Justin Smith, aka Just Blaze, was spinning records in clubs when he was just fourteen years old. Now he produces Platinum-selling mega-hits for stars such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, Saigon and Kanye West. Smith's unique style and technique are identifiable through his clever manipulation of sample speed, handcrafted drumbeats, and penchant for horn stabs. Smith heats up his signature sounds with trademark phrases like “no more hand claps” and the distinctive call of “Just Blaaaze.” Blaze took a break from his work on the new Jay-Z album to talk about his engineering background and his favorite UAD Powered Plug-Ins.
Yeah. Basically, I've been into music since I was born. My mother has pictures of me at my first birthday party, running around with a Superman suit and records in my hand. I was DJ'ing my first birthday party. [Laughs.] I had an older cousin who's probably about seven or eight years older than me. He used to give me all his hand-me-down records. He'd buy 12" records when they came out, and then when they would get old or the album would come out, he'd give me the 12". I had always inherited his records, and that's how I got a lot of my initial music collection. Then, I want to say like maybe sixth grade, all I really wanted for Christmas was a mixer, and Radio Shack had one. I remember my cousin had two turntables, and it was always like, if I had a mixer, then we could mix them. So I begged and begged and begged my mother for a mixer for Christmas. I had found one in a Radio Shack ad. It was a mixer that had no cross-fader, just up and down faders. It was like 60 dollars, and I was like, oh, man, that's so expensive, she probably won’t buy it for me, but I'm going to ask her anyway. Come that Christmas, I got that mixer, and it was all down hill from there.
After that, the DJ'ing just progressed from there. It was like an instinct as far as DJ’ing was concerned. I kind of just knew. I got better as time went on, I guess because I'd been listening to music since I was a baby. I already understood how music was structured, in terms of counting beats and bars, so it was second nature. As I got a little bit older, my early teens, like 14 and 15, I was DJ'ing local parties and nightclubs and things like that. It was funny — a lot of people assumed I was a lot older because I was DJ'ing at 21-and-over nightclubs, and I was only 14 years old. Sometimes even the club owners would call and ask if I could spin on a certain date, and I'd have tell them, "Hey, I'd like to, but I have to see if my mother will let me." And they'd be like, "What?" And I'm like, "Yeah. I mean, I got school tomorrow, I'm 14.” And they were like, "Oh, wow, OK, well, let us know". So it's been since I was very young.
When I was maybe 16, I inherited an older Tascam cassette 4-track, one of those old 424s, or 464s. I didn't really know what went into making records in terms of the recording process. I assumed that this is what everybody used, and the records I heard on the radio were made on these. I would spend hours a day just trying to figure out how to get my records to sound like they did on the radio, or to get as close as possible, out of this 4-track. I was inadvertently teaching myself things about getting good levels to tape, and trying to avoid distortion, and basic stuff like EQ, and what that meant beyond just having bass, mid, and treble. From there, I was working with a few local artists, so I would go to small studios, small neighborhood studios.
"I can definitely tell that UA really puts a lot of work into not just a faithful [visual] representation of a unit, but especially getting the actual, real, sonic side of the modeling into it, which we all sure appreciate here."
Walking into the Cutting Room in New York City was the first time that I ever actually walked into a real studio. It wasn't like an SSL or a Neve or anything — they had a Soundcraft 320–but it was a 48-channel console. I had never seen anything like that in my life. I was just like wow, I'm in the star ship, I'm on the Enterprise! So I befriended a lot of the engineers that worked there. We didn't have too many assistants, they just had a lot of in-house engineers, and they were cool enough to show me the ropes, and let me sit in on their sessions, let me learn from them. So I got to witness a lot of good records being made. They actually were cool enough to let me ask questions, and let me actually really watch them, instead of just sitting on the couch and just catching what I could. They were cool enough to break things down for me as they were doing them, and why they would compress things, or why they would or wouldn't compress certain things to tape.
From there, my first engineering experience was an artist by the name of Amil, who was signed to Columbia. It was a joint venture between Columbia and Rockafella, Jay-Z's label. I basically ended up engineering her whole album, in terms of recording. I had produced one track for her, and it was one of the first tracks she did for the album. I used a lot of old stuff of my own. So they asked if I wanted to engineer her album. I said, "Why not?" I was making decent money here and there producing records for B and C-level artists, but at the time, engineering was making $75 an hour. I was like, hell, twelve hours, that's $950. Let's do it.
So I did her whole album, and that was probably my first time using Pro Tools. This was very early on, before the industry had really jumped on Pro Tools heavily. We had a Pro Tools setup in the studio and most people didn’t use it. It got to a point where, when she was maybe 80-percent through the album, we had a few more songs to finish, and it wasn't in the budget to keep buying 2" reels. They had spent a good amount of money making the album, they were towards the end, and they had a bunch of stuff to transfer, vocals to fly, and stuff like that. I told them, hey listen, there's this thing called Pro Tools, it's computer based, and we can just finish off recording with that. They looked at me like I was crazy, and I'm like, "Listen, trust me. I know what I'm doing. We can use this." In all honesty, I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but I figured we could make it fly, make it work — so we did it. I got a crash course in Pro Tools in about an hour, from the one engineer there who knew it, and we finished off the rest of the album in Pro Tools. That was really my first foray into digital recording. They were just shocked and amazed, like, how do you do all this on a computer? And I'm like, well, times are changing, technology, blah, blah, blah — gave them the whole speech. And they were comfortable with it, as long as I knew what I was doing. I faked it the best that I could, and we finished off the album digitally.
From there, I started working with an artist who was signed to Virgin by the name of Billy Bathgate. At the time, my first home setup was a [Yamaha] O2R desk with [Tascam] DA-88s. Luckily, I had a friend who used to deal in a lot of used equipment, so he kind of donated an old Apple 9500 with some NuBus Pro Tools cards. So, I got my first little Pro Tools setup and started recording at home. I built a small studio and a recording booth in the central floor of my apartment. We just went to town, and I've been digital ever since.
I go back and forth between Pro Tools and Logic. Pro Tools is a standard, and you can't really get rid of it. I just got the new Logic 9. It's not a huge overhaul of the system itself, but the things that they have added have made it just about as simple as Pro Tools to operate. Pro Tools, like I said, it's a standard, it's not going anywhere, and it's also very simple. If you know how to use a console, know the basics of recording, and you know how to use a word processor, you can use Pro Tools. It's pretty standard, just cut and paste, click, drag. Whereas Logic always had a little bit more of a learning curve. But ever since they revamped it for 8, they've made it a lot easier to use, and they've continued that with 9. Since 9 has been out, that's pretty much all I've been using. I use the UAD plug-ins, and I have to say it seems like Logic utilizes them a bit better.
Exactly. So it seems like I can get more use out of it with Logic than I can with Pro Tools — that's another reason why I've been using Logic a bit more. I'd been hearing good things about the UAD plugs for a while, from the two engineers that I work with closely, who are Ryan West and Young Guru. But the main thing for me was I was tired of having to deal with dongles. I really liked the idea that basically your interface is your dongle, when it came to the UAD stuff–like your authorization resides on the interface.
I had read in one of the engineering magazines about the UAD-2 SOLO/Laptop card that was coming out, and I was like, this is perfect. I can take some of the processing load off of my computer, and on top of that, my authorizations will be on there. It's perfect. I'm thoroughly happy with it — especially a lot of the old analog-type stuff, like the UAD 4K Channel Strip and UAD 4K Buss Compressor plug-ins have been a really big help, because I come from an SSL background. That was the first major console that I learned on, and I like the console I have, an SSL 4000. So for me it's just perfect, because the curves translate so accurately. It allows me to just work the way that I usually work, with the convenience of being able to do it on the go, on my computer. We sat here and A/B'd stuff and as far as the curves on the EQ, and on the master buss, they're pretty damn accurate. It just makes my job a ton easier, and again, I can do it all within the box, without having to go back and forth between the two.
Also the Precision EQ just gets the job done. When you buy any DAW at this point, they give you a set of standard EQs, and I noticed [UA Precision EQs] definitely have a better sound than the standard EQs you would get with Pro Tools or Logic. And even just from an aesthetic standpoint, I like the fact that it actually has knobs. Well, virtual knobs.
Yes! Sound on Sound Studios — which no longer exists here in New York — they were the only place that I ever found that actually had one of those, an actual hardware unit. We used it a lot on Jay-Z's Blueprint 2 album. Ever since that place closed down, there's never been another place here that had one, that I could find. So it's cool to actually be able to get that sound back in, and have the modeling done so faithfully to the original unit. I’m a really big fan of that plug-in.
And then there’s also the Neves. I'm more of an SSL guy, but some of the engineers that I work with like the Neve stuff as well, so it's great to have those in the box. Like I said, the thing about it is, you can have the physical interface, in terms of all the knobs looking the same, but it's another thing when you hear how closely they recreated all the actual curves.
A lot of the plugs that you guys have, I have the actual hardware versions of, so when you sit there and make adjustments on the hardware, and then you run it again through the software, and you get a pretty close, if not dead-on, simulation of that same curve — it's great. It's just further proof that we can do these things in the box, and get just as good of a sound, if not damn close. Even though there have been a lot of advancements in the plug-in field in general, there are a lot of engineers who are still hesitant to believe that you can do everything in the box. And the more and more you see stuff like this, the more you can't really argue with it.
I haven't gotten a chance to check out the FATSO Jr/Sr yet, but we're really excited to. One of my engineers, Young Guru, called me and our other engineer Andy over here, literally screaming and yelling, because he was so happy that he finally had the option to get a real FATSO in the box. He's very heavy on using distressors… [laughs].
It shows. I noticed with some of the recreations of the old vintage analog gear that I've come across, sometimes I really feel like [other plug-in developers] just take their regular, standard EQ and just put the face of say a [Neve] 33609 or [Neve] 1073 or whatever on it and charge you a premium — just for having the faceplate of the unit — but the curves aren't really right. I can definitely tell that UA really puts a lot of work into not just a faithful [visual] representation of a unit, but especially getting the actual, real, sonic side of the modeling into it, which we all sure appreciate here in these studios.
Yeah, but of course it depends on what we're using it on. In my earlier days, when I wasn't as knowledgeable about recording in general, I used to definitely compress a lot more than I do now. Actually, the sound of hip hop in the earlier 2000s or the later '90s, was a lot more heavily compressed, especially on the drums. The way I've been approaching my music the past couple of years has been to really only compress when necessary, especially when it comes to drums. I've been going for more of a live feel, and a live sound. So I kind of feel like when you're going for that, and you over-compress, you can sometimes take the life out of the record, the feel of the energy and the emotion of that performance — especially when it comes to drums and vocals. I'd rather do a bunch of vocal rides, and automate them, than just over-compress them. And even with the drums, the drums don't get to breathe the way that they normally would when you're squashing them to hell.
So I've definitely backed off on a lot of the compression. I use it when necessary. Sometimes, even with just the slightest bit of compression — now that I'm 15 years wiser into the game — I can hear it right away. It definitely makes so much of a difference sometimes, when you just let things breathe. If something hits a little too hard at some point, well, sometimes things like that add character to a record. I'll sometimes compress on the overall mix, or use a master buss compressor, just to gel things together a little bit more, and kind of bring the mix home. But I really don't want to do that until the very, very end.