The Copper Interview

Jack Joseph Puig, Part 1

Amassing an impressive body of engineering and producing work, stretching over 4 decades’ worth of record credits, Jack Joseph Puig has been behind the glass for many hit albums and critics’ favorites. Having worked on records by a diverse group of artists — Mary J. Blige, The Black Eyed Peas, Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, Aimee Mann, John Hiatt, Shelby Lynne, Semisonic, Barbara Streisand, and Diana Ross, as well as many others — he continues his streak of making great records as a producer and mixing engineer. Puig has also performed A&R duties as an Executive VP for Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records and has recently been helping the next generation of audio engineers through his work with Waves Audio and their customized plug-ins for audio processing.

John Seetoo: You are known for your work with John Mayer, Goo Goo Dolls, Fergie, U2, The Rolling Stones, No Doubt, and many other famous artists. However, you have won Grammy Awards for your work with Jars of Clay and Steven Curtis Chapman, who are contemporary Christian music artists. It is a genre that sports some very talented but overlooked artists with large catalogs, such as Martin Smith (Delirious?), Amy Grant, and Phil Keaggy, whom you have also produced and engineered. Your work in CCM has included some landmark albums that arguably define its sound.

Can you tell us how you got involved with that music scene, how it compares and differs with your mainstream artist work, and what your relationship with artists in that genre is now?

Jack Joseph Puig: It really doesn’t differ. At the root of what we are communicating is a message. We create poems that go into the world and have the ability to change lives, whether it’s about God or a Universal Truth.

At the end of the day, all of the music we make is social commentary; music, films, podcasts, and broadcasts are emotional and spiritual commentary. Whether it’s U2 or CCM, they are both inspirational, and whether it’s about God or not about God, the inspirational message is still the same. All we do is empower the song to create the best emotional connection of the artist’s feelings, thoughts, and vision of what they want to communicate to the listener.

Since the message is so similar in many cases, it’s the tonality of what you’re presenting in the song that is crucial in delivering the right intent in the communication.

When you think about it, tone is the universal connector — even more so than music. Tone can make people feel different ways. Tone is the carrier. If I go to a foreign country where people don’t speak my main language, which is English, they may not know the “f word” but if they hear me using the “f word” with harsh tones, they’ll know something’s not right.

I have always been a tone junkie; that’s where it’s at. Tone is the delivery system that the heart and soul of a lyric and melody ride on in a song.

I haven’t worked in the CCM field in a while, but the door is open. My relationships with those artists are all good. If I got a call tomorrow for the right project, I would have no problems to keep me from working on a CCM record.

J.S.: Are there any instances you recall from working with virtuosos like Phil Keaggy, John Mayer, or Eric Clapton, whose songs range between quiet acoustic to raucous electric guitar, where you were able to apply techniques or approaches learned or developed on one project and apply it on another’s?

J.J.P.: You’re constantly on the hunt for more knowledge and skills to improve what you do. I don’t believe that you ever truly arrive, because if you think you have, it’s already over. There are benefits to experience and projects increasing elements like, your ear training gets better, and you find certain things in the tools you have available to help you get there faster.

You learn what basic sounds just work well, like a Neve/API/SSL preamp, or that a simple SM-57 (Shure mic) will probably not let you down on a guitar recording, and you pick up more along the way: how to better use subtractive EQ instead of always additive. Compression — how release and attack differs, and how the different units can sound. All of this is beyond a basic explanation, but it’s true.

J.S.: You have spoken in the past about records where the songs stand up when stripped down to just a voice and a guitar, versus others, such as Janet Jackson’s Control, which were created out of the producer’s vision of manipulating and building sounds, and the songs themselves are dependent on the production for their impact. Can you cite an example?

J.J.P.: John Mayer’s, “Daughters”. That song wanted to be stripped down. It just didn’t work as well with the extra instruments. I TRIED 10 DIFFERENT DRUMMERS!! The label always wants more production — all the bells and whistles — but “Daughters” needed to be stripped down. Everyone took a risk with that song, but it wound up winning the Grammy (for Song of the Year – 2005).

J.S.: You have spoken on a number of occasions about the use of harmonics, which may be noticeable or subliminal, to enhance or transform emotional content in music. Can you elaborate and cite some examples as to how this may have been achieved in the past and how you deploy and control it currently?

J.J.P.: I think of harmonics as the “rainbow” of audio. All of the rich elements that exist in audio and in human hearing are found in harmonics. The human ear can detect many complex sounds, harmonics are different spectrums of layers, which is why I use the term, “rainbow”.

When I was creating the Puigchild Compressor plug-in for Waves, we analyzed a classic Fairchild compressor. We discovered that there was a circuit that was effectively a harmonic generator. So we also created just that portion of the Puigchild plug-in, to essentially have a harmonic generator in software form.

I don’t see it as adding distortion, but overtones. As a result, we can now create 3D audio by adding depth and width to sound through harmonics. Harmonics in low-end or high-end sound create a presence that allows the ear to pinpoint location. The sound of a train or truck rumbling will generate low-end that can be heard and felt, but not always be determined from where. The ear can immediately place direction on something like the sound of a coin being dropped, through all of its harmonics.

J.S.: When wearing both producer and engineer hats on a project, how do you combine and separate the two decision making processes into a successful working protocol, and how do you maintain a sufficient mental and emotional distance from a project to refrain from imposing your own sound and processing preferences to the point of subsuming the artist (i.e., keeping the “Phil Spector urge” tamed)?

J.J.P.: I know exactly what you’re talking about. It all starts with the understanding that you’re a facilitator. It’s not your name on the front cover of the record. Mick Jagger actually asked me this same question. My answer to him was, “It’s not my wedding, it’s your wedding.”

There’s a pecking order to keep in mind that goes along with the roles. First is the artist, the one who has to perform the songs, perhaps write them, and bring the emotional content. Next is the producer, who has to create the environment to capture that. The engineer is there to be the right hand of the producer, to technically make sure nothing gets lost.

J.S.: Coincidentally, you mixed the platinum album America Town by Five For Fighting, a project which included equipment of mine that I personally had lent to producer Gregg Wattenberg. At the time, John Ondrasik was a relative unknown. The single from that album, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” became a hit in part from its association with 9-11 first responders, some of whom perished when the World Trade Center towers fell. The record sounded nothing like Ondrasik’s previous records, and other than the song, “100 Years” from those same sessions, still stands apart sonically from the rest of his work, even on subsequent projects he did with Gregg. Was there something unique about the way you approached the mix to differentiate it from the previous record? Was it merely a serendipitous collaboration between artist, producer, and mixer, or was there something else involved?

J.J.P.: I would say, probably a serendipitous situation. The songs were probably different between his previous and later records. All art is a synthesis of what came before. Artists all go through different phases. It always happens — new influences, new instruments — artists will always tell me their latest top favorite records they’re listening to and how they “want to try something like on so and so’s record.” A confluence of different events regarding the artist always affects the overall sound of a record more than any single other person.

[The conclusion of John Seetoo’s conversation with Jack Joseph Puig will appear in the next issue of Copper. Photo courtesy of Mr. Puig’s personal collection——Ed.]