The role of the mix engineer is becoming ever more creative. Jack Joseph Puig explains how his imaginative approach helped shape Fergie’s smash hit ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’.
“My philosophy is to make records that have a unique sound,” says mix icon Jack Joseph Puig. “Too many records sound the same these days, because everyone is using the same gear. So part of what I’m doing at my mix room is to combine analogue gear from the ’50s onwards with the latest digital equipment you can buy today, and mould all that together in a collage to create a record that has its own sound and that stands out. If the record is faithful to the song and to the artist and also has a different aesthetic to what’s normally out there, you really hit a home run. I want records to leave an indelible mark on listeners and I want them to remember the record because it’s great, not because of what I have done. That’s an art.”
The most recent example of this philosophy is the ear–catching, velvety ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ by Fergie. Having spent eight weeks at the top of the US charts, it promises to become the most successful record of 2007. In addition, in nearly three decades of working in the music business, the Grammy–Award winning mixer has contributed to records from a seemingly endless list of greats, among them the Rolling Stones, No Doubt, all the Crows (Black, Counting, Sheryl), The Verve, U2, Green Day, Snow Patrol, Klaxons, Mary J Blige and Black Eyed Peas.
In recent years, the power of the mix engineer has grown. Many of today’s top mixers will add overdubs, replace parts or move them around, and change the structure of the songs they’re working on; and as a result, they often command royalties as well as the flat fees they’ve traditionally received. Jack Joseph Puig helped set this trend, and continues to be ahead of the pack. “In this day and age, mixers are no longer dependent on what’s given to them on a hard drive,” elaborates Puig, from his mix room in Los Angeles’s Ocean Way Studios. “The capacities of the tools we now have at our disposal are immense. We can do almost anything at the push of a button, and it’s all non–destructive. The day and age when we threw up the faders and thought ‘I wish I had this or that,’ are over. It’s massively acceptable now, and even expected, that we add things.
“When I mixed The Rolling Stones’  A Bigger Bang album, I reckoned that one of the songs needed a tambourine and a shaker, so I put it on. If Glyn Johns had done that many years ago, he’d have been shot in the head. Mick Jagger was kind of blown away by what I’d done, no–one had ever done it before on a Stones record, but he couldn’t deny that it was great and fixed the record. When I was mixing another song a little bit later he came in and said ‘Last night I overdubbed a shaker, a tambourine and maracas. I thought that if I didn’t do it, you would.’ It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
“Today people are very open–minded about what we do. It’s a matter of us being worthy of what we’re being paid for. It’s about capturing the X–factor, that indescribable element that makes a record great, and sometimes none of us, if we are honest, know how we got there. You throw up all the faders and you’re looking for a feeling, and suddenly you hit it, and it’s intangible why. Was it the delay? The EQ? I’m extremely lyric–driven, and all I have to help convey what the singer tries to say are two pieces of paper and a magnet that’s moving air. And somehow I have to make you feel sad or happy, or whatever the emotion is, with EQs and compressors. When you think about it, you wonder ‘How is that possible?’”
Puig’s key tool in imparting feel is the compressor. “Compression is definitely the most musical tool that we have. I don’t care for compression as a volume control. Using compression to alter feel and to affect performances has been done for a long time. For instance, it was common in the ’80s to take a really fast compressor, like the Dbx 165, set it really aggressively, send a snare drum to it, and then gate that sound as tightly as possible. What you get is a ‘kh–kh–kh–kh’ sound, just an attack note that’s extremely aggressive. You put that under a separate fader, which becomes your attack fader, and you feed that in with the regular snare to get the degree of attack that you want.
“You choose the compressor for what you need. The way a Fairchild wheezes and moves is very different to the attack of a harder compressor, like an SSL. You can then place the front end of the note where you want, and make the track feel different. A Fairchild will give you a more legato effect, with more sustain, and you find the right place for it, in the way that musicians play. So you’re actually playing almost like a musician. This approach played an important part in my mix of Fergie’s ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’.”
Jack Joseph Puig: “The lyrics are very personal, so I made the record as personal and intimate as I could. Fergie’s vocal performance was so excellent that I didn’t need to pull out all the bells and whistles to make the track work. When I first heard her sing it, it really blew my mind, like in ‘Oh my God, this woman can sing!’ Her performance is just fantastic. The voice is the loudest thing on the record, and it should be. The acoustic guitar is the counterpart to the voice. The record sounds very simple, even though there are a lot of tracks. But it’s not an urban record with heavy kicks and multiple tracks just for the snare, and so on. It’s a pop record, and the heart of the matter is that you can play it on acoustic guitar and voice, and hear the record in your head. That, and an apparent simplicity despite the fact that there’s a lot going on, is the mark of a great record.
“You have to consider the fact that the ear can process only three things at once. When you get to the fourth thing, the attention drops away somewhere. So if you think about this record, what you remember are Fergie’s voice, the acoustic guitar, and the bass. The acoustic guitar and the voice suck you in and create an indelible memory. They make a stamp in your mind. Her voice, and the delay on her vocals, really draw you into the attitude and atmosphere of the track. It goes back to the X–factor I spoke about. I’m not thinking algebraically, I’m thinking intuitively, creatively, so I can’t justify why I put a certain delay or reverb on the vocal. The acoustic guitar was also very important, it needed to be bright and vibrant and pull you in just like the voice. And I wanted a record that had a nice bottom end so the vocal and acoustic had something to sit on, or rather to ride on.”
“The main guitars are two acoustic guitars recorded in stereo with two microphones.You see the Waves TransX Wide plug–in at the top. With this I did what I described earlier: combined hard compression and short gating to create a sharp transient that I can move about. Half a decade ago or so SPL put the effect in a hardware box and later they made a plug–in version, and the TransX Wide does the same thing. The only difference is that I can split the effect out over different frequencies. So you can add attack to the bottom end, but not the top end. In the case of the acoustic guitars I found the place where most of the attack was, and then I really grabbed this attack with the TransX Wide.
“If you were to listen to the acoustic guitar without the plug–in, it would sound kind of lazy and not urgent. It doesn’t sound exciting or like it’s really digging in. Instead I wanted to give the guitar an immediate attacking, in–your–face sound, as if it’s really digging in and played with fingernails as opposed to the skin of the finger. That’s what the plug–in provided. The brain subconsciously analyses where the front of the note is and what the feel of a record is. If you have attack like this, the recording feels exciting and vibrant, like it’s moving and is fast. It’s a large part of the way the record feels. I had the same TransX Wide setting on the acoustic guitars throughout the song, it’s actually a preset that I like — and a setting that I use on various songs. The little red dot shows you that the level is overloaded at 11, so I pushed that plug–in really hard.
“I also moved the guitar around and placed it right on top of the bar line. An instrument that’s playing right on the bar line will feel faster. So you find the best place by moving instruments around. I’m talking here about a few milliseconds forwards or backwards. So within a bar line you can have brisk eighth notes or lazy eighth notes, and this is a very important tool when mixing. I always try to find the musicians that are playing more slowly and that are playing more briskly, and I move them around until I get the feel that I want.
“The first time I mixed for the Rolling Stones I did a song for Forty Licks , and I remember putting up the faders and thinking: ‘This is a mess, I’m really going to have to spend a day fixing this,’ because timing–wise it was all over the place. I went through that for a bit, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks: ‘You’re looking at this totally wrongly, there is going to be a place where these instruments will fit together and that will work.’ So I pulled all the faders down again, and then on Friday night, nine o’clock, I still remember the time, I quickly brought all the faders up like I always do, and suddenly I hit that magic spot. The way they were all playing together added up to create that Rolling Stones thing. By contrast, it also happens that you get songs in where everything is exactly on the grid, and it’s like a drum machine, there is no feel. So you have to move things around to get a feel. But of course, doing that is taking massive musical liberties.
“The other plug–in on the acoustic guitar is the L1 Ultramaximizer, which just helped me to put the guitar further in your face after it received the treatment I just described. You can see I put the output all the way up to zero. There’s nothing better than an L1 to put things in your face; it will always be the Granddaddy of Waves. So first of all I got the feel of the acoustic guitar right, then I made sure it was very prominent and in your face. The remainder of the guitars are some strumming guitars on the left, nothing significant, and there are couple of electric guitars, which you can see on the right. They were a little bit clean, and I wanted them to have some more personality, so I ran them through the Stomp 2 [part of Waves Guitar Tool Rack], and I also used [Line 6’s] Echo Farm. The Stomp 2 adds tremolo and vibrato to create a bit of movement in the guitar, and the Echo Farm is set to a delay for a little bit of an ambient feel. As far as outboard on the guitars is concerned, I would have inserted a pair of Gates Level Devil compressors on the board. They are old tube compressors, and they give a big fat sound.”
“The two channels on the far left are the actual vocal tracks [‘LEAD***’], and more to the right you can see that there’s a dedicated vocal channel for each section of the song, so I can create the right feeling from section to section. So the first verse [‘1stversvrb’], the bit with just the acoustic guitar backing, has its own reverb using a Waves Trueverb, which is great. I’ve rolled off above 1k and left all the low end to make it darker and fuller sounding. I’m a Waves guy, they make the best stuff! The D2 gets rid of any dirt below 111Hz and also adds a bit of high end around 12k.
“The breakdown section has a Digirack Mod Delay II slap delay. There are different ambient feels and different attitudes for different sections. Towards the end, where she’s ad libbing, I put a longer delay on. The delays change for each section of the song, but the main long delay that was essential to how the vocals feel is on the entire vocal, which is why I had it on the main channel. It’s again the Digirack Mod II delay, set to 265.49ms.
“The rest of the vocal effects were all done outside [the DAW]. I had a Neve 1073 between Pro Tools and the console, because I really wanted the sound of that Neve. The closer you can get to the original source with your effect, the more you’ll get the effect you want. If I’d stuck the Neve on an insert in the Focusrite, the signal would already have been coloured by the console, and the Neve sound would have been less obvious. I probably added +3dB at 12kHz on the Neve and +2dB at 220Hz. After that the vocals went through an Inward Connection TSL3, which is a great vocal compressor that adds great attack. You can get very aggressive with it, and you won’t hear it. I had about 8dB of compression, which is quite a bit, but as I said, you don’t hear it. It made her vocals more expressive.”
“I used the TransX Wide just to sharpen the attack at the lower frequencies, rather than the top frequencies, and also the Oxford Dynamics with one of my own presets, the ‘JJP punch’ which, obviously, is designed to give the bass more punch.”
“When you’re in a mix situation like this, and have worked on other tracks, sometimes your drum sounds become less relevant. Now that you’ve made the vocals and guitar brighter, you might make the snare brighter as well, which is why I added the Aqua snare sample, for instance. There’s a stream of consciousness in mixing this song that’s consistent throughout the entire processing. You can see that I again use the TransX Wide, with similar duration and release settings as on the guitars and bass. The level at 10.8 is again marked red, because it’s overloading. I was pushing that plug–in hard.
“There’s heavy processing on the drums, using both plug–ins and outboard, and as always it was a feel thing. In some places the drums weren’t tight enough, in other places they weren’t long enough. The outboard processing was massive, I could talk two hours about what I did, it’s that deep, so that would be a whole other article. I’m mixing Ashlee Simpson and remixing a Fall Out Boy track at the moment, and I have 17 faders of drum processing, which is normal for me. So it’s really, really, really deep.”
“All these parts were programmed in Pro Tools to enhance the drums, and they were already there when I received the file. I didn’t add any samples in this section. There’s a [Waves] Renaissance Bass on the claps on the left, they functioned like a backbeat and sounded too thin. The TransX Wide manipulates the front end of the attacks and gets things to sit well with the acoustic guitar. The SSL channel gated the claps and added a bit of EQ at the same time. The ‘fuckbox’ was a funny bass drum sound. The Focusrite provided just an EQ on the fuckbox, and there’s a Lo–fi plug–in to add a little bit of distortion. That plug–in is fantastic.
“The Omnipressor? That’s a dangerous thing to talk about, and I prefer not to go into how I used it, because it gets too deep. It used to be a box made by Eventide and was arguably one of the most complex compression/timing manipulators on the planet. There’s been a lot of great equipment that has come into our lives that didn’t take a hold because it was too complex to use. Most users prefer something really simple, like an LA2, where all you have is volume and threshold. The Omnipressor was very complex, with lots of knobs, and very off–putting unless you were a very technical engineer. The plug–in version has some settings that can give you a really radical kind of compression. I was sending the fuckbox to this via bus 11–12, and it made the sound really aggressive, which I then mixed in. At the bottom, below the faders, you can see that I’m correcting the delays. Now that Pro Tools has delay correction, you can use some of the additive side of compression that you couldn’t do before.”
“There are shakers and tambourines here, and the automation is off, so I probably went through another window and arranged it in a way where it came in and out of certain sections. I used Lo–fi to fatten up the shaker, and C1 on the tambourine to compress 2748Hz out of it. Taking out some mid–range made it brighter sounding. Then the shaker and tambourine went to the master, and I used Lo–fi again, to add yet more dirt. The combination of reducing the sample depth to 20–bit, adding a little bit of distortion to make it sound grittier, and the C1 setting, created the feel I was after.”
“The keyboards are not an important aspect of this song. The most noteworthy thing to point at here is the Eventide Factory plug–in on the Fender Rhodes. It was in mono and I used the plug–in to make it wider. I also added some aggressive EQ using a Waves Q10, and compressed reverb on a short setting to give the Rhodes a more ambient feel. The idea was just to make sure the keyboard sat well with the guitar and vocals and didn’t get in the way. They’re not affecting the feel, they’re just widening the palette.”
“The ‘Stringverb’ plug-in is a compressed, manipulated reverb. Audiotrack is a compressor made by Waves that’s fantastic. I love the way it makes things feel. The ‘Fairchild’ plug-in is doing what Fairchild does, which is making the notes long and lush and beautiful. The settings don’t really matter. I used the Channel Strip to EQ the mid range. In analogue I used an Eventide 2016 reverb set at stereo room, 3.2 seconds decay time, fronted by a 92–110ms pre–delay. I almost always use this setting on strings. Set it to this, and let it rock, there’s nothing better.”.
Jack Joseph Puig, who also finds time to act as an Executive Vice President for Interscope/Geffen/A&M, has had his own mix room at the renowned Ocean Way Studios for the last 10 years. The room sports not only a highly modified 90–input Focusrite desk, but also more outboard equipment than you could shake a stick at, not to mention all manner of funky atmospheric lights and other artifacts to improve the cosy ambience. Outboard gear includes exotic boxes like the Gates Level Devil, Moog EQ and CBS Laboratories Audimax.
“My room is not a vintage room,” explains Puig. “Instead I like to see it as an everything room. I have pieces of equipment from the ’50s to something that came out yesterday as a prototype from a manufacturer. I’ve always believed that all these pieces of equipment have a place. I prefer to work with a box of 64 crayons than with a box of eight crayons. My passion is for making records that have many different colours, so I need the tools to make those kinds of records. It’s also why I don’t mix in the box, because the box has a sound, there’s no question about it, and if you do everything in the box, things very quickly sound the same.
“In the history of audio the weakest link has always been the summing bus, and it still is. Analogue consoles have been around for 50 years and it’s taken them years to find a way to sum everything with the least amount of destruction to the sound — I’m talking stereo spectrum, phase, etc. How can we expect digital to come along and compete? That’s why people use summing boxes and mix through a console with all the faders at zero. It’s also why I have my Focusrite desk. I got it because I never liked the modern Neves very much. The Focusrite is greatly modified in order to have the least amount in the signal path and so have the least amount of colour. There are parts in the console from SSL, from Neve, from API. It has a hotchpotch of different components to create a console that has a unique sound, to make records that sound like no–one else’s.”
“The first thing that happens when a track comes in for mixing is that my assistant preps it,” says Puig. “Even with the best, we get Pro Tools Sessions that are massively disorganised. So my assistant cleans things up and organises everything, puts all the components that belong together next to each other, assigning tracks and channels in places that are familiar to me. It’s just easier for me to know that fader 32 will always be the vocal and 33 will always be the bass drum. On the desk the drums come up centre, because in using multiple microphones they’re very phase sensitive and stereo orientated. Next to them are the vocals, because they are the most important thing. Knowing the placements allows me to instinctively grab the faders. It’s something I learned from Glyn Johns, and it’s for the same reason that I’m very precise with the nomenclature in Pro Tools Sessions. I do name plug–ins and tracks and other things as precisely as possible. I need to be in an artistic place.
“I very much prefer for the artist and the producer to be there when I mix. After prepping I’ll throw up all the faders to see what’s there and get a rough balance. That goes fast. Within 15–20 minutes I’ll have the real crux of the way the mix is going to be, and I print that. Then I start building on it, and I’ll compare what I’m doing to it, to see if I’ve gone off track. You want to hear everything in context to know what it needs, and you can’t get that by listening to isolated channels for one to three hours each. I’ll also listen to whether I need additional overdubs or to move things around. On the Fergie song I didn’t bring in other musicians, though I did a little bit of re–arranging and tuning. Only once I have the mix to where I really want to have it do I listen to the producer’s rough mix, so that I’m not influenced by it. If I find that the original rough mix has something fantastic in it that I didn’t think of, I’ll incorporate it in my mix.”