One of the most successful mixers working in music today, Joe Zook derives true satisfaction from what he delivers: boutique, standout mixes, driven by each artist's personality and distinct style. His unique path to recognition comes from the producers, artists, A&R personnel, managers, and the like who call upon Zook’s mixing ability for their artists, including OneRepublic, Plain White T’s, Serena Ryder, Katy Perry, Modest Mouse, The Hives, Phillip Phillips, Tricky, Marc Broussard, and P!nk. Zook’s latest projects by Serena Ryder, Michael Franti, and OneRepublic have all had the help of Universal Audio tools. Here’s what Zook had to say about learning the ropes as a mix engineer as well as his impressions of the newer Universal Audio UAD Powered Plug-Ins such as the Ocean Way Studios Plug-In.
Did you start out as a musician?
Yes, I started out as a guitar player when I was about 10. My first band was at age 11, and then I played all through high school. When I was 19, I moved to Austin, Texas, and joined a band that toured around Texas and Louisiana. In Austin, I took a few classes in audio engineering, and as part of that class an internship was required, so I did mine at a studio called Tim Stanton Audio.
What did your internship entail?
It started out as a typical internship position, getting coffee, fetching dry cleaning, painting the studio, and making “dubs.” There was a lot of analog then, and all the radio spots were done in analog, so there were dubs to be made to go out to radio stations. So I’d be sitting there making 50 reel-to-reel dubs and sending them out to the stations.
“There’s a 70% chance that if I’m boosting with an EQ, it will be a UAD Powered Plug-In.”
They let you assist and then you learned enough to take over?
Unfortunately, the owner had some serious health problems and he wouldn’t show up sometimes. I’d get a call at eight AM, “I got a session in a half an hour. Can you do it?”
I did everything from political ads and a radio show about fishing, to rock and pop demos. It became really crazy when the studio felt like they could depend on me to do some things that I really hadn’t been taught yet! There’s no training quite like the old “trial by fire” method. [Laughs]
After Austin, I went to school at the University of Miami where I studied jazz guitar, digital audio technology, and music business. I was one of about eight students who founded ‘Cane Records at the university. We produced two albums when I was there, and the label is still going strong. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles, and that’s where my career really began to take off.
Did you have to start from the bottom and work your way up again?
Yes. I was a runner at Conway, which is a phenomenally well-run studio. I really admire their process and all of their guiding principles. It was a very exciting atmosphere. There was Beck with the Dust Brothers in one room, Eric Clapton with Mick Guzauski and Babyface in another, and Natalie Cole and George Duke in the back. It was just a constant flow of talent and I got to shadow the assistants and techs on all of the projects.
I was there for about six months, and then I went to Sunset Sound and Sound Factory as an assistant engineer. Both are just fantastic studios. I got to assist for dozens of great engineers and producers and artists. There was so much to learn, I just tried to soak it all up and enjoy it.
Eventually, I got to assist one of my idols, Tchad Blake, for eight months. Then Tchad left town and I went to Ocean Way and assisted Jack Joseph Puig for almost two years.
You learned from the masters! Did they teach you anything that you still carry with you?
Absolutely. I’m extremely fortunate to have learned from people whose work I admire so much. Both of those guys are undeniably masterful.
Although they have vastly different approaches to record making, what they do have in common is that they have both been frustrated trying to emulate the same guy — Bob Clearmountain. They learned that it’s better to forget about emulating someone else and just be yourself — and look where they went with it — totally different directions.
What was your big break? Or was there one?
No, there definitely wasn’t a single “big break.” It’s more like a dozen big breaks over the years!
For example, during my first year as an assistant at Sunset Sound, I engineered an entire album, but then went back to being an assistant. Then, I would mix three songs for someone, and go back to assisting. Then I would do a bit of recording, but continue assisting. So it just kept going like that.
During that time, I would build relationships with a lot of people in the studio environment — producers, musicians, techs, managers, everybody. There are all sorts of people that you meet along the way so you get along with them and offer your help and try to make their life easier. Eventually, maybe they will call you to engineer a session, do some editing, or help buy gear for their home studio.
I would get some calls for gigs that I would have to turn down, just because I didn’t want to leave my assisting job. When I was with Jack Joseph Puig, I was his only guy. That was a solid commitment. But he was great about letting me take other gigs. But frankly, I didn’t want to do most of them — I had a bigger role with him and I was learning too much to want to leave. It was a tremendous education and also a lot of fun.
But I finally decided that it was time to make the jump, and thankfully there was enough work happening for me to support the transition.
“The UAD Powered Plug-In EQs never push the high-end frequencies unnaturally out in front, and they don’t get spikey or thin sounding.”
Sounds like steady work and a steady climb. Now you work out of your own mix room?
I do. It’s in Studio City, just north of Hollywood. I’ve been here for eight years now.
I saw you have a Universal Audio 2-610 Dual Channel Tube Preamplifier in your rack.
Yes. I also rely on an 1176AE "Bluestripe" reissue limiter.
And you’re working with UAD Powered Plug-Ins.
Yeah. I started with the legacy UAD-1. I had an expansion chassis with four cards, which was the max. It’s total heaven the way it is now with the UAD-2 QUAD and the OCTO DSP Accelerator Cards — unlimited UAD and no hassle. Heaven.
Have you tried the new Ocean Way Studios Dynamic Room Modeling Plug-In that recently came out?
Yes, I just used it on a Michael Franti and Spearhead record that I’m mixing right now. I used it for the string section tracks. I wanted something that would push the violins back in the mix behind everything else while maintaining an organic room sound, and the Ocean Way Studios Plug-In was perfect. Reverbs sounded too syrupy, too unnatural, and too undefined, while the Ocean Way Plug-In was able to push the strings back to whatever depth I wanted and also gave them a warm, clear, organic room tone. I had some good-sounding room mics to work with but they weren’t as far back as I wanted them, so I ran the close mic tracks through the Ocean Way plug and blended it back in.
The thing that really stands out about that plug-in is the depth that it adds. It’s just a different kind of depth than a reverb would give you. It’s also different from convolution reverbs in many ways; fewer artifacts, a hundred more tonality options, continuous real-time depth changing, multiple micing, and a few different room choices — a great new tool.
You just worked on the new Serena Ryder record, Harmony. Did you use any UAD plug-ins?
Yeah, I love her and I love that record. I actually used the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In on that album quite a bit. It gave me more of a vintage sound from a lot of the drum and percussion elements. I pretty much used it as an EQ by playing with the bias and the tape speed and tape type. I wasn’t really using lots of tape distortion or anything like that. That plug-in does this tonal thing that has a vintage, classic feel to it. There were also a lot of modern samples and some programming things used on that album, and the ATR-102 is a great tool to kind of warm them up a little — or a lot.
You also just finished up the new OneRepublic album, Native. Did you use UAD Powered Plug-Ins on that project?
Yes, quite a few. For example, the track “Counting Stars,” ended up with mostly a UAD chain on Ryan Tedder’s lead vocal. The UAD Precision De-Esser Plug-In is the go-to de-esser for him. I also used the UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Plug-In on his lead vocal. I found that had the perfect balance of standing the vocal up without sounding one-dimensional. I also used the RE-201 Space Echo Plug-In for various delays on the lead vocal.
Do you have a go-to EQ?
There’s a 70% chance that if I’m boosting with an EQ, it will be a UAD plug-in. And those would be either the SSL E Series Channel Strip Plug-In, the Helios Type 69 EQ Plug-In, the API 500 Series Collection Plug-Ins, the Harrison 32C/32C SE Plug-In, the Trident A Range Classic Console EQ Plug-In, and all of the Neve Classic Console EQ Plug-Ins. They’re all just different flavors to choose from.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have learned from people whose work I admire so much.”
What are some of the defining characteristics of the UAD EQs?
I lean towards UAD Powered Plug-Ins for the top-end range usually, because all of the plug-ins I just mentioned sound natural and very even. They don’t push the high-end frequencies unnaturally out in front, and they don’t get spikey or thin sounding.
I often do subtractive EQ first, but if I need to boost more than one frequency range, I’ll usually pick an EQ that has a lot of options like the SSL or the Sonnox Oxford EQ Plug-In. Sometimes, I’ll get more specific for tone if needed. For example, if I’m boosting 5 kHz and higher, I’ll gravitate towards the API 550, Helios, any Neve, or maybe the Manley Massive Passive EQ Plug-In or the Harrison.
For midrange tones, I’ll often use the SSL E, Helios, and Neve 1081 for a bit more grit and aggression. For a slightly cleaner sound I’ll look to the Harrison, Oxford, or Manley. For bottom-end, I’d think of maybe an API 560 boosting at 125 Hz and 63 Hz, or it might need more of an 80 Hz thing, in which case I’ll use the SSL instead. For a big, round texture around 60 Hz, I might change to the old Pultec Pro EQ Plug-In or a Neve1073/1073SE Classic Console EQ Plug-Ins. If I want a narrow band resonant sound, I use the Brainworx bx_digital V2 EQ Plug-In or the Sonnox Oxford EQ for their Q control and precision. The Little Labs® Voice Of God Bass Resonance Plug-In can be great down in the low-end also.
Does the vibe of a song factor in when choosing a particular EQ?
Yes. “Everything in context” is my motto. The old, “What would you use on a kick drum”-type question is too vague because there are so many different types of kick sounds that would require very different types of treatments depending on its function in the context of the song. The same goes for any instrument, actually.
For example, my EQ treatment for, say, a female vocal singing gently in the mezzo-soprano range, will be different than if she’s singing in a harder, full voice, or if she’s belting in the alto range. The EQ I choose also depends on the singer’s tone and articulation, as well as how the performance was captured — is it distorted with tons of compression, or maybe is it bone dry with just a piano?
The context of what you’re working on matters so much. Is it an aggro rock song, or a pop or dance track? You also need to take into account what the song is about and what is the attitude of the performance? It’s not simply a matter of, “Here’s a piano track so I’m going to use my piano signal chain.” An upright piano playing a hard, driving part will call for a different treatment than a nine foot grand playing soft and legato with an electric bass doubling the low octave.
Sometimes the differences in an EQs tone and character are really subtle or inaudible, other times they are quite audible, so I’ll often A/B a few and pick one that works best for the song.
Are there occasions where you would end up using a UAD plug-in over the hardware version?
Definitely when I would want to do some automation on attack times or a gate, but, sonically? Well, that’s kind of a trick question, because it’s really no different than asking me when I’d use a piece of hardware over another piece of hardware — one isn’t necessarily better. They have different characteristics and I choose one over the other based on how it will make the music feel.
“The Ocean Way Dynamic Room Modeling Plug-In adds a different kind of depth than a reverb would give you. It’s also different from convolution reverbs in many ways; fewer artifacts, a hundred more tonality options, continuous real-time depth changing, multiple micing, and a few different room choices — a great new tool.”
For a young engineer looking to break into the business, would you recommend that their people skills be on par with their technical skills?
Well speaking just relative to a mixing engineer, I’d say more importantly than both of those are artistic skills. The point of having technical skills is to use them in an expressive way. People skills are always important no matter what you do. But clients come to a mixer because they are looking for someone to interpret the artist’s point of view, and do it in a way that is artistically satisfying and also commercially appealing.
All of my favorite artists have put expressive over technical. Much like playing an instrument, just because you know every scale or chord inversion and can play with virtuosic precision, it doesn’t mean people are going to pay to see you play — it has to mean something.
To learn more about Joe Zook and his latest projects, visit joezook.net.