We first interviewed Joe Barresi in Tape Op #23. Heck, we even spelled his name wrong on the cover (sorry again, Joe). Here’s an interview from 2010 with some more of Joe’s history and interesting thoughts about making records. -Larry Crane, editor
You helped create the sonic blueprint for what's known as "Stoner Rock" with bands like The Melvins, Fu Manchu and Kyuss. Was there ever a problem of getting good takes from the bands because they were too high? And, what's the best way of dealing with artists who are on drugs?
Just "cuz" it says stoner doesn't mean they're all stoned musicians! It's a term for sludgy, slow, drop tuned, heavy music. The "stoner" term says more about the people listening to this type of sound than the bands themselves. Most of the bands were actually clean and sober, like The Melvins. Some bands do take drugs and are stoners, but most good musicians are serious about their craft and are able to play. They sometimes need the weed or whatever to get to another "state," but usually never to a point where they can't perform. The best way to deal with artists on drugs is to not deal with them at all. It's tough when that happens. All you can do is make an effort to help get them off the drugs or remove yourself from the project and move on.
What's one of the coolest jam sessions you've heard in the studio that will probably never be released to the public?
Most Kyuss stuff, outtakes from the Queens of The Stone Age Lullabyes to Paralyze record — songs that never made the cut or were done in various forms — i.e., with horns, strings, guitar swells, acoustic versions, etc... Tool rehearsals were amazing to experience, Danny Carey [drummer] sounds like two people playing!
Will you get out measuring tape and adjust microphones to specific heights and distances?
Never. Guys who measure are "engineyes" and not "engineers!" I like to use my ears -just 'cause two mics are perfectly the same distance from a source doesn't mean they actually sound the same or are in the correct position!
At your studio, Joe's House of Compression, how often do you use the built-in automation system of your SSL console and save the passes to those big floppy discs?
All the time, but they are small 3.5" microfloppies that store all the automation and console recalls, not the audio. The audio is printed into Pro Tools.
Your live room has brick walls, what is it about brick that is alluring to you?
Reflection and diffusion. The brick reflects back, but not like a flat piece of plywood. Since it's a rougher surface, it seems like the reflections aren't as focused — i.e., more diffuse. That's not to say wood surfaces are bad. I think the varying surfaces in a room are the special places that hold sound — you use them to your advantage in how you place instruments in the room and how you mic them.
Is there an advantage (in regards to tone) to summing microphones together going to tape? Is a key to being a great producer, engineer, and mixer like you the ability to commit ideas to tape fearlessly?
Yes and yes. As a producer you have to have a vision, so committing is necessary. Multiple microphones will get you in trouble if you don't know how to combine them properly, but leaving things until later will too. How do you build a house and not have some sort of vision as to how many walls or windows there will be? If someone is mixing your tracks later and there is nothing bussed together, the hassle of figuring out what's good, bad, what you want to hear, the blends, and just track management is a pain.
How do you approach mixing a record that you've also engineered and produced?
If I recorded it and produced it, I did it in a way that it will just mix itself, hopefully. The vision is there as it's getting built up and it should be ready to be finessed in mixing — it's rare that I'd approach a track [in mixing] completely different than how it got tracked, unless I didn't track it and was completely off in my mix approach, and/or the artist didn't realize their vision when it got recorded.
How often do you use filters?
All the time when I'm mixing. I like to put down as much frequency content as possible when I'm tracking because I may need it when mixing. As I build my songs up, I may tend to filter in the mix, make different mic choices, or change mic placement as we're overdubbing depending on what I need to layer into the track.
How much of your gear is customized specifically for you and which is your favorite piece of modified gear?
Most stuff I own has some sort of tweak to it. Sometimes I helped develop it, or had some feedback and it got modified or it wasn't working and I got it fixed, but some stuff is stock too. I tend to favor gear with a personality, so if it's cool straight out of the box then that's great. I also know some manufacturers who ask my opinion and send me things to beta test, so occasionally these stock pieces are modified from their original format — sometimes for the best, sometimes not. I also have on occasion had things built too.
Do you remember where that animal noise in the beginning of "Sweet Willy Rollbar" by The Melvins' Stoner Witch LP came from?
We put a mic in [the producer] Garth Richardson's [Tape Op #28] dogs mouth and tickled him — then ran that through a harmonizer. My dog actually freaks out every time I play that. He runs up to the speakers and looks around like I tortured his brother.
Do you remember any other fun sounds you've hidden in records?
Man, there are so many of them! Every once in a while we get kind of fanatical about backwards masking and we'll say, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell" and shit like that or "Buy Drugs at The 7-Eleven" — we'll subliminally put it in there backwards on records. I've done all kinds of weird stuff. When you've got time and you're bored, having fun or you stumble upon something bizarre... The Melvins records are all fun because we'd do shit that was purposefully stupid — like on the assistant's first day we made him wear an Elvis outfit with porno films going 24 hours a day on a screen, and his job was to change the video — it was pre-DVD, all VHS. We'd mic up two kick drums with PZM microphones on the outside skins and also run vocals through a guitar amp inside a tube of kick drums. We'd do weird shit like mic'ing up doors creaking and running them through harmonizers and detuning stuff and making bizarre sounds. We'd record a song with 12 tracks and then pan them all left and put another whole song on the other 12 tracks on the tape machine and pan them all right and release a song that's basically two songs in one (one on the left and one on the right). The Melvins record Honky has all kinds of weird shit like that.
During tracking will you constantly A/B the sound through different speakers?
On my console alone there are four sets on top of it and a set to the side. If we're doing bass and the bass player really wants to feel the bottom end, we'll need bigger speakers so I'll be using my M-Audios, or the KRKs, or some Blue Sky speakers with a sub, but when I'm bouncing sometimes I'll go to the [Yamaha] NS-10s. I try not to listen to the same stuff all the time, but depending on the style of music it might determine the kind of speakers I throw up on my console. For instance, I was mixing Keren Ann who is on Blue Note Records and her vocal is really pristine. I wanted to hear it super hi-fi in the mixes, so I used a different set of speakers as opposed to something that's a little more rock sounding.
What volume do you set your monitors to when you're mixing?
Well, you can't really listen that loud all day or you'll blow your head off. I start with trying to work the drums and the bass out together — it might be at a fairly decent level just to feel how they're pushing air. The EQ'ing I'll do at a moderate volume, and the balancing I'll do at a low volume, then basically from there I ride stuff between both volumes. If I'm spread out between the console and I'm not in-between the speakers I'll use some headphones.
If you had a piece of gear break down on you would you be able to take it apart and fix it?
It depends on what broke down on me. Some stuff is pretty obvious, like if it's a blown resistor or a bad tube then you go out to the store and get another resistor and pop it in there. Sometimes headphones break and you buy another part and solder it in, make cables, you know whatever — stuff like that I can handle.
Do you remember the titles of any the books you recommend students check out?
When I was going to school no one actually said, "Hey this is how you mic a kick drum, and here are frequencies to look out for and here's what you should boost and cut." Because there really aren't any rules — even though there are guidelines you can follow. I became an avid reader of every magazine around. Before the days of the Internet I would go to the public library or go to a used bookstore or a technical bookstore called Op Amp Labs across the street from Record Plant Recording Studios. Modern Recording Techniques is always one of those generic titles, so you'd get the version from 1960 and read stuff like that and then you'd get the version from 1970 and be like. "This is modern for 1970. "I remember reading one of those books where the guy was talking about twirling a microphone to get a flange sound. I was working on a Kyuss record at the time and that day when we were working on a song I was laying on the ground in front of a fucking speaker cabinet twirling the microphone and it sounded like a Leslie speaker.
Have there been bands that you've worked with that you've felt have never gotten the popularity they deserve?
There are so many. Kyuss had a lot of fans though they never sold many records, but there are a lot of people that cite them as an influence. The Melvins are a huge influence on a lot of bands, they actually started that whole Seattle grunge scene, but they never got any of the notoriety or any of the money that Alice in Chains or bands like Nirvana got — they also didn't have as many commercial songs on their records, obviously. If you want to sell a lot of records to the mass public you have to write songs that appeal to the mass public.
Do you remember working on the Tomahawk record Mit Gas?
That record was two days a guy — two days on the drums, two days on the bass, two days on the guitar, two days on the vocals, and then I mixed it in six days. [Mike] Patton had to sing it all in two days which is pretty amazing — he's a great singer. It's kind of funny because you get singers who come in the studio and they're such pussies, saying, "My foot hurts" or, "I cant sing the chorus today" and then you get a guy like Mike Patton who comes in and sings a whole record in two days with his insanely weird voices and different effects on every section of each song — and saving all the screaming parts for last.
Does Mike Patton effect his voice going to tape or during the mixing process?
Kind of both...during the tracking he has a little setup where he sings through different mics, distortion pedals, [Korg] Kaoss Pads and different pieces of gear. On the Tomahawk record in particular, I don't even know if he sang when we tracked and he basically came in afterwards and said, "Okay, here we go" and we'd do the verses first with one sound and then we'd create a different sound for the pre-choruses and a different sound for the choruses and then he would sing it.
When you're doing a mix do you think about how the mastering process will effect it?
Yes and no. I'm leaving the mastering guy some room to do something to it. It's a frustration of mine to have to hand something to a band and they go, "It's not fucking louder than a Linkin Park record" and I'm like, "It's mastered and it's fucking 10 dB louder so turn up your stereo and your treble." I give it to them as loud as I possibly can, and if they are total idiots and I have to pre-master it to get it loud for them then I'll stick my [Waves] L2 plug-in on it and crank it.
You obviously fight for your records to not be over-compressed...
Yeah, I hand it off to a person where they can do what they need to do to master it properly. I still like to use proper mastering engineers who don't just stick a plug-in on something and say, "There you go." I like the mixes to go through the analog realm at some point, being that I typically hand them the final mixes on a digital drive.
Do you have a certain routine you follow when you're about to start engineering, producing or mixing a record?
When I'm tracking I'll start with the same microphones that I like through the same preamps that I like. Right now it's a little different because I have my own studio, and so I know what I like after years of experimentation — that's not to say that I'm not constantly trying other shit. In my room I've kind of figured out what I like and what I don't like. I start with the same mic pre that I would normally use and if that doesn't sound good then I swap that out or swap the mic out. When I'm mixing I tend to start with the same mix bus chain and the same busses going to the same gear that I want to use, but I have the option of sending other stuff to those pieces of gear — or, I'll set up four stereo compressors on insert points and depending on where I send the outputs of Pro Tools they might come up through different sets of compressors. There is a starting point for sure, but it's not always just a plug and play.