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Mixing Emotions in Kendrick Lamar’s 'Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers': Manny Marroquin

We sat with Manny Marroquin, one of the world’s most in-demand mix engineers, to discuss his work on Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated 5th album. He shares his approach for exaggerating emotion in each track, his EQ methodology and his #1 low-end tip.

By Asher Parkes, Waves Audio

Mixing Emotions in Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers: Manny Marroquin

 

Manny! I was excited to chat with you about the Kendrick album, and then I heard the brand-new Pharrell track that you mixed, “Cash In Cash Out” (feat. 21 Savage & Tyler, the Creator) which was just crazy!

I looove that track, that’s one of my favorites. Actually, Pharrell called me and said it was supposed to be a song for The Neptunes comeback, and then it just became his own release – like, “I’m back motherf**kers!”

Pharrell also did one of my favorite albums that I worked on besides Kendrick this year, which is the Pusha T record. He produced one half and Kanye produced the other half, and it’s amazing. Hip hop is not what it used to be, and to me this is the epitome of a good old-school hip hop album. Kendrick’s though, it’s one of my favorite albums ever.

Congrats on the major success of this incredible album, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers. Listening to it and thinking of your mixes, especially Juice WRLD & Post Malone, it actually doesn’t sound like you. I don’t really notice the mix in the same way.

Honestly, that’s such a great compliment because I take pride in not sounding like something, you know? I was just talking about Pusha T and Pharrell, and now I’m also mixing the 1975, and Phoenix (one of my favorite rock/alternative albums), who are on the complete other side of the spectrum musically. You wouldn’t think that the same guy who mixes Pharrell mixes the 1975! My whole thing was always to be a chameleon of sorts where I adapt to whatever I’m working on. I don't necessarily want a sound. I've always approached mixing as, “how do I feel after I turn the volume up? What’s the emotion I get from it?” With Phoenix, some of the choruses are rock, in-your-face guitars. If that’s the intention, why don’t I just exaggerate that?

For me, mixing Kendrick’s album was all about the emotion of every song, and giving each track its own personality. It goes through all these heavy subjects, you almost need to have a glass of wine or two, or smoke a joint and put some headphones on. Try listening to the album from beginning to end with the lyrics in front of you, it gets pretty deep.

Kendrick was never in a box in terms of his musical style – every album has been different. Was he trying to step away in this album from today’s hip hop and pop music?

Hell yes, 100%. And we had conversations about this. There are a few Easter eggs on the first half of the album where he talks to his own culture, like, you guys are giving us a bad name. You’re wearing Gucci and Prada and you can't even afford it. But here he’s saying, “that’s how they see us.” And so, we gotta be better than that, because we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Each of his albums has been about the past or a perception of what’s coming. To Pimp a Butterfly was about Africa, good kid, m.A.A.d city was about his past, his upbringing, his neighborhood. Mr. Morale is the first album that’s about him. It’s by far his most personal album. He talks about being in a global pandemic, why he didn't say anything on Black Lives Matter – even when the Vice President calls him out. It’s a reflection of the last five years of his life; family, struggles, depression, therapy. It’s really a concept album about him becoming a man, and what a beautiful way to just say it. I actually think that in the next 10-15 years it's going to be a Broadway musical.

It sounds like he knew exactly what he wanted to say on each track, and how they should feel. At what point in the production were you brought in, and how much involvement did you have in the sonic direction of the tracks?

There's a guy named Sounwave who is his main partner and producer, and he had a huge part in the whole process, he tied everything together. I came in at the mixes, but he listened in on every song, and on some songs he didn’t have any notes, others he did. But the one thing he did do was allow me to just do my thing. It was very satisfying and liberating.

What exactly is “doing your thing”?

I mean, it's hard to describe. Every track was a different approach, and I would listen to the rough and be like, “oh that’s what they’re going for, let me see how I can help it.” And I would try to shoot some steroids into it. I always see what there is to exaggerate, like, maybe this song is not about the vocal as much as that song. But this album is like poetry, so it is about the vocals. But do I hide the vocals, or do I feature them more? Do I make them round or pointy? Do I make them reverby? I think – what would be the effect on someone who is listening for that emotion, and how do I emphasize that?

There are some songs that I completely changed to make them very emotional. “Mother I Sober”, with Beth from Portishead, was a very involved song. It’s super moving and the vocal had to come across in a specific way. I don’t think Kendrick has ever sounded like that. He tried to sound slightly different on every song, which is crazy.

That hip hop reverb sound, like the Post Malone sound, you kind of started that, right? I hear it everywhere now. But this is album is so different, the vocals are dry and almost whispered!

Yeah, it’s definitely a different approach. A similar style I took to a body of work was on Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. If you listen to that album, it doesn’t sound like what was happening at the time. It’s moody, dark, lower vocals, very emotional. But we’d also just done “Stronger” a few months before it, which is the complete opposite!

About that reverb, it was like a whole new sound that was created. And now everybody is doing it! 24k Goldn, iann dior, The Kid Laroi. I can see why you would say that Kendrick is the total opposite – it’s not hyped, it’s not super bright, it’s not classic hip hop; it sounds pleasant because it’s about an emotion. I don’t want to sound like the old guy, but I think that this new Kendrick album will kind of shift the focus to a different type of sound from the TikTok generation, you know.

So, did Kendrick know he didn’t want ‘verb on the tracks?

I don’t think so. He’s a very good producer, but he’s more intuitive in his process. He’s more like “why doesn’t it feel quite right? Maybe it’s my vocal, what’s wrong with my vocal technique?” etc. As opposed to other producers that tell you exactly where to bring the compression down and the reverb up, etc. He knows all those words, but he’s very ‘less is more’ and doesn’t really give you a lot of information, but him being in the room made his feelings about the song a lot easier to decipher.

I actually feel like your reverb plugin (Manny Marroquin Reverb) gives you something pretty close to the Posty sound.

Yeah. Man, I still think that my Waves plugins are honestly the best plugins out there, period. In a very humble way, I use those plugins on every mix, like every mix that I’ve worked on since they came out. I’m not in the business of selling plugins, so my goal was to create plugins that I would actually use.

I tell people about my EQ (Manny Marroquin EQ) and they’re blown away. Each band is modeled from a different analog EQ unit that I have in my room. There’s an Avalon band, a Neve band, Motown, SSL, API, each covering different frequencies – it’s like a super EQ. When I tell them that, they’re like “holy shit, I didn’t know that!” and then they become huge fans of it.

But yeah, all my plugins were used all over this record. Kendrick’s vocal EQ was my EQ. A lot of my reverb sounds came from my reverb. Some of the delays were from my delay (Manny Marroquin Delay). In some songs the bass has a little crunch added in the choruses, that’s from my distortion plugin (Manny Marroquin Distortion).

Even though you have the hardware gear in the room, you still reach for your plugins?

100%. My philosophy of analog vs. digital is that I don’t really care if it’s the plugin or the hardware. I just see tools as colors, and when I know what color I need, I go for that. My plugins have a certain color associated with them, and other times, analog pieces of gear have a different tone. It could be colors, it could be shapes, but that association allows me to quickly reach for the right piece when I need it.

I’ve heard you saying that you sometimes mess with the stereo bus compression mid song to change the vibe. Since this album has many songs with groove changes, did you use this method?

Absolutely. We talked about “Mother I Sober”, and as that song builds and builds, it needs a different approach to the beginning of the song. So, I’m not afraid to change mid-song to a completely different approach on the stereo mix. You can’t start the song that big and still have it become even bigger – your LUFS are going to be thrown off. So, you have to approach it in a slightly different way to make it get bigger, wider, taller and deeper. I adjust the mix bus processing as the song grows using automation, compression and EQing different frequencies.

But then you take the Pharrell song, “Cash In Cash Out”, and there’s no way I’m going to change the stereo bus! It’s full throttle from the moment it comes in. But that has a whole different set of challenges since it’s very linear, and you need to hold people’s attention.

The mastering engineer Michelle Mancini knows my style, and she doesn’t mess with it that much. So, it’s good to have someone mastering who understands what you’re trying to do.

One of my favorite songs on the Kendrick record was “Purple Hearts”. The drums on that track sound incredible!

Oh yeah! It’s funny, when I played that song to the whole team when they came into the room everyone flipped out like “ohhhh shit!” They were like kids running around.

How did you get the drums sounding like that?

It's probably compression, going back to basics. Obviously making sure the stereo bus doesn't squeeze it so hard, so you still have a lot of punch. And being creative with EQ – that is THE most powerful tool we have in the studio.

You’d take EQ over compression?

Definitely. I’d take EQ over anything. You can’t uncompress something. I can make things sound compressed using an EQ, but I can’t necessarily EQ things with a compressor. You can use a compressor as a tone shaper, sure, but you’re limited to that one tone. With EQ, you have unlimited tones.

What’s your usual approach with EQ? Are you a booster or cutter?

I’m usually not a tight Q type of guy, I’m more of a broad stroke guy. I do take things out, absolutely, but only if it bothers me. I never do it just because. I always think like what’s the primary focal point in anything, and often I don’t have to touch it, I just have to carve out space around it.

With EQ it’s about what’s around the sound, what’s touching it, not the sound itself. A lot of the time you need to EQ things next to that focal point to draw attention to it, or to influence it in a certain way. That’s the art of EQing, it’s like a painting, right? Red will look different if there’s white or black around it, it will create a different perception.

How do you approach your low end, do you have a particular philosophy?

With the low end, I generally say less is more. People ask, “what do you do to your 808s?” and I say “nothing.” It’s an 808, you’re not supposed to do anything to it. Unless it’s an effect, like in “Cash In Cash Out”. But a lot of up-and-coming engineers think they need to do something to the low end, and what I’m saying is, don’t do anything to the low end. It actually is that simple. 9 out of 10 times you’re f**king it up by doing something to it, you know? Just let it breathe, don’t compress it, and use some creative EQing if needed.

The moment you start compressing the 808, the lower information starts to disappear. There are no rules in what we do, but you gotta be conscious of that. So less is more would be my best piece of advice.

Asher Parkes is a Product Marketing Manager and Content Editor at Waves Audio. He’s also a mix engineer and artist.

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