Nashville Producer Jay Joyce Brings Rock Edge to Little Big Town, Eric Church, The Wallflowers, Cage The Elephant
Although Nashville is known as the country music capital, it's also home to a thriving community of musicians and producers from other styles of music, particularly rock. While many in the Nashville music scene specialize in one genre or another, producer, engineer, and musician Jay Joyce has developed a thriving career in both the rock and country recording scenes. Joyce's work has ranged from rock acts such as Cage the Elephant, Sleeper Agent, and The Wallflowers, to country artists like Eric Church, Little Big Town, and Emmylou Harris. When UA spoke to Joyce, he was in the middle of building a new studio in an old church in East Nashville.
Tell us a little about the progression of your career.
I started off in bands, playing, writing, and whatnot. Then I started recording and one thing led to another. Now I probably do a little more of the recording and production than the playing. It depends on the project, which is nice. I'm always doing something different.
What instruments do you play?
I pretty much play whatever I need to, but I'm a guitar player, keyboard player, and then whatever else.
Did you come up in the Nashville studio scene?
I was always in bands — failed bands. But I had done records and whatnot, so yeah, I've been in Nashville for a long time.
And you were doing rock projects before you got into country.
Yeah, I didn't do any country for many years, but just over the last five or six years I've dipped into that a little bit. It's nice to be able to do it, but I don't want to do it exclusively. I've found a few country acts that I seem to be able to complement and work well with. And then I'll go from a country artist like Eric Church to a rock band like Cage the Elephant.
You just produced that single, "Pontoon," with Little Big Town. That's a cool tune.
Yeah, I produced the whole album, Tornado. I also did a lot of the guitar, keys, and programming on the album and cowrote one of the tracks, "Leavin' In Your Eyes."
What was the process like working with Little Big Town?
When they approached me, they already had four or five albums out and they wanted to try something different. I've always been drawn to that type of '70s-era vocal band sound — like Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and Fleetwood Mac. So I thought it would be really fun to do that kind of project. We approached it differently than they were used to; we wanted to work out everything beforehand. Typically, I don't do a lot of pre-production on my projects, we usually record as we do the pre-production. I find that's where I get a lot of the good stuff, when we're working things out. But with a vocal band, there are so many different ways to go. You could cover this vocal part, or they could cover that one, or we could switch to a female lead vocal. There are so many variables that I thought, "You know, let's work it out and go into another studio like this is a live show so we can really nail it."
I guess with a vocal band especially, they could get into the studio and say, "Let's try doubling this part," or, "Let's try doubling that part," and things could get pretty crazy...
...Yeah and you start chasing your tail.
“Typically, I don't do a lot of pre-production on my projects, we usually record as we do the pre-production. I find that's where I get a lot of the good stuff, when we're working things out.”
So you worked it all out in pre-production and just recorded in the studio?
We recorded most of the album in about three days, probably a week total, which was different for them. They were used to working for a pretty long time on records. We did pre-production in my studio and ended up keeping a couple of those tracks, the ones that we just couldn't beat in the actual studio. I didn't have a big hand in recording or mixing on that particular record, I was more just sort of a musical director and producer.
Sometimes you produce and engineer, right?
I do, depending on the project. I often engineer with the brilliant ears of Jason Hall, who is a fantastic engineer. We have been working together for eight or nine years now and we have gotten into a system where we barely have to talk to communicate. He really knows me and what I want.
For Eric Church, I engineered and mixed that whole record. For Little Big Town, I decided to have somebody else take that end of it, and I would play whatever instrument was needed and direct the band. What I do is different every time. Some records I write songs with the artist and record and mix, and other records I don't.
I guess it never gets boring.
Right. It's always different. Like with The Wallflowers album, Glad All Over, which is coming out next month. The single, "Reboot The Mission," is out now. We did that at another studio. Not only was I the producer, but I was also playing guitar on the whole record. It's a very live record. It was recorded with the thought of doing something a little different, and everybody was excited about making a really live record.
We recorded it at Dan Auerbach's [of The Black Keys] place, Easy Eye Studio, and it has two guitars, bass, and drums. Rami Jaffee, The Wallflowers' keyboardist, was on keys, we were all in one room. And there was bleed from bass in the drums and guitar everywhere. We kind of went into it with no songs, just jammed, and put it together in a month.
You also worked with Emmylou Harris. I imagine that a longtime pro like her would know exactly what she wanted and be easy to work with.
Yeah. She's been doing it for so long. She knows who she is which makes it easy for me. And she's open to the moment and is fearless — that would be the word. That was more or less me and her and another guy just kind of sitting around and getting a live take.
Let's talk about your studio. Can you tell us a little bit about your setup now, as well as the new studio you're building?
My studio rig now is a 48-channel [SSL] Duality console. I've got Pro Tools, an MCI JH-24 tape machine, and tons of outboard gear. Right now I'm moving into a church in East Nashville, which I'm having construction done to right now. I just got a Sphere Eclipse [console]. I'm going to keep my studio here until the other one is totally rockin', and then I'm going to move this into the downstairs of the church. It's 12,000 square feet.
Is your console automated?
So recall isn't that big a deal?
Well, recall is a bitch. That's why I'm getting two rooms, because a lot of times I'm held hostage. I want to move on to the next one until I get an okay from the band. And if the band's on the road, I might not hear from them for 3 days.
So right now your studio is in your house?
It's more like my house is in my studio [laughs]. It's pretty much a studio, I live upstairs sometimes, but it is in a residential neighborhood.
Is East Nashville far from downtown?
No it's actually closer than my current location. East Nashville is the new joint in Nashville; it's the hip new place. Kind of like Williamsburg is in Brooklyn. And I found this church that had been sitting empty for about a year. A beautiful Southern Baptist church, and I'm going to plop the Sphere console on the altar and have a wide-open room. I don't like traditional control rooms. I like the console in the room with the band. So I'm going to do the same thing there that I have here, which is, everybody is in the room with me instead of having to talk through a talkback mic.
“I use the Little Labs VOG a lot on vocals ... Not only does it take some of that 2 kHz out of the vocal, it adds a certain sort of bottom and doesn't sound muddy. The vocals just get really big without taking up too much real estate. It really makes a big difference.”
Does the church have amazing acoustics?
Yeah, insane. That was what got me, just walking into it. It's a big room, but it's not unbelievably huge. It already sounds great.
I guess with all the vintage stuff and all the outboard gear you use, you're far from mixing in the box.
I do a hybrid. I like plug-ins. I generally record things close to how I want then to sound, but later on I like using some plug-ins. I use some outboard. I've got a couple of older 1176s that I prefer over a plug-in just for vocal stuff. But for the most part, I use a lot of plugs when I'm mixing.
Let's talk UAD Powered Plug-Ins. Which UAD plug-ins do you use a lot?
I love the EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-In, and the EMT 250 Classic Electronic Reverb Plug-In is great too. The 250 is a little more '80s sounding but it's great. I have an actual EMT 140 plate reverb and I really love it. I've actually A/B'ed it against the plug-in, and the plug-in is so spot-on that I prefer it, because I'm able to use different predelays — different lengths if I want — instead of being stuck with one ambience.
I guess the actual plate is not that easy to work with?
For recalling it's not. The plate's in the other room so it becomes a little bit of a pain to go out and have to think, "Okay, where was the length, where was the size?" So I leave my plate on a minimal length setting and that's how I use it. And then if I want something longer or with some predelay on it, I'll use the plug-in.
Do you approach rock and country projects differently as far as which UAD plug-ins you use or how you use them?
Not really. It's just all music. It depends on the song, of course. The thing about the plate plug-in is it sounds classic, but I can also get it to sound different and freaky if I want. Sometimes I'll put the Cooper Time Cube Mk II Delay Plug-In before it.
What do you do with the Cooper Time Cube?
Sometimes I'll put a delay on it before the plate with some feedback to kind of give it some freakiness. I love the Cooper Time Cube because the delay is awesome.
Did you use many UAD plug-ins on the Little Big Town project?
Yeah, a lot of the EMT 140 plate reverb, a lot of the Cooper Time Cube, a lot of the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In.
How often do you use actual tape in your studio?
I'll use tape in my studio when it's a situation where the band is pretty well rehearsed, like Sleeper Agent or Cage the Elephant. We've got the song worked out, we're just doing takes, and I'll hit tape, usually at 15 IPS. I'll record five or six takes, dump them into Pro Tools, pick the best take, and then do my editing in Pro Tools instead of cutting tape. My machine is pretty old; it's not great for punching. I'll use about two rolls for the whole album, just going over and over them.
So you like recording just the basics onto tape.
Yes. Basics onto tape and then I do overdubs into Pro Tools. I always go through the tape machine because of the transformers. So even when I'm not actually hitting tape, we're going through the tape machine because it sounds really good.
But not with the tape rolling.
Not with the tape rolling. We'd cut the takes with tape rolling, and then dump it into the box. If somebody wants to lay another bass part down sometimes we'll keep hitting tape. After that, we'll just go through the tape machine electronics.
Do you think the UAD Ampex plug-in and Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder Plug-In capture the vibe of tape accurately?
What kind of settings do you like to use on UAD tape plug-ins typically?
The ATR-102 I generally use for slap. It's great for slap, or just the sound of the actual saturation. I'll hit it pretty hard if that's what I'm looking for. Those two plugs generally just warm things up. It's the best thing I've found to warm things up — to get rid of some of the brittleness.
Do you ever use them on the mix bus?
I have but I don't normally do that. I try to keep the mix bus pretty clean, and then if they want to do that in a mastering situation, I'm leaving it open for them.
Acoustic guitar is huge in country recording. Do you have any particular UAD plug-ins you like to use on acoustics?
“I've actually A/B'ed [a real EMT 140 reverb] against the plug-in, and the plug-in is so spot-on that I prefer it, because I'm able to use different pre-delays instead of being stuck with one ambience.”
What do you like about the Harrison in particular?
It just adds some older '70s-era punch. I also use the 1176 Limiting Amplifier Plug-Ins all the time on the guitars. Sometimes I'll use the Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier Plug-In on acoustic guitar, limiting it.
What about fiddle? Is there anything different you'd do UAD-wise, in terms of compression or ambience or EQ?
I just finished an album with Randy Rogers Band and they have a fiddle player. On almost every song I used the Ampex ATR-102 plug-in to warm it up. Also — the Cooper Time Cube. We kind of made it a thing — just a long echo on the Cooper Time Cube.
Subtly mixed in? Or like a real effect?
Pretty full-on. Generally what I'm known for in the country world is not making it sound very country. What I'm going to bring to it is something different than what the traditional country world would do. I think that's why they call me.
Do you ever get an artist saying, "Whoa, what are you doing?"
Yeah, a lot of times.
But usually you convince them after a while?
I've gotten away with murder on a lot of things. For instance, with Eric Church on his platinum-selling album, Chief.
You produced the whole album?
Oh yeah. I did everything and it's got some pretty insane stuff on it for country.
Like for example?
It's more of a rock-sounding record. Songs like "Homeboy," which is almost like hip-hop rock meets country. There's another big hit he had called "Springsteen," and I used the EMT 140 plate on the whole record. Also with Emmylou. The 140 plate is a go-to for me. I also really dig the SPL Vitalizer MK2-T Plug-In for things like taking the edge off of everything, and adding a little more snap to the snare drum.
Oh, and another big thing I use a lot on vocals is the Little Labs Voice Of God Bass Resonance Plug-In. I just love that thing because not only does it take some of that 2 kHz out of the vocal, it adds a certain sort of bottom and doesn't sound muddy. The vocals just get really big without taking up too much real estate. It really makes a big difference.
Do you use any of the other UAD compressors besides the ones you've mentioned?
I'll use the compressor in the SSL E Series Channel Strip Plug-In sometimes, or the SSL G Series Bus Compressor Plug-In. Even though I'm using an SSL console, sometimes it's quicker to just pull the plug-in up for recall reasons.
What would you use on a pedal steel part?
A lot of times I'll use the Roland Dimension D Plug-In, which gives it some depth. Also, again, the Ampex ATR-102 really warms it up.
What projects do you have coming up?
I'm working with Keith Urban right now, and I just started a record with a new band on Columbia called Matrimony. On the first day, the studio got hit by lightning and my attic caught on fire. Luckily nothing in the actual studio got hurt.
The lightning hit the street, came down the cable line somehow, and smoldered. I noticed a huge flash, a huge bang, but we kept working. And then about four hours later, I went out to have a cigarette, and noticed that a corner of the house was on fire. A cigarette saved my life [laughs]. That was four hours after the lightning. Long story short, we pushed Matrimony back. I'll be getting on that the week after next, and I'll go from that into a new Cage the Elephant record, and then Sleeper Agent. So, those are the next three projects I have going.
Photography by CJ Hicks.