The Mobile Studio Rigs of 3 Pro Hip-Hop Engineers

Offset (2017). Photo by The Come Up Show/WikiMedia Commons. Cardi B (2019). Photo by Frank Schwichtenberg/WikiMedia Commons.
Lil Wayne (2015). Photo by Megan Elice Meadows/WikiMedia Commons. J Cole (2010). Photo by Candice Rose/WikiMedia Commons.

This last decade didn't kill the recording studio, but it did make it mobile. Whether it was Jay-Z and Kanye West renting out an entire floor in New York City's Mercer Hotel to record their collaborative album Watch The Throne, Max B recording from prison, or 2 Chainz recording in a van before a flight to Dubai, the recording studio is wherever creativity hits an artist.

But one of the most important parts of a mobile studio can't be picked up at Sam Ash or ordered from Amazon. "Engineers are, a lot of times, underpaid, because the artist wants you with them 24/7 for whenever they feel like they got the urge to record," Offset's engineer J. Rich tells Reverb.

To get insights into the engineering gear and workflows of the upper echelons of the hip-hop world, we spoke to three Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum engineers about the mobile studio setups they use for Lil Wayne, Migos' Offset, and J. Cole: Fabian Marasciullo, J. Rich, and Mez.

In addition to their setups, they also share what last-minute changes and accommodations they've had to make to their lives in order to make a record in time for an artist. Some have had to fly across the country at the drop of a dime, some had to get the job done at a raucous sporting event, and others have had to work on multiple projects from a tour bus.

Fabian Marasciullo: Lil Wayne, Lil Baby

Go through the credits of every Lil Wayne album since Tha Carter and only a few names appear on every one of those albums without fail. One of them is Fabian Marasciullo, a world-class engineer who, before he touched a single Lil Wayne song, got a crash course in mobile studio setups from the greatest teacher.

"We used to travel with Michael [Jackson] and we would do all kinds of crazy shit. We would set up a real studio in a hotel. This was before the computers we have now. We'd have a fucking tape machine in a hotel room," Marasciullo tells Reverb.

For mixing, his mobile setup is his Macbook Pro, an expansion chassis with a Thunderbolt connection so he can have his Pro Tools work with his PCIe card. You'll seldom see the master mixer without his Sennheiser HD 660s headphones‎. He has an audio interface from Universal Audio, a brand he calls "one of the companies that allowed a lot of us to do things on the run."

Lil Wayne's productivity has become the thing of legend. He's been releasing recorded music for nearly 25 years and was heralded as the best rapper alive in the latter part of the 2000s due to having a new mixtape worth of songs seemingly every few weeks for years. As a result, Wayne bounces around recording studios across the world—and needs his signature sound to travel with him.

Lil Baby, Gunna, Drake - "Never Recover"

Marasciullo says no matter where Wayne goes, he still records on the same Sony C800 microphone and Avalon VT-737 mic preamp combination he's been recording on for years.

"Wayne always has a studio everywhere he goes but we need the same shit in every place, so it becomes a mobile thing. To this day, I have three engineers employed by us to travel with Wayne everywhere," Marasciullo says. "They take that and plug it into whatever room or whatever studio bus. Whatever corner of the world that Wayne's in, we do that."

Wayne has a private plane, and Marasciullo and his team of engineers have learned to adjust to that, literally, on the fly. "You don't [record] during takeoff. But, when you're cruising it's a constant sound. So, that'll turn into a scratch or we'll go with an effect like, 'Okay, this one is going to be a telephone effect because that's what we got. A lot of the coolest records end up like that."

It's October 1, 2018. The Los Angeles Dodgers are facing off against the Colorado Rockies at Dodgers Stadium in a tiebreaker game to determine the National League West champion. Most of the 47,816 people in attendance didn't want to miss history. Marasciullo was busy making history. "I had Coach K, who is Lil Baby's manager, and Ebonie [Ward], who is Gunna's manager, telling me 'Fay we need this today. We've been waiting for Drake to send his part and we finally got it.' I couldn't say no, but I love the Dodgers and this is history."

While the Dodgers were slugging it out, Marasciullo was tucked away in the exclusive Lexus Dugout Club behind home plate with his UA interface, laptop, and headphones working on a last-minute mix of "Never Recover," Lil Baby and Gunna's first Drake collaboration. Four days after the Dodgers clinched the NL West title that night, the song was released to the world and would go on to become Gunna and Lil Baby's second platinum single in two months. All of that, thanks to some mobile maneuvering from one of the game's greatest engineers.

"I would run outside, watch a little baseball, come back in and by then I would have notes from Lil Baby or something. I was literally sitting in the corner with everybody looking at me like, 'Who is this person sitting in the corner?' I was mixing that record during the tiebreaker game."

J. Rich: Offset

Lil Wayne's recording productivity is still unmatched, but Migos are definitely a new iteration of that model. In 2018, the group released a 24-track Culture II group album and then released 47 tracks across three solo albums. Offset's solo debut, Father of 4, was the only one to produce a Grammy nomination, for his song "Clout," a collaboration between him and his wife Cardi B that required his longtime engineer J. Rich to do what he's done for Offset for years: Drop everything and get the work done.

On October 5, 2018, Migos performed at Drai's Nightclub in Las Vegas after their first Las Vegas date on the Aubrey & The Three Migos Tour. The group partied until four in the morning. J. Rich says after the Drai's show afterparty, it was still time to work. "I think it was like four in the morning when I got back to the hotel. I started to finish installing the plugins. So, I think I probably finished installing everything at like six or seven a.m. He rolled over in the hotel room and started recording. We did 'Clout' and another song on his album called 'Made Men.'"

Offset - "Clout" ft. Cardi B

Offset's mobile studio consists of a Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII Duo interface, U 87 Neumann microphone, Macbook Pro, and a collection of Offset's favorite plugins like Antares Auto-Tune. J. Rich is usually the one transporting Offset's mobile studios across the country, which isn't an easy feat. A single mobile studio for Offset contains about seven bags: computer, two speakers, a subwoofer, chords, the mic with a mic stand, and the interface. At any moment, it could be time to work anywhere.

"I remember one time I pulled up on Offset and he says, 'Alright, bruh. Come with me real quick.' I said, 'Where are we going ?' He said, 'We're going to go to the Dominican Republic.' I'm like, 'What?'" J. Rich remembers. "I didn't even have any clothes and the [mobile] studio is usually so much equipment, I have to be at the jet before anybody else."

He's flown around the world with that portable studio, lugging it to Russia, Sweden, Dominican Republic, and Paris. He actually blew out the speakers in the mobile studio in Paris by not taking into account the difference in voltages between Paris and the United States. Transporting also became quite an expense with prices for checking each bag as high as $200. So, he had to get creative outside of the mixing board.

"It got to a point where we were paying almost $1,000 just for luggage each flight. I found a loophole where if you have a media pass at the airport and say you work with a company and your luggage is your media equipment, they'll give you a big discount on your equipment bag when it's time to travel."

Three months before Offset was recording in a Las Vegas hotel room, Cardi B gave birth to her and Offset's first child, Kulture Kari Cephus, on July 10, 2018, in an Atlanta hospital with Offset present for the birth. He had a debut album on the way along with a child. J. Rich and the mobile studio were the glue between the two transitional moments.

"The hospital gave him a whole other room because he was working on his album. I brought the portable studio up there and set it up. The recording has to be on point and you have to make sure your levels are good. It's not going to be as perfect as it sounds in the studio but it'll be good enough quality for it to be a hit that's all over the charts.

Mez: J. Cole, Dreamville

You don't get a more day-zero friend in the music industry than engineers like Juro "Mez" Davis. Mez has mixed every single J. Cole project since the St. John's University graduate was splitting time between a telemarketing job and rapper pursuits. Mez has been handling J. Cole's sound before Jay-Z signed the rapper in 2009 after hearing songs that would become his seminal mixtape, The Warm Up. Mez knows better than anyone how one of the biggest rappers of the last decade likes to hear himself on the mic.

"He likes big vocals. He likes his vocals upfront and heard clearly. He likes a lot of bass too," Mez says.

In the early going of Cole's career, Mez needed to be ready at a moment's notice to mix a record that could change the trajectory of the then-rising star. J. Cole's debut album, Sideline Story, from 2011 may have missed two of its biggest collaborations if it wasn't for Mez.

"The song with Jay-Z on it, "Mr. Nice Watch," and "Nobody's Perfect" [with Missy Elliott] were pretty last minute. I was tweaking and mastering some of that stuff in the headphones," he says.

J. Cole - "Nobody's Perfect," feat. Missy Elliott

Mez had his ears and hands all over J. Cole's last solo album, 2018's K.O.D., which the engineer says was created, in large part, thanks to Cole's mobile recording setup. "A fair amount of the K.O.D. album was [recorded on] a mic he had at home, which was an Electro-Voice RE20," Mez says. "On the bus, it's a mobile setup he has, which he's changed since then."

Ideally, to set up a mobile studio for Cole on a bus, Mez says surrounding yourself in a wall of panels—portable vocal booths—is best for sound. Mez says Cole prefers that mic because radio mics like the RE20 "isolate a lot of the room out of there. You want your room to be as dead as possible. You don't want sound bouncing back on the wall."

Mez traveled with Cole on his 4 Your Eyez Only Tour in 2017, witnessing Cole recording some of K.O.D. with his mobile setup on the bus.

J. Cole is the head honcho, but Mez's engineering prowess extends beyond the dreadlocked lyricist and covers nearly every artist and project produced from Cole's Dreamville record label. The label was recently nominated for a Grammy for its Revenge of the Dreamers III compilation album, which Mez mixed entirely. Being the sound keeper of an entire label sometimes means juggling different parts of the same label at the same time.

"The majority of Revenge [of the Dreamers 3] was mixed on my headphones. The majority of J.I.D.'s Dicaprio 2 was mixed on my headphones. I was actually on K.O.D. tour with Cole while I was mixing J.I.D.'s album. The headphones were the Audeze LCD-X. Then, I use this program called Sonarworks, which EQs the headphones. Those headphones have the best bass response I've heard."

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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