Audio Legend Joe Chiccarelli Shares Production Wisdom and Technique with Universal Audio

July 26, 2012 6:45:26 PM PDT by Marsha Vdovin
Grammy-winning producer, mixer, and engineer Joe Chicarelli with his UAD Powered Plug-Ins.

Grammy-winning producer, mixer, and engineer Joe Chiccarelli is responsible for capturing some of modern times’ most beloved sounds. Over the decades, he has worked with an impressive group of artists including Elton John, Beck, U2, The Killers, Tori Amos, The Strokes, and The White Stripes to name a few. More recently, he engineered The Raconteurs’ Consolers of The Lonely for which he received his ninth Grammy award for Best Engineered Album of 2008.

As he did with bands such as The Shins and Young the Giant, Chiccarelli continues to seek out new talent and fresh sounds, working closely with singers, songwriters, and bands to flesh out their creative vision. “I’ve just always been that way,” he says. “I want to know what’s new. I want to know who’s pushing the boundaries.

UA’s Marsha Vdovin caught up with Chiccarelli just after he finished producing and mixing Alanis Morissette’s upcoming album, Havoc and Bright Lights. He discussed the production and recording process of Alanis’ newest record, as well as the chart-topping Jason Mraz album, Love is a Four Letter Word, released in April of 2012. Read on to learn more about the evolution of his production philosophy, how Universal Audio vintage hardware and UAD-2 plug-ins fit into his workflow, and and to get an under-the-hood peek at his mixing session of Young The Giant’s hit single, “My Body.”

You’ve had a long illustrious career. How has your production processes changed over the years?

My pre-production process changes from album to album. Sometimes it can be months of working with a band, getting their songs in shape. Sometimes it can be two weeks of concentrated work. Sometimes it can be really next to no pre-production.

In the case of Jason Mraz, it was all top-notch studio musicians so we just went into the studio. I had a game plan of where I wanted the record to go, and we worked every day on the arrangements with the band. In the afternoon we would cut the song. So that was kind of our pre-production — it was sort of in the studio.

In other cases, like with Manchester Orchestra and with The Strokes, and lots of other albums I’ve done, it can be a week or two weeks of pre-production — working on song arrangements, getting parts down, and trying different things.

I like to get as many questions — especially with bands — out of the way in pre-production, so when I come in the studio it can then be about performance.  I’m not worrying about the arrangement or the song form or the bass lines. Certainly when you come into the studio and you hear things over the monitors, you notice things that you didn’t notice in a really bad-sounding rehearsal room. So you do change things in the studio. But I like to get it out of the way up front. I’ve always worked that way.


How about your recording process? Has it changed much?

Well the recording process, in a way, has and hasn’t changed. The tracking process is the same as it’s always been. I like to get as many people out in the room and track live. I still believe all the magic and chemistry happens when you get a bunch of great players in a room. Even a rock band that’s not made up of the best musicians usually has a great chemistry; one’s weakness is made up by another player. For instance, the unusual way a musician approaches a drum part might be complemented by the solidity of a really straight, solid bass player.

All that seems to really happen in the tracking, so I like to get all the musicians out in the room and track together live.

But, I assume that technology has changed the approach a bit…

Yes, from that point on, the process has indeed changed. The fact that people are working on songs at home — either in the demo stage or as the project goes on — I encourage artists to take a track home and go experiment with a keyboard part or a background vocal.

In the case of Minus the Bear, who I worked with a couple of years ago, the keyboard player had a lot of different ideas. We almost didn’t have enough time for all of his ideas so I encouraged him to take a hard drive and do things at home. Then he would bring them into the studio and I would edit through them and say, “Look, I love this one here. Let’s refine this. Let’s use this part in the chorus, let’s not use that.”

In the case of Jason Mraz, we set up a second room for him at Sunset Sound — where we were working at the time — to do all his background vocals. Because there were so many parts that he wanted to try, it was easier for me to set him up in a little Pro Tools room and have him work on background vocals by himself.

“I have the UAD-2 Satellite that I take everywhere. That box is perfect. You have so many options at your disposal, so many choices.”

With basically the same equipment chain?

It was his favorite Telefunken 251 through a Sunset Sound mic preamp into a Universal Audio 1176 Limiter. He’s used 1176s for many, many years. He has them at home and in his studio. So we set up what he normally has at home at Sunset Sound for him to work on.

So that’s changed, in that the whole recording process now is a bit more democratic and widespread, shall we say. Hard drives are flying all over the planet.

I’m working with this new artist, Keaton Henson, for Sony UK. We were working at Sunset Sound tracking, and The Raveonettes were next door — great, great band. Sune, the guitar player, really wanted to contribute some parts to Keaton’s album but he was on his way back to New York. So we sent him a file, and he sent us back some great guitar parts. That kind of stuff is happening all the time.

That didn’t happen 20 years ago.

No. Maybe you would make a slave tape — a multi-track safety tape — but you would fly with the tape from New York or wherever it was because you didn’t want to let that out of your hands. Now files just are all over the planet doing things.

My favorite cellist is in New York and I’m constantly sending him songs to do solo cello parts. Just recently I did a string date in L.A. for a Dutch artist and they sent me the Pro Tools sessions. We did the strings, uploaded them to the studio server in Amsterdam, and it was done. So that happens often now.

The biggest thing that’s kind of difficult about it is just keeping all the files straight and making sure things don’t get into the hands of people that shouldn’t have them. It’s also very important to label everything properly, be clear as to what is to be used, at what sampling rates, etc.

I was at a studio and the manager came in and said, “Hey, Brian Setzer was in here last week. Here’s a copy of what he was doing. I actually took the owner aside and said, “You should fire that guy.”

Exactly! I think it’s what sets apart a true professional.

I was so shocked.

That shit gets me crazy. Don’t get me started.

I recently did this Alanis Morissette record that’s coming out in a couple months, and she’s very secretive; secretive is the wrong word. She wants to really keep it close to the vest and she really likes to keep things private and doesn’t want to let anybody know that she’s recording.

It’s mostly because she doesn’t want her fans to get overexcited. Maybe she decides that she’s not going to put out the record right away and she’s going to wait six months. So she likes to keep it really quiet.

So security nowadays is really, really important. More and more people are using password protected hard drives. There’s even a really great system now that’s using thumbprints, where five people are allowed to imprint their thumbprint on the drive and you can’t get into it unless you’re authorized, which is great.

But that’s the main way things have changed for me. Otherwise, I’m still using the same microphones and the same gear that I’ve used for 20 years. Though some of that gear is now ‘in-the-box’ in the form of plug-ins.

Chiccarelli during production of Jason Mraz's 'Love is a Four Letter Word.'

You still mix on an analog board.

I occasionally mix in Pro Tools when the budget restrictions are so steep that it’s my only option. I don’t feel that I’m good at mixing in the box. I don’t feel I yield the same results that I yield on a console. I like the dynamics and the interactive nature of working on a console. I love to be able to quickly try different options at the console that I can’t always try in the box.

However, I do a lot of pre-mixing in the box. And in some cases, like in the case of Alanis’s record, or Jason’s album, some songs might have 20 or 40 tracks of background vocals. Those are all pre-mixed and arranged in stem forms within Pro Tools, and all the plug-ins are on there — the reverbs, the delay effects, etc.

In fact, that’s one thing that I use plug-ins a lot for these days — all kinds of delays and effects. I’ll print many, many passes of them. I’ll print a weird, distorted delay, then I’ll print a really long delay, then I’ll print a really long reverb and really short reverb. I’ll just try different things that I kind of like but I’m not really sure about.

Then I’ll cut and paste them and I’ll decide, “OK, this delay works great in this one little spot,” or, “This reverb works good for the choruses, and this other reverb works great for the verses.”

So you basically print your effects — or some of them, anyway?

I’ll do a lot of pre-mixing in Pro Tools. And then, for instance, my background vocals might come up on a stereo stem, or a stereo stem of vocals and a stereo stem of vocal effects—same thing with horns and strings. Pro Tools sessions these days can be really, really big.

Alanis’s sessions were many, many, many tracks. She started the project at home with her co-writer who did a lot of programming. I took the tracks and cherry-picked the elements from the demos, then built the band around the programming.

In some cases I used her co-writer’s effects or his plug-ins, or I added my effects and plug-ins on top of his tracks. It was a very sort of “morphing” kind of project.

So in that way, things have definitely changed, but for me it still all gets funneled through an analog console because I still like the sound of it and I like moving faders. I like the ability to quickly throw something up and go, “Oh, yeah, that works really well here. OK, I’ll get rid of it there.”

It seems like a lot of mixers these days are building their own studios, but you seem to go where the work is and move around, or go to the studio you feel is appropriate for the project.

I tend to cast studios for the project. I know that I’m looking for a certain sound. If it’s a big rock sound, then I’m going to EastWest in Hollywood or something with big, open recording room, like Blackbird’s Studio D in Nashville.

For singer/songwriter projects that want a bit more intimate sound, I’ll work at Sunset Sound in Hollywood a lot, because I love the sound of the tracking rooms there. They have a natural ‘70s kind of tone. They’re not too wet and splashy but they still have a nice reverb time and ambience around instruments. They sound honest, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

So I’ll use Sunset Sound a lot. Capitol Records in Hollywood is great. East/West in Hollywood is great. But yeah, I tend to pick and choose the studios.

Do you tend to track and overdub in the same rooms?

I’ll work anywhere for overdubs. But that tracking thing, it’s about getting the right chemistry, getting the people in a room that they feel inspired to track in, getting them in a beautiful room that’s got natural sunlight, and of course gear selection.

Where did you do The Strokes?

The Strokes we did at Avatar, in New York, where I also did My Morning Jacket. The Strokes all live in New York so that was the place for them. In the case of My Morning Jacket, it was interesting because the guys wanted to get out of their rural environment and get into an urban environment. So we decided to do it in New York.

Last year I produced this band called Boy and Bear — they’re on Universal Australia. Their album is double platinum in Australia. They’re very cinematic but at the same time folk roots. They’re multi-talented guys and multi-instrumentalists in the band. The nice thing was that I was nominated for Producer of the Year in Australia and the album won five Aria awards, including Album of the Year.

We did it at Blackbird in Nashville because they wanted to experiment a lot and try different instruments. But they were coming over from Australia and to bring all their gear from Australia was impossible. Blackbird has 150 guitars, 50 guitar amps, and 400 compressors, etc., so it was easy for me to just tell them, “Yeah, come to Nashville and you can try out every guitar in the world, every keyboard in the world, every guitar amp you’d ever imagine.” It was great for everybody to be able to experiment.

“As a vocal delay, the [Roland RE-201] Space Echo is perfect. I like driving the input hard to get a bit of crunch. Mixed behind a lead vocal, it can add some additional excitement… The sound of the plug-in is so close. The only thing I miss about it is not being able to kick the box and get that boing of the springs.”

It was also good for them to be outside their comfort zone and be in a place where they could just really concentrate on the music and not be too distracted. That’s something that I personally tend to like a lot — being in a place where I can really just focus and not have to worry about the phone calls or the meetings.

Let’s talk about Jason Mraz. You did the tracking and then Tony Maserati mixed it. He said nice things about you when I last spoke to him, like, “Well, Joe tracked it, so it was great stuff.”

Tony was wonderful to work with, I really, really enjoyed it. I kind of felt bad for Tony because, first of all, we laid down a lot of songs: 25 songs. I don’t know how many he mixed, maybe about 20. But there was a lot of input in the project from myself, Jason, the manager, the A&R, and the president of the record label.

On some of the songs we did multiple versions of them. On the single that’s out now, “I Won’t Give Up,” which has sold more than 2 million copies, there are three or four different versions of the song — one more up-tempo, one more soul, one more acoustic — and Tony had to mix all those versions.

So he had a lot of songs to mix. Tony did a great job, I love what he did. He was super respectful of what the tracks were and where we were trying to go with them.

When I first got involved with Jason and I heard some of his demos, I thought , “These aren’t the sort of light pop songs that I expected.” These were much more old school, sort of ‘70s, Paul Simon, Billy Joel-like, much more personal. Classic is maybe the best word to describe them — classic songwriting.

So I said to him that I thought we should make a record that’s very much in that style, and has great musicians, great performances, and is really all about the vocal. Tony was really good about respecting  the concept for the record — listening to rough mixes,  trying to represent what those rough mixes were all about, then sitting and listening to them and going, “OK, how can I take what they’re trying to do and better it?” He killed it, the vocal sounds that he got are great. Everything about the experience was super positive.

Joe Chiccarelli at Sunset Studios, where he was finishing
up the latest Alanis Morissette record.

So, he tweaked beyond the vocal chain from tracking?

Yeah. Often when we mixed there was a plug-in on [Jason Mraz’s] vocal, whether it was the Teletronix® LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier, or an 1176 Classic Limiter, any additional compression came from plug-ins. Then, maybe some EQ for air on the top of his vocal. Jason’s got a lot of beautiful air and tone to his voice, so often I would enhance that with a plug-in.

What UAD-2 gear are you currently working with?

I’ve seen Apollo, I haven’t worked with it yet. The studio has a UAD-2 Satellite here and I have one that I take everywhere. That box is to me so perfect. You have so many options at your disposal, so many choices.

What I love are the effects plugs. Having the EMT® 250 Electronic Reverb Plug-In allows for so much more flexibility and it sounds so close to the original. The EMT 250 works great for snare drum. I sometimes use it very short and tight to give some dimension, or for more ballad-type songs in the four-second range with full pre-roll.

How about the EMT® 140 Plate Reverb Plug-In?

The EMT 140 is classic. It can be perfect to add some warmth and size to a lead vocal. I will set up a subgroup as if I were using it on an analog console with an echo send.

You mentioned earlier that you loved effects…

Oh yeah, I use the Roland RE-201 Space Echo Tape Delay, Roland® Dimension D, and the EP-34 Tape Echo plug-ins all the time.

As a vocal delay, the Space Echo is perfect. I like driving the input hard to get a bit of crunch. Mixed behind a lead vocal, it can add some additional excitement. You can hear an example of that on the new Alberta Cross album Songs of Patience; I use it on the lead and background vocals. The sound of the plug-in is so close. The only thing I miss about it is not being able to kick the box and get that boing of the springs.

Oh, and I really love the Cooper® Time Cube Mk II Delay Plug-In. That’s my secret weapon for a lot of rock vocals. It puts a nice little dimensionality around the vocal that’s fantastic.

How about on the utility side?

The dbx® 160 Compressor / Limiter Plug-In is one of my favorites for bass. Synth bass, especially, I love it on. And the Trident® A-Range Classic Console EQ Plug-In is one of my favorite EQs, especially for electric guitars. I think it’s the best electric guitar EQ that there is.

And needless to say, the old standby 1176 Classic Limiter and SSL E Series Channel Strip emulations.

The other thing that has become a favorite is the Little Labs® Voice Of God Bass Resonance Plug-In. It’s been great for unusual bass-drum sounds and just putting a weird little sub-harmonic frequency on an instrument. It’s fantastic.

Do you find you can just jump in and use the plug-ins like you would the hardware?

Since I’m so familiar with all the hardware versions of those plug-ins, using the plug-in is a no-brainer to me. I’m really big on automating plug-ins — whether it’s just simply bypassing it, using it for a certain section, or even a certain word.

A lot of times I’ll do things with vocals where I’ll need to get more clarity on one word, so I might put a Cambridge EQ in line, and just clean up a word so it’s a little clearer. Maybe they were too close to the mic or off mic or whatever, so I’ll do a lot of automating of parameters like that.

In the case of delays and reverbs I’m always automating the feedback time, or the release time, the pre-delay time of the plate — that kind of thing.

Having automatable plug-ins to me is a godsend, because at an analog console, I’d be sitting here hooking up three different faders trying to get three different sounds from one device. With a plug-in, it’s easy to change it from section to section.

I guess that's another big change from the analog days.

It is a blessing. I think with patching hardware you can sometimes get frustrated and don't experiment as much as you might with plug-ins, with their ease of use and so many options. 

Are we allowed to talk about the Alanis record at all?

We can. [Laughs] Alanis is coming out in August.

Where did you record?

We did it at Sunset Sound.

Were you the producer as well? I know the role of mix engineer often crosses into that.

Guy Sigsworth, who co-wrote the songs with her, started producing it. Then basically I took over the tracks, and like I said earlier, kind of added and subtracted from what he had done. He had no real musicians on the record. So basically I replaced all his programming with players and different parts.

Obviously with programming you do things in a much more robotic way than you would with real players, so she wanted to bring some of what her band does to the programming. She felt that it could use a bit more humanity — more dynamics and more life. So I stripped away all the programming but kept certain elements that worked. In some songs I kept 40 to 50 percent of it, in other songs I didn’t keep any of it.

In a lot of cases, since they were songwriting demos and weren’t fully fleshed-out, I would have to go in and create a bridge or an instrumental section, or create new sections to the songs that weren’t there. They were in rather skeletal form in some cases.

When you say “programming,” you mean keyboards and…?

Keyboards and drums, because what you would do in a programmed environment with a synth bass, you might not do on an electric bass.

The programming was great, but in a lot of cases it didn’t suit her voice. So it was a matter of coming up with parts that worked along with the programming, but were warmer, more natural, and more band-like for her songs.

And you mixed that at Sunset Sound as well?

We did. We mixed it all on the old API custom console there at Sunset Sound.

Can we talk about her vocal chain?

I recorded her vocal through a Sunset Sound preamp, which is a kind of hybrid Jensen/API design. It’s a very unusual preamp; very warm sounding, but very fast and aggressive at the same time.

Then it went through a real vintage UREI 1176. I like to do different types of compression for lead vocals and background vocals, often I’ll use tighter compression with background vocals. All the backgrounds were done with vintage LA-3A Audio Levelers and a lot more compression than I would have used on her lead vocal.

She always has used an AKG C12 microphone. She’s used it for all her career so we stuck with it.

Did you attempt to get her to try something else?

No. I thought that the demos that she had done at home on her personal C12 sounded great. So I felt like, you know what? She’s comfortable singing on this mic. Her performances are great. She doesn’t like to do a lot of takes so let me make her comfortable.

To me it’s way more important to get the performance. Who cares about the gear? I’ll use anything if somebody is going to be comfortable and excited to sing or perform. That’s what’s most important to me.

That’s refreshing to hear. People have been so focused on the computer and technology.

Yeah. It’s been interesting working with Keaton Henson because this is his first proper album. His first couple releases in the UK were basically like bedroom demos — he’s been used to doing everything all on his own. This was the first time he’s been in a studio with musicians and had to interact.

He’s a very reclusive guy so this was a challenge for him and also meant I had to be very aware of his mood and his intensity. But the great thing is that he instantly came alive in a room full of great musicians when he heard what they were playing and what they offered to his songs. He was just in heaven. I think he’d never had the experience of working with great players who could give him options. That’s one thing artists can instantly relate to and it’s a great way to make an artist comfortable.

"I like to get as many people out in the room and track live.
I still believe all the magic and chemistry happens when you get
a bunch of great players in a room." 

Like when I did The Shins’ record. It was something that James [Mercer] had started in his bedroom on his own and got stuck, basically. He really needed some help. The pre-production we did on The Shins’ record was me sitting with James going through his songs, giving him multiple suggestions of what he could do to improve the song.

In other words, “Maybe you could write a bridge here, but you could also come up with this weird instrumental section. The song feels like it needs to go to another place, musically it’s a little too linear. So you could do this type of thing, or you could do that type of thing.”

And once we got in the studio, I would say, “OK, I feel like this chorus needs a bit of a lift. It’s not powerful enough, it doesn’t come alive, it doesn’t open up. So we could do a guitar part that’s this chimey, arpeggiated thing, or we could do a background vocal stack, or we could do some kind of programmed syncopated keyboard thing here. I could hear all three of these kind of parts working. Which do you think would be great?”

So I offered him a bunch of solutions to every little problem or every little change that needed to be addressed in the song. Instantly he felt comfortable, didn’t feel intimidated or boxed into something, and we basically spent three months like that — me offering him choices on how to improve or build the songs.

How do you decide who to work with? Does your agent call you up and say, “We’ve got this project,” or do you find a band and tell your agent you want to approach them?

A little of both. I get excited about certain things and call my manager and just say, “Adam, I love this band. Can you get me to this band?”

“The most exciting thing in any art form is somebody who creates…this environment that you’re instantly transported to and the rest of the world just drops away. Great painters do that, great writers do that, and great songwriters do that.”

I’m really crazy about this band called The Head and the Heart. They’re on Sub Pop Records, they’re from Seattle. I’m really dying to work with them. I’m dying to work with Modest Mouse, I’m a big fan of theirs. So there are definitely artists that I’m a fan of.

In the case of Keaton, he had heard the My Morning Jacket album I did and the Daniel Martin Moore album I did for Sub Pop. He loved those albums so he called me and sent me a song. I instantly loved his song. Then he sent me a couple more songs, and I loved them even more, and I said that absolutely I’d work with him.

So it kind of comes both ways. There are artists that I seek out and there’re artists that find me. And knock on whatever, I’ve been fortunate in that they’re still there.

You work a lot. How do you battle ear fatigue?

I definitely try to mix it up. I don’t sit there 12 hours a day in front of pounding speakers.

I do work a good 10 - 12 hours a day, and when I’m tracking I’m listening pretty loud. Some stages of mixing I’m listening loud, but I’m also listening quiet — especially for balances.

When I’m balancing things I’m always mixing at quiet levels. I think you can tell balances much better at low levels.

I’ll mix in mono for a while. I’ll often go outside the door of the control room and listen to things through the door, because you can sometimes hear things that you don’t hear when you’re in the thick of it.

But you still have the energy to listen to music on the radio and to go see bands? That’s amazing to me.

To me, the most exciting thing is hearing somebody do something fresh and I’m always seeking that out. I’ve just always been that way, I want to know what’s new. I want to know who’s pushing the boundaries.

For me, the most exciting thing in any art form is somebody who creates their own world, who creates their own signature that sounds like no one else or looks like no one else. Somebody who has this environment that you’re instantly transported to and the rest of the world just drops away. Great painters do that, great writers to that, and great songwriters do that.

For me, somebody who’s created their own world, even if it’s sonically, like Sigur Ros, is so exciting for me. I’m always looking for that thing that might go, “Wow, I have never heard that before.”

Photography By Ana Gibert.