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Jon Gilbert’s entry into the world of recording came by way of a Tascam 414 Portastudio. The Los Angeles-based producer, mixer and engineer cut his teeth making affordable demos for local bands on the classic 4-track cassette recorder. There was just something about the simplicity that kept Jon coming back.
“The beauty of the 4-track was the dead simple workflow and the ‘all in one’ nature that helped defeat decision fatigue,” says Jon.
When attempting to transition to the world of DAWs and digital recording, Jon found the move off-putting. There was the menu-diving, the I/O issues, the loss of tactile control. The immediacy and simplicity of capturing something in the moment felt gone. Then he discovered Universal Audio’s Apollo interface.
“When I discovered the Universal Audio gear, I felt like I finally got back to that formative era of recording when I was a kid. I could make a complete record at home and had everything I needed to pull it off,” Jon explains. “It honors the concept of committing to a sound and a vibe in the moment. With the Apollo, I can still work in real-time, and choose to commit an amazing vocal chain, or a drum sound and then keep moving forward.”
With his faithful rig of an Apollo 8 QUAD and UAD-2 Satellite QUAD by his side, Jon’s career was advancing as he was amassing credits on releases by Redd Kross, OFF! and The Kills. But it was while working a FOH live mixing gig for Alina Baraz that Jon met her manager, Bo Triplett, a connection that led to working with the up-and-coming band Mt. Joy.
Jon met up with the Mt. Joy crew in December 2016. The band was fresh off the release of their debut single “Astrovan” and looking to cut an album. Throughout 2017, Jon worked with the band in his home studio, recording the whole release via his Apollo rig and mixing it in the box with a number of Universal Audio plug-ins. By March 2018, the album’s lead single, “Silver Lining,” would end up at #1 on the Billboard Alternative charts.
Vintage King recently sat down with Jon Gilbert to discuss the making of Mt. Joy’s self-titled debut. Through his incredible notes and photos, Jon offers up an extremely in-depth look at the gear used to record the album and his mix process. Continue reading below to learn more about the sessions, some sonic influences, Jon’s favorite plug-ins and much more.
Do you approach making an album any differently when it's a band’s debut release? Is there anything you do to put the band at ease, create a mood, explore their sounds or do you just get right to it?
Definitely. I think when it's a debut it's really important to be extra supportive of the artist and spend a lot of time listening to them, listening to references together, going through their demos, and discussing what they're looking to achieve. The record-making process is basically a journey and as the producer, I am the guide.
I think the most difficult thing for a new artist is knowing how to present their aesthetics and ideas to the public in a cohesive way, it's important to help them cultivate that, and empower them to communicate those ideas effectively.
What remains the same with both new and experienced artists is that there can be a lot of pressure, insecurity, and indecision that crop up while they're working in the studio. My job is to help them to get to the other side of all that and walk away with a finished record.
Did the band bring any sonic touchstones to you as a reference to the sounds they were looking to achieve? Were there any records you brought to the table or that you looked to as a guiding light?
Absolutely. There were a lot of records that were very much on our radar, even at our first meeting these came up:
Generally speaking, the vibe of 1970s classic era Grateful Dead and, specific records were My Morning Jacket’s Z, Jim James’ Eternally Even, Neil Young’s Harvest, Broken Social Scene’s self-titled album, Vampire Weekend’s Contra, Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color, and Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut to name a few.
It was on a song-by-song basis, but all of these records had a very tangible sonic signature that helped inform our process.
Neil Young’s Zuma, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, and Khruangbin’s The Universe Smiles Upon You were big influences on me at that time.
What was the recording process for the album like and how long did it take? Was the band tracking live together or were you doing things separately?
We met in December of 2016 and recorded on and off between January 2017 to November 2017.
I remember the band started to tour quite a lot, so we would just book a few days at my place, cut a few songs, then they would go back out for a few weeks. When they’d return, we would book a couple more days in the studio and cut three or four more tracks. Each time they came off the road, they were even better than before!
The live woodshedding really shaped the final album versions of the songs.
It was really important to us that we captured that energy on the record. So wherever possible we tracked the songs live or at the very least in groups, such as drums and bass live together, or drums, bass, rhythm guitars and keys, but almost always with Matt’s live scratch vocals and guitar to keep the band’s feel natural. Some songs worked well with a click, some did not.
We recorded almost all the live guitars and bass direct because there was no isolation in that tiny room. I reamped everything after the fact which was cool because I could EQ the guitars and bass from a mix standpoint directly at the amp level and hear it all together in the context of the final mix.
I have to note, the band were extremely good sports being five people crammed in a tiny 7’x14” garage space, and playing in 100-plus degrees! I think that definitely made for some passionate performances.
We also did all the gang vocals together, usually with the R84 with its figure-8 pattern so we could all circle around it. Those we’d layer stacks and move around to different locations. Later, I would reamp those through an old Shure PA into my kitchen, which was very live sounding.
The song “Dirty Love” was one example of a track that was created from the ground up in the studio. I had the drummer play multiple drum loops, I then mixed and matched them, then we overdubbed more loops and in the end we landed on a cool almost tribal polyrhythmic pattern. Next, the band and I added layer after layer pretty quickly.
It was really cool, but it was the only time where we deviated from the live approach.
Give us a walkthrough of your basic set-up for the Mt. Joy Sessions.
At the time, my rig was a 2012 Mac Mini with 16GB ram, Pro Tools 10, my Thunderbolt 2 UAD Apollo 8 Quad (four preamp version) with UAD-2 Satellite QUAD processor, an M Audio 8 Channel Profire 2626 daisy chained to the Apollo via ADAT, one BAE 1073 DMP, and a Warm Audio 1176.
There's a lot that stands out on Mt. Joy sound-wise, but Matt Quinn's vocals and acoustic guitar are often at the forefront. Can you talk specifically about what your microphone set-up was for both of those sound sources and what Universal Audio plug-ins you were using during the recording and mixing process?
Vocals: Matt has an amazing voice, its very full range and extremely dynamic, the AEA R84 ribbon was the perfect mic. It’s warm, and colorful, and allows the singer to perform off the mic without losing tone or body. This went into the BAE 1073 pre, into the Warm 1176 then into the UA Pultec Pro and UA LA-2A plug-ins during tracking. The Pultec really helps to bring back the air and bite in the mic without ever getting harsh.
In the mix, I use either the Blue Stripe Rev A 1176 or the LN and an LA 2A Silver in series or sometimes in parallel. My main vocal reverb was the UA EMT 140. I love that plate. It's got lots of mojo and character without the hassle of lugging a 600lb reverb unit into your house.
Matt’s Guitar: This was one of those really fun studio experiments where you land on a strange but perfect sound. During tracking, I used my AEA R84 and the MJE v250 and the acoustic’s built-in pickup was DI’d. Then after the fact I re-amped the DI through a 1970s Music Man combo amp with the reverb tank cranked up, this amp was miked with 57s and Oktava Mk 219s, and/or the MJE v250. This “wet” murky guitar sound, I then blended back in with the original clean mic’d signal. I think in the end the acoustic guitar had like eight tracks [Laughs}! Usually, this was bussed to a group with a UA 1176 LN in and Pultec Pro, and a parallel dry group.
Prior to the interview, you mentioned you’re still using the same Apollo in your rig that you used on the Mt. Joy sessions. Why did you originally choose the Apollo interface? What are the benefits of these interfaces specifically for the recording process? What keeps you coming back to them several years later?
What really attracted me to the UAD ecosystem was the analog style workflow and the analog feeling that they captured so well in their plug-ins and Unison preamps. Being all in the box in a small home studio, I felt like I was finally able to get a taste of some of the really sought-after hardware pieces that you only see at big-name studios.
The benefits of these devices are they offer the user a bulletproof “all in one” workflow; the monitoring and tracking with real-time plug-ins is genius, the overall signal path is intuitive and the layout for making cue mixes is not complicated like other interfaces, plus there are lots of options for expanding the unit with other hardware in terms of connectivity.
What keeps me coming back is that UA does an incredible job of maintaining and supporting their products. In the time I’ve owned my UA units, I have upgraded my computer, upgraded multiple operating systems, updated several versions of Pro Tools, but my UA gear still works as good as the day I bought it in 2016! It continues to grow with my setup. All the console and plug-in updates have been excellent.
Recently, I expanded my studio to a more hardware-based workflow but the Apollo still sits comfortably within my set up for extra preamps and converters via ADAT and lots of UAD processing for mixing and tracking. The Apollo is definitely the best interface I’ve ever owned.
Let's talk about the process of mixing in the box with your UA rig. Can you tell us about how you like to set-up a mix session and what are some of your go-to UA plug-ins to use during the mix process?
Totally! I tend to mix everything as groups, similar to how I learned to mix live sound on old analog desks.
In my mix session, drums would go through a drum bus with a UA Classic Pultec Pro EQ as well as a parallel drum compression bus w/UA Blackface 1176 or AE1176 and a UA ATR 102 for some grit. Bass Group through a UA Pultec Pro EQ and UA Fairchild 670. Guitars through a UA Pultec EQP-1A and an LA3A or LA2A. Lead Vocals individually through UA LA 2A Silvers then to vocal group w/ a UA 1176 Rev A (Blue stripe) into a Silver UA LA 2A into a Pultec Pro EQ and a parallel raw no compression vocal buss to keep things feeling alive. Background vocals through a UA Pultec Pro and Parallel UA 1176 LN Rev E. UA EMT 140 plate. Mixbus UA Legacy Fairchild 670 UA Pultec Pro EQ and the UA ATR 102 for glue. I was using pretty much whatever came with the interface plus a couple of other goodies like the 1073 and ATR 102 that I saved up for.
Classic desert island question. You can only use one UA plug-in for the rest of your life. What do you choose and why?
Definitely the Pultec Pro EQ. You get an EQP-1A AND a MEQ 5 combined into one plug-in! These together sound like butter and are so musical. Even running them flat gives you that old-school hi-fi tube sound that’s not very easy to achieve in the box elsewhere. The 1176 collection is a total gem as well. So versatile and usable. Lots of character and utility for days.
How did you feel about acting as producer, engineer and mixer on the Mt. Joy album? What are the benefits of being in the driver's seat from beginning to end and is there any part of the task you dislike?
I was a little nervous about wearing so many hats, but I knew it was my time to step up to the plate and show everyone what I could do.
The benefit of being in the driver's seat as an engineer and producer is I get to be the conduit between the world of the technical and the world of visceral for the artist. A sound has a texture and quality, but also it has a unique feeling that you connect with on a deeper emotional level. I feel that the two are not separate but intimately connected. Mixing is the moment where I can bring that all together as a complete concept.
What I dislike about the three jobs in one approach is when I lose sleep for way too many days in a row. On the Mt. Joy record, the last two weeks I think I was pulling 16 - 18 hour days, sometimes even 24-hour days to meet the album deadline. By the end of it, I was literally hallucinating. And not in the cool psychedelic way… I don't recommend it.
The Mt. Joy record, along with releases from The Lumineers, Waxahachie, Caamp, Phoebe Bridgers, and others, really seems to have inspired a new generation of musicians. What's it been like looking back at the impact that the band and you made with this record?
I'm totally blown away. It’s such an honor to have been a part of anything that has inspired others.
It’s hard to believe that from my humble garage studio in Pasadena, the band and I made something that reached such a wide audience. Artists and fans from all around the world have contacted me and have said this album became the soundtrack to their life. That was our dream and it happened, it just blows my mind!
For example, a talented artist named “So Kindly” from Zimbabwe just traveled all the way from Africa to make a record with me. Turns out the debut Mt. Joy album is a major staple with his friends and family back home. That’s powerful, that’s like an echo that reverberates around the world and then back to you. Someone heard it and responded.
You were a part of a #1 Billboard record at such a young age, what's something else you want to accomplish in the audio world?
I just want to keep making records and not have to get a job! But aside from that, I would love to one day make a record at Abbey Road Studios and I definitely would not be bummed if Paul McCartney showed up to lay down some bass!
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