When it’s time to deconstruct Roddy’s “The Box,” Ali pulls up the three recording tracks for the three versions of the songs in ProTools: the reference mix from Roddy’s team, Ali’s mix and the master mix. Those sessions were displayed on the four projector screens around the room and on the individual computer screens. The song was played a dozen or so times, and some people were bopping their heads, enjoying the music. But most were staring at the screen, as if they were trying to break down a science project of some sort.
Roddy has the “worst demo-itis I’ve ever dealt with,” explaining how Roddy didn’t want his final mix to sound to clean and still retain a little distortion in the beat. “Demo-itis” refers to an artist’s preference for the first demo of a song over any subsequent mix. Distortion is a sin to an engineer taught under the tutelage of Dr. Dre, but it speaks to how in tune Roddy is with the current sound of music.
“Roddy’s is low-key a little genius. He can hear if his vocals are off by a millisecond,” Ali said. “So, changing the pitch of a hi-hat, which is an important part of a beat, would be too drastic. He would listen to it and shut it right the fuck off and say, ‘I don’t like this.’”
He played Roddy’s bare vocals without any effects, tantamount to stripping an artist naked, and Roddy’s untouched voice sounds punchy but not as big as it does in the final version. We heard the song with everything muted except the face-smacking 808 bass as Ali tweaked the sound levels to demonstrate how parallel compression allows him to experiment with using the Voice of God plugin to beef up the 808 without irrevocably altering the original track. Ali explained how to make a song like "The Box" with only five sounds—808, snare, two hi-hats and a sample—sound bigger by understanding sound spectrums and “how to drop the bass in that mix so that it’s the most prominent part of your mix.”
In the reference track, you can hear “The Box” co-producer 30 Roc’s “30, you a motherfucking fool” producer tag, voiced by Lil Yachty, in the intro of the song. That’s nowhere to be found on Ali’s mix or the mastered version, thanks to the song’s engineer. “I’m not a fan of [producer] tags. I got producers that want to fade me all of the time. It’s all good,” he says.
Early in the workshop, Ali bemoaned about his reputation for creative sound effects leading to people hovering over him in a studio session anxiously awaiting the magic moment when Ali takes a song to the next level. That moment doesn’t come in every session, but something happened in the workshop that exists on the border between magic and machinery. With the multitrack session of “The Box” being shown on four projectors and the computer screens on each desk, Ali went behind the computer controlling it all and went to work.
He pulled up plugins Kramer Master Tape and Decapitator. In a matter of seconds and tweaks, Roddy’s voice transmogrified into the distorted and demonic doubled vocal style that has popularized Kendrick Lamar’s song. In effect, Ali was able to engineer the abstractness of Kendrick Lamar onto Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” mainly because Ali was the one behind both.