We talked to Jacquire King briefly in Tape Op #45 when he was working with producer Eric Valentine, but in the seven years since that time Jacquire has been involved with an impressive roster of albums as a producer, engineer and mixer. With a discography including Tom Waits, Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon, Mutemath, Josh Ritter, Mike Doughty, Norah Jones, The Features, Cold War Kids, Tim Finn and the Punch Brothers, he's pulling the truth out of some of the best music happening today. I interviewed Jacquire in Nashville in front of a room of like-minded recording folks at the third annual Recording Summit at Welcome to 1979 Studio.
I heard you got fired once while working on TV scores in San Francisco?
Yes, I had this job in 1988 at Different Fur Studios, which did a lot of Windham Hill stuff. It was one of the few SSL consoles in the Bay Area at the time. We also did a lot of hip-hop, film and TV. We were working on the show Unsolved Mysteries and had been doing that for a couple of months straight. The hours were really insane. It was really late one night; I was getting sleepy in the back of the room and the track sheet wasn't updated properly. It was all MIDI stuff, the only thing that was live was some piano. But something got erased and I was fired to please the client.
That's a brutal situation.
It was kind of a bummer.
There has never been that much studio work in the Bay Area.
No, I couldn't replace that job. I had to get a construction job, paint houses and do live sound. I ended up working with the group Consolidated. Later I had my own studio space and I got involved with The Grill Studios, doing hip-hop and other stuff.
I know you delved into Pro Tools early on, in its initial version as Sound Designer.
When I was working at The Grill I started using Sound Designer. The first thing I got was an AudioMedia II card, which with [Opcode's] Studio Vision gave the option of four tracks of digital audio. That's how I would do a lot of vocal and bass parts. We used a 24-track Otari MX-80 and Studio Vision would drive whatever the producer would bring in, like an Ensoniq ASR-10. We would sync the computer up to the tape machine via SMPTE and the computer would spit out the MIDI.
Audience Member: Where was that?
Oakland, California. We had some very Oakland rap sessions going on — a lot of thugs. I stopped engineering there after my buddy John was pistol- whipped and there were machine guns in the studio. I was like, "Okay, I'm done." Very soon after that session there were some automatic weapons pulled out in the studio and fired in the back of the building. I got all my gear out, and that was that. That would have been around 1994. I'm thankful for all the live sound that I've done and the film sound — all of the odd sessions.
What was the transition like from The Grill to working with Tom Waits on Mule Variations?
Around that time I was the production manager at Slim's [nightclub], so I had that live sound job and I was also interning for Dan Alexander at Coast Recorders — just trying to hustle and do anything I could. There used to be a studio called Dancing Dog that I'd do sessions at as well. I got a Pro Tools rig as soon as I could. Dan Alexander moved Coast from Mission Street to the Harrison Street location. I knew two friends of mine, Craig Silvey and Philip Steir, wanted to open a studio. Phillip was the drummer in Consolidated and I knew Craig from assisting at Russian Hill Recording and also from Different Fur. Since I had been working for Dan I knew of the vacancy, so I called them and said, "Hey, I know the perfect place and I would love to help you open it." They bought the studio with the Neve console that was already there and I started working as the main assistant in Studio A.
That was the old Coast location?
Yes, which is a Bill Putnam-designed room. It was built in 1964 to record West Coast jazz — that's why it was called Coast Recorders. It was a great old room. They had recorded some Janis Joplin and Blue Cheer sessions there. CBS Records had a downtown location, but they would book Coast for their overflow stuff — it had a pretty cool history. The Neve they had in there was really great — Craig has it in London now. Tom Waits was changing engineers, he had used Bones Howe [#64] for a very long time. Then Tchad Blake [#16] made Bone Machine and there was sort of a transition where Tom was looking for somebody new. I had Pro Tools knowledge and traditional recording skills. I also had my own rig. We recorded at Prairie Sun Recording Studios. They didn't have Pro Tools at the time, so I brought my rig up there.
Back then if you went to work at a studio there would be a 24-track tape deck, a console, probably not much outboard gear, and usually not a Pro Tools rig — you would rent those. Engineers would buy a rig 'cause you could rent it to other sessions.
Oh, yeah. I did that a lot. After the Tom Waits session, I owned a second rig. Then I partnered with a couple of engineers and became part owner of four Pro Tools rigs — a little rental company. One I had on a long- term lease, another I would rent to sessions. I was just trying to do anything I possibly could.
The experience with Tom sounded really fun.
Oh, I was huge fan. For my audition I went up to Prairie Sun. He was also auditioning a bunch of musicians. It was kind of a hellish session — I don't think we recorded anything that was keep-able because we were all so nervous to be working with Tom. It went well enough for me that I was able to stay on for the project, as did several of the musicians. The recording situation up at Prairie Sun, at least for the Waits records, was very unique because Tom did not like to be in the studio space. He wanted to be in the extra buildings (that used to be a corn crib and a chicken coop) because it was a former chicken ranch. We would work in the control room, but all the mic preamps and microphones were in another building about 75 yards away.
Did you get a lot of exercise?
Yes, a lot of running back and forth. There were no camera setups or anything. There were some speakers down there we could use for talkback and obviously you could hear them through the microphones. It was interesting 'cause there would be an instrument change, or he would play through a song a couple times and not really be feeling like the instrumentation was the right thing, and he would change it. He would go from guitar to piano, or go from piano to percussion, so you would have to run down there and move all the mics and kind of chase things around. It was fun.
I feel that with artists, like Tom, in order to do a good job on your end it's about being fast. There is no time to "get sounds" or dick around.
To me it is not acceptable to stand in the way of creativity. You really have to be ready. All my live sound experience helped me with speed. If you think it's going to take you a day to set up, well then do that day of set up before somebody is waiting on you. If something goes wrong, work around it — you never want to stall. Just hit "record," even if something is not to your satisfaction, engineering-wise. If you record something that is inspired, it doesn't really matter in a way. Someone might get mad at you, but a Jack White [Tape Op #82] or a Tom Waits isn't going to. That is what they want. They want that risk and that danger; that's part of what they are accepting and want to get — people on edge. Tom would never show a musician a song — he wouldn't let them learn a song. He always had very capable musicians around. And it was just like, "Here it is. Let's go!"
That's pretty fun.
Yeah it is.
Would you go down to the studio early and set up things to have options ready before Tom got there?
Absolutely. I'm a firm believer that you have to set the stage — you have to set something up that is a creative approach. You are taking a creative snapshot, but you have to do it in a way that it is going to work quickly. It has to be premeditated, because you are creating an opportunity for someone. Like on this Punch Brothers record [Who's Feeling Young Now?]: the first day we were at Blackbird Studio, we noticed that they have an incredible amount of microphones. Because it's an all- acoustic band, I knew the microphone choice and the sonic palette I wanted to have. I knew I had to see what all my possibilities were, microphone-wise. So I went in with Nathan Yarborough (the assistant at Blackbird) and Brad Bivens (the guy that works with me all the time) on Saturday and we went through all the mic closets. It was like, "Nate, what do you have that I don't know about? What's cool? What's funky?" I know what all the obvious choices are going to be, and I think we put together a list of about 100 microphones. We got as many stands as we could and spent six hours putting up every microphone. The band was really patient, because I really needed them for this — it was like an assembly line. I had them put up the RCA 77 and then I said, "Chris [Thile], play the mandolin. [Noam] Pikelny, play the banjo." I'd listen to it for about 10 seconds and I'd make a note: "That mic doesn't sound right to me. It sounds great on the fiddle. Sounds kind of subby on the bass." Whatever. We went through all these microphones; I looked it over and we got rid of about half. Each musician had at least three mics on them, sometimes up to five. We put them all really close together and recorded. Each instrument had three microphones that comprised the sound. One mic (usually a dynamic, with a more limited bandwidth) went into a re-amp and into an amp so I could put pedals and stuff on it. Each musician had four tracks. I had them each walk around the room and play — it was like, "Where does this instrument sound the best? The bass projects really good over here. The vocal sounds good over there." So we set the room up like that. We spent a whole day doing that, and once we got that going it was perfect.
AM: Were you walking around with them in the live room?
When I was choosing where they were going to be set up, yes I was. I spent a lot of time understanding the acoustic space. So many times somebody will just put a guitar amp somewhere, put an open back cabinet up against a wall and put a mic in front of it. Maybe it sounds amazing there, or maybe it sounds okay. To me, this amp has a lot of sound coming out the back of it, hitting the wall and returning through the front. It's going to create these positive and negative reinforcements of sound that it's generating. I'm always moving amps around in a space. Is there an angle that kind of works better, if it needs to be in a small space against a wall? Always find the right place. I'll always check a room out for drums with a kick drum. I'll find the general area. Sometimes moving it a couple of inches can really make a difference.
If you go to studios and ask where to put the drums, 99 percent of the time the worst spot in the room is where they tell you it sounds great.
Sometimes I ask who else has recorded in the room. If I am familiar with them and their work and I feel it is valuable...
It shouldn't be a book of secrets. I always ask the assistant engineer what they think. He or she is the person that is in the space all the time. The only time I am going to have an ego is if we don't do a good job. I'm there to be part of the team and I need you to contribute. Respectfully and appropriately I say, "You are part of this, so if there is something you feel you should share or ask, do it." Engineering is not all in the control room; you will have a lot less to do if you do a better job out in the acoustic space.
AM: Could you elaborate a little more on your multi-mic technique?
You really have to be sure that your microphones are very consistent in their distance from the source for the phase, and very close together. My mic choices were all very different sounding. For instance, on the mandolin I had a Coles  microphone and an old RCA KU-2A — it was a stage microphone for mic'ing from above for a television sound stage. The Coles had a warm, very smooth sound — the high frequencies are smooth and you can EQ them well. The KU-2A was wooly and mid-rangy and was slightly aggressive around 2 kHz. Then I used an RFT, which is the old bottle microphone that has the M7 capsule. It had a lot of gain and was very aggressive, with a lot of high- end energy. So the three microphone choices were all very flattering to the mandolin, but they weren't doing the same thing. They fit each other really well — you could turn all three on and balance them. It just made all of the mandolin parts sound louder, more present and punchy. They weren't really interfering with each other, frequency-wise. The RFT could be pretty medium in the blend because the high frequencies were speaking so well. The main sound would be the Coles. Just make sure the phase is correct — you really have to use something that has a percussive attack. I look at Pro Tools to see how things are lining up and I adjust the microphones to get them just right. They have this little "clicker" phase tool. I'm not really sure what it is, but they had it at Blackbird and we were using that. It's a little clicker box that they take out and put in front of the microphone. It sounds like one click, but it actually makes two little transients very close together that you can specifically see .
AM: When you are close up on something millimeters make a difference, but really it's the highs that are the main problem.
But having the different lenses and combining them... My original thought was that I was going to bus all the microphones together, but I didn't have busing paths that I was really fond of and I realized once I set it up that it's really not that many tracks in Pro Tools. I liked to have the convenience of mixing to EQ the mics separately, if I wanted. I was halfway through mixing the record and I really hadn't had to do much EQing. It was like, "The highs are a little too aggressive, so I'm going to bring down the RFT a little bit." I'm treating that combination as a whole on a stem and I'm EQing the group of microphones a little bit more.
AM: With placement, you're trying to bunch them all together. It's a real pain in the ass. How did you do that?
I just did the typical thing where I listened with my good ear to the spot where I would want to put the microphone. I typically put the darker ones on the body side of the instrument. They are close together, but left to right. With the bass I put them side-by- side. The way I got the bass through the amp was with a contact mic. I did not record that mic, that was just simply to get a signal to the amp.
With the process of using amps and the multi-mic'ing techniques, was that something you discussed with the band beforehand? Did they have a specific vision in mind that incorporated amplifiers?
No, they didn't. They had the desire to sound more aggressive and bigger than they had heard themselves on record before. They were referencing the sonic landscapes and textures on other things that I had done in the past that really had nothing to do with the same type of instrumentation. We talked about a lot of things that we didn't even do, but it was a very inspired conversation that lead me to what I thought would be a process. I knew that somehow I was going to have to electrify, amplify and create an aggressive sound, but in an acoustic space. There really isn't any of it that is done with extreme use of recording gear. It's really about the source. That's where I like to spend most of my effort: concentrate on the source, then obviously you can use all the tools to shape and influence the rest.
I interviewed Ethan Johns a number of years ago [Tape Op #49] and he had worked on the first couple of Kings of Leon records. He would say the vocals were all cut live. Were they really cut live?
Yes, we did that [for Aha Shake Heartbreak] almost all live. We used an Abbey Road EMI TG console and Ethan bought a 3M type 56 16-track. We started out with the Lockwood speakers from the Rolling Stones mobile truck, but I blew those up on about day three — the old drivers in them had not been used in quite some time, so they were really fragile. All the main instrument tracks, as well as approximately 90 percent of the vocals, were live. We were all in one room. I had three microphones on the drums. I remember all the mics because there were so few. The drums had a [AKG] D112 on kick and a pair of [Neumann] U87s as overheads. The basic take, which captured the whole band, was seven tracks. All these microphones had been Glyn Johns'. He had given them to [his son] Ethan, so I thought it was kind of fun that I was mic'ing the drum kit the way Glyn would have. His drum mic'ing technique is genius. I also had a U87 on each guitar amp and a [Neumann] U47 on the bass amp, no directs, and a [Shure] SM7 for the vocal. The only compressor I used was a [UA] LA-2A on the vocal and it was all put to tape through the console. We set this stuff up in an old television sound stage, so it was this incredibly huge room.
The ceilings go way up and the walls are padded to reduce reflections. It looks like moving blankets on the walls.
It was like a rehearsal space at SIR or something. All the songs were no more than 12 tracks when it was finished. It was mixed by hand, no computers involved. All the mixes were printed to a Studer A80 1/4-inch at 15 IPS.
Doesn't it seem kind of crazy, even though it was only a few years back that this record was done in such a simple manner?
I was in heaven. All of the editing I did to compile multitrack masters was done on the 2-inch, and mix edits were on the 1/4-inch — no automation. It was classic record making. I was having a great time. The guys are really exceptional musicians and what they do is super cool. They were out to prove something because they had taken a lot of flack for having co- writes on their first record. So they wrote all the songs themselves and they rehearsed them for four months in their basement — they were ready to kill. It was pretty awesome. We were all in the same room together; the console was there and they were right in front of me. I would record with the monitors down, then we would listen.
AM: Can you describe the Glyn Johns technique?
You position one mic a few feet over the snare drum and rack tom. It's not directly over the snare drum — it's sort of on the front edge of the snare drum so that you're still getting some rack tom. You have to move it around because it depends on the drummer's setup, as well as what size the drums are. The other mic is pointing across the floor tom, towards the snare. Measure and make sure they are equal distance from where the drummer is hitting the snare. The first Led Zeppelin album is a good education on the variations on how to pan that out.
AM: I wanted to ask you about the Norah Jones record, The Fall. You manage to get by with balances of instruments that I would never get by with. It seems very non-traditional, the way you approach some of this.
Thank you. Someone that I played the Punch Brothers stuff to said to me, "I don't know how the hell you are doing that. I could never put a banjo and guitar on the same side." That's just how it's working for me. I make those decisions based on rhythmic energy and where the particular instrument is living in the frequency spectrum. It's a decision based not only on frequencies, but also on melody and rhythm.
I pulled a wonderful quote off of Tumblr: "If another one of my favorite bands records with Jacquire King, I will be so upset. He ruins everyone. Kings of Leon and Cold War Kids used to have such original sounds. Now they both record stadium shit. Leave the stadium anthems to Coldplay." And your defense is?
"Fuck you." I have a lot of haters and I've just turned it all off. I'm not trying to make "stadium rock" statements. With the Kings of Leon I made a record that was very garagey and rudimentary, like we were just talking about. I didn't work on the third record and by then they were playing bigger rooms. They had been on tour with U2 and they were doing something different. I just wanted to make a big, bad-ass sounding record with Only by the Night. With the Cold War Kids, I am still baffled at the amount of shit that they have had to take because they made a record with me. People that hate Kings of Leon hate me for screwing up the Cold War Kids' Mine Is Yours. If you really listen to those two records, they really sound nothing alike.
AM: What made you want to take the sound they originally had and expand that into what seems like an orchestral hall?
That is the kind of record we talked about and wanted to make. We just wanted to make a record that sounded bigger and had more layers. We wanted to experiment with sounds more. They really wanted to take the time. People progress; they want to do things differently. They always had a fear early on of going to the studio and the studio ruining their vibe. They presented me with 40 or so ideas — they didn't have any truly finished songs. They said, "We would like to go in the studio and experiment with using the studio as a creative environment." "Cold Toes on the Cold Floor" was a song that we recorded at the House of David [Recording Studio] when we were in the demo process.
AM: That's not a very big room. Everybody is talking about stadium rock like it's some huge room.
It's not a big room. A song like "Bulldozer," where we started out with some loops, that loop was made in House of David. We did some overdubs and then went to Ocean Way's Studio A, which is a huge room. Everybody was in the room together and there was a lot of messy leakage that we added to it. The song, "Out of the Wilderness" has two drum kits and two basses on it with one on each side. One side is from House of David and one is from Ocean Way. We loved the House of David version. We were trying to make the song over at Ocean Way and it just wasn't feeling as cool, then we were in L.A. at Sunset Sound and we still didn't like the bridge. So it went from House of David with Ocean Way to Sunset Sound and back after the bridge. I've also gotten a lot of grief for Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. I've been fortunate on many occasions to be a fan of some artists before I worked with them. I feel like I've participated in some of their finest work and that is an awesome feeling for me, regardless of what people's opinions may be.
The thing I need to ask you are your thoughts on "truth." About starting a session and telling everyone, "I need to hear the truth."
I want the people that I work with to understand that I respect them and I want them to respect me. Recording an album is an incredibly important moment in life. I take it very personally and I'm putting my all into it while trying to help somebody do something. I realize how important it is for the artist. It's their life's work; it means everything and they are staking their lives on it. I just go into a situation saying, "I'm not going to bullshit you. I'm going to tell you what I think, when I think it. I'm going to do it with respect." I try and break down all those barriers. If you don't like something, speak up. I don't want to hear about it two weeks later.
Thanks to Chris and Yoli Mara for initiating and hosting this interview. www.welcometo1979.com