Respect for the Past, Creating the Future
Words like “dull” and “ordinary” are never found in the same sentence with the name Jack Joseph Puig. A sonic legend since his groundbreaking production and mixing work on albums for cult faves Jellyfish (Spilt Milk, Bellybutton), he’s been riding high recently with Platinum mixes for singles such as The Verve Pipe’s “Freshmen,” Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” and Semisonic’s “Closing Time” and albums by Tonic (Lemon Parade) and Goo Goo Dolls (Dizzy Up the Girl). A cutting edge mixer whose roots are firmly planted in the classics, Puig has been ensconced in Ocean Way L.A.’s Studio A for the last five years, where he’s also worked with Beck, Hole, Counting Crows and Remy Zero. There he has created a private mixing world comprising the best of vintage and new gear, all housed in an otherworldly environment that’s part funky spaceship, part ’60s pipe dream, part gothic castle, curio shop and musicians’ rehearsal hall.
Entry into the sanctum, past the “closed session” sign, is through a hallway papered with hundreds of console tape strips saved from projects Puig has worked on. In the control room: a winged Focusrite console, mountains of outboard gear, two Sony 3348s, masks and carvings, colored lights, black lights, glowing vacuum tubes and, in front of the patchbay, a good-size snakepit of cable.
In the studio, a long medieval-style banquet table, complete with candelabra, is set up in front of a tiki bar (a gift from the Goo Goo Dolls). A red velvet chaise sits beside a drum kit. A top-of-the-line Pro Tools system fills one corner, a Universal Audio tube console another, a bass rig still another. There are rows of vintage guitar amps, funky keyboards, stacks of percussion instruments. The walls are softened with batik tapestries and posters of The Beatles, Brian Wilson and Led Zeppelin. The overall vibe? A musician-friendly altered state where anything can happen.
Catching up with JJP for this interview wasn’t easy. While watching his mixes for No Doubt’s Return of Saturn album climb the charts, he was finishing up Green Day’s latest (Warning) and also deep into mixes for Collective Soul and new bands Electracy, Killing Heidi and SR-71. I finally pried him away from the console and we adjourned to the table in the studio. A faint scent of incense filled the air, and KROQ played from a boombox as we sat down for our chat.
Is there always a radio playing in your studio?
All day. I like having music out here. It’s part of creating an environment that I feel is conducive to creativity. The radio, actually, comes from when I worked with the Black Crowes. They’d turn on a blaster out in the studio between takes and listen to CDs. It was inspiring to all of us.
Besides, I like hearing the records that I’ve either produced or mixed on the radio. It’s like a tool; I get to hear how it sounds on the station and think, “Okay, what can I do to make it better?” Because, in terms of singles, we are mixing for the radio.
You’re very knowledgeable about radio in general—and not just about playlists. You know the names of station personnel and how their broadcast setups affect the sound of your records.
Definitely. I’ve come to know program directors, and I find it interesting to listen to the different sonic qualities [of the different stations]. The concept of sitting behind a console listening to a mix on NS10s, Tannoys or Genelecs – whatever – only makes sense from the standpoint that it’s a reference. But that’s it. It’s not realistic and representative of the whole listening world.
The truth is, given the different systems it gets played on and the environment it gets heard in, when that record leaves the control room environment, the half dB you may have concerned yourself with for an hour means nothing. Take a CD and go to Frys [Electronics]. Walk down the row, play it in each blaster and listen to the difference in how that song sounds. It will tear your head off. One could be left on the jazz setting, one’s got the bass boost in – what’s important is the whole picture. How does it make you feel emotionally? One of the arts of great mixing is being able to put a song together so that wherever you hear it, the heat of the song comes through the speakers.
You’re notorious for your collection of equipment, yet it doesn’t seem to be technology that truly inspires you.
Yes, songs have inspired me first. Think about all the eras we’ve gone through—hair bands, bands with flannel shirts, ska, punk, rock, metal—whatever. After all these eras, the song, which is the main common element with all of them, still stands as the king. Song is king!
Making that song come out of those speakers with that kind of power is what we’re responsible for. We’re communicating with people. As far as all the equipment, to me they’re just tools. I can have a box of eight Crayolas or a box of 64; I prefer to have the box with 64. Can I take a red crayon and a green one, mix them together and make a color? Yes. But I can also make even more shades with the 64-box.
But I’ve also made records with very little equipment. Either way can be right. I just, in general, prefer the larger palette.
When we had finished the Tonic record [Lemon Parade], the A&R person, the band and I felt there were two songs that needed to be on the record. One problem was in our way: no money. So I said, “Pick the cheapest studio, tell me what time to be there, and we will nail the two songs to completion in two days.” I walked into that studio on a Saturday. The assistant introduced himself to me and asked, “What mics would you like on the drums?” I looked at him and asked, “Do you have a mic locker?” He said, “Yes.” “Walk into the locker, grab whatever ten mics are on your left. Those will be for the drums. The seven mics on your right will be for the bass, guitars and vocals. One of the two songs became everybody’s favorite, and the rest is radio history.
Okay, but with your current setup, there is so much to choose from. How do you decide what to use?
It’s just instinct. One day you’re listening to a track and something inside you says, “You know, that would sound great if such and such was on it.”
So you have this giant equipment inventory catalogued in your brain, and the proper piece of gear for each application just pops into your mind at the proper moment?
I feel everybody has what I call a “preset” – something they default to. The preset is developed by the synthesis of all your experiences as you’ve grown up listening to music. Maybe your parents played a certain kind of music, or you lived in a city that was famous for a certain kind of music. Then there’s your education and your experience. This synthesis is an endless list that creates the preset that you don’t even realize you have.
What’s important is to put yourself in “manual.” Manual mode means that you are in operation from your gut and current instinct. You will do your best work in manual!
Lots of times when I’m working, I’ll think to myself, “Oh, I better save this mix,” and I look up at the computer and it’s already saved. But I don’t remember doing it. That’s when you’re on. At that point, you’re not thinking about it. It’s the same thing for the equipment. You just reach for an EQ or a compressor the same way a musician would go for a Stratocaster or a Les Paul. It’s what makes sense for this song.
When you’re a busy mixer, it becomes difficult to avoid going for that preset, that thing that you know will work and that also gives you an identifiable “sound.” You, however, don’t seem to have an identifiable sound.
Keep in mind that the identifiable or commercial sound isn’t always a great sound. It’s just what is popular at the time, because it was attached to a hit record. That’s where commerce and art meet. Life is a compromise.
What I do for a living is make commercial records; that’s my job of choice. We are in a service-oriented business. It’s true that some people want their CD to be done as fast as possible and for it to sound like everything else. In other words, they like McDonald’s, where they’re in, they’re out and they know what they’re gonna get. And yes, it’s possible to develop systems where you don’t have to change anything and you can move very quickly.
I also have had A&R and bands come to me for sonic creativity. Who wouldn’t want to have the luxury of listening to the song, talking to the band, discovering what they’re about, what they’re going through, what CDs they’ve been listening to and why they wrote those songs?
You prefer to have input from the band while you’re mixing?
Of course, when it’s possible. Because you’re working with them for only a few days or a few weeks. You haven’t made the record, lived with the record like they have. Instead, you’ve gotta get up to speed – 0 to 180, now!
You’re talking about establishing a relationship.
Yes, with the artist and the song. Take Arif Mardin, who is a genius. He always established a relationship with the song and artist. He always knows how to allow everyone to do their best and how to put them on target. He understands the value of the artist.
That’s great, assuming you’re working with great artists.
Of course. But I believe at some point in the ’80s, people who do what I do for a living—mixers or producers—became the stars. It was the beginning of us having managers, percentages on records; everything started to change. And it was no longer the guy recording the record who was mixing it.
I’ll give you an example. Take Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” Hear that record in your head, then try playing it on a piano. You can’t come close to it feeling like the song you remembered. It’s all about the sound of the backbeat—the attitude, the arrangement—the way it’s put together. The true artist there was the production team, meaning producers, engineers and the mixers. They were really the artists. The computer, which was a large part of the technical ’80s revolution, was coming in. Everyone got very engrossed with the manipulation of what we could do to the music. So the focus was not on the artist.
Artists became, in many cases, interchangeable.
We were the artists in those cases. And that’s not the total perspective. It got a bit out of control, and that’s why it’s so important to understand whose wedding it is. Now, I’m not talking about being a wimp. You have to have confidence, and you have to realize your contribution. The artists are the diamond in the rough, and it’s their wedding.
But great production is also art.
Of course. What’s Thriller? There’s no production in Dark Side of the Moon or Kiss from a Rose? Or Abbey Road? I mean, George Martin’s a genius. Or what about Led Zeppelin? That’s not what I’m saying. I’m pointing out that those records happen when all the parts are in the right relationship. Where they all come to the party. What a great record is about is people coming together making that indescribable chemistry. When it really works on a huge level, it’s bigger than all of us, and you don’t even know it’s happening.
You’re lucky to have experienced that; it doesn’t happen to everyone.
I’ve never taken this for granted. I will be able to look back and say I appreciated every moment of it, with respect.
C’mon, you never have those moments when you put your head down on the console and go, “I cannot do one more pass of the song”?
The business doesn’t owe us anything. We’re very, very fortunate to be a part of it. I get to work at Ocean Way Studios, one of the best recording studios on the planet, with phenomenal artists. They write great songs. They can sing and play, and they have something to say. What’s wrong with that?
Who were your mentors?
I had three. The first one is Bill Schnee, who was like my Obi Wan Kenobi. And I always look at Glyn Johns and Arif Mardin as my Yodas. Anytime you do a band’s first record and it goes through the roof, and you’ve been a part of creating their sound, you have done what I aspire to ultimately do: create the blueprint! That separates the men from the boys. Certainly all three of them do that.
I came up in the late ’80s, so I knew how those records were made. But I wanted to know how records were made in the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s. The three of them gave me that education. Each of them gave me a different perspective, and I continue to pull from them all the time. I actually hear their voices in my head sometimes when I’m doing things.
What do you hear Glyn Johns saying?
“Nothing is precious.” True rock ‘n’ roll is not precious. Glyn was very much against the idea of becoming anal over any aspect of a record, down to placing a microphone on a guitar amp. Glyn was like, “Whack it! Just move it ’til you think it’s right!”
I remember once, engineering for Glyn and spending a lot of time miking a guitar, trying to find the exact spot where it would sound amazing, because I wanted to blow him away. Finally, he said, “Are you done?” “Yes, what do you think?” “It’s great. But let me show you something.” We walked out of the control room into the studio. He walked up to the amp and looked me straight in the eye. Our eyes were locked, and he took his leg and knocked the mic over. And he kept looking at me, waiting for my response. Which was, in my mind: “You’re a dick. You’re an asshole!”
And that’s when he looked at me and said, “Nothing is precious. Use your instinct. Use your gut. Mike it again and use your instinct.” He was right. In two seconds, I had it sounding better.
As simple and mundane as that sounds, it’s one of the greatest lessons I learned in this business. That’s why rough mixes and demos are so often amazing. You’re not thinking about it, you’re just doing it.
You seem to have a special affection for music of the ’60s.
Actually, I feel all the decades had great qualities to them. I want to take the best of all of them and create the future.
The ’60s were innocent; the records were bright and vulnerable – splashy and roomy with so much character. They were blazing a new way, and no one knew where they were going. That mentality was in the artist, it was in the people making the records, the people who were making equipment, the people who designed studios – everybody was excited.
Then the ’70s happened: multitrack recording, a collection of mono tracks and the beginning of control. The initial concept was the ability to change the arrangement later. The first mix session came, and someone asked for the drums to be taken out. But they didn’t go away—there was leakage! The result was to create more isolation.
And that led to blankets on the pianos. Now you had drum booths, isolation rooms and gobos. And that begot the ’70s sound. It was thuddy, warm, thick. It was dry and in your face. People were taking a microphone that used to be five feet away and putting it five inches away.
Then the ’80s came, a board came into the business called SSL and everything changed. What I just described about the ’70s, in terms of that kind of presence, now was done further with gates and compressors on the SSL. It was a new kind of thinking.
What was great about the ’80s was hearing a new impact to the front of the note that you’d never heard before—a new attack, a new kind of punch. The ’80s had this exciting power to it. But it was what I call “implied power,” where when you listen to it, your brain tells you it’s big and powerful. Unlike ’60s or ’70s records that had real power and tonality.
Then, the ’90s came, and everybody bought an SSL, a pair of NS10s, two Studer tape machines, a REV 7, SPX 90, two LA2s, two 1176s, a Panscan, and they could now charge $2,000 for the room. It could be in a skyscraper in New York or in a strip mall in Van Nuys, and you could walk into either one of those places, thousands of miles apart, and make it sound exactly the same. The concept of the personalized studio was gone.
Ah, now I see where we’re going.
What I want to do is merge the decades together. This is why the cover of this magazine looks the way it does. The room that I created, and am currently working in, has gear that ranges from the ’60s to the ’90s, to the newest pieces that aren’t even out yet. A UA tube console and the latest Pro Tools rig are available. I use a United Artist tube console for my digital reverb returns and the latest 24-bit Pro Tools rig for its cool digital plug-ins.
Not very many people are as passionate as you are about both music and equipment.
Well, this is not a hobby. I’m very, very serious. This is not a 9-to-5 job. If you want to be great at this, and you want to have a great reputation, you must earn it. It’s a lifestyle.
The crew here are all top gun or they’re out. The engineers in my room—Jim Champagne, Daren Moro, Richard Ash—have all been great and are top gun. They have to be; there is too much riding on it. You’ve got to deliver greatness. That takes 100 percent dedication. I have never understood 90 percent. Good enough? Ocean Way has always had technical excellence, and [chief engineer] Bruce Marian is a technical wizard.
It wasn’t an accident of fate that you ended up working at a recording studio.
No, I always knew. I knew at 10 years old that I wanted to be in the music field. At the same time, I played in bands as a bass player. One day when my band was doing demos and there was a problem in the control room, I went into the control room and realized I was much better on this side of the glass. It was so natural for me; so I switched to this side of the glass.
How did you get your first studio job?
I was offered a job through a friend, at Whitney’s [MCA Whitney in Glendale]. But I really owe my career to Bill Schnee. He took me in. He’s a fabulous talent, and I will always be indebted.
Do you ever turn down projects?
If I don’t get it, absolutely. I only do something if I feel that when I step up to the plate, I’ll know how to hit the ball. If I feel like I don’t understand the artist, or I don’t understand the music, or it doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t do it.
You’re so into feel. Don’t you think Pro Tooled perfection does away with it?
A large number of operators don’t think like musicians. They think like technical computer people, and they’ll line things up to be exactly the same whether they should be or not. When you mix a record that hasn’t been Pro Tooled, depending on which parts, which musician you favor, you can create different feels. When they line it up all perfectly with Pro Tools, some of those choices are taken away. A great Pro Tools operator is sensitive and aware of the musician’s feel that he is manipulating, but those people are rare.
What format do you mix to?
I mix to half-inch, DAT and DA-88.
What are some of your pet peeves about tracks you mix that other people have recorded?
I can’t stand it when I get something that’s been recorded on Pro Tools, and they’ve gone through and erased all the sound between the tom fills, because a drum kit is the sound of all the drums vibrating. If there is too much ring in the toms, I would like to deal with the problem with the millions of easy solutions there are.
Over-compressed tracks, poor track sheets, mislabeled tape boxes combined with a lack of creativity in the recording process leaves me disappointed sometimes. These are problems that have always existed. However, I’m fortunate to work in a day and age where technology allows for easy solutions. But I do live for those days when I push the faders up and say, “Wow!”
Why do you like the Ocean Way Focusrite console so much?
Because it has all the bells and whistles of any modern console. This console is truly one of a kind. It’s been so radically improved and customized by Ocean Way that it bears little resemblence sonically to a stock console. The ISA 110 EQ in this console has top-end air and altered frequencies that don’t exist in the original.
What do you monitor on?
Primarily NS10s. Why? Because I can get off the plane in New York, France, Egypt, Japan or Mississippi, and they’re everywhere. I’ve learned to make them work. They have become a monitor standard.
“Iris” was a breakthrough period for Goo Goo Dolls, one of those instances where all the components work together. Can you describe some of what you did on it?
When we did that record, we talked about wanting to make the drums have a ’70s vibe. We wanted a wide, full and deep dimension. We didn’t want everything to be in the same plane and on “10” with no real perspective. That was a record that had the implied and real power concept applied successfully. It has the innocence of the ’60s, the tonality of the ’70s and the implied power of the ’80s.
The kick drum, for example, is natural but big. What were you using on it?
Allen Smart built for me the gate and compressor that is in the SSL channel strip. That was on the bass drum along with an API 560 EQ. The sound has a lot to do with the compression that I mix in. I have some very unusual and cool compressors made by Electrodyne and Presto that have very different ballistics. Depending on how hard you hit them and how you EQ the return, you can really control the length of the note. Then you add that to the original sound, which you have very tight and punchy.
I like to have lots of different compression on the desk and mix it in as opposed to having it on the channel. Used properly, compression can be the most musical tool we have. It alters the time and feel of what’s coming into it. You can make the notes go longer or shorter, brighter or darker, and by mixing it in, you can change the way the record feels.
How about the snare?
Without a doubt the same custom Allan Smart SSL dynamics module. I also used an Electrodyne compressor that has a 30-to-1 ratio; the amount of attack is ridiculous.
The reverb on the strings is kind of short and thick. What is that?
Ocean Way has two great live chambers. Nothing beats a great live chamber.
“Iris” sounds good on all kinds of speakers, from hi-fi at home to the car.
That is one of the important arts to great mixing. I have always felt that midrange is the most important band. The one common factor with all systems is they all have midrange. Some systems have or don’t have subwoofers, and some have or don’t have extended high frequencies. But all have midrange. Get the midrange right. It’s good to have different speakers to listen on. When I bought my car, I didn’t care what color it was; I bought it for the reference it could be.
You know, we need some sort of end quote here…
I still believe in the romance of record-making, and I hope the picture of my room on the cover inspires people the way the room has inspired me for the past five years. I feel that what you have to do is follow your own instincts. You can’t do what other people want you to do, because then you are following someone else’s vision, and the work won’t be convincing. I’ve never wanted to be attached to fashion. I want to be known for making quality records that transcend fashion.
The only way to create something where you and others feel the power of it, the sex of it and the emotion of it, is when it’s coming from your gut. If it’s a cerebral decision, a mental decision, your brain is pushing the faders, not your heart. To be great, it has to be your heart pushing the faders.
Tonic: Lemon Parade (Atlas/Polydor, 1996) (also recorder, mix engineer)
Jellyfish: Spilt Milk (Virgin, 1993) (also recorder, mix engineer) and Bellybutton (Charisma, 1990)
The Black Crowes: Amorica (American, 1994) (also recorder, mix engineer) and Three Snakes & One Charm (American, 1996) (also recorder, mix engineer)
The Verve Pipe: “The Freshmen” The Freshmen (RCA, 1997) (also recorder, mix engineer)
Abra Moore: “Trip On Love” Cruel Intentions soundtrack (Virgin, 1999) (also recorder, mix engineer) and Strangest Places (Arista, 1997)
Taxiride: Imaginate (Sire, 1998) (also recorder, mix engineer)
Pushstars: After the Party (Capitol, 1999)
No Doubt: Return of Saturn (Interscope, 2000)
Goo Goo Dolls: Dizzy Up the Girl (Reprise, 1998) and “Iris” City of Angels soundtrack (Reprise, 1998)
Hole: “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” The Crow: Salvation soundtrack (Koch International, 2000), “Be a Man” Any Given Day soundtrack (Atlantic, 2000) and “Hit So Hard” Celebrity Skin (DGC/Geffen, 1998)
Semisonic: “Closing Time” Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA, 1998)
Counting Crows: “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” “Hangin’ Around”and “Four Days” This Desert Life (DGC/Geffen, 1999)
Days of the New: “Weapon and the Wound” Days of the New 2 (Interscope, 1999)
Weezer: Pinkerton (Geffen, 1996)
Talk Show: Talk Show (Atlantic, 1997)
Big Wreck: In Loving Memory of… (Atlantic, 1997)
Robbie Williams: The Ego Has Landed (Capitol, 1999)
Remy Zero: Villa (Interscope, 1999)
Collective Soul: “Blender” (Atlantic, 2000)