Interview with Josh Leo

Josh Leo is a lauded producer, session guitarist, and songwriter based in Nashville, TN. Of the 21 albums Leo has produced which have reached #1 on the charts, some highlights include Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama, Emerson Drive, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Bad Company. As a session musician, Josh’s first notable employers were Jimmy Buffet and Glenn Frey of the Eagles. In the years following his tenure with these renowned artists Josh was credited as a musician on over 150 albums. Leo is a skilled songwriter as well, with 6 songs ranking #1on the charts.

As evidenced by the following the interview, Josh Leo’s approach to production runs counter to the popular narrative of the totalitarian producer. Fundamental to Leo’s approach to production is the notion of facilitation. He contends that a producer’s role is to facilitate the artist in creating a record which best represents his or her artistic vision, rather than imposing taste calls which run contrary to the artist’s desires. The latter is typical of celebrated producers like Phil Spector, but Leo favours an approach which affords the artist more agency. The following interview discusses Leo’s approach to production, working with artists and musicians, and recording studio techniques such as equipment selection, compression, mixing, and microphone techniques. The following discussion took place at the University of Western Ontario in February of 2011.

How would you define production?

Josh: My definition has changed over the years. When I first started producing, my definition of production was more closely related to what “the kids” think production is. Amateur producers often think that the producer is “the boss,” and the “be-all and end-all.” In other words, people think the producer goes in there and makes the record that he or she is hearing. It’s a very ego-oriented approach. Now, 30 years later, I think of the producer’s role as a facilitator whose job is to translate an artist’s ideas, which may or may not be coherent, onto tape or hard drive.

The more you are involved with production, the more you realise that there is a lot of psychology involved. By psychology, I mean getting to know who your artist is, trying to extract “the sound” they are after from their mind, and make their record that way. Producers have to remember that they are working for the artist, not the other way around! The artist’s picture will be on the cover, not the producer. The artist’s name will appear much bigger than the producer’s name. A lot of young producers make the mistake of “steam-rolling” over the artist to undermine the artist’s vision. It’s important to remember that when an album is finished the artist has to live with that album until he or she records another album. It’s important for them to be able to live with the final product. My advice is if you want to continue to do this (laughs), walk the fine line between capturing their vision and preventing them from running off of a cliff and sabotaging themselves.

When it comes to dealing with the artist, it’s important to be diplomatic. If an artist has a suggestion that you believe won’t work, you don’t say “we can’t do that.” It’s more productive to say “I have tried that in the past and it didn’t work. That’s not to say that it won’t work in this situation, but let me give you a few examples where another approach was more productive.” It’s extremely important to dig into the artist’s psychology, and express your opinions in a way that is diplomatic. The words you use are very important. If you simply say “no” all of the time, you will be out of a job.

So, one might say that your approach differs from that of Phil Spector, for example?

Josh: Yes, exactly. But, don’t get me wrong, there are producers who use the “my way or the highway” approach. That approach might work in rap/hip-hop and pop music, but not always. Sheryl Crow’s first record was done with Hugh Padgham and cost $750,000. She hated it. He essentially “steam-rolled” her, as we talked about, and Sheryl decided not to release the album, which is a ballsy-bold move. She then went on to release Tuesday Night Music Club (1993), which was the opposite of her album with Padgham – and it turns out that she was right! The album was extremely successful, and it was self-produced.

It’s important to listen to artists, especially for new producers. The super-elite producers of the world can afford to “steam-roll” their artists, because many people ask to be plugged-in to their “system” or approach. Here in Nashville, production doesn’t operate that way for the most part. It’s important for a producer to be open to new ideas, even just for the reason that music is changing so fast.

Would you say that production is approached differently based on location?

Josh: Well, in Nashville there are a number of approaches to production. In some cases, artists may want to use a producer who is more of a tyrant in order to be plugged-in to a specific sound. In my opinion, this will lead to the downfall of music. I believe every record is special and unique. A producer may have a partially defined system where, for example, you like to work with a certain studio because the equipment actually works (laughs), or a specific engineer because he is not your brother-in-law (laughs). It’s nice to have a few constants as a producer. Unfortunately though, for a while in Nashville, all of the same session players were being used for the majority of the recording projects. If a band was signed, for example, the producer wouldn’t let the band play on their own album, because they weren’t as “good” as session players. All of a sudden, all of the albums started sounding the same. In using the same session players, studios, engineers for all of the major projects, of course everything is going to begin to sound the same! So a producer needs to be careful in deciding how much of a “system” to keep reusing from project to project. This will benefit both the artist and music in general. Labels love when you offer replicas of successful artists, but I am not a fan of producing that way. I don’t recreate my own creative process from album to album in working with artists. I prefer to produce in a way that offers new and different sounds, and appreciate others who are doing the same.

To get back to the question, in Nashville there are a variety of production styles, just as there are in LA with pop music. I may be wrong, but pop seems much more open to new possibilities. Country music has a few more restrictions. For example, it can be difficult to incorporate synthesizer sounds into a country album, or other sounds that are “anti-country.” That said, you don’t often hear a banjo in pop music –although it happens from time to time, so there are some rules in pop music as well.

Do you think that the producer should aid the artist in conveying a sense of personality or “niche” on an album?

Josh: I think that the producer shouldn’t define these things outright. I will meet with the artist a few times and have them bring CD examples of their favourite country artists. Later on, I’ll have them bring in their favourite pop albums, rap albums, or anything else they listen to. After listening, I ask the artist what he or she likes about the albums, specifically. Then we can try to incorporate some of those sounds into the album. With new artists, we really don’t know “who they are” yet, so I like to help them find out. Recently I was working with an artist who said she liked some of the effects in pop music. She likes some of the delays, the voice filtering, and a few other specific details. From that point, I asked if she liked more traditional country music, or the more contemporary approach. In other words, “are you Lee-Anne Womack, or Carry Underwood?” Once we establish some of approaches an artist likes, I will take them into the studio and record some demos. I like to get a sense of what they sound like in the studio. I can assess how strong an artist is as a singer, for example, and figure out how much auto-tuning and comping I will have to do. I do all of this for the benefit of the artist. Sometimes the pre-production process can last longer if the artist is unsure of who he or she is. We may spend more time making demos, rough work tapes, and that sort of thing. The important thing is to ask what the artist likes about these experiences: which creative tools were the most enjoyable. An artist may want to use loops, in which case he or she might feel that some loops are too pop-like. If the artist wants to experiment with delays, we have to figure out if he or she is referring to short delays or long delays, for example.

The process of helping an artist define his or her sound can be difficult. I would warn producers against relying on words to convey messages to artists, and vice versa. Some artists might say, “I want the snare drum to have a ‘pop’ to it.” The word “pop” will mean different things to different people. I have artists bring in CDs which they love the drum sound on, for example. From that point, I can put my finger on what the artist is referring to. “Pop” on a snare drum might mean a dry and compressed sound – or the total opposite (laughs)! A producer can’t rely on words because people think differently. People can interpret words in different ways, but if I have audio examples to work with I can help them achieve their vision more effectively.

How would you draw the line between producer and engineer? Should a line be drawn between the two?

Josh: To me, they are totally different roles. In the pop world there are many more engineer-producers. There are very few engineer-producers in the country world. In the country world, everyone has a specific job to do. On a tracking date, for example, an engineer will be very busy because in country we tend to track all of the musicians at the same time. In the pop world, it would be more common to layer sounds one-at-a-time, which makes it a little easier to be both an engineer and a producer. A pop producer might start with a drum loop, then add guitar, bass, sequencers, and keyboards one at a time. In Nashville, 6 or 7 musicians will be playing at the same time throughout a tracking date. The engineers on these sessions are trying to capture great sounds, and it’s a little harder to do so because there is more happening at once. He has to listen to make sure that the drums are centred, that everything in the room is actually being captured, that the room mics are working, etc. The engineer might miss the performance, or more importantly, the arrangement of a song because he has to be so focused on the sonic aspects of tracking. In Nashville, engineer-producers will usually hire another engineer – now, they will torture the guy (laughs)- but it allows the producer to focus on the performance, and more importantly, the artist. The producer needs to make sure the artist is happy, that the artist can hear, that the artist’s ideas are being conveyed to the players. Secondly, the producer needs to pay attention to the players. Once the players are happy, and they can hear, then the producer can start focusing on the arrangement. I might say “I don’t like the whole band coming in right from the ‘get,’ let’s start with guitar and the keyboard, then the kick drum can come in half-way through” or something like that. The engineer-producers, those guys are really talented. They can pay attention to all of that stuff going down at the same time. But, I will say again, it tends to happen more in pop and rap music because their recording styles tend to revolve around layering sounds.

In other words, genre can dictate production style?

Josh: Yes, I think genre will dictate the production style. These days there are probably more engineer-producers than in the past, because anyone can own a Pro Tools system. People don’t need a studio to hone their skills because they can do it at home on a Digi-003, or something similar. And of course, kids are just growing up with more technology. My fear, in country music, is that if someone was to do two different jobs [engineering and producing], that he or she might miss something important about the performance. But again, it’s dictated by the genre.

That’s part of the beauty of the Nashville system, the delegation of creative roles in the recording studio. Would you say individuals working within the Nashville scene have a diverse skill set, in most cases?

Josh: Yes, especially now with Pro Tools being so available (like an I-phone) that everyone can learn how to use it. I’ll go in the studio with an engineer for tracking, and then take the project home and, as you know, I’ll sit there and do the overdubs by myself. I’ll put up the mics and engineer myself because it’s “one-thing-at-a-time” in the overdub stage. I can engineer and produce myself playing guitar, or a singer, or whoever else might be there. In the overdub stage, the lines between producer and engineer might be blurred a bit more. The producer may become the engineer, or the engineer may become the producer. The next step depends on your mixing chops. My mixing chops are not the greatest, so I always hire someone to do mixes. I’ll do overdubs by myself, but that’s it.

Do you reuse the same mix engineers, musicians, and tracking engineers?

Josh: It’s like this: I’ll develop a taste for chocolate for a while and say “oh, chocolate is great!” (laughs) Then later I might say “man, I hate chocolate. Now I want vanilla” and I’ll hire a different person. Producers should hire people based on the style of the music and the end-result goal of the artist. I have a handful of people I like to use, but I’m always willing to try “new blood.” Always. Actually, with the state of the economy right now, it’s advantageous to new people trying to break-in to field of mixing. A number of labels will say, “You know what? We’re going to have a shoot-out on the mix for this track. We’re going to pay you ¾ of your usual rate, and we’re going to have 2 other guys mix the song, and we’re going to use the best one.” This is happening a lot right now in Nashville. The amount of music that is being made through the major labels is shrinking, although there is still the same amount of music being made in general. Many more people are making their own records at home, giving more mix engineers an opportunity to work. People will say that the music business is ‘going under’ – and it’s true that the ‘business’ part of it is. In reality, people are still making as music as before, and maybe more now than before.

How involved are you with session musicians during tracking? Do you give them some creative freedom in terms of what they are playing and the equipment they are using?

Josh: I’m a session player that “crawled out of the water” to become a producer (laughs). I know what’s going through the player’s minds when they have their headphones on. I know how they want to be talked to, and how they want to be treated. When I was a session player, I remember working with producers who would make me think “well, I’m never working with that guy again.” Other times, I would be hired by producers who I would gladly work for, any time. These guys understood how to capture the “happy vibe” in the studio properly, and they made sure we had a great headphone mix when we were tracking. Musicians always play much better with a good headphone mix. From that point, there are two approaches. There is the Mutt Lange approach, where you have the players play a song and then tell them exactly what you want them to do. Mutt takes time with every single player, partly because he can afford to, and tells them exactly what to play. That approach is very frustrating for musicians. They don’t like being told exactly what to play all of the time. If the producer does tell the players what to play they will usually do it with less enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that’s how I used to produce, especially if I wrote the song being recorded. I would usually bring in a demo and say “here it is, learn these parts. End of story.” Later on, I learned that I was overlooking what the players might have played, or what they might have thought of instead of the parts I had given them. Because I am a guitar player and producer, I tend to keep close tabs on the drums, keyboards and bass. I tell musicians to play what they think is appropriate, or what they ‘hear.’ With guitar players, the running joke is that I will replace anything I don’t like afterwards, to which I respond, “probably!” (laughs) As a guitarist, I already know how I would approach a song though, so I’m interested to see what other ideas might work. If something isn’t working well with the bass or drums, I might make a suggestion like “can we try go to half time during that verse.” I always use those words: “Can we try?” I like to give musicians a lot of creative leeway, as long as they aren’t stepping on each other, sonically. I try to “direct traffic.”

I should also mention that I don’t use the same players for every record. I don’t want all of the albums I produce to sound the same. I may use a bass player for 80% of the albums I do, Michael Rhodes, because he’s a monster and a very diverse player. Using the same players all of the time puts you into a rut with those people. After awhile they won’t be afraid of you, and they will just play whatever they want. You need to maintain a certain amount of respect and fear! (laughs) Not a bad fear, of course. You just want them to think “I want to deliver for Josh, because he’s a good guy and I enjoy playing on his records.” Also, you can inspire competition between the players that you use by not using the same players on every record. You can be sure everyone will bring their “A-game” every time they work for you.

Do you routinely use any studio techniques or tricks that you could share?

Josh: Always use the best equipment you can get. Use only the best preamps for the drums, for example, with the best microphones and console available. For tracking drums, I like to use as many options as possible. I don’t mind have 14 tracks of drums. I like having 2 snare mics on the top, 1 snare mic on the bottom, a kick mic inside and outside of the drum, 2 overhead mics, a high hat mic, 2 compressed room mics (placed further back), and a mono compressed room mic. Because Pro Tools allows for more tracks, you had might as well use them. Neve preamps are my favourite for drums because they add ‘warmth’ to the sound. For bass, I usually go direct and mic and amp as well. On acoustic guitar, I’ve recently switched to using 3 microphones with 1 mic at the body, 1 mic at the neck, and 1 room mic – usually a Neumann U67. I may or may not use a matched pair of mics at the body and neck, sometimes it’s better if it isn’t a matched pair. I’ll use the same approach on mandolin. It’s amazing how much depth can be achieved mic’ing acoustic instruments this way. You can pan the different mics to different places, maybe putting the body microphone in the center, the neck microphone hard-left, and the room mic at 9 or 10 o’clock. The guitar still sounds like 1 instrument this way, but it’s much wider and deeper. Another trick would be to double-track the acoustic guitar, and pan the second guitar more to the right. It’s important to experiment with balancing the loudness of the three mics, and you might run a low-cut filter on one of them. One of the mics may also need more compression than the others. Just make sure you apply signal processing afterwards, not while tracking. You can’t ‘uncompress’ something, but you can always add more later. The only exception would be the mono room mic and the far left and right room mics. These mics should be compressed while tracking.

Are there any specific compressors you like to use?

Josh: As far as “real” compressors go, and by “real” I mean “not virtual,” I like the Fairchild. A Fairchild compressor sounds great on everything. Neve compressors and Tubetech is also nice. The Distressor is great on snare drums, in order to feature the ‘pop’ or ‘crack,’ just crush the crap out of it. Another trick I will use is to place a Sure SM57 underneath the snare. During mixing I’ll use a virtual 1176 compressor and run the ‘input’ level very high. It gives the snare drum a ‘tail’ [note: meaning more decay] without having to mix-in any reverb or room microphones.

For electric guitar I like to use a Sure SM57 and a Royer R-121 on the amplifier, and I like to record guitar on two different tracks. On a 2×12 speaker cabinet, you can put the 57 on one speaker for the brightness and midrange, and the Royer on the other speaker will handle the low and low mid-range frequencies. As with acoustic guitars, you can pan the microphones differently. One microphone could be centred, and the other could be far left to create more depth, for example. The effect won’t be as dramatic as with acoustic guitar, though. I like to run these mics through API and Neve preamps. Telefunken mic preamps sound good for acoustic guitar, as well as API and Neve. For B3 organs, I always use 3 mics: 2 on top, and 1 below on the Leslie. I like to go to the old stuff as much as possible, because it just seems to carry more warmth.

Would you say it’s a common approach to use old analog equipment, despite the increasing availability of digital equipment?

Josh: Well, you’re talking to an old guy, so a lot of the guys I hang with are from the Record Plant in LA or the Hit Factory in New York. So we tend to use Neve and API consoles and preamps. SSL is fine too, assuming you are going to use it for mixing. SSL is still good to track with, it just comes down to taste. Neve, SSL, and API each have different characteristics and sound qualities. Neve and API are a little warmer, and add more bottom-end than an SSL.

The recording process and performing live are two vastly different worlds. Could you offer any insights as to why this disparity between to performance styles exists?

Josh: The great thing about performing live is that when you make a mistake, it’s gone right away. So don’t dwell on it, because it’s already over! (laughs) Recordings have to be approached differently because they are permanent. What your instrument sounds like in a room, and what it sounds like being played back on speakers can be two very different sounds. It’s a hard process to figure out, and it takes years of experience to get better at capturing tones on tape or hard drive. Sometimes you might plug your guitar into an amplifier and think “wow, this sounds great,” only to find out that the same setup sounds bad when played back in the control room. There is a process of learning your equipment, getting know where to place microphones and what to do with them, getting to know how loud to play, and learning how tone translates from the room to electronic playback. I could see classical musicians, for example, not being very comfortable with this process because their art consists of a completely different way of communicating. Interestingly though, there are aspects of live music that studio musicians can’t pull off –which is strange. They are often so used to using headphones and being isolated from an audience that the experience is very different for them. I really like both sides of it, live and studio.

There are very few players who are equally comfortable both live and in the studio, and I’d like to think I’m one of them. It took me a long time to be comfortable in the studio as a session player. A long time. You have to cut-off all of the internal dialog in your mind, and let the music flow from your soul to your fingers without detouring back to your head. It’s easier to do that with live music, especially classical music where you are reading from a score. Musicians who are comfortable in both the studio and live performances are really invaluable.