Crabtrap Studios John Alagia

How this triple-threat mixer/engineer/producer puts out chart-topping records in the comfort of his East coast home studio
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How this triple-threat mixer/engineer/producer puts out chart-topping records in the comfort of his East coast home studio

JOHN ALAGIA, A TRIPLE-THREAT MIXER/ENGINEER/PRODUCER, puts out chart-topping records in the comfort of his East coast home studio.

John Mayer’s Room for Squares, certified triple-platinum. Dave Matthews Band Listener Supported, certified double-platinum. This is just scratching the surface of the projects producer John Alagia has been involved with. But to chat with him you’d never guess he’s reached the level of success most producers and engineers only dream of. Alagia is “good people.” Relaxed, easily engaged, and gracious, he’s also one of those rare talents capable of balancing the demands of wearing several hats on a record. Looking closely at the liner notes of some of his recent work, you’ll find his name attached to production, mixing, and engineering. He often contributes additional keyboards, guitar, and percussion, too.

Over the past 15 years he’s produced music for a range of high-profile artists such as Emmy Lou Harris, David Gray, Ben Folds Five, and most recently Jason Mraz, whose debut, Waiting For My Rocket To Come, has been steadily climbing up the charts. Not too shabby for a guy operating out of his well-stocked home studio along Maryland’s Eastern shore.

I recently caught up with Alagia at his place, lovingly dubbed Crabtrap Studios, to discuss his approach to making records. His engineering partner in crime, Jeff Juliano, was also on hand, so I was able to pick both of their brains about Pro Tools versus analog, the secret to capturing inspired takes, and why these two have abandoned working with a large format console.

COLLABORATION
A lot of your credits are combined — you wear several hats simultaneously as a producer, engineer, and mixer. How do you keep a fresh perspective when you’re so immersed in a project?
Alagia: I wouldn’t be able to do it without Jeff here. Early on when I was mixing on my own I would call Jeff in to listen, and he’d say, “Sounds great man, don’t overthink it.” And of course if you’re by yourself to go down that road where you start analyzing: “I wonder if that bass is a little too heavy or too light. . . .” Four ears are better than two. Jeff is the voice of reason, and helped me from overmixing.

Before I met Jeff I worked with a guy named Doug Derryberry, who’s a musical genius. When we worked together we tried to work the way Jeff and I do now, but it didn’t work as well as our current arrangement, because Jeff’s strength is working on the soundscape, not necessarily the music. On top of that, Jeff jumped on the Pro Tools bandwagon early on, so he came up with that. Now our brains have sort of merged into one.

I come from a more singer/songwriter background, whereas Jeff comes from a harder, more rock background. The Beatles greatly influenced me, and Jeff was all about Van Halen. I think the convergence of the two really makes the final outcome stronger.

How do you divide the workload?
Alagia: I used to be the fader hog, but slowly I started to trust Jeff, and now I’ve really learned to trust his instincts when it comes to getting the balance in a mix right — we’ve influenced each other very much. I was working in [iZ Technology] RADAR, and he was in Pro Tools. I’d start the editing on RADAR, and then he’d start balancing tracks, then we’d jump in together and do the mixing.

You’d be doing comps and other edits on RADAR?
Alagia: Yeah, we’d have two stations. We used to work with both of us at the console, back when we had a console, but as things have evolved it turns out that I work more on the overall focus and production of a song, and Jeff focuses more on the tones.

I’ve done a couple of projects without Jeff, and I’ve tried to do it as quickly as possible because it’s easy to overthink a mix. In fact, the producer told me to do it quickly for that reason. Some of those mixes on Busted Stuff [Dave Matthews] I did in three hours.

And you’re happy with those — you don’t wish you’d taken more time?
Alagia: No, I’m happy with them. I did one song in a half hour — it was a rough mix for David to sing to and the band liked it so much that they kept it as-is on the record.

What was better about that mix that made it stick?
Alagia: I think it was probably because I wasn’t being too analytical when I was doing it. I was at the Plant [in Sausalito, California], and I was in the garden. It’s kinda like my place here on the Eastern shore. The producer, Steve Harris, didn’t put any pressure on the sessions, and it was such a relaxed environment. I think that’s partly why there were so few recalls, and the tracks that were recalled were tracks I wanted to have recalled anyway. But in the end I was still happier with the initial mixes [laughs].

That’s the thing now, with Pro Tools, you can go down that path where you try to perfect a mix. But what the hell does that mean, “perfect the mix?” Of course, when you have everything on the screen, it’s easy to think, “Hmm, I can do one better.”

Juliano: What’s been really great about Pro Tools is you can have a whole record on the hard drives and get every song about 75% mixed, and jump to another song when you start getting burned out, then finish up with a fresh head later on.

And we use a bunch of outboard gear, which gets patched in. For recall we just take pictures of the knobs and patching with a digital camera, so we can recreate that without too much work.
Tell us more about how you interface the outboard. Describe your setup.
Juliano: We run Pro Tools 5.2. Everything runs at 24-bit, and we use the RADAR II as our front end for A/D conversion. Those converters sound great. How it works is, we have three 888s, and we open up all the AES channels on those in Pro Tools, then pipe all 24 tracks from the RADAR into Pro Tools.

So you’re using RADAR as a “tape” machine.
Juliano: Well, not really. We’re just using the converters. We used to record onto the RADAR, but now we just use the converters and route live through it into Pro Tools via AES.

We tracked the John Mayer record [Room for Squares] on the RADAR and transferred everything into Pro Tools for mixing, but now we’re using Pro Tools for recording and mixing. We also use an Apogee PSX-100 for listening back.

If we want to go to outboard, we’ll go out of the 888s sometimes, or we’ll get a couple of Apogee AD-8000s. We like to do that a lot because we have some great compressors and EQs; these sound much better than plug-ins in a lot of cases.

For example we use an Alan Smart C1 compressor on the stereo bus — going out of an 888 into that and back in again, there’s a noticeable improvement. Of course, it’s not good to go in and out of converters too much because it’ll start sounding worse. Not to trash the 888s, but they’re not the same as an AD-8000.

Alagia: I still swear that the RADAR II [with Classic converters] sounds better than pretty much anything else out there. Steve Lillywhite is the man responsible for my feeling — he loaned me his 48-track RADAR system because I was recording Dave Mathews Listener Supported, and Steve said, “You’ve gotta try this.” I used it for about three weeks and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Juliano: Basically, we have a console’s worth of outboard mic preamps, and we feed everything into the RADAR.

So you don’t have a console?
Juliano: No, we have mic pre’s of every sort — API, Neve, Focusrite — all kinds of stuff.

Alagia: Instead we have 16 channels of Pro Control, although I’ve very much considered getting a console again.

Why’s that?
Alagia: In my experience with actual consoles, I think it’s a more musical way to mix. You can mix faster, you don’t have to think about things so much, it’s more intuitive, it’s not so clinical and technical.

Juliano: Honestly, you get an old SSL or Neve console or API — they all sound better, but the recallability of Pro Tools is beautiful.

Alagia: It’s funny, I had a Mackie 32•8 back when we were working on John Mayer’s record, and I brought up a mix of “Why Georgia” on the Mackie and burned it to disc. It sounded great [laughs], and John and I were driving up to New York together and we were thinking, “Why wouldn’t we do something like this for the whole record?” And it made me realize you could dial in a mix so quickly on analog, even using a console like that.

But these days you’re mixing completely in Pro Tools — do you bounce or mix down to a separate device such as a Masterlink or 2-track deck?
Alagia: We used to bounce rough mixes to give to labels, because we found that the mixes would be a little more narrow, and we could always make it sound better just by going out and back into the interface.

So you’d do it to cover your ass?
Alagia: Yeah, exactly!

Juliano: Right, ’cause you don’t want demo love to set in, so we’d give them those mixes, knowing we could make it sound better.

Alagia: But I can definitely hear more width and depth by going to something like a Masterlink or HHB. I was skeptical at first, but after I spent some time A/Bing, I definitely noticed the difference. So now what we do is go out and back in stereo at 24-bit/48 kHz.

Juliano: Those are the mixes that we take to mastering.

Alagia: We had a conversation with Ted Jensen, Stephen Marcussen, and Bob Ludwig — they all seem to agree that bouncing doesn’t sound as good.

Do you go out analog into some sort of 2-channel device such as your Alan Smart C1?
Juliano: We usually have that inserted on the stereo bus, so it’s actually going out and coming back in on the master fader, which goes out on AES channels 1–2. We bring that back in on AES channels 3–4. It’s nice because it’s locked into the session, so if we do something to bars and beats, we can quickly and easily go in and do a radio edit, for example — cut out four bars or whatever — and it’s done.

Do you worry about running in the red at all?
Juliano: We’ve seen overs before, sure, but I don’t worry about the fader meters and just use my ears. As long as I don’t hear the distortion, I don’t worry about it. It’s like with outboard gear. Sometimes when we’re tracking with our Tube Tech, we’ll look at it and the needle is just buried — we want to put tape over the meter so we don’t worry about what it’s registering because it sounds great.

John Siket [Sonic Youth, Guster, Paul Westerberg, etc.] once told me he put a Fairchild all the way back at the left on the VU. He said, “Kid, don’t look at the meter. Does it sound good? Then don’t worry about it.” [Laughs]
Alagia: That’s right! That was also the first time I ever saw somebody just pummel compression. He was hitting the Fairchilds as hard as he could. We were mixing the Moe record, Tin Cans and Car Tires. There was this track we were mixing at nine in the morning, and we had a Smart on the bus — the meter was going back to about eleven o’clock! [laughs], but it sounded great.

SINGER/SONGWRITERS VS. BANDS
Alagia’s most recent recording work has him paired with young, up-and-coming singer/songwriters, but his past shows a trail of numerous full-band projects by Dave Matthews, Ben Folds Five, Vertical Horizon, and others. “I love putting bands around solo artists,” confesses Alagia. “Maybe it’s selfish, but I think for a producer it helps create the entire picture — I like to fill in the blanks around a singer/songwriter. Maybe that’s also because I was a musician before I got into recording.”

Do you prefer working with solo artists over bands?
Alagia: Not necessarily. We might be working with a band coming up that’s so phenomenal, that a lot of it is going to be editing the songs a little bit and letting them go live in the studio. I think that’s the best way to make a record, to record as much of it live as possible.

We take that approach with singer/songwriters too, as much as we can. With John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and Josh Kelley, all the bass and drums went down live. In John’s case, even some of the live vocals were used.

When we listened to the roughs, these guys sounded like a band. That’s something that we tried to achieve in preproduction.

That brings up a good question: How much do you involve yourself in preproduction? Do you get hands-on with the song structure and musical parts?
Alagia: Absolutely. Every project has a varying degree of preproduction. For example, on Jason Mraz’s record, we cut 19 tracks in four days, with preproduction and production basically happening at the same time. I’d be out in the studio with Jason and the rhythm section and we’d talk about the arrangement right there, and go over new ideas or whatever, then we’d just cut the tracks. That approach definitely helped keep things fresh, which translated to the recordings. You can get a little nutty with tempos during preproduction, and I definitely did that to a degree. Like, I must have cut “Curbside Prophet” 15 times with everything from 79 to 92 beats per minute. Tempo can make or break a tune. In this case, it was one of those things where the rhythm section was so great and tight, they would have subtle interpretation differences with each tempo. I guess as a producer, you have to trust your instinct and know when you’ve hit the right tempo, and you hope the guys in the band are feeling that as well. It’s usually pretty obvious within a couple of beats per minute.

For tempo and keys, preproduction is huge — arrangement isn’t so critical to nail early these days because it’s possible to change the arrangement in the final mix by editing it differently.

It’s obviously important to have a tight and spontaneous rhythm section, where everybody feeds off each other. But the way we try to create records is to make sure the performances don’t sound like they’ve been rehearsed a hundred times, so you have to be careful in preproduction not to overdo things.

INSPIRED TAKES
Being removed from a major metropolitan area has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to making records. For Alagia, being “out in the boondocks” is an important ingredient in creating the right kind of atmosphere for getting the best performances from artists. In fact, he’s not afraid to try some unconventional tactics when it comes to capturing inspired moments.
Alagia: For getting vocals done, we’ll do things like switching the phase on the speakers in the control room and have them sing right there. That way they don’t get freaked by working in headphones. Because the music coming out of the speakers is out of phase, we can have it as loud as they need it to deliver the song. We can go back in and flip the phase on the vocal so you don’t hear any of the bleed, plus we use mics with good rejection. You know, we’ll use a Shure SM7 and have the singer faced directly at the speakers. Then we go into Pro Tools and clean up the noise between the phrases. Once the music is blended in you’re fine.

We did half of John Mayer’s record that way — it was cut with him in the control room right in front of the monitors.

In addition, do you have a separate tracking room?
Alagia: No, not really. We use the living and dining rooms — they’re one big room, actually — something like 24 x 14 feet, with a ceiling height close to nine feet. We can get great drum sounds from there.

You’re not concerned about having an acoustically designed space?
Alagia: Absolutely not. Once again, Steve Lillywhite changed my outlook on this.

Juliano: We had Ben Peeler [pedal steel player for the Wallflowers] out to play on Josh Kelley’s record, and Ben wanted to be out on the deck because he wanted to feel the leaves blow by his feet while he played. We ran headphones out the door, put a Neumann on the deck, and went for it. Planes going overhead, wind blowing — who cares? We could filter it out later.

We’ve worked in a bunch of great studios, but before John and I met, we were making records the same way: throwing our gear in the backs of our trucks, going to the band’s rehearsal space and doing it right there, so we’ve learned how to deal with less than ideal recording conditions.

Alagia: That’s right. I became an engineer by default — we had a band and we wanted to make our own records, so any money that would come in we’d spend on getting our own recording gear. We just started building it up, and we learned by trying.

We’d move the mikes around and try different preamps until we found something that worked — it was a great education. I think it’s a dying art. People don’t take mike placement as seriously as they should. That and considering the room they’re recording in — it makes a huge difference.

WEB EXTRA
We weren’t able to run the following tracking notes in our August feature story on producer John Alagia. However, space isn’t an issue out here in cyberspace, so read on to learn what John and his assistant Jeff Juliano had to say about recording basics for John Mayer’s triple-platinum Room For Squares.

Drums & Bass
EQ:One of the things that really gets me about Room For Squares is how the kick and bass work together, and how incredible the drums and bass sound. There’s lots of bass guitar and the kick doesn’t get in the way, yet the drums are thick.
John: The drummer and bass player were such a huge part of that. The Bass Player, David LaBruyere, is so melodic and has such a great tone — it comes mostly from his fingers.

Jeff: Definitely, he went into a Neve 1064 into an Avalon DI into a TubeTech compressor, hardly hitting that at all. He didn’t really need compression, he’s so smooth.

John: And the drummer, Nir Z, was dead on. With some drummers you have to go in and maybe slice together a great part, but Nir was unbelievably solid. If you look onscreen you could see that every snare and kick waveform was perfect!

Jeff: Plus the players in Lo-Ho [the NY studio where drums and bass were tracked] sounded amazing in that room. We almost ran the studio out of mics — we individually miked everything on the kit — so we put a shotgun mic up in the loft for the room sound and put a couple of compressors on that. The ambient sound we were getting was monstrous.

We put that mike into a Neve 1081 and EQ’d it some, ran that into another 1081 EQ’d some more, then through one or two LA-3s hit really hard. That mono room sound was the best I think I’ve ever gotten.

EQ:No Sound Replacer or Beat Detective?
John: Maybe a little bit of Sound Replacer, but not much. And all we’d do is grab a snare hit that we liked — nothing major, just slide it in underneath the original. We didn’t go crazy at all — Nir Z created some loops and he played to those, that’s about it.

Jeff: Yeah, on “Why Georgia” he was playing a old standup column ash try and a music stand with drum sticks and I took four bars of it and looped it — that was his click track!

John: And on “Your Body is a Wonderland” John Mayer played a guitar loop that we put together in my Eventide 4000, and we created everything around that.

I used to cut drums on tape, so I sort of maintain that approach, where I try to cut naturally, finding four or eight bars rather than cut beat by beat.

For a list of credits or to find out what John and Jeff will be working on next, visit www.johnalagia.com or www.jeffjuliano.com.