Derek “MixedByAli” Ali has a decade of experience in the music industry and remains dedicated to enhancing the field.

Forging A Lane In Music

Fresh off a recent Grammy win, the 33-year-old recording and mixing engineer, who has stamped his name alongside hit records such as “The Box” by Roddy Ricch, “This Is America” by Donald Glover, and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and “Humble,” was not raised with a musical background or training.

Growing up with severe ADHD, he began to tinker with remote-controlled cars and computers and became fascinated with their functionality. When he learned he could experiment with music, it birthed a new passion.

“I started in high school — making ringtones. I was a hustler when I was playing football. I found out how to crack the Nextels and Boost Mobile chirp phones and put real songs on there rather than the model ringtones that were out during that time,” Ali told AFROTECH. “I would have friends come over after football practice and come record and put them on their phones, and that had me falling in love with just the art of recording. Just sitting there with somebody recording into a microphone and now this song is living forever. I can manipulate the frequencies and add different effects and make it sound completely different from what was originally recorded. It sparked interest and during that time, I didn’t have the money or the resources to go to the recording schools, but I was computer literate.”

With little financial resources, Ali would rely on blogs and online communities to educate himself on the craft of audio engineering, downloading various equipment and software. Through constructive feedback, he was able to water his craft and began to see it as a viable career path.

Working With Kendrick Lamar

His turning point would begin when he connected with local artist K.Dot, otherwise known as Kendrick Lamar, assisting him with his early mixtapes and other projects.

“I got with him early on, working on every project from the K.Dot mixtape ‘C4’ that you could find on YouTube, going into when he changed his name to Kendrick Lamar, where we did another ‘The Kendrick Lamar EP’ and Kendrick Lamar ‘Section.80,'” he explained. “It was just literally do it yourself online — learning how to audio engineer my way [and] not the way that the books teach you. And it was a blessing in disguise. In music school, you’re learning based on past creativity where when you’re learning and doing it yourself, you’re figuring out how to fail the right way. You can take all the lessons that you learn and apply ’em to, you know, future records. And that’s how I was able to develop a sound.”

Kendrick Lamar would then be signed to Aftermath Entertainment by Dr. Dre in 2012, per Revolt. Later, Dr. Dre became a mentor for Ali, helping him to learn more about working on analog equipment and large SSL consoles. This opportunity paved the way for Ali to work on some of the most successful albums of the last decade, leading to him win multiple Grammy Awards.

“It’s just the affirmation, right? Just affirmation and the fact that hard work continues to override talent,” Ali expressed. “I base my whole career off doing what needs to be done. Every Grammy win is one of those confirmations of those late nights, time away from the kids, and the bandwidth that it takes to put together an incredible work of art.”

The Inception Of EngineEars

While Ali reflects on the highs of his career, he also sheds light on some of the struggles, which have also led him to sport a new hat in 2020 as the co-founder of music tech startup EngineEars. The catalyst of the venture began during a time when Ali felt his inspiration was beginning to fade. He became increasingly interested in educating others as he was frequently receiving direct messages about his approach and managing the business side of audio engineering.

It began as an Instagram community in 2018, then scaled to global workshops with the help of his business partner Dan Maynard, making the establishment of the music tech startup increasingly necessary to provide a tangible resource that would address the needs of creative engineers, producers, labels, and artists.

“It was crazy to realize that it wasn’t just the inspiration and the education that these music creators and music professionals are searching for,” said Ali. “It’s actually the business tools as well, and I knew that to be true ’cause I’m one of the biggest engineers in the world, and I’m dealing with the same thing a kid from Japan is dealing with, or somebody from Australia or Canada. Helping them manage the businesses was the spark of actually developing the platform off of bare necessity.”

EngineEars is now empowering users through its conventional features allowing users to instantly book verified audio engineers and recording studios, its website mentions. The platform also enables file sharing, messaging, and seamless payments to improve the business management between all parties. The goal is to reduce the hassle of juggling various applications like Dropbox, Cash App, Venmo, QuickBooks, and Instagram.

Courtesy of EngineEars

“No more having to wait 30 or 60 days for net invoicing or chasing an artist down once you spent hours behind the song. It was basically just realizing a bigger problem with the industry that was forgotten about. Audio engineers are the conduit to the music industry. We are the ones that hold the relationships with the artists, the managers, and the producers. So, why is it that we have to have 15 different tools to manage our business? That’s when EngineEars comes into play [by] providing those business solutions.”

Latest Funding Round

To strengthen their work within the space, EngineEars has closed a $7.5 million seed round led by Drive Capital, with participation from Slauson & Co., 645 Ventures, and FLUS Investment Group. Additional investors include Kendrick Lamar, Roddy Ricch, YG, DJ Khaled, Mustard, Russ, and more.

In total, EngineEars has raised $8.5 million since inception, according to information provided to AFROTECH.

Their latest funding round aims to enhance the capabilities of their booking software through scheduling and direct calendar integration, and automated payment splits, according to Co-Founder and CTO Luke Sorenson. The funding will also aid in expanding the reach of available studios, which currently sits at 500.

“We’re big believers in founders working to solve their own problems, and Derek is absolutely doing that by bringing efficiencies to the historically inefficient process of payments and collaboration in the music industry,” said Drive Capital Partner Chris Olsen in a news release. “We believe in Derek’s vision to build EngineEars into the platform where investment in music happens.”

In the future, Ali hopes the platform will support users from creation to distribution.

“Naturally, the next step will be distribution,” Ali said. “We want to plug in and be able to take an artist all the way from inception all the way to distribution under one roof as well as other AI tools for music collaborators and music professionals, allowing them to improve their efficiencies in the workflow and the creation process.”