Features Interviews

“I Started Making Plugins” – an Interview with Producer Joey Sturgis

joey-sturgis-studio

In the land of Gear Geekery, Joey Sturgis’ name may not be as well known as Tosin Abasi or Hannes Grossmann. Musicians usually take top billing, or maybe instrument designers like Ola Strandberg. But Joey Sturgis is responsible for engineering countless albums (well you can count them, you just need a lot of fingers, more than I have personally) by groups like Asking Alexandria, Born of Osiris, Emmure, Attila…

Okay, yeah, you probably noticed that some of those groups aren’t the kinds of bands we usually cover. They’re metal, but not the kind of groups adored by the (mostly) musicians that frequent our site. But they’re also putting out the records that sell stacks and stacks of invisible digital copies, and thus can afford to hire an engineer who knows what he or she is doing. So say what you will about the songcraft of Emmure, but Joey Sturgis is very good at getting them to sound heavy.

That was part of why I wanted to do this interview. The other is that he’s an pioneer of a new type of musical entrepreneurship. Remember when everyone lost their shit because Born Of Osiris was selling Axe-FX presets? Well Joey Sturgis was the man behind that tone, and it was his website selling the patch. And if you’re a drummer recording with Joey and want to market samples from the sessions? You’re at the right place.  His newest product is a plugin that gets you the tone of his specific vocal chain, JST Gain Reduction.

One of the main things that’s really different that you’re doing from a lot of other people is that you’re actually taking a lot of what you’re doing in the studio and making it available for other people – the vocal compressor or the Born of Osiris plugins.  Do you feel like that’s something that you’re going to expect to see a lot of other people doing, or were people surprised when you started doing all that?

Yeah, I think you’re already starting to see other people take on to that.  I honestly followed in the footsteps of people like Steven Slate.  He started out with drum samples and then kind of migrated into hardware compressors and now he has his own microphone line thing that just came out.  I think you’re just going to see more and more of that, and the quality of the product is going to be attached to, I think, the level of success of the producer.  So you’re going to see some producers who are putting out stuff that’s not so good and you’re going to see people who are a little bit more experienced that are going to be putting out better products.

I actually can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head that has sold presets beforehand.  Are you aware of anyone that did it before you?

Actually, yeah, one of my friends, Cameron – he’s kind of associated with Chango (that’s the name of the studio), he was doing Podfarm presets before me.  It wasn’t like I hadn’t had the idea a long time ago.  In fact, I even thought about the idea of what if I sold the mixing settings to a Asking Alexandria album or something because there are so many kids who are like “man, I wish I could get that same sound on that album” or something like that.  It’s like “why not monetize that?”  I’m the only person who created those settings, and I’m the person who owns that.  Ultimately it kind of felt like the wrong thing to do, and I think presets kind of dances on that gray area, that blurry line where we’re selling things that are making it a lot easier to get into production, but at the same time, you’re not learning the ropes of what you need to know to do it yourself.

Yeah, and also, something like mixing settings is not as much about product.  It’s not like something that you can download, and like an Axe-FX plugin where it’s something that’s [a product].

Exactly.

When you considered the idea of mixing presets and stuff like that, did you have any ideas of ways that you could do that [as a product] so that it couldn’t be just like “hey guys, let’s download the settings” and everyone just share them?

Yeah, actually I started making plugins.  My vocal plugin, well it’s more of an interactive preset is one way to look at it.  It’s kind of like how I would start off my vocals.  I would start it off when you open the plugin, it’s kind of the way it is by default, that’s kind of how I would start with my vocals.  Then I would start playing around with the different controls to fit with the song and to fit with the vocalist.  I think I’m going to explore that a lot more.  I’m working on a bass amp simulator where you’ll just be able to plug in your bass right into it and give you a full on, finished mix ready sound coming out of the other end.

I know you can’t really get into the secret sauce of exactly what’s going on with the plugin, but how did your chain develop?  Were you a software guy?  A hardware guy?  How did your evolution come?

I’m a software guy mainly.  I’m mostly in the box.  Basically what you’re getting is a combination of all the experimenting I’ve done with limiting and compressing and EQ and where they go in the chain and how the interact with each other.  My experience is doing that for 10 years and kind of buckling down on something that really works in like so many different situations.  I took that to start with and started structuring it around that.

What were some of the plugins that you used to rely on before you developed your own proprietary stuff?

I was using Waves mostly.  I think that’s kind of standard.  I think everyone has Waves plugins.  I particularly liked . . . I was using some compressors from the UAD cards for awhile, but that got to be a big hassle when you’re going from studio to studio with different machines and if they don’t have the card installed, then you can’t use the plugin.  I kind of phased that out of my workflow.  Some of the experimentation that came from that is definitely a part of the plugin.

I checked out the video advertisement for it, and it’s mainly 3 knobs not including the On/Off switch and the LOFI.  The gain knob looks more like that’s a distortion control and not an output gain.

It’s both.

Oh it’s both?  Ok. 

Up to a certain point, you’re pretty much getting makeup gain and after a certain point, you’re getting more makeup gain and saturation.

What about the other 2 knobs?  I know that you have some interaction going on there, so it’s not as simple as saying “oh this is just this”.  So the 2 other knobs are what, slay and body?

Yeah, the slay is kind of like . . . go ahead.

I was just going to ask what are the reasons you would reach to one of those knobs?  What do they achieve?

The slay knob is basically how much gain you are doing and how much compression you are compressing.  So the higher that knob is, the more compressed the vocal is.  If you put that knob all the way to 0, then the vocal doesn’t get compressed at all.  That kind of controls attack/release, threshold, ratio, everything – all in one knob, and it’s kind of set to how I would do things.  The body control is kind of like a frequency tilt, so that’s going to adjust how much bottom end you have in your vocal because when you compress vocals pretty heavily or let’s say you have a vocal that kind of has a proximity effect, you can use the body control to kind of combat that.

Did you ever put any thought into having a pro version that has separate access to ratio or attack/release or stuff like that?

I’m just not really interested in that because at that point, you’re just paying money for another compressor that is doing something else that another compressor does.  The difference in my compressor vs. like Rvox or C1 . . . well, I guess Rvox is kind of a bad example, but C1 or CLA, is that I’ve gone in there and tweaked all the attack/ release ratios and the thresholds to be perfect for how I would handle the audio.  It would kind of be pointless to offer any other way because then it’s not me anymore, it’s just another compressor that has 4 boxes to type numbers into.

I noticed that you have all this up on your website.  Have you considered working with a partner like Toontrack or Avid or something like that?

I’m really interested in doing it on my own because I’ve worked with companies like that and it’s just less than favorable terms for the person that’s being exploited.  I did a project with Toontrack and it went really well, and I’m proud of how it came out, but I don’t get any royalties from that.  It’s kind of theirs to sell for eternity and make as much money as they want off of it, but I’ll never see another dime.  I’m not really interested in that. I’m more interested in monetizing my own name and my own brand because I am me and I’m creating these things that people are seeking.  If I have an audience, why not cater to it?

I notice that you have some drum samples for sale, you have a mixing thing for sale, you have a guitar thing, you’re coming out with bass stuff, and a lot of it is kind of based on (besides the vocal compressor), like Born of Osiris’s particular guitar patch.  [But never from the same album, all together].  Do you think that might be one bridge too far if you had the drum samples from an album, the guitar presets from an album?  If there was a band that was into that, do you think that’s the market?

I think that, interestingly enough, I think in the next 5 to 10 years, you might actually see something like that happen with record labels.  I feel that record labels are going to want to start monetizing this stuff and they actually kind of own it in certain cases unless you get a waiver because it’s the artist performing the sample, and that’s technically a performance that the record label owns.  Eventually, I think record labels will grab everything from the album and just be like “here, buy it if you want it.  Whoever wants this can buy it”.

Or maybe as a preorder bonus or something.

Yeah, I think it’s kind of a step too far if you’re giving away kind of everything, but even if you had the exact drum sample sound, the bass tones, the guitar tones, you still can’t replicate the song writing and the playing of those musicians.  I know that in some cases, it’s a very small ratio of difference, but sometimes that last 10% is all the percent in the world that it takes to make the difference between some kid who’s doing a random song on his computer vs. someone who is working with a producer to make an album.

Yeah, you’re right.  I hadn’t thought of the implications of the label owning the rights to anything recorded in the studio and the drummer is performing drum samples.  Is that the case . . . I’m sure as hell not a lawyer, and I know you’re not, but has any band discussed if that’s the case also with the Ax-FX patches or is it unique to the drum samples because it’s the drummer doing the hitting?

It would have to be something that has to do with the performance and luckily, presets don’t have anything to do with performances.  I have a lawyer, and I talk to him all the time about this stuff, so we’re figuring it out.  As far as drum samples, we just have to ask the label if we can exploit this musician to sell the drum samples.  Most of the time they’re okay with it because they don’t want to give into the whole . . . there’s accounting and administrative side to keeping track of all this crap, so most of the time they sign off on it because it gives the musician extra incentive to make more money.  It’s kind of like if James Cassells of Asking Alexandria who wants to sell his own drum samples, he should be able to because that’s a little extra cash in his pocket and it makes it a little bit easier for him to be the musician that he’s being on the label and so forth.  It’s like a nice thing that labels are doing right now – at least that I’m seeing.

Have you ever considered just getting someone else to hit the drums for the samples that are going to be sold to get around that issue?

Yeah, but here’s the thing with that is then you can’t really sell it as the brand.  James Cassells is a brand.  Kids want to know that he was there, that he was hitting the snare, that’s his snare, that’s his signature sound, his hand, his stick.  That’s the thing that really sells it and that’s what separates it from any other snare sample in the world.  It’s still kind of a secret, but I am working on a project exactly like this where I’m getting with a specific artist to capture whatever it is that they have, whatever little piece of magic that is in them as a musician and putting that into a product the best that I can.

Do you ever worry that sometimes with another generation growing up with the ability to get an exact guitar tone and the signature guitar too, so the Ax-FX is going to interact the same with it and the drum samples that it’s going to lead to some sort of homogeny with the younger generations growing up?  You’re already seeing a little more homogeny in recordings happening now.

Yeah, I think it definitely does that but I think it shouldn’t be ignored that we’re on the . . . it’s the year 2014, and now fans can interact with the artists in such interesting ways that they never could before.  You can go to Guitar Center and buy the same guitar that they play onstage, and then you can go to Joeysturgistones.com and buy the same guitar sound that they used on their album, and then you can go to Joeysturgisdrums.com and buy the same drums.  It’s like a really cool way for them to kind of connect on a different level with the artist that they’re inspired by.  At the same time, it creates the problem of homogeny.

Yeah.  Have you ever had a band come in where you said “I know you’re looking for this sound, and I know I’m famous for making this sound, but why don’t we break the mold on this a little bit here and do this or this instead?”

I would love to do that, but it’s just not in the cards because most of the time a band will get off a tour and they didn’t have any time to write the album, so they’re scrambling for a week before the studio to write a whole record.  Then they come into the studio and they only have 1 month to finish it.  You can’t really get comfortable and experiment with anything when you’re on a schedule like that.  I don’t think booking agents and managers are ever going to let that happen because they make less money when the band plays less shows.  That’s just the real side of it.  If bands had more time to write and experiment, then I think you would hear more interesting records.  The more interesting records don’t necessarily make more money for the band or for the management.  It seems like the fans don’t really care if it’s experimental or not.  The ones that do care about experimental records will just go look for the bands that do those kinds of things, and that’s a completely different market in comparison to modern metal records that are churned out every year.

Yeah.  I imagine those are the bands that have the biggest budgets and so forth for the producer and stuff.  Do you ever say “to hell with it, I want to record a band for less money because I just really like their music and want to have fun with it” or something like that?

Yeah, I actually do do that.  I don’t think a lot of people know about it because those bands aren’t very popular.  I work with unsigned artists all the time.  I actually send them to record labels and stuff and say “hey, check out this band I just produced a song with.  It’s really cool”.  Sometimes they’ll listen and sometimes they don’t.  I just kind of do it for fun and of course, the people are interested in working with me.  It’s actually really fun.  I just do that on the side in addition to doing label work.

What are some of your favorite passion projects that you’ve done?

I actually just did a project called Down & Dirty.  They have a song called “Move It” that you can look up.  It’s on Youtube and it has 120,000 views already.   I’m really excited about that project.  I just worked with this band called Massive.  That was really cool.  It was something kind of different for me.  How can I explain it?  It kind of sounds like a mixture of Protest the Hero and Chiodos mixed with We Came as Romans.  It’s pretty interesting.

If there was one dream band that you could record, who would that be?

I have always wanted to work with Between the Buried and Me.  I feel like they never really had a fully polished production.  If they ever wanted to do a polished album, I hope that they would choose me to do it because it would be the most amazing thing ever.  [Laughs]

I’m curious about the logistics of changing formats.  I’m sure you’re busy as hell with your recording work.  For example, a new Axe-FX was announced – the XL.  Do you know if your Born of Osiris presets will work with that and do you worry that your back catalog with those products that you have to update them for new formats and stuff?

That’s something that we’re working on.  I will admit that the compatibility with Axe-FX is a very hard thing to keep up with because they just change it so much.  If you have something that works with the firmware that is shipped with vs. the newest firmware that you can download, you kind of have to say “oh, if you buy this patch, it only works with Axe-FX that has firmware 10 and up” and then it becomes this whole compatibility nightmare.  I am trying to work on getting multiple versions of the same tone to be compatible with different versions of the unit, but I personally don’t own an Axe-FX, so it’s really hard for me because I have to rely on other people.  Of course, other people are either touring or too busy with other things so it takes a while to find out if it works with the 1st Axe-FX and the 2nd one, and then I have to wait for them to reply to the E-mail and if it doesn’t, we have to figure out how we can copy the settings and still provide it to people who are buying it for multiple units or whatever.

Fractal is still a small company.  I wonder if they really know what they have on their hands.  If that was made by a bigger company, there would probably be people already thinking about how to protect [and monetize] presets like that.  I wonder if that’ll be in the cards for them a couple of years down the line.

Yeah, I’ve actually talked to Fractal because we had an issue where a user had posted one of the patches and they were really nice.  They took the patch down for me and supported me selling my own patch and everything was good with that.  I really think that they should not ignore the market for that.  They should definitely try to embrace it and maybe even come up with some program where the patches themselves are protected in some way and do a 3rd party system for people who want to sell their own patches where they would setup an account with the company and get all their tones protected.  It would be really cool if they could do that.

When the Born of Osiris presets came out, you had these people saying “I don’t know if this is what bands should or shouldn’t be doing”.  I felt it was going to happen anyway.  I was like “whoa, this is something they probably never considered when they were making the Axe, but this is probably going to turn into something.”  How would protection like that work?  Would you have to connect to the internet for your amp to work once a month or something like that?

[Laughs]  I don’t know how that would work exactly.  I’m not an expert on copy protection, but just some kind of serial where you login one time and it puts the serial number on your unit and somehow all of the tones you’ve downloaded would be encrypted with that same number so it would only work with that unit.  If your file had leaked onto someone else’s harddrive and they tried to use it, it would be incompatible because it wouldn’t have that baked in number.  That’s the 1st step in how I would try and do it, but I’m not an expert on it.

Do you know if your stuff has been all over the torrent sites?

I actually don’t even look.  I focus on trying to reach new people and just trying to expand my audience.  If someone wants to be a dickhead and take the product that we worked really hard on and put it up for free, then that guy is going to look like a dickhead and I don’t really care.  I think there are people out there who are willing to pay for the products that I’m making, and I’m seeing that on my end anyway.  To me, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot yet.  At the same time, I’m not the size of Toontrack or anything.  Toontrack definitely has to be concerned about security because if they don’t sell drum samples tomorrow, their company goes bankrupt.  I can still make records if my tones stop selling tomorrow.  For me, it’s a fun little thing that I’m connecting with my fans on and having fun making my own product.

You mentioned that you’re in the box for mixing, and I noticed in the videos that you have a pretty nice mixing console.  Are you in the box mainly for workflow?  Instant recall and all that?  Or do you feel that there isn’t really any tangible audio difference between something in the box or something out of the box?

That’s a good question.  Interestingly enough, the video is actually shot in my friend’s studio.  I personally don’t have my own studio right now.  I had one for several years.  I’m sure you’ve seen different studio updates if you’re familiar with my work in those studios.  It got kind of crazy for me to be around bands all the time and I never really had a moment to myself.  I decided to just start renting studios because that way I can insure that I’ll have a place to live that’s separate from the studio.  [Laughs]  Back to the question, for me, I just have to be in the box because I have to make recalls at the drop of the hat.  I’ll get an E-mail a week from launch asking me to change something.  If I had that mix on the board, it would be a nightmare because I’m working on so many things at once that I got to be able to recall maybe 3 or 4 even 5 different bands in one day.  That’s not even possible with a board.  The 2nd thing is I didn’t grow up on a board or grow up in a studio.  I grew up in a garage basically working on my friend’s computer with hobby gear.  Literally, the first record I made was with a Behringer mixer.  I’m not even joking here.  For me, I’ve learned a lot on my own, and I’m self-taught.  Computers are the only way that I know how to really even make a record happen.  I’m sure I could get in a room with a board and do everything with the board, but I would be incredibly slow and have a hard time with it.  That’s why I’m in the box. I was going to say that I’ve had several opportunities to hear the differences between in the box and the board, and I think the only real thing that you gain is the headroom and the summing that’s like the biggest difference.  You can overcome those things in the mix if you know what you’re doing.

Have you ever considered just a summing box especially now that some of them you don’t even need to control the gain through the output and all that?  You can actually automate the gain for each track digitally and have that saved with the session.

Yeah, I might be interested in trying that.  If I ever find myself doing it where I’m having time to experiment with that kind of stuff and getting projects where it really matters.  When you’re crushing the crap out of audio, it kind of doesn’t matter if it loses summing properties or not.  It would only matter if I had the projects to warrant that.

One last question: there are certain things that are expected of a metal recording.  Artistic freedom aside, certain things bands need to do whether it’s volume or a certain sound replacement for the drums to come through or whatever.  If there was one kind of expected standard about modern metal recordings that you would personally like to hear change, what would it be?

Hmm, that’s a good question.  I am really tired of bass drops.  [Laughs]  I’m really not excited at all to add them.  I’ll just tell people “where do you want them?”  I’m just going to put them in there and not even care because people want more and more and at a certain point, the louder you scream the deafer it is.  It all falls on deaf ears.  It’s not exciting anymore because there are so many bass drops in songs that it’s not a moment.  Now you have 20 moments in 2 ½ minutes and it’s just not good.  I’d say let’s cut back on the bass drops.  Let’s stick to 1 a song.

Thanks so much for your time.  Is there anything you’d like to mention?  I know your new vocal gain plugin and some of your other software is up for sale at Joeysturgistones.com.

One thing I would like to mention is a special guitar giveaway this month in February.  Anyone who makes a purchase over the amount of $25 is automatically entered into to win this 7 string guitar made by Fujigen.  All the details are on my site.  Just go to Joeysturgistones.com and you can check out the guitar, look at the guitar specs, and read the fine print and all that good stuff.  I think it’s really cool.  You buy some Podfarm presets and you get entered in to win a real guitar – a real object from a software company.  I think that’s pretty cool.  Let’s see, upcoming projects.  What do I have coming up?  Oh yeah, I know a good one: I’m working on this all girl metal band called Conquer Divide.  They have singing, screaming, metal riffs; they’ve got leads and really technical drumming.  The girl who plays drums in the band studied under . . . who is it?  George Kollias from Nile.  She studied under him.  They’re really awesome.  You can find one of their songs . . . I’m drawing a blank.  What is it called?  “Eyes Wide Shut.” That’s on Youtube.  So, Conquer Divide “Eyes Wide Shut”.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thanks for having me, man.

About

Chris Alfano is editor-in-chief of GearGods.net. He's written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.

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