Michael Ashby has made a fast but steady ascension into the rarefied world of go-to vocal producer and recording engineer by merging art and discipline with industry acumen. A drummer whose early fascination with perfecting his own recordings had him skipping like a stone from PC to iMac to Garage Band to Pro Tools, Ashby was exploring bold sound frontiers years before graduating from New York’s SAE Institute and founding Krematorium Studio in Elmont, NY.
In the span of a decade, Ashby has recorded and produced more than 300 projects for both indie acts and superstars—from his critically acclaimed partnership with Cardi B to work with Fetty Wap, Anthony Xi, Safaree, Melissa B., La Toya Jackson, B. Howard, Azealia Banks, BK Brasco, Josh X, and Exit 21. Inspired by Grammy Award winning mentors Craig Bauer and Jaycen Joshua, Ashby always knew he’d collaborate with A-list clients. “I kept growing my mixes, my ear, my tracking engineer ear, my pitch direction ear, my vocal direction ear,” he says. “Everything kept growing simultaneously because it was a consistent road. I kept trying to outdo my last mix, and then it spiraled into this.”
While Ashby works across a spectrum of genres, he is well-known for his vocal production mastery. “When dabbling with recording, I had friends from school who felt the need to rap or have something to say,” he says. “So, I got a lot of practice on vocals.” Like many young producers, Ashby came up in an Auto-Tune world, and he’s honed a precise method of finessing Auto-Tune for vocal production over the past decade. “It’s a very disciplined process in the way I track vocals via Auto-Tune,” he says. “I have used Auto-Tune for real-time pitch correction and perfected that slowly. I can achieve natural-sounding vocals without the hint of all that Auto-Tune being involved, but also knowing that it was involved. That, I feel like, is using Auto-Tune at its most powerful point.”
Ashby aims for refined results right out of the gate in his vocal sessions: “I use Auto-Tune on everyone who’s singing, working with the singer to get the best out of them, whether you hear the effect or not,” he says. “I use it 98 percent of the time.” He typically prints tracks with Auto-Tune: “In most cases I know I’m using a pretty aggressive and confident amount of Tune in the beginning, because I want to make sure something is smooth,” he explains. “I’ll apply a certain amount of pitch correction based off the style of the song—and sometimes to be safe, not print it and just have it on the track. But most of my clients, I pretty much already analyze where they’re trying to go, and confirming the sound with them, have it set.”
For Ashby, nuance is the name of the game. “I know Auto-Tune can do wackier things than subtle pitch correction, but pitch correction varies across every type of voice style,” he says. “There’s time when I may need more Tune for somebody’s voice that doesn’t really conform to pitch correction as easily as someone else’s voice would. I can then crank up the Retune speed tastefully and then also play with the Humanize and fiddle with something I think is going to be great for that song, and then I’m off.”
In 2017 Ashby recorded vocals for hip hop superstar Cardi B’s blockbuster “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” at Krematorium. Crowned with the beats of J. White Did It, this collaboration became the first solo female rap track to top the Billboard Hot 100 in nearly 20 years and contributed to her hit album Invasion of Privacy landing the Best Rap Album Grammy in 2019.
Their synergy in the studio produced tracks that capture both her swagger and vulnerability. “That was the very beginning of her tapping back into her melodic sense of mind,” he explains. “She started doing songs with Ozuna and these Latin artists, Caribbean artists, Jamaican artists. And they sing a lot, and it’s Auto-Tune heavy, and she had to learn how to ride into those lows. And that really opened her mind up to it. It opened a lot of my clients’ minds to it. A lot of the rappers who transitioned from being just rappers to rapping with melody really noticed, ‘it’s not just looking left to right now. It’s looking up and down.’”
In a short time, Ashby has laid the groundwork for an enduring legacy of engineering that will continue to shape how we listen to music. He says Auto-Tune will continue to serve him in creating the sound of today. “I will solely use Antares Auto-Tune because it’s something I’ve grown up on,” he says. “Our music today, consumers’ ears are used to hearing a little bit of Tune. If it’s not there, it feels like something’s missing, or it sounds dated. In the ’90s or early 2000s, urban music was a little dry, saturation wise. But in terms of what defines what we do nowadays, Auto-Tune is a big part of it. That’s the first thing before anything else in the signal chain: We got Auto-Tune. It’s part of the vocalist. It’s part of the performance.”
Music and Technology Writer
Sarah Jones is a writer, musician, and content producer who chronicles the creative and technical forces that drive the music industry. She's served as editor-in-chief of Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician magazines and is currently the live sound editor of Live Design magazine. She’s a longtime board member in the San Francisco chapter of The Recording Academy, where she develops event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.