Mixing With Platinum Engineer, Ali "AMAC" McGuire | Engineering Hip-Hop

Photos courtesy of AMAC.

For years, Ali “AMAC” McGuire’s bold, dynamic mixing style has landed her work behind the boards of major tours and hit records alike. Working with artists like Shordie Shordie, Lizzo, Coi Leray, Post Malone, Fetty Wap, Kelly Rowland and more, McGuire sports an ever-expanding discography of cutting edge of popular music. We spoke with McGuire to get insights into her career arc, workflow, and to understand how her unique sound is built upon a firm foundation of technical skill, knowledge and deep listening.

Photo courtesy of AMAC.

For starters, could you tell me how you got into engineering?

I was going to college to be a journalist and I just kind of kept failing all the classes (laughs). I was trying really hard but it just wasn’t working out so I dropped out. I had to tell my parents I was gonna do something—so I went to the library and I was like, “oh, I had wanted to be a music producer that one time when I was 15. Let me just research this.”

I wasn't looking to be an audio engineer. I don't even think I really knew what an audio engineer was, which makes it all the more crazy. I saw music production schools, but I went for audio engineering at Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts in Baltimore. I moved back to Philly and—you know—pretended until I was an engineer.

In what sense do you mean you pretended?

Well, I told people that I was an audio engineer and I tacked sheets to my ceiling and called it a recording booth. (laughs) All different colored ones, too—it was great, real good aesthetic. I would book sessions, started going around to studios, and I tried to make it work. What ended up actually happening was that I had run out of all my money and was trying to get a regular job. I actually got a job at a Jimmy John's, went for one day and was like, this “I don't wanna do this.”

Then on Craigslist, I found a job to do live sound at (legendary Philly music venue) Dobbs—they were opening the upstairs portion of the venue. They were like, "We'll take anyone who will accept like $60 a night." And I was like, "Cool, I'll do it. I live ten minutes away. I can never call out, give me all the gigs! I want all of them, don't talk to anybody else."

That started a whole live sound career for me all around Philly that ended pretty much with me doing front-of-house for the Fetty Wap and Post Malone tour in 2016. That's when I met a mentor of mine and decided that I was going to move to LA to pursue studio engineering.

What boards were you working on when you were doing live sound?

It was whatever the house had. Working on Mackie boards or Yamaha boards that only had seven inputs that worked—Avid and Midas consoles, the M32s, the Behringer X32, a lot of different stuff. Being a live sound engineer taught me so much signal flow and having to adapt to different spaces and different gear all the time. If I'm on tour and we're generally using the same board, we’re probably never using the same monitors for front-of-house. The rooms are bigger or smaller—different places have different problem areas—being in a stadium or doing a festival where you have delays and all that stuff is just insane.

How did you make the jump from doing live sound into becoming primarily a recording and mixing engineer?

I was still recording and mixing in Philly. It's only since I've lived these last five years in L.A. that I've actually become a professional recording and mixed engineer at the top level. I didn't feel like I actually was one when I was there because there's levels to this—in L.A., like you're competing against the best in the world.

When I was in Philly. I didn't even have a template—I just started from scratch every time. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there's just a level of professionalism that I didn't have there because I was just by myself, not really working out of studios.

So, you were figuring it out.

Yeah—you know what I mean. I was already working in Pro Tools and all that, but when I got out here, I'd just done so much "fake it till you make it"—just being really observant of people around me when they were doing things.

The studio that I actually came up at is called Melrose Sound. My mentor who I met on the Fetty Wap tour had come out here for a week a few months after I moved out. She went to Melrose like every day and I just tagged along with her. The guy who owned it, JP Negrete—I would just watch him work. And at the end of the week, I got his number and I was like, “Hey, could we set up a meeting? I’d love to be an engineer here.” And eventually he was just like, “Come in and bring your template.”

Like I said, I didn't have a template at the time, but I had watched him so much over the last week that I pretty much remembered what his template was so I recreated it with my own plugins. I went in and was like, “Here is my template”. And he was like, “This is great, this is so close to mine”. He gave me an opportunity and he really let me grow there.

Once you got your bearings as a professional engineer, were you working with a hybrid setup of hardware outboard gear and plugins, or were you primarily in the box working with plugins?

I'm generally working with hardware—preamps on the way in at pretty much any studio out here in L.A. In the beginning it was definitely all in the box. Now I have an SSL Fusion, which I run all my mixes through at the end.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

It can be a lot of different things—usually I'm mixing records or writing records in the afternoon because I write and record my own music now as well. Outside of engineering, I like to record in the evenings more than I do during the day. Other than that, it's mixing and recording records, making content or doing research on new technology.

Sometimes a week is filled up with one artist. I like to work on multiple projects per week more than just focus on one because I have so many clients. It's really different every single day honestly, but it generally involves me sitting in the chair for some amount of time or sitting in another chair in another room in front of another pair of monitors.

Does fatigue ever come into play when you’re working so much like that?

I've definitely burned out multiple times. That's why I like to break it up into mixing and then recording—making sure I’m setting aside time for meals. I try to go on a two-to-three-mile hike every day, so I'm getting out and being active, just taking days to chill out.

Photo courtesy of AMAC.

Switching it up a bit, could you walk me through a mix?

Sure—if somebody wants me to mix a song, sometimes they're sending me the vocals and the multi-tracks for the instrumental. Whether I have the vocals or I don't, there's an amount of prep that goes into a mix before you start to actually mix it. I do have an assistant so sometimes I'll have him prep the session for me—then it’s just making sure that the producer sent me the files, if it's arranged properly or if I need it rearranged, listen to the roughs, and get an overall idea of where they are.

When I start the mix, I stay true to what they want—that's also making sure that I get them to give me all the information. That's one of the most important things: if an artist doesn't give you the information that you need about direction they want, you might do the greatest mix, but they won't like it because it's not in the direction they wanted.

Because I did all the prep and all that intense listening, I might not do the mix on that first day. The second day I can come back and really get into the details of it all. I pretty much get the mix together on the second day—I always want to listen to it in different places, like when I'm on one of my hikes or in my car. On the third day I go in and make all those little final tweaks and usually send it out after that.

How often do you nail a mix on the first go around?

I would say 60% of the time. Most of it is like really small tweaks and things like “I want an effect here”, or, “Let's just bring the high hats up just a little bit”. I never really go for more than two or three revisions.

Gear-wise, what are some of your go-to pieces that you’re working with these days?

In my studio I have a Neumann U87 running into a MK2 Universal Audio LA-610 which is a channel strip—it's got an LA-2A-style compressor / limiter in it. I don't think the 610 gets enough love at all. It's like my favorite piece of gear. When I go to other studios, I'm definitely gonna be using a Neve 1073 into a CL1-B, or a 1073 into an LA-2.

Like I said, I have the SSL Fusion, which is what I do mix bus processing with. I've got a pair of Focal Trio6 Be as my main monitors, then I have small Avantones for my reference monitors. I got an Universal Audio Apollo interface and a Drawmer monitor controller, which doesn't get enough love either. I have a pair of AKG C414s for instruments, a few other things here and there. I really like the Manley Labs Reference mic a lot. The Sony C800 gets used all the time in bigger studios.

Could you give me a piece of advice for somebody who wants to take on audio engineering as a career? What would you say to them?

I would tell them to dive in. That’s the only way. When I first started, I didn't know anybody who did music professionally or anything like that. I just found any possible ways to be in a room with somebody who did music. The job at Dobbs enabled me to continue networking with more people and get into more rooms and do the work. When you get the opportunities, you're ready for them or you think you're ready enough to say yes and go for it anyway.

Ask questions, even if you think you're gonna sound dumb—because who cares what those people think. You're either gonna know the answer forever, or you're gonna continue going around, not knowing the answer. On that first big tour that I did, the first few shows I would go up to all the house people and I would say “Hey, I've never done anything this large before, like, can you help me?” I want to take this opportunity for everything that it's worth. Not just to say that I did it, but to learn from it.

It's from learning from all of your experiences and networking whenever you can. If you ever feel like there's a lull in your career or what you're doing, just go out and meet more people who do music and never stop trying to meet them. You never know who they are. You never know what room you're gonna end up in. That's one of the most fun parts about this job.

It's gonna be a lot of ups and downs—you're gonna go home feeling like, “Oh my God, that's crazy. Did I just mess everything up?“ But some days you're gonna go home and say "I am the greatest ever". The most important thing is that whether you failed or succeeded the night before is that you wake up and you show up again.

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