus 9, plus 12, but I'm not into it. I recently got a tape that was recorded at plus 12, and I called the engineer and yelled at him. It was flat, mushy and there were no dynamics. It was like, “What the hell were you thinking?” I understand the effort to reduce tape hiss, but I've got a gate on every channel here! Give me a break — you're supposed to be capturing the dynamic of a performance.
Actually, I do that a lot — call up engineers. [Laughs.] Mostly I give compliments, but sometimes it's, “Whataya doin' here?”
What are some of the techniques you use to get your bottom end the way you like it?
Early on, when I was working with Full Force, I started splitting things up; it's a way to compress the low frequency differently than the highs. I'll split the signal and EQ and shelf them each differently. I'll do that on kick drum, on bass and on vocals, and other things as well.
So, you'll do that on your main tracks, the ones in the center of the mix?
It doesn't matter where the sound is in the spectrum; it only matters what its job is. I'll take guitars and just nick bottom and top, or I'll nick all the bottom up to 2k — just to fit something in. I learned from listening to Roger Nichols and Steve Hodge — these guys place stuff, not just with level or pan, but with frequencies and phase. They would use EQ to move things front and back. Obviously, the brighter something is, the closer it is; the duller it is, the farther away. A bright reverb is present; a dull one takes you farther back in the hall.
Some of my clients bring in drums that just need a little tweaking; some of them need more work. Obviously, with a kick I need tons of bottom, so after I split it I might filter out all the top on one [split], pump the bottom with a Pultec or Neve, and compress it a little less. Then, on another kick, I'll nick off everything at the bottom, find the spot that ticks or knocks, and compress that differently. And all the while, I'm checking phase. That's the most important thing whenever you're combining two of the same signal that's been EQ'd and compressed differently.
What compressors might you use for your top split vs. the bottom?
On the top, I'll often use something that has less of a full-frequency response but gives me a quick release. Mostly the dbx 160, 160X, the [SSL] console compressor, Drawmer or Aphex — stuff I normally consider to be effects dynamics, because of the tendency to add a sound of its own to the signal. On the bottom, I'll generally use very little — with an 1176 or compression from the board — or nothing at all.
What EQs besides Neves and Pultecs do you like for bottom?
I also use a lot of Tube-Techs and Langs. And plug-ins work quite well for filtering. I use a lot of Focusrite, Renaissance and Filter Bank.
What about on vocals?
On vocals, I'll use two EQs: one before it hits the console and another on the insert point. I want the one that I use to hit the console to come with more of a sound of its own, like a Neve.
So you tailor your first EQ to the sound of the vocal, and use others to fine-tune?
Yes, like I'll use GML to notch things out or to add a little bit of top. I don't want to hear the GML, just the effect of it. Whereas with the Neve, I want to hear that sound that it adds and I'll choose the particular Neve model that I want. I have a set of 1066s that I just love. I'll often use those across the stereo bus, where they aren't doing much.
You just want the unique sound of the unit itself.
Yeah, there's just that color. That goes for compressors, as well. Depending on the frequency content of a signal, and what I want the outcome to be, I'll use everything from LA-2As and LA-3As — the optical stuff, which I like a lot — to a dbx 160X.
I used a dbx 160X on a Toni Braxton vocal once, just because, in that instance, I needed the control. Normally, I'd never do that, but it worked — it did the right thing. Today, I probably would have used an Empirical Labs Distressor for that.
I think quite a lot about how a piece of outboard gear works with the frequencies, and whether it's a transient sound or perhaps a bass, which is less transient. I wouldn't put a kick drum through a 160X and expect to retain a lot of the frequency spectrum that went in. I know that I would lose some of the brilliant top and a lot of my bottom, as well, because of the way the unit is made.
Obviously, this goes one step deeper when you start talking about the kinds of splits you're doing on an instrument.
I'm thinking about the kinds of compressors and EQs that work well for that frequency content that I'm splitting. I'm also very particular, especially with things like LA-3As and 2As, about which actual unit I'm using. I'll spend time on that. When I find a good one, I'll write the serial number down and make sure I rent that one all the time. It's the same with Fairchilds; I call the rental company, and I want a specific one or I don't want any. You have to, because they can sound totally different.
The first question I ask of the assistant when I plug in an LA-2A is, “Which one is the best?” A lot of times, they don't know. There's one room I work in that has two LA-2As. One does the job it was meant to — works perfectly, sounds great — and I'll use it on vocals quite often or I'll use it on bass. The other one sounds like crap, so when I want something to sound like crap, I'll put it in there. [Laughs.] It's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just another thing.
It doesn't really matter if you're using newer gear; a Distressor is going to pretty much sound the same, as do plug-ins, of course. Which I do — I use the Renaissance compressor on vocals all the time — it just depends on what I get. If something sounds terrific already, like with the Alicia Keys stuff I was working on yesterday, where you just need a little control, the Renaissance is good. Whereas, with something that's really bad, I'll have the Neve EQ, the Distressor, a GML, a de-esser, the board EQ, an old Dolby, an 1176 offline that I'm busing to…anything. I'll throw every trick in the book at a bad vocal. You don't stop until you've got something, because the vocal is the magic. If the vocal isn't doing its job, then you've not done yours.
A lot of mixers lately have commented on the poor quality of material that they often receive. What's your opinion on the subject?
It's not that everything is bad; I get lot of tracks that sound terrific. But it is a major issue. I'm used to getting tracks that are horribly recorded, whether it be analog or digital. Vocals that are punched terribly, with a mic choice that wasn't even thought about, a preamp choice that wasn't thought about — obviously not right for the vocalist. Everything, down to poor recording level. It's just something that we all deal with.
What monitors do you use?
I go through a million. I spent quite a long time with Tannoy DMT-12s. Mine are actually broken, and they buzz when you turn them up, but I still cart them around. I also own a pair of ProAc Studio 100s, and a pair of Dynaudio System 1s. I even have a pair of AR18s that I drag around.
I almost always have Yamaha NS-10s set up; my clients are used to them, and so am I. Then, most of the rooms I work in have George Augspurger mains. I'll change the smaller set, depending on the music style.
Which ones for which styles?
If I'm doing a straight-up, hip hop, heavy-duty bottom kind of thing, I'll use the DMT-12s; they give me clarity as well as bottom end. If I'm doing a more pop kind of song, I'll use the ProAcs. If I'm doing something more pop/rock, with a little more guitars, I'll use the Dynaudios or the AR18s. I play with the effect on my brain.
Back at Sigma, we had something called Big Reds — they were the worst-sounding speaker on Earth. But there was an engineer named Jim “Doc” Dougherty who used to do a lot of dance mixes, and he made them sound really good. I learned from that, that if you could get those Big Reds to sound good, the mix was amazing. I never did, but it made me realize that you could use the speaker to force your brain to do something it didn't want to.
I don't use something like Genelecs that make everything sound good, because I'll stop way before the mix is right, thinking, “Oh, that sounds nice.” I want something that makes me work really hard. That's why I use Dynaudios for guitars. You can't hear guitars on them so you push guitars.
Do you listen at high levels?
I listen at quite a lot of different levels. I also listen a lot in mono on the Studer speaker, or, if I don't have an 820, I'll listen on a single Auratone. I do most of my EQ'ing on the ProAcs, Tannoys or Dynaudios, listening quite low. Then I'll do rough leveling on the NS-10s a bit louder. Then I'll go to the mono speaker and do the more intricate vocal levels and background levels. Then I'll go back to, say, the ProAcs and listen louder for fine EQ'ing, then I'll go to the NS-10s and listen lower for my fine leveling.
Sounds like a science. What do you listen on at home?
I have a pair of Snells; big, tall, orchestral speakers that go down to 20 Hz, with a Perreaux amplifier and a preamp that I think everyone should own, by a company in Norway called Electrocompaniet. I found it at the Stereo Exchange.
What's the ballpark time it takes you to do an average mix? Do you leave it up overnight?
If things are put together well, I don't necessarily leave things up overnight. But, if I've spent most of my energy fixing things all day long, then I definitely want to leave it up overnight. If I've spent all my time fixing problems, my creativity will be gone. I'll want to come back in the next day and say, “Okay, now what does this need to become a record?”
What motivates you and keeps you coming to work every day to make those records?
I've thought about how the projects that we do tend to blend into each other from day to day, and I've realized that really, it's about a day's work, and how you put yourself into it. I'm not a visual artist, but when you're doing several songs for an artist, it's almost like you're doing studies of that artist — studies in a particular emotion or sonic development. It really becomes your art, as well, and you go somewhere within yourself to create it.
Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.
SELECTED MIXING CREDITS
Marc Anthony: “I Need To Know”
James Brown:JB (Best of the Best)
Mariah Carey: “Honey,” “The Roof”
Destiny's Child: “Survivor,” “Bootylicious”
R. Kelly: “Like a Real Freak,” “TP-2”
Jennifer Lopez: “Play,” “Ain't It Funny,” “I'm Real”
Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera: “Nobody Wants To Be Lonely”
Mya: “Best of Me”
Notorious B.I.G.: “Mo Money Mo Problems”
Puff Daddy: “Been Around the World”
The Simpsons:The Yellow Album
Jessica Simpson: “Sweet Kisses”
Vitamin C: “I Know What Boys Like”