The lead single from Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album was stitched together from two demos in different keys. Mix engineer Jess Jackson turned it into a piece of pop magic.
“Our brains don’t like symmetry. We are programmed not to like perfect symmetry. Instead we like imperfection. And we like thirds. So I don’t look at my speakers as left and right, I look at them as two independent mono channels. I may use a completely different reverb on the left as on the right, or EQ things differently on one side than on the other, and so on. I’m not much of a stereo guy. I wouldn’t just put things in stereo and let them live symmetrically in the speakers.”
Speaking is Jess Jackson, who explains that he likes to “analyse the human mind and why it enjoys certain things and not others”. When asked what he means about humans thirds, he replies: “I apply the rule of thirds from photography and painting to mixing records. I see music visually, I don’t hear it with my ears per se. So I frame things visually, splitting width and depth into three areas.”
Jackson’s love of analogue is also in part informed by his adherence to the rule of thirds and his quest for imperfection. “When you pan things left and right on an analogue desk, they’re not 100‑percent the same, because there are electronic idiosyncrasies inside each channel, and this is going to give you a slightly different sound on the right and on the left. Essentially you get a pseudo‑stereo acoustic environment that is not perfect. The problem with digital is that you need to go out of your way to achieve imperfection. But with analogue you achieve imperfection accidentally, and our ears tend to really like that.”
Reading the above without having seen Jackson, you could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business for decades and has long since stopped making cutting‑edge records. Nothing could be further from the truth: at 39 years old, Jackson is in the prime of his life, and he’s recently mixed and/or co‑produced 32 tracks on one of the biggest albums of 2020, Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon.
How the album came into being, after Bashar Jackson, aka Pop Smoke, was killed on February 19 of this year aged only 20, is an interesting story in itself, on which Jackson touches further. But first he elaborates on his idiosyncratic viewpoints and methods, which he applies for the most part in his own studio in Los Angeles.
“I have Pro Tools HD in my studio, as well as an SSL Sigma summing mixer, Amphion BaseTwo25s paired with Two18s, and Tannoy DMT II speakers,” explains Jess Jackson. “I have the latter because they’re dual‑concentric and I’m hyper‑sensitive to phase. If something is playing up with phase I correct it immediately, mostly using iZotope RX’s Azimuth. I have two Antelope Goliath 32‑channel I/Os, one for my SSL console and one for my outboard gear. I have all my outboard on inserts, so they come up as plug‑ins in my Pro Tools sessions. Once I have the sound I want, I commit it and print the part in the session. I’m not someone to use many plug‑ins, as I prefer analogue gear most of the time.
“I also often use sampling keyboards as outboard,” Jackson continues. “My associate Sage Skolfield and I ran every sound on Pop Smoke’s album through one of my vintage hardware samplers. It is part of my process. I run them as inserts in Pro Tools and commit them like they are already mixed. It usually doesn’t need much else. Every sampler has a different sound, so you get different coloration, distortion and transients. You’re introducing nice artefacts that are like analogue. It unites the sounds, as if they are coming from one original source, which was my aim with Pop Smoke’s album, as the material came from different producers, studios, etc.”
It’s not just phase for which...