Soundwerkz talks with Producer, Justin Long (Denver, CO).

Justin Long

SW: Thanks for talking with us. Since the last time we spoke, you've relocated to Denver. What prompted the move?

JLong: Honestly, it was a long series of huge mistakes that ended up working out ok. I definitely didn't wind up here on purpose. That's kind of why I feel like Denver is my adoptive hometown. I found myself out here, not a single friend or even connection, literally. And I've been fortunate enough to meet and work with so many great people. It's been really good for me.

SW: So what is the music scene right now in Denver?

JLong: I think the music scene in Denver is really strong, although a little fragmented like other big metro areas. There are groups of people that definitely stick together and don't really know people in other groups. And it's a lot like everywhere else, there's a definite hierarchy of "coolness" and that whole thing. It's Denver, so people are nice about it, but its hard to break in, which I think is slowing down any sort of "Denver sound" developing. That's not a knock on Denver really, that's true lots of places, but its an issue I see.

But there are some really strong currents here. The jam band thing is obviously huge and a bunch of bands are doing really great stuff. There's also this phenomenon of suburbanish rap-pop bands that have a very accessible sound, with the main guy rapping and a girl singing the hooks. There's a lot of that, but all of them are really developed. Great sounds, interesting production. It really surprised me, as far as I know, that's not as big in a local sense in other places. Obviously that's normal in national pop, but locally, its more of a rock thing sort of. I guess the Flobots are the band the rest of the country got a taste of. I'd actually love to know if that's just a Colorado thing or not.

Metal and hard rock is really popular, which is probably true everywhere in the middle of the country. And of course country, its not on the radar for the cool kids, but there are some serious fans out here, just like everywhere except New York and LA.

My pick though, for anything I know of breaking out soon, as if that was the question, is this band The 888. I guess they are also synth/pop or whatever. They just have that feeling of being something special, you know, how some bands do. The first time I saw them, it took all of two bars for me to hear it, I was like, oh shit, who is this? I don't know if the songs are 100% there, I don't follow them closely enough, but there's something there for sure.

Overall, I think its hard out here, life is pretty great. Lots of sun and easy seasons, its not brutal dealing with the city. That doesn't make for a good breeding ground for the angst you need to make good art. It can happen, but its too easy to go on amazing hikes and say fuck it to all those bad feelings.

SW: What is your background in producing?

JLong: Like a lot of people, I'm mostly self-taught. I started on a cassette four track and played with that for a few years. Then we got ahold of some ADAT's and then moved on to Pro Tools. Pretty common story. Just a huge amount of trial and error, years of it really.

Over the years I've been in lots of situations from running a commercial space out of a home to just engineering in a standard studio that did mostly rap, and I've sometimes between only performing and only recording. The most important thing for me is to keep things interesting and have new experiences that keep your tastes current. I'll probably say it over and over, but I've always valued taste and "cool" over technical perfection.

In the past few years I've a good amount of my time teaching songwriting, stage performance and production. That's been really fun for me because my favorite thing about music is helping someone else realize their vision.

SW: Do you have any specific types of music you enjoy producing? Do you look for songs primarily, regardless of genre or style?

JLong: My favorite stuff to work on is anything kind of organic, lo-fi and dirty, no matter the style. My background is more in the blues, rock, alternative vein. Although I'm always looking for different stuff to do, so for the last few years I've tried to do a little more "nice" sounding stuff and I've gotten much more into a lot of pop things.

That said, yeah, I'm always looking for songs first. Although I have a little different outlook than a lot of producers and musicians. I don't think that its all about hooks and being catchy, I think there's a lot to be said for a song just being cool or interesting. There's a ton of classic songs that are that way and there are just artists that are that way, like Radiohead or Wilco or whatever. Especially now that people are consuming music differently than they used to, being cool and interesting and honest, its more important than ever.

To take it even further, I'd even say that's where a lot of artists are going wrong these days. They spend all this time worrying about hooks and trying to make their songs as catchy as possible. And a lot of times they succeed, people have really figured that out, even compared to ten years ago. But it seems like they forget to make sure that the song is cool, original, that it can take you on a ride. That's what gets people talking about an artist, not some earworm with no heart behind it.

SW: What's your basic approach when considering working with an artist?

JLong: Usually I start with a lot of talking. I really try to listen and understand what the artist wants to do, and where they're coming from. I've found a lot of times people aren't really 100% sure what they really want but if you keep them talking the truth will come out.

I look at that in two ways. First of all, nothing is worse than having someone be unhappy at the end of the process when you've delivered exactly what they said they wanted when you started. And second, there's just no point in moving forward until the artist has a really strong, defined vision, especially the way things are now in the music business.

SW: Do you listen to demos first, or do you prefer not to hear demos more than once or twice before you start working with the artist?

JLong: I do listen to demos a lot. There's a truth that shows up on demos that can get lost and that's the big thing you don't want to lose. I've been on both sides of it, both as an artist and a producer, and it's a really hard thing to wrap your head around sometimes.

SW: What are your influences in the producer world?

JLong: First off, I have to say I was helped a lot by John Kurzweg, who I was lucky enough to work with on a few projects. Actually I still learn a lot from him every time I get a chance to talk to him. He's really an encyclopedia.

As far as influences, I'd say the big ones were probably Brendan O'Brien, Steve Albini, and probably Glyn Johns. Which reminds me, anything Ethan Johns (Glyn's son) does seems to be guaranteed amazing. The last few years I've been really into Dr. Luke, he's becoming an all time favorite. Although watching him fight with Kesha is just painful and a real shame either way, no matter who's telling the truth.

Beyond that, now I'm listening to Ariel Rechtstaid, Danger Mouse, a lot of the newer guys who are doing really cool stuff. All in all, I think we're in a second golden age of production. Literally everything is amazing now, at least from a sonic standpoint. It's a great time to be a music fan.

SW: How did you end up meeting and working with Adrienne O?

JLong: Adrienne and I met playing in a cool cover band that did lots of pop stuff, Beyonce, Kesha, all the radio/club stuff at the time. It was a blast, just a total change of pace for me. I also started working with her at Performance High, Adrienne's vocal studio, teaching songwriting and doing artist development. Anyway, Adrienne starting sharing some of her original songs with me and I just kind of insisted that she start an original band. It's not unlike how I started working with Ben Lauren from No Address, I heard a few of his tunes and thought the same thing, we need to put a band behind you and get this stuff out there.

SW: What was the most challenging part of producing the recent album for Adrienne O? Did you approach the production differently than a straight rock band?

JLong: The hardest part of doing anything with mainly keys and programming is that you can just keep changing the smallest details forever. Its hard for me to say, stop, that part is just that way. You know, with full band production you do the drums first and then they basically are how they are and you fit everything else around that. I mean, sure you can comp in a different fill or whatever, but it basically is what it is. But with programming, it's so hard to commit and find that one thing to fit everything else to, at least for me.

SW: Do you use a real drummer, build drum loops/tracks, or is there some combination?

JLong: On this EP, Elevation, I programmed all of the drums. Which is not all that different from a lot of the comping and editing I would normally do, depending on the project and the drummer. Although you can go a little crazy pushing midi notes around, the options are just endless. I think most of the songs were getting little drum changes right up until they went in for mixing.

This one was especially hard too because we were going for a hybrid feel where we didn't want the drums to sound either too realistic or too obviously fake. So loops weren't really working, especially the midi loops where they've captured a real drummer playing. A lot of those tend to have pretty decent feel and sound great, but on this stuff it just sounded insane. At least compared to the sound Adrienne and I had in our heads.

Which brings up an interesting point with drums, what works is so different project to project. Usually I love when the drums have a really good, realistic stereo image, like you get a sense of the physical space of the drum kit, you know? I also love to hear the room. But sometimes the drums just need to be a huge kick and snare with just a little sprinkle of the rest of the kit. That's a lot of what makes me kind of a drum nerd, it's such a complex topic.

SW: Do you comp drums, vocals, guitars?

JLong: Yeah, I comp a lot. Like really, really a lot, on everything. The honest truth is occasionally the musicians would be horrified if they saw how much comping was going on, but sometimes that's just what needs to happen. I try really hard not to do it as a reflex though. It's easy to just get in the habit and it becomes part of the workflow. Lately I've been working really hard on just letting some things be.

I think one big thing that's changed for me is realizing what I'm looking for when I comp and trying to get that from the takes. Like with lead vocals, I feel like I can hear when the singer is thinking about the words versus concentrating on singing the notes, which is way too common and sounds terrible to me. Maybe that's not exactly what's going on, but that's how I describe it, that's what it sounds like to me. And just pointing that out while tracking, like, "hey, can you please think about the words and what they mean" really helps so much. That's changed my approach in the last couple of years.

SW: Do you track anything live on Elevation?

JLong: No, this one is 100% overdubs. We've done both with AO in the past, like tracking bass and drums at the same time, etc. But this record was worked and re-worked so many times, it was a whole other animal. And again, for our slicker, more electronic kind of style, the live feel doesn't really add much in my opinion.

SW: Was Producing the Adrienne O Record difficult? Given all the synths taking up space in the frequency spectrums?

JLong: That's actually a great question because that was a major learning curve for me when I started transitioning into making more synth-based music. Because you're right, lots of synth sounds have a tremendous amount of energy in every part of the frequency spectrum. It can get out of hand really quickly.

The first thing you have to pay really close attention to is what notes all the parts are playing. You have to make sure that a bunch of the parts aren't all playing the same note in the same octave. Everybody has a real instinct to play the root when they play chords, for example. So that can get muddy. On top of that, you have variations in chords, inversions and stuff, melodic parts, whatever. You add the vocals melody and harmonies to that and sometimes there are just a lot of notes that are very close together and it creates some crazy clusters of notes that do not sound good, even though all of the notes are technically in key. It's a little more like someone writing for an orchestra needs to think, so that's hard.

Actually its changed the way I play guitar. Some kinds of music, on guitar you're struggling to find ways to take up lots of space. But with AO and doing a lot of the pop stuff I've done in the last few years, its all about taking up the least space possible and figuring out ways not to duplicate or step on notes that other parts are using. Even my tone has changed and gotten way smaller. Really rolled off, no real low end or treble, just a focused midrange thing. It doesn't sound like much by itself, but mixed in with everything else, it sounds pretty good.

And that's the last thing for this long answer. I printed a lot of EQ on synths before delivering for mixing. Mainly using filters to take away either low end or highs. Like for a lot of ethereal pad sounds, I'd take away 100% of the bass, and even a lot of the mids, just leave the treble part of the sound. Or for a synth bass, just strip all the treble out so there's not so much fighting for territory. Even given that, Bobby [Selvaggio] did an amazing job finding room for all the parts in the mix.

SW: Where did you track Adrienne O's record?

JLong: The whole record was actually tracked at our Performance High spaces in downtown Denver. We have two rooms that can be arranged for teaching, rehearsal, or recording. The rooms were actually designed by someone who knew what they were doing so we can do drums, acoustic stuff, vocals, whatever. While we could probably get a little better sounds at a fully equipped pro studio, I kind of prefer to have the time and the comfort level to get the better performances.

SW: Are you working with other artists presently?

JLong: I've been working a fair amount with Cody Qualls, who is also in the a capella group Face. I've been playing with him and producing a few things for YouTube, which is just part of the picture these days.

SW: What is your current recording rig? Pro-tools? Any cool gear or plugins you really love using and would like to expand/comment on?

JLong: Adrienne and I mainly work back and forth between Pro Tools and Logic. For most serious tracking and producing stuff I do use Pro Tools, mostly because I'm really used to it and can move things around really quickly. I have to say the Apogee One and Duets really came in handy because this record was tracked all over the place and they're really convenient boxes. Not my favorite sounding stuff, but solid.

SW: In a perfect world, would you prefer to be in digital realm? Analog realm? Or some combination of digital analog when tracking? mixing? mastering?

JLong: Given the realities of most projects I work on, I can't imagine taking the time to use analog tape at this point. The time isn't worth spending, even in a studio that's set up for doing that. Of course it can sound a little better for some things, obviously. But as I've probably mentioned, beautiful sounds aren't my first concern. I'd rather move fast and focus on getting the most emotion recorded that I can.

SW: Do you use any analog gear? Any favorite "go to" gear?

JLong: For sure. I'm a huge devotee of the Great River mic pres. They can be relatively clean or they can get messy and have a lot of character. In general they just sound big in a polite way and the tracks still stack pretty well. Most important, they're really hard to set wrong enough to ruin a take. You can just worry about not clipping and focus on producing.

That said, digital plug-ins have gotten amazing. Again, I'm won't pretend to be Mr. Golden Ears, I'm mainly looking for feelings. But a lot of companies, like Slate, McDSP, Waves, they've figured out how to get that goose bumps stuff happening.

SW: What's on your schedule for the immediate future?

JLong: As I've mentioned, most of my efforts have been put towards teaching lately. We have a ton of really promising students that Adrienne and I are helping to develop and I have to say, its amazing how rewarding that's been. The thing I always loved about producing was more the coaching aspect, helping artists find a path to their goals. And teaching is just 100% that. So its fun.

One big stand out is Leslie Tom. She's classic country, the old stuff. She spent a lot of time in Nashville and toured Europe and a bunch of other crazy stuff before she took a break to have a real life for a minute. Now she's back and about to record a new EP with a bunch of the session guys who played on all that 60's and 70's country everyone loves.

SW: What is the studio scene like in Denver?

JLong: There are actually a lot of great studios in Denver. Colorado Sound, Macy Sound, Conway, Side 3, n The Blasting Room, really the list goes on and on. This has been the major city for the region for a long time, so I think that's why it's been able to support so many pro level studios. Also Colorado is just a cool place to be so I think a certain amount of business is from artists that choose to come here to work.

The best example is the old Caribou Ranch, which was in the mountains a little northwest of Denver. In the 70's they did records for Elton John, Joe Walsh, Chicago, Zappa, etc. Almost everyone. I think just because the weather and landscape are so nice, it would probably have felt like a vacation to come work here.

Of course, the home recording thing is huge here, like everywhere. Lots of people we know have figured out spaces that they can make work for them. Not that there aren't good reasons to record in a pro space, but it will probably never go back to that being the way in was in the old days.

SW: Thanks so much for taking the time to offer the interview, we sincerely appreciate it!

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