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Coffee break with Nashville based, 7-time Grammy-nominated engineer Joe Carrell

Joe Carrell is a Nashville based mixer, recording engineer, and producer. As a 19-year industry veteran and seemingly one of the busiest engineers in the business, he has accumulated an impressive resume that includes 7 Grammy-nominated albums, 19 Dove award nominations (3 wins), and 16 charting number ones. Equally adept at many genres, he has spent time mixing and/or recording legends including George Jones, John Oates, T Graham Brown, and Leon Russell, as well as, current hitmakers like Rodney Atkins, Maddie and Tae, Runaway June, Chase Goehring, And Karen Peck. Currently working from the historic Treasure Isle Recorders in Nashville, Joe says he is just as excited to get to the studio every day now as he has ever been.


 

Joe, first of let me say we are extremely honored to have you here.

Thank you so much. I’m equally honored to be with you

You are one of the busiest engineers in the Nashville area. What was your first gig as a pro?

My first full-time gig was as the assistant for Nashville engineering veteran Bobby Bradley. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything. Bobby started working in high-level sessions at only 17 years old under the guidance of his uncle the legendary country music producer Owen Bradley. He came up in an era where an engineer was expected to record everything from rhythm sections, entire orchestras, vocals, mix, you name it; before everything was so specialized and niche like it often is now. So I was exposed to proper recording techniques across a wide variety of sources, gain staging, mix techniques, career advice, etc; before I was able to develop too many bad habits (laughing). It’s amazing what you can learn just sitting in a room full of high-level industry Veterans day after day. The lunch conversations alone are an education. Those are long hard days with not much glory or financial reward, but vital to future success.

Do you mostly track, mix or produce?

While I do all three, I definitely spend more time mixing than anything else. I decided early in my career that mixing was where I wanted to try and make my mark. I just fell in love with the whole process. But I will always be a musician at heart so I still look forward to recording rhythm sections or even orchestral dates maybe 3-10 days a month. Plus who doesn’t love being in charge of the gear choices and microphone placement on a record they are going to be mixing later? Producing was something I avoided for years not wanting to spread myself too thin, but several years ago I finally said yes one day. It recharged my passion on the creative side and now it’s something that I want to be a part of the rest of my career.

What is the most delicate aspect of crafting a good sounding record?

Man, I was going to ask you that! (Laughing). I would have to say the relative balance between the instruments. I think the average listener will rarely be overly concerned about the specific sound of a kick, snare, or guitar. But they sure will notice if any of those elements are too loud covering lyrics or they are struggling to feel the groove because the backbeat is buried. I think the relative level and panning choices we make early in the mixing process is critical.

 

What makes the 'Nashville sound'?

I think that meaning has evolved a lot over the years. For me, aside from the obvious usage of more acoustic instruments, the sound is the result of having all the key musicians in the studio playing together at the same time. That is still the way we do it here in large part. That’s where the magic happens. All of these all-star studio players bouncing ideas off of the producer and each other, creating hooks and little melodic moments that weave around a lead vocal. You hear less of that stuff now in the pop-based country music that currently dominates top 40 radio, but it’s still very alive and well here outside of that.

Tell us a little bit about your experience with our plug-ins.

Some months ago I posted across my social media about trying some new software and changing up some things in my workflow. A friend from Russia messaged me highly recommending Acustica for what he felt was the most accurate analog sounding plug-ins available. Since making largely in-the-box mixes sound and feel as analog as possible is one of my primary everyday goals, I decided to try a few things. I was instantly sold after pulling up Gold 2 and Cream. Which, of course, meant downloading several other Acustica plugs the same day! (laughing)

What are your favorite ones?

That’s a tough question! If I had to narrow it down to the five Acustica plugs I have been using the most instances of recently I would say Taupe is near the top. It’s simply the best tape emulation software on the market. I’ve also really been enjoying using the preamps in Gold 2 for extra analog flavor and saturation. For compression, I have been enjoying El Ray, Cream, Gold 2, and Pink 2. Sorry, I guess that’s a top-six now!

 

Do you use any processing on the mix bus?

I do. When mixing in-the-box, I like to have some type of analog saturation at the top of the stereo buss. I mix through this from the beginning to simulate what the buss of an analog console does to the signal.
Next, I often use a VCA style compressor in the SSL styling for a little of the overall “glue” or punch thing they do so well.
After that, I have been a long time fan of passive Pultec style EQ on the master. Partly for the beautiful little high end boost and the overlapping low end filter trick, but also for the sound of the tubes as they are driven a little bit.
This chain could be recreated by using pre-amp from Gold 2 or Pink 2, the stereo compressor in Sand, and the Purple eq by the way.
Sometimes after those, I’ll use a slight stereo width enhancer or tape emulation depending on song or genre. I work across a lot of genres so things can change.

Give us a couple of mixing tips that work well with Country/Acoustic music

Don’t overdo compression and high-frequency EQ. Organic music is often meant to breathe and sound reasonably natural. So many young engineers now are learning by watching tutorial/sales videos online that always seem to show a celebrity engineer mixing aggressive rock and they try to apply that approach to any genre. Automatically slamming compression needles and heavily boosting 8k on everything. Definitely, I use compression for tone, but stop before it gets detrimental and inhibits the emotion of the instrument or voice.
Also, realize that dynamics are a must in organic music. Our job is just beginning when we have our “sound” and relative balance in place. At that point, use automation to enhance the energy, emotion, and dynamic of the song. I use a lot of automation even in aggressive music actually.

Do you have some advice for people seriously considering getting in the business?

Don’t get into this business at all if you aren’t completely obsessed with it! (Laughing). It can be a tough road. In all seriousness though, try to get into rooms with high-level professional talent. That’s much easier said than done, but most young engineers will learn more in one day of observing a guy like that in the real world than they will from weeks in a school. I hear that over and over from interns and students. And it was the same for me years ago. Very eye-opening, inspiring, and humbling.

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