As an Irish musician, remixer, producer, and engineer, Jacknife Lee sees the art and science of music production from every angle. His intuition for what sounds right has led him to work with legendary rock bands such as U2 and R.E.M., as well as beloved indie acts including Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, and Crystal Castles. Humble and soft spoken, UA caught up with him in production for the latest yet-to-be-named Snow Patrol album. We took a moment to retrace his path from musician to engineer, and to hear how his mobile UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins rig and UA Classic analog gear helped him produce R.E.M.’s latest album, Collapse Into Now, in multiple studios around the globe, from Berlin to Nashville to New Orleans.
Do you think you’re a better producer because you were a musician first?
I don’t really know. I know there’s people who aren’t musicians who are very good producers. There are people who haven’t been musicians who make great records, and people who don’t engineer who make great records.
I’m not even sure what a good producer is. It’s very hard to know, until you know what you’ve gotten before you start recording. Some jobs aren’t just about recording, they’re about getting people into a room together. Musicality and technical things can mean little if you have a bunch of people who don’t want to be in a room together.
People judge producers on successes or failures [of albums]. A lot of times it’s not down to the producer if it’s good or bad. I can’t really quantify what a “good” producer is like. Hell, I don’t even know what a “good” record is.
Are you still remixing?
I haven’t done that in a while. I’m mostly doing mixing now but I’m going to get back into doing some remixes. They’re fun to do. I learned a lot from doing them. But there’s a time for authenticity and there’s a time when you should just throw everything out. Remixes encourage you to throw everything away. I do that when I’m making records, too.
I did learn a lot from doing remixes. About getting things done on time, meeting deadlines, and making them work. If you’re asked to do something, you should do it. So I learned a lot from remixing. Sonically, just be bold.
It sounds like your big break was getting involved with U2? Is that true?
I guess so. I’m not sure I agree with you, as far as the "break." But I did work with them, and then others afterward. It’s just part of an ongoing process. I don’t think anything particularly changed after one job, I think one leads to another, that’s generally is how it goes.
So that must have been a good experience.
It was very good. I learned a lot doing it. They were very patient, and it was a fun project. Yeah, they’re pretty driven, which is always good for an artist.
I read that Edge suggested to Michael Stipe that R.E.M. work with you.
I believe so. They’re good people to have doing your PR, that’s for sure.
Was it daunting to go work with R.E.M., a band that has been together for so many years, and done so many albums?
Yeah. But I find that with most projects, regardless of experience or lack of experience, each new project’s first day is always a bit difficult. But, you know, I’ve got a job to do, and they’ve asked me to do it, so nerves and fear shouldn’t really play any part of it. You’ve just got to go in knowing what you’re doing and have a plan.
I was very fortunate to learn a lot from R.E.M., about how they approach their records and what they like. If you work with great musicians with a lot of experience, you pick up quite a few tips. So it’s good. They were very, very nice.
The R.E.M. album was recorded in several different cities.
Yeah, we needed to break up the process and give Michael [Stipe] enough time to write lyrics in between each session. We wanted to keep it fresh every time. So we did three sessions, three weeks each, two of which were in New Orleans, one in Berlin. Then we did a fourth session, we went to Nashville where we mixed and did some more vocal and recording. I also did a vocal session with Michael in Athens.
We did the same routine the album before as well. They kind of like to do that. We did it over a whole year. But all in all it took twelve weeks, from beginning to end.
Weather is a big factor in an R.E.M. record — it’s got to be warm for recording. It’s got to be a good atmosphere in the city. Food’s got to be good. I’m not really a big fan of recording studios anyway, so I don’t really care where we are once the room is nice, I can set up my stuff and just play.
Where did you track in New Orleans?
A place called The Music Shed. The first time we went it was quite small, but they had built an extra room on for the second session. The people who ran the studio were superb. It’s part of the reason why I think some studios do well and others don’t. If the personnel in the place are accommodating and enthusiastic, then I want to be there.
There are a lot of studios in London that are so used to just being there. They don’t really have to be helpful, so I don’t use them. But New Orleans is an amazing town for music. Unfortunately they’ve had more than its fair share of disasters recently. The studio was really excited about us coming in. They made us very welcome, and they did a lot to help us get what we wanted. So I’d go back there in a shout, it was great.
And then you moved on to Berlin after that?
Yeah. We went to Hansa, by the Wall. Well, it used to be by the Wall, it’s now by a clock. And again, it wasn’t about the equipment in that place. There’s an atmosphere there that’s very good. I’ve done a few records there.
A few years ago, I was doing a record there and R.E.M. were playing in town. They came by and really liked the place, so we decided to go there for July. And obviously the draw of Berlin itself was there, so it was an easy choice.
Hansa was a classic studio for that big 80s sound. I bet the drums sounded great there.
Oh yeah. We did some in the big room. I’m quite into dead drums, and the studio that I had in England had a tiny, tiny drum room, but we got some pretty spectacular sounds from it. The thing about recording in unusual spaces is that you can find unusual areas that are suitable for something. Or, you can decide to just use the space rather than the regular recording room. You’re presented with a lot of challenges, but also opportunities.
Do you have a rig that you travel with?
I do, though I try not to use it if I can help it. My engineer gets frustrated with me, but I don’t like to use mixing desks. They’re too big, they take too much room and they overwhelm the room that they’re in. Then it becomes about the board rather than about recording sound. So instead, I have racks of mic preamps and compressors and things like that.
Are you working with Pro Tools?
No, I use Logic. I do have to use Pro Tools as well sometimes. If I’m doing a live take, I’ll track into Pro Tools just because I find it to be a bit more stable in that situation. Then I’ll transfer to Logic, continue working in Logic, then mix in Logic. It depends on each project.
What kind of audio I/O do you use, when using Logic?
I use MOTU HD192s, a few of those — and I don’t use a separate clock. And then I have lots of boxes, you know.
Is there any Universal Audio gear in those boxes?
Yeah, there’s quite a lot actually. I’ve got a few 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifiers and a 6176 Vintage Channel Strip. The 610 preamps are amazing, I love those. They sit on my desk. When I’m not doing a live project, I just have the 610s on my desk, plug a guitar into them, then into the power rig (just for speed), and then I re-amp all the stuff I played.
That’s if I’m playing it. If I have anybody else playing, we’ll do the whole mic-amp thing.
Sometimes trying to get guitar sounds can take up a lot of the creative time. I try and keep things moving as quickly as possible, and that means keeping technology out of the way. People should just come in and play, get ideas out without having to spend their time changing cables around or locating buzzes and stuff like that. Which is why I don’t use boards any more. I find that when I want to move quickly, soon you have to go find a patch cable, or trace a hot buzz, and on and on.
How about the Teletronix® LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier?
Yes, but I normally I rent them. We’ve got a whole rack of UA stuff here at the moment: Old LA-2As and more 1176s, which are great. I like stuff that I don’t have to think about. I just plug it in, and it sounds great. That’s what attracted me to Universal Audio in the first place.
So, you recorded some in Athens, and then you were in Nashville. What studio did you work in, in Nashville?
We worked at Blackbird. That was an interesting…
Great place. They have loads of UA gear.
Yeah, yeah, it was good. I had a kind of sacrilegious sort of plank of wood placed over the desk and kept my keyboard on it. Because the speakers were just too far away from my head.
You’ve got to make sure when you’re recording things, that you record them as best as you can. When you’re mixing, you want speed and ease. So I’ve found that having lots of hardware for recording and software for mixing works for me.
Interestingly, I started mixing at home, and I’d just got the UAD-2 QUAD DSP Accelerator Card, so we had the Pultec Pro EQ and 1176 Classic Limiting Amplifier Plug-In, and all this stuff going on. I thought when we got to Blackbird, I would take all the software off, and use the real hardware. But we encountered some really interesting results.
The hardware didn’t sound bad, not bad at all, but we ended up reverting back to the software — which pissed off the local engineers, because they were saying that the test wasn’t fair. But for me it was just, “Listen to this. And now, listen to that. Tell me which one’s better.” And the software was better.
So that was very interesting. I wouldn’t spend ten grand on a Pultec when I have them in my UAD-2 card.
And plug-ins are so much more convenient to work with…
Yeah, of course, you don’t have to plug it in… [Laughs] But, yeah, I can have eight Fairchilds, and save all the settings. I don’t know how any of it works. I’m sure there’s some alchemy and magic going on with the software. Same with the hardware. I don’t really care how it works. I just turn it on and trust what I’m listening to.
I love the song on the new album, “Oh, My Heart.” I can’t stop listening to it. It’s just so emotional. It’s like he really captured something.
It was an interesting one to do because we had a dodgy vocal on that. It just wasn’t very good but it was very emotive, and it was one of the first things we recorded at the Fire Station in New Orleans. It was the last thing we recorded in Nashville, because we just couldn’t get past the power of the vocal. Sonically, it just didn’t sound very good, but there was a lot of emotion, because Michael had written the lyrics, but he was just writing melodies as he was recording it, and whispering.
And then on the last day, we did the vocal, and he nailed it. It’s a fantastic song and we had local horn players in that were wonderful.
What was Michael’s vocal signal chain?
We use the same thing all the time—a Shure® SM7 microphone into a Neve® 1073 preamp, then through a UA 1176, and that’s it. But on “Oh, My Heart,” I think we used a posh mic on the last day. [Michael] had very strange overtones in his voice that required a lot of EQ. His chest is like a cello body, so it produces strange frequencies that aren’t what he sings, and the SM7 can accentuate that sometimes. So on the last day we tried the Neumann U47.
Michael doesn’t like headphones on, he hasn’t sang with them for over 20 years. But for that particular song, he used the U47 with headphones and the usual 1073, 1176 vocal chain.
It’s a beautiful song. The version of the CD I bought, gave me two bonus tracks that were live, and one is “Oh, My Heart,” and the other is “Discover.” Where were those recorded?
That was recorded in the big ballroom at Hansa in Berlin. For the previous record, the band did five gigs in Dublin to try the new sounds. This time, we decided to invite some friends to watch them recording in Hansa. It became another gig of seven new songs from that recording.
So it was very quick. A couple of takes and that was that.
Let’s talk guitars, and how you recorded the guitars. Peter Buck [guitarist for R.E.M.] has a pretty distinctive sound.
Yeah, he uses the same bunch of guitars. He’s got a Silvertone amp and a VOX AC30 — he uses that under a Savage amp. Then Scott [McCaughey] (he’s also a guitar player) just uses everything. That’s where we start going off on tangents and into strangeness.
Mic wise, it’s Beyerdynamic M 88s or Shure SM57s, depending on the amp. I use a piezo microphone a lot of times for guitars, but I’m not tied to it.
I’ll maybe use a ribbon mic if it’s too edgy of a sound. Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker and Silvertone amp will slice your head off, it’s so shrill. So that required a bit of notching out of frequencies with software and hardware, and moving the mics around. It’s a pretty fierce tone he’s got!
What I generally do with records start every sound from scratch. So, find a new drum sound, even new drums, new guitar amps, and different positions for players.
On the mixing front, do you have any favorite UAD plug-ins?
Yes, there’re lots of them. I love the Helios® Type 69 EQ. The Fairchild® 670 Compressor is fantastic. The Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder, I’m just using all the time. I don’t know how it A/B’s with tape, I just like the way it sounds.
The Little Labs® IBP Phase Alignment Tool comes in really handy. I don’t know how it works, but it works great for phase aligning. The reverbs are great. I love the BOSS CE-1 Chorus Ensemble, the Roland® Dimension D, I seem to use that quite a bit. I’m using EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverb all the time, it’s just superb.
For EQ, I seem to go through phases. I was using the Manley® Massive Passive EQ plug-in a lot, and now I’m not using that for some reason. No particular reason, I just work pretty quickly, and I just use whatever EQ comes up.
My favorite piece of equipment, both hardware and software is the SPL® Transient Designer. I could have it on every channel. I just think it’s amazing.
What do you use it on?
It messes with transients—attack times and release times. You can make blurred signals sound sharp and sharp signals more blurred. I don’t quite know what it does but it’s up there with compression. I love it, just absolutely love it. I use it on many things: acoustic guitars, drums, some vocals. And with the Transient Designer you can automate the changes, which is great.
That’s the thing about the UA hardware, as well. I just like the way it looks, and I want to use it. There are some companies that don’t really care for aesthetics. But all the UA stuff looks cool. There are certain pieces of equipment I just won’t use because I don’t like the logo or I don’t like the way the knobs feel.
So you really have an aesthetic experience with the gear.
Completely. Absolutely. When you’ve got a room full of boxes, you want to pick flower petals over bees. You want the thing to say to you, “Turn me on.”
Seems like working with a band like R.E.M., you’re really looking for authenticity, something genuine — which they’re kind of oozing with.
Yeah, but the whole recording process isn’t a genuine experience. It’s like killing a bug in formaldehyde and sticking it in a box, or pressing a flower. The authentic experience was when it was played. Recording isn’t authentic or even real — it’s all smoke and mirrors.
I’ll hear guitar players sitting in a room with a 100-watt Marshall and it’s deafening. You put a mic in front of it, go into the control room and listen. It’s not going to sound exciting because it’s not as loud, and it’s not hitting your body in the same way. So it’s down to perception.
You want to try and retain some of the same emotion and capture a moment. To do that sometimes involves a lot of trickery. Authenticity is something else.
EQ is a trick, compression is trick, so are lots of other things. Sometimes records aren’t about something extraordinarily real. Like Daft Punk, there’s nothing real there. The sounds are bent out of shape, and it’s all the better for it.
Do you have preferred setups to speed things up during the mix?
No! I don’t do that at all. If I feel like I’m doing something because I’ve done it before, I generally try and stop it. You find yourself taking too many shortcuts that way and not thinking about what you’re doing. So that’s why I like to just start from scratch, because it makes you just listen to the song, rather than, “I know this worked before.”
Also, by getting things wrong, you find new ways of working. So it’s constantly evolving.
Do you get involved in the mastering process at all?
Yeah, I do now. I didn’t before, a lot of times I am not invited to be involved. It goes off to some guy at a record label and… records get done that way. But a lot of times I go down to listen and A/B things.
With the new R.E.M. record, Collapse Into Now, I went down there with Steven Markson, and it was good. Sometimes, I’ve got a record mastered by two different people at the same time, and then just blindly pick what’s better.
While you were doing this record, and recording all over the place at different times, did you think about how to make it sound cohesive?
Oh, I think once it’s coming from them, it’s fine. If they all played in the room at the same time, it’s fine. Once Michael get his voice on it, it’s fine. As long as you have the same intention from beginning to end of the record, it’s fine. We knew what we were setting out to do at the start and we did it.
What are you working on now or have coming up?
I’m doing Snow Patrol at the moment. We’re a few months into that. And we’re trying some extraordinarily odd things so it’s very exciting.
Such as? Can you give away anything?
Everything is different for us on this record. We’re doing a lot of collaborating with other people. It’s very electronic but it’s all live electronics, not sequenced. We’ve been getting different singers in. They threw the rulebook out with this one, so it’s just a very strange record.
I can’t wait to hear it. Where are you working?
We rented a house in Malibu on the beach, and we worked in there. It’s very nice. I’m building a studio in Topanga Canyon, so I’ll be finishing up there. Today, we’re going to a church in Compton to record. We’ve been in a studio in Santa Monica called Threshold for two weeks now because my studio’s not ready and our lease ended on the beach house. So we’re here at Threshold. I’ve worked here before, and they’re all great, so it’s good.
Photos by: David Goggin