Studio Rig Suggestions From Chart-Topping Engineers

Young Thug (2017). Photo by Bennett Raglin / Stringer Getty Images.
H.E.R. (2020). Photo by Paras-Griffin Getty Images.

A lot of times, the hardest part about making the best music is to get started. Engineers spend years learning a myriad of production equipment and understanding what works for each artist. But, just having the equipment of the stars doesn't necessarily mean the music produced will reach that level.

"Every song is different. There isn't a plugin or a chain of plugins that make you sound like Young Thug. That's all him. All I do is a bit of cleaning up sonically," Young Thug's recording engineer Angad "Bainz" Bains tells Reverb.

Engineers with extensive histories with Lil Baby, H.E.R., Young Nudy, 21 Savage, and Fabolous spoke with Reverb about the equipment they've used with the biggest artists, the gear they recommend for anyone developing a studio rig, and the skills aspiring engineers need to get started.

Thomas "Tillie" Mann

Quality Control Music is the home of Billboard chart-toppers City Girls, Migos, and most recently the biggest rap artist of 2020, Lil Baby. Thomas "Tillie" Mann has had a hand mixing and recording nearly every album to come from the prolific label. "These are the tools I believe that you can get the most top-notch results in 2020 without breaking the bank," Tillie tells Reverb.

Tillie Recommends:

When it comes to achieving a great tone and recall ability on-the-go for the biggest records he's worked on, he says Universal Audio has given him his best results. To Tillie, "training your ears to good music is 80 percent" of the job of a good engineer. "Million-dollar sound no matter if I'm in my main mixing studio or wherever I have to travel in the world. I can maintain a consistent level of quality in the studio or on a flight," Tillie says.

The multi-platinum engineer advises others to do more than learn the ins and outs of the machinery shaping their creativity. A good engineer must also understand that more than what you record on affects what you hear played back. "Another great thing to learn about is room acoustics. The better you can make your room sound, the better you will hear things. A great listening environment is essential in making, recording, or mixing great records."

Ayanna "Yanni" Depas

At only the age of 31, Ayanna "Yanni" Depas has already won a Grammy Award for her recording work with H.E.R. and helped bring the best out of the sounds of Mary J. Blige, K. Michelle, A$AP Ferg, Dave East, and others.

"If your home setup isn't acoustically treated, the Shure SM7B, a dynamic microphone, can be very useful in that situation because it won't pick up as much background noise as a condenser microphone would."

For the accomplished engineer's work with H.E.R., the Beyerdynamic DT 770 headphones helped offer the sound-quality and well-aimed midrange and bass frequencies. These headphones help harness one of the crucial skills she feels every engineer possesses.

"Trust your ears and always continue to train them. Being meticulous goes a long way and can make all the difference as an engineer," Depas says. "Also don't be scared to get creative and step outside the box. If it sounds good, it sounds good."

Christopher "Sauce Miyagi" Haynes

When you check the credits for Fabolous' Summertime Shootout 3: Coldest Summer Ever, you may not see Christopher Haynes' name, but you'll see the name he was bestowed by the rapper for his engineering skills: Sauce Miyagi. "Fab didn't mind recording with me, but when he recorded with me, he started realizing, 'Yo, this kid is dope. He got the sauce,' Miyagi said in a Revolt interview. In addition to Fabolous, the burgeoning engineer has worked with Nipsey Hussle, Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih, A Boogie, and others.

"A major piece in the mixing process for Fabolous' album was my Rupert Neve Satellite 5059. I used it on 90% of the mixes on the album. I like the way it just adds more depth, clarity, and shine to the records."

Learning all the gear is essential but learning the artist is the most important skill to master. "A very important skill I would advise is always understanding the artist you're working with. Every artist is different and all have different terminology. Also, learn your DAW inside and out. it's all about trial and error before you can 100% learn something."

Angad "Bainz" Bains

If you see Angad "Bainz" Bains' face in person, you were probably inside a studio session with Young Thug. Every Thug project from the last four years has been touched by his engineering acumen.

Bainz Recommends:

Bainz helped Thug score his first-ever No. 1 album by engineering his 2019 album So Much Fun, among other projects. "So Much Fun was recorded over a period of time at different studios, so [the equipment] varied. But for the most part, it was a Sony C800G - Neve 1073 - CL 1B vocal chain."

More than any plugins or hardware, Bainz attests that the most important piece of equipment for any engineer is a good pair of headphones and/or speakers that you understand, hence why he prefers the Sennheiser 650 headphones. However, if you're ever going to hope to one day mix at the level of the Grammy Award–nominated engineer, you'll need the skills more than the equipment.

"An important skill to have is having a strong understanding of the basics such as signal flow, and gain staging is crucial in any professional audio setting, so when something inevitably goes wrong, you're able to troubleshoot and solve the issue.

Bradley "DJ BJ" Whitaker

DJ BJ is always ready to record, often carrying around a mobile studio rig, and that's helped artists like Young Nudy finish some of his most impactful music.

"From Young Nudy to Dreamville to 21 Savage, [Apollo Twin Duo] was my choice of preamp and interface, and it has yet to fail me. It did the job it was created to do simply put, and they are the best at what they do," DJ BJ tells Reverb.

When mixing, he credits the combination of the Aston Mics Halo and Kaotica Eyeball with deadening the areas around the mic, especially when recording in untreated environments. BJ operates under the belief that the most important skill is to truly understand the equipment you're using, because the advice would just be air passing through ears without the knowledge to apply it. For him, "more expensive equipment does not increase the quality of the sound or work," and he has the history to back up those claims.

"A lot of folks don't know this but albums like [Travis Scott's] Astroworld, [Drake's] So Far Gone and the majority of [Drake's] Scorpion were recorded in Airbnbs and hotels," DJ BJ notes. "All untreated spaces, but they had great engineers who knew how to maneuver through the obstacles and situations. Even the most recent chart-topper, Gunna's Wunna, was recorded in an untreated Airbnb in Jamaica."

About the author: Keith Nelson Jr is a seasoned music journalist who followed his innate passion for knowledge to interview some of the most influential figures in the music industry. He's a journalist who connects the dot to see the bigger picture.

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