Ever wonder how your favorite songs are made? Ever wonder what happens between the time it takes your favorite artist to record a song and the time it plays on your radio? The process of making music is a specialized art, and there are a handful of amazing technicians working behind the scenes to help engineer the hits we all love and enjoy.
We recently sat down with legendary record producer and mix engineer Tony Maserati to discuss his evolution in the audio industry, his work with Jason Mraz and what it takes to become a great producer/engineer. Maserati’s work encompasses worldwide sales in excess of 100 million units, and his unique sound can be heard across numerous genres and styles of music. With multiple Grammy Awards to his credit, Maserati's insights are endless and inspiring!
When did you first realize that you had a passion for engineering music for artists/musicians?
I began recording myself with whatever equipment I could find when I was still in high school. When I started playing in bands in college, the technology started developing for home recording… like four-track cassettes and reel-to-reels. I was really into that. While I was at Berklee College of Music, I was still thinking that I would be a musician… and composer or writer. But I was making my living doing live sound… Then, Berklee started a program called Music Production and Engineering. A friend of mine recommended that I do that, because I was a natural at recording and engineering.
A lot of my youth was spent paying attention to the sonics of a record. When I was just a kid listening to Songs In The Key of Life [by Stevie Wonder], I was completely amazed by how it sounded. I remember there was a record by… Chicago. It was a live record done at Carnegie Hall. I was amazed by the sonics of that as well. Later on at Berklee, I met the engineer who did that [recording]. Don Puluse... So, I think that it was always in me. I wanted to be a performer, but I soon realized that was not my calling. I was much better at engineering and technical things.
Where did you first begin to cultivate your skills as an engineer? Are there any specific studios or mentors of note?
I had great teachers at Berklee. There was a woman named Robin Coxe-Yeldham, who was just a wonderful teacher, and I still use a lot of the techniques that she taught me. Right after graduation from Berklee, I went to New York and worked at Sigma Sound. I immediately got thrown in a room with some amazing engineers, and I learned an incredible amount from them as well. [Maserati expressed learning from the following engineers from Sigma’s in-house staff.] A guy named James Dougherty. Another guy named Lincoln Clap. Glenn Rosenstein.
Another one of the things I did was study a lot. If I got downtime in a [recording] room, I’d practice. I couldn’t use the tapes from sessions that I was working on as an assistant. Either the engineer would allow me to make a copy [of the recordings], or I’d get my friends and record them. I’d then use those recordings to practice. I’d just play the vocal from top to bottom and put it in all the gear in the room. That was how I learned. Then I would play those ideas for some of the engineers [at the studio].
I remember one time working with James Dougherty, and he was working on something for a long time. I started mixing in my head, because he would take so long to refine his ideas. So I started coming up with ideas in my head based on all the practice that I had done. That really helped me when it came time for me to sit in the engineer’s seat.
Who are some of the producers and engineers who have inspired you throughout your career?
I worked with a lot of the people who inspired me. People like Full Force, Steve Lillywhite, Teddy Riley, Shep Pettibone, Devante Swing, Heavy D, Puffy [Sean “P. Diddy” Combs]. Another guy is named Craig Street, who I just think is the Yoda of sound and production.
Also, I spent a lot of time listening to amazing producers and engineers of that period. Particularly, I listened to Bob Clearmountain, Neil Dorfsman, Roger Nichols and Bruce Swedien. I would listen to their work, take notes and try to recreate what they did in my head. I would write down what I thought they did on a particular vocal or instrument sound, and when I had my practice time, I would go in and try to recreate that particular sound. Of course, I never actually did, but I was able to come up with new things in the process.
You had an opportunity to begin your production career with training at the legendary Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Can you talk a bit about that experience?
In those days mentorship and training was an integral part of every facility. I was lucky enough to go to Berklee College and learn about music, engineering and production. Most folks just showed up at the studio and got a job. You started out as an apprentice. I was lucky enough to have a head start, but I still needed all of that mentoring. Sigma provided that. All of the studios during that time provided that. We would go out after hours to bars in the area and meet up with the second engineers and assistants from all of the studios around: MediaSound Studios, The Power Station [currently Avatar Studios], Hit Factory, The Record Plant, Vanguard, etc. There was a community to it, but there was also a training system. The more experienced engineers and producers would take time. At Sigma we had particular days and times we were trained and shown how things were supposed to be done.
Nowadays, that’s not possible. It doesn’t exist. The young guys just getting out of school really don’t have that opportunity to watch and apprentice.
You helped to define the sound of New York hip hop and R&B through your mixes on records by artists like Mary J. Blige, The Notorious B.I.G. and many others. What are some of the most pivotal shifts you’ve seen in hip hop and R&B production?
We were involved in creating a change. That defining moment was when singing vocals started to emerge as a production part of a hip hop track. Prior to that it was just rapping. My experience with R&B was why I was brought in on those records. They were marrying the vocals of R&B with hip hop tracks.
Really hip hop and R&B production changes every 6-9 months. The shifts in the kinds of sonics are very fast. If I’m using a particular sonic quality of a kick drum or a snare longer than that, then I’m definitely behind the times. Hip hop [production] has always moved very quickly, and I think part of that is due to the communication. The communication in the hip hop world [in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s] was what “viral” is today. Also, part of the reason things started shifting is because producers had to start paying for samples. So that was a shift that had to happen. We were all in the same studios, and the studio environment in those days was very collaborative among all the producers and writers. I moved within all of the crews that were making records.
In some ways, we were working in a vacuum in the early days of hip hop. There was mainstream music business, and it pretty much didn’t pay any attention to us. They thought that what we were doing was not music. I heard people say that to me. People insulted me by saying things like, “Don’t you want to work on real music?” I think that contributed to the pivotal shifts in the genre. There wasn’t anybody else to talk to but the people who were [actually making the music]... and the audience, who was loving it. And there were emissaries. Heavy D, for instance, was kind of an emissary. He talked to everyone. He just moved around wherever he wanted to go and helped steer the conversation. That’s a big part of how those shifts were happening so quickly.
You have worked with Atlantic Records artist Jason Mraz. What are some of the studio techniques that help make his records so special?
Jason is an amazing performer, both as a singer and a guitar player. He’s got an amazing ear. As far as the instruments that he plays, his dexterity and ability is flawless. So, his technique is to record those performances. That’s what he does.
On the hit record that we made We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., Jason worked with producer Martin Terefe, who I consider one of my influences. Terefe is all about capturing performances, both through his recording techniques and his layout of the studio. He works in a situation where there is no control room. There’s no separation between the engineer and recording devices in the room itself. Martin’s studio is just a wonderful environment because it has big windows that open up to a courtyard. It’s all about capturing the performance.
Once that magic [of the performance] got transferred into the tracks, I just tried to enhance it as best as I could [in the mixing process]. I used a lot of analog gear on that record. I was summing analog through my Neve [console]. I used a number of hardware inserts in my Pro Tools rig. It warranted that. The record needed it, and the recording was so perfect. Martin Terefe’s recording engineer was just wonderful. Everything from the vocal to the guitars and the drums were just perfectly recorded. So it allowed me to be just as creative.
Do you remember the first recording you worked on for an Atlantic Records release? Can you tell us a bit about the experience?
One of the early ones I could find was of a female duo called Changing Faces. Devante Swing was the producer. That was an amazing record.
What’s your favorite piece of gear? Please explain.
I’ve got a lot of Chandler gear. I’ve spoken to the owner of the company and said, “Can you just build my whole studio? Just make it a complete Chandler room.” I use his EMI TG12345 Curve Bender on almost every mix. Chandler doesn’t make anything I don’t like or use. I use Pendulum ES-8 or Pendulum PL-2 Analog Peak Limiter on almost every mix as well. I still have Solid State Logic outboard gear. I have Shadow Hills and my old vintage Neve desk. So there are a number of things that I just can’t live without.
What is some advice that you would offer to anyone looking to break into today’s music industry as an audio engineer or producer?
Practice. You need to practice, and that practice will help train your ear. The hours and hours I spent with the equipment gave me a leg up when it came time to do mixes. You have to teach your ear how to hear what it is you want to do. When you know the sound of an equalizer or the sound of a compression, then you’ll hear it in your head. It will be a lot easier to get to that place later under pressure.
Paying attention to the market is the other thing I would recommend. I am an example. In the late ‘80s I embraced the new technologies that all of the other engineers thought were a fad. All the senior engineers at the time thought drum machines and MIDI would go away—and of course, thought that hip hop would go away too. It was only about playing live and traditional instruments. Synthetics of any kind were considered garbage. I was like, “Well y’all take that hallway; I’m going to go down this different hallway.” I thought [hip hop] was interesting and fun. It was the energy. The energy in hip hop those days was exactly what I imagine the energy of rock ‘n’ roll was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I just followed that, but really it was a market choice.