Analog Dialog: Work It- Vocals with Jimmy Douglass
How to Sound Like Gladys Knight

Recording & Mixing Master Jimmy Douglass
I think I’m been driving my friends and family crazy with my Missy Elliott obsession. Seems like every time my boyfriend comes home, I’ve got “Work It” blasting. I also go around raving about Jimmy Douglass who I am convinced is one of the most interesting engineers/mixers around. Most of my judgment is based on hearing Jimmy’s mixes of Missy, Ludicris, Aailyah, and Ginuwine. But what sent me spinning was the Missy Elliott DVD-A, "So Addictive". Finally someone who gets it! The first good surround mix I’ve heard from a major label. More than that, it’s a phenomenal listening experience. When I found out that Jimmy Douglass used the 1176... jackpot! Now I could interview him. I pestered Tom Kenny, Editor of Mix, to introduce me, and kindly he did, at AES in New York. And of course, the man I met was gracious, intelligent and articulate…as expected.

“...Then I always use an 1176 on the insert. It tickles but doesn’t take over. I always put the vocals up front”

Jimmy’s records always have a great vocal quality to them whether straight ahead or highly processed. On Missy Elliot’s So Addictive DVD-A she thanks engineer/mixer Jimmy Douglass in the liner notes, “Thank you for making me sound like Gladys Knight.” Well, Missy picked the right engineer to get great vocals and I learned why when I interviewed him.

Jimmy Douglass learned at the knee of one of the finest engineers and producers, Tom Dowd. When Jimmy was in high school he got a part time job as a tape duper at Atlantic Records’ Studios in Manhattan. He was supposed to do homework while the tapes were running but he ended up sneaking in the control room and watching. ”There were no assistants in those days. They didn’t teach me. The room was there. I watched Tommy work at night and I went in early in the morning before school and tried to recreate what I saw him do.”

Some of the most legendary R&B and Rock albums by Aretha Franklin, Cream, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Herbie Mann, Bette Midler, The Rolling Stones, and Roxy Music were recorded during this golden era at Atlantic by such great producers as Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd. And Jimmy was there, watching, -absorbing and eventually executing the moves. Now, Jimmy Douglass is one of the most sought after, prolific and accomplished engineer/ mixers in the R&B, Hip Hop and Rock arenas. He also engineered some of my favorite classics from the ‘80s, Marquee Moon by Television and Roxy Music’s Manifesto.

We spoke about his history with Missy and Timbaland- her longtime collaborator/producer. Jimmy was working with them both at a studio in Rochester, New York in the mid nineties. The project fell apart but Jimmy, Missy and Timbaland emerged as partners and reshaped the sound of hip-hop. It was there that Jimmy bought his first 1176.

“The studio had 2 silver 1176s. I went to an auction at a video house and when I saw that there were 2 black face 1176s available, I was quite excited. I guess because it was a video house, they were barely used and in great condition. I didn’t have much money. I was just bidding against just one guy. We got up to $400…$450…$500. I remember when he said $500, I was like, I gotta stop, ‘cause I don’t really have enough money. I bid $550 and the guy said ‘SOLD’ and then he said to me ‘so you want both of them right?’ That’s the great line that I’ll always remember… and I said of course! I found the other money immediately. I thought I was bidding on one of them the entire time.”

Now, what you’ve all been waiting for…how to get those great vocals. First, you’ve got to have the magic ears. Jimmy records all vocals the same way. “A Neumann U87 into a Neve pre amp, whether it be a VR or a Neve Prism. Then I always use an 1176 on the insert. It tickles but doesn’t take over. I always put the vocals up front”

I wondered if starting out at Atlantic during such a charmed era affected they way Jimmy approaches making records. “Oh yeah! I was making records for the head of the recording company. When they gave me a mix to do, I was mixing for THE MAN. There was no in between, there weren’t any A & R people. In that process, I would also have the ability and the right to tell them what I thought and if I didn’t like what they said I would tell them. So because of having that experience and growing up by working with the top man, when I go out in the world now and there’s all these middle people, I have a problem.” Well, it hasn’t affected your work, Jimmy.

If you look at Missy’s record Under Construction (nominated for five Grammys), the engineer is listed as Senator Jimmy D and the Mixer as Jimmy Douglass. Why? “When you’re mixing, you’re often off in the room by yourself but when you’re recording you have be a diplomat – It’s political! So when I’m engineering, I call myself Senator Jimmy D.”

Jimmy promised me more 5.1 releases from Missy and others. Excellent! He also told me that he thinks in surround now. Often when he and Timbaland are working they start out in surround and then have to fold down to stereo. “Surround might be what saves the record industry from piracy”

What would Jimmy Douglass’ dream UA product be? It would be an integrated Pre amp, EQ and Limiter/Compressor. “I love the 1176, if they could emulate a Pultec or a Neve EQ then I could have everything in one box and I could be very versatile.”

Ok, I’ll get the guys working on it (grin) and while I’m at it, I’ll try to do something about those pesky A& R people too!

--Interview by Marsha Vdovin

Questions or comments on this article?