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Talkback: Juan Sebastián Rodriguez

Sound Engineer By William Stokes
Published October 2022

Juan Sebastián Rodriguez

Resident in Mexico City, engineer Juan Sebastián Rodriguez thanks British producer Phil Vinall for his baptism into the recording industry. It was by working with Vinall, who developed a relationship with Mexico City through his work with lauded Mexican rock band Zoé, that Rodriguez was able to hone his craft, eventually taking home a Grammy Award for his own work with Zoé. Rodriguez has also worked at the beautiful Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas. The largest residential recording complex in the world, it’s home to five studios designed by the late legendary acoustician and studio designer Vincent van Haaff. Rodriguez has since built a considerable reputation for himself, working with a wide range acts from Phoenix to the Growlers to Alessia Cara. “I learned in the rock & roll department,” Rodriguez explains. “Using microphones, not samples!”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

An artist called Martin Courtney. The record is called Magic Sign. I think it has something that that many modern recordings are lacking. This kind of record brings something back to life. You can hear a musician in a room, like truly recording! Kind of like Elliott Smith with Figure 8. I’m really into those kinds of records. Records where the vast majority of it is probably recorded live, or at least where the drums and bass are live, so you can hear that dance between the rhythm section. Everything works together in a more — I hate this word, especially in the music industry — organic way. But yeah, it feels more real. And it has been quite a while since I’ve listened to something modern or new that actually moved me. I highly recommend it, it sounds amazing. And the mixer, Rob Schnapf, has done some really cool work.

The project I’m most proud of

I think it’s also the the longest project: Zoé with the record Aztlán. With that record, I had the chance to get my first Grammy. I’ve been involved with a couple of projects that really take up part of your life, where you’re stuck for seven or eight months in the recording studio, working on the same 12 songs. I don’t want to say it was painful... but it was! You know what I mean, it was the result of hard work. And obviously the budget permitted that kind of stuff. Now, not every band has the budget to be in the studio for eight months. So that’s a big thing.

One track on the record we recorded totally live. And we were really drunk, actually, during the session. We were totally wasted! I don’t know how I was able to pull that one off, because I was really drunk. We really got into that song. It was like, five in the morning, after a whole day of work. It was actually not meant to be the final multitrack, it was just a full pass of the band to get a structure in the room. But that was actually one of those moments, and you don’t have them on every project, where we just went on and on and on. It was fun because all of us were in the same mood. At least, after a little bit too much beer and whisky! It was just a wild night. “Well, Mr Engineer, put the faders up!” Those were Phil’s words. It was fun.

The first thing I look for in a studio

Speakers. Those are my eyes. If I’m recording or mixing, my speakers are my eyes — especially after working on some huge Neve console or something; that’s where the big lights and the knobs can fool you a little bit. I’ve been disappointed before, after using them. I’ve mixed records that have been done in beautiful studios, and opening the multitrack in a different studio you think, “That’s your drum sound!? I think we might need to work a little bit harder on this mix. Or record the drums again!” So 100 percent of my attention when I go to a studio is on the position of the speakers and what kind of speakers they are. My main monitors are Yamaha NS10s. I learned on those speakers so I know them quite well. The most important piece of gear in the studio is the speakers.

Juan Sebastián Rodriguez: In some audio engineering schools here in Mexico, they teach people things like, ‘Do not compress the vocal over 3:1, because otherwise you’re going to go into risky territory and maybe you’re going to have a problem with the client.’ But then, where’s the fun?

The person I would consider my mentor

Yeah, I think Phil. Phil is a producer who doesn’t work in a traditional way. He taught me to play the studio, not to be afraid and not to be shy. To do things in an instinctive way, not necessarily in the ‘correct’ way. It was like, stop judging with this idea of what is right and what is wrong. It is about what sounds better on the speakers. Truly having that commitment with the song. And that applies to either recording a band or mixing a band, kind of exploding that musicality of the tracks and not looking at the compressors or the VU meters but just asking, “Does it make you feel something?”

I don’t want anyone to take this in a bad way, but often in the modern era, for example, in some audio engineering schools here in Mexico, they teach people things like, “Do not compress the vocal over 3:1, because otherwise you’re going to go into risky territory and maybe you’re going to have a problem with the client.” But then, where’s the fun? Phil just taught me how not to be afraid of situations, to be empowered in my decisions and to get the best that I can out of every sound. Not to work like a sausage factory, applying the same rule every time. Because every recording is different. With every musician you’ve got to be open to thinking outside the box.

My go‑to reference track or album

There are so many! One of the reference tracks that I use when I mix, especially when I’m not in my room or in a studio that I know, or if I’m working on something that’s bass‑heavy, is ‘Angel’ by Massive Attack. If I’m working on something that’s a little bit mid‑tempo punchy, I go to Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Let’s Groove’. It has a beautiful midrange. Everything sounds fantastic. George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ as well. It just sounds beautiful. So, classic records that I love and I know really well. Michael Jackson, as well. ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ is fantastic. Its use of effects and the way you can hear the top end stereo image... that’s a great reference for stereo synths, especially.

My top tip for a successful session

Listen, and do not speak too much. Just do the work. And get focused. Because that’s actually your job. I think that’s something that a lot of new engineers don’t do. They go to mental presets or go to specific techniques that they learned somewhere. They don’t listen to the sound and therefore they don’t process it in the correct way. So I think my advice would be just to listen.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

While I was working at Sonic Ranch, the band Explosions In The Sky were there. At that time, I was a really big fan of theirs, but I wasn’t on that session. I was just like, “Hey, what’s up guys?” It was the record Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. I wish I had been on that session!

The producer who worked with with Explosions In The Sky on that record is John Congleton. A really cool guy. He records to tape. His sessions are more like listening sessions. He looks for the right tones. And if you need to take five days to get the correct blend between the guitars, drums and the bass before hitting the master tape, then they will wait! They’re not rushed sessions, which I feel like modern recordings often are, but I think that’s a technology thing. And that’s another subject that we could go on about for hours and hours!

The producer I’d most like to work with

Pat Dillett. He works a lot with Brian Eno, he just has a beautiful sound. He was very involved in the musical movement in New York during the late 1970s. He’s worked a lot with Dave Byrne, with DNA... he has an interesting mix of sounds. And an interesting mix of clients! He’s a sound wizard. So I’d love to work with him.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

Recording. I love to be around the musician, the band, choosing the mic and going back and forth. Does the tempo feel right? Are we too slow? Should we try something else? There’s a magical moment in recording, being in the room surrounded by the musicians and the producer, that energy of everyone in the room. It’s not about the technical things, it’s about the moment. It’s like having a camera and saying, “Right there, I got it!” Even if there are some technical faults, you stick with that take, because that’s the one. That’s what I love about recording.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

I think it’s to learn from the greats. It’s to have that curiosity of opening books, learning from these brilliant producers, like Brian Wilson or Glyn Johns or Bruce Swedien. All those characters, some of them not around any more. Or maybe they’re not making as many records as they used to. For example Al Schmitt, and the record On The Beach that he recorded for Neil Young, that was never actually mixed. The record we listen to is the reference mixes! Yeah. My advice to the younger me will be to learn from the greats.