An Interview with Joe Chiccarelli at the AES Show 2014

On day two of our Ask Me Anything Livestream Events at AES 2014 we sat down with GRAMMY Award-winning producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli.

Joe Chiccarelli started his career as a musician and then, as many in the business do, became an assistant engineer, in Los Angeles. While working in the studio, Chiccarelli was given the chance of a lifetime to act as the lead engineer on Frank Zappa’s “Sheik Yerbouti” album, when Zappa’s regular engineer was unavailable for the recording. Zappa liked what he heard, and asked Chiccarelli to engineer several other albums in the coming years. And the rest is history.

Joe Chiccarelli Audio-Technica

Since then, Chiccarelli has garnered an impressive number of GRAMMY awards and nominations, including for Producer of the Year, for his work with artists like Elton John, The White Stripes, U2, Beck, The Strokes, Morrissey, My Morning Jacket, Tori Amos, Jason Mraz, Etta James, Alanis Morissette and many, many others.

According to his “Mix With the Masters” profile, although still based in L.A., Chiccarelli “works in studios across the US using a hybrid analogue-digital approach. Having been deeply steeped in the analogue multi-track and large format console recording techniques of the 1970s, Chiccarelli has adapted to and incorporated every new technological and musical development that has come out since. While he still adores working with analogue desks and outboard, the enormous flexibility offered by today’s DAWs and the fast-paced demands of the modern music world mean that a lot of his work is now done in the box.”

As part of our “Ask Me Anything” series from AES 2014, Joe fielded questions from the live audience and from those on Twitter. Here are some highlights from Joe Chiccarelli’s AMA session with Audio-Technica.

Question: Who’s your favorite artist that you’ve worked with so far?

Joe Chiccarelli: Wow, I’ve worked with a lot of artists. I’ve been very lucky to be in the room with U2, Elton John, Tori Amos, The White Stripes, and recently, Morrissey. I don’t know if I have favorites. I always have great moments, though. Bono, being the evangelical prophet he can be about the future and about music, and his passion is infectious. Beck, being the innovator and fearless adventurer in the way he records is always exciting. Being in the room with Elton John and watching him write songs in the studio is a magical experience. So I don’t know if I have one favorite, but it is quite an experience to be around that level of talent. It’s always humbling.

Q: Every engineer has his or her own unique sound – are you protective of your sound or do you welcome suggestions from the artists you’re producing?

JC: That’s a good question. I hope I don’t have a sound. I really think it’s important to make the artist’s record and that every album is different, and every album has a different tone to it overall. There’s nothing I’m protective about, I’m kind of willing to go anywhere. I do feel that it’s important for the artist to have their stamp on the record.

It’s not exciting to me to have kind of my own sound, I feel that my job is to translate what the artist wants and get it out of the speakers. And if that means a big low end, or a very layered record, or something where the guitars might be more biting than I might like… It’s important to preserve what the artist wants and to buy into their aesthetic. You have to trust them and just go there.

Q: Do you have a go-to selection of microphones for a piano sound, or do you fit it to the type of piano you are recording?

JC: It really depends on the kind of music. Often I’ll record piano with mics that are on the brighter side… because I like that sparkle and attack. The one thing that I’ll always do is add one microphone to the mix that is kind oflow-fi…. I’ll put that somewhere near the middle of the piano, I might compress it a lot, I might not compress it, I might distort it, I might filter all the top and bottom off it – anything for character – and I’ll blend that into the other microphones that are more open and full spectrum to fill in the missing pieces, if you will.

Q: When you start a mix, do you work from the drums to the bass and up, or do you have some other method?

JC: I really start with everything in. Basically, to me, it’s about the song and the character I’m trying to achieve in that song. The individual pieces of a mix aren’t that important to me. It’s about the big picture. So I’m going to put everything in. That flat, faders-up mix. And I’m going to spend some time balancing that mix to get the sound of the record just by balancing. And then I’m going to start to address, “OK, I need to punch up the drums a little bit,” or “OK, I have to work on the vocals.”

I tend to work from the big picture then address the problems. Then maybe I’ll turn off the vocals or extra overdubs and maybe work on bass drums for 15 minutes. But I don’t do that thing of soloing the kick drum or whatever it is. In fact, I probably don’t ever use a solo button when I mix. It’s more about the big picture.

Q: When you begin a mix, what is the most common word that goes through your head?

JC: Help! [Laughs]. No, I mean, everyone feels that they can do better. Usually it’s an awakening process, when you’re like, “Wow, I thought this was further along than it is – it does need help.” And, “OK, what’s bugging me, what’s not right.”

There are those days where you put up that flat mix and you say, “Well this is actually pretty close.” I learned this from Bob Clearmountain: It’s often what you don’t do, and it’s more important knowing what not to mess with and what to leave alone. This works. Don’t touch it. Don’t over process it. Don’t fuss over it. It’s only one element in the big picture, just move on. I think that it’s important to have that perspective.

One thing I try to always do is maintain this big picture-oriented philosophy, and you have to be able to go back and forth between the details and looking at the big picture. When you first start a mix, getting that big picture view of what’s working and what’s not working is really, really crucial.

For the complete AMA interview with Joe Chiccarelli, check out the video below:

We would like to thank Joe for taking the time to take part in our AES Ask Me Anything Livestream event!

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