How did this all come about? Were you at school one-day thinking – I'll be a record producer one day? Were your parents musical? Where did it all start off for you?
My Mom had a really great record collection. She did have a piano at home but didn't really play very much. My Dad really loved music too, but my Mom's record collection was vast and very cool. Some of the things I loved there were the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry and David Bowie. I mean the list goes on for her record collection, so I think that was really a place of musical education, I guess.
I started out wanting to be a radio DJ (when I was very little). I sort of made compilation tapes with my Mom's hi-fi, and I trained myself to record. I had one of those cassette decks that I didn't know how to hook up to the hi-fi. So, I just figured out the right volume for the stereo and where to put it in the room to capture something that sounded close to what I heard in the room and I would make little compilation tapes and make announcements in between songs. That was sort of a hobby, and then I was in bands in high school with some friends. I had a go, but I was more of a tinkerer (with the P.A.) than I was a disciplined musician.
When I dropped out of college, I was like, what am I going to do now? My dad was very upset with that move.
I found an advertisement for a recording workshop in Rolling Stone magazine (which is a school that is still ongoing and doing well in Ohio), and I decided I'd go there. In my early teens when I started listening to Jimi Hendrix, it sort of occurred to me that there was something a little bit more going on with the record-making than I'd perceived before.
I don't know what the particular light bulb moment was with Jimi Hendrix records, but I could hear and understand that there was an element that I wasn't aware of before and that element was the studio and actual making and manipulation of sound. The making of records. It kind of set my mind thinking about that, and then when I dropped out of college, it was like – well what am I going to do? So, I decided to go to this recording workshop. It's a short program (six weeks total), and if you finish in the top of the class, you were able to stay for the bonus weeks, which I was able to do.
Then I talked my way into an assistant engineer job at a studio in Baltimore, Maryland, when I finished the program. I grew up in Northern Virginia, and it just kind of went from there.
At a certain point in my young life, I was like – well, music is the only thing that I'm really inspired by and I want to figure out how to make records. I've achieved all of the young goals I had, in terms of just silly little goals. So, I've had a really wonderful life and career so far.
Was there a moment in your career when it all took off or was it that you were so prolific in the amount of work that you did, that it just suddenly happened?
Well no, it didn't. I mean I'd worked and worked and worked. That is the amount of work that I threw into records I've made, that's just part of it. I mean, I've had some huge things happen, and those are the silly little goals that I set. I used to work at a record store, and I told my Mom that I want to see my name on the back of records in a record store. I want to have a gold record. I want people to know that I'm a great engineer.
At the time, I thought I could produce, but I didn't really have the confidence that I could just make records and people would know of the quality that I aspire to. And I wanted to win Grammys. So, all those things came true.
It wasn't really ever one particular thing it's just like a progression, and one thing kind of leads to another. When I moved to San Francisco after working at the studio in Maryland (for almost two years) I lost the job that I moved to San Francisco for. I ended up just trying to make ends meet and ended up doing a lot of live work.
That was kind of a circuitous path. It took me a long time to get back to being in the studio, but I gained a lot from that experience. Not only losing my job but also all the live sound work that I'd done.
Tom Waits is probably one of the most significant things that have happened in my career because that has attracted artists like Norah Jones and Modest Mouse. I was part of those records with Tom, and it has built and built and built, and now in my mind, in my life and career, I'm trying to get back to that decision-making and a mode of creativity where I'm not focused on the business stuff. It's not that easy to become successful, but then dealing with success is also equally difficult. It's the same thing when artists have a successful record, their songwriting usually suffers.
Do you find that projects choose you or do you choose projects?
Well, that's interesting. I think for a while… I've never been someone to chase down projects because I've found that they're never quite what you expect. In some ways, it's not as organic for me to chase projects and it just feels forced. Things that kind of happen and come along and sort of choose you, are more of the way I like to do things. But when something comes to you, you still have a choice because you can say yes or no.
And in recent years things were choosing me that I probably wouldn't have chosen back. That's kind of where I'm at now. I do overall let things come to me. I'm getting back to being more selective, and I have started creating some of my own new endeavors, thoughts and creative projects, where I'm bringing people together and letting things happen that way. It's a tricky thing.
For me things should choose you because that means the time is right, as opposed to trying to force yourself into a situation because oftentimes a situation that I've really wanted and gotten myself into a time or two, it's not the right people or I've been out of my element or sometimes out of my depth. It's not really a very gratifying experience, so I prefer to sit back and be more discerning.
At the end of the day, it really is just feelings, what sounds best and finding that balance.
Let's get a bit specific then. Do you have a game plan when you're doing a new mix? Is there a methodology that you follow each time or is it organic in the sense of, throw the faders up and then you start to make some decisions?
Oh, it's a bit of both. In this craft, we're constantly having to balance flicking back and forth between the left brain and the right brain. So, having structure and a methodology in terms of how you approach things – that doesn't necessarily all come down to technology – it's also philosophical. I try to create some context in my mind and my own personal preferences about what something should feel like or what it feels like to me. Then I put myself in a structured situation where I can throw the faders up and search for 'that' place where it feels resolved and good to me. So, it's a bit of both, and they're kind of mixed up.
I find that the better my preparation and structure is, the faster I can work creatively and intuitively, the better the result because I'm not trying to figure technical things out – I mean sometimes that happens and you just have to take a break and do it – but I'm generally trying to work at the speed of creativity. My goal is, does it feel good?
Having studied record-making and the aesthetics of different genres, I know that vocal levels are different on genres, the presence of the rhythm elements – how loud the snare drum is compared to the rest of the drum kit – and where the bass sits. You can attribute all these things to styles and genres of music – which you have to pay attention to – but at the end of the day, it really is just feelings, what sounds best and finding that balance.
In terms of balance – let's say, for example, you got the next U2 gig. Would you go back and listen to all their albums to get a sense of what they sounded like or would you think, well they're asking me to mix this, so I'm going to bring my own take on it? Or is it a bit of both?
I think in the case of specifically U2, and if they were coming to me for mixing – I wouldn't go back and re-study. I mean I've listened to U2's music a ton. U2 are one of those artists that have reinvented themselves a lot.
Zooropa is very different from Boy and very different from another album they’ve made.
Achtung Baby is one of my favorites, so I would just look to help them find a new sound and not make it referential to their past.
Whereas when I worked with Tom Waits, it's a little bit different because I wasn't just mixing, I was also recording, and part of the capture process. I was a huge fan, but there were quite a few records that I didn't have and hadn't ever listened to, because he has a ton – my favorites are Rain Dogs, Swordfish Trombones, and Bone Machine, the one that Chad Blake did.
With Tom, I actually went and bought all the albums that I didn't have on CD, and in preparation for the sessions – and during the sessions – I would just put an album on repeat, through the night – just quietly – so almost at a subconscious level, I would sleep to it, to inform me about the depth and breadth of who Tom Waits is and what all his different characters feel like and how it all kind of comes together. I trained myself a little bit subconsciously, even though I was a fan and very versed in something. That was important, and I think it served me well, but typically, I don't do a lot of reference listening.
But in a sense the Tom record was a production gig, I'm guessing more than just a mix gig. When it comes to the decisions you make on a project do you think your courage has grown with your experience, or have you always had that courageous spirit? A lot of people reading this are new to the gig – who like you – want to win Grammys, want to be successful and it sounds like you're saying that courage is a really important part of it.
Absolutely. I think it's symptomatic of the world and music, the more time we spend looking at something else or comparing something to something else, like what's in front of us and comparing it - the more we take ourselves outside of ourselves and our own creative power and then we're reflecting things that already exist.
We should be endeavoring to create something.
Even though a song form and instrumentation and certain things fall into familiar categories, you do want to do something that feels special, has a unique depth and feels fresh. You just have to explore that. You have to explore that space with courage and without thinking and referencing too many existing things. Otherwise, it's going to feel really hard. You're giving yourself a double challenge, and you're going to have a tough time getting to something unique.
I would rather take the risk of the client telling me 'no that's not right or that's not what we want exactly. Can we change it this way, and even have the risk of being fired. I've been fired a few times from gigs. I'd first do that and feel like I was enjoying the journey of creativity and creating something unique than playing it safe and punching the clock.
Being true to one's self, the Shakespeare line.
You know that's the only way you're going to find your true potential.
We suppose the point is – that in normality – you only have your head turned when something extraordinary happens.
Everything started somewhere. Something that you might be trying to copy was at one point or another, something that was original.
I was a punk in ‘79 and sometimes people talk about it like it’s a new thing. Nothing new under the sun as they say.
Punk is an attitude it’s not a fashion. Things start out as an attitude and then they become a fashion. I want to focus on attitude, not fashion.
Are you a speed person or can you get very obsessive about an element in the mix when you're working long hours on a mix?
I can get very, very obsessive. I have learned this over time. I spent two and a half days mixing some of those Kings of Leon songs on Only by the Night. On Tom Wait’s Mule Variations, it wasn't necessarily dictated by me, but Oz Fritz and I had mixed some of those songs seven times.
I'm quite comfortable taking my time, but I find I get to a better result by working quickly and then stepping back and evaluating and then returning to it later.
Producer, Engineer, Mixer, and Programmer of the Record of the Year “Use Somebody”, 2010 Grammy Award
So, you take an instinctive run at it first?
Yeah, and I can grind on something if it doesn't feel right to me, I will work on it until I figure it out, and I will work tirelessly. It doesn't really matter to me; it's got to be right. So, I'll do whatever it takes.
When you say 'right', what do you mean? Are you talking about the sense that the record isn't gelling, and you've got to go back and deconstruct a mix that you've created to try and find out what's not working in a mix?
I've had to do that occasionally, it's not something I often do. I'm not afraid to do it if that's what I feel like is necessary. If the snare drum doesn't feel like it's fitting and it’s serving the whole thing, then yeah, I'll work on it. But it's more of the larger philosophical, wider lensed things that I'm looking for and if the snare drum is the nagging element, then I'll break it down and just try and figure it out.
Who knows what solving the problem means? Do you re-amp it? Add more distortion? Does it need some sort of effect? Do you have to add samples? Does the problem exist somewhere else? Is it that the snare drum feels bad because some other percussive elements are too flammy or are there other polarity issues with the drum kit? That's my approach, just trying to move everything together along at the same pace. Then if something is lagging behind then, I'll stop and take whatever time is required to get it back on track with everything else.
Let's talk about plugins because you've got this organic hybrid workflow of both hardware and software, and you're a big proponent of several tools.
What qualities are you looking for in your plugins because there's so much out there? Some of us looking at our folders have got several hundred plugins in there, which most of the time we don't use, and you can get very jaded in this industry now with the next greatest thing. What makes your head turn in a new plugin?
Well, Sound Radix in particular – Drum Leveler is my absolute favorite, there is no single hardware piece out there, that does what that plugin does. Not only does it great on drums but I actually use it on clean guitars sometimes.
You would typically end up having to use a little bit more compression on a clean guitar because the dynamic range is so varied. Drum Leveler does the expansion and compression, and it does such a marvelous thing. What turns my head about that particular plugin is there's nothing else that does what it can do, and it does it so well. It speeds up the job of getting something to narrow the dynamic range of something and to get something to sit in its place, and to make a kick drum feel almost like a sample. It just brings this texture and range that's so unique. It's a super-powerful plugin and things like that get me excited, and it is completely unique and does such a fantastic job.
I also love POWAIR because it is such a powerful compressor. It's almost a little too much rocket science going on there, but fortunately, the way that it's been set up, it's very intuitive, and it can do its job quite well without having to fully understand how to adjust everything and tweak the whole thing. But I love that you can get in there and super tweak.
Sound Radix as a company makes these really unique and inventive, out-of-the-box thinking plugins.
I don't love them all as much as I love Drum Leveler, but you know because some of it is my taste and philosophy. Sound Radix is not copying what other companies are doing. There's a lot of companies that are. How many 1176 versions are there out there? How many Fairchild's, how many Pultec EQ’s? It's cool how the Sound Radix stuff doesn't have something that is a competitor in its application. They're unique and powerful.
Does spending time on your mic placement is a big part of your technique when you're recording?
Absolutely and mic choice. You know depending on what you're trying to capture, you don't want microphones that share a lot of the same character and frequencies. It kind of depends on the picture you want to paint.
If I'm going to record something in stereo or I'm going to use a couple of mics on acoustic guitar perhaps. I don't use a stereo pair. That's just useless to me. I'll use two lenses that capture a very different element of the acoustic guitar, and then I can blend them together and balance them to give me a fuller picture that way. I could then combine them to one track, or keep them separate so they can play with the image, have a darker sort of character for the acoustic guitar on the left side and a brighter one on the right side, and then it feels stereo, plays well, syncopated and is interesting again.
For me, recording and record-making start at the source, and what we do as engineers and producers is an interpretation of that – but it's got to be right at the source. Whatever the source is, acoustic or sample-based or however, you're going to get a better result if you pay more attention to the source as opposed to trying to manipulate it all on the back end.
It's too much thinking, it's too much heavy lifting, you're not working with something that is defining itself. So that's one of my philosophies.
Jacquire King Discography on Spotify