Interview: Recording and Mixing Advice from Grammy-Winning Engineer Jason Goldstein
Engineer Jason Goldstein has worked with top musical talent such as Beyonce, Jay-Z and the Roots.
Goldstein, who is based in New York, mixed the Lonely Island's The Wack Album and Turtleneck & Chain, which were nominated for a Grammy and an Emmy for Best Comedy Album, and won a Grammy for mixing Beyonce’s multi-platinum B-Day album.
Goldstein was involved in the design and release of Logic Pro X and helped create the R&B and hip-hop drum kits available to users in Drummer, a new virtual instrument introduced in the Pro X version of Logic. He's currently working with the Roots on their upcoming album, tentatively titled & Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
GUITAR WORLD: How do your techniques differ when working with an artist whose recordings are primarily about the beats versus someone like Beyonce, who is all about the vocals?
They’re pretty similar. I value records sounding consistent across the spectrum. A record should sound just as good on a pair of small speakers as it does in earbuds, a club, a car, or if you’re standing on a corner and a car drives by and the record is playing. All the nuances need to be as present in all those listening environments. It’s very easy to mix for one or two listening environments.
A club is easy, but when you turn it down, a lot of the definition you thought you had is gone. If you mix for smaller speakers, when you turn it up loud in a club, you get piercing high end or aggression that doesn’t translate well to that environment. I pride myself on having everything about the record speak. When you’re talking about a Beyonce record, it’s of paramount importance that Beyonce is out there and clear, but her records also have to make you bob your head.
“Single Ladies,” and even “Irreplaceable,” which I did, there’s a rhythm and a vibe that has to be there. If it’s not, she’s sort of standing by herself on top of the music bed and it doesn’t work. Conversely, if you feature the music too much, then you’re losing all the nuances that she has in her voice, the lines, runs, changes in pitch and emotions that she goes through in the course of singing a song. So striking a balance is the most important thing.
It’s the same with rap. Rap is about the lyrics, but it’s also about it being banging in a club, so I take the same approach. There’s got to be a balance between the two. When you turn around and someone is nodding to a record, you know you’re in the right world. If they’re talking to the person next to them, you don’t have their attention and you need to do something to change that.
If it’s not a great production, but the hi-hat pattern is ridiculous, that’s what I focus on. Make that the best hi-hat ever. Take something in every record and pull that out so that it moves them somehow. Dynamics are really important to me. We’ve lost a lot of dynamics because of the production styles now, and also because of the loudness wars. If I don’t know who’s mastering the album, I will mix into a limiter so that my rides and level adjustments throughout the songs stay there, even in mastering. Otherwise, mastering can literally change the volume — not just from section to section but within each section.
I try to minimize that now, and that’s why having a strong understanding of digital helps. I can fake what a master is going to sound like really easily, and make sure that my mix is going to stay the way I want it and that the talent and the producer like it. They sign off on it at the end of the day and I don’t want it to sound different when it gets to mastering.
You’ve noted in the past that the way you work in digital is based on the way you worked on an analog console.
Yes. I lay out my Pro Tools sessions like I would on an 80-input console. I have the drums to the left, the bass next to that, instruments that play all the time next to that, the lead vocal was always on 24 so that it was in front of me, the background vocals were always on 25 and 26 at my right hand, to the right were miscellaneous things, and I had faders in the middle that controlled the drums, the bass and the music.
Sometimes I would break that into kick and snare and whatever was a featured aspect of the song, so that I never had to leave the sweet spot when mixing, or as little as possible. All the effects are way off on one side. That’s exactly how I have my Pro Tools sessions set up. I have VCAs that I can use. Pro Tools is endless. I can have a VCA on every instrument if I want. But I have six or eight set up at the beginning of a mix, and I have subgroups, like on a console. If I had a 90-inch monitor and you could see the whole session laid out, it would look like a console. I use a lot of the same techniques when it comes to compression and the types of delay and reverb I use.
Obviously, it’s great. You can automate and change so much now. I can automate EQs and pop them on different tracks. It really makes it easier, but the techniques are the same. I don’t like reverb on every track. That’s a mistake a lot of beginners make. Not only does that eat up DSP, but it sounds different from having one reverb that you’re sending everything to.
Although it has its place in an effect-y kind of way, it’s not as natural-sounding and you end up with thirty reverbs going instead of one. There are common mistakes and practices that people without an education get into, and again, that’s where having that old-school journeyman education, and the ability to learn from so many guys and how they did things, really comes into play.
Without that old-school education, how can anyone learn?
It’s tough. I feel for these kids. There are plenty of schools and a lot of them are very good. USC and NYU have exceptional schools and they do their best to bring in guest engineers and producers. At Ocean Way, I would get the setup for the day for a band tracking date. I’d go in and get to see which mics the producer was using, he’d tell me which instruments they went on, and I would place them and take Polaroids. I would patch all that gear into the console, and I could go in after the session and see how much EQ he’d added.
I was listening the whole time the session was taking place, so I could hear how he was tweaking it, and then hear the finished result. At the end of the day, I could look at the mics and see where he moved them. I could hear the difference, literally, from where I placed them and the session started until he left. I could hear the sound, and I was seeing it happen and making the patches. I was in the room. Now everything happens on a computer screen. All the patching is virtual.
There are no recall notes taken at the end of the day. I don’t know how these guys get to learn, other than what they’re taught in school. Spending a month on a Don Was record or watching Han Zimmer’s guy, Alan Meyerson, mic a 100-piece orchestra and working with him pretty frequently — there’s no substitute for that. I worked with Glyn Johns and he had a three-mic drum technique. I don’t know how these guys get to do it. I guess it’s trial and error, work in a small studio, figure it out for yourself. Move the mics around. Play with it. The big studios, especially in New York, are gone, so that mentoring kind of thing doesn’t happen as much as it used to.
It does out west. There are still large facilities, if you can get a job there. I walked into Ocean Way and swept the floor and tarred the roof for six months before I got to make coffee. Now you probably have to be a graduate from Full Sail or NYU to even get that job, so it’s definitely a different thing. I try to educate any assistant I have. I ask them to take notes, and at the appropriate time when the client is not there, feel free to ask me questions about how I did something and why I did something, because how else are they going to learn?
For more about Goldstein, visit jasongoldsteinmixer.com.
— Alison Richter
Alison Richter interviews artists, producers, engineers and other music industry professionals for print and online publications. Read more of her interviews right here.