An interview with Grammy-nominated producer/engineer Joel Hamiltonlearning Mixing Old and New
In the heart of the rapidly gentrifying Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, inside a nondescript industrial building on a street with a distant view of the Manhattan skyline, you'll find Studio G Brooklyn. The multi-room facility is the workspace of producer/engineer Joel Hamilton, who's also the co-founder and co-owner. The studio is stocked with excellent gear, much of it vintage, and much of it analog.
Hamilton does the majority of his work here, which has included albums like Pretty Lights' A Color Map of the Sun, The Black Keys' BlackRoc (V2), The Highly Suspect’s upcoming Mister Asylum, and the yet-to-be-released new record from Aaron Neville. Hamilton has also worked with Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Matisyahu, and Marc Ribot and Ceramic Dog, among others.
Hamilton also recently collaborated with Bose and Spotify, hosting an 8-part video series shot at Studio G Brooklyn called The Art of Sound.
I had the opportunity to visit Hamilton at the studio recently, to talk about, his work, his techniques, his gear, and plenty more.
Let's talk about your background. Have long have you been doing producing and engineering?
Basically, recording-wise it's been as long as I remember, literally back to fourth grade. I was nine.
What were you using back then, a 4-track cassette?
No, this little Viking reel-to-reel that was a tube reel-to-reel thing that my mom got for me at a yard sale for 10 bucks. My Dad was enough of a nerd to show me how the music physically lives on a piece of tape. To sort of explain linear recording. But it was just so I could record a record — one of his records — and not have to mess up his record collection. So I'd record whatever albums from his collection I wanted onto the reel to reel. Once I realized that I could cut the space in between, once I realized that the downbeat of the Police song was coming after the tail of whatever song was before it, I could make these sort of radio mega-mixes for myself. And so I started cutting tape together with scissors and scotch tape.
No editing block?
No, it was fully with scissors. I didn't even know the term "splice" at the time. I just knew I could cut out the gap.
What did you use, Scotch tape?
Wow. What else did you record besides your Dad’s albums?
I wound up recording these radio plays with my younger sister. And I would include words like "fart" and "unicorn" and her name, and then I would rearrange them. I thought it was hilarious when I was nine to make my sister say that she loves unicorn farts or something. And I started to realize at that point, that if I recorded my Mom and my Dad and everybody I could, just sort of speaking, that without knowing it, I was doing that sort of "kitchen magnet poetry" where there was just a bunch of words. And I would write with a marker on the piece of tape what the word was and have them all laid out on my desk, and I'd just tape them back together. I started to look at the process as something that was creative, rather than just a way to document things that happened in front of the microphone.
Were you a musician back then, as well?
Yeah, I played drums in the school band and then upright bass.
Were you recording your own music back then?
I was, but sometimes it would be me playing bass along with a Police song, like I said, or something like that. Playing on a stereo. So I'd sort of balance the mic between me and the other speakers. Because there was no way to do an overdub. And my Dad was in a band, and one day a friend brought over a reel to reel 4-track, and that was it, I was hooked. I was like, "Wait, you can just go back and do it on a different track?" Once I realized what the implications were of that, I was off and running forever.
What did you get for your first multitrack?
I saved up and got a really shitty cassette 4-track. It would have been a cool one, but it was so broken. It was what I could afford. It was the Fostex with the big VU, the beige one. A broken example of something that could have been cool. But all four tracks sort of worked, so I was happy. It wasn't about fidelity at that point, I wasn't trying to make an album.
When did you start having your own production studio?
Basically, the first thing that I ever recorded that had my name on it, you know and came out as a release was 1993. It was like a punk-rock 7" on vinyl. And that was recorded at someone else's studio, but with me at the helm. Because I still just had a 4-track, and did all the demoing for it at home with my own band, or whatever. We did that record in '91, it came out in '93, and it was from there on that I started to collect the things I would need. Because going to other people's studios made me recognize what I needed in order to do something of that caliber at home.
Let’s bring it forward to today. You’ve got quite a facility here. How did you go from recording projects at home to this?
The simple way to put it is that is was completely based on bootstrapping from nothing. Literally, there's a direct trajectory, you can see the arc from the 4-track to now. And not at any point did I win the lottery or inherit a billion dollars. The steps are very linear. There's a few moments where it felt exponential, but it's pretty linear from the 4-track to today.
What kind of projects are you working on now?
I just finished a new Aaron Neville record, which I think is going to really surprise people.
Is it different musically?
Yeah, it sounds like he looks. You know, which is really tough. He has a knife tattooed on his face, you know what I mean. So it's not the kind of record where you picture something that isn't Aaron. In our brains we were doing the same thing that Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash. It was like, OK, let's back up, and go to where you were a guy in the neighborhood stealing cars, which he was. And these songs are the things that inspired him in New Orleans and the things that shaped him. Things that really spoke to his heart.
Were there a lot of live musicians on that record?
Oh yeah. It was the guys from Lettuce and Soul Live. It was Pete from Blind Boys of Alabama, the keyboard player; a couple of different people came in. It was all the Daptone horns. Like the Brooklyn A-list funk guys.
What else recently?
I finished up a band called Highly Suspect, that's on Lyor Cohen's label. He was president of Warner and before that president of Def Jam. But he stepped down and started a label called 300 Entertainment, and he's doing all new signings. And this band Highly Suspect, right now, is like, they're number one on iTunes and Spotify and all of that.
What are they like musically?
Loud rock, but kind of like a louder version of the Black Keys.
Did you produce these albums?
Co-produced the Aaron album and engineered the whole thing, and then fully produced the Highly Suspect record.
Do you still record to tape?
Oh yeah. On projects like that, we absolutely will start on tape and go into Pro Tools. But for sure, starting on tape. It's why I have the Burl [Audio] Mothership because the conversion is just incredible, and I feel like I'm not ruining it when I come off the tape machine.
The Mothership is a converter?
Yeah, it's an A/D and D/A. So we're going in [to Pro Tools] through that thing, and it makes me feel like we've retained the spirit of what's happening on tape. Because when the drums are printed to it [tape], we can let it hit a little harder. The whole reason tape is fetishized at this point is why I still use it. More than it's a necessary part of capturing the performance.
What do you think of all the tape emulation plug-ins?
Some of them are really good. I've mixed stuff with them. I use the UAD stuff a lot.
The Studer plug-in is pretty cool.
It's really good, but so's the Ampex. Full disclosure, I'm like an endorsed artist person through UAD, but in this case it was because I used it anyway, and kept kind of telling them that I loved it, over and over and over again. And then we developed a relationship. I really do love the stuff. And the Ampex ATR-102 emulation. A lot of times, especially on a rock record, I won't print to 2-track analog, but I will print through the tape emulation.
You have a ton of outboard gear here, and I'm looking around at all this and drooling [laughs], but besides that, do you use a lot of plug-ins when you’re working?
Yeah, I use a lot of the Massey stuff. I use Valhalla stuff a lot. Valhalla DSP like Shimmer and his Room reverb. He's a reverb freak. I mean that with absolute love and respect. Like he did his thesis on reverb algorithms, specifically. And the stuff that he makes I think is some of the best verb available for DAWs. I'm just not sure anything touches it. Maybe the UAD plate.
Is it really expensive?
It's super cheap. Same as Massey. He's like the Massey of reverb. He's sort of like a Tape Op kid that grew up and made some amazing reverbs.
So you use a hybrid system: some tape, some Pro Tools, some plug-ins, and some outboard gear?
It's sort of gain staging on a micro level, in the sense that sometimes I want the full flavored signal to come out of Pro Tools and knock around an old compressor. Sometimes I will just put a high-pass before it comes out of the box. You know what I mean, especially if it's really hot. I did the Pretty Lights record, which was nominated for a Grammy this past year. We got the nomination, and his process is amazing.
Talk about it.
We tracked all analog to tape live. So all analog to tape, just 2-track. So any moves that you hear were made in real time, any instrument that you hear was actually happening. Not one overdub. But then he took the reels over, and Paul Gold at Salt [Mastering] cut it to lacquers, and then this guy who goes as Pretty Lights, Derek, he took all the lacquers home, and sampled them from a turntable. Because his whole way of making music up until then had been by digging through records and finding samples. But we recorded full bands and strings and everything — all live. And then he created the compositions in Ableton, using that material, and then gave me back tracks, as as song.
An unusual workflow.
Yeah, and all the tracks were incredibly hot, which is why I referenced this, and so I would wind up doing some things in the box, just to sort of dial them back to where they wanted to talk to an SSL console. And it was all at 88.2, and there was like a gazillion tracks, so I needed to do it in the SSL room.
Is your Neve automated?
It is. It has Uptown automation, but I rarely automate the faders anyway. I'm kind of annoying about that.
What do you do about recalls?
I print stems. That's what everybody asks me, because I mix analog. But I print stems. And then a lot of times I've found that I end up working in a hybrid way, where sometimes, the mix that I'll deliver is from the stems because I can sort of turn everything down 5 dB and just go crazy with the drums again, and kind of get to that unreasonable level you can get to mixing in the box, where you can push it anywhere.
Why is it that you prefer mixing on a console? Is it the physical faders, the summing or what?
It’s more the workflow. The same way that I could definitely make a song by writing MIDI notes with a guitar sample. I could write a song, definitely. Or, I could pick up my guitar and just play the notes, and it feels like that. To me, a console is like a piano. You've only got 10 fingers, you've only got 2 hands. And so you don't do everything all at once, but you reach all over the place, and you change where you sit to accommodate it. You move up and down the piano, you do all kinds of things.
Do you record at higher than 44.1?
At 48 kHz. It's a pet peeve of mine to even deal with higher rates. If somebody sends me something to record at 96 kHz, my assistant knows that the first three hours of the day is downsampling [laughs] to 48 kHz before we even lay out the first mix.
Why don’t you like high sampling rates?
They just tax system resources, and I've never heard a difference when mixing the way I do. For people that mix in the box and use verb plug-ins in the box as their primary thing, I can see how it would change the way the algorithms are running, in the box. But I've never heard a difference at all.
What's your philosophy on high-pass filtering in a mix. Some people will do that to virtually every track.
I wind up setting it where it's appropriate and sometimes off feels best. I don't have any theological attachment to it being on. I know that people are like "You gotta do it to clear up headroom, and blah blah blah," but it's not really true. If there's no information there whatsoever, sometimes just adding that stage to what you're doing doesn't sound as good.
But say you have an acoustic guitar — to me that’s classic example, it's got all this garbage down below.
Sure, but that's an EQ choice rather than some sort of technical functional reason why I should be cranking it [the filter] up. In that case, it's a perfect example as to where you'd crank it up till it starts to affect the tone, and then you'd back it off a little bit and you're good. If we called that just sort of a dry technical necessity, then it means that everything we do is a dry technical necessity. There's still some amount of subjectivity there.
So use on an as-needed basis?
Yeah, just like every other technique. It would be like coming up with criteria as to why you'd compress something or not. It's the same thing. I don't automatically compress it, or automatically not compress it. I don't have to be so Bruce Swedien about it, and I also don't have to be completely crazed out and limit the crap out of everything. I'll wind up with a compressor sometimes on every channel doing almost nothing. Because in a lot of ways, it's like varnish or shellac, or like a million little tiny layers. You can't just dump it all on and expect it to be super shiny. In general, I like a lot of things doing a little, and then a couple of things doing a lot. When you're supposed to hear it, you know?
What about master-bus effects?
Yeah. On an SSL there's already the compressor here. And I'll wind up with a 670 across the bus, and I'll wind up with a bunch of different things happening. This [the SSL master bus compressor] is engaged even when I start tracking. Because that's what makes it sound like a record to me.
So this is a G-series console?
I use the UAD emulation of the G-Series compressor and it sounds so good.
Yeah, it's that one. It sounds very good. I'll use the one in the box when I'm doing a stem session. And it's really, really close to a properly calibrated center section.
When you're mixing, do you have any particular things that you do in terms of taking breaks to let your ears recover. Do you let things sit overnight and listen in the morning? Do you listen in your car? You know, all that kind of stuff?
Never in a car, I don't have one.
Right, this is New York City, dumb question. [Laughs]
But as long as I've had these ATC monitors and in a good tuned room, I really haven’t had to do a bunch of checking elsewhere. I'll listen on Auratones mostly as a producer. Meaning like a lot of times people confuse frequency-based translation with what's actually arrangement and production based. I'll mix on the ATCs, and I have a sub I can switch on and off with the ATCs.
Do you think about where it's going to be listened to. Back in the day, people had home stereo systems, and while there were some crappy little ones, most could deliver at least some bass. Now, we have people with earbuds and computer speakers.
I know. But I think mixing for the system [in the studio] is the way it should be, and it's what I do. Because honestly, there seems to be an inherent kind of curve that goes on where if you're listening on earbuds, you don't care that the earbuds are distorting. If you're listening on your stereo and it sounds like it was mixed for earbuds, it's a real letdown. So it's kind of like there's an inherent care factor that goes along with the convenience of a little transistor radio, nobody was expecting hi-fi from it, but you could rock out to it at the beach. You know what I mean? So it's like, okay, I can trade convenience and listen to it on the subway. I do it all the time. I listen in the taxi or whatever and I listen on earbuds. And my favorite mixes from the era when everybody had stereos, still hang in there on earbuds. And it really seems to hold true. The best mixes just kind of read correctly.
What about the “leave it overnight” thing? Do you have to wait and listen again when your ears have cleared?
I've gotten to be more and more of a brat about stopping when I'm burned. At the end of the day, there's something about the way that I listen these days. It's been 21 years now that I've been doing this — amazingly, at 43 years old — but I keep changing the way that I listen all day. And the breaks are just sort of about ranting about something that I wish I'd done differently. They're not like, "Now I'm going to go sit cross legged like this in the live room, and burn incense." [Laughs] The thing that set me free in life was learning the term "distraction focus." It's an actual thing, and I turn to Francisco who's always sitting here — Francisco is my assistant — and I'm talking to him and it's just sort of playing, then I'm going to notice what's wrong about the mix immediately. Something that sticks out about it, that's wrong, the minute that you're not looking like super hard right at it, is the instant that you just sort of realize that it's wrong. Even if what is wrong about it is incredibly subtle.
So it's not necessarily a matter of time then?
It's not. There isn’t an alarm that goes off in my brain or otherwise after 27 minutes, and I've got to like chill for five. It's not that regimented. Because inspiration comes in funny ways. And I'll wind up being super fired up about the drums for a half an hour or hour of listening loud, and then I'll realize that I've been listening to that so much that something else has been forsaken, or vice versa. You're always sort of scanning when you're mixing. And when that scan sort of turns into something where you walk right past the obvious ten times, that's when the distraction focus thing comes in. And I seem to do it naturally at this point.
[Watch video below to see Hamilton showing some of the gear in Studio G Brooklyn]