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JAY-Z, Modern Mixing, and iZotope: An Interview with Jimmy Douglass
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Affectionately known as “The Senator,” producer and mixing engineer Jimmy Douglass’s decorated career includes four GRAMMY wins and countless partnerships with artists new and old—Timbaland, JAY-Z, Pharrell, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin to name a few. Douglass got his start in the early 1970s when he got his first engineering job at Atlantic Records. His first gig? Recording Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on “Heartbreaker” when he was sixteen. Welcome to the industry, kid.
A longtime iZotope user, we spoke with Douglass about using Neutron, Ozone, Nectar, and Trash, engineering JAY-Z’s latest album, 4:44, (including some of the feedback JAY-Z gave Douglass), and picked his brain on some of the modern mixer’s top challenges.
“I love Neutron’s Track Assistant. I keep asking myself, ‘Why are you using this?’ I'm like, ‘I don't know, but it seems to work, so just shut up and keep going.’" —Jimmy Douglass
In your interview with XXL mag you said, "What JAY-Z, producer No ID, and Young Guru, brought me in for was to have somebody who had the ability to let it be the record and let it breathe and make it better without actually changing it, because that's mixers’ first inclination. I'm gonna walk in and change this and make it great." Someone who could expand on making a record better “without actually changing it’s core?” How does that translate to the tools you use and how much you use them?
Jimmy: The tools that we have, the DAWs that are being made better and more user friendly—all that evolved from what we had back in the day. When the amount tools that we have to work with grew, our craft changed too.
When you would record something back then, you'd hopefully get the tapes in a place where the faders kind of came up to zero on the playback position, right? You were always playing with the tapes to make the tape reflect the board. Basically, when it came time to mix it, even though you did stuff, it was kind of already done.
Then you fast forward to today with all the tools that everyone has available. Many modern engineers and producers don’t know how to mix. You should know how to mix. That's definitely now part of the process.
You got every keyboard you want, every string, every horn, every guitar part. You got samples, you got all that kind of stuff, and then you're putting it together. That's one of the great Timbaland things. He knew how to put together random sounds from different places and he knew how to blend them and make them sit together really well.
To me, you put together your beat and your vocals and everything, and everybody feels comfortable as you go along, and by the time you're done, you've pretty much mixed the concept of the record. If you haven't, then you should get a new producer.
To me, the evolution of the modern-day mixer is more like the masterer of the multi-track. Mastering was a whole different art back in the day. Many times, when I'm mixing (based off of the clients requests), I kind of feel like I'm mastering the multi-track. I'm going in and making tightening up type changes, without really affecting the core essence of what was brought to me. Enhancing, without diminishing the original integrity of the song.
The other thing that's true is that everybody seems to have been listening to a rough version of what the end product should sound like for the last five, six, seven months, and honestly, they just look at it like it’s a big picture on the wall. You're looking at a painting that you got used to for seven months, and somebody comes in and just paints over, adds or detracts elements to it, and suddenly you're like, "What is that? What happened?”
However, if somebody comes in and just puts on a little frame on it, or adds a filter, it enhances it but it's still the same picture.
Everybody's good with that. I kind of look at mixing sort of the same way where you're just reframing it, and filtering it, and making it more crisp and competitive.
You think that mix engineers suffer from having too many tools at their disposals?
Jimmy: I think people who know what they're doing don't have that problem. When I say, “know what they're doing,” I'm not making a judgment call, I'm just saying people that have done this enough and played with enough toys know what they need.
Just because you have 50 things in the shed doesn't mean you gotta use em all. At the end of the day, I end up using the same 4 or 5 paintbrushes that tend to work for me.
On 4:44, you mentioned that you mixed the song "Bam" first. JAY-Z commented about not having the bass sound from that song inform the mixing of the other songs on the album?
Jimmy: What JAY-Z was saying was that I was approaching mixing the album in a vacuum. At first, I was like, “here's a record I could really make that, boom boom boom boom! It's gonna be Jimmy Douglass making the bass kick ass.”
I was trying to do that so sonically JAY-Z would be like, "Oh, look how dope he is."
He just said a very simple thing, which was, "The bass don't sound a part of the record." The way he did it was so cool. It wasn't even a big deal. JAY-Z's so cool when he just sometimes delivers stuff. He just says it like it's obvious.
Then I was like, "Oh, okay, it ain't that kind of party. I see. You want it to still melt, and you still want it to be round and kicking, but you don't want the record to change intention."
One of the interesting things about that particular record: it wasn't really created and designed as a shake-your-ass club banger. If you listen to the whole piece, it's really personal and full of wisdomous pearls, right?
With “Bam” being the first song I got, without all the other stuff, I was thinking, "Oh, there's the tip of the iceberg of the club banging," because that song could have been that. He didn't say he didn't want it to bang, you know what I'm saying? He just made an observation that was enough for me to listen in between his words and understand what he really meant.
You mentioned being under a really strict deadline mixing the album. Are there things that you do as a mix engineer to speed up your workflow? Does your process change given the amount of time you have to work on a record?
Jimmy: You know, that's really an interesting thing. I call it a psycho-acoustic illusion, because I find that when I have a lot of time, I can just go on and on and on and keep doing stuff.
When I mix, there's a moment when it just turns into a mix. You have it, you play with it, you do stuff, you put it in, you take it out, and all of a sudden there's that movement when you go, "Holy shit, it sounds like a mix."
I'm supposed to be the guy that drives that train and knows when it happens, but I'm just being honest—it's been that way since I was a kid.
I think that’s true for many different creative professions. You bury yourself in the work, and then at some point, you emerge and there it is.
Jimmy: Right. The thing is, when it does turn that corner, everything else happens quicker, and you think, "What took me so long?"
To answer your question, when you suddenly have a deadline, somehow it clicks quicker. Your mind says, "Listen, dude, you need to get to this." You let go of the things that you want it to be and say, "Okay, this is gonna have to do," and you go right to the source of what's gotta happen, to make it happen.
In the interview that you did with The Fader, you talk about what you lose by collaborating remotely via email. I was just wondering if you think we'll ever get back to the point where the majority of music is created together in person, in the studio, or has that ship sailed?
Jimmy: When I work with somebody, we share stuff online. But there's nothing that beats having a bunch of people in the room, slamming heads, and fighting over what they want to get in the final mix.
Think about a magazine, if you will. If everybody's on an island, and they're contributing articles and stuff, that's great. But if you're trying to get a magazine that has some pizzazz? You can't do that online. I mean, you can, but you lose the energy and the fire of the immediacy.
It's hard to brainstorm via email, because the whole process is, "You said that. Now I'm thinking this." That to me is the essence of the creative process—stream of consciousnesses. It’s in real time. That’s where the magic often occurs.
As someone who has worked with artists of many different genres and styles of music, how do you choose the right audio plug-in for the job? Do you have ones you go to first depending on the genre?
Jimmy: When it was hardware, I had it in my head. I knew what certain pieces of gear did, and I would reserve certain things for certain projects.
Plug-ins today all have different character, and there are so many of them, so it’s hard to learn what’s out there. Many times I'll just see somebody saying something about one of them and want to try it.
When I was a kid doing this stuff, there wasn't any magazines, there wasn't no nothing. There was people that came, did their thing, and then you were left with it. And you had to figure out how to make it sound good. That was it. If you got really lucky, you might know what other engineers were doing across town at other studios, but that was about it.
Now it seems a lot of students or mixers that I know spend their whole day online looking at what people did on records and try to apply it to theirs. It's like, that was their record. While it’s helpful to learn the tricks of other magicians, go forth and create your own magic.
Do you have reference tracks for mixing?
Jimmy: I do, but I've mixed such a variety of stuff, and the sound of music is changing so fast and constantly so much. Between my EDM, punk, and regular pop records, R&B and hip hop, it's really hard to find references I love.
I haven't heard many mixes recently that are really rock my audio palate, though there are some great ones out there. Bruno Mars’ "Uptown Funk" is probably one of the most balanced records I've heard in the now. When I listened, I went, "Holy shit. You came as close as you can come to my mixing back in my funk days."
Is there someone whom you've never worked with that you hope to someday?
Jimmy: There are just so many artists, and the whole playing field is just crowded with noise. But one guy in particular is Gary Clark Jr. I don’t think he really needs what I do, but it would be an awesome experience, I’m sure. And Mark Ronson.
Switching gears—when you discovered iZotope, what plug-in did you use first?
Jimmy: Gotta go! Just kidding.
You guys have been around for a while. My discovery was somewhere around 2003. You go to the AES shows, you see stuff. I forgot what I was using originally that got me in there, but I'll tell you the one thing that I did use that saved my life was Trash.
You used it on SexyBack, right?
Jimmy: That's right.
What went into that decision to use it on Justin Timberlake's vocals?
Jimmy: I'd been playing with it, not thinking of it as a distortion device. I don't know what I thought it was. It was just dope. I was looking for craziness in a plug-in, and Trash served that purpose.
Justin's thing was really simple. He came in when we were working on the vocals, and after listening he goes, "I need something really crazy in my voice, man, just something, anything." And I kept thinking, that Trash thing, I've always used it in the bass setting, you know what I mean?
I just slapped it on and he goes, "Perfect." I'm sitting there thinking, "You're kidding me."
I had already been in the rabbit hole of like, "No, not that one, no, let's do that," because that's usually what happens. You gotta keep searching and hunting. Then he just goes, "Perfect." I got lucky that day.
Have you used it on other vocals since?
Jimmy: Absolutely. Maybe not as extreme, because that was extreme.
Do you tend to use it on certain instruments and not others, or just throw it on whatever and see what works?
Jimmy: Well, no. It was also on Timbaland's vocal in the background on that one. It was across all the vocals along the flanger, actually, on the Timbaland part. It reminded me of "21st Century Schizoid Man" by King Crimson.
That was my first introduction to using iZotope, and just really being like, "Whoa." Then I started to just kind of hang around you guys, check out more of the stuff you had.
I used Nectar quite a bit when that came out. I loved it for different vocal tracks. It was a little different—widening, giving depth without changing things. Or it would change the color, but it wasn't just an effect.
The other thing about Nectar that’s interesting is the way that you titled the presets. I find that really big in a plug-in. Once again, growing up with plug-ins as they've been developed, there'd be plug-ins that people make but they had no presets. You'd be sitting there dialing in and playing with it, and then it became very boring after a while.
When iZotope came out with that, you had different presets that were already there that meant something to me, you know? And made it easier for me to visualize what I thought I was doing with it.
Based on the name and how it described the sound?
Jimmy: The R&B presets, for example. I'd be like, "Oh, I'm in R&B today, of course that’s what I’ll use." It took me there mentally.
Nectar 2 presets
Have you used Neutron?
Jimmy: I use Neutron all the time.
Did you use it on JAY-Z's latest album, 4:44?
Jimmy: Yeah, I was using it for the Masking Meter. There were a couple of samples that were built-in together, a couple of tracks of loops, and I decided those loops to sit on the bottom, that kind of thing. So I was using it as its own kind of gate, as it were, with masking.
To avoid frequency collision.
Jimmy: Exactly. It was very valuable that way, without a doubt. I also used it a lot for the EQ. It's very intuitive.
Do you use Track Assistant?
Jimmy: I love it. I keep asking myself, "Why are you using this?" I'm like, "I don't know, but it seems to work, so just shut up and keep going."
Originally I was thinking it for EDM, for the masking thing with kick in the bass. But I haven't really used it on that. I've been using it on the other records instead. It's fantastic. I think it saves a lot of time.
Ozone is the other guy that I'm just bonkers over, actually. I use the shit out of that one. I told that to Jonathan [Wyner], when I saw him in Florida.
What are your favorite features or modules in Ozone?
Jimmy: Once again, the thing about Ozone that I love is the titles. And it's very, very quick—the whole landscape with the push of a button.
It let's you just go up and down the thing, selecting instrument presets, for example, and it does amazing changes. It's a really comparative box that lets you listen.
It's also very intuitive. You can work with stuff individually, and I kind of slap it across my stereo. You get in there and make it cleaner, make it custom to you. Do as much as you want to do. It's got a lot of head room.
Ozone 8 presets
Is there anything else that we didn't talk about that you were hoping to mention?
Jimmy: The click/hum remover stuff—RX. That stuff is really awesome too. I used to do it by hand all the time.