On Top of His Game

One of the hardest-working engineer-producers around, Joe Chiccarelli is known for diversity, both in the projects he does and the places he does them.
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One of the hardest-working engineer-producers around, Joe Chiccarelli is known for diversity, both in the projects he does and the places he does them.

One of the hardest-working engineer-producers around, Joe Chiccarelli is known for diversity, both in the projects he does and the places he does them. The week that I caught up with him for this interview was typical: on a break from recording Pink Martini in Portland, Oregon, he was at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, California, engineering a string date with first-call arranger David Campbell (Beck's father) for country superstar Tim McGraw.

Chiccarelli's discography reflects his eclectic taste. He has recorded mainstream pop with superstars such as Bon Jovi, Elton John, and U2; esoteric jazz with the Kronos Quartet; and alt rock with Hole, Beck, and Tori Amos. He has also worked with some of today's hottest Latin acts, including Café Tacuba and Juanés. He manages to find time for involvement with the Recording Academy, and was a key member of the committee that orchestrated the inaugural 5.1 surround telecast of the 2003 Grammy Awards.

It isn't surprising that so many kinds of artists like working with Chiccarelli. Although you might expect someone with the kind of credits that he has accumulated to be a jaded been-there-done-that type, he is just the opposite. He brings, along with his considerable experience, a youthful enthusiasm to all of his gigs. Plain and simple, he's a music junkie who has developed the wide-ranging talents he needs to feed his habit.

Another thing that's cool about this all-around nice guy is that he's generous about sharing his hard-earned knowledge. I took advantage of that, stopping in to chat as he finished up final details on the Tim McGraw string session.

Moving around so much, monitoring is key. What types do you listen on?

I use Yamaha NS10s. I actually still use tissue on the tweeters, and no, I don't know what brand it is. I also have my Tannoy AMS10As, which I take everywhere.

You're working on a very old Neve 80-series console today. Is that your favorite desk?

Absolutely. With a console that good, your job gets a lot easier. Plus, the rooms here at Capitol are amazing. There are a few other places in L.A. like that — the great old studios. Honestly, when you're working on a board like that, in rooms that sound this good, it's hard to do anything wrong.

So a good room with a good console is a winning recipe.

It's interesting that the guys who built the classic rooms — Bill Putnam, Walter Sear, Allen Sides — didn't call themselves designers. They just knew the basics, like not having two parallel walls anywhere. I don't want to put anybody down, because there are a lot of great room designers today, but a room can be scientifically correct and still not sound good.

People get into all these weird angles and bass traps, and in the end you say to yourself, “Well, it sounds okay.” But it lacks a little soul. Then you go somewhere else that's very basic: a bass trap in the back of the room, a little diffusion here, and it's like “Wow, this sounds really natural, and I can hear all the instruments!” The bottom line is there are some basic principles that, if followed, allow you to build good recording environments. Simple things like avoiding parallel walls and having a proper amount of high diffusion and adequate bass absorption. Some of the best recordings — from Motown sessions to U2 in a rehearsal room — weren't made in acoustically brilliant spaces. But they were places that had character and something magical that made the sound leap off the speakers and say, “Listen to me!” Of course [laughs], there's also some luck involved in creating those spaces.

Speaking of good rooms, you just recorded most of trumpet-virtuoso Chris Botti's latest CD in a garage.

The way it came about, Chris had started writing songs for his new album with Everlast's keyboardist Keefus, who works with all sorts of people from Macy Gray to Dr. Dre. He and Chris wrote a track together on a Digi 001 system in Keefus's garage. They loved the vibe and decided that was where they wanted to record the album. So I brought in all my gear — my HD rig, tons of preamps, a little Trident 65 console from the '70s.

With everybody in one room?

Luckily, it's a two-car garage! They had put up sound board and were smart enough to get rid of all the angles around the ceilings. They put sound board from the wall to the ceiling to eliminate 90-degree angles. Probably it was something with the ceiling height and the angles, because there was just enough reflection that the room sounded alive and natural.

We had as many as five people playing at a time: up to three keyboard players (sometimes including acoustic piano); somebody programming beats; Chris on trumpet; and a standup bass player, who was in the bathroom miked with a tube U47. The bathroom is also where we put the guitar amp, miked with a Royer 121. We worked in the garage for a month and a half. I particularly loved that I could be at the console and just turn around and grab the trumpet mic to adjust it if I needed to.

Wait a minute. Trumpet is one of the world's loudest instruments. How could you record with it in the same room?

Well [laughs], a lot of it was muted trumpet. We did the full-on trumpet parts primarily at Ocean Way Studios. There's no substitute for a great-sounding studio for instruments like fully open jazz trumpet — just think about all those Miles Davis albums. The trick with the garage was that you had to get used to the monitoring. Even though Keefus had done a great job of getting it to sound good, there were bumps and dips. You had to check the low end in many different spots in the room, and you had to listen at many monitoring levels.

The best thing about it was the vibe that happened when recording everybody together. Some of the best trumpet performances that we got were cut live with the band. We rarely used headphones; if the bleed was bad, we would just turn the monitors way down. But if someone wanted headphones, we had a Behringer HR 4700 ProXL Powerplay high-power headphone distribution amplifier, which worked really well.

What mic were you using on trumpet?

Mostly a Royer 121, which you wouldn't expect to work in that situation because it's bidirectional. You'd think there would be a lot of bleed into the back of the mic. I tried it because I've used Royers on trumpets before and they sound nice and warm. On some songs, Chris thought the Royer was a little too dark, so we ended up using a Neumann U 67. But overall, I liked the Royer, especially for muted trumpet, which can sometimes get a little nasty in the midrange. We also used a Sony C37A for some songs; I remembered it was Herb Alpert's favorite trumpet mic!

Did you compress the trumpet?

Overall, no. I don't like to compress trumpet unless the player's dynamics aren't good, which wasn't a problem with Chris. Compression compacts the sound and makes it tighter, so on one or two songs, where we wanted that type of sound, we used an old Teletronix LA2A.

You used outboard preamps, and the Trident console for monitoring?

For the trumpet I had my Martech MSS10, which I love. It's very open, and with the Royer it was a perfect combination. The Royer is warm and round, and the Martech is very open on the top.

I primarily used 1073 and 1095 Neves on the keyboards, acoustic bass, and guitars. I also used Brent Averill 312 API preamps and the new Focusrite 428 — the one with the meters. It's a 4-channel preamp that's reminiscent of the sound of the old Focusrite 110s. I used that some of the time on trumpet, background vocals, guitar, and a lot on the acoustic piano.

Recording acoustic piano in that situation sounds difficult. Did you have the lid closed?

Actually, there was no lid! That particular piano — an old German baby grand — had a dark sound, but if you played in the right range and intensity it was fantastic. I used a pair of Audio-Technica 4047s into the Focusrites. That was the only thing we sometimes had to use headphones for. We had to keep the monitors superlow so they wouldn't bleed into it. But we were lucky; that piano sounded best if you didn't dig in to it too hard. When you really dig in to a short-string piano, you can hear how short the strings are. But if you're playing more softly — middle volume, middle register — a baby grand can sound like a bigger piano. That's how this one was.

How did you place the mics?

Usually, just one over the high strings and one over the low strings [see Fig. 1]. On some songs we did mono piano with a Blue Kiwi mic. On the lo-fi, atmospheric tracks we used an old Altec 633 mic through a Distressor. Miking the piano was another case where it was helpful for all of us to be in the room. You don't realize how often you run out into the studio to move a mic. I could just turn around, move the mics, and at the same time be listening to find the best spot.

Wasn't it difficult to separate out how it sounded in the room vs. how it sounded through the speakers?

You just got acclimated. That's something about mic positioning: when you get the right spots, the speakers disappear; the sound coming through the monitors becomes transparent, where everything sounds like it's in the room with you. Since everything was in the same room, I could jockey a mic around until it all felt clear. We were lucky that we got the polarity between the speakers and the microphones correct, so you could tell what was going on.

How did you do that?

By listening, watching for positive excursions on the speaker cones, and by being careful to keep our installation wiring correct.

You say you were lucky, but luck is a very small part of it. To get good results out of a nontraditional environment, you need to know what you're listening for.

I was lucky to come up in the early '80s, in what I call the “Steely Dan” era of recording. At that time, there were benchmarks of quality that everybody tried to match. In retrospect, I'd say it was the peak of analog recording, before everything got digital and overtweaked. Stuff was hi-fi, but natural. It came out of the '70s, an era with the British rock 'n' roll sound and the Los Angeles sound that had all those great engineers like Glyn Johns, Geoff Emerick, Al Schmitt, Elliot Scheiner. Engineers really mattered to artists and producers, and people strove to come up with sounds that were first class. I got to work as an assistant with all sorts of brilliant engineers.

Don't get me wrong. The developments of the past 15 years are great. I'm a Pro Tools addict. I love that everybody can get their hands on the same technology and create a sound that's unique and honest to them. But I know I was fortunate to get started when engineering was perhaps in its golden age.

Working with Frank Zappa was your big break. What did you learn from him?

Looking back, working with Frank was the perfect experience for me. At the time I had a pretty average, mainstream, pop/rock musical vocabulary — both as a listener and as an engineer. So to work with Frank, who was a genius and who had an attitude about making music that was so irreverent and outside the box, was the perfect education. Coming up when I did, I learned methods and rules and ways to make everything sound pristine and clean. Suddenly, I was working with this guy who was into “Throw all that stuff out and let's f**k it up! Let's patch seven compressors into each other and see what happens!” He opened a door that changed the kind of engineer I became.

He also taught me the importance of putting personality and character into things, and that even mistakes can help you do that. Like how Brian Eno would do a rough mix of a track and print it; then, when he put up the next song, he'd leave the faders as they were. Because maybe, all of a sudden, the bass guitar gets panned to the right and it sounds brilliant.

It's a way of jogging perspective.

Exactly. I like to be challenged, and I work hard to try new things: a different microphone, a different position for it, whatever. That's part of why I enjoyed the garage sessions with Chris and Keefus. In a new environment where you hear things in a fresh way, you also think differently and you do different things.

How did you get today's string gig?

David Campbell and I have worked together on a number of dates. The first time was when I was doing sessions for Beck, and he got his dad to do some arrangements. We got along and he liked the sound; since then he's called me a number of times for string dates. Talk about not repeating yourself! David comes up with unique stuff all the time that also really fits the artist he's writing for, which is half the battle. That's because as an engineer or a producer or an arranger, a lot of the art is about getting inside the artist's head — figuring out what they're all about and how they want to be presented, then helping them achieve that.

You're coming up with a backdrop — a soundscape if you will — that fits all that and, at the same time, is interesting to the listener. You don't want to be too inside, or too predictable. You don't want to make just a “nice” recording, but you also don't want to overshadow the artist. That's something David excels at. His work complements the song and the artist. You don't listen to the arrangement first and then to the song; instead you hear the whole thing as exciting. That's a very fine line to walk.

You just did some sessions with Sophie B. Hawkins; what were they like?

The interesting thing about the Sophie B. sessions was that the songs were all demos that she started at her home Pro Tools studio. She did all the vocals herself, in her living room, on a Neumann TLM103 through an Avalon 737SP. The mic and preamp match was perfect for her voice. On most of the songs, very little processing was done in the mix. After she'd completed her demos, she enlisted the Berman Bros. [producers of the Baha Men's “Who Let the Dogs Out”] to add a Euro-techno touch to the tracks. Even though Sophie's tracks were rhythmically involved, the Bermans did a great job of updating the rhythms and sounds yet maintaining the intent of her original tracks. Since everything was built on Sophie's original sessions, we could mix and match tracks from the new additions and original demos.

The mixes were done at Atlantis Studios in Los Angeles on an SSL 9000 J-Series console. Because there were 60 to 80 tracks, with many tracks of background vocals and layers of synth pads, a lot of balancing and processing was done in Pro Tools with plug-ins, including Amp Farm, Samplitude, MetaFlanger, Bomb Factory, a Urei LA2A and McDSP Filterbank for removing popped ps and sibilance on the lead vocal. The Bermans were out of the country during mixing, so we'd send them MP3 files overnight for comments. It worked out great. In the morning, we had a list of comments along with choices of tracks to use. The mixes were completed in a day and a half per song.

Tell us about how the string session you did today went.

We had 12 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 6 woodwinds, and — much to the amusement of some of the string players — an accordion, which I put in an iso booth, just in case.

How did you mic it?

Normally, for the type of a cinematic ballad we were doing I would use a large-diaphragm condenser mic, probably a 67 or a Neumann U 87, which has a strong midrange presence. This time I put up a Sony C37A as well as the 67. I tried both, and it was obvious the accordion needed to blend in more with the woodwinds and become part of the whole sound, instead of poking out, as accordions are known to do. The C37, which is an old tube mic from the '60s that's a little soft in the midrange, helped it sit in the track nicely.

Do you generally use a lot of close mics on strings?

I do, but usually I end up with the ratio of the close mics to room mics at something like nine to one. With a good section, a good arrangement, and a good room, the close mics end up about 20 dB below the room mics. About 90 percent of the sound comes from the room mics. So placement of them is everything.

I use a setup that's kind of a weird permutation of a Decca Tree with an AKG C24 stereo mic and a pair of Neumann M50s. There are three mics, with one of them — in this case the C24 — out in front of the other two by a little bit. With string recordings, the most important thing is finding the sound that pops right in the track that lets the strings speak but doesn't compete too much with the track. It's like finding their home. String dates are expensive; you don't have time to experiment. With the three mics, I can quickly size it up in the first pass, then adjust the blend.

For close mics, I'm lucky here at Capitol to have lots of 67s, tube 47s, and C12s. Those classic mics just have a tone; there isn't much new that beats them.

“Beats” being the operative word.

That's true. Royers sound great; Brauner and Sounddelux sound great. But if you're talking personality, some of those old mics just have a certain vibe.

What are some other string setups you've done?

I've done sessions where I baffled the strings off because the room was so reverberant that they were floating away — too cinematic and lush — so I had to dry it up a bit with baffles. Working with Jerry Harrison and the band Live we worked in this room but ended up using a mono RCA 44BX ribbon mic because the strings were sounding too nice. We put the one mic in front of the section, and we mixed that in to get a darker, honkier sound that helped it blend with the track. I've also used an old Shure bullet mic — real grainy and midrange — for a Bon Jovi track. Because of the distortion in the guitars, we had to add some scratch to the strings so that the tonal differences weren't so far apart.

Working in so many different kinds of rooms, what do you carry with you and rely on?

Preamps with a lot of character: Neves, APIs, Focusrite, Chandler, Daking. I also think it's good to have some superclean hi-fi-sounding preamps, like the Martech, or Avalons, or even an inexpensive Sytek MPX 4A, which is a Jensen-type of design made in Chicago. It's good to have combinations; that's how you can instantly set your sounds apart. Maybe part of your drum kit goes through the hi-fi preamps and another part goes through the older, chunkier thing so that you can get air on the cymbals and an older, thick character for the bass drum.

I also bring my Monster mic cables with me. Good-quality cable makes an enormous difference, even down to a guitar cable. For vocals, I run the Monster cable from the mic to the preamp, then through the door into the control room if I need to, to keep the run as short as possible.

For compressors, I like standard LA2As, LA3As, 1176s, Joe Meeks; the old dbx 160s are my favorite electric bass limiters. Distressors, of course, are one of the best things made in the past ten years.

Are there any new mics that you're excited about?

I like the Royer 121, obviously, and a lot of the Audio-Technica line sounds great. The new Shure KSM44 sounds really good. It has a different sound, a drier sort of top end that's a little more in your face. But I still use the a lot of the normal Shure SM57s, Sennheiser 421s, EV RE20s, AKG D12s, and C414s. I love the Sony C37As [see Fig. 2], but there aren't many out there.

Right now, everybody seems to strive to build mics that have a presence peak in them; everybody also thinks they have to have a superfast transient response. They think that if it's nice and bright, it must be good. The thing about the C37 is that it has a dip in the upper midrange, which, for a lot of instruments — like with the trumpet and accordion, and even for cymbals that can get a little brash or ugly in the upper midrange — chills them out in a nice way. And whatever tube is in it kind of compresses in a very gentle, slow way. That's great, because if everything on your record has a superfast, open top-end thing, it can sound like all noise. Mixing and matching combinations is what makes it all work together.

It's always a puzzle to get 32 or 64 tracks of information down a little stereo bus and have it all be heard, and be meaningful. That's where the different characters come in. The old-school way where guys would listen in mono and move mics and use different mics for different colors is one way to get it — pushing and pulling things to give them a personality that will speak with its own voice and identity.

That's the crux of it: creating a unique voice. We all now have the same techniques and tools; the guy in the garage has the same Pro Tools system, the same Pro Tools mixer as the guys in the top studios. The playing field is now even, and the average person is coming out with tracks that sound really good. The next step is to take all this stuff and create musical experiences that are unique and that don't just sound like everybody's using the same plug-in. We need to marry a little more of the '60s aesthetic with today's ease of technology.

You've talked about miking strings, trumpets, and pianos, but what about snare drums? I'm sure our readers would like to know how you get your snare sounds?

When recording drums, I often use a multiple miking technique for the snare. This technique is rumored to be invented by Bob Clearmountain. It probably was — after all, he's the man responsible for bringing the now-standard NS10 into every control room.

When miking the snare drum, I use three mics: two on top and one on the bottom [see Fig. 3]. For the top mics, I usually use a Shure SM57 and a small diaphragm condenser, either a Neumann KM84 or an AKG 451EB — always with at least a -10 dB pad. The bottom mic is either a Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser 441. The novelty here is that the two top mics are gaffer-taped together and aimed at the same spot on the snare drum.

The mic capsules are time aligned for best phase and clarity. This simply means positioning them next to each other with their capsules aligned perfectly together. The way I check that is to talk into both mics, flip the phase at the console, and then talk into them to find the point where the signal cancels the most.

I use two mics to get the best of both worlds — the punch and midrange of the dynamic, and the air and top end of the condenser. Often when I'm mixing these mics together, I compress the condenser mic with a dbx 165A or a UREI 1176LN. That gives me a more exciting, punchy and finished, ready-to-mix snare drum sound. The amount of compression and the ratio of the blend between the mics varies from style of music and from song to song.

What are some projects of yours that are just out, or are about to be issued?

There's an album I produced for Peter Walker, a very interesting new artist from San Francisco. We enlisted some great musicians, including Jay Bennett [ex-Wilco], Joey Waronker [REM], Justin Meldal Johnson [Beck], and Steve Berlin [Los Lobos]. Peter's music is in the storytelling singer-songwriter genre and is all live-instrument based. We recorded very traditionally, live, in Los Angeles' Cello Studios' large room. This past year, I also mixed new albums for Ricki Lee Jones and Café Tacuba, and engineered for producer Pat Leonard on songs for a new Sony artist named Casey Stratton — very dramatic, sweeping, piano- and vocal-based songs.

Life is never boring for you, is it?

I wouldn't change a thing. As long as I'm surrounded with great music, I'm happy.

Maureen Droney,whose engineering credits include projects for Carlos Santana, George Benson, John Hiatt, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin, is the Los Angeles editor forMix.


We asked Joe Chiccarelli for some key advice for those engineering their own projects. Here's what he had to say:

Find a good acoustic space to record in

There's no substitute for a great sounding room whether it's a home, garage or a professional studio. Before you ever turn on a microphone always ask yourself: Does the instrument sound good in the room? If it doesn't, try moving it to another location. If it's your home studio, invest in some acoustic treatment to make sure that instruments sound natural and alive in the space.

Invest in at least one high-quality microphone

Even though lots of great rock 'n' roll records are made on Shure SM57s, it's always a plus to have one microphone that's clear and faithful, and that naturally reproduces acoustic instruments. This will become your trusty fallback. When all else fails, there is always your benchmark mic that delivers a reliable representation of the source.

Invest in a good quality mic preamp

There are hundreds of choices on the market, but like a microphone, any good studio should have at least one high-fidelity preamp that faithfully captures its source. It should also be capable of handling high SPL sources. Many inexpensive preamps don't have the headroom to cleanly deliver the signals that a modern condenser microphone can put out.

Make sure your listening environment is comfortable and accurate

Do you relate to the sound of your favorite CDs played back in this room? Do your mixes translate to the outside world? If there's a question, invest in paying for a trustworthy acoustician to come in, voice your room, and give you suggestions on how to improve the listening environment.

Make lots of backups

In this world of DAW recording you can never have enough backups of a project. There have been many times that I've been given a project to mix that is missing files. Always make a backup, whether it's AIT, DDS, CD, and so on. And then, make a second backup that never leaves the house. FireWire drives are inexpensive, so don't be frugal about backups. And Digidesign has made it easy: just press Save Session Copy In, and go have a bite to eat.


American Music Club, San Francisco (Warner Bros.,1996); producer
Beck, “Jack Ass (UK version)” (Geffen, 1998); mixer
Cafe Tacuba, Reves/YoSoy (Universal, 2000); mixer
Clem Snide, Soft Spot (Spin Art Records, 2003); producer
Elton John, Songs from West Coast (MCA Records, 2001); engineer
Rickie Lee Jones, Evening of My Best Day (V2 Records, 2003) mixer
U2, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (Island Records, 1999); mixer