Producer/engineer/songwriter Joe West’s fearless approach brings him chart-topping successArticle Never Say Never!
Joe West has never been afraid to take on a project, even early in his career when he didn’t always have the requisite experience. “If you turn a gig down,” he says, “you end up in a situation where you kind of are blaming yourself when you're sitting on the couch. So I always thought, ‘Why can't I do that?’
"I’ve done 5.1 surround, I've done Omni-Max theater mixes, I’ve done film and television. I’ve done HBO concerts that have gone on to be gold-selling Billboard DVDs. It's been sort of something that was instilled from the very first day that I got a job at a recording studio in Pittsburgh. The guy who was my mentor, kind of had no fear. And he just figured everything out.”
That self-confidence he learned has paid off big time for West. His career trajectory has taken him those humble beginnings as a studio assistant in Pittsburgh to being a freelance engineer/producer in New York City to the present day, where he’s a major player on the Nashville production and songwriting scenes.
His credits include producing, mixing or mastering for a diverse range of artists including Emmylou Harris, Shakira, Justin Timberlake, Steve Earle, Matthew Sweet, and the Indigo Girls, to name just a few. He’s written a slew of #1 singles for Nashville artists such as Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Jimmy Wayne, and Julianne Hough. West’s music has also appeared in more than 100 TV and feature films.
After ten years in New York, West was called to Nashville to work with producer/engineer Malcolm Burn and legendary producer Daniel Lanois on the Emmylou Harris album, Stumble Into Grace, and soon after moved there permanently.
West’s success has allowed him to build a gorgeous studio in a spacious barn, featuring a hybrid of analog and digital gear. Audiofanzine recently had the opportunity to speak to West at length about his career, his gear, his techniques, and more.
Let's start by talking about your studio. From the photo, it looks absolutely huge.
It's in a 40' x 60' barn. It's a timber-framed barn and the roof is 30’ at the peak. The sidewalls are 12’, so it has a lot of volume in the room. There was a certain point in my career where I needed to start leasing studios, because it didn't make sense for me to rent them anymore. I needed them too much. In Nashville, I originally leased a room at RCA— the historic RCA Studio here in Nashville. Studio A was the giant scoring room that Patsy Cline and Elvis worked in, and B was the historic room that they give tours of now, and RCA Studio C was Chet Atkins' room for a decade. It was just a little room that I kind of took over and spent a couple of years in.
Wow, that’s pretty cool.
Then I spent a couple of years at another place that I leased. I was bouncing around. I was looking to buy but I just didn't find the right place. So I ended up buying a parcel of land to build a house on, and building a timber-frame barn on that property. And that was built out of necessity. It's kind of like, what do they say? "The only way to make a small fortune in the music business is to start off with a large one." [laughs] I never wanted to be a studio owner. I've never had a passion for owning a studio.
But now that you do, I gather you’re pretty happy with it.
It's just a great sounding room. It was recently featured in Mix magazine.And I kind of designed it after working on that Emmylou Harris record and working with Malcolm Burn and Daniel Lanois, with the band all in one room. It was hard to go back to pushing a talkback switch, and talking to somebody down the hall in a closet with a camera on them. It was hard to be that disconnected ever again after having the experience of doing everything very connectedly.
It’s certainly a non-traditional approach to have the console right in the main room.
We do have some iso booths, but the iso booths are floor to ceiling glass, bit panes of glass, and they kind of look out into the room. So drummers will go out into the iso booth, usually. A normal tracking date for me is drums, bass, piano, B3, electric guitar, sometimes pedal steel — rarely — and then in the iso is a utility player who plays anything from banjo to acoustic guitar to bouzouki. And I have a singer doing a scratch vocal in the bathroom. That's a normal tracking date for me.
How do you configure it?
All those people sit in a horseshoe and even though two of them are in iso booths — there's glass from about 8 inches off the ground to about 9 feet, they really are very connected, and it really is a one-room experience. The engineer is in there with them. You feel like you're in the middle of a little boot camp. Everyone is sort of of the same mind. The spirit is pervasive. If it's a good session, you can really be connected.
It seems like a Nashville thing to have so many live musicians playing at once rather than just doing basics and then starting to layer overdubs.
Yes, and I'm blown away at the tempo down here. For example, the musician’s union is very strong in Nashville. So when we hire players, we have them, in essence, for three hours. And on a demo session — and mind you, just because it's called a demo session, it doesn't mean they don't come out like albums — we'll track and overdub five songs in three hours, so that all is left is to do the vocals and the mix. It's really an incredible process. It's a testament to the players, a testament to the studio, and a testament to the engineers. That being said, you get a real canned sound sometimes. It's just a fast pace. In order to allow those players to get onto their next gig, you have to do things quickly.
I admire the musicianship of Nashville studio players, but you wonder if that approach sort of makes everything homogenous. Like the Wrecking Crew playing on every record in L.A., back in the day.
It does do that. But that's the responsibility of the producer, to make sure it doesn't get there — that's where it wants to go. There are grooves in the road and it wants to settle into those grooves — no pun intended. It's the job of the producer to make sure that the song wins.
Let's talk a little about the gear in your studio. I assume you have both outboard gear and plug-ins?
Yeah. I've got a lot of analog gear. My studio is basically a hybrid. I've got a an analog 2-track machine, a Studer, that I use when I'm mixing. When I want to bounce something, I'll bounce it through there analog and then put it back to disk. But I've kind of found what digital does really well, and what it doesn’t. I've got a good mix of that, a good hybrid of it. My front end is 24 APIs, those 312s and the 512s. So I've essentially got an API console rack, and that goes directly into an Apogee Symphony, which I think sounds amazing. And I've got a ton of great compressors. I've got a set of the Neve 32264As.
Nice. What else?
I've got a Manley Variable MU, I've got a bunch of broadcast limiters — tons of compressors. And I reach out to those things like I would a guitar foot pedal. Not necessarily to control dynamic range on something, but to give it a sound or run it through a big transformer. I've got an old RCA compressor from a radio station. When you put a bass through it, it's so good that even people who aren't engineers will sit up on the fat couch and say, "What did you just do?" And that stuff is kind of like magic boxes. A lot of things I have don’t require intricate settings for attack and release time, they’re kind of just vibe compressors.
Are you using those on input or in the mix mostly?
I'll usually track with them, just because we need to track fairly quickly. Essentially, just from the APIs in. Maybe I'll go through some attenuators so I can hit the APIs hard. And then reduce the output of the APIs and store them digitally. And then I'll fly them out and print versions of them. I'll have another track called "Bass RCA," and the original track for the session will just be on the channel next to it. And I do use that, but you know, the digital plug-ins are so stellar. There are zero problems with left-to-right issues or left-to-right control functions. And with modeling at its current state, sonically they sound like the analog counterparts. The reason I'd go out to an analog counterpart would be to hit a giant transformer, or to hit some of the actual electrical components in the box.
You use a lot of Waves plug-ins. Which ones are your favorites?
I love the H-Compressor. I think it’s stellar. The H-EQ is killer too. I don't know what they did in that EQ but, I always find myself with regular EQs goingback and doing more tweaking. But once I locate a problem and I fix it with the H-EQ, I never go back. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's just a regular EQ or if there's something else involved. I love the C4 and the C6. I love the old Renaissance stuff, still. I love the Chris Lord-Alge Classic Compressors. I love the Eddie Kramer tape machines, the PIE compressor; I love the JJP Fairchild 670 and the PuigTechs. I think their signature stuff is really good.
There's some stuff by Manny Marroquin. I just mastered a record and I used his stuff just to widen it a little bit and it was so nice. It didn't introduce any of the normal phase that you have with those normal boxes that give you some width. And there are a couple of his plug-ins that I've really started to dig. The problem is that there are so many of them. When you're trying to work, you're trying to do what you do, but you're only reaching for new pieces whenever you have a need. I think Waves' One-Knob series is really good. I love Pump and Pressure.
That's interesting. I wouldn't have expected somebody at your level to use something simplified like that.
Anything that gives it a sound. I love the MondoMod and I love the flanger, the MetaFlanger. The deal is, I don't think anybody's doing plug-ins, the catalog and at the level of service from a corporate level that Waves is doing. I just think that they're tip top. And even though I've tried some of the UAD stuff — people rave about it but I don't know. I prefer the Waves stuff. I'm really excited because Waves is about to do a whole signature series around me.
I heard. Congrats! That’s very impressive. I know you can’t talk about the details yet, but that’s got to be a real honor, especially considering the others who’ve done signature series.
It definitely is.
Let’s talk about mixing. Do you have particular mixing workflow that you follow?
Yeah, I do. I have sort of a templated one, but I don't have it in a template. Why wouldn't I? How silly. [laughs] That's the story of my life, I'll spend 35 years setting up the same plug-in in the same sequencer rather than just having a template. But yes, I do. I have a thing I do on the drum bus, I have a thing I do on the master bus, and I have a lot of things that are very repetitive, in regards to philosophy. Of course, they always amend in regards to content, and what the song wants, so they'll change, but it's really cool because I hear music a certain way.
And that obviously impacts your way of working.
The cool thing about that is that I have a philosophy, when I sit down and make a record. I've always been an artist who’s had to be a little bit more left-brained at times because I'm in charge of making records. The reality is, I wasn’t called to be onstage, even though I do that. I'll go and play hit songwriter rounds or whatever. my art is in the studio. And every time I sit down at a console or reach for a compressor, whether it be in the computer or out of the computer, I've got a sort of thumbprint that becomes part of that mix, and once that mix is done, people will say, "Hey, that's a Joe West mix.”
So what would be the signature aspect of one of your mixes?
I've always that, even though the song is the center, the drums are what give you the size, scale and width of the world in which you’re mixing, the picture frame you'll have. So I've always felt that the drums are really crucial. When I do a mix, I'm always starting off with what I think is the center. So the lead vocal is always the center for me. And then if it felt like it was written on acoustic, or whatever the dominant instrument is that would accompany that, I'd try to build the mix around it. But I'm always going back to the drum kit, to make sure it can be as big in size and sort of width in space as possible, in regards to that, because then it's going to create a larger world for everything to live in.
Big-sounding drums impact perceived size and energy of the mix.
You should be able to turn a mix way down and have it feel like you're listening to a PA system at a club. You'll feel like it's moving air — like your drums are compressing. Did you ever notice how sometimes you turn a mix down and all of a sudden, all you hear is a hi-hat? If you turn my mixes down, you'll be able to hear the bass, you'll be able to hear the kick drum, you'll be able to get the illusion that there's a little bit of subwoofer happening, that's actually moving a PA system speaker.
Like on the kick drum?
Yeah. When you listen to a Led Zeppelin record, there's a singular, unified center to the record where it feels like they're one instrument. So in theory, I just like music to feel big in nature. To feel like there was some real purpose, and that there was magic that just happened to get captured. If I can repeat that, and try to find the magic in the record, that's when I feel like the turkey button pops out on the side and it's completed. I don't ever feel like I want to go back and re-touch up mixes.
So it’s pretty clear to you when a mix is finished?
There's a moment when you realize the relationship is over. Like, ok, that's done, that light switch is off. For me there's a moment in a mix when that happens. Some people think mixing is so difficult, I think it's very easy. I've used this analogy before: when you're looking down on a corn maze instead of being in the corn maze. I see the in and the out of the mix. My process is a pretty straight line to where I know I want to take that mix, once I understand the song, and I don't wander around a lot in the cornfield bumping into dead ends. Once I arrive there, I recognize it.
Is that partly a function of having a method to how you go about it, so you know when you're hitting your check marks along the way?
Yes, but it's more like with a junkie. At a certain point you know when you've got your fix. There's this thing, I can't describe it, but internally, when I'm mixing a record, I almost have this — not anxiety— but this incompleteness that I feel. And I'm jonesing to get the drum kit up, and I'm jonesing to get the guitars in there, I'm searching for this thing to turn into a hook, or I'm searching for this vocal thing to make this section explode into this other thing, and it takes all of my focus. I'm totally immersed in mixing when I'm doing it, and I do it very quickly.
Do you check it a day or two later and make tweaks?
That’s the beauty of having recall. In the old days, it required an intern trying to reset the board, so that was a drag, on an SSL, I could never really get it back to where I had it. But now I can just double click. And I usually do. Let's say my mix process is 5 to 6 hours and it's done. And then I take a copy of it, on my phone and, I'll Bluetooth it to the stereo in my car. I guess that's really it, my car. And then I come back and I might make a move or two and then onto the next song. And primarily that's it.
That’s impressive. For many people, having recall makes it tempting to keep revisiting a mix.
If I'm mixing a whole record, I may go back and revisit the first song if I ended up finding a thing that was really cool later. But it's usually pretty clear to me. That's part of the magic of this process of music is that there's a little bit of voodoo involved when you're sitting behind that console, as technical as it is. And as much as a guy in a lab coat could do it, there's something different when you can conjure up what you think is amazing, or find the center of a song and just exploit it to a point where you almost get a little bit of a high off it. That's it.
Let’s talk a little about songwriting: Do your songs just come to you, or do you sit down and say, "OK, I'm going to write a song now"?
In Nashville, the process is very much like that. "We're going to sit down and write a song at 10AM on Tuesday” — with someone you've never met. And that's a really cool thing. It was really unnatural at the beginning, but it forces you to flex that muscle. You end up at the end of the year with maybe one or two songs that are magic, and maybe 50 songs that are just really good songs. So you've got to show up and put your hand to the tool, even when you don't want to sometimes. Because it's not always up to you when the magic two songs a year are going to come. So yeah, for me, it usually starts off with a piece of melody or a piece of music that then needs a lyric on top. I'll be sitting watching TV, playing guitar and come up with a lick that I end up writing into a song. Or a lyric, occasionally, but it mainly comes from a music piece and then develops into a lyric.
I noticed that you also have your own solo album out.
Well, the Lo-Fi record is just a record. It's just me and a buddy, and we're both hit songwriters. And even though we write songs for other people to cut a lot of the time, every song I write I try to write for myself. Because I just feel that's going to be the best song if I write it first person. And those are the songs I've had #1 hits with as a songwriter. I've had #1 hits with songs that I didn't necessarily write for somebody else. So a lot of the times I just try to make the best version of them, and it ends up being an album. And then people like Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban hopefully end up becoming a fan of that record. And rather than pitching them the songs, they'll be listening to it in their leisure time and say, "Hey, I want to cut this song." So the Lo-Fi record was just an outlet. And it wasn't something that I needed for anything other than that. It was just to really have some sort of statement, and to make a record that I felt was a body of work that I believed in.