In 2017 John and I went to visit Scott Jacoby in Manhattan at his Eusonia Studios. Since then he’s mixed Jason Mraz’s Look for the Good album, produced and written for a diverse slew of artists (including Deva Mahal, Cory Henry, Rachel Platten, and Stormzy), and helped create a studio (AMA Recording) at The AMA Center on the island of Anguilla for teaching arts, media, and technology in the Caribbean region. His career includes songwriting, production, mixing, and more, and he keeps busy, working with artists like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend, Sia, John Legend, and José James.
I know you started out as an artist, right?
I think my whole way of coming to this is probably different than a lot of people’s. I never thought I would be doing music for my career. Since I was 10 or 11, I’ve been writing songs and playing instruments. It was my favorite thing to do. I never thought music would be my career, and as such I went forward with what I thought my life would be. I ended up going to medical school, which was very much a choice. It wasn’t like my parents were saying, “You have to be a doctor.” I was interested in mental health and international public health issues. I went to medical school, and then halfway through, at 27, I questioned all of what I had held true, such as, “Can you do your favorite thing for a career? Can you pursue a career in the arts, and do it unselfishly? Or at least a little less ego-driven?” I forced myself to answer those questions as honestly as possible. I made a decision and left medical school without a net.
Yeah. I didn’t grow up rich; I was paying for it myself. I didn’t know or understand that people were producers, writers, mixers, engineers, mastering engineers, or drummers. When I looked at the back of my favorite album covers, it would read, “produced, arranged, and performed by Stevie Wonder.” I realized, “Everyone does it all themselves!”
That’s a rare example, though.
I didn’t know that at the time. I thought, “I like writing songs and doing this thing that seems to be production, so I guess that I have to sing and perform.” Neither of which I liked too much. I realized, in the course of doing that, that I was decent at producing and mixing. I’m decent at writing. That was how my career started.
What were the first projects you ended up working on?
I was my own guinea pig, so I figured out how to do production and engineering. I was never trained properly, and since then I have gotten to work with all of these great engineers; the Neil Dorfsmans of the world. In doing my own recordings, I asked myself, “How do I make a Rhodes piano sound good? How do I make a drum kit sound good?” I listen to my first recordings now, and I had 27 keyboard instruments in one song. There was way too much shit in everything that I did! I soon realized how good arrangements work, and how interactions with different instruments in different frequency areas work. That was all with me as the artist. Among my first projects was a woman named Maiysha [Kai], who I ended up having a very long working relationship with starting in about 2001. She was one of the first people I co-wrote with. Maiysha was a willing person on this journey; she has a great voice and talent. Many years later we got a Grammy nomination. That was my first thing that I’d call a real project. I was a very reluctant mixer, at the time. A lot of people end up mixing because they have a vision for what they created, and no one else is going to honor that vision. It was the same thing with me. It’s easy to get intimidated with mixing and engineering, where you seemingly have to have a whole bunch of knowledge and training to be good at it, but there are a lot of different ways that people get good at their craft.
Arranging instruments so that they aren’t cluttered, like you mentioned, makes mixing easier!
It sure does! I recorded something at Avatar [Power Station] in the A Room. It was beautifully recorded. I wasn’t engineering the session, because I didn’t know enough about what I was doing at the time. I got it back here, and I was tweaking like crazy, compressing everything and EQing, and it didn’t sound right. I took off everything I’d done and listened to the raw tracking session. That sounded good. It was one of those great lessons. The first thing is to sit back and listen. A lot of work has already been done, so don’t undo the good.
In what ways have you learned more about mixing and how to approach that? You mentioned Neil Dorfsman and others you’ve worked with. Have you sat and co-mixed with people along the way?
I have. I’ve done it with Neil. I produced a project that he mixed. Since then, we’ve worked a lot together. I learned a little bit of what he does; I’d sit there and listen. Everyone’s got their own thing. Jimmy Douglass [Tape Op #130] is another one. He’s a good buddy of mine. We worked on something I had produced that he had mixed. Another great experience. At a certain level of the game, the mixer is a reflection of who they are as a person. I find that [to be true] more and more. It gets increasingly psychological the higher you go, and then you see how people work. You see how people hear, as well as the types of decisions they make. There’s a tremendous amount of humanity in the process. One flaw of the YouTube way of learning is that it’s very easy to absorb technical information. The pieces that are more important are the human aspects, and how a mix makes you feel. That’s what makes someone special in what they do. You have to be fluid enough in your thinking and approach that your methods don’t get in the way of your total vision.
How did your career progress from working with Maiysha to other artists?
The Maiysha project got me my lawyer. A friend happened to swing by the studio and said, “I’ve got to play this for my lawyer.” Having a good person representing you can make a lot of introductions. I did a lot of local New York-based projects. I was into soul music and neo-soul, and I became a bit known for that. My manager at the time pitched me for this this singer, Laura Izibor, who was on Atlantic Records. That was my first major label project. I was up against some other well-known producers, and I got an a cappella [vocal stem]. This is a woman from Ireland who’s an incredible soul singer. I went way beyond what I should have. I brought in some horn players, a baritone player, I wrote arrangements, recorded live drums, and programmed drums. They were expecting to hear a sequenced, little track and I gave them fully-realized, arranged tunes. They were like, “You can do most of this record.” It opened my eyes to working at a commercial studio, which I hadn’t done much of. We tracked at Avatar. Neil Dorfsman did some mixing. We had the ability to hire musicians; real heavyweights on drums, bass, and keys. It was then that I realized that my producer fee for a track was probably ten times what I’d gotten on a single song I’d worked on before. I couldn’t believe it was happening. This was in 2007. After that I started getting a number of different gigs. Vanessa Hudgens was another big one for me.
That’s a trip.
There’s this guy named Jon Lind who’s an industry veteran songwriter and producer. He co-wrote “Boogie Wonderland” for Earth, Wind & Fire. He was A&R at Hollywood Records at the time, the company putting out all of the High School Musical records, then the Jonas Brothers, and then spin-offs from High School Musical. Vanessa Hudgens was one of those people. I was always submitting songs to Jon but never quite made the grade. One day I got a call from Jon Lind, “Scott, I’m in my office with Vanessa Hudgens. We’re loving one of your songs, and Vanessa wants to cut it.” It was a song called, “Last Night.” I didn’t write it with Vanessa Hudgens in mind; I thought of a riff that happened to be in 5/4 and made it into a song.
We’re used to a lot of music in that world being kick-snare, kick-snare.
Exactly. All 4/4! I think it rarely happens. That was the lead track from Vanessa’s album [Identified], released in 2008. I never would have pictured in a million years a Hollywood Records artist choosing that song to do.
Did you end up producing the song and carrying it through?
I produced it and mixed it. In fact, that was one of my first mix gigs. Jon said, “Why don’t you mix it?” I said, “Serban Ghenea is mixing most of the other tracks on the record. I can’t do it.” He was like, “Do it! You’re going to be fine.” Mine didn’t sound as good as the other songs on the record, but it was close enough. That gave me a little bit of confidence to say, “Hey, I can actually mix a record.”
Were you doing it here or at another studio?
That’s wild. Did she come sing here?
No. I tracked all the instruments here and then we did all the vocals in L.A. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that you’ve got to do the thing that you do better than anyone. If you’ve got a natural talent and individuality, then allow that to be your master.
JB: What is the one thing that you do better? What is your mission statement?
I’ve never put that into words before, but I’m going to try. I would like to think that I take musical sophistication and do it in a way that is appreciated, without having to be a “music head.” I have a decent amount of background in music, and I like taking some of that and throwing it into the mix. I think there’s a way to do that where you’re not batting people over the head with sophistication. I’m very hybrid in all my approaches. There might be programmed kick and snare, for example, but then there will be live hi-hat. It’s a mixture of organic with programmed.
You’re keeping some life in it.
Looking around here I saw records by Stevie Wonder and Sly & the Family Stone.
Those two guys probably sum that up better than anyone. Stevie, in particular. It’s appreciated by the people who are the most sophisticated musicians in the world, but it’s also enjoyed by everyone. He has a gift for that.
You keep the multiple talents thing going here.
How often have you met a person who can write a decent song and mix a decent record? It’s fairly rare. Maybe if I would have picked one thing, I’d be better at that thing; but I get a lot of satisfaction out of being a person who’s seeing a song through from beginning to end.
If you hadn’t written the song, you wouldn’t be working on the production in many of these cases.
That’s a good point. That’s how a lot of it works these days. You happen to be in the room, or you happen to be the person who wrote the song.
Have some of your songs ever been covered and/or produced by someone else?
There have been several of those. A José James track. I wrote the song “Trouble” with José, and someone else produced and mixed that. I like that too. On the flipside, I’m mixing a lot of records these days that I had nothing to do with the writing or production of. I find that a whole different trip. It’s someone else’s vision you’re trying to help articulate.
How does mixing work come to you?
I’ve gotten to love mixing. It means I’m not. in the studio every night until 2 a.m. It allows me to focus for bursts of time. I have two guys at the studio who help me full time. They set up all of the mixes and do whatever recalling there is, as well as revisions. I can focus my energy on getting something sounding right and in pretty quick shape. I think that work has increased because I enjoy it, and I have been focused on that. It’s still something that people put value on. When I’ve produced a track and it’s time to mix, there’s barely any work to do.
In what way are you working with hardware? Do you have a console here?
It’s not a console, but all the major groupings have a hardware insert. The drums are going through an SSL compressor, the bass is going through a whole chain. I have these set chains for tracks that I don’t always use, but it’s what I’ve figured out to be my method for mixing. I know what they’re going to sound like in terms of the gear, and how to hit them if there’s a compressor. Aside from the mix bus going through a whole bunch of analog, it’s the drums, the bass, the lead vocal, and some of the keys and guitars. Then some of the effects I have are some old spring reverbs as well as a lot of kooky elements, weaving that in there to get some noise.
Definitely. Are you using a summing amplifier?
It’s all hardware inserts, including the mix bus. It’s hardware inserts, and then it goes through about five boxes in the analog realm and comes back in. I didn’t grow up on a console. I’m good friends with Fab Dupont and I consulted him when I was deciding whether or not to incorporate summing into my rig. He sent me the Dangerous 2-Bus which is a great example of very uncolored, high-quality summing. I set it up and had all the guys at my studio, including Neil and other people come by. I, as well as everyone that was here, didn’t feel that there was enough of a difference that it made sense for me. I get a tremendous amount of color from all the hardware inserts. I decided it wasn’t worth it to complicate the workflow.
Does gear change often for you? Do you get tired and sub it out with another piece?
It hasn’t happened yet. I’ve tried to make good choices. The only thing that’s happened with gear is I kept getting more of it! [laughter] I’ve run out of space, but I don’t feel that I need anything else. Of course, that’s after a half million dollars of spending over the course of 17 years, but I feel good about it.
I was talking to some musicians the other day about, “Remember when we started on 8- or 16-tracks?” We’d plan ahead and get all of our ideas into this minimal amount.
I think there’s very much to that. Every argument you can have about music making and audio, there are different sides, and I always appreciate both sides, but I think that committing is something we see less and less of these days. It’s an important part of the process, and it’s an important part of the way you can think about production. A production concept is something that happens in 30 seconds, and the next 50 to 100 hours is the articulation of that. I know what I want something to sound like; I’ve done enough records. If we think in that way, it allows us to commit. “This is going to be our vocal sound.”
You’ve had this studio space for quite a while now.
Yeah, 17 years.
Can you talk about the economics of that in Manhattan?
I’ll say, first of all, that since 2000, and we’re in 2017, the first eight years I had a partner here. That was very helpful. We weren’t partners in any other way than that we split the time. It got to a certain point in late ‘08 or ‘09 that I was working a bit too much, and he was living in Brooklyn. It was a very amicable parting. This is not a commercial studio; I’ve never once in 17 years rented the place out. In this particular neighborhood of Manhattan, at 25th Street and Park Avenue, it’s expensive, and it’s a lot more expensive now than it was 17 years ago.
No rent control?
No. One thing that I’ve realized about the economics of this is that having a family, as I work less and less, there are a lot of hours per day where this space is not used. I’ve started something called the Eusonia Studios Club, where I’m offering anyone who’s ever interned here, which is about 50 people, where they have a membership fee per year or per month (with a minimum of three months). Once they pay the membership fee, they can be here for as many hours as they want when I’m not here, which will be calendared, at a very low hourly. Like ridiculously low. I’ve gotten a huge response from folks, and everyone can’t believe it. It’s a little bit of a gift back. Those people have worked and come up with me, but they don’t necessarily have their own studios or places equipped with as much gear. If ten people are doing this membership, then it covers some bills. Fortunately, for the most part, I haven’t had to worry about it. I’ve had enough work where I can employ one assistant full-time.
Totally. You have a label, Eusonia Records.
Which is probably the best way of losing money in this business. I have a new partner at my label, former Recording Academy P&E Wing co-chair James McKinney. He and I are building up a whole set of projects we want to release and get going; I consider it the 2.0 version of the label. We actually helped build a recording studio in the Caribbean at The AMA Center. It’s funded by the Sheth Sangreal Foundation and we have the Grammy Museum Foundation as a partner. It’s a multi-million dollar music academy in Anguilla, and a world-class studio called AMA Recording. It’s a unique place for A-list international artists and for local and regional talent, as well as a music institution for kids from the Caribbean. We’ve been the technical and creative directors of the whole project. I’m going to be calling on friends in the industry to come down there, check it out, and work there. I’ve got a lot of people lined up already, both artists and producers. It’s not a money thing. Just to get down there and have people teach.
Any last thoughts?
Be true to yourself. It’s a little bit cliché, but I think that’s how the best art is made and that’s how people find their voice. If there’s one thing that I have been pursuing, and care about, and try to hold as my mission, it’s that.