Jon Castelli is a mix engineer and producer working out of his studio, The Gift Shop, in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles. Jon studied with Tony Maserati for five years and has since constructed a dense body of work on his own with artists such as Khalid, 6LACK, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Ke$ha, and Ariana Grande. I met Jon Castelli a few years ago and I was impressed with his skills, not only as a talented engineer and producer, but also because he has that special quality that pushes him to excel at his craft. I learned a lot about contemporary mixing techniques from talking with him, and I think his story will interest others.
Were you from a musical family?
I'm from a musical family in the sense that they're gigantic fans of music. My mother played violin since she was a kid and my dad played the accordion when he was a kid, but neither one of them went on to pursue it. My brothers also both played instruments when they were younger, but they didn't pursue music either. I guess my brother still plays drums as a hobbyist. I wish that I was told to play the piano as a kid though, versus picking a horn or a wind instrument. The piano would be a little bit more important to my career trajectory at the moment. I wound up picking up saxophone early on and finding a pretty deep love and connection to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, the jazz greats of the '60s. That's my favorite decade of music.
What was your first experience with recording?
When it was time to decide what direction in music I would go, I was auditioning for the bigger conservatories of their time. I had to record audition tapes. My family didn't necessarily have the budget to put me in a studio to record them, so my dad thought it would be interesting if he purchased me an affordable Korg digital 16-track recorder. It sounded terrible, but it got my head around the idea of multitracking. I would find instrumental chord changes that were already royalty-free recorded, and then I'd find progressions that I was down with and I'd solo saxophone over it. Then I stumbled upon the effects section. I started putting random delays, reverbs, and choruses on my saxophone. I thought it was cool, but I never thought too much of it; that I wanted it to be a career at all. I wound up at The Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, studying classical saxophone and music education. I thought I would be a conductor or educator of some sort. In order to survive at school, I got a work-study job that wound up being in the recording studio of the school. They would record all of the classical and jazz performances and we would edit them together to release on CD and via their website, which was fascinating to me. The first time I saw Pro Tools I started cutting tracks up and manipulating audio in seemingly unique ways (to me) at the time. I thought, "Wow, I should do this for a living." I called my parents and brought it up to them. They were not big fans of me dropping out of school. After a long conversation, they allowed me to do that.
There's a lot more opportunity these days for people to get their foot in the door at a minimal cost.
Yeah! I remember that recorder probably cost only $500. The first time I recorded, it wasn't, "Make this sound as good as possible." It was like, "I know this can't sound that good, so let's get the job done and make it sound the best I can possibly get it."
I think that answers how you got into recording!
I did wind up getting an internship right away at one of the bigger studios on Long Island. My mom had a friend that linked us. I did get into a studio with SSL and Neve consoles very quickly after that. I was able to understand the recording studio atmosphere at a pretty young age. I was taken under the wing of the owner of Cove City Sound Studios, Richie Cannata, who was the saxophone player for Billy Joel at the time. He told me, "You should go in the room and sit behind the engineer. Don't ask too many questions. Keep your mouth shut." He maybe saw something in me, and he always wanted me in the room. Looking back, that was unparalleled luck to have the ability to watch people mix and record every day.
There's a whole palette of skills that you need to do this well. The recording process, mic'ing, mixing, producing, and being a psychologist in the room for the artist. Do you have a favorite of those?
I like them all, in different capacities. I love recording live music in a space that sounds good with good players. I do not like recording just a vocalist over an instrumental track; that happens pretty regularly in the pop music scene that I'm in. I will do that if I am producing a song and it needs to be done, but that is not where I think my forte lies. Setting up a few mics and capturing a performance in a space is one of my biggest passions. I'm into using ribbon mics and tube preamps, which I have many of, thanks to the likes of you and your team. I do love that it doesn't seem to be where I exist, mostly. Until today, I hadn't set up a microphone to record in a few months. I've been mixing for two months straight, every day, which I'm thankful for. But the psychologist in the room part is actually my favorite. I love dissecting and getting into the nitty-gritty of where peoples' intentions are coming from. To me, that's the biggest privilege of what I get to do, as well as the most impactful. If done well, you'll get the best out of the artist in that circumstance and in that session. Hopefully it'll translate to the world and the listener. That's my favorite part. It's hard to feel purposeful when your job is so replaceable, in a lot of ways. Especially in Los Angeles, there are hundreds and thousands of people who have talent – if you're not available for the gig, someone else will get the gig and do it adequately, if not more than adequately. I think, for me, the purpose is found in helping the artist translate their thoughts and emotions into a product that will stand the test of time. That's the most important role.
When you start a project from scratch, do you envision the final product in your mind and keep working towards that goal, or does it evolve?
It is dependent on the situation. I talk about this pretty regularly, because intention seems to be the most distinguishing part of being a professional. The ability to understand reference points and the intention of the artist, and get it over the finish line at as high a quality as possible. I have to give credit to the PMC speakers team, because I have recently upgraded my speakers to this MB3-A [three-way] active model, and they get me to my end goal much faster. I probably would say that 90 percent of the time I hear where I want it to be before I touch it. Part of that experience is listening to it in Apple AirPods. I like to walk around my block for the first three or four listens of the song to understand what it's like in the real world before hearing it on such a hi-fi reference system. This way I can understand how other people are going to digest it.
Can you give us a sense of how much you envision the final product when the artist might not be familiar with it or comfortable, and how you get around to convincing them?
The caliber of artist I work with on a production has not been as high as it is on the mixing side of things. The few production cuts that I've gotten with bigger named artists, I have not really been in the room with. I'm coming in more as the producer on a "finishing touch position" on the team. You don't want to convince someone that your idea is better than theirs, because that's obviously very subjective. But if you have any emotional capacity and empathy towards the artist's product, if you're able to have that connection, they'll feel that too. You're on the same team, at that point, and you want the best for the product. I tend to wind up seeing eye-to-eye with people, and I'm also only going to pick and choose certain arguments in an attempt to "win." A "snare up" mix is not a fight I'm willing to fight for if it's not distracting from the vocal and the emotion of the song. If that snare up mix takes away from the rhythm and impact of the vocal, I'm going to explain to them, "It's getting in the way of the vocal, so maybe we should lower the snare so it doesn't take over the vocal place." That's usually an easy win. If you start by saying, "You're wrong," or hitting them with more definitive language into why their decision is maybe dumb or incorrect, it can run you down a dark hole and they'll probably never hire you again. You have to be malleable and go with the flow, but also know that you're the hired professional and expert in the room. That's a tough balance.
That's the psychologist, again.
Yes, exactly. With songs being as loud as they're given to mixers in this day, when I start undoing the amount of limiting (and Ableton Live distortion) without a limiter on and peaking, it starts showcasing imbalances in the mix that were hidden. You're unveiling problems, where, if you have the rough mix on you at all times, you can A/B the balance. I think that's a secret that not everybody does, which is to constantly reference. You're still giving the artist and producer the balance they're striving for, but doing it in more of a proper way with dynamics; then all of a sudden you can see the deeper parts of the picture. I think there are tools to get the balance and loudness back that need to be studied and practiced.
When you're setting up a mix, whether it's your own project or something you're handed, do you have a process for exploring and figuring it out?
Yeah. First off, I have two assistants that do the prepping part. It happens most of the time. Ideally the session, whether it's stems or a Pro Tools session delivered to us, comes back sounding exactly like the last listened-to rough mix. When I say "listened-to" I mean by the A&R, the manager, the artist, the producer, the sister, the brother, the mom, and dad. Everybody involved who said, "Yes, this is the magic. This is the one. Let's get Jon to take it that last 5 percent and finish it off." When [my assistants] Josh [Deguzman] or Ingmar [Carlson] are setting this up, I'm coming in at that place. Every once in a while I'll be like, "Guys, I don't care about the rough mix. I don't think the rough mix sounds good, so put the stems in and get my templating. Get it colored and make it look nice for me. I'm going to mix it." I'd say that's few and far between, because people have their vibe injected into their rough mix, most of the time. And, at the level I'm working at, it's by great producers so there's no need to recreate it. Every once in a while, I get to have a lot of fun and do a faders-down mix of it. But the process starts there. As that's happening, I'm probably walking around, grabbing an espresso, and listening on my AirPods to that rough mix and understanding the intention of the producer and artist.
There are times when your process has to be fixing things, and there are other times when it's enhancing things. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, it's part of my 80/20 rule. This shifted in the past two or three years, where I spent the early parts of my career working on 80 percent of things I needed to do for survival and probably 20 percent things I felt passionate about. Now I've flipped it, and it feels good, to be honest. I think 80 percent of my sessions I feel passionate about. Twenty percent are, "I should probably take that gig," for whatever reason. In that 80 percent, there's a lot less fixing, because the producers are at a similar place in their careers, and the artist is too. But, very specifically, I would say the biggest culprit for having to do a fix is the bad vocal recording. It's pretty consistent. I'd say more than 50 percent of the time the vocal does not sound like what would have been acceptable in the '50s, '60s, '70s, maybe even up to the '80s or '90s, for a passing vocal sound. There is a lot of fixing there. I wind up doing pretty bold reduction EQs, whether it's from boominess from bad mic placement, or harshness in cheap capsule sound on a microphone – you're on a budget, and you have to get your ideas down in your bedroom. I do broad reductions in harsh harmonic frequencies, and then I recreate that area pretty broadly with the Hazelrigg VLC-1. It rebuilds the even-order harmonics on sounds after doing big EQ reductions. I remember doing something on Macklemore's vocal. It was recorded bright. Ben [Haggerty; aka Macklemore] likes his vocals bright. That's fine, but I wanted to do it in a more tolerable way. I remember taking a linear phase FabFilter Pro-Q and doing a reduction of a 7 kHz shelf down 20 dB – a pretty substantial dip – and then taking the high boost on the VLC-1 and cranking it. It was a makeup of the information that was there, just in a better way. I thought, "Wow, this is magical that you can replace harmonics with a better version of those same harmonics, all with a box that has the precision and audiophile clarity that your tube gear has." That's influenced my ability to fix sounds, and feel confident. Not saying, "You need to re-record that vocal." That's never going to go over well, for two reasons: One, the song might be coming out tomorrow. Two, the vibe is there, and you're never going to get that performance back again. That's the only time I'm fixing. Another example would be out-of-phase kicks and [Roland TR-]808s, or out-of-phase drums in general. It's the first thing I look for. Are the kicks in phase? Are the snares in phase? That's the first thing I do in a mix in general, almost every time.
Are you getting tracks that come in with processing already on them, or are people sending you mostly dry tracks?
It's a combination, but when I get the processed and the dry tracks separate, the processed is usually so much further along than the raw vocal that there's literally no way that I could remake the vibe on the raw vocal. I wind up using the processed one, because I'll never get the mix across the line if I start from scratch. Maybe they did ridiculous amounts of Waves Renaissance Compressor and RVox – whatever people do with that plug-in. That's stuff that I don't mess with at all. I'm not going to be able to recreate it, so I use the processed [track] a lot of the time. Especially if it's a loud, dense pop or R&B track. If it's a more dynamic, organic track, I will always use the raw vocal and do my own thing to it; but when things are dense and already caked in with vibe, I use the processed. When possible though, I will not use a processed, effected vocal with their reverb and delay unless it's a deadline issue and they're like, "This is all we've got. We've got an a cappella, and it's coming out in a day." It's very rare that that occurs.
You're relatively young, but still there's been a lot of technology shifts throughout your career. How do you see that changing the way you work?
I was very fortunate to spend five years being mentored by Tony Maserati. Tony is the best at staying current. He keeps younger engineers around him that show him the most current tools to use. He'll decide if and how he wants to use it. He might use it in a completely different way than an 18-year-old Ableton user is using it, but he'll still use the tool. He showed me that in order to stay current, you have to know what the youngest music makers are using. Where we both agree beyond that is in understanding certain standards, as well as respecting the gear and art that existed before this new technology. He has a hybrid system, where he's part analog and part digital. It's all dependent on the song that calls for being in the box, out of the box, using a hardware compressor on the vocal, or using a plug-in. What's the turnaround time? Is the artist going to be in the room? Is it going to be attended with a producer? There are so many variables involved in when to use which workflow. But if you're mixing two songs in a day and recording a vocal on one, and you have this recall ability to do it in the box with the newest technology possible, I don't think anyone can argue with that flexibility. I don't see any issue adapting with the times. That being said, I think that calling yourself a mix engineer and not knowing the difference between attack and release on a Pro-C 2 [plug-in] from FabFilter versus an [Universal Audio] 1176 classic model compressor; I don't stand for that. I think you should understand both sets of tools if you want to actually call yourself a professional mix engineer. I think that's where Tony and I saw eye-to-eye. In turn, he decided to coach me and train me. The first time I ever worked with him on a mix was a Lady Gaga song called "Marry the Night." The vocal was recorded on a tour bus. It sounded terrible. There was nothing around 5 kHz, and there was a hum from the tour bus at 60 Hz. He was working on it and getting frustrated. He said, "I'm going outside to smoke a cigarette. You fucking fix this." He had just gotten a Retro Sta-Level compressor installed in the rack that morning by his assistant. I was like, "Oh, I've never seen that before. Let's see what that does." I remember putting it on and turning the input knob all the way up until the needle was pinned, over-saturating and distorting it. It faked those upper harmonics that didn't exist. He came in the room and said, "Oh, what did you do?" He looked at the needle and saw the needle pumping, and he said, "Huh, that's cool. I don't think I would ever do that." I don't think he did much more and it wound up being the sound of that vocal. If I was using a plug-in, I would have turned the knob up all the way. That's what I try to do; break things apart and put them back together. But visually in a plug-in, if you're breaking something apart and putting it back together you have this visual thing in your mind, like, "Oh, why am I boosting something so high or overdriving something so much?" But when you have a knob to turn and you're not looking at a screen the entire time, you wind up doing bolder moves. I'm still working that out daily. The visual element of modern music-making can definitely mess with your psyche.
How do you work around that?
I actually have a trick where I have a hot corner for a screen saver that has a visualizer. After I make almost any move, I put the screen saver on and I don't look at Pro Tools. It gets a little obsessive, but no one's ever complained. Say you're doing a fade digitally in the box. You're staring at that fade, and your brain is already biased towards whether or not that fade is correct by the way the slant looks. But the slant has nothing to do with how the fade is actually reacting in Pro Tools. That's one example. There are so many psychological twists that occur by looking; but, at the same time, I would never forfeit the ability to edit syllables, bad recording, bad edits, drums on the grid, and phasing without seeing it on Pro Tools. I don't want to go back to the '60s and have to record on tape. To me it's completely irrelevant. Unless you're doing a whole project that is "of the time" on that medium for the sole purpose of it being that. I'm totally down to do that, but that sounds like a big headache for anything modern.
That was most of my career. I don't want to go back to that! There's no undo button on a tape machine.
There are people my age and younger who are going to be mad at you and me for saying that, because they want to go back to the legacy days and go to Capitol Studios and use a tape machine.
I run into people who focus on the visual aspect of the music rather than listening to it, to the extent that to them, they practically don't even need the monitors turned on.
I think the reason you hire a craftsman mix engineer to work on your song is to leave in some of the mystery and the mysterious frequencies that are "bad harmonics." That's what gives intensity, tension, release, and all the things that make music human rather than sterilized background music. There's a lot of sterile music being made in the way you're speaking of, where it's mostly visual. I'm trying to remain an artisan and trust my gut and emotional reaction to the music, but also while using modern tools!
I think a lot of people are obsessed with getting everything "perfect." If you go back to a lot of those classic records that we all love and listen to, the individual tracks, there's a lot of bad stuff going on there that doesn't matter.
I know! The PMCs don't lie. I can hear all the faults in a lot of early music. "Oh wow, they left that!" Those things jump out at me on these speakers. Those are conversational moments. That's something I don't hear in micromanaged pop music these days. I think there's a want for that. There's a starvation for that imperfection in produced, tight, concise pop songs and arrangements. I think we're lacking that, and that these new, modern tools are taking us a step away from that feel. Some of the tools I'm also talking about are with those smart EQs. The performance factor is kind of the same thing. You need imperfections in performance, and to capture the sound of, in order for it to sound and feel real.
Getting back to the recording studio, when you're doing a project from scratch or even just doing overdubs on a project, how do you go about choosing the mics?
The last two years have been almost exclusively ribbon mics at my studio, The Gift Shop, in downtown L.A. We have this beautiful wood hanger ceiling, and I have two DPA omni condenser mics that are fantastic at mic'ing space. Other than that, it's mostly exclusively ribbon mics, and maybe on a vocal I'll use my [AKG] C12. I've been using AEA R44s, KU4, and R88s on almost everything. I'm super into pretty much their entire line. I'm looking to going back to the early days of recording where the design of the equipment was done in order to capture the purity of the sound source. Having the ability in the box to manipulate to our hearts' content, I want to have the closest to a true sound source as possible. Those sounds will not remain as pure, but I have all the harmonic content to mess around with. I think that's the opposite of what people are doing today, where it's like, "I want to record with some vibe, and I want it to use a bunch of pedals and capture the sound as is," which is also great. Having the ability and confidence to commit to tones right away is great, but I'm taking my own approach. I don't think it's better or worse than that, but I do love using digital tools in the box to manipulate great recorded material.
If you don't capture it right, you're already at a disadvantage. Using the right mic and the right preamp can make your life so much easier.
So much easier. I try to tell my friends that all the time. I'm at a unique stage in the mix process with a lot of my producer friends. They ask me, "What did you have to do with this vocal?" "Oh man, not much." Very simple things. Then other times I have to say, "Man, it was a lot of work. I think it would behoove you to invest in a great vocal chain." I think condenser mics were created for recording to tape. At the time of tape recording, you were getting a lot of that saturation and tape compression that was dulling up the high end, so you wanted a condenser that would cut through. But now that we're in this digital medium, with high end converters, we don't need a condenser to cut through. We can boost top end on a ribbon mic, so you're getting that fast transient ribbon response. The only issue is that if you put a ribbon mic right up next to a [Neumann] U 47, or a C12, or a Sony C-800G, it's most likely not going to compete in its raw form. You have to do more work to it, but that's okay. Get an EQ and a preamp that you like; set that so it makes up for the excitement and energy that you're missing from the Sony C-800, but with a beautiful Pultec passive EQ sound. It's competing, but it's more realistic; it's faster and crisper. It doesn't fatigue you when you turn it up, but it still sounds poppy and exciting. I think there's one extra step to get it there, but you have more flexibility after the fact [than when] using ribbon mics and tube preamps.
Any thoughts on where you might be five to ten years from now? What are your career goals?
I think about it daily. I'm not one to plan for the future. I'm 32 at the moment; I think I'm supposed to think about those things more. Career-wise, I want to be an A-list mix engineer. That is very difficult, because there is already a group of A-list mix engineers who I highly respect and who are fantastic at what they do. But I'm getting a little bit exhausted of the same sound occupying the top of the charts in music. Whether it be Top-40, R&B, or alternative and indie, it seems to be a similar gamut of mixers. I'd like to enter that within the next five years. I think I am very close to it. I'm sharing record credits with these people, and I have a bunch of my own as well. I think I'd like to be a bit more of a go-to trusted mixer that has a slightly different approach. Again, I say that with much respect for their success and their craft. I think there is some new perspective needed in this field, and I think I have it.
Is there anything that you want to talk about that we didn't cover that you feel is important?
I actually do. I wanted to talk a bit more about an approach that I have – that I think is different – when it comes to mixing. A pretty specific thing is my affinity and infatuation with saturation, and why that is the go-to tool for me rather than a compressor, limiter, or an EQ right off the bat. All different kinds of saturation. I don't mean using the same box for everything. Granted, I have a D.W. Fearn VT-7 [compressor] on my mix bus at all times. I believe it's 100 percent of my mixes in the last two years. That already is doing a nice saturation thing. But in the box, we have so many profound tools for modern and vintage saturation. Where a lot of modern music lacks it is in its musical content. We all know how to make drums hit hard and vocals to sound over-compressed, high-energy, and exciting; but where I find a lot of mixes lacking are in the chords. Not just to me, but to other peers and collaborators who I work with. If you think visually about the left and right hands of a piano player, I'm always trying to balance them: the right hand being melody most of the time, and the left hand being foundational chordal and bass notes. Bringing the left hand up. The right hand is easy to keep in the foreground. But, at the same time, not getting rid of impact. Saturation is my friend in that. I'll do it in all sorts of ways. I'll use exciters and different style-modeling of saturation. Most people ask me what compressors I use and what EQs I use, and I don't have a good answer for that. I always struggle to answer what compressor I use, whether it be vocals or whatever. I'm exhausted by compressors. Compressors should be used as an effect. The use of saturation is coming into the conversation more, and it's funny, because that was probably all that was happening in the early days of recording. You were pushing tubes, or pushing tape, and you got that desired glowing sound, which was known as saturation. You wanted to pin a console. You wanted to pin a tape machine. You wanted that transformer saturation. You wanted tubes to peak. As the tube's getting hit harder, it blossoms, and seemingly the sound is getting bigger and bigger. When I have the VT-7 on my mix bus, if a client's like, "Hey, can you turn the kick up?" I don't feel less confident in the ability to turn that up, even if I have the gain staging right. I know it'll hit that wall a little harder, and it might squeeze a bit, but it'll still be punchy and big. Because of the saturation, there's a safety net going on. Don't be afraid to oversaturate things; but make sure that you make up for transient loss after it, especially with plug-in saturators. I want to shift peoples' brains on looking for the best compressor, limiter, and EQ before thinking about how balanced the harmonics are. We have a lot of new tools. I love drums and I love vocals, but I also love music, so I'm trying to figure out how to balance all of it in a fresh way.
If you look back in the history of recorded music, you had recordings going way back, even before tape, where things were recorded to disc. That was 10 or 20 percent distortion, but it sounds great. You need tubes to do that.
There's a tangibility factor to it. You can reach in and touch the instrument. The records you're talking about are crunchy, and actually audibly distorted. I think the newer way of doing that is to inject just enough. Using plug-ins with wet/dry knobs, I'm only adding maybe 10 or 20 percent of that effected signal. It's there, and psychologically you feel it, but it's not the foreground of the sound. Maybe I'll leave the kick drum clean so the low end sounds expansive and deep, but I'll saturate upper harmonics in the piano so I can reduce the lower mids to get out of the way of the bass. Injecting a subtle amount of that harmonic distortion into the piano, so that stacks up nice. You can stack your instrumentation and your arrangement without aggressively boosting EQ. It's hard to be nuanced about the language here, because it's such a feel-based thing. I think I'm onto something, and I wanted to express it here and let people ponder this idea.
Those are good points.
I don't necessarily want to mix like somebody else. I think a lot of young mixers are in the stage of their career where they are emulating, and I definitely did that for so many years. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But Tony, when training me, saw something unique. He never wanted me to ghost mix for him and stay there. He always wanted me to have my own sound. I was able to do that on my most recent release for Khalid's Suncity EP, which I mixed with my friend Denis Kosiak. Khalid wanted smoother R&B lush mixes. I was able to inject that fuzzy saturation sound while still keeping it bright, poppy, and competitive. As I get more clients and artists of that caliber, I'd love to inject a bit of that influence into music.