The most famous audio engineer in the game gained Young Metro’s trust, and now he’s looking to share his knowledge.
Audio engineers usually aren’t household names. It’s always the “creatives” who get the attention— the artists, the producers, the writers— and perhaps rightfully so, but without a good mix, the impact of their work is lessened. We’ve all heard leaks or poorly mastered mixtapes, those ones with DJ tags louder than the bass, blown out levels, or grainy sound quality, and even if an official version arrives later, it’s not as powerful as it would have been if it came out of the blue sounding great.
An exception to the rule of faceless, overlooked studio techs is Alex Tumay, whose consistent work with Young Thug and 21 Savage has shown how indispensable his role really is. Especially in the case of Thug, whose early days were beset with unofficial leaks and shoddily-mastered tapes, Tumay’s presence legitimized and bossed up his future output. From 2015’s Barter 6 onward, Tumay’s fully engineered all but one Thug project (last year’s I’m Up). He’s also become 21’s trusted sound guy, engineering both Savage Mode and Issa Album.
Starting off working under the more indie rock-leaning producer Ben Allen in Atlanta, Tumay went on to forge a friendship with Metro Boomin that’s led to his biggest successes. He’s now easily the most visible engineer in rap, with a solid following on social media and plans for his own lecture series for aspiring and up-and-coming audio engineers. To find out how he ended up gaining Young Metro’s trust, and becoming a minor celebrity in his own right, I hopped on the phone with Tumay for a wide-ranging conversation about his come-up, his friendship with Thug, and his advice for kids who look up to him.
How’s it going Alex? What are you up to today?
Yeah, but you sensed that there was a demand for this sort of thing?
And you felt like your personal education didn’t necessarily prepare you as well, or was at least way too expensive?
What was the moment that made you realize you loved it? Was it in school or afterward?
So Metro sounds like your main in with both of those guys. How did you start working with him?
So this is basically how you wind up becoming Thug’s go-to engineer.
Was there a specific moment that it really clicked for you guys, and you knew you were in?
So you sort of function as a middleman between producers and Thug?
What leak were you most disappointed about?
I see Thug’s army of stans tweeting at you all the time, does that ever get annoying or do you enjoy it?
Honestly, I rely on a lot of his fans for information, because they know more than I do about what’s going on online. They don’t really get to me, except when they have an opinion on how it should be run, because they know what their idea of him is, but what’s actually happening is super different. It’s actually a delicate situation where you’re handling a lot of things— you’re not just handling one person. There are people on the business side, there are producers, there’s everything. He’s got a lot of people pulling him in every direction, and it’s like, I don’t know what I could do differently, you know? I’m just out here trying to work my hardest and keep his best interests in mind. They want the best for him, and they’re some of the most ravenous fans out there. I get it, I’ve been a crazy fan of an artist before.
If you had Twitter back at that time, who would you be pestering?
I was an absurd Outkast and Kanye stan, like leaving high school, early college. My car’s 3-CD changer broke, and I had Speakerboxxx, The Love Below, and College Dropout in there, and I drove that car for about two-and-a-half years like that, with just those three albums to play. I was fine with it.
What’s the weirdest interaction you’ve ever had with a fan?
Oh! The other night at like 4 AM, I just got home from the bar and was walking my dog in the East Village. I had my headphones on so I didn’t hear this at first, but I could’ve sworn I heard my name, so I took them out, and this dude is looking at me. It’s 4 AM, I thought something was about to happen, like it was some drunk person who thought I bumped him, but he said, ‘Are you Alex Tumay?’ I said, ‘Uh… yeah?’ And he’s like, ‘Can I fucking hug you man?’ He ran over and hugged me, and I was like, ‘Alright then… Alright. That could’ve gone differently.’
What’s the most surprising request you’ve gotten in your career?
Usher was working on this album, so he rented out two studios and had this whole camp of writers and people making beats, all coming up with ideas for the album. He was in the other studio and I was with one of his writers, and the writer was like, ‘You got any beats?’ And I was like, ‘Nah bro, why would I have beats?’ This was before I met Thug or anything.
He was like, ‘Well let me beatbox. I’ll make a beat, and then I wanna sing over that.’ So he went in the booth and made noises, like hollering and all this weird stuff, and then was like, ‘Okay make that sound like a guitar.’ He’d clap and be like, ‘Make that sound like a snare drum.’ So I did my best and made a beat out of what he was doing, and it actually turned out pretty neat, but it was one of the more stressful situations I’ve ever been in because it was like, a four hour session and he wanted to have a completed song by the end. We finished the song, but it was just fucking crazy. He had like 48 vocal layers. That was one of the moments where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I definitely asked for the next day off.
Other than the remixed version of “Love Me Forever” where you got a production credit, what song have you had the most original contributions to?
There’s been a couple unreleased joints that I added elements to and made new arrangements and shit, but on “Skyfall” and “Mamacita” from Travis’ joint [Days Before Rodeo] we did a lot of experimenting with moving around pieces and stuff. He’d be like, ‘Alright, try this, try that,’ and I’d add in another piece or another drum. All Travis’ stuff is like that, where it’s a lot of moving stuff around, and really for all of the Rodeo sessions, it was me, Allen [Ritter], and Metro fucking with all the synths, and trying to come up with creative ways to make beats, and going back-and-forth between Logic, Pro Tools, and FL Studio all at the same time. It was a lot of stuff that you’re not supposed to do, but we were just trying to be as creative as possible. I was originally supposed to mix Rodeo, but then they got Mike Dean, which I obviously couldn’t argue with, but I ended up recording a lot of it and editing a lot of the vocals, throwing some tricks in there, and that became my contribution to that album.
What’s the most common mistake that you see aspiring or young engineers making?
I think the biggest mistake people make is having an idea of what this job is, because a lot of people will sit there mad that they’re not on this side or the other, but don’t think about the other amazing types of things that you could do. Keep an open mind about what the possibilities are and what the job can possibly entail, because people will come in and be like, ‘I’m gonna be a producer,’ and if they’re not a producer, they’ll quit. I see it all the time. I’m like, ‘You could have been a great engineer. Maybe the skills you have as a producer will translate to something else. Maybe you could have been a writer or a composer on the side.’
I’ve had a lot of interns come in and try to be producers, and I’m like, ‘You know what a great way to be a producer is? Locking down your engineering skills so your clients trust you, and then playing them your beats.’ Because they’d walk in day one and play these dudes their beats, and the dudes would be like, ‘Get the fuck out.’ There’s no trust yet.
Yeah, it’s kind of like Kanye doing a few beats for Jay before being all, ‘Yo but I rap too.’
Exactly. It’s exactly like that. He kept his head down, became a great producer, and that gave him the credibility to go on and do whatever else he wanted to do.
Are there any particular trends in mixing or sound design in rap right now that really bother you?
I don’t know about trends, but I think a lot of engineers make mistakes. Just in general, they’re doing techniques that they think are better, but they’re not listening. Like the setting is meant for live instruments, and it’s something they learned in school. Over-compression is a huge problem right now, because people want it to be loud but don’t really understand everything about compression. I understand compression, but I still understand it in my own way, which is listening to the attack, release, and reduction, and listen to how it’s all happening and adjust everything accordingly. Whereas some people are just like, ‘Oh, I heard that you’re supposed to get this much reduction, or this much compression here,’ so they do it and it sounds terrible. The same thing goes for limiting and mastering— they think you have to reach a certain loudness, but sometimes you’ve gotta adjust your mix to get to that loudness without it being a piercingly painful experience for the listener.
I get a lot of tinny, painful mixes from people that do the same thing every time, and when I need to fix something, I know exactly what to do because they’re just following that same formula that they were told in school or by someone they were learning from. A lot this information gets handed down from like the person you were assisting, or a producer you worked for. You ask what they were using in a certain situation, but instead of asking ‘What?’ you should’ve asked ‘Why?’ and then they would’ve told you that it’s not a cure-all, and it’s not for every situation, it just works right here. But people think, ‘Oh he used it here, it’ll work everywhere.’ That’s a huge mistake that I see people make all the time. It’s all about application of the theory, not knowing the theory.
With the negative effects of that “one size fits all mentality” in mind, do you view engineering as more of an art or a science?
I liken it to working in jewelry, like cutting diamonds. A song is that raw, uncut diamond, and the quality of it is already there under whatever that stuff is. If you don’t fuck it up, you’re going to have a beautiful diamond if the song is good already. If you don’t know what you’re doing, or you make a weird cut, you’re going to end up with a diamond that looks terrible. That’s the best analogy I’ve been able to come up with, because you’re not making the diamond good. It’s good or bad already. You’re making the appearance of it easier to understand and handle and digest, because with a perfectly-cut whatever— I don’t know shit about diamonds— but a beautiful-looking diamond was there, and the cutter made it look better.
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