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Joe Chiccarelli Interview

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Joe Chiccarelli is the multiple Grammy Award-winning engineer that caught his break when Frank Zappa’s engineer couldn’t make it to the recording session, and Joe, the twenty year old assistant, was asked to fill his place. This resulted in Chiccarelli working on several Zappa albums, and a career that to this date has included work with artists such as The White Stripes, Elton John, U2, Beck, My Morning Jacket, The Strokes etc. This career of his shows no sign of slowing down, and one of his more recent work is the critically acclaimed Morrisey album World Peace Is None Of Your Business.

I got a chance to speak to him in Santa Monica (California) earlier this year, we talked about his views on audio engineering, being a music producer and the tools he uses to get the job done. And of course, the importance of listening in mono.

What’s your view on the job of an audio engineer today?

It’s a creative job, it’s not a technical job. The minute I forget everything I’ve learned technically and rely on my emotional connection to the song, that’s when I do my best work. In other words, I’m not in my head. I’m there connected to the material and the artist. I make choices, technically, that maybe aren’t the most obvious. But they suit the song and the mood and the material. I think nowadays, to be a good engineer you have to be an emotional, creative, integral part of the music making process. Not just pushing buttons.

Is it really possible to be just an engineer and not have anything to do with the production?

The line between producing and engineering has always been very fine. I’m the sort of person that gets involved with every part of the record, the songs and the arrangement to me are everything. Creating the picture for the artist is everything. Of course, I am a gear person and I have my favorites, but I don’t live and die by it. I think you can make a record with any gear, analog, digital, plugins, but I have my favorites that I rely on and trust.

Nowadays most people that produce music don’t start out in a big studio, they start out on a laptop at home. Is it possible to become an accomplished producer without spending time in a studio?

There have been plenty of people I’ve worked with that have just been locked in their bedroom and they have one piece of gear and they have to do everything with that one piece of gear. And they get results that are amazing, and they do things I would never do. I would go to some other tool that would do it faster or better, but they get more unique results.

Do you think people miss to learn some of the basic skills by being at home and being self-taught?

I don’t know if they miss basic skills but the thing that people don’t learn is being a part of a team. When you were in a studio situation where there was the assistant engineer, engineer, producer, arranger, band or studio musicians, everybody had roles. They had to respect each other. They had to know their place. They had to be sensitive to every other person in the room. And the thing I’ve found when you work at home for years on your own, you’re like this hermit and you have very little contact with the human race and you don’t develop the best people skills! And part of the gig is just that, being able to interface with the artist. To be sensitive to their mood, to know when to push them, when to be the cheerleader, when to be the tough guy and tell them something is not good. That’s a lot of the gig!

In all creative work there is an element of doubt. At times you’re not sure if what you’re doing is any good or you feel sure that it’s terrible. How do you deal with that when you’re working with an artist?

Every time I do something I always think it’s crap. There are very few things in my life that I think are really good. I always think it can be better. There are moments when I go “wow, that song just works.” Those moments when there’s magic there and it just clicked. Usually those things that are magical happen quickly; there was not a lot of time for self-doubt. I really think that second-guessing and being indecisive is the death of any creative process. I think you have to be as in tune as possible with your intuition and with the spirit that first helped create that germ of the idea. The more you refine it, sometimes you refine the magic and the personality out of it.


In my experience, the best songs were written fast, recorded fast and just happened by some sort of divine intervention. I think that when you’re in tune with that you make better music or art, period. When you’re in tune with the knobs and the settings I don’t know what you make! I went through this for years and then it’s been about forgetting all that and putting it aside. Sometimes I look at the settings and think it looks kind of weird and something I wouldn’t normally do and think “who cares?” And the minute I’m ok with the ‘who cares’ part of it, it’s much better.

How do you deal with an artist being doubtful or sensitive about their work?

Surely I can be a cheerleader, but if I don’t think something is good or fully realized, I say that I think it can be better. I try my best to be very specific and tell them why I don’t think it’s good and tell them some ways to fix it. In dealing with anybody from The Shins to The Strokes to Spoon I tell the truth like “I think you have to write another section here” or “are you sure about the melody in the chorus?” But in the end, if the artist says they love the result I have to back down, it’s their record.

I’m always pushing myself. A part of the job as a producer is to look at every part of the process with both precise laser vision and at the same time listen to it like you’re hearing it for the first time on the radio. You have to change back and forth between those two types of vision, sometimes in microseconds. That’s a really important part of the job.

The more I get in touch with those deep inner workings of a song the better the end result will be. And I’m not necessarily talking about commercial success because these days, what is that? Is that a million views on Youtube? Is that five million single sales? It’s certainly not a million album sales. I think it’s really a musical success.

Do you frequently double track vocals and instruments in your productions?

I like to think of a song as a kind of ride, a journey, and I like to change things up from section to section. Sometimes I do it boldly, in the sense that the verse will have very different instrumentation and recording techniques from the chorus. Other times I do it subtly in the mix, or both. There may be certain delays or reverbs happening in the chorus but they’re not happening in the verse or vice versa. I think it’s important to make that path. Maybe the vocals sound good in the verse with a tight double but in the chorus it needs more energy, so let me put on six voices and some harmony and a wall of vocals. Whatever might be appropriate.

But I don’t have some kind of rule that you should always double the chorus vocal or anything like that. It depends on the singer. Morrisey didn’t sound good doubling his vocals, but he comes from almost an old style like a crooner. I don’t think Sinatra doubled his vocals so much either. But with some singers, even tripling or quadrupling can sound great.

Do you use artificial doubling effects as well?

Yeah, I use old school Lexicon delays, I’ll use the Waves Doubler plugin, SoundToys MicroShift and EchoBoy. All SoundToys stuff is just fantastic, I use that a lot. But getting the person to go out there and double their own voice is still the best. That’s much better than using another previously done take as a double, a second performance works the best. A lot of times I use a different microphone for the double. Maybe something lo-fi, like a 57 or 58 to make it cut through the track.

Do you still use analog tape?

Not that much, and it’s mainly because of budgets. I love mixing to it. All the records I’ve mixed to one inch analog tape are my favorite sounding records, like The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, My Morning Jacket and Elton John. One inch analog tape is like the best of both worlds, you get the digital clarity and preservation of transients but you get the subtle bit of compression and bottom end bump. But these days record companies won’t even pay to feed the artist in the studio, let alone $2000 for analog mixdown tape.

Do you like any tape emulations out there?

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The UAD ATR 102 I like a lot actually, I’ve used that to smooth out guitars. The Eddie Kramer (Waves) works great as a vocal slap delay.

You’ve talked about that you don’t solo individual tracks when mixing, why is that?

Because I don’t really care what the individual track sounds like. If I’m confused about something, if there’s a problem I do. But I never go “ok, let me get a snare drum sound by soloing the snare drum.” In the course of a mix I don’t think I spend more than two minutes in solo. When I track I use solo a lot.

What’s the advantage of listening in mono when you’re mixing?

I spend a lot of time in mono. I think you really hear frequency clashes, especially in big production or rock productions where there is a lot of elements in the midrange like a lot of guitar tracks and keyboard tracks. I think it helps you sort them out and give them their own space.

Sometimes in mixing you can get fooled and think that you’re making this record that is very big and cinematic, and then you put it in mono and everything kind of fights each other, and the space you thought was there is really not there. It’s not always phase cancellation, it can be frequency cancellation (masking). So maybe I need to put a guitar higher and put the keyboard lower frequency-wise.

Do you actually EQ when listening in mono?

Oh yeah. It will also help me with things like vocals, maybe an open vowel sound that will jump out of the mix that you might not notice in stereo. Or a word that’s loud and feels outside the track. I probably spend a third of the time in mono when I’m mixing.

Do you use two speakers or one speaker when listening in mono?

I use two speakers. Because that’s the way I’m set up. Some people use Auratones, which is great. They don’t have a lot of top or bottom end so you’re forced to clean up the midrange. That’s why I used Tannoys for years. They’re really midrange focused and have a tendency to show you where the flaws in the midrange are. You instantly hear that, and you address it.

What’s your preference when it comes to reverb?

I love Briscasti, old AMS, EMT 250, EMT plates and live chambers if I have them. I always feel like if you have one analogue reverb in the mix, then you can have ten digital reverbs and the ear somehow thinks that all the reverbs are real. There’s something about the dimensionality, if that’s a word, of that one analogue reverb that fools the ear so that the whole reverb picture seems real.

Is the analogue reverb the most prominent reverb in the mix then?

Not necessarily, it might just be for the vocal or snare drum, strings or whatever. I don’t usually use ten reverbs in a mix. I probably use four or five, one or two shorter digital ones for drums, one or two anlogue type reverbs for vocals, strings, and backgrounds. I might use another short room reverb for guitars. It depends on the music, sometimes I only use one reverb. Sometimes I want something more closer and intimate, on vocals I might take all the top end off or make it really short. It kind of gives the vocals some extension but you don’t hear it as reverb trails.

It’s so driven by the songs. It’s really funny because in the nineties you couldn’t use reverb. People would fire you if you turned a reverb on. Now it’s kind of like people want more and more.

Cristofer Odqvist

Cristofer Odqvist is an audio engineer, producer and composer based in Stockholm, Sweden. For mixing tips and more, connect with him on Twitter and check out his popular eBook: Making Sound