"As an engineer, you need to straddle both the creative world and the technical world," says Neal Cappellino.

A Grammy award-winning engineer who has worked with a veritable who’s-who of A-list artists, Neal Cappellino has built an impressive resume since he first moved to Nashville a little over 20 years ago. From Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, and Dolly Parton to John Fogerty and Del McCoury, Cappellino has had a hand in recording some of the biggest records in modern country and roots music. One of Cappellino’s most fruitful, and longest running working relationships is with Brad Paisley, whose latest record, Wheelhouse, was crafted with the help of Apollo and UAD-Powered Plug-Ins. Here, Cappellino talks about getting his start as a recording engineer, his favorite UAD plug-ins, and capturing Paisley’s energy in the recording process.

What’s your background? Did you make music as a child?

Yeah, I did. I took violin lessons starting at the age of three, and then moved on to piano at five. I had music in my blood early and I grew up playing in bands all my life.

How did you get interested in recording?

I got interested in some aspect of music recording and creation probably even before I knew what it was. I was definitely into the technology behind the music — I built a Heathkit mixer when I was 12 or 13 and I was involved in the AV department at high school — so I was leaning in both of those directions, musical and technical, from an early age.

My prodigious performance career began with our band playing “Free Bird” in a McDonald’s in Rochester, New York, where I grew up, to a very confused and irritated lunchtime crowd (Laughs)!

I continued playing in bands throughout my youth and toyed with the idea of pursuing that as far as it would take me. Ultimately, I ended up getting a formal education, so I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. Concurrent with that I earned a minor in music.

Brad Paisley - Beat This Summer

I assume that the WPI program was very technical.

It was. It’s a curriculum for people that are going into the industry on a design level, which I didn’t end up doing after all. I worked a co-op program during college, to help pay for tuition, and part of that was working in the traditional engineering industry, and I hated it. It was a much-needed wake-up call that served to put me back on the path to my interest in music.

My jazz instructor recommended I talk to a studio nearby, which was Longview Farm Recording Studios in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. That was my first studio job and, ironically, I got it because of my combined musical and technical background. I was pulling weeds out of the gravel driveway for $5 an hour and trying to fix gear in-between sessions. Because it was a residential studio, I pretty much lived there and soaked up as much knowledge as I could.

In 1987 I moved to Boston and I’ve been pretty much freelance in whatever capacity ever since then. I did a variety of things; I continued to play, I was a live sound engineer for a while — just filling in the gaps — but I was always working at recording studios. I moved to Nashville in 1992 and I’ve been based here ever since.

Do you have a home studio? 

I do. It’s called The Doghouse. I have a Trident 80-series console, a Studer 2” tape machine, Pro Tools, and the whole complement of outboard gear, mics, and instruments. For me, it’s primarily an overdub and mix facility, though we do some small-format tracking there. I also use several studios around the Nashville area.

“On Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse, we relied heavily on the UAD SSL E Series Channel Strip Plug-In, the 1176 Anniversary Edition Plug-In, which I love on vocals, the Ampex® ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In, and the FATSO™Jr. /Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor Plug-In.

Do you have any UA hardware?

I have original versions of the Universal Audio 1176LN, and LA-2As and LA-3As.

You’ve been working with Brad Paisley for over ten years now. Was there anything different with his newest record, Wheelhouse, than the previous ones?

Yes. Wheelhouse is the first one that he self-produced. I was the primary recording engineer on that one, mixed a few of the songs, and have production credit as well. We took a bit of time with that album too, starting around April 2012 and finishing in February 2013.

That’s a long time for a record — well these days, at least.

True. We didn’t work steady on that record the whole time. But, yeah, by design Brad wanted to afford himself the time to work in a different mode than he had previously.

Where was the record tracked?

Well, Brad wanted to explore doing things differently with Wheelhouse, and a big part of that change came in the form of wanting to write and record at home over an extended period of time instead of specifically scheduled sessions. So he repurposed a guest house on his property and we helped him outfit it with some very nice gear. We designed a drum room and then everything got wired up and we were rolling quickly

Ultimately, Brad wanted to record when he wanted to record, and that was based primarily around the writing process, his touring schedule, and his family schedule. He also wanted to be able to come down at three o’clock in the morning and work on something if he felt inspired.

“The Pultec Pro EQ Plug-Ins are excellent and they've quickly become one of the EQs I reach for first. But if I have to carve with EQ, I usually reach for the Cambridge EQ Plug-In.”

Did this new approach effect how you worked?

The method was very unique, for me as an engineer, for Brad, and I think for all of the musicians involved. Brad really used his studio as his songwriting sketchpad. He’s very impulsive, he’s very fast, and when he hears something, he wants to capture it. Most times, we were tracking songs that we had never heard and that he might not have even finished writing. But he’d want to throw the basics down, get production and arrangement ideas flowing, and bring a rough mix of that back into the writing process to tweak or even finish. Then we’d approach the recording process again and build on what we’d done — or even re-record altogether.

Brad was also interested in getting performances from his band that were spontaneous and reactive, and that meant he was going to want to get back to any song that we may have tracked weeks or months ago, and be able to change a section, so there was a lot of documentation. We were on a Pro Tools format, but we didn’t allow ourselves to edit as a first course of corrective action. It was always “let’s go back and re-record this”, or “let’s do a band punch.”

There’s a lot of energy in a Brad Paisley tracking session. Things change quickly and we were reacting, responding, and capturing. It was pretty exciting — and sometimes exhausting. He’s trying to get something out of his head as if he’s painting a picture, and he’s using everything he has at his disposal with technology and people.

"The musical diversity in Nashville is amazing," says Cappellino.

Did you guys use the Universal Audio Apollo interface?

Oh yeah. Well, the Apollo came into the picture because, being that Brad is on the road a lot, and he never stops creating, we were looking for a way that he could take these sessions that were on a Pro Tools HD rig at the main studio, and have them available for him to work on when he was away. Actually, I think it was, Justin Niebank who came in with his Apollo one day and the light bulb went on.

So when Brad got outfitted with his Apollo, I went ahead and did the same because I wasn't always working at the main studio either and we all needed a format that was portable and compatible with each other and with the main studio. We also had to accurately maintain our progress with each song as it evolved over time, but on multiple rigs, so the plug-in situation had to be compatible.

We’d take what Brad did in L.A. over a week’s time, as well as whatever I was working on at the time, and merge them back into our main sessions at the studio. It was important to keep the house cleaning up to date and organized so that we weren’t getting confused or losing material. I also had some mixes I’d been building along the way on the Apollo and we ended up using those as well.

What are some of your favorite plug-ins for mixing?

I didn’t have them when I mixed Brad’s songs, but the Pultec Pro EQ Plug-Ins are excellent. I’m using those quite a bit now and they've quickly become one of the EQs I reach for first. If I need to really carve and shape with EQ, I usually grab the Cambridge EQ Plug-In.

In terms of the Brad’s mixes, we relied heavily on the SSL E Series Channel Strip Plug-In, the 1176 Anniversary Edition Plug-In Collection, which I love on vocals, the Ampex® ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In, and the FATSO Jr./Sr. Compressor & Tape ™ Plug-In.

For effects we used EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-In a ton. We also used the Lexicon® 224 Digital Reverb Plug-In as well and I should thank Kevin Killen for his “Atmosphere” preset — it got used frequently on things like simple piano lines and other minimal parts for a dreamy, swimming effect.

We used a lot of the EP-34 Tape Echo Plug-In and the Roland® RE-201 Space Echo Plug-in as well in a few places. There’s a fair amount of delay effects on this record, and generally they’re always on Brad's guitar tracks, which is fun for me. I’m definitely a fan of delays. I like the rhythmic element that delays offer – they're exciting and they create a different kind of depth than reverbs do. They also tend to be a little clearer, so it leaves a little more room in the sound field.

Did it help Brad to have access to all those UAD plug-ins?

Absolutely. They enabled his creativity in a whole new way. This was largely Brad’s first time getting so deep into the engineering aspect, and getting his hands on Pro Tools and plug-in technology. It was interesting to watch because he was totally unhooked from any preconceptions about what was right or wrong, or any typical engineering conventions about how to use processors.

He doesn’t care what it is he’s reaching for or who the manufacturer is. It’s just got to do something that he hears in his head or is inspiring or fun.

“UAD plug-ins enabled Brad’s creativity in a whole new way.”

I could see how it might be a bit frustrating to have an artist have access to all that.

[Laughs] There were definitely moments. You know, to his credit, I actually learned some things from Brad’s reckless abandon in his use of plug-ins and digital technology. Sometimes we had to go in and reclaim the mix a little bit, you know, restructure the gain stages to keep it from caving in. But my job as an engineer was to identify what was exciting to him and preserve that energy as we got it back into an operable range.

How was he framing all these effects in a country music context?

Brad listens to a lot of different music and some of his influences for this were decidedly not country. I think he was making some of his decisions with regards to plug-ins and production aesthetics based on what he was hearing in other formats — particularly rock. It’s understood that he’s always going to write and sing the way he does and he’s a country artist. But I can tell you that some of the touchstones for him were not country.

And for me, I have my hands in so many different styles of music, but I grew up with rock, so I felt very at home referencing those other styles of music with Brad and helping to guide his choices within that.

Mainstream country music has changed so much. It’s continually borrowing from rock with its embrace of textures such as distortion, stutter edits, and loops, so it brings the sound closer to a format I feel at home with anyway. These days, country music can be just as crafted as pop music when you get down to it. It’s just a different context and flavor.

Photos: CJ Hicks