Mixing Grammy Winners from a Laptop: Jeff Juliano
Can laptop mixes win you a Grammy? Oh yes, says Jeff Juliano, whose 2019 Grammy-winning mixes for Nashville megastars Dan + Shay were all done 100% in the box. We got Jeff to share his mixing philosophy and go-to plugin chains.
By Asher Parkes
Originally published at Waves Audio, April 30, 2019.
Jeff Juliano is no stranger to successful records. He’s equally at home in Nashville’s country scene mixing for the likes of Michael Ray, Chris Janson, Jimmie Allen, High Valley, Kelsea Ballerini and Gone West as he is with alternative bands such as PVRIS as well as straight-up pop rock, having tracked and mixed much of John Mayer’s debut, Room for Squares.
More recently, Juliano’s mixing accolades have mounted, with country megastars Dan + Shay’s self-titled 3rd record bringing the band a Grammy award and 3 ACM awards, and Jeff a CMA nomination for his mixes and an “Audio Engineer of the Year” ACM nomination. We caught up with Jeff to discuss mixing in-the-box and how to make award-winning records in 2019.
Jeff, congratulations on having a Grammy-winning song with Dan + Shay! What was it about your mixes on their album that felt so unique?
On that record, I had basically been trying to perfect my in-the-box mixes to sound like analog summing, which I’m a big fan of. This album was the first time I said, "Screw it, I'm going all in. I'm mixing only in the box.” And if I fail, I will have failed on my favorite country artist, on the best record I've ever mixed. I gambled hard on myself; not just to prove I could do it, but because of the flexibility.
I own the Dangerous Music summing system and it’s amazing—great gear, so clean. I would then have analog outboard on vocals—a vintage Blue Stripe 1176 rev B, the same as the Bluey CLA-76. The client would love everything about the mix, they would just want new vocals flown in. But then my compressor wouldn't work, and meanwhile, I'd have a label waiting on another mix. Since I was using analog inserts, they would be waiting four days until I got my compressor repaired. To avoid this issue, I started printing and committing tracks with analog gear onto the inserts. Then, the label would send a new vocal comp to fly in on mastering day! If I was in the box, I could give that mix back in less than five minutes. Clients asking the mixer to replace tracks and other parts in the mix revision stage has become the new normal.
You’ve had two Billboard top-five singles with “Speechless” and “Tequila” from the Dan + Shay record. “Tequila” is an amazing song and has an epic soundscape, matching the music video perfectly. How did you get the mix to feel so vast, but memorable at the same time?
Well to start, the production is killer. Dan and Scott really knocked that one out of the park. The song probably had near 200 tracks in it, it was this full-on production. But for me it’s about finding what’s important in the song; the 3 channels out of the 200 that really matter. What melody are you going to be singing in your head later on? On “Tequila,” it was that piano hook and obviously the vocal. Everything else is candy and icing.
The challenge then becomes making space for everything within the stereo image. When I use aux-sends for FX, I'll put a high- and low-pass Renaissance EQ before the effect, so it's maybe only hearing 300 to 2k. I’ll then put an EQ or compressor after it, or the Greg Wells ToneCentric to saturate a little bit. I don't just send to an aux that has a reverb plugin and say, "Okay, that's it!" No—I want to make that reverb or delay sound really unique, and not overload the spectrum with low- or high-end information. I often end up doing more EQing on the reverb and delay of the vocal than on the actual vocal.
The other thing is high-passing everything that doesn’t need sub-sonic frequencies, like all the stuff rumbling under 70 Hz on guitars—still far below the fundamental note of the instrument/song. I hear so many mixes that are messed up in the low end, and with the high track count in sessions these days, you're just gonna have mud. The mastering guy is going to curse you at his dinner table like, “why didn’t that guy figure it out?”
With reverbs in “Tequila,” I used the Abbey Road Reverb Plates and Abbey Road Chambers all over the vocals and strings to give them that scale and size—those plugins are incredible. I also like to do a bit of mono vocal slap with the Manny Marroquin Delay, to push the vocal a little forward, without hearing it. Even if it’s like a 70 ms delay tucked into the center—it just pushes it out a little bit. That always helps me, especially in country music where you don't really want to hear the effect, you just want to feel it. It's one of those things where if you take away the mono thing it's like, wait, what just happened? Then you put it back in and it doesn't feel like a delay, it just feels like a push to the vocal. I'm more of a "little bit of this, little bit of that" than a "huge broad stroke" guy with the way I mix, and I’m also into using tons of automation and plugin automation throughout.
I noticed in "Speechless" that the backing vocals kind of hugged the lead vocal in a really beautiful way. What was your approach in getting Dan and Shay’s voices to work together?
First of all, their vocals are world class. I mean they're incredible singers; you just can't touch them. Also, Dan's level of vocal editing and pocketing is incredible—he’s as meticulous as it gets. The thing about them is they're basically one voice—they're that type. When I first saw them live a few years ago, that was the main thing I took away from the show; two guys, one voice. In my mixes, Shay is always the mono vocal and Dan's always a double. On “Speechless,” it was a lot to do with simple stuff like panning. In the verses I’d have Dan at around 10 and 2 o’clock and Shay up the center, and then in the choruses, Dan is automated to go hard left and right. But there’s always the element of Dan’s double closely hugging Shay’s lead vocal to where they sound like one.
Dan’s vocal is also a little thicker and more compressed, whereas Shay’s is more dynamic, so Dan is EQ’ed to be the “warmth” of it, and Shay the “cut” up the center. I’ll low-pass around 18k on Dan’s vocal, and always de-ess the doubles harder than the lead vocal. F6 Dynamic EQ is all over those vocals; both to keep Dan’s warmer and away from Shay, but also to make them cohesive as one voice.
On “Tequila”, I was also impressed by how the acoustic guitar manages to pop out in such a dense mix. How did you get it to sit so nicely?
For guitars, I actually have a bunch of “JJ Guitar” presets I’ve made for myself using StudioRack loaded up with my go-to Waves plugins. I used the Q-Clone to model my favorite outboard EQ’s like my analog API 560. I wanted to be able to get that sound and not worry about moving a slider on the next song and getting the fader back to where it was. I always start with that EQ curve on guitars whether it's acoustic or electric; it has this boost and little dip and it just brings them to life. I use variations of my StudioRack chain all over the session, but for guitars it has a Ren EQ high-pass, the Q-Clone, a CLA-3A, another API 560 and a Renaissance Axx. Unless it's a really bright or screwed up recording that's always my starting point on guitar, and it just works.
It's a great chain, and I still have the mindset of how I worked with analog gear. Since the tools sound as good, I feel like I'm getting the same result, but I'm actually getting better results because I'm not getting bogged down with broken gear.
What’s changed recently about mixing ITB that’s made it so much more popular among pro mixers?
I think it’s just more viable than in the past, mainly because all the plugins have gotten so much better; like the new Waves CLA MixHub SSL channel, in my mind it’s even stronger than the old one, and I love the old one! After Dan + Shay’s record, I said, okay, I’ve impressed (singer/songwriter) Dan Smyers and Scott Hendricks (Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn), who both co-produced the album, and those two guys have the most meticulous ears; and I mixed the majority of that record on my laptop!
That’s the other reason ITB mixing is so popular—mobility. I now have two rigs. One mobile rig, usually upstairs in my house with natural daylight, and my ‘real’ studio with proper acoustics and the analog rig where I’m always stuck in darkness. Upstairs I use a Dangerous Music Source D/A and a pair of Grado RS-1 headphones; they’re open-back and I’m really familiar with how they translate to my mix room. I can get a mix close to finished on this rig, jump down to my studio for an hour on my monitors and it’s good to go.
How do you achieve that same warm analog sound on your mix bus when working ITB?
The SSL G-Master Buss Compressor and now the CLA MixHub are fantastic and are a big part of that. I owned many hardware variations and worked on a lot of SSL consoles, and when I get the same reaction out of the console and the plugin, to me it's like, go with the plugin.
I'm one of those old-school guys; I mix straight into my stereo bus. I never put stuff on the bus and take it off at the last minute before mastering. I see some people doing it and I think it’s such a 1994 mindset. Your mix falls apart and then you're relying on the mastering guy to be a mind reader and figure out where your head was, so I prefer to start with the mix bus stuff in.
I mixed in the box in the early days when everybody laughed at me for it. I did a bunch of big records in the early 2000s ITB, but I always wanted to get back to it for the recallability. There are no speed bumps in creativity, and it literally lets me work at the pace that my brain wants to without any hiccups. I’ve found this to be a dream way of working, and I think in 2019 it’s possible to create mixes of this scale untethered from a traditional studio environment.