Richard Buskin talks to LA‑based mix expert Jon Gass about his work with the likes of Babyface and Boyz II Men, his striving for vocal perfection and his struggles with sibilants...
"Mixing, to me, is so much more creative than recording," says Jon Gass. "You're actually doing the creating, as opposed to waiting for the artist to show up. In fact, I don't think you even know how to track music until you've done quite a bit of mixing."
Gass has forged a considerable reputation on the basis of behind‑the‑board heroics that fly in the face of straightforward balancing or dabbling with effects. For him, mixing is the most important part of the record‑making process, and it therefore warrants more than the mention that it often gets in producer or engineer interviews.
At the same time, it should also be pointed out that, as an engineer during the earlier part of his career, Jon Gass seldom worked with groups in a live setup within the studio. You see, contemporary R&B has always been his musical lot in life, and so he would find himself either capturing concert performances for that live feel, or getting busy with a drum machine and a bunch of keyboards back in the studio.
Still, none of this has exactly hindered his progress. Babyface, Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Jermaine Jackson and Bobby Brown are just some of the artists whose records were recorded and mixed by Gass between 1985 and 1990, while Houston and Babyface are also among those who have since benefited from his skills as a full‑time mixer. The others? Toni Braxton, Madonna, Boyz II Men, Vanessa Williams, The Bee Gees, Kenny Loggins, Maxi Priest, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Earth, Wind & Fire, Robbie Neville, Natalie Cole, The Gap Band and Smokey Robinson, to name but a few.
"I absolutely love other forms of music," Gass stresses, "but once you establish a reputation for yourself in this business it's hard to break away from it. Over the years I've been labelled as the guy who mixes the hard dance songs, and then at other times I've been a 'specialist' in ballads. I don't understand it. It's funny to see how you're sent certain stuff just because that's what you did a couple of weeks ago. I have mixed a few rock records but, overall, R&B has tended to be my thing."
Greatly influenced by the music of the Beatles as a youth, Jon Gass got his first guitar at the age of 10 and spent most of his teenage years playing in a variety of bands around his native Oregon. At the same time, he was always interested in recording technology, even if his personal assets in those days only stretched to financing a 'home studio' consisting of three cassette decks. "Those machines helped me to figure out how to double parts and do overdubs," he now says. "You know, the 'chain of hiss'! Still, it was just cool to have stuff doubled and tripled..."
Eventually the cassette decks were augmented by slightly more up‑market gear, and then in 1980 Gass relocated to Los Angeles, where he started working at a small 24‑track studio. "That place charged, like, $35 an hour for the room and I was included in the price," he recalls. "Basically, it was a cheap mix joint for R&B — they'd cut the tracks at an even worse studio!"
I don't think you even know how to track music until you've done quite a bit of mixing.
Over the course of about three and a half years, Gass learned the ropes of both recording and mixing, before branching out on his own in 1984 and working on R&B assignments for Solar Records. Among the label's clients were LA Reid and Babyface (real names Antonio Reid and Kenneth Edmonds), who moved to Los Angeles in December of 1985, and for whom Gass immediately began engineering. This would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Gass and the two producers, and one that continues with Babyface to this day, in spite of the fact that he and Reid — once co‑directors of LaFace Records — have now gone their separate ways.
Jon Gass' modus operandi reflects his opinion that, for him, mixing affords more creativity than the actual recording process.
"You can make everything sit in a different space," Gass explains. "It's just so important. For instance, when Babyface comes in to listen to a mix that I've done or I'm working on, he doesn't say, 'Wow, that sounds good!' He's not that concerned with each sound, but with how the mix actually feels. As long as it feels really good and he wants to hear it again, that's what's important to me. It doesn't matter if maybe one little part that he heard was louder on the demo. What's that got to do with it? No one else has heard the demo. It's just got to feel good — it's got to build the right way, it's got to have emotion around the singer. Not every singer has perfect emotion all of the time. So, if you can build the mix and create these textures around the vocal, that's really what it's about. It helps sales.
"For me, the main objective is to keep the lead vocal natural and crystal clear without destroying the band. A lot of mixers just seem to head for the 'telephone' lead vocal sound, and sure, that makes the job really quick, but it won't fly with some of the high‑calibre singers I work with. Try that with Whitney or Madonna and it's going to be, 'Have a nice day. See ya!'
"I therefore start a lot of mixes with the vocal. If it doesn't already sound pretty natural I'll try to correct that, and then I'll bring the instruments in around it. A lot of other people will work on a mix for hours and not even listen to the lead vocal, and that amazes me: sooner or later it's got to be there, so you might as well get used to it."
While Babyface's engineers vary from project to project, Jon Gass takes care of about 90% of his mixes. Now, the usual process is for the men behind the board to decide on the technological approach and equipment that are required to realise the artist and producer's objectives. However, when Gass is involved with the project he doesn't hesitate to chip in with how he thinks things should be done.
"I often corner the engineer and say, 'Hey, back down a little bit with the attack time of the compressor on the vocal. You're clipping it off a bit too much, so try this...' The producer may be concerned with the performance and not thinking about compression attack time and all that, and the same often goes for the engineer who isn't thinking about the mix, which he'll have no part in."
For me, the main objective is to keep the lead vocal natural and crystal clear...
Is this attitude the result of his opinion that you need to mix before you can really know how to record?
"Yeah, it was after I'd been mixing for a year or two that I started to recognise the frequencies that make things work better on tape," Gass replies. "Especially vocals. It's so important to get it right during the tracking, rather than just set up a microphone, hack it onto tape and think, 'Ah, I'm not mixing it anyway. Who cares?' I have certain microphones and I'll only record with those; highly modified Steven Paul mics that sound beautiful. The top end is the secret. They're very smooth, very silky, very breathy, and any time that you have the right kind of breath on the mic you're half‑way home in the mix."
So, what we have here is the mix engineer telling the recording engineer what vocal mic he wants him to use?
"That's right. I mean, with a lot of the outside projects I don't know what mics they use — I've certainly learned from them what not to use! For instance, I hate [AKG] 414s on vocals, and I can usually hear if one has been used even before the tape has been put on the machine... I can hear it as the tapes walk by! 'There's a 414 on that vocal! Oh no!' The problem with that mic is that the really sibilant area is right in the mid‑range — the 2 and 3k range — and the only way that you can cut out the 's' sounds, which are like knives cutting through the tweeters, is to take out part of that range. That, however, is where all of the clarity is. It's just brutal and there's no hope. You've got a long day ahead of you."
To date, Jon Gass has mixed and engineered more than 80 Top Ten singles, including 28 Number One pop and R&B songs, many of which are attributable to one particularly able individual: Babyface.
"With Babyface, recorded material may sit around for six months without his knowing which artist is going to take the lead. For the Tender Lover album we cut about 35 songs — he sang on them, all of the parts were laid down — and then, when they were completely finished, with some of them he would go, 'Nah, it's not for me. I'll put it on someone else's record.' After that he would use the lead as a guide vocal for whoever else performed the song."
One of the more recent tracks on which Babyface and Gass have worked together as producer and mix engineer is 'Mama', a ballad from the soundtrack to the movie Soul Food, featuring the harmonising vocal talents of Boyz II Men, together with drums, acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, synth strings and electric guitar. A fairly straightforward song to work on, it nevertheless points up the way to how Gass likes to focus on vocals, which, in this particular case, took up a total of 10 tracks — four leads and six harmonies.
"I was chiefly concerned with getting the vocals to feel as full as possible while still being able to hear the instruments," he says. "The first thing that I did was push up the lead vocals and check what the main problems were going to be. These amounted to a lot of different sound changes and vibe changes, because certain parts of each section had been recorded at different times. So, one line might be kind of a warm, close‑miked sound, and then the next one might be a more distant, much thinner sound.
"The other thing is that the lead vocal on this track switches between three of the singers, so once I'd found the key to one lead vocalist my work wasn't over: I had to figure out how to smooth out the sound between three people. Splitting to different tracks and re‑EQ‑ing each of the sections so that they still sounded really warm was the hardest part, and for that I used a ton of outboard gear.
"I used 30 different channels of compression — insane! These comprised Avalon, Summit, Tubetech, Teletronics, and Urei 1176s and 1178s, all installed in the room here, along with a bunch of dbxs that I don't use."
Any time that you have the right kind of breath on the mic you're half‑way home in the mix.
The room here is at Brandon's Way in Los Angeles, where Gass sits behind an 80‑channel SSL 4080G Plus board with Ultimation, and likes to mix very quietly on JBL Augsberger monitors and Yamaha NS10s.
"This room is packed with gear, and my poor assistant has to write a book at the end of every song for all of the recalls! I use tons of outboard gear and sometimes it doesn't sound as if I'm using any. I might use 10 or 15 different reverb delays in the mix, but I don't really use 'long hall' or any of those types of reverbs. They're all either really short or a chorus, and I use them to create space without destroying the track with EQ. That would be the last thing I'd do. I'd rather create a little vibe, and that's not down to training but just a musical way of mixing. That way it'll sound good at home, because I'm not trying to squeeze things so hard."
Gass likes to start introducing the instrumentation fairly soon after he has played around with the vocals, in order to see how far he'll have to go to make everything fit together. In a practical sense this means ascertaining what is going to clash with the vocals in terms of the frequency, and on 'Mama' the clashing involved the strings.
"Strings are usually very tough," Gass says, "especially when you've got a Rhodes, a guitar and so on, which are already in the mid‑range. On this track, I had to get the strings to feel natural and cut around all of the vocals without being screechy, and thankfully I managed that.
"Otherwise, there was a lot of balancing, trying to get the track to work without major EQ, playing with drum reverbs and working on the bottom end. Of course, with R&B that's probably the second hardest part of the mix, getting that bottom right without blowing up everybody's stuff. On 'Mama' I used a sub‑harmonic synthesizer on the bass, and then got the kick to work with it. Once the bottom was okay and the air was just right on top of the vocals I was halfway home.
"A lot of mixers go into the computer really early to make it work, but I try to wait until the last second. I've got to make it sound good without putting the computer through its paces, because in the long run I think it makes you work harder to get the sounds to work together, as opposed to having to cut stuff all of the time just to be able to hear the music. Then, when I do go into the computer, I do the swells and little vocal rides that make the track musically come alive.
"For me, the mix usually sounds bad when I start and it sounds worse until just before the end. Then, suddenly, it all makes sense. So, if somebody walks in before I'm ready I'll ask them to hang on and wait until I've finished. They may think, 'If he's been working on it for this amount of time it should sound better than this,' but in fact it'll sound worse than it did four hours ago, because I'm trying all sorts of different things to try to get it to sit right. I love trying stuff. That's the fun part; trying stuff without rules. Especially when somebody says, 'Don't do this'; I'll think 'Why?' and want to do it right away!"
In line with his preference for the unconventional, Jon Gass opines that, after a few tracking dates, the apprentice engineer should immediately be introduced to the art of mixing, pinpointing the mistakes that have been made during the recording and, aside from learning how to fix them, taking note of how to avoid making them in the first place.
"Yeah! Don't only learn what to do, but what not to do. Some young guys think that if they can pick up some techniques from the pros then they'll be able to mix, but it doesn't work like that. Every song, every artist, every bottom end on every track, represents a brand new day. It's just like starting from scratch, and that's where I think the years of experience really help you. I mean, you can stumble through a few sessions, but sooner or later you're going to get snagged!"
There's one thing that has virtually turned into an obsession for Gass — sibilance. Basically, he can't stand it, regarding it as nothing less than a curse on a good record, yet it stalks him. He hears it in people's speech, in their singing... even his own name can be horribly abused — "Er, excuse me, is your name Jon Gasssssss?"
"You know, I'll be sitting on a plane and be able to hear the 's's of a guy who's sitting six rows back," he groans. "I just want to go back there and hand him some real‑time vocal de‑esser! I can't sleep, I cannot even relax when I hear that sound. There was one particular flight back from Atlanta where all I could hear was this guy's sibilance, and oh, it was brutal!"
When, where and why, I ask, did this whole obsession start? At a mastering session back in 1987, for a record by a minor artist whose name Gass no longer recalls. Some sibilance had crept into the recording, which Gass himself had no involvement with. He was the mixer and didn't consider the problem to be all that bad, yet during the mastering the entire track had to be de‑essed, and in the process the sound of the percussion was destroyed.
"I've been obsessed ever since," Gass now admits. "I know most listeners couldn't care less about this whole thing, but it drives me insane. Basically, the rule is to keep the 's's at about the same level as the vocal air, but the hard part is that you have to achieve that without making the artist sound as if he's just been punched in the mouth! I hear records all the time where people clearly haven't got the hang of it; you can't make out what the singer is saying — there's so much compression or whatever that it almost sounds distorted. So, there are other people who obviously don't like 's's either, but they don't quite know how to get rid of them yet!
"On the other hand, I do remember working on a song way back where an 's' hit right at the same time as a snare. Now, without the 's' on the word it changed the meaning of the song, but I couldn't get the 's' loud enough because the rattle of the snare just wiped it out. There was nothing I could do, and it was kind of tragic actually. The only thing that really could be done was to just roll the top end off the snare..."
In this particular case maybe Gass could have done with a re‑esser instead of a de‑esser.
"On that occasion, yes! Anyway, at this point I'm really into side‑chain de‑essing, where I just run a compressor in the side‑chain mode with an EQ on it and pump up the frequencies that are bad. There's a way of doing that on the SSL that is really excellent."
Gass happens to think that the SSL mixing desk is really excellent, having used it as his console of choice for the past 11 years.
"Back in '90 somebody gave me a hard time and said that he really wanted me to do a certain mix on a Neve," he recalls. "I asked why and he said, 'Because you can't get any bottom out of an SSL'. Well, just a couple of months before that I think there were 22 songs that I had mixed on the R&B charts all at once, and so when this guy made that statement I got so mad that I raised my rates to everybody! 'You can't get bottom out of it, right? Okay!' It really doesn't have anything to do with the board as to whether or not you can get bottom. What would even possess somebody to think such a thing?"