By Markkus Rovito
From basement beats to luxury suites, hip-hop renaissance man X:144 started on 12-bit samplers and worked his way up through the industry to the point that he has worked on—among other things—remastering the speech audio for one of the video game world's biggest franchises, EA Sports’ Madden NFL, and is currently a part of their audio implementation team.
These days, the schedule for X:144, also known as Maged Khalil or just X, may include working on his next solo album, for which he has produced the music and lyrics with guest collaborators; hosting a listening session for a client's project that he's producing, mixing and/or mastering; and then capping the day off with a video production meeting for a video he's directing under his Beats|Rhymes|Films® brand.
"I wear a lot of hats, and I don't lack ambition, so it keeps me busy," he said.
Like so many hardcore hip-hop heads before him, X:144 followed his ambition and his passion for music into creating a life and vocation for himself without seeking permission from anyone or taking a formal education. He now has credits for working with iconic artists such as Ms. Lauryn Hill, Qusai, Kool G Rap, MF Doom, The Alchemist, Blueprint & Aesop Rock, Solillaquists of Sound, among many others, but it all started from humble beginnings.
"When I was 14, I used to make beats over the phone with a DJ friend of mine" X said. "He lived across town, and I didn't have a car. He had this sampler on his mixer, so I'd listen, and he played me records over the phone. I’d be like, 'Yeah, yeah, use that drum break; loop that. OK, chop up this part of this sample. Oh, you got a little keyboard? Play this bass line.'"
He also made his first beats the traditional way on a borrowed E-mu SP-1200, one of the quintessential early 12-bit samplers of hip-hop. But his own first drum machine was another hip-hop classic, the Akai MPC3000 16-bit/44.1kHz sampling/sequencing workstation. "That's really where I cut my teeth," X said. "After years of paying for studio time, I started recording into a Roland VS-1680 [16-track hard disk recorder]. If you listen to The Lost CD-Rs and The Hipocryte Phelloship Project on my Bandcamp, the majority of it was in the Roland VS-1680."
Mixing with that gear on a pair of Alesis M1 Active bi-amped monitors, X started cultivating his mix engineer talent without really knowing it at the time. The early X:144 stuff began to be known in the Orlando, Florida scene as sounding as good or better than other local artists who used engineers in big studios. "I was oblivious to that," he said. "I just wanted to make some bangers. I didn't care about anything that I now have a deeper understanding of today."
X put in many hours of critical listening to reggae, dancehall and hip-hop that developed his ear for low end. "For me, the fidelity of any piece of music really assists in what is trying to be conveyed emotionally. I really connect with not just the musicality, but the sonic quality of what's there. I remember back in the day, just listening on a boom box to reggae and dancehall tapes. Roots reggae specifically just has that rub when it comes to the low end, especially with the bass line. We used to be a bunch of kids in a basement listening to some reggae shit, and I would have my ear on the back of the boom box. I just wanted to sink into that low end."
X:144 also studied '90s hip-hop and identified Grammy-winning engineer/producers Bob Power and Russell Elevado as huge influences. Power worked on many '90s classics from A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, The Roots, and Common while Elevado engineered and mixed X:144's all-time essential reference album, Voodoo by D'Angelo.
"Any room I go into, I have to play Voodoo and I'll get my bearings based on that," he said. "I'll know where the low end is. I know where the high end is. I know what the midrange is supposed to sound like. When I listened to these records, I would study every inch of it. There was nothing that you could write off on any of those albums. Vocals sound amazing. Lyrics are there. Performance is there. Musicality is there. The sonics are there. That's the school I went to. Sonics really affect me emotionally. If something's not hitting right or even if something is excessive, that rubs me the wrong way. It has to have that balance."
All of that self-schooling on music and emphasis on sonics helped X develop what he now calls "sonic writing," and while he started out on the kind of hardware-based recording systems that defined hip-hop in the '90s, he was fairly quick to adapt to the emerging software paradigm. "I got introduced to Pro Tools really early on, when it was called Sound Designer," he said. "I was really hesitant about it because I was recording to tape and ADAT at that time. I was like, 'No man, this sounds different. I can't get it to sound right.'"
But he transitioned from the MPC3000 to the Logic DAW early on because he felt the audio engine was the best one available until he recently had to use Pro Tools 12 for a mixing project. "They improved so many things," X said of Pro Tools 12. "I don't remember being able to achieve the results that I wanted out of Pro Tools as compared to Logic, which I feel has one of the best audio engines out there."
However, when Ableton announced the Push controller for its Live software, that's when X:144 finally decided he had to learn the program. It feels reminiscent of the MPC to him, except a lot more high-tech.
"The Push rekindled my love for music creation again," he said. "I'm a part of the gaming industry, so obviously I have a love for video games. Ableton feels like a video game. It has this fun element to it where it just feels like anything is possible. The workflow is really conducive to creativity and experimentation. So now I'm using Ableton to pretty much write and arrange most of it, and then I mix in Logic. I can do so much with MIDI, arrangement, and manipulation in Logic while adding additional instrumentation. We all know that Logic is the king of MIDI, that’s why I like to do all the final arrangements within Logic and then mix within that arena."
With his cultivated ear, deep mixing experience and his personal writing work flow, X:144 practices his "sonic writing" method that goes back to his early days but has been refined over time. "Because I mix records all the time, my chops for that are reflexive now. I mix as I write. I call it sonic writing because I believe the quality, or fidelity of the instrumentation is a major contribution to emotional intent...plus I like for it to sound “done” as I go. I know some people like to make beats or write music in any way, just to get the ideas down, and then they start shaping their sounds. I like to shape as I go. I know I'm not the only one who does this, but not only do I like to shape it, it has to sound like the end result. I’m fairly conscise in that way. If I send it to a mastering engineer they're going to be like, 'I don't have to do too much here.' It's still dynamic, but I want it to be polished. I want to do a workshop on this some day."
THE SCHICK SHEEN
X:144's sonic writing comes from his feeling that the best-sounding audio helps lead to the most emotionally compelling experience. Even though he's mixing as he goes and wants it to be as polished as possible, he does not like to master his own work unless a client specifically insists on it. He also does not use any master bus processing when mixing. Rather, he prefers to go to Plugin Alliance endorsee and top hip-hop mastering engineer, Glenn Schick.
"He really changed how I mix," X said. Before Schick started jet settingaround the world to master projects remotely from a laptop and converter, X had his first experience working with Glenn on Atlanta’s former hip-hop trio, Psyche Origami. Shortly after X drove up from Orlando to Atlanta to have Schick master his album with DMC Champion DJ SPS (currently touring with Black Violin). It was the first time he'd worked with Schick in person.
"I was like, 'This sounds way better than anything I could do,'" X said. "We sat there and, for lack of a better term, he tore apart my mixes. He beat into my head how to approach not only mixing, but production and sound selection. He did it in a constructive way. He's not a negative dude, but it was devastating to me. At one point he turned around and said, 'I know it seems like I'm coming down on you hard, but I do this shit to all my engineering friends that mix platinum-selling records. They love it and hate it.' That stuck with me."
After that, X:144 would ask Schick to tell him what was wrong with his mixes every time they worked together, but Schick would have less and less to say. Eventually it got to the point where one of Schick's masters just sounded like he turned it up and nothing much else. "I had to dig to see what he adjusted," he said, "but it sounded so similar to the original product, I was like, 'Holy shit, I think I've leveled up.'"
MASTERING THE GAME
Of course, gamers know leveling up as one of the basic fundamentals of gameplay, and X:144 was now primed to step up his status in the pro audio game. For the last few years, he has been remastering all of the speech commentary and other voice over materials from EA Sports's gold standard in football video games, the Madden NFL franchise--and he was the first person to take on this challenge. This may have been X's most challenging task yet, and if not, it certainly was a far cry from tapping out beats in a basement and selling CDs in the street.
However, his ear for sonics wouldn’t prevent him from pointing the team at EA in the direction of possibly remastering Madden, which was not the job he was initially brought on to do. "The commentary is the centerpiece of the game," X said. “It's what's going to put the audio team in an arena to make the sonics of the game sound more compelling. The way the mastering was done before tied their hands. The centerpiece wasn’t fully realized yet in terms of texture.”
So without making a formal presentation, X showed some people the before and after of the game commentary the way he would master it, and those people encouraged him to show it to others until he was granted the task. "Sure enough, it rendered some positive results; the sonics of the game and we as a team really shined from there. Those guys are pretty damn amazing at what they do. I’m just glad I could make a contribution to the effort that put us in that light,” he said.
Some of the Brainworx plugins have been perfect for X:144's style of mastering, which is entirely in the box. So it's a good thing that he got over the initial intimidation he felt when first encountering Brainworx and other Plugin Alliance plugins.
"They put a lot of science into it," he said. "So much science that by appearance you're just like, ‘Oh, I don't know if I want to mess with that...this shit looks intimidating. It's like looking at an analog synth for the first time. If you don't know anything about synthesis, you're just like, 'What do I do here?' Typically, you don't see that much control in plugins. But I downloaded some of their mastering plugins, and I was like, 'Holy shit, this is exactly what I’ve wanted.' I'm heavy into mid-side mastering. I think there's huge benefits in that. It's the only other alternative besides stem mastering, which I shy away from for the fact that I would rather the mix engineer make the necessary adjustments. I want to complement what them and producer as opposed to doing somebody else's job.
"The Plugin Alliance stuff is mid-side everything, so I love that. The bx_digital EQ and the bx_XL V2 put me on my ass because I can mess with the lows and then the mids and then the sides or the lows in the center, the mids in the center, and then the highs. This is f*%king awesome. It also maximizes within the same plugin, where before I would have used another plugin for that process. It's just given me so much more range and flexibility, especially with problematic mixes. Being able to do corrective work to mid and side is pretty essential. When I dove in and got past the intimidation factor and saw the beauty of what they do, man, it totally changed everything for me."
However, the approach was entirely different when it came to X’s work on the Madden game. He said that with game audio, it's like if you were to design a snare sound on its own without any context of the kick sound, bass or melodic elements, and then you design the kick in the same way, and so on, and so on. "Depending on the development tools you have you're just working on one element at a time; it's not linear," he said. "You have to simulate what you would be sound-designing against or mastering against. Then it's mixed together after the fact. So I would listen to speech with a bed of what the crowd and the music.
"I did a capture of the game audio with no commentary, so you hear all the player chatter, the stadium music, the PA system, things of that nature. I'd have that bed constantly under all of the tracks and would tweak and match from there. It was a lot of matching, and the majority of it was matched by ear, which is no easy task.
"It's entirely different to mastering an album, where you tweak settings based upon what the track needs. It's easier to master something that was mixed by the same person within the same room, so you're addressing similar problems and seeing a lot of trends sonically. You can keep your settings as is and just dump in tracks in your chain and adjust them as needed. Whereas this, the recordings were done in several studios, over many years, with different chains, not using the same gear--all of that added to the variance in the recordings.
"You want continuity and to maintain dynamics, but it has to have a certain sonic signature without so much variance. It's hard, because everything happening in the game is unpredictable. The crowds swell and then get quiet. It affects your perception. I would say game audio is truly a dark art."
BACK TO SQUARE ONE
Luckily for X, even while he's practicing the dark art of game audio, he still has a little time here and there not only for his other hired projects, but also his solo artistry. He's currently finishing up his X:144 solo album that's been in the works for a few years. But while game audio and music are very different, he says the similarity is that "it always takes a group of people to make a great album."
It will be a solo album, but he'll have help from collaborators, a mastering engineer, and people to work on the distribution and publicity. He's currently deciding on what label(s) will put out the album worldwide, but even if he decides to release it independently, he's got good people to work with based on the relationships he's built over many years. "I just want this album out, so I can make some new material," he said. "I just need to let this go. It's like releasing your children. You're ready now, get out. Go backpack through Europe. Go to China, go to Africa, whatever you want."