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Candid comments from the renowned producer/engineer about gear, mixing and more

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Jack Joseph Puig Speaks His Mind

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One of the best known and most successful producer/engineers in the business, Grammy-winner Jack Joseph Puig has worked with heavyweights like U2, Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, John Mayer, Fergie, Eric Clapton, Queen Latifah and countless others. Puig wears many hats, including as an executive vice president at Geffen Records, and as Director of Creative Innovation for Waves, where he helped develop the Jack Joseph Puig signature plug-in collection.

He’s also spent the last five years familiarizing himself with the consumer electronics field, and is working hard to convince manufacturers in that sector to significantly upgrade the quality of their audio systems with advanced DSP and components like smart amplifiers. “That's the goal, he says. “On a PC, tablet, and mobile phone. Enhance it. That's where I want to go.”

I had a chance to interview him at the recent A3E conference in Boston, and he made some surprisingly outspoken comments in response to what some of his producer/engineer colleagues have been saying about the importance of gear. But we started off by talking about mixing.

Do you always mix in the same space?

Well, at Ocean Way Recording. And I'm building — and I'm about 75 percent there — a studio in my home. Not to replace Ocean Way, but to augment it. But what's transpiring is there's a lot of music that comes my way that I’d like to work on, and once you reach out to these people, they tell you "I've got $5 and can you take us to lunch, as well." But I love the music, and maybe they're the next whatever. 

So with your own space, you have lower overhead.

Now I can say, “Send me the files.”

So what's your setup going to be?

It's very esoteric. It'll have a tube stereo bus, as well as a solid-state stereo bus. And every wire and every cable, and every nut and every screw will be listened to. Like we used to, years ago. So it will be a very hot-rodded system. My only concern is that it's going to be tremendously better than my space at Ocean Way. That's what I'm worried about.

Why is that a problem?

Because there are some things that don't make sense to do in my home space. Platinum artists, they like the parking spot, they like the fax machine, they like the runner that gets them the hot dog. They like belonging to a club. They like seeing the gold records on the wall, etc. So if I find myself in a position of saying, “I'm doing it here but it's not as good as my place,” uch.

Which studio at Ocean Way do you usually mix in?

Studio A, Focusrite console.

So you're still using a large format console?

Less and less and less.

Because of the lack of recall?

Recall is an issue. But also, what you can do in the digital domain now is so amazing that yielding to the romantic notion of the past doesn't interest me.

What do you use monitor wise for your mixing?

I've got a computer that's beyond amazing sounding, that I use to understand what it's like in the digital domain. I've got a $150,000 pair of speakers that are one of a kind. They're based on the RCA LC9 design. Anyone I play them for, I have to up off the floor. They can't believe what it sounds like. And I'm not talking about volume, I'm talking about tonality. And I'm also talking about the ability to hear distortion, how clean something is, how punchy something is. Where it sits in the spectrum, it's very simple to hear, and it's a very unique design. And a pair of NS-10s, of course. And then, as far as bookshelf speakers, I switch around from KRKs to Genelecs. You have to learn how to move around. Although I spend most of my time not moving around, but there's still particular times, and I don't want to be shackled to one kind of system or I can't make a decision.

I'm sure it's easy for you, but for a lot of people, its hard to know when theyve gone as far as they can with a mix and are at the point of diminishing returns. How do you know when you get to that point?

I think it's simple for anyone to pass it up, including the absolute most seasoned professionals. What I do is that anytime I start feeling that I really have something, I put it down right away, and I create what I call a "breadcrumb." In other words, in Pro Tools, I never allow anyone to do just a save, it always has to be a Save As.

With a descriptive term in the file name?

It has to be described as what it is. It's not an option to do it any other way. Therefore, if I start feeling like maybe I don't have it, I'm able to go back to a previous point in the mix. Because I hit "Save As," and maybe there's something in the window like "This is when I plugged in blah blah blah." Just to put me back into that space of when I was there. I have the breadcrumb and get through the forest.

"Music is supposed to have an emotion and a feel and an attitude and a perspective."

Let's talk about filtering. Do you do a lot of high-pass filtering on most elements in the mix to keep the mud out?

A lot of people are into filtering. I've never been massively into it. I do like to use the filtering when I want to push an equalizer really hard, and I want to use the filtering to sort of change the Q of how it's working. Let me give an example: if I'm adding 12dB at 65Hz on something, I may turn on the filtering and move it up to 28, 29, 30Hz, or something like that. So I'm creating a real sharp peak at 62Hz and I'm really killing anything that might be happening down in the 10Hz area.

Any other ways in which you use filters?

Filtering is good when you want to focus sounds. Sometimes you'll find that if you actually filter both ends of the spectrum, you'd be surprised how something gets really focused. It's an odd thing. You can even focus like 14 to 15kHz. And then maybe 20Hz in the bottom. You might think that's not going to effect anything, but you'd be shocked.

So those extreme frequencies are kind of subliminally affecting things?

They’re subliminal, but they’re also making the amplifiers and everything inside the DAW work hard. Because they're trying to reproduce frequencies that only your dog can hear and your legs can feel. And it's taking a lot of energy to try to produce those frequencies. So who's suffering is all the midrange people.

They say that we can hear up to 20kHz, but when you're filtering in the high end it will be around 15kHz generally?

It's not that you can't hear that there's less 14, 15, 18, 20, it's just that it doesn't matter, maybe, on the particular thing you're focusing on. It could be an instrument that doesn't really live at 18kHz. So it doesn't need 18kHz.

I guess acoustic instruments need more in the top end?

They do, because they also have harmonics. They're very complex from a harmonic perspective. So even though it's not really showing up as 18kHz. Harmonically it is.

What do you do about cymbals and acoustic guitars clashing?

I don't think like that. I don't think, "Okay, the bass drum needs to be at this frequency and the bass needs to be at that frequency." I don't think like that. And I don't know why, I just know that I don't.

Do you envision the mix in a sort of 3D way? Left to right with panning back to front with volume, and frequency for up and down?

I definitely visualize it in a multiple-layer way. Almost like playing three- or four-level chess. Not on one plane, but on multiple planes.

Obviously the pan controls for left to right. What do you use for front to back, volume, ambience, both?

A little bit of everything. Some ambience, but believe it or not: compression. Because if we think about the '80s records, they're so in your face — the beginning of when SSL came into our lives. And hard, aggressive compression that puts it in your face. If you have something that's in your face, and you have something that's not compressed very much, you just created an alternate point of sound. If you think about the older records, they're very three dimensional, because not everybody's in your face. If you think about the '80s and '90s records, everything is in your face, and therefore there is no alternate point of sound, just one plane. Not smart. And the compression, done properly in terms of the attack and release, can allow something to have movement. And that movement means it's not static. And that movement is at different times closer to and farther away from you. So therefore, now, you've created another dimension of depth.

Can you explain that more?

I'm a massive proponent of compression being used in an extremely musical way. And I've said this a million times, ad nauseam to people. It's the most musical thing we have. Equalization and all those things are static. Compression is changing time. And being able to try and change the time constant means that you can make things go late, early, fast, slow, on top of the bar lines, in back of the bar lines. It’s very musical.

Longer attack lets more transients come through.

If you have a lot of the transient, that defines where the note is. The ear can pinpoint where it is effectively, if we can get geeky for a minute. It can pinpoint within a bar where it is. If we were to take that bar and cut it into 32nd notes for a second, if you can imagine that. The attack tells you where it [the note] is in all those segments of the 32nd notes. Is it five 32nd notes, or 22 32nd notes. Does that make sense?

Totally.

If it doesn't have a lot of attack, that means the sound is late. Your ear doesn't hear it right away. So that means you've just changed where that sits in the bar line. So you get a record, and you listen to it, and you go, "These guys aren't playing together. One guy's early, one guy is late, it doesn't feel together.” With smart compression, you can lock them. And that really matters. And the opposite is true too. Records that have been way too Pro Tooled, too fixed, where everything is "on the grid," and you listen to it and go, "OK, I know I'm supposed to like it," because everything is locked. But I feel nothing pelvic from this. There's no pelvic energy. Now come the compressor people. "Ok, I'm going to move you guys around. Make you a little early, you a little later. And I'm going to change time, the feel of it. I'm going to make this thing weave and move and be very sexy.” That's what compression is. It's not about volume. Who cares about the volume, it's boring. Making it loud, it's like, "OK, whatever." We're supposed to be making music. Music is supposed to have an emotion and a feel and an attitude and a perspective.

"Guess what? They're all wrong. And anyone who says 'Equipment doesn't matter,' is a moron."

So you dont use compression to tame loud points in a track?

I'd just ride it by hand. The idea of saying, "Okay, I'm going to choke you to the ground for all 64 bars of this music, even though it's only sticking out in one place," is stupid. Why would you want to kill the whole thing for like two beats.

So do you use automation to vary the compression settings on particular elements as the song goes along, or do you usually dial in one setting that stays the whole time?

I want it to behave and I want it to mirror what I'm sending to it.

So when the dynamics change the signal level coming into compressor's input, it's going to change the compression.

They're talking to each other.

Do you still use a lot of hardware compressors?

I use a lot of hardware and software. There's a lot of different software manufacturers I really like. I like Metric Halo, I would die if they took that away. I'm a huge proponent of Metric Halo.

Any particular plug-in of theirs?

I like Channel Strip. Without that, I'd actually be suicidal. Nothing does what that does.

What else?

[Avid] Lo Fi. Nothing else does what that does. [Tech 21] SansAmp, nothing does what that does. Obviously, I'm the Director of Creative Innovation for Waves, and I use a ton of Waves stuff, and I have my own plug-ins with Waves. I love Waves. AudioTrack, if that went away for me, I'd kill myself. There are certain Waves plug-ins besides AudioTrack — the Linear EQ. There's a bunch of them. Take them away I'd just want to kill myself. So to be honest, I just use whatever makes sense. What I like about the Waves stuff is that it works really beautifully, it doesn't lock up my computer, and it's very, very high-level, high-quality digital. But you know, so are other people's, they're not the only ones. We've got to be honest.

What do you think about all the software emulations of classic gear?

There are different ways to look at it. In terms of all the people who'd never be able to work on a Fairchild, for instance. My version, which is the PuigChild, is my way of saying, OK, not only are we documenting a piece of analog gear, it’s one that will someday be gone physically, because it's just worn out, it just died, it's done. Everything has an expiration date.

Theyre not making any more of them, thats for sure. [laughs]

They can't make anymore. OK, now we have it forever. Waves is the only company I've come across so far that can actually do the modeling correctly. I mean really correctly. The only negative thing I'd say about modeling is that it's one version. So we all know that sometimes we might have five compressors, and they're all slightly different. Same model. But you listen to them and say, "Oh this is one I like for some reason on bass. I don't know why it works on bass. I keep trying the other ones, but this one always works on bass." "This one adds this weird shimmer to the vocal, and maybe it's even broken, I'm not sure, but I love the way it sounds." We don't have that with modeling. That's the thing about modeling that I don't care for. It's one picture. No matter how great it is.

I guess you could get five different software makers' version of the LA-2A or something.

You could, but I don't think the modeling's good on the other ones. I've actually been a part of watching how some other people model, and they don't do it right.

Really?

The PuigChild took a year and a half, and I tuned that thing for eight months. Every day, every night working on it. Getting away from it, coming back to it, until it was "That's what they feel like." I've been around probably 30 or 35 Fairchilds in my life, so I know what they sound like, I know what they feel like.

Let's talk delay and reverb on vocals. Obviously it depends on the song and singer, but are there any particular things that you do that are unusual with those effects?

It's a funny thing. A lot of us don't think ahead with a lot of them. We get a picture in our head, and how do I create that picture? I know what I want it to feel like. Sad, dark, bright, happy, explosive, intimate, whatever it might be, and how do I get that? If it means I need to pull up Altiverb and put delays after it, or chorusing or compression or EQ or distortion, and have five plug-ins altogether to make one reverb, I will do it.

So you do a lot of combining of multiple plug-ins.

Yeah, I like to create environments that will be unique to that song. Some of the greatest record makers I have admired and do admire, are smart enough to tailor their version to what that song is.

And you know the gear well enough that you can anticipate what adding a certain effect is going do to that ambience, right?

Yes. I've not said this yet, this is the first time I'm going to say this, and as of late, it's a massive pet peeve of mine. I'm seeing a lot of my co-workers, I won't use any names. But all the names that probably flash in your mind now that I compete with or work with that are my co-workers. I'm watching them actually quoted in reputable places, and have watched and seen particular interviews in reputable places. Pensado's Place is one of them. Mix with the Masters is another one. And they all are saying, "It doesn't really matter about the equipment. We all use the same equipment. We all use an LA-2, we all use an 1176. So it's not about that, it's about interpreting the song and the emotion." And I'm like, "Dude, that is like so wrong, because it's both." Here's what they're leaving out of the equation: technique. That 1176 can sound many different ways. So to say that because everyone uses an 1176 on the vocal, it's not about the 1176. No, no, no. You're right, but you're wrong.

That's like saying all guitarists who use a Les Paul use it the same way.

Right. It's stupid. Where you put the volume on the Les Paul. Where you put the tone. Where you put your hands. What kind of bar chord it is. Where do you put the pick. Is it far back on the bridge? Is it close? How hard are you playing? How light are you playing? What do you mean there's no technique? That's dumb. So how come Jimmy Page's Les Paul sounds nothing like so and so's Les Paul?

Everyones technique is different.

What we should be doing is teaching everybody technique. It's okay to say, "Here's an 1176, it gets used a lot on the vocal, let me show you some things you can do with it.

Most people don't really know. They'll dial up a preset, and futz around with the controls, but maybe they're missing out on good things they could be doing.

Right. This is my frustration, my current frustration, and I'm seeing it everywhere. And I’ve decided that in every interview that I do, I'm going to drill this into everyone's head. Guess what? They're all wrong. And anyone who says "Equipment doesn't matter," is a moron. I'll get that aggressive with it.

So what do you recommend for someone who's working at home, and doesn't have the studio experience to know how to make an 1176 do what it can do in the way it can do it?

A couple of things. Do what I did when I first started. Turn the knobs and learn that if you do this it does this. Just learn that. Learn the next thing and learn the next thing, and learn it like you had to learn how to ride a bicycle. Or how you had to learn, "OK, if I push the gas this way, and put the clutch like this, or if I switch the gears like this, or if I steer the car a certain way at a certain angle," you learn it. And you learn the device and you learn all the things you can do. And now you have a plethora of different sounds you can dive into with one device. Now multiply that times all the devices, and that's the object. It's not just to say it doesn't matter because everyone puts an LA-2 on the bass. But guess what? That LA-2 can sound a million different ways. That's stupid. It really makes me mad. I only say that because people are coming up and they're seeing people who are very successful [who say the gear isn’t important], and they're saying, "OK, then I guess it doesn't matter." Then It's like you just took the guy’s tool box and said, "Nope, only one screwdriver." [laughs] There are a lot of screwdrivers.

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