Audeze rocks out with singer, musician, producer and engineer Marc Martel

May 18, 2024

By 2011, Marc Martel had been a pro musician for already a decade, and to fans of his band, Downhere, his uncanny vocal resemblance to that of the late Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury, was no secret. But it wasn’t until he was handpicked by Mercury’s bandmates, Roger Taylor and Brian May, to front their own official tribute band, that the rest of the world would discover — and flip out over — his voice. Since the beginning of his practically necessary foray into the music of Queen, Marc has spent much of his time touring the world, paying homage to the legendary band's music in his own unique way, contributing vocals for the 2018 biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, and gaining over 250 million views on his Youtube channel, with his solo piano/vocal performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” having amassed 55 million of those views just on its own. He has released many studio albums, both with his former band, and now as a solo artist, is an avid studio nerd, and tours with his own Queen tribute, One Vision Of Queen. 

Mark Martel wearing Audeze LCD-X headphones playing the piano
"The openness and sheer listening pleasure I get from the LCD-X is well beyond the other open-backs I’ve owned." - Marc Martel 
Here's our chat with Marc:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

For a feel of the work I’m most proud of I’d point someone to Downhere’s 2008 album Ending Is Beginning, my 2014 solo album Impersonator, and my latest Christmas album, The Christmas Collection, Vol. II. Yeah, I’ve done a lot of Christmas music!

But I would say for as many cool shows I’ve performed, and amazing places in the world I’ve seen, it’s really hard to beat getting to work on Bohemian Rhapsody. I did the bulk of my work in pre-production at Abbey Road Studios. I’d never worked on a movie before, but it was obvious from the get-go that the whole thing was a passion project — in the very best sense of the term — for everyone involved. From Rami Malek, who portrayed Freddie, to the producers, to the music supervisors, and obviously to Brian, Roger, and Queen’s longtime manager, Jim Beach. Everyone was so excited to see the thing finally come together after so many years of planning and waiting. I had a blast trying to match Freddie’s original vocals for any song that might potentially be used in the final cut of the film. I had no idea how much or how little of my contribution was going to be used until I saw it myself, like everyone else, when it released to theaters. Of course, I do know now exactly where my voice was used, but if I told you where, I’d have to kill you.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I love the plethora of hats I get to wear as an indie artist. On the recording side, depending on the project, I get to be sometimes producer, sometimes recording engineer, sometimes mixing engineer, and have even dabbled in mastering. I also do a fair bit of my own graphic design and video editing. Piano and guitar are my main instruments, but I used to play as many instruments as I could on songs until I reached the absolute limit of my ability, only then calling on better players or producers. But I’ve learned more recently the virtues of embracing the involvement of others who are more specialized than me. In the end, I’m a singer, and the more time I get to focus on that, the better. You’re lucky to master one thing in life. Why spread yourself thin? I’m always striving to be a better singer. And if I can put aside extra time to get competent in other areas as well, that’s gravy. 

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

The first band I ever adored was The Oak Ridge Boys. I was five. Which I only mention because of the irony that I would eventually leave Canada to make my home in Nashville, only to have absolutely nothing to do with the Country Music world. I was lucky to have the age-old future-musician upbringing of a musical household. Mom played piano and led the church choir, while dad preached and led hymns from the pulpit. I was so fortunate to have a stage to cut my teeth on — even when I didn’t want it. I started out pretty shy. Lots of piano lessons, and self-taught guitar. Playing trumpet in high school band, and performing covers and originals in every variety show that ever was. For all that promising foreshadowing, though, I never really saw myself doing it for a living, since I never met a single professional musician until I left for college. College really gave me the launching pad. Not so much the academic side, but the relationship and opportunity side of things. That’s where I formed my band, and we recorded our first album on an indie label started by the teacher who ran the recording program. My musical loves were mostly pop and rock with high vocals. Nothing too eclectic. I was never that guy who wanted to discover the artist no one was listening to. Starting early on with The Beach Boys, George Michael and Richard Marx, and later, grunge, where Eddie Vedder became a bit too heavy of an influence, and finding my stride with artists like Bono, Jeff Buckley, and of course, Freddie Mercury. I mention Freddie last because that's literally the chronological order of things. Queen wasn’t on my radar until my mid-twenties. 

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I started writing my own songs at the age of 14, 15. It just sort of had to come out of me. Around that time, there was a nice lady from church who had a beautiful grand piano at home, and she insisted I come over and play it whenever I wanted after school. I’d also gotten my hands on a Fostex 4-track recorder. All those factors combined, and I guess I was hooked for life. Man, I wish I knew what happened to those 4-track tapes. It’s people like her who are the real heroes; Mom and Dad pushing me to practice my piano, although I remember rarely needing too much pushing, and now my wife being my biggest champion for the last 12 years. There was a period there, after my band broke up, where I couldn’t see a way ahead, but she saw it for me — and for us. She’s also the one who gently urged me to audition for Roger and Brian. Mushy stuff aside, my decision to investigate what “tribute world" had to offer was a huge turning point. No singer-songwriter grows up hoping to perform someone else’s music for a living, but after years of people telling me I sound like Freddie Mercury, the chance to work with his actual bandmates felt like something very different from the typical tribute thing. Here I was presented with an opportunity to perform some of the most beloved and challenging rock music ever made, under the oversight and tutelage of the artists who made it, with the freedom that I would never be expected to pretend to be Freddie Mercury on stage, but be myself, and bring my own artistic spin to the thing — not that the music needed it! It was hard to pass up. 

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

It took a long time for me to become a good collaborator. I’m instinctively selfish and protective when it comes to my music. Something I wish I had developed earlier on in my career is the openness, even desire, for others to speak into my music. Even within the context of my own bandmates. Some of our best stuff came out of the rare times we wrote together in the same room, working out big ideas, melodies and lyrics. Yet I always put much more energy into the stuff I did by myself. It’s still something I’m learning to do better. Solo strokes of genius do happen, but they are exceedingly rare, even for the greatest artists. I’ve often wondered if the trajectory of my band would have been any different if I’d learned an extra dose of humility earlier on. 

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

A few years ago, I was gifted a Yamaha AvantGrand N3, which is Yamaha’s flagship hybrid grand piano with full-length hammer-action keys. It’s the closest thing to a real grand piano I’ve played, and it has all the advantages of a MIDI instrument. I use it in most of my Youtube videos, including my “Bohemian Rhapsody” one-take video I posted in 2018, which many have discovered me through. In the studio these days, I have a Townsend Labs L22 Sphere mic modeler that I think is absolutely fantastic. Gives me all the flavors of mics I need, depending on the song. My go-to setting is combining a Telefunken 251 with an AKG C12A. And through my UAD Apollo, I have a mastered-sounding vocal with zero latency while tracking — not to mention the fact that I can change the mic after recording. I still think it’s bonkers. On stage, I’ve yet to find a mic that beats my DPA 4018VL capsule. It’s got everything I need to hear of my voice with no added EQ. I’ll ask the monitor engineer for a slight dip around 200Hz if I’m feeling picky. When mixing, the tool I never go without is Sonarworks Reference. As you very well know, it’s impossible to mix if your sound source isn’t honest, and I don’t currently have the luxury of a properly treated mixing environment. It is astonishing how much better my mixes translate now that my monitors are EQ’d properly — even in a less than ideal room. 

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

#1 I’d be remiss not to mention perhaps the greatest advice of surrounding yourself with people who not only support you, but also aren’t afraid to tell you the truth even when it’s hard to hear. (Hard to hear… headphones… ha!) Those are the people who really love you. It’s hard to watch people hell-bent on a direction for their lives for which they just aren’t suited. Not to be controversial or callus, but that “you can do anything you put your mind to” thing, I’m not so sure about. There are some caveats missing there. To use an extreme, yet not unrealistic example, at this point we’ve all heard tone-deaf people try to be professional singers, right? Being willing to submit yourself to the pain of constructive criticism is necessary for growth. And the people who are willing and able to see you and your true gifting — and nudge you towards it — are hard to come by, but they are out there if you look hard enough. #2 Performers, be grateful for any stage you get to do your thing on, and anyone who gives you their time — and hopefully money — to hear what you have to say. #3 Singers, go easy on the booze, hydrate, and get 8 hours of sleep. 

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

Headphones have been essential to my work for as long as I’ve made music my living. I cherish my studio time as much as my stage time, and I love living in both worlds. Being a singer, as well as a competent mixer, to cover all my bases I need a great pair of closed-backs, and a great pair of open-backs. For singing and tracking, my closed-backs should be fun, without being fatiguing or having exaggerations across the frequency range, especially in the upper mids, as my voice pushes a lot of 2-3kHz. For mixing and listening pleasure from my open-backs I look for clarity and accuracy, without being too clinical or boring, with the ability to discern what’s going on in the sub bass. Like most, I do the majority of my mixing on monitors, but I constantly double-check my work on headphones, making sure panning and phase is correct, effects are taking up the right amount of space, and the lead vocal and snare are balanced right. After it sounds good on both monitors and headphones, only then do I allow myself the all-important car listen!

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

After a few months with my Audezes, I’m happy to report the hype is seriously well founded. The openness and sheer listening pleasure I get from the LCD-X is well beyond the other open-backs I’ve owned. I can easily have a conversation with someone in the adjoining room without removing them, and it is the closest to 2 speakers suspended on either side of my head as I have ever experienced. My two other open-backs are plagued with either being far too bright and bass-anemic, or too boring. Mixing should be fun, and there’s just enough of that dialed into the LCD-X, without ever feeling like frequencies are exaggerated, and worrying that I’m mixing too dull or that the low end will blow my speakers on the first car listen. Over the last few years, I’ve relied heavily on EQ correcting software when mixing (which I still use on my monitors), but when the situation calls for cans, I can just throw the LCD-X on, being confident that I’m getting as good or better raw reference than my other go-to cans even with correction on. Less processing in my signal chain is a nice bonus. They also make for an over-the-top pair of gaming headphones, as I get the full power of sound effects and music without feeling like I’m closed off from the world. As a singer, I’ve spent even more time in the LCD-XC. At first, I was a little surprised at how much less bass extension they have compared to their open-back counterpart, out of the box. But these take EQ like a champ. A 1.5-2dB boost around 60Hz gets me right where I want to be, bringing these from really good, to awesome, IMO. And I have even noticed better isolation. I haven’t given click bleed a second thought since I’ve started tracking with these. Super helpful. On the build quality side, while very plush and comfortable, both of these headphones make my previous favorite cans feel like toys - like the Audezes have been repurposed from WWII. They are bigger in person than I expected. As a 7 1/2” hat size, these look imposing even on my head. The only time I might opt for a smaller pair of cans is when I’m creating YouTube content for something where esthetics trumps sound quality. But if I’m not on camera, these have become the hands-down first choice in my studio, and I’m so glad I took the Audeze plunge. I’ve searched for years for headphones I can be this satisfied with, so it’s with a little bit of chagrin that I bid farewell to my long-lived hobby of researching headphones on my free time. Happy customer!

Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC headphones in the studio of Mark Martel