Jack Ruston | Interview
Jack Ruston is a UK based Producer, Engineer and Mixer who initially kick started his career as guitarist for L.A based Robert Vaughn's Dead River Angels. Jack eventually gave up the touring life to engineer and mix and has forged a reputation for his attention to detail and great sounding productions. His clients include : Judas Priest, Reuben, Walking On Cars, McBusted and James Morrison.
KMR : How did you start out - did you always want to be a Producer/Engineer or was being a musician your first love?
JR : Well, like a lot of people I was a musician initially. I started with the violin as a small kid, and did the various Youth Orchestra type things. I was decent enough - not amazing by any stretch but I was taught by this formidable old lady who lived in our road, and she provided me with a superb grounding.
When I was about thirteen or fourteen I went to see this other teacher, a guy called Jack Rozman and the first thing he said to me, in this funny half-American sort of accent he had, was ‘Play me something on your violin’. I didn’t really know what to do, so I took out my book of exercises and began rather clumsily working my way up and down. He came rushing over to the stand, snatched the book away, threw it across the room and shouted ‘NO! PLAAAAY your violin!’. Then he grabs his own and starts just going for it, playing whatever came into his head.
And that really stuck with me.
It was the first time through all this formal musical education, theory, sight-reading, grades and all that, that anyone had really impressed on me the over-riding importance of a heartfelt performance. It was an inspired bit of teaching - his absolute horror at my entirely banal, beige bit of playing, this almost shocking reaction is something that I’ve carried with me as a Musician and a Producer.
Ironically enough it led me away from the violin altogether and towards the guitar. The guitar lent itself rather more easily to that sort of expression and communication...and it was much better for getting girls to like you!
KMR : So did you do the whole band thing then?
JR : I played in various bands through my teens and twenties and was lucky to record in some lovely studios. That's where I fell in love with that process, I loved performing live, but I hated that routine and everything that went along with it - living in the back of a van, waiting around all day to soundcheck etc. I loved the studio, loved the way that you could create something cumulatively and loved the gear and the gadgets.
I’d been playing in the States for a bit and I came back and started setting up a little home studio based around a Roland 1680, midi sequencer, a mic and pre. Then the usual thing happened, bit by bit it got upgraded and added to until there was a studio and I had spent a fortune. Then it was really that natural progression of starting to record things for myself, for my friends, and then for money and it became a business as well as a passion.
KMR : When we first met, you had the Audient ASP8024 and were working in more traditional setup, what made you change, as I know you went the summing route, and now more ITB? Logistics?...sound?...or workflow?
JR : Yeah the Audient it was the first one with blue cut lights which they didn’t want to do at first, but I insisted that that was what I wanted. It’s a fantastic desk the Audient. Very hard to beat for that sort of money and it’s a very flexible desk. I did acoustic, folk stuff on it one minute, and then Sean Genockey and I did Reuben 'In Nothing We Trust' on that desk. Which was…not folky. It sounds really stunning, people assume it’s going to be really clean, it’s not coloured no but it has a sound. I’d happily make any record with those mic pres.
KMR : You were doing both tracking and mixing on it?
JR : Yeah initially. The live room I had at that time was really quite limited in terms of what I could do there. It wasn’t really big enough to track bands in the way I wanted to, and increasingly I began to use other rooms for my main recordings, and then my own place for the overdubs and mixing. So the desk became somewhat redundant in terms of my working method.
What I really needed was to be able to re-allocate that money into one or two really great mics and bits and pieces for vocal tracking etc. So I sold it and moved on to a smaller, more compact setup with a hybrid mixing approach - the usual sort of thing.
KMR : How did you deal with recalls with the outboard?
JR : I had a passive summing mixer with various bits of outboard strapped across pairs, so I was sending a bit of this to X and a bit of that to Y. It was all getting summed and printed back to Pro Tools. I’ve always been really meticulous about the recall and for each bit of gear I would run tone up it and align it exactly, so I could recreate the settings within 0.1 dB.
KMR : But you eventually moved more towards an ‘In The Box’ approach?
JR : So one day I finished a mix that way, and then took it all apart and put it back with the hardware on insert points in Pro Tools….I recreated the settings with the tones and got it exactly back to where it was.
Flicking between the print of the analogue sum, and the print of the digital sum I learnt two things. At least in that setup with that equipment, I preferred the digital sum. I shut my eyes and clicked the input monitor button a load of times until I had no idea which was which and then kept picking one, looking and making a note. It was about eight to two in favour of the digital. I felt the bass was deeper, more extended and clearer.
The other thing I learnt was that you really need to let the analogue gear warm up. When I first switched it over, I had printed the analogue summing mix in the evening, and then started with the alternate setup the following morning. The first time I compared them it sounded quite wrong - thin, and odd and I thought ‘well that’s the answer then’. I then had to pop out for a couple of hours, and when I got back I listened again and it sounded very different - a lot better. That’s when I began to blind-test it, it was shocking how much difference a few hours made. I didn’t turn my analogue gear off after that and I still don’t : compressors, mic amps, interfaces, power amps, they all stay on unless I’m going away for a few days.
KMR : So how has the ITB transition impacted your workflow?
JR : I’ve really bought into the concept of working in the box recently. It has some amazing advantages you have to work it more, and for longer and to really understand how things sound the way they do. Unlike analogue it doesn’t do anything for you so you have to be very deliberate about how you get from A to B.
I mean, yes, great analogue gear does something that’s been hard to recreate in a computer, and I think for some mixers the muscle memory and speed of working on a desk and with certain outboard is essential. It’s about your mental process and if that involves leaning over a desk with a handful of faders, you’re going to struggle to get any sort of flow going with a mouse. It’s really important in mixing not to get bogged down technically - to keep the big picture, and I do understand that if you work on a desk and it just automatically does a lot of this stuff by its very nature to have to come back to a very considered technical approach in the box represents an interruption to that mental ‘zone’. I can see why people try it and feel like they’re running under water.
But for me its the opposite really, I like working in the computer and I’m comfortable inside that world and can do it quickly. I like the control but I believe you have to really embrace it, for me a control surface is the worst of both worlds, not the best - because on the one hand you’re encouraging that physical muscle memory with the faders, but then you’re in an environment where the functions of controls in the physical world keeps changing. Its not helpful!
I had a Pro Control a few years back and it stayed un-used because it kept interrupting my mental process, dragging me back into an analogue paradigm that you have to let go of if you want to keep a fluid creative process. I think touch screen technology will be the future of DAW control, simply because it lets your brain stay in the box, but the multitouch control lets you do more than one thing at once, which of course is a problem with just a mouse.
KMR : How do you find the quality of ITB plug-ins compared to their 'hardware equivalents' or do you view each as their own?
JR : If you buy into the idea of what plug ins can do, you open up a world of possibilities, and get the best from the digital world. If you keep wanting them to be hardware, you can end up disappointed…but there’s a notable exception to that - Acustica Audio. I’d always heard people talking about Nebula, and how it was amazing sonically but quirky. When they released the standalone AAX plug ins I tried some demos, and it changed everything for me. They’re not modelled, they’re sampled. The sound of these things is incredible, shockingly good. But they’re a demanding mistress!
I had to buy a new machine to run any sort of instance count, and yes they are quirky but I’d put up with a lot for these. I can’t say enough good things about the way they sound. They allow me to achieve weight, depth and impact with far less work in the box. They preserve that sense of things being real. With some processes in the box you do a little bit of this, a little bit of that and all of a sudden the source seems to have slipped away from you. With the Acustica stuff it remains present and defined, like analogue processing. My favourite EQ's are Acustica Green and Acustica White.
KMR : So what's the key equipment in your setup now?
JR : So for mixing it’s now really mostly about the computer and the monitoring for me and I have a pair of Amphion One 18’s that I bought recently. They’re absolutely stunning, really sort of joined up from top to bottom, superbly natural and the translation is excellent. A lot of modern monitors seem to make everything more ‘intense’ than it really is and can sound hugely impressive, but the low end is massive and punchy, and the highs are really extended and often sort of electrically bright. The Amphions are natural…you don’t get that let down when you listen on lesser speakers and find that you’ve undercooked it all.
They’re natural, but they’re not boring and they sound beautiful to work on, the midrange is so revealing. You can really hear clearly into the mids. I also use NS10’s a lot, and of course the tendency there is to end up with a mix that’s a touch soft, and a touch too bassy. I’m finding that with the Amphions I get what I expect, and I hear what I expect to hear when I switch over onto the 10’s. They’ve given me an advantage, I’m able to work faster with fewer revisions.
KMR : They're great for writing / tracking on as well as mixing...
JR : It’s always good if you can shape the way things work together during the production process, so any speaker that’s so revealing is going to be an asset at an early stage. The One 18’s aren’t big enough for really loud stuff, like if the bassist is tracking in the control room and wants to feel like they’re standing in front of their amp. But they do a Two 18, and there’s a base unit with subs which extends the frequency response and headroom of the system even further. Not that the One 18’s are lacking from that standpoint - the bass end is remarkable.
KMR : Since going more ITB what kit has changed as you're made the transition?
JR : Well, the main thing that’s changed over the years is that I’ve stripped back to a greater extent become more minimal really. I spent years with racks full of lovely outboard etc and I do use all that stuff regularly when I’m tracking in a studio. For example, I work at State Of The Ark quite a bit and they have an EMI TG desk and a wonderful collection of beautifully maintained outboard. But in my own setup I don’t really feel the need for all that. I don’t track bands at my place, it’s mostly production and mixing, some overdubs and vocals. I have a couple of nice mics, an old V76, a couple of compressors. I have a load of pedals and other guitar-related stuff though, that’s really important - An Audio Kitchen Big Trees, Strymon delays, an old Russian Big Muff, a Tubescreamer, a 60’s Super Reverb etc etc...
KMR : When tracking drums I know you have your own kit / drums that you take with you. Is this key to your sound or more a case of being familiar with them and getting what you need from the recordings?
JR : You know it depends, I went in that direction for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when you start out your clients are mainly bands that are also starting out. They’re not the bands with the major label deal, the Gretsch endorsement and the drum tech etc etc. So they’d tend to arrive with these Pearl Export kits that they’d had since school, fitted with the heads they left the factory with, taken off once in order to cram towels into every millimetre of space inside each shell! So the first thing I’d have to do when they arrived was to take off all the heads, and put new ones on, get them seated and properly tuned, and they don’t have a Remo deal either, so when they say they’re going to buy a new set of coated and clear for every drum, they’re actually unlikely to be in a position to do it, and I would end up using heads of my own.
This could take up half the first day of the session, just sorting out the kit let alone putting a mic on it. What’s the point of setting up mic’s if you haven’t got something ready to record? In the end I figured I’d just buy my own kit, put on appropriate heads in advance, and tune depending on the material. Sometimes people are resistant and they want to use their own equipment but I’m happy with whichever option sounds better, and I’ve found that usually, in the end, they are too. Like a lot of things in production you’re giving someone a choice, but you present the options in such a way that they see the advantage of what you’re suggesting.
KMR : Tuning drums in sympathy to the track can be key to natural drum sonics, how do you approach this?
JR : I like to tune drums so that they have a relationship with the track. It doesn’t matter how much you dampen these things down, they still have a pitch and I do a lot of rock stuff where we might not want to dampen things at all. They need to ring in such a way that their harmonics blend with the track.
If your song is in C and you have a big ringy Black Beauty singing away at C# it’s going to sound nasty when you push that up in the mix so I do like to look at the keys of the tracks and make some choices about the tuning. Also if you’re going go that route, to get a drum on your lap in front of the piano and actually tune it evenly to a G or whatever, you really do need to have your ducks in a row - the drum needs to be round - if it’s warped it’s not going to do it.
It’s not that it can’t be made to sound good, or to work, but there will be compromises in terms of the tuning. The bearing edge needs to be flat and in decent condition, the head needs to be in good condition, not deformed, and not pulled out of shape by being dragged sideways across the bearing edge. The head also needs to be well seated, and played in so that it’s not still ‘giving’ and losing tension all day long. Sometimes a die-cast hoop will provide more tuning stability than a flanged hoop. The list goes on, so it’s a question of having control over some of these factors, so that if you do end up wanting to use this approach you can do so quickly.
KMR : Favourite Hardware Compressor and why?
JR : Empirical Labs Distressor. You can do almost anything with it, amazing on drums, vocals, guitars. It’s flexible but it also has a sound. If I had to have just one compressor on a session it would be that. I use them routinely on drums and drum groups, tracking guitars, and vocals...Bass is about the only thing I don’t use them on because they do tighten the low end somewhat.
KMR : Favourite Software Compressor and why?
JR : Sonoris Mastering Compressor, it’s an incredible bus compressor. I regularly use it over my hardware SSL 384 and it has the ability to suck detail up out of a mix. It’s an excellent compressor.
KMR : Do you prefer tracking or mixing, or do you like doing both on a project to help the workflow and sound of the artists you're working with?
JR : I don’t prefer one over the other necessarily. It’s nice to have some variety, I might get to spend a few weeks in a studio with a band with all the bits and pieces strewn everywhere, creating sounds, trying different ideas, and then a few weeks in my own room mixing by myself. I find there’s a certain match-fitness with mixing, I prefer to do it in blocks so that I can keep tuned in to it. I think mixing is the most rewarding part of it for me - it’s also the most challenging and sometimes agonisingly so.
On balance I prefer to mix tracks that I’ve produced. But that can be a really difficult thing as well if you’re too close, if it’s been a difficult birth, it isn’t always the right thing. The stuff I engineer for other producers is often mixed elsewhere.
KMR : Kemper v ReAmping - what do you prefer and why?...as I know you have lots of amp heads, is the Kemper the solution or just another flavour?
JR : Well the Kemper is pretty amazing to be honest. It has made an enormous difference in terms of flexibility, and the way I’m able to work. I can track guitars without going to a studio for one thing and they actually sound like guitars! When you profile an amp, some profiles are almost indistinguishable from the amp, some you can tell more easily that it’s the Kemper. But the really awesome thing is that even when you can tell, it always sounds like an amp, every profile sounds real. The effects aren’t my favourite thing, with the exception of the world’s best pitch-shifter, but the overall calibre of the sound is amazing. You can actually record proper distorted rhythm guitars and I find it’s most accurate with distorted stuff. I’d buy that box again in a heartbeat.
But I also have some lovely amps and I wouldn’t want to be without those. If I’m working with a band, tracking, it’s always going to be with the amps because there’s something about that process, about the experimentation, the mics, the pedals…it’s inspiring. There’s more ownership of the result for the player if they’ve been part of that unique process than if we dial up one of my favourites in the Kemper and stick the parts down that way.
KMR : Projects that you're most pleased with and any current projects you're working on?
JR : Judas Priest - Battle Cry Live. That was an amazing project to work on. It was stereo audio CD, stereo DVD and 5.1 DVD. That’s a scenario in which ITB really helps you. You’re switching between various closely related but different mixes. The computer really enables you to do that in a way that mixing on a desk doesn’t allow. I bought the Amphions during that project and the translation at Mastering was spot on. It's out on the 25th March.
Walking On Cars - Everything This Way. Walking On Cars are this wonderful band from Ireland. They’re incredible musicians and lovely people. The record has been no1 in Ireland for the past few weeks and their single has just moved into the top 20 here in the UK. I really hope it does well for them, and for me of course. But they’re awesome and they deserve it.
James Morrison. I was fortunate to engineer some tracks on James’s new record, Higher Than Here. He really is an incredible artist. In the studio you see quickly how some of these people have achieved what they have.
Foxes - another Engineering gig, again at State Of The Ark with Tim Bran and Roy Kerr. We did some tracks from her new record, wonderful singer, wonderful band. Great people.
Birdy - Beautiful Lies. This was another engineering gig, working on some of the material for this, again for Tim and Roy at State Of The Ark. She’s an incredible artist.
KMR : Studio burning down - What three things would you grab and why?
JR : Amphions, my Les Paul junior ....and Archive drives - no boring!
I have an incredible, bonkers Fuzz pedal called Dr Freakenstein. I would take it because although it would be relatively cheap to replace if destroyed, it’s capable of the sort of insanity that you may well need in a burning building situation!
KMR : Thanks for the interview Jack!
JR : Thanks!