Jay Ruston

Metal albums live in a perpetual battle between clarity and attitude, and Jay Ruston has become a go-to for heavy artists looking to toe that line. His productions harken back to an era of analog goodness, but with a modern aggression and deference to metal’s penchant for technical wizardry. He’s become a go-to for L.A.’s hair metal jokesters Steel Panther, as well as bug-eyed thrashers like Anthrax and Mr. Bungle. But no matter who the artist is, the result always seems to contain at least some Jay Ruston signatures: clear yet searing guitars, snapping and popping drums, and pristine vocals that would make pop producers envious.

I saw that livestream with Mr. Bungle that you worked on.

I’ve done three livestreams, and it was definitely a new challenge. Hopefully we won’t be doing them much longer.

What makes working with livestreams challenging?

The ones I worked on weren’t totally live. They were filmed, recorded, edited, and mixed, or at least the video was edited. It becomes more like a concert film. I’ve done a ton of those anyway. On the mixing front, it was the same as mixing live DVDs or Blu-rays. But for Mr. Bungle and Corey Taylor [Slipknot], I was actually there recording on-site. There were definitely different challenges to overcome, because we had to have live sound and a monitor guy. Some people are on in-ears; some people are on wedges. It created a lot of audio challenges. With those two artists, I used a live monitor engineer and recordist named Danny Badorine, who works for Slipknot and a bunch of other bands. He recommended different microphones for their [off axis] rejection. Telefunken M80 is his go-to vocal mic; it has incredible rejection. With Corey, it was different, because we were on a big stage in The Forum [Inglewood, California], so the leakage wasn’t too bad. With Mr. Bungle, we were in a recording studio, and Mike [Patton, Tape Op #53] was standing ten feet in front of the drum kit, and it was Dave Lombardo [on drums]. It’s not like it’s going to be quiet in there. And then I’ve got Scott Ian and Trey Spruance with their guitar amps cranked on either side. It was a full-blast live concert in a room that’s about 40 by 20 feet. It was intense. But man, that microphone killed; and Mike sang great, so it made it pretty easy.

There’s the “Loss of Control” video, the last song on the set, where Mike’s jumping back and forth between a little walkie-talkie and the mic.

Yeah, he walked in and handed us this walkie-talkie that somebody had rigged an XLR [jack] onto the end of it. We plugged it in, and it was all crackly and crappy. The engineer at the studio fiddled with it a bit and got it taped up and working. The best thing about that little handheld walkie-talkie was that it only worked when Mike pressed the button. If he was singing through the regular mic, he would then grab the walkie-talkie mic, press a button, and do his screaming into it. It was fantastic, especially during the mix, because it was only on when he was singing, so it made it easy to deal with. I would only have to deal with the leakage of his regular mic when he wasn’t using it. It’s a lot of automation.

I’m a “Strip Silence” [gating processing] guy, and that’s always been a lot of fun for me in [Avid] Pro Tools.

I don’t use that too much for live mixes. I like to keep some of the leakage in the mics so the sound stays consistent. There are a lot of cymbals usually, so if I take it out completely and then it comes back in every time he sings, we’re going to hear a pretty drastic cymbal change. Once I get my vocal level set, anytime they’re not singing I drop the lead and background vocal mics down, about 10 or 15 dB [lower] max. So, it’s still happening; still noise. I try to make the noise usable.

That particular scenario, in a 40 by 20 foot live room, you can’t put the guitar players in iso booths. They want to hear themselves.

They weren’t on headphones or anything. None of them were even on in-ears. The Mr. Bungle show was on [monitor] wedges and fully live, no repairs. They went for it. I recorded the rehearsal the day before, just in case, and I didn’t need to use any of it. It was great! They did a flawless performance.

You also mixed the re-recorded Mr. Bungle’s 1986 demo tape album, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo. The band was going for a pretty live feel, right?

Yeah, they recorded it at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606, with Mike’s engineer [S. Husky Höskulds, Tape Op #56]. I mixed that record. Scott Ian came to me and said that they were stalled on the mix and he was not sure what to do. It was pretty raw-sounding. He sent me one song, I mixed it, and everybody seemed to love it. But, unfortunately, I was committed to record a different band for about another two months. I was like, “I’m glad you love it, but I’ll see you in another two months. Hopefully you’ll still want me to mix the rest of the record.” Fortunately, they were patient and waited. It worked out nicely.

Were you referencing the original Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny demo at all to get a sense of the vibe?

Nope. I think the whole purpose of re-recording that [demo] was to make it sound great. The note I got was, “Aggressive and ugly, but pro.” I think we got that. I do like the way that record turned out. I mastered it myself, which I rarely do. I love my mastering guy, Paul Logus, but we were tight on budget. I thought it was pretty close already. I did a little bump up, a dB or two, then I put some EQ on it and it was ready to go.

Your mixes have smooth yet aggressive guitars, like [Megedeth’s] Rust in Peace updated for the modern era.

Wow! Thank you for the compliment.

I remember thinking that when I heard [Anthrax’s] Worship Music. What shape are these tracks coming to you in, and how are you able to turn them into your sound?

I don’t think of myself as a guitar tone guy. I try hard to get great guitar sounds, but there are so many other engineers and mixers that I look up to and think, “Well, that person gets killer guitar tones.” I’ve always tried my best to not mess up what’s been delivered to me. With Scott Ian, his tone’s going to come to me. Normally I’m producing, mixing, or recording him as well, but with Mr. Bungle, somebody else recorded it. But it’s hard to screw up his sound. It came in ready to go. He’ll ask me sometimes, “Oh, can you give my guitar a little more edge?” I never had to re-amp, or anything like that. But with Worship Music, when I came in, the album was three-quarters done. The music was done, but there were no vocals. Rob Caggiano had recorded everything and co-produced the record. They got amazing guitar sounds. He split all the mics onto multiple tracks, which I never do. For me, as a mixer, when I’m producing I want the least amount of mics possible. I’ll get my mic blend in the studio while tracking and print it to one track. Even if there are three or four amps and ten mics or whatever, I get the phase right and commit to it. I’ll take a DI just as a backup. Having the microphones split like that during the mix – since he wasn’t mixing it – was probably a smart thing to do. Who knows what’s going to happen later? I did change those blends up through the course of the record, in order to alter the guitar sound a little bit on each song. Oftentimes, with hard rock and metal, the guitar sound is good, maybe not great, so I will augment it with either a plug-in like Neural DSP or I’ll use my Kemper [Profiler amp modeler]. I have a lot of tones that I’ve captured myself and designed, but I try to stick to the band’s tone as much as possible. If that’s what they recorded and they were happy with it, then I try to make that work.

With guitars, if you want to make it simple and good, throw a Shure SM57 off the speaker cone, right?

Yeah, I try not to overthink it. I love [Sennheiser MD]421s as well. I’ll usually do two 57s on one speaker, one straight-on and one at 45 degrees. Then I’ll do a 421 on the other cone. That’s generally my mic setup for heavy guitars. Or I’ll do one single [Neumann] U 67, which a lot of guitar players freak out at. I’m like, “Back in Black”! [AC/DC’s seventh studio album.] I also like to use a U 67 and a [Neumann] U 87. That’s what they used on all the guitars. There wasn’t a 57 in sight, not even on the drums. A lot of people have gotten comfortable with using the same equipment all the time. I constantly see [Shure] SM7s on lead vocals, and I’m like, “Nope.” That’s a muddy mic. It doesn’t work for most people. It’s got a very specific sound. Whenever I get a mix and the vocal’s all muddy and harsh, I instantly know they’ve used an SM7. My friends all laugh at me and make jokes because they know it’s not my favorite mic. It does have a great purpose. I like it as a room mic. I’ve used it on hi-hats. I use it on guitar amps, sometimes – if I take the foam cap off. But it comes down to personal preference.

I was also going to say the U 67, that was Chris Tsangarides’ [Tape Op #70] mic of choice. That’s [Judas Priest’s] Painkiller right there.

Yeah, exactly. I have to watch the level and volume, but if the room is super dead and I put that mic a foot away from the cabinet it sounds monstrous. I know all the Rammstein tracking is done with large diaphragm condensers and tube mics. There’s not an SM57 on any of those cabinets, and the guitar sound is vicious.

With metal, now a lot of engineers are starting to want to recapture space; capture the air again. Large-diaphragm condensers are your best friend for that.

Absolutely. Especially with bass amps. If I can mic a bass amp from two feet away in a dead room, it’s going to sound so much better than a mic right on the speaker. I go for an aggressive bass sound. I’ll add 10 dB at 1 kHz. I want to hear it. But then I’ll cut it off at 3 kHz completely, so there’s no clicky or tacky sounds. There’s nothing up there of any use anyway, unless the guy’s playing slap. If it’s a bass player with a pick, or even fingers, I’m going for a very aggressive midrange.

Steve Harris’ [Iron Maiden] fret noise sound is his signature.

I wouldn’t do it to him, obviously, but that’s a pretty unique sound. He and Geddy [Lee, Rush] both have that as part of their sound. Those are two pretty rare guys. A lot of the hard rock and metal guys I work with are pick players, which is great. I’m a bass player, and I’m a finger player, but I love the sound of a bass with a pick for heavy music. It’s more consistent and generally sounds better.

Do you get the bass dynamics under control with a [Universal Audio] 1176 or a [Universal Audio] L.A-2A, right?

Yeah, an [Empirical Labs] Distressor is great, too, especially on the DI track. I usually don’t compress the amp too much. I like to use two amps: A big speaker for bottom end, and then a tiny little Vox guitar amp for the distortion, slightly overdriven, and stick an SM57 on that. I’ve even used those tiny, little battery-powered ones – Blackstar [Amplification] makes one [Fly] for guitar techs. I’ll use that as the bass distortion. On the Corey Taylor record [CMFT] we did that, and it sounded ridiculous with the Ampeg.

How did you get involved with the comedy/metal band Steel Panther?

I moved to L.A. in late 2002. I was working at a studio in Studio City, and I was doing a lot of pop music. I was working with Wilson Phillips and Desmond Child. I worked on American Idol. I was trying to make a living and doing whatever I could. I worked with Katy Perry before she was famous. I was also doing production demos for songwriters. I was going to clubs to see bands. This drummer [Pete Burke] I met had a band called Paperback Hero. I did four or five songs with them that turned out really good. They would open up for Steel Panther about once a month at the Key Club. He played the singer [Ralph Saenz, a.k.a. Michael Starr] the four or five songs we did, and the singer flipped out. He’s like, “We’re considering doing original music. Can we meet this guy?” I’d seen them a dozen times at least by then. I met with the band and said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” We booked a room, which, at the time, was called Sage & Sound; a nice studio in Hollywood that had been there for 50 years and had two studios. The oldest room had been there a lot longer, but the newest was a Neve studio with a killer drum space. It became Serenity West [Studios] and now it is sadly gone. I did Anthrax’s For All Kings there – all the drums and guitars. So, we went in there and knocked out six songs, pretty much live, then doubled up the guitars. We did it all in about three days. Then we spent a few weeks at my own studio doing vocals. With them, the comedy and lyrical aspect is the most important part, so we spent a lot of time on vocals. Ralph, the singer, can sing anything in one take, but it’s not about that. It’s about making it funny, perfecting the lyrics, and getting that delivery right so that it has humor in it. That’s what takes time with that band. Musically we knock everything out in a few days, usually. Every record I’ve done with them we’ve done in a week. They’re so fast.

As a producer, how do you keep that band funny?

It’s very difficult. That’s some of the roadblocks I’ve gotten with them. The guitar player [Russell Parrish/”Satchel”] writes most of the music and the lyrics, and then everybody chimes in. It’s the challenging part, like, “What do you find funny?”, “What do I find funny?” and, “What do they find funny?” It’s all subjective. We’ve definitely had those discussions. We’d say, “Hey, this could be funnier,” and then somebody will be like, “Well, I think it’s funny!” It’s difficult with comedy. I even encouraged them, on the last couple of records, to work with somebody else to see if they could interject some new ideas. By this time, we all know what each other’s going to say before we even say it. That’s not a good situation. I try and be as subjective as possible with them, which is hard after so many years. We’ve been working together for 12 years. They’re writing new songs now, and I’m waiting to hear demos. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll tell them. I have to be honest and give my opinion. If they want it, they’ll take it, and if they don’t, they won’t. I can’t force them to.

With comedy there are less “rules.”

You can do whatever you want. I try and make the music funny too. On the first record [Feel the Steel], there was a song called “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’.” The singer, Michael Starr, wrote that song. But the guitar player, Satchel, was mucking about, trying to write a solo in the studio. Every take he does is phenomenal. The guy’s a beast on guitar. He started doing this thing with the whammy bar that sounded super cool, so I said, “Play the whole solo with the whammy bar. Make the melody with the whammy bar.” It’s one of my favorite guitar solos of all time now, because it’s so unique sounding.

You spent a long time doing pop vocal sessions, like you said with Wilson Phillips and Desmond Child. What did you ultimately get out of it when you went into more of a production role?

Well, I’d been producing in Canada through the mid-’90s to the early 2000s. I thought I was a producer. But once I got to L.A. I was starting over, which is expected. That was okay. I went from running a studio, being the main guy at the place and recording bands I wanted to record in Canada, to starting over and doing whatever came to me. That restart was good. I re-learned what I should be doing better. It was a great learning experience, working next to other engineers and producers who had ten times the credits I had, as well as working under people like Desmond Child and Peter Asher [Tape Op #137]. I worked with a lot of Swedish songwriters like Andreas Carlsson. Those are long, intense eight or ten hour days of just vocals, singing, comping, doubling, tripling, and stacks and stacks of harmonies. I learned how to produce vocals very quickly. When I apply that to rock music, it makes it so much easier. I know exactly what I’m looking for, and hearing. I think producing singers is more or less my forte. The music part I find very easy. It’s easy to get great tones. It’s easy to get great performances. Especially if the songs are good. But vocals are a challenge. It’s hard every time, still. Even with the greatest singers, I’ve got to get the right mic, the right tone, the right EQ, and then get the right performance.

With vocals, half the battle to me is how do I make this person comfortable?

Exactly. I’m working on a record right now. We did vocals a couple of days ago and listened to them last night. We liked one and didn’t like the other. “Is this the right mic? Do you like that room? Why are you nervous? What’s going on here? Let’s figure all this out.” Vocals are tricky. It’s an instrument, and it’s the most difficult one.

When you’re signed on to produce a record, are you engineering as well?

Generally, if I’m producing, I’m also engineering. I have engineers that I use and that I love, and they’re all great. If I can afford to have them there, I do. But budgets these days aren’t what they were, and I don’t always have that luxury. But it depends on the artists. A lot of bands have one great singer in the band: The lead singer. They might have somebody else in the band who can sing. With Corey Taylor’s solo band, everybody in the band could sing, so I would put three of them on one mic and do all the harmonies, then double them, do the next note and double those, and they would knock it out in two or three takes. It was incredible. Two of the guys played in side bands, or Las Vegas acts where they were lead singing, so it was like having all these killer singers underneath Corey. It was great. I’ve had other bands where nobody else can sing, so the singer has to do everything. The band I’m producing right now is pretty rock ‘n’ roll. He’s a bit of a Chris Robinson-esque singer, where it’s somewhat scatty and ad-libby. It’s hard to put harmonies on a singer like that. With The Black Crowes, there are not a lot of harmonies. There are some, but it’s not Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles, where every section is full of harmonies. I have to make sure that the lead vocal is absolutely killer and carrying the weight of the song when it’s somebody like that.

I want to talk a little bit about drummers; Charlie Benante [Anthrax], in particular. He’s so on it and precise. When you’re mixing something that he’s played on, how involved is he?

He’s very involved. He’s a big part of that band in that he writes a lot of the songs and does a lot of the art and ideas. They all have extremely important parts in that band. I lean on Frank [Bello], the bass player, for vocal melodies. Scott writes lyrics. Joey [Belladonna], the singer, is phenomenal. They all have their part. Charlie’s got a very distinctive snare sound. John Tempesta [The Cult, White Zombie] as well. He just sounds consistent, which is great. Charlie’s the same way. I can’t recall him ever getting into microphone selection or anything like that with me, but he certainly is extremely particular about his drum sound, especially his toms. He likes them really loud, which can be challenging when he has five toms. It’s a lot of leakage and noise. There’s a lot of automation happening. I don’t like to use samples on toms; I think they sound terrible. I get the best tom sound that I can and make it work. Usually with him I’ll augment the kick and snare with more ambience samples. He’s such a consistent hitter that his live tone is pretty much all I need. I’ll use more of a room snare sample and a room kick sample to give the mix a little more air. He likes to play with a click, but we don’t grid it or anything like that. It’s more there as a guide to keep the song generally on tempo. I don’t ever Beat Detective [Pro Tool’s timing correction (and more) function] him or anything like that. We just do takes until he’s happy.

Well, if you watch any video of Charlie playing, you see his body sway and move. He’s grooving.

Oh, yeah. He’s got a serious groove in the studio. Having recorded a lot of hard rock and metal drummers, he definitely stands out in that area. That groove and that feel, yet still being tight. That makes tracking guitars easy, because Scott Ian’s so used to playing with him. Scott’s robotically tight with his right hand, so those two are like a rhythm section. Then Frank has such a unique bass sound with lots of clarity and lots of distortion. It’s almost like an extra guitar.

It sounds like that’s a band where you put the tracks up, and the record will almost mix itself.

I mean, having completely done the last one from top to bottom, it was. Their tones were spot-on. That’s the easy part with them, getting great performances. And they wrote killer songs!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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