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?
Just working on this lecture series, trying to get corporate sponsors so we can charge less. The process has gotten super drawn out. I thought it'd be like, Oh, just rent a theater and charge money, but then it's like, Oh, you've gotta start a business and the business takes three weeks to get approved, all of that shit.
Yeah, but you sensed that there was a demand for this sort of thing?
I've always had the idea of an alternative form of education that, especially with the way music is going, is more towards prosumers— people who want to do what people do in studios, or as close as they can, but from their home without a formal education. There's a lot of people who make music in the house without any music education, and this could help them. For not a lot of money, you could actually make good music at your house if you just knew a few things about music and the way sound works.
And you felt like your personal education didn't necessarily prepare you as well, or was at least way too expensive?
Yeah, it's a hyper-expensive form of education. Say you go and take computer engineering, there's a plethora of fields now open to you that involve that. There's not just like one form of computer engineering where you're stuck doing exactly the same job— they give you a very large skill set. Audio engineering is a very specific skill set. You're usually given about four major options in the realm of audio engineering and producing, and you'e gotta hope that you love them, because they're all fairly grueling and none are 40-hour week things, it's more like a 80, 90-hour week thing.
It's something you have to make sure you love before you commit to it, and I think a lot of people go to school thinking they're going to love it, and it's something that they weren't prepared for, and they end up with $150,000 of debt, and they don't really have a choice now, so they wind up doing a completely different job but still have all that debt. I think this is a good alternative to jumping in headfirst.
What was the moment that made you realize you loved it? Was it in school or afterward?
In school I was actually planning on working in movies and video game music, because I didn't want to ruin music for myself. I listened to music eight hours a day at the time, and I was like, 'What if I work in music and listen to music and am constantly surrounded by it, am I still going to love it?' I was worried about that, so I was trying to do something I didn't love quite as much so I wouldn't be so emotionally invested every day. But it's a lot harder to get into those fields, so while I was trying to get into those, I was also doing music internships, like three at a time. The television studio [where I was working] fell apart, so I had to leave that, and stuck with the music internships I had, and everything just started to fall into place.
The film industry's very 9-to-5, but in the music world, we were there all day, every day. It was a lot less of a professional environment, and a lot more camaraderie— we all made it a lot more fun. That's what made me realize that I wasn't going to get sick of music. Everything becomes a job when you do it, but a good environment makes even the worst job bearable. Delivering pizza was one of my top jobs ever because everybody was just there, having fun, joking 24/7.
Your earliest credits were in the indie rock world, with artists like Animal Collective and Youth Lagoon. Is familiarity with the genre you're working in important to you, or was your initial goal just to get work however possible, regardless of genre?
I listened to everything growing up, so it wasn't impossible to see myself in any of the genres. But I respected a lot of Ben [Allen]'s production, and when I found out that he worked at a studio I had applied to, I freaked out and called the studio manager and asked, 'What do I have to do to ensure that I work here?' I had a good knowledge of most of the artists and producers who came through there, so he was like, 'You'll be fine.'
That sounds pretty coincidental. Then how do you go from engineering an album called Wondrous Bughouse to engineering one called Savage Mode in a matter of a couple of years?
Pretty much everything has been coincidental for me. It's just always being in the studio. I met Thug through Metro. Him, TM88, Sonny Digital, DJ Spinz and all of those guys used to basically live in the studio that I was running after I left working for Ben. It was 24/7. I was sleeping in the tech room, and I would just get woken up whenever to go record someone. This was like 2013, so they were all kids at the time. Thug came through to work with Metro, same with 21.
So Metro sounds like your main in with both of those guys. How did you start working with him?
I took over a studio in Atlanta as head engineer and tech, basically the only person there that was staffed as an engineer. A friend introduced me to Metro and told me he was going to be huge, and I didn't really have a client base at the time, so I was like, 'That's awesome, I'll help you. Let's work, and when we all make it we can work something out, but I'll work for free as long as I have to.' We were just making as many songs as we could. I think between all five producers we made something like 1,500 songs in one summer. Cash Out was there all the time, Migos would come through. It was really where everyone grew and built their sound from, that little four month period over the summer.
So this is basically how you wind up becoming Thug's go-to engineer.
Well I had a few interns and assistants at the time, who I was training. They were starting to handle a few sessions, because I was trying to get more paid work. I would set the room up and everything but then let them run sessions sometimes. Thug had kicked a bunch of them out during one session, and Metro was like, 'Please just help me real quick, because this song's important and he won't record with anybody that's not fast enough, and you're fast enough.' You can't throw him off, and you also have to be able to understand and translate what he's asking for. He arrives at things his own way, and you have to be able to understand that and mix on the fly. He wants it to sound the way it sounds on the radio by the time he walks out of the booth. It's a lot.
Was there a specific moment that it really clicked for you guys, and you knew you were in?
We did a bunch of sessions, and clicked creatively very quickly, but we didn't really talk until the fifth session, I want to say. He'd be in the booth, I'd record him, and then he'd leave. One time my buddy recorded him for one song, and did a good job, but Thug asked him to leave so I could mix it, and I was like, 'Oh, you only want me to mix your music now.'
With Thug being such a private person, and an enigma to many, does it ever get annoying answering endless questions like these about him?
People always ask. But with the private questions, I'll defer. There's a lot of stuff about him that's really interesting that he doesn't talk about, like how he came up. I'm just waiting for him to talk about it in an interview and I don't want to spoil it for him. I'm sure eventually one day he'll talk about it, but I know to just not breach the subject.
I'm not trying to be an inside source or anything, but I'll talk about the studio all the time. It's mostly business in there— we joke around a lot, but I'll walk in with 40 beats every time I see him. Honestly, I'll see him when we're making an album, but I haven't seen him a lot in between, except if he's in New York or something. But it's always like no time's passed every time we're in the same room. I always have the producers that he trusts send me beats whenever I can, and then I just hold onto them. When you have an artist like him, you want to keep the beats separate— he won't put it out if someone else has already recorded over it.
So you sort of function as a middleman between producers and Thug?
It's easier that way. I can tell producers, 'Hey, we're looking for this, this, and that,' you know? Especially because I know what kind of music he's been making and will get tired of rapping over. I used to do that a lot, like during the Rich Gang days, all the beats came through me first. He just let me have his email and I'd have mine, and I'd have all the producers he knew in mine, and all the producers that want to fuck with him in his. 2013 to 2015, I don't think he rapped on a beat that I didn't pick, unless it was a feature.
As a rapper, I think it's discouraging to listen to a bunch of beats that you don't like, so I could kind of ballpark what he'd like, so instead of it being one out of every hundred that he'd like, it'd be one out of every ten. That's a big difference in the mental drain it puts on you trying to listen to all of that music, and then trying to catch a vibe, feel something, that's not easy to do 150 times a day. I felt drained and I wasn't even rapping on them. I think I listened to 8,000 beats over a weekend once, and I was like, 'I never fucking want to hear another beat again.' A whole bunch of bad music at once? That shit will eat your soul.
Speaking of that 2013-2015 period, there haven't been nearly as many Thug leaks since then. How have you guys managed to cut back on those?
He has his hard drive and keeps all of his stuff on there. It used to be that there were so many ways that he needed his music, and I think that the amount of ways that music was being transferred after it was recorded was bad. I was against it, but when you're recording that many songs, it's hard to be like, 'Okay, give me all your hard drives so I can put all of this stuff on there,' because it would take an extra two hours every day to back up everything. The alternative is, 'Oh, let me transfer you this, or email you this, or send it to my phone,' or what the fuck ever. It's impossible to tell someone to sit there for three hours every day.
It's a result of the fact that he can record more music than anybody else in the world. I just feel like you have to take the good with the bad with that. It's just gonna happen if he wants to record that much. How do you even keep track of everything? You've gotta be so vigilant all the time. Back in the day there were like four people carrying around his drives, and I was constantly worried about that.
What leak were you most disappointed about?
"Proud Of Me" was the one that got me the most, because I thought that was the song. I've heard that song at least a few thousand times, easy, just listening in my free time. I thought that was the one. "Feel It" was up there too, but that made it onto [Beautiful Thugger Girls], so that's great. And "Good Times" also, but that came out on its own, even though they took my name out of the intro, which I'm still pissed 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.