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An interview with mixing ace Manny Marroquin

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If you want something mixed with creativity, musicality and a contemporary sound, Manny Marroquin is your guy. Just ask Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, John Legend, and Alicia Keys, to name just a few of the major artists who Marroquin has mixed. Thus far in his career he’s won nine Grammys, and mixed more than forty #1 albums.

He’s also quite savvy technically, and even collaborated with Waves on a signature line of plug-ins. Needless to say, he’s a very busy guy, so we were thrilled to get an opportunity to interview him and talk about his work and his mixing techniques.

Manny Marroquin 1 (credit Brian Petersen).JPG
Marroquin uses a hybrid system that includes Pro Tools and an SSL console (photo credit Brian Petersen)

Do you mix out of your own studio all the time?

I do have my own place, it's called Larrabee studios in L.A. I've been there for about 20 years. And having a room that you know and, at least, feel comfortable in, is really important for the final product.

Is it console-based?

Yes. I'm not in the box. I have a hybrid setup. I do use an SSL. I have a 9000K, which is a beautiful console. It’s got 80 inputs and I run everything through the channels, and I still do everything analog—it all touches some sort of analog processing. And then of course, I've got all my analog outboard gear that I use. It seems like I use less of it nowadays, but I still use a lot of it.

So, you just output all the tracks into individual inputs on your console, and back into Pro Tools?

Yes, that's exactly it.

I assume doing a recall is tougher with your setup than it would be in-the-box?

You know what I do is I print stems. I've got a system that's really tight that allows me to always print stems, and my stems comeback in sounding 98% like the mix. I remember when we used to recall, the recalls never came back 100%. There was always something, it never came back 100%. But my stems do come back 98%, or sometimes 100%. At that point, I'm able to work in the box, from that point on.

Are the stems printed with the processing on them?

Yes. With the analog processing.

“If I get a mix that isn’t processed, that’s great. Then I do almost nothing to the stereo bus."

If you have to do a recall, you can't go back on the processing, only adjust levels?

Yes. It's like a coloring book. You have those Crayola crayons, where you color something. You can only update the color, you can't undo the color. The beauty of it is it's already printed, with the analog processing, and I can only add to it.

Because you always have the original, unprocessed one.

Yes.

That sounds like a good system.

Yeah, and I'd rather have 95% of my processing, and maybe the 5% could be the bass that I processed too much. And then I can “un-process.” I'd still rather have the 95% analog.

Do you use a lot of stereo bus processing?

Not really. If I get a session and someone has processed the stereo bus a lot, then I have to stay in that world. I can't unglue everything. It's like getting a car and taking it all apart and putting it back together. I'd be back at square one. So, I might as well keep the car like that, and tweak it, and give it a paint job or something. What I have to do is stay within the stereo bus, and then work from it. If I get a mix that isn’t processed, that’s great. Then I do almost nothing to the stereo bus.

Explain.

I'll do compression on my SSL, on the stereo bus on my board. But as far as my input in Pro Tools, very minimal. Maybe an EQ to process them, to add some air to the mix. Or maybe the opposite, I might have too much brightness if I was monitoring too low, and I was brightening everything up. Whatever I do, it will be something that I do at the end. Historically, I haven’t been one not to do too much to the stereo bus.

I assume most sessions are going to come to you either as just individual audio files or as a Pro Tools session?

Yup.

If someone gives you something that's partially mixed, like you were saying, you're more likely not to zero everything out and start from scratch?

No. To me, it's pointless to start from scratch, if I get a Pro Tools session and all the plug-ins are in there and everything is pretty much there. I'll keep everything, but I will go through every plug-in that they put on there, and see what it's doing. And I basically say to myself, "Is this a production call, or is this a sonic-improvement call?" So, for example, if it's a filter and it's doing some creative filtering, that's a production call. But if it's just adding a little bit of low to the kick, that's obviously a sound-improvement process, which a lot of the times I'll take off, and do my own. So, if it's EQed or compressed to get a sound unless I think it's a production call, I end up getting rid of those plug-ins. But if it sounds good it sounds good, I leave it alone.

How do you know what type of vibe to go for on a given mix? Does the producer usually tell you?

They give us a rough. Now we're in the world of roughs. A lot of the time there's, I wouldn't say "good sounding" roughs, but it is a good idea or representation of where they think the song should go. I listen to that and I can tell if they want it a little more aggressive or a little less aggressive, or they want it to be more "blue,” whatever that is. Your perception of what they're trying to do is really the art form today—guessing and seeing what the song is supposed to do, and how it's being represented, and your take on that. And there are no rules on that.

Describe how the rough integrates into your workflow.

I listen to the rough, and I really analyze what they're trying to do, and then I start with my faders literally down at zero and start building the mix the way I think I hear it. Anytime I get lost, I'll go and listen to the rough. And hopefully, at the end of it, when it starts to feel good, you've done what is a representation of what their vision is. And a much better, hopefully, improved version of that. Sometimes it could be 5% better, sometimes 60%. You never know. Every song is different within an album, even by the same artist. Every song may need a little different treatment. 

Manny's mix of this Usher song includes some interesting panning
and stereo effects.

Talk about ways in which you manipulate the soundscape in a stereo mix.

Some mixes need to be deep, and the depth could be some reverbs that have some tails that can be processed at the same frequency as the source, and now all of a sudden you have depth. I'm not a fan of width as far as movement. Unless it's a production call, unless someone is moving something from left to right on purpose as a production call. Obviously, I can get that, but as far as me, I don't get there and start panning things to make more room for a mix. I don't take those liberties at all. I am aware of width, as an emotional tool, meaning that if I have something in stereo that's in the middle, and then I put it a little wider, what does it do to the emotion? Is it a lift, is it a down? Does it feel like it puts me in a different headspace? I do like the psychology of width, depth, height.

How do you achieve height?

Whatever track is the loudest is the one that has the most height, in the stereo field. Soon we're going to be able to pan up and down, which could be cool. But again, it could be cool, it could be confusing. But at least for me, height is level.

So front-to-back placement is achieved with ambience?

Yes. The depth. You have a sound with a ton of reverb and it sounds like it's far away, right? The moment you start taking the reverb off and you start bringing the volume up on it. Imagine two faders and one is the dry signal and the other one is the effects. For dry you bring the reverb down so the actual sound comes forward.

“It doesn't really matter what it sounds like. What matters is: Does it work in the song?”

I notice that you use a fair bit of reverb on your mixes.

Yeah.

Do you do a lot of treatment to the reverb? EQing and so forth?  

I'm really more of a preset guy. Instead of me grabbing one reverb and tweaking it until I get what I want, I'd rather go through 20 different presets, and the one that's closest to what I hear in my head, I use. And if I can't find it, I just keep going until I find it. "What's the one I'm hearing? No. No. No. Oh there it is, that's what I'm hearing." And then you leave it alone. And to me that's more creative.

The people who use a lot of presets will be very happy to read that.

I'm big on left brain/right brain thinking. Left brain thinking would be tweaking the sound to get it the way you want, as opposed to right brain thinking: going through sounds and finding something that works on a creative level. Then you can keep moving forward on a creative level, you don't get caught up in the sound. Honestly, it doesn't really matter what it sounds like. What matters is does it work in the song? And again, it's emotion more than anything. If I'm mixing, whatever, let's say Charlie Puth, in the verse, maybe the verse needs to be a little dry because it needs to capture your attention. And then in the choruses, you need a change of scenery, and now we add reverb to the chorus. We need it to be washy a little bit, that's the emotion we want to give because the second verse is going to go back to dry. That's to me, controlling the mind of the listener, "Oh, what just happened?" The lay ear may not realize what's happening, but to us, we're manipulating that moment.

Kind of like a painter using contrast?

Yeah, in a way that's what it is. You know you have Picasso’s Cubist paintings, which are all flat. And then you have Monet's, which have so much depth. One is not better than the other, but can you imagine within a three-minute song being able to play with those emotions. Now you have emotion because of the contrast. Some paintings need to be like Monet and other's need to be like Picasso.  To understand that, and to know the psychology of what that does to your emotions, is a very strong tool.

Let’s say you have a vocal track that is lacking emotion. How would you try to help it in the mix?

There are things we can do to help it. I always say that with delays and effects like that, I don't add any of that stuff unless it's necessary. Only if the production needs help. For example, if there's an artist who just didn't really have the chops to do a run at the end of a [vocal] line, and they just finished the phrase abruptly, because they don't have the talent or the chops to do that, then I would help it with maybe something on the tail of that. Maybe a crazy, beautiful, interesting delay, so that your attention doesn't go to the singer's lack of ability, but it goes to something cool that happens. So, the second time you listen to it, you're listening to an effect as much as you're listening to the vocal.

“I feel like the art of engineering has been lost. There are less great engineers today than ever.”

Good idea.

You take the attention away from that and you use different tools to distract the listener’s mind away from the singer’s ability. Of course, we can change pitch and maybe timing. Maybe the singer isn't that soulful. Maybe we do something with the timing so that it feels almost off and not on the grid, so that it gives it a little bit more emotion. All those tools can be used. But if it's soulful and it's what it is and all, and the pitch is right and the timing is right, and it still doesn't sound inspiring, then that's when I start to add things like that which will make you think that it's part of a production. Then it's more forgiving. Again, you don't think about the vocalist as much as you do the soundscape. Knowing when to do that is important. And knowing when to do the complete opposite too, when you have an amazing singer and you want to show their ability, you do less of that. Maybe you pick and choose. If it needs it, okay, but if it doesn't, leave it alone.

On average, how long does it usually take you to complete a mix?

It depends. There's really no average. Sometimes it will take me six hours and other times it will take me two days. It's really hard to tell. Honestly, it's anywhere from four to six hours to two days. And I try not to rush the process. In the good old days, they gave us a day. "OK, you're going to mix this song, on that day." And it's going to take you a day to mix it. And you're going to start at noon, and it's going to end around 10, and by midnight, everything's printed, and, that's it. I think that's so unfair to the mixer because you're like the last step in the process. And imagine the pressure you have to finish something in less than 12 hours. But yet, the people that wrote it and produced it have been living with it for months.

In Manny's mix of this Charlie Puth single, listen to the different 
treatments on the lead vocal as the song progresses.

 

That’s a big difference.

It's unfair for the mixer just to have that small a window. Thankfully, today, technology has allowed us not to have to do that — finish something in x amount of time. I don't think artists should have a time limit. Having said that, mentally I'm more free to take as long as I need or as short as I need. I'm not locked into that specific day to create, hopefully, some magic. I think it's unfair for people to have that type of pressure. So that's why I can do a mix in four hours or two days, and it still costs the same. Where before, if you took two days the label would say, "Why did you take two days to do it?"

Because they were paying for the studio time?

Exactly.

What signals to you when you hear it that the mix is done? Because we know that one could keep going and going on a mix.

Yeah, forever. You know, I always see it as flags that go up. So just imagine when you're listening to a mix and you're starting, and everything's a flag. Because you're working on it, right? And then the mix has more and more flags. And the flags could be like, "The vocal needs a little more reverb," boom. You add a little more reverb and that flag goes down, but there's maybe 200 other flags. Another one could be the kick being not strong enough, or not this or that. Whatever that is, you do that, and that flag goes down. So the next pass, instead of 200 flags, you've got 175. And the next pass is 100. By the time you've got no flags left, that's when I'm done with the mix.

Almost like a checklist?

That's exactly what it is. So then whether it took four hours or two days, it's when I have no other options to check—no other flags that are coming up. And then I can listen to it from top to bottom and get lost in the actual song, and I don't have to think about the sound or the feel or any of that, then I'm done.

You’ve done it so much that you know what the flags are—the things you need to accomplish in order to finish?

There's a very technical side to it, as well. And like you said, I've done it so many times and so much that I’ve trained myself to think a certain way. Whereas a younger engineer would be doing it subconsciously—until they learn to do it consciously. Then you have a little bit more control.

Manny Marroquin 3 (credit Brian Petersen).JPG
Marroquin says transitions between song sections are incredibly important (photo credit Brian Petersen)

Do you do a lot of high-passing?

Yeah, and I do a lot of low-passing and high-passing, and that's to create height. Remember I said height and depth and all of that. I always think of the section ahead. If I'm in the chorus, I'm thinking of the second verse as much as I'm listening to the chorus, because I think that transitions are everything in music. Especially in pop these days. "OK, what's going to be the next section? How is that going to affect your emotions?" And that's really important because then you can actually think about how emotional you're going to be at that moment of that section.

Give an example.

I'm in the second verse, I'm thinking of the chorus, but the second verse is really agitating right now. That means I need to tone something down, because coming from the first chorus to the second verse, I need sort of a mental drop-off. Because what makes dynamics, especially in pop, because everything is so loud because of the limiting, the level, so you need some space, you need some drop-offs. You need some balancing. How do you create that without your mind going, "Oh, that's foreign now." That's a very interesting challenge that we go through. So mentally, how do I drop it off so that I can bring it back up?

I would assume a lot of this already happens in the arrangement, but sometimes it doesn't and you have to create it?

Absolutely. When you have a good producer, good arranger, and good artist, maybe those are the four-hour mixes that I'm talking about. [Laughs] And when you don't, that might be the two-day mix because you've got to kind of create that stuff, without changing their production, which is really tricky.

Maybe you create a breakdown section by muting some stuff?

Sure. Maybe I won't mute it, because the producer says, "I don't want to mute that." But I treat it differently. You still hear it but you hear it differently, so the producer and the artist don't freak out that you've done something way creative that's going to change their "vision," whatever that is. You almost manipulate it in a way that it's still there, but emotionally, it has a different impact.

You might add an effect, or EQ it differently?

Exactly. Maybe the way I filter it. Maybe the way I bring the level of it. Maybe it's an interesting effect on it. All of those things. So yes, I haven't muted anything, but what I've done is I've changed the emotion of that. Everything's still intact, but I get what I need and they get what they need, as well, without having to rearrange the song or change it or mute or add or anything like that. It’s a win-win.

Do you notice anything in particular in tracks you get from personal studios that tend to be problematic, technically?

In today's world, whether they were done at home or in a major studio, I feel like the art of engineering has been lost. There are less great engineers today than ever. They don't teach the art of engineering. Tracks nowadays are like the wild west. I get tracks that are amazing, sometimes, and I get tracks that need so much help. But my job is not to judge the quality of the recording. I try to forget all that and I really try to look at whatever that canvas is. And again, if you want to go back to your painting analogy, the quality of the paint may not be the best, you kind of just deal with it. Because your goal is to see what the end product is, whether you have really cheap quality paint, or you have the best of the best. So, I think, as a painter, you just kind of do it, you don't think about it. And that's sort of like the programming in my head, that's developed over the years, I don't think about if it's really good or really bad, I just hope to see the vision and just work towards that, whether it's quality or not.

Thanks so much!

Absolutely.

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