If you’ve listened to much mainstream rap within the last decade, chances are you’ve heard Jason Schweitzer at work. The GRAMMY®-winning mixer and recording engineer has worked with hip-hop icons Wiz Khalifa, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and many more, earning himself a platinum reputation amongst rap royalty.
Far from a one-genre wonder, Schweitzer has also tracked and mixed music for a wide array of artists ranging from the Pussy Cat Dolls and Fergie to Gretchen Parlato and Macy Gray. He’s even engineered music by martial arts movie star Steven Segal. His latest project? A recently completed album with much talked-about neo-soul singer, producer, and songwriter Mayer Hawthorne.
Here’s what Schweitzer had to say about developing artful ears, and channeling years of experience as a performing musician into every mix he does. Of course, he also waxes on the utility and power of his Universal Audio signal chain, and other secrets to his success.
Can you describe your musical background?
I’ve been playing since I was six years old. I started with violin and switched to saxophone in first or second grade, and I’ve been playing sax ever since. I love playing music. I went to a music-centric high school in Redding, California, where there were fourteen or fifteen performing groups — and I was in ten of them. [Laughs.] After that, I went to California State University in Chico and majored in music performance and recording arts. Once I graduated, I took a year off and then got a job in a Los Angeles recording studio. My internship lasted seven months and then I became an assistant in 1999. I went independent in 2001 and have been an independent engineer ever since.
Why did you decide to pursue engineering as a career, rather than performing?
With all of the groups I performed in, we always were responsible for our own sound, so I became familiar with the world of audio technology in a practical, hands-on way. I thought that getting into recording could be a cool and satisfying way to be creative and engage in music professionally — and build a stable career at the same time — so when I went to college, I decided to study it. I still love playing jazz, and the sax is a great release when things get stressful.
“It’s really important for engineers to have a musical background — not just liking music, but reading and playing music, understanding how music is put together. It adds a deeper dimension to your mixes.”
How has your background as a musician meshed with your career as an engineer?
It’s really important for engineers to have a musical background — not just liking music, but reading and playing music, understanding how music is put together. It adds a deeper dimension to your mixes. I basically spent the first 22 years of my life playing, and having played with so many different bands, I feel that I now have a different perspective when it comes to how something very simple can change the way a song will feel. I’m talking about inside rhythms that different instruments play, and the whole vibe of what’s going on. Something as simple as representing a certain part just a bit more in the mix could make the entire piece gel better.
Can you describe an example?
I remember opening one rough mix by an engineer who was working with a top-tier artist and producer. The team asked if I could look at it and said that they thought they might need more drums. In fact, they already had a full drum kit, plus three additional kick drums and three additional snares. You couldn’t hear the drums because the engineer had so many plug-ins on the master fader that he was defeating himself. I took those off and it sounded better instantly.
Speaking of “sounding better,” what Universal Audio gear do you use?
I have all of the UAD Powered Plug-ins and I use those pretty exclusively. I also have a 2192 Master Audio Interface and a UAD-2 QUAD PCIe DSP card. And I can’t wait to get my hands on the Apollo [High-Resolution Audio Interface] .
How has UA gear affected your work?
Having a 2192 along with the UAD Powered Plug-ins and DSP card has allowed me to build a signal flow that I’m happy with, and has allowed me to get that analog warmth back into my mixes. Universal Audio has paid a lot of attention to detail when it comes to the emulation of the original gear.
And people dig the signal path you’ve come up with?
I’ve done double-blind tests with mastering engineers and every single time, they pick UA signal paths over non-UA signal paths — and that path is the 2192 along with the UAD plug-ins. At the NAMM show in January, I did presentations of the Mayer Hawthorne song “The Walk,” which is a single from the new album I mixed.
Universal Audio got the song a couple of months in advance so they could load it up and get it ready for NAMM, and meanwhile, UA’s Chief Scientist, Dave Berners had already been listening to the song on the radio. He told me that he’d been admiring how good and vintage-sounding that song was, and wondering if it was possible to achieve that sound with plug-ins. When I sent UA the session for “The Walk,” he realized that it was that same track he’d been hearing on the radio — and that it had been mixed completely in the box, using UAD plug-ins!
That was a great “I’m on the right path” moment. The Chief Scientist for the company that makes plug-ins themselves had no idea that he was listening to UAD software, but he loved the analog sound that I got on the album. When he told me, I said, “Congratulations! It only happened because of the work your company did.”
What was it like working on the Mayer Hawthorne album?
That process was a lot of fun. He’s a huge Detroit Motown funk guy, and he’s very hands-on when it comes to how he wants a record to sound. I’ve been into music for over 30 years and he’d send me reference mixes that were amazing and were from bands that I’d never heard of before. When you work with someone like that, the sound really gets honed in.
What was the collaboration on the mixes like?
A lot of the songs had twelve or thirteen revisions on them. He kept changing the music — just minimally, though. The sound would change just a bit, but it would be just enough to give the track a different groove, like we were talking about earlier. The most minimalist changes can completely alter the way a song sounds.
“[UAD Powered Plug-ins have] allowed me to build a signal flow that I’m happy with, and has allowed me to get some analog warmth into my mixes.”
Specifically what gear did you use for those mixes?
I did the whole thing on my laptop before I got my Mac Pro. I only had a UAD-2 SOLO/Laptop card card. I didn’t even use my 2192 on most of it. With the SOLO card, I can open maybe 15 plug-ins, especially if I don’t do a lot of effects processing.
What UA plug-ins did you use to get that classic analog sound on the Mayer Hawthorne record?
I basically tried to think of what I would be doing if I were mixing at a console. The Neve and SSL E Series Channel Strips, the 1176 Classic Limiting Amplfier Plug-In, the Pultec — these all really give it that old school vibe. Especially using that vintage Neve sound on instruments. On every single song I used the Neve 88RS Channel Strip on vocals, I used the EMT 140 Plate Reverb and Pultec Pro EQ on pretty much every song as well. I used the EP-34 Tape Echo for some of the guitar tracks, the LA-2A and LA-3A compressor plug-ins; I also liked the Trident A-Range Classic Console EQ Plug-In .
Did the label have any creative input?
They liked the mixes, but complained that they were too authentic, that it wouldn’t stand up on the radio against other songs. Even though he was doing a Motown funk kind of thing, they were considering him a Janelle Monae or Bruno Mars type of act. They asked me, “What can you do to keep the core of the mixes, but make them sound a little more modern?”
What did you do?
I ended up just changing how we were using reverb. I was originally using the EMT 140 Plate Reverb on almost every song. I just changed how some sounds were being sent to it and I turned up the overall reverb volume. We also made a couple EQ adjustments and a couple of balance adjustments, but it was all pretty minimal. And just by doing that, we resubmitted it and they accepted the album.
Can you offer any advice to mixers who want to use these same tools and get equally impressive results?
Pick an engineer who you know uses UA tools and listen to the mixes that they’re doing. It’s really all about using your ears. A lot of people just throw plug-ins and more plug-ins on until they get the sound they want, rather than taking the time to learn. These plug-ins are emulating pieces of gear. I don’t choose them because they’re cool plug-ins. I choose them because I’m trusting that UA got the emulation right and that it’s going to give me that vibe I need.
What’s an example?
If I put a Neve 1073 plug-in on something, I’m putting it on there because I want the sound of the 1073. I’ll open up sessions some newer engineers have done and they’ll have a large amount of plug-ins on every single track. That’s a surefire way to have something not sound good. A lot of times, less is more. If you open up any of my mixes, you may find three or four plug-ins on a vocal track, but two of them will be de-essers that are specifically used to get poorly recorded vocals to sound better. A lot of my tracks may not have any plug-ins on them. I might use reverb instead to make things sound a certain way.
If you’re going to use it, learn about it. Go through the presets, see what other engineers are doing, and extrapolate from there. Just throwing more stuff on there is not the way to go.
“It was a great ‘I’m on the right path’ moment, when [Dr. Dave Berners] the Chief Scientist for UA heard my song on the radio, and had no idea he was listening to UAD plug-ins, but loved the ‘analog’ sound he heard.”
Your discography has a lot of hip-hop on it.
I started with rap and that’s a big thing I’ve become known for. My first job ever was for Dr. Dre and my first mix ever was Kurupt’s album Space Boogie: Smoke Oddessey. I’ve worked with a lot of major rappers on the West Coast.
What’s it like recording hip-hop in the studio?
More than anything else, most of the hip-hop artists I’ve worked with have been creative and driven. When they’re in the studio with me, they’re focused on trying to do something different and record great music. Artists like Kurupt and Snoop Dogg in particular have been inspiring, and I’ve really enjoyed working with them.
How did you start working with Snoop?
Just being around. I met him through Fredwreck, who was part of the Dogg Pound. Back when I started, we were at the studio everyday. I would be working with Kurupt, and Snoop would walk in. They would joke with me about being new to the business, but Snoop was cool.
Nowadays, I deal more with management than I used to. I think it's because we’re less in the studio, and more in random places. It¹s way less likely for me to run into Snoop, but more possible that I’m going to run into Snoop¹s manager. They like that I¹m easy to work with, and Snoop seems to like my work, that¹s usually how I get projects from them.
How is engineering hip-hop different than engineering for someone like Macy Gray?
The difference is that you’ll have a lot more live influences working with Macy. A lot of times Macy will have programmed drums and everything else will be live, so you’ll find yourself recording guitar, Fender Rhodes, bass, and backup singers. You’ll get a lot of guitar and bass with rap music, and sometimes we’ll throw in horns, but in general, you’re dealing with straight-up programmed music. So the difference is really that you get to stretch out as an engineer.
What are you looking forward to when it comes to the Universal Audio’s new audio interface, Apollo?
As I mentioned, I’ve been building my whole sound trying to figure out how I want to process in Pro Tools and the biggest missing piece for me has been quality analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion. I’ve been looking at converters a lot and with the Apollo, I’ll finally have a way to split out of my Pro Tools and get some analog summing, which is what I’m really looking to do in mixing. I’ll mix in the box, but I’d like to have some outputs that I can play with to get some analog warmth and crosstalk as well. The Apollo is going to allow me to do that.
The way I run things right now, I basically monitor through my 2192, which is great. But I would like to have some good analog outs that I can plug in somewhere. I’m excited to go from the analog out of the Apollo to the analog in of my 2192. The 2192 is a class A, discreet, hand-built converter. So when you go in on the analog side, you’re getting some of the UA signature warmth. When you hit it harder, you get natural compression and other cool effects that I don’t have access to right now.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting ready to mix some Talib Kweli music right now. I’m doing about half of his next album. I also just mixed some songs for Snoop and Wiz Khalifa, and I worked on some music for Snoop’s daughter, Cori B. She has an album coming out.
Do you have any general advice for aspiring engineers?
If you call yourself an engineer, you have to be good at engineering. [Laughs.] I sometimes lose gigs to people because they’re faster on the computer than I am. Even if some 22-year-old kid can fly on Pro Tools, it doesn’t mean he or she has the experience or knowledge that a seasoned engineer has. Producers need to understand that when it comes to recording and mixing, they need engineers, not computer operators.
That’s a huge thing for me — just learning the craft of engineering. It takes years of experience and hard work to learn how to do the craft right, but I love it.
Photos courtesy of David Goggin and Jason Schweitzer.