“There’s Solder in Those Plugins!”
SAFETY HARBOR, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 2021: Hip-hop artist X:144 has always had a lot going on, and although the pandemic has shifted where and how things happen, he’s as busy as ever. In his long career, X:144 has produced & engineered for Ms. Lauryn Hill, Blueprint & Aesop Rock, Kool G Rap, MF Doom, Qusai, and more, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He composes and produces for All Most Nothing, a genre-fluid power duo. Together, with monster rapper Alias the @ikt, X:144 is currently living in the past, present, and future with three All Most Nothing albums at various stages of production. First up, LEFT, was soft released on the Audeze’s Twitch channel, where the duo broke down their process for each song. X:144 (credited Maged Khalil Ragab) also plies his skills with big-name video games, including Madden NFL and The Last of Us Part II. He served as the Dialogue Lead on The Last of Us Part II and recently shared an MPSE Golden Reel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing: Computer Interactive Game Play. As if all that weren’t enough, X:144 has directed music videos for the likes of Ms. Lauryn Hill, The Alchemist, Solillaquists of Sound, Dark Time Sunshine, and more.
X:144 takes music and the hip-hop community seriously. “There’s a massive cultural disconnect between today’s generation of hip-hop artists and the founders,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re not welcoming the younger artists at the door. We’re not helping them. We’re not nurturing them. Even worse, there are a lot of hip-hop pioneers who were/are actively hating on the current generation. That’s not effective, and it’s the underlying reason why the genre is owned by corporations and not by us. It has to change.”
Given that perspective, X:144 is intentional about mentoring the next generation of hip-hop artists. He seized the Covid-19 lockdown as an opportunity to share his production philosophy and engineering techniques with the community. “When I was coming up it was the school of hard knocks,” he said. “Hip-hop is inherently competitive, and it was survival of the fittest. I was forged in fire. But all I ever wanted was for someone to help me out, to help me get better.” X:144 spent majority of lockdown delivering a two-fold channel experience on Twitch (@X144Live). Thursdays he listens to community submissions and gives actionable feedback to the up-and-coming artists who submit their work. He spends up to 10-20 minutes on each submission, recognizing the originality and unique artistry in each song before tailoring his feedback to help the artist realize their vision even more effectively. On Saturdays, X:144 invites an established music artist into the virtual studio for live Q&A and to mix one of their songs in real time. “The next generation gets to see how decisions are made,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing I would have loved to see when I was younger.”
Given all his transparency and eagerness to share, X:144 has received plenty of tips and tricks from his friends in the industry in return. “Any time I exchange ‘secret sauce’ recipes with my buddy Boogie of Backpack Jax, he talks so much about the Metric Halo plugins,” he said. “I was familiar with Metric Halo. I had used a Metric Halo 2882 hardware interface to master Madden NFL. I compared it with all of the other interfaces that were available, and the dimensionality of the 2882 made everything else sound like listening through a plastic straw. So, I knew Boogie’s recommendations were well-founded, but even so, I was like, ‘I really need these Metric Halo plugins?’ And he said, ‘hey man, they sound f*****g great!’”
He continued, “Metric Halo plugins are some of the most analog-sounding plugins I’ve heard in recent years. Really, they don’t sound like plugins; they sound like hardware. It sounds like electricity. Just instantiating a Metric Halo plugin is like running through great analog hardware that’s zeroed out. The fidelity, clarity, roundness, warmth, and detail make a massive contribution to the ease of achieving a result. I think there’s solder in those plugins!”
X:144 seldom uses presets. It’s a habit that goes back to his earliest days with an Akai MPC 3000 drum machine. “I had to sample everything from scratch per sitting,” he said. “I later learned that people would save their sounds on Zip drives to reuse later, but I did it from scratch every time. I did this whole ritual with my vinyl: clean the stylus, clean the vinyl, listen carefully, and then handle most of the editing in the capture. So even though I’ll reuse drum sounds these days (‘cause I paid my dues!), I’m really not a preset guy on processor plugins. I’m not a revisit guy. I’m a fiddler. And because I always come up with results from scratch, I’ve gotten to be pretty fast at it.”
ChannelStrip is X:144’s go-to Metric Halo plug-in. “I love the compression and I love the EQ,” he said. “And they sound great on anything. The results are always exact. I know what I’m getting. ChannelStrip never flattens out the source and it never reduces the dimensionality. If anything, ChannelStrip adds more dimensionality front to back, especially with additive EQ.”
X:144 is careful to distinguish a sound’s character from its tone. “Philosophically-speaking, I want the character to be captured in the content,” he said. “It’s like the adage that your master is only as good as your mix; your mix is only as good as your recording; and your recording is only as good as your talent. When I’m involved in the recording, I always make sure the character is there. But when I get material that someone else recorded, I sometimes need tools to impart that character.” Ironically, Metric Halo’s signal path modeler, Character, is not what X:144 reaches for in those situations. “To my mind, Metric Halo is all about tone,” he said. “Even Character.”
X:144 uses Metric Halo Character a lot, but he views the various flavors of harmonic distortion that it imparts as fundamentally about tone. “That harmonic distortion is really musical and, in theory at least, very clean,” he explained. “It’s just tone accentuated. Saturation is tone, distortion is character, if you know what I mean. Metric Halo Character adds warmth and roundness and pushes the signal in the direction it needs to go. It adds something that’s clearly audible if you A/B it, but without that reference, it’s not obvious. Metric Halo’s inherent fidelity makes Character a really excellent tone-crafting tool.”
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