How To Make It In America: TDE's MixedByAli on Becoming an Audio Engineer

We got tips from the TDE's secret weapon on how to make in America.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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As a child, Derek "MixedByAli" Ali didn't just play with his toys or his computer. He took them apart to see how they worked. This percociousness followed him to high school where he started recording his friend's vocals in order to make ringtones (which were ever so popular back in those days thanks to Nextel). Word spread, and next thing you know he was recording just about everyone at his school.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do," he says. "I was from the hood and I had nothing to separate me from anybody else. When I found out that I could record somebody through a mic and put a full song together, it intrigued me."

From there, he downloaded free recording and producing programs, like Fruity Loops and Cool Edit Pro, from Limewire. He also sought out online audio engineering communities to learn whatever he could about the craft. Little did he know, he was planting the seeds of his soon to be career as one of hip-hop's most well known sound engineers. Thanks to Dave Free (now President of Top Dawg Entertainment), Ali eventually ended up meeting the guys from TDE before any of them blew up. At the time, they didn't have an engineer so Ali became TDE's in-house engineer. He sat behind the boards for all of TDE's greatest projects including Ab-Soul's Control System, ScHoolboy Q's Habits & Contradictions, and Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d. city. He also helped mix parts of YG's My Krazy Life to help give it a unified feel.

Although he isn't particularly famous (and doesn't really care to be), like all engineers, Ali is an important part of the process of making records sound dope. While many people aspire to become the next hottest rapper or producer, we know many people also aspire to become engineers. They often end up paying thousands of dollars to go to audio engineering schools. But if you ask Ali, those schools might be a waste of money. We got on the horn with TDE's secret weapon for our first installment in our How To Make It In America series and he shared tips about engineering from his personal experience. Let it run Ali...

As told to Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)

RELATED: ScHoolboy Q's 25 Favorite Albums

You Don't Need Engineering School

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MixedByAli: “I tried to [go to engineering school], but I didn’t have the bread. It was $40,000, $50,000 just for some certificate saying you’re ProTools certified? That’s not for me. I decided to lay the groundwork and be hands-on and find how I like things to sound. My formal training was me on the blogs trying to figure out how somebody did something.

“Everything with me was hands-on and trial and error. That’s the best teacher. I never connected with school, I’ve never liked authority. I like learning by picking things up. I started studying songs, just for the way they were mixed, not even listening to the lyrics.

“The next step was to find out what the pros were doing. I had never been to a studio before, I learned everything online. I was looking for a community online that was  trying to learn the basics of the art. I found a site called They had this little section called Studio Design, with maps of mixing and recording, everything broken down behind the scenes. So I got onto that site and started meeting good people and seeing how they set up their own studios.

Schools teach you engineering by the book. I don’t understand how that’s possible because sound isn’t by the book.

“They’d have these little threads where you could put up a mix and people could critique it. When those friends of mine who would come in and record ringtones left, I’d mix the whole song and put it up on that site just to get feedback on how my mix sounded. Of course, everything sounded like shit, but it motivated me to try and be better.

“Everybody doesn’t have the same ear you have. I’m not saying going to school for engineering is bad, but they teach you engineering by the book. I don’t understand how that’s possible because sound isn’t by the book. How can somebody tell you how something should sound? I was posting my mixes online and it was kinda dope because I could get feedback from people I didn’t know and people who weren’t biased.

“Nowadays they have all these different engineer communities with online tutorials. It’s a lot easier nowadays, there are a lot more outlets for young people interested in the field to get to know the art."

Know Your Team

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MixedByAli: "In high school, Dave Free of TDE would always be around and pass out Jay Rock mixtapes. I wasn’t trying to get into music then, I was just trying to see how I could progress. I went to Dave and he told me 'Come by the studio.' I met Punch at the studio. TDE didn’t have no in-house engineer at that time. So Punch and Dave brought me through and showed me the ropes. Punch sat me down at ProTools and told me, 'This is what everybody records on.' And I’ve been sitting there every day for the past five years.

I like to have a personal connection with the people I work with because I wanna try to spill their emotions over the songs they make.

"It’s about knowing the artist you work with. In TDE, we’re all brothers. I know each one of them, I know how to cater to them. I like to have a personal connection with the people I work with because I wanna try to spill their emotions over the songs they make. I can’t just go and mix any dude’s record without knowing their backstory. I don’t know what sounds they’re looking for, I don’t know if they like aggressive music, I don’t know whether he wants his vocals to sound real up front. I have to know you to know what you like. I have that with TDE because we’ve been together for five years.

"Same thing with YG’s album. With conceptual albums, all those sounds feed into each other. If two songs are separate songs, but the story is going through each other, it can’t sound completely different, they have to somehow match. I knew YG for a minute, since before we were trying to bubble on the scene. His name bubbled in the city, we became cool, and I wanted to help out and get his album to sound right and take him to the next level."

It's Not for Everybody

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Add Your Spin

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MixedByAli: “I don’t just mix songs, I add to the record. All these other engineers—I’m not saying they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re just mixing records, coming out with clean mixes. I feel like the engineers’ role is to take the record to the next level. Add your two cents because you have the opportunity to. If you have a creative mind, use it. 

If you listen to Kendrick’s 'Cartoon & Cereal,' that’s one of my favorite mixes, I added a lot of things sonically to that record that weren’t there when we recorded.

“I’ve added something to every TDE album. They give me the creative space to just do me on every song. If you listen to Kendrick’s 'Cartoon & Cereal,' that’s one of my favorite mixes, I added a lot of things sonically to that record that weren’t there when we recorded. The second half of 'm.A.A.d city,' when Kendrick’s verse is going up and down, left and right, that’s what I’m talking about.

“When you listen to Section.80, there’s a bunch of stuff on there that’s not done all the time, but it stands out. I think that’s why people fuck with it so much, cause I’m making what once didn’t stand out so much in the mix, stand out in my mixes. When you listen to 'Swimming Pools' and Kendrick’s conscience comes in [on the the second verse], it’s panned left to right. That’s different, that’s one thing people say they notice stood out on the record, and that’s what I wanna do.

“The guys at TDE do things on records sometimes because they know I’m going to come behind them and do something that’s gonna make it better. Over the years I’ve been so experimental with my mixes that they’d come in and try new things with their voice just to see what I could do with it. They use their voice as an instrument that can be added to."

Don't be Afraid to Experiment

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You Don't Need the Best Equipment

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MixedByAli: "Dr. Dre once told me a quote that’s gonna stick with me forever, he said, 'It’s not what you’re working on, it’s who’s pressing the buttons.' At that time, I didn’t have much equipment. I was always stressed like, 'We we need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on this and this.' But you don’t need that. You can make whatever you have work for you.

All the classic first TDE albums, they were done in a home studio with no equipment, but we made it work for us.

"All the first TDE albums were done in a home studio with no equipment, but we made it work for us. So many of the kids who wanna come up being engineers feel they don’t have the means to get into the big studios, so that scares them away from this field. They don’t have connections to work on big boards, but you don’t need it. If you have the ear and you know how to maneuver around the program you’re using, whether it’s ProTools or Logic or Ableton, and you master that program, you can make a multi-platinum album.

"So many people out here stress about equipment and gear they can’t afford. They could be the next Dr. Dre, but they give up because they think they don’t have what they need to continue. When everything they need is right in front of them. The big boards, they just look scary, but once you get to know what each one of the knobs do, it’s like a coloring book, you’re just going in and filling in the lines."

Be a Perfectionist

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Get Comfortable with a Program

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Don't Ask for Shoutouts

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Move Quick

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Study Your Lessons

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Teach the Youth

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MixedByAli: “I wanna help the young engineers, who don’t have resources to get into the studio, figure it out. I wanna get a lot of inner city kids together and put them in a studio with five or six of the top engineers in the game so they can learn.

Half these singles only sound the way they sounds cause of engineering.

“A lot of people out here wanna hide their techniques, they don’t wanna help the next guy. I don’t understand that. Once you can’t hear nothing no more, who else is gonna make great music? You gotta help the next generation. I’m very keen on doing that because I know how hard it was for me to break into this industry. I wanna help somebody not go through that.

“It’s dope to see everybody is on sound right now, cause it’s so important. Half these singles only sound the way they sound 'cause of engineering. I’ve been trying to shed light on engineering for so long, it’s dope to see people take note. When you put a lot of energy into one thing, and you go hard at it, you can’t do nothing else but go up.”

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