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From 'Walking on Cars' to 'Judas Priest' - Meet sound wizard Jack Ruston

Jack Ruston is a producer, recording engineer and mixer. His career began in L.A. playing guitar in Robert Vaughn's award-winning band Dead River Angels. That experience provided the opportunity to record in some of the world's finest studios, and preferring that to the life of a touring musician, he became obsessed with recording bands rather than playing in them. This background allows him to approach production and engineering from a musicians perspective. He brings his skills as a player to many of his projects. Jack's clients include Judas Priest, Reuben, Walking On Cars, Void, McBusted, James Morrison, Dieselle May, Foxes and Birdy. He was a 2017 Music Producers Guild, Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year nominee. He also writes and produces original music as part of Man Kill Machine.

Jack, you are the first top engineer to be featured in our new exclusive artist Interview section! We are excited to have you here!

Thanks for having me. Top Engineer - That’s very generous of you. Of course you’re right - of all the engineers in the south of the UK, who are 178cm tall, bald with facial hair, called Jack Ruston, I’m definitely in the top five, on a good day (laughs).

I know you have a great Acustica studio rig. But, what's your desert island plug, so to speak?

Aside from Sand and Water? (laughs) It’s hard to pick a single plug in. Versatility makes sense in a hardware setup, where space and finances are a significant limitation, but in software there’s no real advantage - you can simply use the most appropriate option at all times. There are certainly some that I use very regularly: for vocals, Lime EQ and Cobalt compressor, and I use Pink2 a lot on all sorts of sources. I use Pink 2 very frequently on the mix bus, as well as White2. I’ve just started experimenting with Viridian, and have found that to be superb on the mix bus, as well as individual sources.

You have outstanding experience mixing a huge variety of genres. From pop to metal, you seem to be always at ease. What's your approach?

I’m never at ease! Every single job has the potential to throw up challenges. Even when a task is quite familiar, I always feel that element of risk - the chance that I might actually be an imposter, a fraud, and that somehow all the things I’ve done up to this point were simply blind luck. The bigger part of me knows that I have the skills and experience, and just to get on with it and trust my judgement. But there’s always that element that it’s all a big mistake, and that this is probably the job on which I’m going to get found out. In terms of mixing approach, the crucial thing is to keep your perspective of the whole. It might help to start by talking about the ‘wrong’ way to do it. If you watch some of the many mix breakdown videos that are available online, they tend to be presented track by track, looking at what processing is applied to each source, and ending up with some ‘finishing’ processing on the mix. This is a logical way to show someone what a finished mix ‘looks’ like, but it implies that the thought process is conducted in that rather linear fashion, starting with treating individual sources, one-by-one. I would approach this in the opposite way.

Interesting... tell us more.

I start with the whole, and work my way backwards. The chances are that I’ve either been given, or have created a rough mix. That’s the balance that the producer and artist, if that isn’t me, have been listening to. It’s a good place to start. I then need to make sure that the gain structure of that rough mix is workable, that it has headroom, and that nothing remains to be fixed: If there are clicks, bad edits, tuning or timing problems, they need to be sorted out before mixing, because I need to protect my perspective at all costs. I can’t afford to stop half-way through, to spend four hours fixing stuff. That’s going to burn up all my energy, and objectivity. There’s a reason top mixing engineers have assistants to do all that for them, before they start the mix. If there are things to be done, I’ll speak to the producer and identify the problem, and ask what they’d like to do. Either way, I want to be approaching the mix with fresh ears, and all the ducks in a row.

So, I start with the rough and I begin working my mix bus processing.

Recently, that usually involves Pink2 modules, and a White2 instance. It might involve a single band Ivory compressor if it’s a softer track where I want very smooth dynamic control. As I mentioned above, I’m in the process of trying Viridian in this application, and loving it so far. I start with EQ, and I will typically see what needs to be added in the way of top and bottom end. Broadly speaking, I’m looking for a high shelf at around 10 or 12 kHz, a broad bell at around 2-3 kHz, often from White2, and a broad bell at around 30-60 Hz depending on the key. I may nudge some sources up or down as I begin to shape the whole spectral balance of the track. I’ll apply some bus compression, often Pink2, again, and a pre module at the end of the chain. I’m not looking for dynamic control really, but more the sound of the compression, the envelope. To some extent the pre module will affect that too, and it may also prompt an EQ tweak. So, I cycle around those plug ins, nudging the balance at the faders if needs be, and getting the shape.

"The chances are that I’ve either been given, or have created a rough mix. That’s the balance that the producer and artist, if that isn’t me, have been listening to. It’s a good place to start. "

I’m looking for a treatment that suits the track as a whole, that flatters the majority of the content, and that’s appropriate for the genre. Some elements, like drums, may well have their own bus treatment - they might need a push that’s too much for the mix bus. I want to keep hearing the track as a whole.

Once I have that balance and spectral ‘shape’, I will then go back and start making corrections to the sources, applying effects. I might take a little top or bottom off a source that the bus chain has over-enhanced in those frequencies. A good example might be an acoustic guitar, or vocal that has become a little bright. I’ll generally automate a lot. As the process goes on, I’ll start looking to create points of interest in the mix, effects throws, rides, cuts or edits etc. I’ll push the mix bus fader to create impact on the choruses. I may go back to the bus chain at some point, and make a tiny change - a squeeze more top or high mid.

What's your general approach to EQ'ing? Do you like to EQ before or after compression?

I tend to EQ sources pre compression, but as mentioned above, there’s always more EQ downstream at the bus stage. So it’s often both. I don’t want the source to hit the compressor in an unbalanced way, so there might be some correction for lumpy frequencies initially, but then a lot of the broader shape comes from the bus chains, while the majority of the dynamic control will be at the source track. All that said, in terms of the final sound of the mix, the EQ is before the compression.

Analog vs digital. Does it still matter?

Not for me, no. I’ve made my choice - I’ve been through the big desk, the hybrid mixing with outboard, the digital mixing with analog bus chain etc. Now, once I’m in the box, I don’t come out again. I love the sound I get this way, I have a working method that allows me to get the best result that I feel I can personally achieve at this point, and I rely on the practical aspects of perfect and instant recall, to deliver the service that my clients need from me - to switch between multiple mixes instantly, and to be able to deliver very specific stems months down the line. This is the way that makes sense for me, as it does for a lot of mixers these days. Acustica has given me the best of both worlds in this respect. It’s hard to overstate how much difference these products have made to me - so much so that I changed my system and DAW in order to best accommodate them. It’s hard to describe. There’s a sort of effortless ‘rightness’ to the sound of this technology - there’s nothing that grates or irritates me. Sometimes, with algorithms I find myself having to pull back from what I want to do, because there’s some sort of discomfort being introduced that I don’t like. When I use Aquas I have the scope to take things as far as I wish, without introducing anything I don’t want.

"I’ve been through the big desk, the hybrid mixing with outboard, the digital mixing with analog bus chain etc. Now, once I’m in the box, I don’t come out again. I love the sound I get this way"

 Tell us more about your work with Judas Priest!

I mixed the Judas Priest - Battle Cry Live - DVD in stereo and 5.1 surround, as well as the 1986 live show from Kansas City, released as part of the Turbo 30th Anniversary remaster. It was a real honour to be trusted with the Judas Priest brand. That was a huge thing for me. I really wanted to do justice to such an iconic band, and not to let them down in any way. Luckily Tom Allom, the band’s long-time producer, was the man responsible for these mixing jobs, and I had an invaluable safety net in the form of his ears, his encyclopedic knowledge of the band and their material, and his extensive experience. If my mixing worked for Tom, it was likely to work for the band. 

Generally, with a live show, you’re always going to have a big session. You need to be really organised. You’re typically trying to retain the treatments and essential balance, as much as possible, but there may well be songs where things need to change. Everything needs to be clearly labelled and ordered, so that you can keep track of what changes are taking place, and where. There are often challenges surrounding the artifacts that occur when spill changes - for example, if Rob goes and stands on the drum riser, the vocal mic will become a drum mic all of a sudden. You can edit that out, but not if he then starts to sing while he’s up there. If he walks past a guitar amp, you might get a sudden phasey swirl of guitar coming up from the vocal mic. There may be all manner of noises coming from mics that are left open when not needed. Sometimes these things aren’t labelled in the accompanying notes, and it’s up to you to go through and decide what is required, and where. There’s a great deal of simple housekeeping, tidying up, and sometimes detailed editing.

From a broader standpoint, your job is to make the listener feel like they’re at the gig, while remaining faithful to the performance. You might need to recreate the ambience of the auditorium to achieve that. There were also effects, like the Metal Gods stomps for example, created in the original album tracking sessions, and triggered for the live shows, that we brought in from the multitracks in situations where those sounds didn’t really come across in the mics as they would have done for the audience. Again, this was where Tom’s knowledge of those sessions was such a huge advantage.

"Your job is to make the listener feel like they’re at the gig, while remaining faithful to the performance..."
Each of those projects had their own sets of challenges. With Wacken, we had good quality recordings - the show was tracked onto a JoCo box, and there were sufficient tracks available to give us a good variety of sources. On the other hand, the 1986 Kansas show was done to multitrack tape. There were some dropouts, glitches and bits of interference, as well as changes in polarity between the two machines that tag-teamed their way through the show. Those issues had to be identified, and fixed as much as possible. There was quite a bit of track sharing going on, which didn’t make things easy, and, at the time, the band were using some early guitar-synth technology, which was prone to some quirky technical performance issues. Some delays and vocal effects had been applied to the vocal at certain moments, and because all that had to be done manually, there were some odd timings and cut-offs etc. We did our best to tidy those up a bit, and to recreate the sounds where appropriate. Kansas was audio alone, and that made things relatively simple in comparison to Wacken. With the Wacken show, we were required to deliver an audio CD, a stereo DVD, and a 5.1 surround DVD. As we were working to video, we had to pay attention to certain practicalities. As the video edit evolved, so we had to conform the audio sessions to each new edit of the video. Obviously this had to be done perfectly, so that synchronisation was maintained. In our session, we kept the audio files intact, inserting blank spaces in the video track to cover any removed sections, until the video edit was finally approved. We then went through and made the relevant cuts to conform our timeline to that final video edit. You’ve got to make sure that all the edits are seamless, and that nothing odd happens in those moments. Once the stereo DVD mix was complete, we branched out into three sessions, adding a 5.1 session, which obviously needed to have surround content, and a CD Audio version, which needed to be different again: when you’re working to video you need to mix what you see, as well as what you hear. If there’s a shot of the crowd cheering, we need to bring up those crowd sources, or it doesn’t feel right. Sometimes they will need to jump suddenly, in a way that simply doesn’t work at all if you don’t see that image. So in the audio only version, you may change the automation to stop the sound following picture that isn’t going to be there.

Furthermore, there may be parts of a video product where we can see interesting things going on on stage, which by their nature do not have significant audio content that would maintain interest in an audio-only product. Therefore the edit would be slightly different. So you wind up with three sessions, all of which are slightly different, but which may need to be updated in tandem: say for example you decide to push a guitar solo up a bit somewhere, you would probably then need to recreate that change in all three sessions. You need to keep meticulous record of what session is at what stage, and have a robust backup system in place. Backing up massive sessions like this, and indeed printing the audio to get a rough mix takes ages. When you get to the final stages, you’re listening to every bounce as it goes down, to ensure that nothing goes wrong anywhere in that bounce. It’s a ninety minute show, so there’s a lot of sitting and listening for problems, as well as mixing. When we mixed Wacken, I was still using Pro Tools on an older 2010 Mac Pro. That machine really struggled with Aqua technology under AAX, and I had to be extremely careful with how many instances I was able to run. I used Emerald, Navy, and Green, as far as I remember. It was quite touch and go at times, trying to keep the system happy, but it didn’t matter what we did, we could not replicate the sound of even those earlier Aqua’s using algorithms. It was that experience that prompted me to build a new machine that would be more capable of running Acustica software. Initially it was a big PC running Mac OS, and Pro Tools, but ultimately I found the hackintosh approach to be worryingly temperamental with what was, at that time, quite new hardware. Trying to get all the right kexts etc was a nightmare. I began to run it as a PC installation, and ultimately moved away from Pro Tools to Reaper, just before we mixed the Kansas show. In fact, Kansas was the first big job I did in Reaper. I was really right on the edge with it, because I hadn’t been using it for a particularly long time. But I had developed some working methods, and customised it to fit my workflow. The incredible flexibility available in Reaper allowed me to save a lot of time on tasks that had taken days during the Wacken mixing. And of course, I was able to run loads of Aquas, which was fantastic.

That is truly impressive. One more question Jack, what advice do you have for people coming into the industry?

I think it can be fairly brutal for young people coming into music. We’re all freelance, there are no performance reviews or a line manager to guide you through your early progress. Financially it’s a total disaster, of course, and young people come into this situation at that very vulnerable time in their lives when they’re trying to work out who they are, what they want to spend their days doing, and how they’re going to make their way in the world. So often society measures success in financial terms, but that increasingly doesn’t apply in the world of music production. There can be a palpable sense that there’s a sort of ‘club’ of which we’re not a member - a party to which we’re not invited. It can seem as if everywhere we look, people are doing far better than we are - that’s partly the effect of social media - there’s often a sense of not being good enough. Some people have a genuinely held belief that they belong at the very top, and in some cases that does get them there. But most of us aren’t so uncompromisingly self-assured. We recognize the vast competition, the array of unpredictable and uncontrollable variables, the financial limitations that can force us out at any time.

The best advice I can offer to young people coming into this is to focus on the music and to trust your own judgment. Jordan Peterson says something along the lines of ‘Only compare yourself today, to yourself yesterday’. If you can improve on what you did last time out, you’re doing the right things. If you start comparing yourself to everyone else, you’re not really comparing like for like, not being fair to yourself.

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