NAMM INTERVIEW WITH JOEY STURGIS BY TALIA FARBER
Joey Sturgis is a producer, engineer & mixer renowned for his work with bands like The Devil Wears Prada, Miss May I & Asking Alexandria. His work with these bands and countless others has solidified his role in the sound and production of modern rock and metal music. In 2014, Joey launched Joey Sturgis Tones, a software development company designing plugin solutions from within recording sessions, and applying them to real world albums. All JST plugins are made to simplify the recording and mixing process so that engineers and producers can focus more on creativity than technicality - a mindset that Joey believes to be essential to making great records.
What made you start producing music and why?
I started recording and producing back in 2004 when I was playing drums for a couple local metalcore bands. As a very hands-on person when it comes to the creative process, I decided to learn how to do it myself when we got to the point where it was time to record demos. A friend of mine had a very basic studio setup in his garage, and let me use it to record our demos at night. It wasn't long after that, other bands in our area started hearing the demos and wanted to record too. I really learned as I went, and the more time I spent recording, the more I was able to find a signature sound that bands really liked. It's always been about a great song and a great mix.
What are some of the bands you've worked with?
The first band I worked with that found mainstream success was The Devil Wears Prada. The demo we worked on landed them on Rise Records, and I was fortunate they liked it so much, they came back to me to record their first full-length album. I began working with Craig Ericson at Rise, which opened the doors to all kinds of artists and projects that I wanted to work on. Some of the biggest names I've worked with include Miss May I, We Came As Romans, Of Mice & Men, Attack Attack!, and Asking Alexandria (who's guitarist recently worked with us to release his signature guitar tone in Toneforge Ben Bruce).
Can you explain what your line of Toneforge is?
Toneforge is a series of guitar and bass amp simulators that allow guitarists to get album-quality guitar tones right on their computer. The simulators have redefined what in-the-box guitar tones can sound like, with each amp model optimized to be mix-ready from the minute you load the plugin. There are many benefits to recording using our amp sims, with some of the main ones being:
- Much less expensive than buying amps, pedals, rack processors, etc.
- Easier to recall specific settings later on (great for tweaking a sound when mixing)
- Portability - Toneforge lets bands record on the road, requiring little more than a laptop to use anytime, anywhere
For those new to Toneforge, I'd recommend checking out Toneforge Guilty Pleasure or our latest artist series release, Toneforge Jason Richardson.
How much is the total cost of software you use on a single track?
The software I use on any given mix fluctuates constantly so it's pretty hard to pinpoint a number. I will say this much - the cost is definitely much lower than it was 4 or 5 years ago.
In my early years of recording, I was finding my sound with a bunch of stock plugins and POD Farm (~$100) on guitars. As I could afford them, I started building my plugin collection and the "per track" cost went up. The problem with this approach was it required a lot of tweaking and automation, so I was spending more of my time mixing than the cost of the software added up to on a song.
As I recognized opportunities to speed up the mix process, I took them. I found alternative solutions to plugin stacking and began learning to program. At the time, I didn't necessarily realize it was leading me toward becoming a plugin developer, but when others started approaching me with similar issues to what I was fighting, Joey Sturgis Tones seemed to be a great solution to keeping cost (and hours of mixing) down.
Which part of mixing (Compression, EQ, etc) do you think is most vital to getting the kind of sound you get?
I'd say EQ is the most essential across all instruments, just because it allows me to find a spot for each element of a mix. Without EQ, everything would sit on top of each other. That's not to say I don't do my own fair share of compression & limiting too - these two tools work wonders on making drums and guitars punchy and dynamic.
If you have to choose one thing to make loudest would it be drums or guitars?
Drums. There's nothing like a powerful kick and snare in a mix - I've even been known to sample gunshots and explosions for effective drums in the past!
What is your favorite kind of snare?
I think a snare with a solid initial crack is ideal. The attack of a snare hit is something that you can't just add in later, so it's got to be right from the start. In addition, I'd say a snare that is properly tuned can work wonders on the body and tone of a snare sound. It's something that a lot of beginners don't take into account when the first go in to record an album. Taking the time to tune your snare drum before putting a mic on it hugely speeds up the recording process.
What kind of guitars are kept in your studio?
These days, I'm actually using a Halo Custom Shop MERUS 6-string on on just about everything. The guitar was made to spec for me, and the team at Halo really delivered for me! The guitar is a 27" scale with Lace Pickups, a locking output jack & an Evertune bridge. The Evertune bridge is seriously one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time - you can bend the strings all day long and it WILL NOT go out of tune. Great for keeping heavy guitars from drifting out of tune, which is something we used to constantly struggle with recording low-tuned guitars in the studio.
What are your 3 most essential plugins when it comes to mixing/mastering and why?
Gain Reduction Deluxe is my "desert island" plugin. If I were ever stuck in a situation where I could only take one plugin with me, it's this. It was the first JST plugin we released, and it's the key to my signature vocal sound. Over the years, I've also found applications outside of vocals that it works for too, such as beefing up snare or guitars.
After that, I'd probably sat Finality Advanced. It's got tons of control that you just can't find on other limiter, such as an Aggro switch and Look Ahead functionality.
Finally, Tominator has to be on this list. The plugin is one of our newest releases, but it's already saved me hundreds of hours of manual editing and automation by killing bleed in tom mics. It's one of those plugins that does its job so well I can focus more on the production & creative aspects of a mix. It makes it easy to focus on the part of the job I love doing, and removes a lot of the tedious clean-up work from my day-to-day.
Do you think losing a bit of dynamic is made up for by having a bigger, more compressed sound?
I think dynamics can actually be maintained and accentuated with compression. The only time you should be losing dynamics is when they're too pronounced and you're making the conscious decision to remove them. A lot of guys turn things up too loud, and their dynamics get lost to clipping and unwanted compression. It's the reason behind our JST Clip plugin, which adds perceived loudness without sacrificing dynamics.
Do bands come to you with an exact idea in mind or do they let you take some creative control? How much do bands generally let you change things up?
A lot of my work has come from bands looking to have "my sound" on their mixes. While I take some creative control over the mix, a lot of the bands I work with have a great, unique sound to begin with. My job as producer is to find the pieces of their sound that make them unique, and facilitate whatever it takes to make those elements stand out. I try not to change a lot with bands that have a working formula, but I'm always ready to make suggestions. I like to say that I create the comic book character version of my artists and bring that image to life through the production.
We keep the environment in the studio fun and focused - everyone is there to make the best record we can. With that mindset, it's always a collaborative effort.
Is it getting harder for bands live sound to match the sound on the album? What do you think is the problem with that?
I think rehearsal goes a long way for bands. There's a reason the guys that are out playing their songs every day sound more consistent at their live shows. The other side of the coin is the equipment being used on the road. Coming into the studio and using top-notch equipment sounds great on the album, but you need to be able to replicate it live. I think this is becoming easier for smaller bands that might not be able to afford that $3000 guitar amp, but can use the same $80 - $100 plugin on their laptop at a show as they had access to in the studio.
Do you like the direction metal production is headed with things becoming too synthesized?
Define "too synthesized". I think metal has always been a genre focused on accuracy, and sometimes, complexity. For this reason, the more consistent you can make the instrumentation sound on a record, the better listening experience you get from it. I think for me personally, a lot of the over-synthesis is stuff I would consider to be done poorly. If I can tell you that you programmed your hi-hats because they're choppy and unnatural, that's a problem. It's really not too different than a pop singer who's got too much auto-tune on their vocals. Nobody wants to listen to something that's been done poorly, but when added in the right way production and synthesis can work wonders on a recording.
Besides albums you've worked on, what are 3 of your favorite albums production wise and why?
I tend to like a lot of music for various reasons - production, writing, character and attitude. So the albums I’m about to tell you are all over the map. I really enjoy Shania Twain’s “Up!” (all versions!) because it’s seriously the pinnacle of production and songwriting all in one set of albums. I love Jason Richardson’s “I” - it shows that a solo artist’s almost-only-instrumental album can be interesting all the way through while also taking risks that don’t sound like someone noodling at guitar center. I enjoy just about everything from Mutt Lange, so naturally Nickelback’s “Dark Horse” is high up on the list because that thing just rocks, great songs, and the production is untouchable.
What's your top favorite album that you've produced and why?
Probably Asking Alexandria’s “Reckless and Relentless” - namely because we went all out on everything and it will be hard to touch for years to come. I understand a lot of people still can’t get into that metalcore sound, but you can’t deny how this thing created an insanely unstoppable movement and live I’ve personally seen thousands of people losing their minds to those songs.
What advice would you give to someone just getting started in producing metal?
Don't spend money on unnecessary things. I see a lot of people going into debt to start producing when all they need is a microphone, interface, laptop & some software. As you learn your craft and start making money from it, then you can start buying the bigger and better tools. You'll refine your ear to know what microphones sound better on certain sources. You'll learn how to use your tools in an efficient way, and over time, learn where you can cut corners to speed up your workflow.
If you look at every project as the chance to create something great, you focus more on the music and realize the equipment and software is just there to help you capture it. Pick the tools that help you stay in that creative mindset and you'll be ready to succeed.