To say that Joe Barresi is an immense source of knowledge in the studio is an understatement in its purest form. The New York City native, who has worked as an engineer and producer for everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Queens of the Stone Age, has spent the better part of three decades amassing an organic education for himself in all things related to recording.
"I remember working on a Kyuss record at Sound City and going to a bookstore or the library and pulling out a book that was on modern recording, copywrite 1970," Barresi recalls. "This guy was getting a flanging sound by twirling a microphone. So I come to the studio that day, I’m lying on the ground and twirling a microphone in front of a guitar cabinet and that was my flanger."
Since moving to Los Angeles and engraining himself in the city's studio scene, Barresi has deftly steered the hard rock ship to shore and helped capture classic sounds on records from the likes of The Melvins, Tool, The Jesus Lizard, Bad Religion, L7 and more. With his keen sense of guitar tone intact, it's no wonder he has been at the helm of so many seminal records.
We recently sat down with Barresi to talk about his start in the industry, his obsession with gear and what drives him to work on different types of projects. Watch our new Make Your Mark feature on Barresi below and then continue reading for an extended interview with more insight into his life as an engineer and producer.
It’d be easy to say you’re pretty gear obsessed. When did that start?
I started playing guitar at the age of seven and you’d think I’d be a lot better now. I still have gear that I bought as a guitar player at the age of 17 like this original Ibanez Tube Screamer over here, which at one point was worth at least $600 and $800 and now it’s worthless because there are so many of them out there.
I was really into reading and learning about music. Just as a guitar player, I remember trying to wait for Guitar Player to come out every month. I remember reading about Jimmy Page and how he walked around with his two RCA BA6As just to record acoustic guitars and he took those everywhere. I immediately sought out an RCA BA6A and I was buying gear for pennies on the dollar. I was buying gear before it was hip to buy gear I think. I bought a brown Helios console for $5000, that’s two channels of a Helios console now.
I became aware of records that sounded unique and why they sounded unique like the Olympic sound, the Abbey Road sound, the Trident sound, the Electric Lady sound and things like that. It sort of made me seek out. They always say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” This might be a lot trash in here for most people, but it’s treasure for me. Maybe it’s worthless treasure now, but it helps me do my job. I got a lot of screwdrivers here.
Do you feel like your sensibilities to sound change over time with the gear that you’re looking for?
The way I used to work, I never had a studio, I just freelanced out of studios and I had my favorite spots, Grandmaster, Sound City and A&M. All of my gear was in storage, so I’d pick specific pieces of gear to have carted to the studio pertaining to the album I was working on. I’d try not to repeat myself, obviously there is always going to be an amp that sounds great, but if I was using a Watkins delay on record, I might try and use an Echoplex on another record, I might use a Roland Space Echo on another record. You want to keep yourself excited and fresh and learn your gear better.
This place I put all my stuff and I can pick and choose. It’s a little more challenging when everything is up and running and working, but I still specifically try to tailor new experiences for both myself and the artists I’m working for. Having different pieces of gear creates some kind of energy and allows creativity to come out of both me and the bands.
How would you describe your sound? Why do clients come to you?
When you read in a magazine, they ask a producer or engineer, “What is about you?” They all say, “Well, I’m transparent. I let the sound of the band through.” I’m going to say the opposite. I like the sound of the band, but I try to take it one step beyond that. For me, I usually start with the sound of the band. I’m not trying to make a guy who plays a Les Paul pick up my Strat because it’s cool. I’d much rather you are comfortable when you’re playing, but I’m the facilitator. When you bring me a guitar amp and this is your sound and I deem it needs a little more something, I’ve got the option to pull in all these other flavors and colors.
People tell me the things I work on have a lot of separation, which is something I work on a lot. It really just comes from listening. It comes down to looking at how you play, realizing how I could modify your sound to make it sound better. Is it more forgiving? Is it clear? Do we need to separate the part? It really is a thing of masking. One sound might sound super bright, but only in the midst of a bunch of dark stuff. I prefer harder sounds. Heavier music and harder sounds. I take the sound of the band and maybe give them a steroid shot.
Did you receive any good advice when you were starting out or any hard lessons you learned?
I have a certain criteria for myself that I’ve learned by working on records and that I also preach to other people. Mainly, if you agree to do a job, always do 100%. If I’m getting paid a dollar or a million dollars, you’re still going to get 100% of me because I agreed to do it.
I learned that a long time ago because I recommended a friend for a gig and he wasn’t getting his day rate. I remember visiting him at the studio, being excited that I could hook my friend up with a gig and I knew he was going to be able to do the job well. He’s hanging out in the lounge, watching TV and I was like, “What the fuck are you doing dude?” He was like, “Well, you know I’m only getting so and so, so I’m only doing half the work. Half the money, half the work.” It made me look like an asshole and made me realize, “This is just stupid.” You agree to do something, you do it.
Another lesson is don’t do it for money. Part of my career development came from working on an album that was actually fairly big, but I was the engineer and I think I really fabricated the sound of that album, but I didn’t really partake of the sales of that record. Engineers don’t get points or anything. The next record comes along, they want to keep the same dream team together and “We’re going to hire you to do this.” They upped the money and they upped the points, but the music wasn’t cool.
Along came Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, he sent me a cassette tape of some of the stuff he was working on and he said, “I want to make a record, I don’t have a label. It’s coming out of my pocket, no money. Let’s go to the desert and do this.” The second I heard one song, I was like this is way hipper than the shit I’m being paid an insane amount of money to do. I’m not going to take all this cash. I’m going to do this which I really love. There is no guarantee, but at least I’m into it. Never do it for the money.
What was the creative process of taking those tapes and starting to build off of them?
It’s actually kind of a weird story. We ended up in the desert at a studio and it was a three piece band at the time, but not with the bass player that was known for being with the band, Nick Oliveri. It just wasn’t the right atmosphere for me. We tried to make it happen. It just didn’t feel right to me and I ended up leaving after about four days. We didn’t really record much.
Josh decided he was going to play bass, which was a really great idea because the groove of the band was really good and he basically played on most of the demos anyway. We regrouped and cut the band live, just drums and bass. It’s all on tape, so there were limitations. Punching out of the tape machine was really difficult so there were a lot of things where the performance had to be either top to bottom or once you punched in you were playing to a gap in the song, the fun parts of making records that have sort of gone away nowadays with digital stuff.
When I heard that first cassette tape with the song “Mexicola,” I was like, “Fuck, this is awesome.” I just wanted to make everyone enjoy that as much as I do. When you make records that should be your mentality, it should be as a fan the whole way through. Is it exciting? Does it keep you entertained? Records have their sound cause of where you did them and the kind of gear you worked on. There is nothing in here that is precious to make a good record, only a good song really.
What is your favorite piece of gear here?
First of all, a tape machine is a great piece of gear. Studer A800 is my favorite tape machine ever. It’s solid, it sounds great and it also provides a limitation, 24 tracks. I use it as a code only master and I slave it to Pro Tools, so 23 tracks. It definitely imparts a sound.
Working at Sound City, most of my formative years, we never really had insanely great tube microphones, so I learned how to make records off dynamic mics and cheap condenser mics. I’m not afraid to put 57s on everything. The console there was a Neve, still my favorite console of all time. I do have quite a few Neve modules because of that. To me, it’s still the best sounding mic pre and EQ for the style of music that I like.
There are certain pieces, it’s hard to say a specific, but Sovtek EQs, I use that on the mix bus all the time because it’s smooth and musical. The Alan Smart Compressor holds it all together. The SSL console for mixing is a great tool. It’s just little bits of flavor. I have no problems with guitar pedals. To me, that is the cheapest form of creativity ever, especially now that everyone is making reamps and things like that. It’s so easy to use a pedal. Jason Cassaro played me a mix back and I was like, “How did you get that sound?” He had these two weird Aphex Aural Exciter guitar pedals and he was running his whole mix through two guitar pedals. Who was doing that kind of shit back then? No reamps, just turning your mix down through compressors.
What is it about the recording lifestyle that speaks to you?
I never really started out to be an engineer or producer, I started out as a guitar player in a band. Dealing with other musicians is always a challenge, so learning about the other side of the glass, where you can still be creative, but not actually have to go to rehearsal everyday and deal with an idiot singer. I remember bei
ng in a band with two brothers and showing up to a rehearsal and one brother was gone. I was like, “What happened to your bro?” He goes, “Fuck him, he sucks. He’s out of here.” That was an important lesson for me because it didn’t matter who was in the band, it’s all dispensable and about who can work together. Being in bands was tough and recording bands still allowed me to be creative. I like pleasing people as well. If we work together and you’re happy and we create something and you think it was something you couldn’t have done by yourself, than I’m happy to be the pusher at that point.
Listen to a few selections from some of the classic records that Joe Barresi has worked on including tracks from Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Melvins and Clutch.