Jacquire King: The Man Who Listens
He’s one of the most successful producer/engineers on the planet and his gift for bringing an album together in a way that’s sensitive to the artist is becoming legendary. He’s open-minded and experienced… this is how he does it.
Text: Braddon Williams
Photos: Beth Herzhaft
Jacquire King has been tweaking knobs for over 20 years and in that time has left quite a mark with his unique approach to production and engineering. He produced, engineered and mixed one of the decade’s most seminal rock albums, the mega selling Only By The Night by Kings of Leon, a record that also won him a number of Grammy Awards. Add to this his work with Tom Waits, Norah Jones, Modest Mouse and Cold War Kids, and it’s easy to see why Jacquire is continually shaping the future of music, while still keeping one foot firmly entrenched in the past.
While working on the new Cold War Kids album in Nashville, Tennessee, Jacquire was kind enough to take time out with AT to share his philosophies on music production, and pass on some engineering tips that he’s been fine-tuning over the past two decades.
FROM THE TOP
Braddon Williams: So Jacquire, how did you get started in the business?
Jacquire King: It all goes back to the radio in our kitchen, the hi-fi in the living room, and a cassette recorder that I started using when I was about four or five. I decided when I was 19 that I wanted to figure out what really went on in a recording studio and saved up to go to the Recording Workshop in Ohio. After the six-week program I found an opening for a second engineer at a studio called Balance Sound in Maryland. I worked there for over a year, assisting on advertising jingles and voice-over work during the day, and engineering the evening sessions for budget music projects. I learned a great deal during the day, but it was at night when I really got my feet wet. The styles were always varied, and I found myself recording live jazz straight to two-track before I had any real idea of what I was doing. I was terrified but I learned by doing it and paid attention to what made people feel good. But I soon felt like I wasn’t exactly at the heart of the music business living in Maryland, so I looked to move elsewhere. After job hunting in Los Angeles, and not really loving the vibe there, I ended up with an assistant job at Different Fur in San Francisco in 1988, and nowadays I call Nashville home.
BW: You often produce, engineer and mix a project. How do you juggle the three jobs effectively?
JK: I usually have help in the engineering department so when a moment needs my undivided attention as the producer, someone else carries on with the technical skills. I wear all those hats mainly because it’s the way I see myself involved in the process as a holistic event. I’m always seeking to make the artist’s record, which is to find out what they’re feeling inspired to create and help them achieve that. It takes patience sometimes, and you have to be ready at a moment’s notice to challenge the situation. I have a great deal of confidence in the studio, because it’s my main instrument and I’ve logged a lot of hours. The main thing is you have to identify the priorities to achieve a fluid process and if it breaks down you have to be willing to adjust. The technical stuff needs to be efficient and transparent so that you’re able to work at the speed of the creative flow.
BW: Speaking of mixing I believe you do all your mixing work at your studio in Nashville?
JK: My studio in Nashville is a very informal arrangement setup in the basement of my home. It’s about 800 square feet and about half of it is storage/machine room. The key to working in any space is ambient noise. The quieter the room you’re listening in, the quieter you can monitor and as a result the space is less involved in the overall equation. There are minimal self-made treatments on the walls – carpet, curtains – and I have a window! All the projects I’ve been part of over the last several years have been mixed there, including Only By The Night by Kings of Leon, and The Fall by Norah Jones.
BW: Does any tracking take place there?
JK: A few things get recorded, but generally it’s just about mixing. I’ve become really comfortable there, but I’m always on the verge of moving to a different space so I can have all my instruments and gear accessible in one place.
It’s not just about getting the listener’s attention, it’s about giving them something they can connect with
KING OF PRODUCTION VALUES
BW: What do you think people expect from a Jacquire King production?
JK: A sensitivity. For me it’s all about portraying the artist and their songs in an engaging and honest light. It’s about providing a perspective and an insight into shaping and challenging the music. As for my engineering and mixing style, I look for what’s essential and really focus on that. In the end it’s about making a recording of timeless quality that pays attention to modern or relatable feelings and emotions.
BW: What are the essential elements you feel are intrinsic to a good production?
JK: Primarily it’s about making the artist’s record, paying attention to the life of the song because its energy is tied to the artist. It’s also crucial to make sure to frame and support the artist and never cover them up or overexpose them. The biggest thing missing in our world is face-to-face interaction. We’re completely hooked up in communication but it’s so fractured it’s hard to know what’s under the surface. It’s ironic that as we have more access to one another than ever, yet we seem to have less of a connection. It’s not just about getting the listener’s attention, it’s about giving them something they can connect with. Isn’t that why the best performers are doing so well touring? That’s where the music business has gone – into touring and publishing. The recorded medium is just the link for a lot of other things and as a result it’s become very undervalued. I make records because it’s what I love. The most gratifying moments for me are when I’m listening to a song play back and the recording supports the emotion of the song and the artist.
BW: And how does engineering fit into this philosophy?
JK: At a basic level it’s about understanding the space you’re recording in, even if it’s your bedroom at home where you’re recording vocals. Everything starts as a source sound and the space it’s recorded in plays a key role. In terms of the recording path it’s then about using things that are simple, even if they’re not great old pieces of gear. ‘Vintage’ can sometimes be a nice word for ‘old’, or even ‘broken down’. Sonically, my advice is always: don’t overcomplicate the process, but more importantly, don’t let technical things get in the way of the actual recording. It’s very important to simply listen to the sound source before anything else gets involved. If you need to, make the adjustments at the source before you go off equalising something. I rarely, if ever, hook up a specific chain of gear without first hearing if it’s needed.
BW: Do you produce with mixing in mind, or do you treat them as two very separate hats you don at different stages of a record?
JK: I do record with mixing in mind, as I like to produce in a way that I can hear a song in its best form and go for as much of the final sound as possible. I can’t totally separate the jobs because in many senses they’re happening simultaneously. It’s about energy and flow, and if you have those, then you can make a great mix. I do spend a little bit of extra time at the start of the mix to get outside of the space I’ve been in as a producer. At that stage I just try to have an arm’s length perspective of how a mixer would approach the decision-making and presentation of the song.
BW: Given that you are involved in all these aspects, would you say your approach to production is technical, musical, generally creative or a combination of each?
JK: First it’s musical, then it’s about adding a creative spin, followed by a practical technical setup. They need to be initially conceived in that order, and then executed in a way where creative vision is the approach to the music, which is then supported by the technical process. Technology should be as transparent to the process as possible, unless it’s part of the creative inspiration.
BW: What do you look for in a studio when you’re searching for a place to record?
JK: First of all it’s got to have a comfortable space to set up multiple players. I like a studio that’s got a Neve or API console, a two-inch tape machine, vintage outboard and vintage mics. Everyone has ProTools, but I also insist on using Apogee converters so I make sure they’re part of the equation. Most of the time I bring along one of my own systems.
Multitrack tape is always involved. I usually try to use a 16-track and limit myself to that for basic tracking. The way tape handles transients is musical and more pleasing to me. We typically use ATR Magnetics two-inch tape running at 15ips. If I work with something that has only ever existed as a digital recording, then I’ll typically bounce it off one of my tape machines. I have an MCI JH-24, an Ampex 440B, a Tascam 388 and an Ampex ATR 102.
BW: Speaking of tape, I’ve heard whispers that after you transfer to ProTools, you use a number of different sample rates (eg. record off tape at 96k, then convert to 48k for mixing, and finally mix back to another system at 88.2k). Can you first confirm if this is true, and if so, outline the process and explain why you feel it makes such a difference?
JK: To make it short and to the point, I think capturing the initial event at 96k gives you the greatest sonic integrity and goes back and forth to multitrack tape well. For mixing, however, I’ve discovered that down-sampling from 96k to 48k retains all of that fidelity, but is a better match for the headroom and sound of the analogue gear during mixdown.
An analogue recording works an analogue signal path (and summing bus) differently than a digital recording. During a mix the high frequency content comes together better at a lower sample rate (48k). The upper harmonics are still apparent from the original sample rate (96k) but during the mix, they’re working the gear in a more analogue way. Many of the most revered pieces of analogue recording equipment roll off in the high-end, and it just sounds more pleasing to me. It’s better for high frequency shaping in the audible range. Like ribbon mics versus condenser mics… they’re nice to mix and match.
BW: When you’re recording a band, how much do you track live these days?
JK: I want to get as much as I can out of a performance so I always track the basics live. Vocals usually have to be redone, and some things need fixing, but every member of the band should be involved to get a vision of the song coming to life as a recording.
BW: Do you try and isolate the band as much as possible, or do you like a bit of bleed?
JK: A little bit of bleed is great. I’m usually only concerned about it if it makes a recording hard to balance as a mix. My first priority is to find the best place for the drums. Next I make sure there are excellent lines of sight and that the players are close enough to each other to feel connected. From there it’s about getting enough isolation to be able to get the desired room sound for the drums. I’ll isolate amps if I can but I try to have them close by, and sometimes they can be heard through a wall or screen. The toughest thing is vocal isolation, and not the vocals spilling in the room, but drums getting into the vocal microphone. You just have to do the best you can and make absolutely sure the players are comfortable. I’ve made lots of records where the final vocal was done in the room with everyone else playing live. It’s fine if you embrace it and make sure it’s manageable.
BW: Given that you often record to 16-track tape, how do you allocate all elements of the band to the available tracks?
JK: I never give myself more than eight or nine tracks for drums. Many times I’ve recorded drums to five tracks, especially when I’m adding things like loops or samples to the equation. I’ll often combine several mics to a track.
For instance, if I’m using multiple mics on the kick drum I’ll get the balance I’m after and commit to it. If I’ve got more than two tom mics going, I’ll bus them to stereo. I record the bass D.I. and amp signals separately, and after that I have about six tracks left for other instrumentation and vocals.
I rarely record things in stereo. I only ever use a mono overhead. I’ll mic the hats and ride sometimes. My philosophy is: record mono and mix stereo.
BW: With regards to the vocal overdubs, are these generally done to tape, or does this only happen once everything has already gone into ProTools?
JK: Most of the time vocals are done after the transfer to ProTools. If I get a keeper vocal during tracking then I’m happy. As for mics, I’ll use whatever mic sounds the best on the singer. I often end up using a Shure SM7, but one of the first things I always do is set up a ton of mics and have the singer go through them all with me. I’ll pick out the best mics and try those on all the available pres, then all the available compressors and so on to make sure I’m using the best possible gear for the sound of the singer’s voice. I’d be bummed to figure out halfway through recording that I was using the best vocal chain for something like the overhead! Choosing the right gear is half the work. I’m always amazed that people use the same stuff on every session because they heard it was the way to do it, or they spent a ton of money on a vintage mic that may not even be in proper working order.
Choosing the right gear is half the work. I’m always amazed that people use the same stuff on every session because they heard it was the way to do it…
MIXING IT UP
BW: How would you describe your method and style of mixing?
JK: It’s about getting familiar with the tracks or how they need to fit together. I don’t spend too much time with single elements in isolation. I try to listen to things all together, but drums do get a bit of solo’d attention just to get them combined decently. I don’t simply EQ each element once and then move on, I go around and around, back and forth to get everything cohesive. I spend as much time creating effects and dimension as I do EQ and compression combined. Once everything is sitting in a generally good place and the stereo field is established, I start writing fader automation. Moving the faders and accentuating a performance is what mixing is really about. When I’m tracking I make loads of rough mixes along the way. I leave everything flat with very minimal compression to get a feel for the track. I’ll run it down in about 20 minutes and punch in sections as I go to figure out what needs to be turned up and down.
BW: And how long does it take for you to achieve a finished mix?
JK: In general, about a day. In many ways it’s about maintaining perspective… working intently for periods of time and then taking breaks to come back with renewed perspective.
BW: And what percentage of your mix is in-the-box, and how much is analogue?
JK: I’d say it’s about 50/50. I use a fair amount of outboard gear, and external summing is critical. I do all the automation in the computer. I probably use 10 or more analogue compressors and an equal amount of analogue EQ. Most of the compression is on hardware inserts so I’m not mixing into compression, even though that can be a useful approach sometimes. On vocals I often have a fader pre compression and a fader post compression to give me the ability to get a quiet vocal passage to come up into compression, without having to set the threshold too low for louder passages, therefore avoiding over compressing.
BW: What are some of the key pieces of outboard you use?
JK: My blue stripe UA 1176 and a pair of Neve 2254 compressors, Quad Eight EQs, Sontec or GML EQ, Neve modules, ELI Distressors and a Retro 176.
BW: And digitally, what are some of your favorite plug-ins?
JK: I mainly use effect type plug-ins: reverbs, delays, filters and some weird stuff. I love many of the Universal Audio plugs, and I use the EMT-250 regularly, as well as their Space Echo. I also use Altiverb, and the Soundtoys stuff, like Echoboy and Filterfreak. I use a MDW (Massenburg Design Works) EQ plug-in on every track in my sessions. Sometimes with no change at all, I think George Massenburg’s plug-in just sounds great. Those are the majority of my favorites.
BW: There are often interesting bass treatments (delays and other ambience) in your productions. Can you elaborate more on what you like to do to help make a bass track sparkle?
JK: I’m addicted to a little bit of delay on the bass, and reverb sometimes. It’s typically pretty subtle, but it all depends on the player and the part. My usual bass treatment during mixing involves a little sub harmonic synth addition. I also use more than one delay for different parts or sections. I never spread them out very wide so it competes with instruments/effects that are meant to be the width of the production. Tape-based delays are usually the way to go because they provide a little warble that comes off like chorusing when blended back in. Many times the amount of delay is around 17ms, with little to no feedback. During mixing, the bass tracks are often bussed through an ELI Distressor and treated with pre and post EQ. I love DBX 160VUs, STA Levels, Urei 176 or 177s, and LA-2As on bass for tracking.
BW: Where does the healthy balance lie for you between dynamics and compression, and how do you manipulate it to your benefit?
JK: I guess I mostly use compression to accentuate a sound rather than dictate a sound. I’ll use elements of extreme compression to blend in with some sounds, but I’ve often found that even though it may sound exciting to hear something blown up that way, it never really makes it to the listener. By the time something gets through all the mangling the world has to offer, it’s better to err on the dynamic side of things. If I want to hear something louder I turn it up at the right time. That’s what faders are for, not just a static balance. I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s getting lost these days. You can’t just draw lines up and down; you have to push things around with your fingers.
BW: You just mentioned using parallel compression. What does this term mean to you, and what is your general approach to applying it in a track?
JK: To me, parallel compression is just a way to get some control and fatness on a sound, and then blend it in like an effect so the main transients aren’t sacrificed. I always use it on drums. It’s a feeling everyone enjoys and it makes sense with how many elements get close miked on a kit. I love the Chandler TG1 for drum bus compression. Sometimes having a compression bus for every different instrument can be good, but you have to be careful not to overuse it. It can really work against you when you’re trying to balance things and make a mix dynamic. The best mixing in my opinion uses the faders more than anything. It’s not called mashing after all! You have to stir it up.
BW: Does this approach extend to your use of EQ, and if so are you quite lean with it?
JK: Fairly lean most of the time. There are the exceptions and I’m not afraid to mangle something if I feel it’s necessary. Sometimes I have to go extreme to get something to fit in. I usually find that if I’m having to EQ everything, then I’m trying to make it fit together the wrong way. I always monitor my foundation tracks flat when I’m recording, and work to shape the sound at the source and on the way to tape.
This way the decisions that were made putting it together make sense sonically.
BW: You said before that your philosophy is to ‘record mono and mix stereo’. How does this influence your final panning in the mix?
JK: I pan the main components in extreme ways and then fill in the subtlety with effects. I keep drums, bass and main vocals very tight to the centre, with the drums being the widest of these. I don’t use stereo overheads so that helps, plus I generally mic the hats and ride for rockier stuff so I can place those elements out from the centre to give the listener the sensation of being a few feet out in front of the drums. I do everything ‘audience perspective’ when it comes to drums as well. Guitars go all the way out with a little delay cross-panned for a sense of space.
BW: When it comes to processing the mix bus, how much compression and EQ do you apply? Do you limit the final mix before mastering?
JK: I use some EQ and compression on my mix bus, but I never use a limiter. That’s the mastering engineer’s job. My usual mix bus setup involves a pair of Quad Eight 333 EQs with a small high boost, followed by a Sontec 250c for a more specific curve. This then goes into a modified Neve 2254 compressor set on the lowest ratio to give me something to ‘bump up against’. That’s it… I don’t go crazy carving away and smashing at the mix bus, it has to be balanced right before you get there.
BW: So when the mix is complete, does it then get printed to tape?
JK: I print to a second ProTools rig at 24-bit/88.2k via an Apogee PSX-100 or Universal Audio 2192 converter. I generally print a flat stereo version, and a version that incorporates a little more EQ/comp processing. I’m always listening to the output from the printing rig so I hear the sound of the conversion and additional processing. From there, I’ll sometimes print to tape as well and bring that back into the session so there are choices to master from.