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Engineer Justin Niebank—Creating Country and Crossover Gold for Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and More

Justin Niebank UAD
Engineer Justin Niebank in the studio
with the UAD-2 FATSO plug-in

Justin Niebank could very well be the nicest guy on the planet. He is also more than eager to talk about Universal Audio. No attitude here, even though Justin is one of the hottest engineers going right now with five--count ‘em, five--albums in the Top 40: Fearless by Taylor Swift, Defying Gravity by Keith Urban, Unstoppable by Rascal Flatts, American Saturday Night by Brad Paisley, and Kenny Chesney’s Greatest Hits. I’m not just talking about country charts. These records have all crossed over into the mainstream. Niebank was a pleasure to speak with and happy to share his secrets. Enjoy!

I understand you're a musician. What's your musical background? How did you make the transition to engineering and producing?

Yeah, I’m a musician. I was in bands, and was signed. I was one of those people that once I got in the studio, I didn’t want to tour anymore. I didn’t want to deal with it. I just became enamored with the whole process of recording, just crazy about it. I was originally from Chicago, and it was interesting, because when I started engineering I started doing jingles during the day and blues records at night. It was great. And it was a great way to learn engineering, because in the day time I would do anything from a barbershop quartet to a full orchestra, and at night I was doing bands live in the studio. And I did that for several years in Chicago, and then I moved to Nashville. And I’ve been producing and engineering, based out of Nashville, since the mid ‘90s. I’m mixing a lot now, too.

Were you an early adopter of digital technology, and digital recording?

I stayed with analog right up to the point where it was difficult to get tape. But when the box called the Radar came out, I became a big fan of that. I never liked 32-track digital machines. I liked the Sony machines. But to me, an engineer embraces whatever technology makes the session work, and what the producer wants, what the artist wants. So to not be well versed in every technology available, you’re not doing yourself or anybody a service. But I was probably a little bit on the back end with a lot of DAWs. I was slow coming to Pro Tools, because I wasn’t really a big fan of how it sounded early on. But when they went to HD, I jumped on immediately.

"[W]hen you came out with the UAD-2, I jumped on that, even before the software came out. I adore it."

Pro Tools is your DAW of choice?

Yes, it is now.

What do you mix on? Are you mixing in the box? Are you using a mixing surface or console?

I’m one of those dinosaurs. My friends and I were just talking about this. I still mix a lot. I run, often, two rooms here at Blackbird studios, and I still like to split it out on a console. I still mix on an SSL 9000. That’s how I prefer to do it, because I still love the physical aspect of mixing. I still like the chances if things go wrong. I still like the spontaneity. I still like the idea of being able to bang up a quick mix and pull the faders down. I just love that. There’s a performance value in traditional mixing that I love.

At the same time, I still do mixing in the box, and I also do hybrids. Obviously, given where the business is going, if you don’t know how to mix in the box, you’re going to kill yourself. You’re not going to work, bottom line. But there are some really terrific things about it. On lower-budget records that I work on, mixing in the box is fantastic. It allows me the flexibility to build mixes up as I’m going, and to be able to save them, which is pretty cool. I’ve gotten to the point now where I feel pretty comfortable that I have it sounding as good. I’ll do mixes sort of in between, where I’ll start things off in the box, and then I’ll bring it in and split it out on the console, so I’ll have a variation of that. The last Vince Gill record I did, which won the GRAMMY®, that’s pretty much how I did the whole record. Sort of a hybrid between being in the box and split on the console.

The thing I love about working in the box is the plug-ins and stuff that are starting to come out now that I absolutely adore. So even when I’m mixing in a console, I’m starting to use more and more plug-ins in Pro Tools to get certain things I’m going for.

You have been a long-time UAD-1 guy. Are you using UAD-2s now?

I go way, way back. I think I got one of the first UADs, back when it was distributed by Mackie. I had two of those cards way back when I was still using Cubase on a PC. And then, every new version of the UAD that’s come out, I’ve followed along. I had three UAD-1s, and then I got a couple of the PCIe cards, and then when you [UA] came out with the UAD-2, I jumped on that, even before the software came out [laughs]. I adore it.

Keith Urban & Justin Niebank
L to R: Keith Urban and Justin Niebank
What are some of your favorite plug-ins?

Oh, gosh. That’s a good question, there are so many.

I know you're really into the Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO hardware unit, so I’m very curious to know if you've tried the FATSO plug-in.

Marsha, I gotta tell you, I’ve probably over-used it for the last three weeks. [Laughs.] That FATSO plug-in knocks my socks off, period. I'm always finding new things to use the FATSO on, but here are some of my favorites: On vocals, I run it as a parallel compressor with different compressor setups (though I use the 3-light crush a fair amount). I will use the warmth feature quite a bit. I've always got it on the bass running the Tranny, and it’s my newest piano mix compressor (sometimes in parallel) the warmth helps with over EQ'd and poorly miked pianos. Plus, it’s great on electric guitars to warm up harsh recordings.

But my favorite plug-in on the UAD that I use on every mix is the 1176LN. I also use the Pultec Pro a lot. Probably one of my favorite effects that I use on things these days is the Roland RE-201 Space Echo. I have a Space Echo in the control room and some Echo-Plexes and stuff, and I love using those. But [the plug-in], every time I go to it, I get exactly what I’m looking for, that sound I’ve always been used to, since the ‘80s, with the Roland stuff. So I use that almost every mix. I’m also using your de-essers [Precision De-Esser].

When I mix in the box, though, I use a lot of your stuff. One thing that I find interesting is that when I see interviews you have with folks about what their favorite plug-ins are, no one seems to mention anything about the original plugs, the plugs that come with the UAD, which I think have been under-rated. I don’t think people get it. Some of the effect programs, like the little reflection box in DreamVerb, I use that all the time. It sounds great. I really, really like it.

Have you tried the UAD 4K plug-ins?

I have. In fact I just finished a mix that I did in the box, and up ‘til this point, for all the SSL stuff I’ve been using the Wave plugs. This is the first time I had a chance to work with the UAD 4Ks, and I think the UAD 4K Buss Compressor is superior. It sounds really good to me. And the UAD 4K Channel Strip sounds great, too. They just sound more like the real thing to me—it glues in a way that I find more pleasing.

Do you have any favorite UA hardware pieces, vintage or new?

Yeah. I’ve always used 1176s. And now, of the reissues, I own two of the regular 1176LNs. I also own one of the 1176AE versions, the black one with the blue stripe. I use that all the time. ALL the time. Actually, I have so much UA gear it’s ridiculous. I have two of the 2-610 mic pres, and I also have the 2108 mic pre, which they discontinued, which I think is one of the coolest things they ever made. Those are the ones I use all the time.

You have so many records that are huge on the charts right now. The Taylor Swift record, and Rascal Flatts. That must be a good feeling!

[Laughs.] You know how it is. I appreciate you saying that. I feel great for them, because all the artists that I work with are really great people, and they work their tails off, so I’m glad that they’re having the success. The thing that’s funny about mixing, though: You’re only as good as what you’re doing at that moment. You can have a record that’s rocketing up the charts, and yet, you’re looking at a mix on the board and you can’t figure it out [laughs], so I’m humbled every day.

You recorded at my friend’s studio, Broken Radio, here in San Francisco, when you did the iTunes sessions with Keith Urban.

Matt Boudreau’s place. Yeah, I love that room!

It is such a cool room. It was designed by UA founder, Bill Putnam.

It is, I know. It was called Coast Recording, originally, right? I wish there was a room like that in Nashville. Nashville’s got a lot of great studios, don’t get me wrong, but there was something about the vibe of that room that I really, really like. That’s a vintage of studio design that I miss a lot. Coming up in the ‘80s, a lot of studios were sort of post-‘70s and ‘80s design, but there’s just something about that ‘60s-era design, like Broken Radio, the Universal Studios and the Bill Putnam-designed studios that became Ocean Way in LA. I’m just crazy about that particular vibe of studios. Love ‘em.

I’m sure they’d love to have you back any time.

Oh, God. If I could, I would in a second.

What are you working on right now?

Today I’m finishing up a Kenny Chesney mix. I’m also working on a Michelle Branch mix. Bridging the two worlds of pop and country.

I like your mixes, like your Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney mixes, where you really do a good job of having both the vocal and the guitar clear and present. Do you have any secrets you can share with us?

For me, a lot of records that I hear, I feel like people are missing groove and emotion in vocals. Once I kind of discovered the inner nuances and the subtleties and where the vocal sits in the track, and how it emotionally impacts you, that’s everything. That’s what’s going to sell a record, and that’s what makes people passionate about a song, passionate about an artist. Once I discovered that, and it took me a long time, and sort of put away trying to get the world’s greatest snare-drum sound—nobody cares about that. I mean, I love getting great drum sounds, and I love getting great guitar sounds. I love that. But if you don’t have the thing that’s going to draw people in, and make them addicted to a performance, you’re just barking up the wrong tree. So really, discovering vocals is everything to me. Big time.

Justin Niebank Rack
Justin Niebank and an impressive rack filled
predominantly with Universal Audio gear
What kind of signal chain did you use on Kenny’s voice?

On vocals I always split it off into multiple channels and do parallel compression. And in fact, for the last, since the FATSO came out, on one of the channels I do parallel compression and I’m always running the FATSO on the other. Basically what I do on the three channels is they all have slight sonically different characteristics.

The FATSO channel has a slightly more pumping, fatter sound, which I use to give presence and fullness on the bottom. Then, I’ll have a channel that’s more pristine, straight. And then, I’ll have one that’s a little bit brighter and more cutting. I’ll balance those three tracks until I find the thing that makes me go, “Damn, there it is!” Then I ride each channel, depending if there’s a spot where the vocals thin, I’ll ride the FATSO to give it some meat. And if there’s something that sounds a little stark, I’ll just pull that. I ride all three channels. And the thing that’s so great is now finally when I’m doing in-the-box mixes, I can use the UAD FATSO and get the same thing. It sounds exactly the same to me.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I have to be careful when people ask me that, because then I break into pontificating about people over-compressing, and not listening to what the core of the music is about.

Go for it. Where do you stand on compression?

Here’s where I stand on compression: I think everybody mixing should take a week or two out of their lives and try to mix and/or record without compression and see what real dynamics are like, and feel what that feels like again. You may realize that a great mix sometimes will compress itself if you spend the extra few minutes, and be patient and really balance it.

People use compressors because they’re lazy, in my opinion. I know it can add aggression and stuff, but I find what’s missing on radio and missing on records, is that the great records, with dynamics, will always broadcast better to me, and they’ll always make people feel more emotional about music. Over-compressed mixes maybe rip people’s face off for a second and they might think, “Wow, that’s distorted and exciting, isn’t it?” But later on, they’re like, “I think I’d rather do something else than listen to that again.” The records that got me into it, and everybody I know, are records that had dynamics, and I’m just pleading with everybody I know to stick with it!

— Marsha Vdovin

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