Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: John Fields & Paul David Hager

Jonas Brothers

Published in SOS September 2009
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
John Fields and Paul David Hager have a very modern working relationship — and with the Jonas Brothers, they’ve delivered a string of old-fashioned hits.
Paul Tingen
The iChat messaging system is central to the working relationship between John Fields (main) and Paul David Hager (on screen).
The iChat messaging system is central to the working relationship between John Fields (main) and Paul David Hager (on screen).
The Jonas Brothers are yet another in a long line of acts that have been dropped by their record company before going on to make it big. When Columbia gave up on the three teenage brothers in 2007, Hollywood Records, a Walt Disney company, immediately snapped them up. A year later, the Jonas Brothers stormed the charts with their eponymously titled album and the hit single ‘SOS’, both of which went platinum in the US and reached the top of the charts in many other nations, including the UK.
Less then two years later, the Jonas Brothers and their guitar-based power-pop have become a global phenomenon, having sold well over eight million albums worldwide. June saw the release of their third Hollywood album, Lines, Vines And Trying Times, which again went to the top in the US and reached the top 10 in another dozen or so countries, including the UK.
Fields Of Gold
The man co-responsible for harnessing the Brother’s talents on their three Hollywood Records albums is engineer, producer and multi-instrumentalist John Fields, known hitherto for working with alt-rock and pop acts like Switchfoot, Iffy, the Rembrandts, Paul Westerberg, Rooney, Tina & the B-Sides and Dovetail Joint.
“It was February 2007,” recalls Fields. “I’d done a little bit of work with Hollywood Records’ A&R guy, Jon Lind. As I understand it, when the Jonas Brothers came in for their initial meeting with him after they had signed, he asked them what producer they wanted to work with, and they mentioned me because they loved the Switchfoot albums that I’d done. So Jon invited us all to his office, and they performed most of the hits that I’d later record on their acoustic guitars. I wanted to hear them sing in front of me, and they were fantastic. We started recording our first album together a week later, and took four weeks to finish it. At that first meeting I just knew there would be a great chemistry between them and I, and so it proved. I have always wanted to make commercial hit singles, and the brothers are really open to anything. They’re not hung up on being cool, or indie cred or stuff like that. They’re just into making music.”
Back In The Box
John Fields recorded and part-mixed the Jonas Brothers’ most recent album, Lines, Vines And Trying Times, at Wishbone Studio in LA, which he has on long-term lease from two members of Blind Melon. “The studio has a ’70s, 32-channel API desk and a great assortment of microphones,” explains Fields, “and I brought all the gear from my garage, including my own HD3 Accel Pro Tools rig. Using this studio full-time is great, because I have everything set up exactly the way I want it. Also, because I do everything in the box in Pro Tools, I can do sessions with two or three different artists in one day.”
Since the second half of 2008, Fields works closely together with mixer Paul David Hager, who has his own mix room at Encore Studios in LA. The duo’s to-and-fro collaboration, enabled by working in the box, has become fundamental to Fields’ way of working. “Working with Paul David is great because he is on iChat all day long, and we are throwing Pro Tools files at each other via iChat all the time. It’s like playing football with the files.
“When I’m recording, I work really fast. I want the track to sound like a record immediately, so I’m literally throwing plug-ins on it on the fly, and I’ll be programming effects, and I’ll have everything on the vocals that I want, and I’ll quickly have created a general picture of the whole track. At the same time, because I’m working so fast, and because I most likely have the artist there, and whoever else, I may be smashing the 2-bus too hard, and because I’m not really watching it stuff gets louder and out of control, and there may be ‘ess’ problems on the vocals and the hi-hat may sound weird, and so on. That’s where Paul David comes in, because he fixes all my problems, and also he dramatically improves the sound of the drums. Basically, I throw paint at the canvas very fast and he cleans it up and gets very detailed. He’ll also tell me if I he thinks that I have to recut the drums or the bass. Doing that is so fast for me, that I usually will say, ‘OK, no problem.’ Paul David likes using the SSL, and wanted to do Lines, Vines And Trying Times on an SSL, but I was like, ‘No, dude, we do it in the box!’ I wanted to be able to juggle all the projects I do at the same time and need to have instant recall. I’ll work on a song all day long, and will then send it over to Paul David, and when I wake up the next morning there’ll be a Pro Tools file from him in my iChat inbox. I’ll double-click on it, and it will instantly sound like a million bucks!”
Paul David Hager
Paul David Hager
‘Paranoid’
Written by Nick Jonas, Joe Jonas, Kevin Jonas II, Cathy Dennis, John Fields
Produced by John Fields
John Fields: “Usually Nick or one of the brothers comes in with a song idea that they play to me on an acoustic guitar and/or a piano, and which I’ll record to a click. Nick will sometimes call in on the way to the studio, saying he has a song and he’ll tell me the key and will sing me the beat over the telephone. By the time he arrives I’ll have a beat going and a recording template ready for him, and he’ll cut guitar and vocals. The vocals that he sings right there could be the final vocal. He and the other guys are fantastic singers, and because my stuff is all set up, we don’t need to bother with demos. I might work on some keyboards, bass, and program a beat, and we’ll overdub the rest of the instruments. I like doing this as quickly as possible. Even before we have a second verse or chorus, they will already sing the first verse and chorus, just to see what it sounds like. Nick will also often play the drums to get an idea down, and my friend, drummer Dorian Crozier, will later redo the drums with super power and super precision, and generally by the end of the evening we’ll have a song.
“In the case of ‘Paranoid’ it was a little bit different, because Cathy Dennis [the British songwriter who has written number one hits for Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Katy Perry] had expressed an interest in working with the brothers, and so a session with the brothers and her was booked at my studio. The song started with a little idea from Nick, and after that it was an organic development of somebody sitting at the piano, someone else with an acoustic guitar and somebody typing in the lyrics. We started at 7pm and by the time everyone went home at 11pm we had a track. I sent MP3s to everyone and a couple of days later we had a second session to finish the track. Nick had played a four-on-the-floor rhythm idea on the floor on the drums on the first day. We took a couple of bars from that and looped it and basically played the whole song to that. I wanted some more fluidity in the drums, and a friend of mine from Minneapolis, Michael Bland, happened to be in LA playing with Prince on the Tonight show. He came over and played to the track. His drums were recorded with various non-glamorous microphones, which went into the API console mic pres, some with the EQ engaged, either API 550 [parametric] or 560 [graphic]. There were no drum samples on the track. That’s another reason I like working with Paul David: he works with what I give him. Big mixers like to be comfortable and want to make sure that things sound good to them and often add their own samples. But if I want a drum sample, I put one on.
“The final vocals were mainly from the first session, with some replacements and overdubs during the second session. My vocal chain for the whole album was Neumann U87, API 2124 mic pre, Anthony Demaria Labs ADL1000 compressor — just kissing it slightly — and [Empirical Labs] Distressor in Opto mode 10:1, into Pro Tools via the 192 modules. Guitar cabinets were recorded using SM57s and Royer [ribbon mics] going into the API console, or using a Line 6 X3 Pro direct to Pro Tools. Ken Chastain, another friend of mine from Minneapolis, did some percussion and sound effects and sent those to me as a Pro Tools file. Steve Roehm added a sci-fi-like vibraphone part, and that was the whole track. I later also played some more guitars and in the chorus a Fender Jazz Bass, using a Line 6 Bass Pod XT Pro, and direct into Tools.
“I then added a Vacuum synth [plug-in] bass in the verses, and lots of synthesizer stuff and effects, most of them designed to create a sense of paranoia. I have a lot of hardware keyboards at my studio, including a Nord Lead from 1997, which I use all the time, and a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, but I did not really use them on ‘Paranoid’. Instead most of the keyboard sounds come from Digidesign’s Xpand, which I love, and Vacuum, their analogue, monophonic-sounding synth plug-in. They come with Pro Tools 8. The Pro Tools 8 plug-ins actually work with version 7, you just have to put them in the appropriate folder. Other Pro Tools 8 plug-ins I used were Boom, which is a drum machine with 909/808-ish sounds that allows you to tune each drum sound, and the AIR plug-ins, which we used a lot on the vocals. We were also using [Digidesign’s time-stretching tool] Elastic Audio, which doesn’t sound as good on drum sets, because the cymbals become wacky, but it really sounds great on things like tambourines, and it can do wonders on acoustic guitars.”
Mix As You Go
John Fields: “As I said, I don’t really have a separate mixing stage: recording and mixing happen at the same time, and I work very fast. Because of this there can be a lot of slop in my songs, and if it doesn’t bother me, I leave it. If there is some kind of final stage, it may literally just involve me printing my MIDI files to audio, and fixing some crossfades and double-checking edit points. In fact, I usually print my MIDI to audio pretty early on, because it stresses the computer if you have five or six MIDI synths open. At some point I decide: ‘No more changes, I’m going to print these.’ But I’ll always have the original MIDI track right next to the audio, in case I need to make a change. The many synths on ‘Paranoid’ are often stereo tracks, and called things like ‘string pad’, ‘freaky synth’, ‘bubble’, ‘piano’, and ‘glass pad’. The 12 in the name of many of the drum tracks refers to the [Pro Tools] Playlist. Every time I revised it, I kept the old one. Maybe I did nine drum takes and then comped one. So another thing I may do towards the mixing stage is delete all the older Playlists. Deleting older Playlists can clean out, like, 2GB of space. I keep everything I record, but still don’t have massive files, because I make my decisions fast, so I don’t record that much. The final ‘Paranoid’ Session file was just 4.12GB!”
Paul David Hager: “I normally would have mixed a project like the Jonas Brothers’ album on an SSL, because everything is right in front of me, or using my Chandler summing mixer. But John and I thought the last record we mixed in the box, Ballas Hough Band for Hollywood Records, sounded very good, as did the Jonas Brothers. The great thing for me in working with John is that we have totally different ways of mixing. Typically, John will have his basic tracks done, and he’ll send me those, and I’ll work on them and send what I do back, and he’ll continue overdubbing on that, and will send that back to me again. So we bounce the mix back and forth; it’s truly a collaboration. For me, it’s rarely a matter of simply sitting down and doing a mix.
“Basically, John will get a basic feel going and I’ll tweak things and clean up the drums, and work on the vocals, and in the case of the Jonas brothers will make sure each of the three brothers has their own identity, and so on. Also, with the Jonas Brothers, Jon Lind will listen to the end result, and will ask for adjustments, which I will incorporate. And three weeks after I mixed ‘Paranoid’, Radio Disney asked for a verse line to be changed. Making changes like this is made much easier and quicker by mixing in the box, of course, and it’s another reason why all the Disney stuff pretty much stays in the box.
“My normal mix approach is to listen to the rough very quickly, and to just open the Pro Tools file and throw up the faders and listen to where they left it. Most of the time I have sent over a sheet with details of how I like the producer/engineer to prep things. That makes things a lot faster. The other day somebody sent me a file that wasn’t rendered to zero, and that had a thousand fades in it, and somehow the fades had become corrupted when going from Pro Tools 8 to 7.4.2, so I had to get another file and render it on another machine and import that. That took a lot of time. Obviously, I don’t have these issues in working with John. I have Pro Tools 8 on my laptop, but I don’t like it very much. I don’t like the greyness and John had problems with Beat Detective. I also found that there are some weird things happening with version 3.1.1 of [plug-in package] Sound Toys in Pro Tools 8. It’s important that John’s system and mine are near-identical, so I went back to 7.4 as well. The other problem is that things can get lost when you open and/or transfer Pro Tools files. With analogue, you painstakingly double-check your mix when you recall it. With digital, you assume that that little flanger thing on that guitar part that happens for just two seconds is still the same. But sometimes it’s not, and that can be tricky. So you want to use the exact same versions of Pro Tools wherever possible.”
Mixing ‘Paranoid’
Paul David Hager: “‘Paranoid’ was an exception to the usual collaborative way of working that John and I have, because I was away for a week while they continued working. At the end of the week, I received three songs that were virtually finished, and I just mixed them. ‘Paranoid’ was one of them. But it was still all in the box. ‘Paranoid’ is a fairly simple song, but there are a lot of keyboards that come and go, and the verses were so lush, particularly the second verse with the Simple Minds-like keyboards and the backwards stuff, that it was hard to really make sure that the chorus made a splash when it kicked in. The chorus gets busier and more driving, but it doesn’t necessarily get huge-sounding in the original version. So I did my best to make it explode in the choruses. You have to get psychologically excited and build up a bit of an adrenalin rush for the choruses.
“The rough of ‘Paranoid’ was in good shape when I got it, and I started by cleaning up the drums and adding some crack and personality to the snare. Normally, I start a mix by working on the vocals first, and try to create something around that, and then I add in the drums, and the bass and guitars, always double-checking them against the vocals, making sure that they support the vocals. I didn’t do this with ‘Paranoid’ because the rough had a good balance, and with a song that had so many elements that were already in the ballpark, I tried to focus more on beefing up the track and making it come together. Also, John will often hit the stereo bus too hard, so I will pull everything down and start with the drums again, and work my way up from there to get everything to breathe a little better. You can hit the stereo bus pretty hard in Pro Tools, but it’s better to allow some headroom, because you can do more with the track. Basically, I tried to take what John did and make it more 3D.”
Drums: Waves SSL Channel, SSL EQ, C4 & Renaissance Bass, Cranesong Phoenix, Massey CT4, Digirack Expander/Gate III, TL Labs TL Space
The main drum tracks in ‘Paranoid’: note the separate Group channels for parallel compression (‘Compress’) and reverb.
The main drum tracks in ‘Paranoid’: note the separate Group channels for parallel compression (‘Compress’) and reverb.
Cranesong’s Phoenix plug-in suite was used widely throughout the mix of ‘Paranoid’, including (as here) on the snare.
Cranesong’s Phoenix plug-in suite was used widely throughout the mix of ‘Paranoid’, including (as here) on the snare.
Paul David Hager: “John will usually not put any plug-ins on the drums; they sound good when they’re going in. So I will put on some SSL Channel EQ and start beefing them up. But once I’d beefed up the drums, I had to brighten up the guitars and the vocals, and so on. The four-on-the-floor in the verse also sounded big and thick, and when the drums start playing a disco beat in the chorus, it was a matter of keeping it moving and keeping the thickness in there. I think John uses an [AKG] D112 for the kick, Shure Beta 57 for the snare, top and bottom, AKG 414 for overheads, and a Coles overhead in the centre. I’d suggested the Coles to him; I’d just cut a record with Devo, and using the Coles had a nice ’70s/’80s vibe to it. There’s also a track called ‘Sinair’, and the track next to it is a stereo room mic, recorded with a Neumann SM2.
“I usually boost the kick somewhere between 50 and 100 Hz and then again around 4-5k, to get a nice crack, so it cuts through with the bass guitar, but not too clicky. I submixed the top and bottom snare mix to a snare VCA track, which is my overall snare fader. I used the [Waves] SSL Channel on the snare. Usually, I try to find the warmth of the snare, and add something in the 200Hz range — in the case of ‘Paranoid’, 250Hz. Then I’ll find the crack, which is in the 4-5k range, and bring that up a little bit as well. I’m always EQ’ing into compression with the snare, so it really cuts through in the track and sits just right. Because the snare hits the compressor, it brings the gain back up, and that creates that snap that everyone is so used to having these days. In general I use the SSL Channel mainly for the EQ, and if I use the limiter it’s always after the EQ, so it’s shaving a little from the top. It hits the transients with 3dB, but my ratio is low at 2:1 and I make it super-fast. That goes on everything apart from the toms.
“As you can see in the Mix window, I use the Cranesong Phoenix plug-in a lot. In fact, I use it pretty much on everything. There are five different ones, and some of them are good for bringing out the mid-range, others more for adding top and bottom. It simulates the effect of tape, so it makes Pro Tools sound more analogue. The three buttons on the left recreate the bias of a tape machine: the first one is linear, the second one boosts the top end and the third one boosts the bottom end. Sapphire is a setting I often use on the snare.
“I also created two separate submix tracks for drums. One is called ‘Drums’ and is dry without compression, and then I make an Aux fader, ‘Compress’, on which I send different amounts of things to a compressor, in this case the Massey CT4. I don’t send too much overheads into the compressor, because John really hates splashy cymbals, and I don’t want to pump the overheads. The same with the room mic. The Waves C4 is a dynamic compressor/EQ that is there to tighten up the bottom end a little bit. Especially with a four-to-the-floor kick the tendency is for the low end to be filled up too much, and if there’s a dB or two too much the CT4 will keep it in check. To the right of the ‘Compress’ and ‘Drums’ tracks is a ‘verb’ track, which has a TL Space [reverb] plug-in, and after that an Expander/Gate, just to give it more of an ’80s gated-snare sound. The toms are sent to a separate reverb track, and only have the TL Space plug-in without the gate.”
Percussion: Digirack Compressor/Limiter Dynamics III (LD3), Waves Q6, SSL Channel & S1 Imager, Abbey Road TG12413
Percussion player and programmer Ken Chastain added numerous tracks of percussion ‘ear candy’ to the Session.
Percussion player and programmer Ken Chastain added numerous tracks of percussion ‘ear candy’ to the Session.
“To the right of the drum tracks [in the Mix window] are 12 tracks from percussionist/programmer Ken Chastain, which are all pretty much ‘candy’ stuff. Ken will give us a bunch of stuff as a Pro Tools file, plug-ins included, and John and I will mute or unmute as required, but we pretty much keep 90 percent of what Ken does. There are only a few things going throughout the track, the rest come in once and a while. ‘Verseloper’ is a loop that went through the verse to add to the four-to-the-floor vibe. I have an LD3 on the ‘Verseloper’ and the ‘boom kik’. I sent the kick and snare to the LD3 and used these to trigger it, so that every time the kick and snare sound, Ken’s tracks get ducked a little bit. That makes space for the real kick and snare to sit there and tightens things up. I do that a lot. I like to let the real drums bleed and add other stuff for some character.”
Vocals: Waves SSL Channel, Massey CT4 & De-Esser, AIR Ensemble
Paul David Hager used Waves’ SSL Channel to brighten up and compress Nick Jonas’ lead vocal.
Paul David Hager used Waves’ SSL Channel to brighten up and compress Nick Jonas’ lead vocal.
Hager: “The main vocal is Nick’s, on which I have a Waves SSL Channel, adding a bit of high-mid and high frequencies to brighten it up and using a little bit of compression, a Massey CT4 for more LA2A type-compression, giving some colour, and the Massey De-Esser, which is probably the best de-essing plug-in out there. Joe’s vocal had a similar treatment. All the vocals go to a group that has a little overall EQ and compression and which sends to reverb and delays. We printed the long delay reverb effects back to a separate track.”
Fields: “We also used the AIR plug-in on the vocals, which is an example of the Pro Tools 8 plug-in working in 7. The AIR sounds like a chorus effect and it makes the vocals sound kind of freaky.”
Guitars & bass: Waves SSL Channel, L1 & Q4, Cranesong Phoenix, Focusrite D3, Sound Toys Tremolator, Digidesign Recti-Fi, AIR Talkbox
The DI’d bass guitar that underpins the choruses was treated with Waves’ Q4 equaliser and another Cranesong Phoenix plug-in.
The DI’d bass guitar that underpins the choruses was treated with Waves’ Q4 equaliser and another Cranesong Phoenix plug-in.
Hager: “The verses are synth bass and the choruses are real bass, DI’d. There is nothing on the synth bass, and the real bass has a Waves Q4 EQ to add a little mid and pull out a couple of frequencies that were building up in the bottom. It also has the Cranesong Phoenix Dark Essence plug-in. The chorus rock guitars were grouped to a subgroup, where they were compressed with a Focusrite D3 compressor and a Phoenix. Most of the guitars required very little EQ, maybe a little bit here and there to brighten them up. Any other guitar effects were printed when they were tracked.”
Master processing: Digirack Trim, Massenberg EQ, Focusrite D3, Cranesong Phoenix
Dynamics processing on the master bus was handled mainly by the Focusrite D3 compressor plug-in.
Dynamics processing on the master bus was handled mainly by the Focusrite D3 compressor plug-in.
Fields: “Four plug-ins were added by both Paul David and I. Trim is the first one, and it allows Paul David to pull things back and prevent overloading. The next one is the Massenberg EQ plug-in, which is adding some treble to the two-bus, and then there’s a Focusrite compressor/limiter with a very light 1.5:1 setting, and finally an Iridescent Phoenix plug-in. For me it is a mystery what the Phoenix plug-ins do, but Paul David loves them and uses them on the mix, and vocals, and drums. They have this voodoo analogue effect and definitely make things sound better.”  0

Mixing In The Box
“I did my first in-the-box project as far back as 2001,” says John Fields, “when I did an album called Biota Bondo for Iffy. I worked under OS 9, and at 16-bit/44.1kHz, and I think the album still sounds awesome. I’ve never cared about bits, and it’s been so long since I listened to analogue, I have no idea what it sounds like.
“I now work 24/44.1. Working in 96k is a waste of time, because you have to go down to 44.1kHz/16-bit for CD anyway, and even lower for download formats. Plus I’ve seen people’s systems choke because they’re trying to keep their drum sound at 96k, and in the end it doesn’t sound any better anyway. I went full-time over to recording and mixing in the box at the beginning of 2007 when I recorded, mixed, and produced Calling The World for Rooney. I don’t need a controller; I just use a Mac keyboard and the Kensington Expert Mouse trackball. It has four buttons that you can program, and it allows me to whip the cursor across the screen in nanoseconds, and you can’t do that with a regular mouse. The Kensington is the one thing I have to have. I also still work in Pro Tools 7.4, rather than 8, because of stability issues, and because Beat Detective does not work in 8! I use Beat Detective a lot, for many reasons. I’m very particular about swing and feel, and in modern music there are so many layers of electronics and live music together that you sometimes have to lock things together with Beat Detective. I do a lot of programming, and even when I’m working with the greatest, tightest drummer in the world, when you use Beat Detective on the drums, it will really lock in with the programming. People might call it ‘feel’ to have a rushy fill. I call it rushing.”


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