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Joey Sturgis

Metalcore Producer & Engineer
Published September 2014
By Tom Flint

From humble beginnings, Joey Sturgis has become a leading producer in the highly technical metalcore scene.

"I didn't go to a school for music, but I think you learn a lot more by solving problems in your own way,” says Joey Sturgis. "If you are being paid for a session and suddenly you come across some issue, it's scary and you have to solve the problem right there. Sometimes those are very interesting situations that breed interesting solutions.”

Learning on the job might not be for everyone, but it's certainly paid off for Joey. These days he is one of the biggest names in metalcore production, shaping the sound of albums by bands such as Asking Alexandria, Emmure, I See Stars, Miss May I, The Devil Wears Prada, We Came As Romans and Attack Attack!. On many projects, Joey receives writing, arranging, mixing, engineering and mastering credits, demonstrating the depth of involvement he has in nearly all of his productions.

Garage Band

It was while drumming for a grindcore band that Joey unwittingly stumbled into production. His band was on the lookout for a cheap way to make a demo, and started recording themselves in a garage that a friend had converted into a studio. "It had a computer with an ancient Aardvark Q10 PCI audio interface,” Joey recalls. "My friend had insulated the room and sectioned a bit off so you could record drums and sit behind the glass and hear it through the monitors. He let my band in at night and we experimented until we figured out how to record our instruments. We put the tracks on Myspace and bands started contacting us saying 'Hey, where did you guys record? It sounds pretty cool!' and we'd tell them our drummer did it.

"People were wanting to record with us, but I didn't know what I was doing, so I felt weird charging money to do that, but I talked it over with my friend and he was cool with it. That's where I started and my first couple of years were all out of that garage.”

Once business started picking up, Joey named the garage The Foundation Recording Studio, and still uses the moniker to this day, despite having relocated to bigger and better premises several times. His first move was during the recording of the successful With Roots Above And Branches Below by The Devil Wears Prada, when he bought a house to live in and use as a studio. The difference was instantly apparent and Joey's work improved very quickly. "We did the guitars on a couple of songs in the garage, but after the band returned from a break we started working in my house,” Joey recalls. "You can hear a dramatic improvement in my mixes from DWP's second record, Plagues, to With Roots Above And Branches Below. In the old garage, the back of the speakers were almost touching the wall, and the distance from them to the wall behind my back was only about five feet, so I was combatting some really weird things when I was mixing.

"In my new house, I put the control room in an area that was originally a garage but had been converted to be a part of the house, so it had carpet on a concrete floor, thin wood panelling on the walls and a drop ceiling. When I positioned everything properly and sat down to listen to some music it sounded perfect! I was like, 'How can this be? This is just a random room!'”

Joey continued producing metalcore records in his home studio for a couple of years, but as demand for his services increased, it became essential that he found a space where it was possible to work on more than one aspect of a project at a time. Eventually, in August 2012, he moved to Michigan and rented a 6000‑square‑foot mansion, where he set up a tracking studio on the ground floor and a mixing studio upstairs alongside the living quarters.

Joey Sturgis's drum mic choice and placement depends to a great extent on the drummer and the kit, but his aim is always to extract as much detail as possible.The mansion was used for recording guitars and vocals and for mixing and mastering duties, but Joey was nervous about drum spikes damaging the rented property's floor, so he began recording drums, and anything requiring lots of space, at 37 Recording Studios nearby. Nowadays, Joey is a very regular client of 37, having finally separated his home from his workplace.

"I'd always had the studio in my house, so I'd spent eight years living with bands and needed my own space,” he explains. "Even when I was at the garage I was sleeping on their couch because I didn't have a place to live! So I deliberately found somewhere that wasn't big enough for a studio. Now I don't own a studio, and I'm constantly renting studios and paying engineers to help get things done. It costs more, but it is better for my sanity.”

Studio Setup

These days Joey is so busy that he employs engineers to help him complete projects, and runs four computer systems so that different aspects of a projects can be worked on simultaneously. "My engineer is Nick Scott and he's been with me since August 2012,” says Joey, "and I have an intern called Nick Matzkows. He is learning to do the same things as the other Nick. I used to have a drum editor called Jeff Dunne, and a vocal editor called Kacey Dodson, who both did a lot of work for me, but now I'm using the staff at 37 Studios to take care of those jobs.”

Joey's current setup comprises three Windows‑based PCs running Cubase v6.5 and all Joey's favourite plug‑ins, so that the same project can be opened on any one, plus an Apple Mac running Logic and Pro Tools. "I have a Mac with a Digi 192 interface just in case a band arrives with Pro Tools demos,” reasons Joey, "but we'll immediately convert them to Cubase. One PC is an old system that runs Windows XP and that stays at 37 Studios. For all three PCs I use the RME Fireface 800, which is the interface that literally never has any problems. And we use a Countryman DI box straight into the RME for guitars, bass and any instrument that uses a cable. I'm an in‑the‑box person, so if we record vocals, for example, we go through a preamp and leave the compression for later. If you are editing a vocal and it's already compressed, you can't really touch it, so I prefer to compress afterwards.

The name Foundation Studios has been attached to several of Joey Sturgis's studios. This was an early iteration, located in Indiana.Photo: Rick Wait"We are using the Presonus Central Station monitor controller on all systems to manage dip, mono and volume, but we use the routing built into Cubase for talkback. Cubase has a Control Room feature where you can control all your routing via your outputs. You can have outputs going to your monitors, vocal booth, drummer — however you need it to go — and you control it all within the computer. So we leave the RME's mixer on default and use Cubase to do the routing and monitor mixing. I don't mix with control surfaces, I do everything with a mouse and keyboard. If we do a drum session we might work with an engineer who has a different workflow, but most people on my team do things the way I do.”

Pre‑production Perfection

Before starting to record a band, Joey embarks on a very detailed pre‑production process. This involves sorting through all existing demo material and developing it further until an extremely polished set of recordings are in place. Joey explains that he does a bit of everything while shaping the demos, which can included cutting or adding parts and deleting and re‑writing guitar riffs. "There's definitely writing going on,” he insists. "A demo could be just a couple of guitars and a lead, so I'll add some pads, strings, or whatever I feel the song is calling for. When I add to songs I am doing it in a manner that's usable in the final mix. For example, when I put keyboards, effects and things like that into the song, they are all pretty much the final sounds; but if I'm adding a guitar part, it's probably going to be re‑played, because I'll do one take of what I think they should do for the part and they'll redo it better.

Behind the desk at Starstruck Studios, NashvillePhoto: Joe Butler"I make that demo as complete as possible, so I can say to the band 'Listen to how the song is going to be.' Then the band will go into the studio with my team and we go through the process of recording real drums and guitars, and vocals with better delivery. I might also have edited some notes up and down and added harmonies, but I don't want my voice on there, so they have to re‑sing any harmonies I've added. As we are working on songs, I say to the bands that no matter how annoying it seems, they should tell us if any part doesn't sound how they want it to, because we'll address it right then, instead of finding out nobody is happy with any of the leads at the end when we've got to turn it in to the label. You have to put in a lot of time, so I like to get it satisfactory before we move on.

"There's no specific recording order, because with that first version I put together, you can add anything at any time. It's all being done to a click track and we've decided on the tempos. We already have fake drums in there, so you can mute the old guitars and record new guitars over it. And because we have the project in Cubase in different computers, the guitar can be recorded at the same time as the drummer is muting the drums and re-recording new drums. If the vocalist feels really good, for example, and wants to sing, but we are recording guitars, we just open another room.”

Joey Sturgis works exclusively 'in the box' in Steinberg's Cubase, and makes extensive use of techniques such as sample replacement. These two screenshots taken from Cubase projects show the extent to which he uses samples to augment recorded drum tracks. Note that all the samples are straightforward audio clips rather than being triggered from a plug‑in.If at all possible, Joey works 'in the box' and uses soft synths almost exclusively for adding synthesizer parts, strings and sound effects. His favourite tools are Native Instruments Komplete 9, reFX Nexus 2 and Vengeance, and Spectrasonics Omnisphere. "Omnisphere has everything — pianos, strings, basses, organs, sound effects, chants, drums, synthesizers — and Komplete 9 has everything as well, but they have their own workflows. Making parts in Omnisphere is different to Komplete because of the way you browse the sounds. In Omnisphere, being able to randomise the order gives you a different perspective. Say you have narrowed it down to a monophonic synthesizer with distortion and you have 97 different things to listen to, you hit randomise, so when you are going through you hear sounds you've never heard before because they appear at the top of the list.

"With Nexus you search for things completely differently. It doesn't have a category field, so you can't type in 'dirty synthesizers', you just have to type in 'synths' and hope that you find dirty ones! There are other characteristics of each program that, together with the workflow differences, allow you to come up with different sounds. They're subtle things but they make a big difference.”

Devil In The Detail

According to Joey, attention to detail is the most important aspect of metalcore production. He and his team examine every single note, making sure each has the right tuning, timing and tone. "Everything has to be extremely precise,” insists Joey. "For a Foo Fighters record you might want all the subtleties that make the song special, but when you are doing metalcore, the riff is designed to be executed perfectly. At least that's the way it should sound! So when the guitar player is palm‑muting, the bass is playing the same note and the drummer is playing a kick, all three are going to be at the exact same time, perfectly in line, perfectly in tune.

"If the guitarist is playing a single note on the string, for example, we'll look at the waveform to see if it has any other harmonics in there. If there's a string ringing underneath we'll delete it and re‑record. So we look at every little note and make sure it's on the grid, on time and in tune, and that no other notes are being played when they're not supposed to. Those things really tighten up the tracks, and when you do that for every instrument throughout the song, you end up with a harmony of execution that has a punch to it.

"Frequencies are pretty much pre‑planned according to tuning. If a song is played on a guitar that is tuned to drop A, then I might put the kick in A if that sounds cool, or in a different note on purpose to make it different from the A. It just depends on how I feel it should go. It's a matter of going through a kick library and finding one that plays an A. The lowest frequency of A that's audible is somewhere in the 50s — C being 65Hz — so you try and find that, but if you can't, you just play with the frequencies. If the song is in B and you find a kick that has a dominant frequency that's a C, you notch out that C note to get it to harmonise with B more. It's really whatever you think sounds right, but I am definitely getting in there and tweaking those little things to make everything gel in my mix.”

To record guitar and bass, Joey uses a Countryman DI box fed directly into his RME Firewire 800 interface, and then adds his amp tones with amp simulators such as Line 6's Pod Farm plug‑in. Joey believes that he can achieve more consistent results using simulators than with real amps and microphones, and consistency is something that his metalcore sound is built upon. Real amps are used occasionally, but only when a band specifically requests them.

"In metal music, if a note gets played 10 or 20 times within a riff,” continues Joey, "we want that note to sound almost the same every time. Not the same in the sense that you would copy and paste it, because that starts to sound fake, but you want the same amount of gain and bottom end, and with amp simulators you get more consistent results than with an amp. I realise that there are flavours of metal where those differences are desirable, but I stick with what I know, and that's Pod Farm.

"The other thing is workflow. If you record with a real amp you are stuck with whatever sound you came up with, so if you get further down the road and it becomes hard to get it to pop out of your wall of sound, you have to re‑amp it or EQ the crap out of it, but with Pod Farm you still have that plug‑in and all the settings initiated. You can also loop the audio and flick through amp models to find one that has a bit more 100Hz or 400Hz and makes the lead stick out a bit better. It's so easy and really helps the mixing process.

"Every once in a while we get a band who want to try something different — which is fine, because I am making a product for them — so I'll find someone who knows how to re‑amp and send the DIs over to them. But when I do blind tests with bands, nine times out of 10 they pick the amp simulator.

"It has a lot to do with how I've learned to treat amp simulators. I've used Pod Farm the longest so I know how to make it sound really good. It only has so many amp models so you get to know their bumps, resonances and dynamics, and you learn how to react to them. A lot of people use Peavey 6505 amps over and over for metal music because a 6505 has a certain sound, and it's kind of the same thing with amp simulator models.”

Drum Recording

Joey characterises the bands he records as being very technical and extremely precise, so when recording a drum performance, his aim is to extract as much detail as possible. He starts by taking a look at how many cymbals are on the kit, as that affects the mics he'll use and the way they are deployed.

"13 cymbals is very different to seven,” explains Joey. "With 13, the drummer will be playing intricate parts and every time he reaches for one splash instead of another, there has to be a difference, otherwise you are not going to get definition. By looking at that, I know how many spot mics I'll need, and whether to do a spaced pair of overheads or an ORTF configuration. You can get away with the ORTF style with less cymbals, and a Mid/Sides pair works pretty well because you are capturing the whole kit and there aren't lots of cymbals that need panning in different directions. But 13 cymbals need four panned overheads. The two widest are panned 100 percent, the other two are at 50, and then you have spot mics. And you are EQ'ing each spot mic and possibly doing some automation on those mics so they are turned down when he's not hitting it them.

"For toms, if it is somebody who is playing a lot of quick parts I'll usually use a microphone I can position close, like one that mounts onto the tom, so it's always the same distance from the head. That helps keep clarity in all those really fast parts. If I get a heavy hitter I'll use a Sennheiser 421 on a stand because he's not going to be playing fast enough for you to miss anything if the tom moves.

Joey Sturgis is among the producers and engineers to have released plug‑ins capturing aspects of his sound. Here, two instances of his JST Clip peak-clipping plug‑in form part of a complex snare drum processing chain which also incorporates Cubase's channel EQ and Waves' SSL Channel, TransX and Q10."But if I am in a different studio I sometimes ask the engineer what he uses on toms because that's his room and his experience, and I like to throw different mics and preamps into the mix and see what I get. For example, there was a time I had to make a decision on a kick mic and my options were the standard AKG D112, Audix D6 and Shure Beta52. But there was also a Shure SM7B not being used. It has a lot of rejection so you can put it on a vocalist standing in front of a guitarist and you're not really going to pick up the guitar amp. I thought it would be perfect for a kick because it would block out the snare and cymbals, so we put it in and it sounded great! I use it a lot now.

"I have two snare setups. I like to put a Shure SM57 top and in reverse phase on bottom, but I also like to use an Audio‑Technica AE3000 condenser. I prefer a condenser because I really like bright snares. I do top only and place it a good six to eight inches from the drum to pick up top, underneath and side with the one mic. That works if you're dealing with a drummer who hits the snare exactly how you want every time, but the cymbals will come through, so you can't touch it up a whole lot. If you're working with someone who needs a little help, you might use the SM57 because you can hide little things here and there as you need to.”

"If I'm in a studio that has some really nice compressors, like two Urei 1176s that have serial numbers next to each other, I might put the room mics through those. I use very widely spaced, large‑diaphragm condensers for my room mics, and I have those pretty loud in my mix. I like very roomy drums. Depending on the studio, I sometimes use ribbon mics. I think the Coles 4038s sound pretty good. There is also the stereo version of the C12 that I like a lot. But if I don't have a lot of options I might use two [Audio‑Technica] AT4040s.”

Although Joey does some drum layering by mixing samples with his recordings, he does very little layering of guitars, having found that he is not able to achieve the desired 'in‑your‑face' sound when too many are mixed together. "It will sound bigger but not as sharp,” explains Joey. "If you have one guitar playing a part, you can turn that thing up as loud as you want, but when you have three guitars doing the same thing, even if they are playing slightly different notes, it becomes too thick to push.”

Two Voices Are Better Than One

Joey is particularly keen on layering vocals, explaining that a single vocal in the centre has always sounded too small. "I like vocals as wide as I can go — almost gang vocals. I double everything, triple some things and quadruple others. The top vocal that I intend for you to be listening to gets its own treatment throughout the song, and everything around it is designed to work with it. So I might have four low screams that combine to support one centre scream. And I might be notching out certain frequencies in those background vocals to make them fit better. Sometimes there's a centre vocal, two doubles panned left and right, and I might even go as far as adding chorus to those background vocals to make an even wider effect.”

Mix As You Go

Rather than completing the recording process and then embarking on a mixing stage, Joey works on the mix as he goes, so that when the recording of a track is done it is also very close to being mixed. "What's left at that point is level changes,” he explains. "The guitars might need to be a little louder, and you have to go through and automate the vocals. Also there might be something where an engineer has invented a sound for a part because I wasn't around, so I'll open it up and, since we are using Pod Farm, redo it the way I want. So it's a very efficient workflow.”

Much detailed planning goes into the complex vocal arrangements in a Sturgis production.Joey also finds that mastering at the same time as mixing is an efficient way to work because one process informs the other. "If I'm mixing my own production, I have my master bus set up with all my mastering tools and I work on both at the same time. If I notice that everything's bass‑heavy, or the snare's getting lost, I know exactly what to do with the mastering, but if I'm already to the wall I'll go into my mix and adjust things there. So having the ability to work on both at the same time suits me, because I can come up with the solution to the problem almost immediately. If I had to do it any other way I probably wouldn't be that good. Having someone else master my mixes would put me into a panic! So I like control over both, and most of the labels will let me master it. If they want to use somebody else I talk them out of it pretty easily. I use iZotope Ozone for the final EQ, limiting, multi‑band compressor and exciter‑type things. I use various compressors as my bus compressors, but mostly Waves SSL or Kramer PIE. So Waves and Ozone pretty much take care of it.”

The Sturgis Method

Although Joey says he enjoys learning from the other engineers and producers he works with, he has built his career by doing things his own way, developing a distinctive style and sound in the process. It's sometimes a hard way to learn, but Joey still believes that it is the best, and judging by how well he is doing, he could well be right.

"When I started I didn't know how click tracks worked in Cubase, so I actually recorded a lot of music without click,” he admits. "Then if I needed to put a kick sample on a song I'd have to go through the whole song and manually place the kicks because there wasn't the Tab to Transient thing in Cubase then. I hadn't read anywhere that you take a kick drum sample and then paste it in there, so came up with my own little solutions and just figured that kind of thing out on my own. It's very interesting to learn that way and that's how you get good at something, and why you end up with so many different stories on how to do production.”  

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Before becoming a producer, Joey thought he was heading for a career in computing and programming, so it is perhaps not so surprising to find that he has developed his own plug‑ins: JST Clip, a 'peak clipper', and Gain Reduction vocal processor offering his signature vocal sound, which he describes as being in‑your‑face and completely aggressive. "My compressor is compressing in the way that I do it,” says Joey, "and that is to remove all dynamics, but in a certain way! I'm trying to make vocals the same volume no matter what, so if the singer is really loud or very quiet, they're all on the same plane. It's almost limiting, but if you take your favourite limiter and bring it all the way down on a vocal, you are not going to get the same sound. The way the breaths come through and the way transients are being treated are different. It is very hard to achieve the affect without my plug‑in, because of all the things that I've set up behind the scenes.

"For example, if you use a Waves CLA‑76 blue‑face compressor, you'll notice that the breaths are too loud when you compress the crap out of a vocal. Before the vocal starts, you hear that really loud inhale and then the vocal gets quieter because that breath has slipped though before the compressor clamps down, so it seems like they are louder than the actual vocal. Then you come across compressors that do the exact opposite, where the breaths don't come in loud enough relative to the vocal. This compressor is based on 10 years of messing around with vocal compression. I've used a lot of Waves plug‑ins and there was a time when I was using the UAD2 PCI card and the plug‑ins that ran on its DSP chips, so from my experience using those, I was able to find certain attack, release and ratio relationships that gave me my 'sound', and that's what I've factored into the vocal compressor. Once I'd got all that stuff down into code I was able to tweak things mathematically in a way that the plug‑ins that I'd been using didn't let me. The shape the of compressor and the knee and how all that reacts is the secret to its sound.

"I wrote the prototype using a program called Flowstone that's used a lot in robotics, but I had the final product reprogrammed by someone better than me and they were able to make it consume less CPU power and work for Mac too.”

Dictating Drums

As a drummer, Joey is very particular about finalising demo drum parts before a band starts recording. These days he often lets 37 Recording Studio's engineer, Joey Hall, oversee the actual session, but ensures that both engineer and drummer are left in no doubt as to what's expected of them.

"The drum engineer will take my notes and the pre‑production and walk through every song with the drummer, making sure he plays what's written down,” reveals Joey. "I describe that stuff with a MIDI track and an audio reference instead of standing next to the drummer and telling him where to play double time or add a snare, kick or fill. It all starts to add up, and there might be 200 changes in one song, so I'll put that all in MIDI and give it to both the engineer and drummer, and they hold each other accountable. The engineer is looking at the track as the drummer plays, and if he misses a kick drum he'll hit stop and show him that there's a kick right there. So they catch little things as they go through, and make sure that all my notes are executed.”

The Benefits Of Budgets

Joey believes that having to make the best of a less‑than‑perfect recording space and very limited equipment when he was starting out was good practice, as it forced him to work harder and develop an armoury of production tricks that are still relevant now that his studio and gear are much improved. "I had to figure out how to create the product so I tried to make the best of what I had. If I recorded cymbals, for example, it was using a couple of really cheap microphones and preamps, so I had bad gear, but the motivation and determination to make it sound good. I didn't know if a $3000 microphone would sound better than a $200 microphone. I assumed that it would, but I was stuck with this stuff, so I tried everything to make things sound good, and once I moved on to better equipment and better situations I found that a lot of the things I'd learned helped, because when you run into problems you have the skill set to fix those things.

"For example, I learned how to EQ vocals early on. Even if you have a really good mic you have to do a lot of EQ'ing, but with a cheaper mic, you find more problem frequency areas because the pickup is not as nice. Usually the mid and top‑mid‑range is the problem. Another thing you run into is how it reacts when you push it hard and the air is flowing really fast towards the diaphragm. Better mics handle those situations in a more pleasing way. With cheaper microphones you might have to do some crazy volume automations to make those situations sound proper or the way you want them to.”

Published September 2014