Calling Joe Barresi “Evil” is like calling a big guy “tiny” - it doesn’t fit. Take one listen to his drum sounds though, and it all makes sense. The albums he makes are heavy.
With a Grammy nomination and records by Queens of the Stone Age, the Melvins, Kyuss, and Tool under his belt, Joe’s one of the world’s top recording engineers/producers, and is eager to share his decades of recording knowledge to anyone willing to listen. I spoke with Joe via telephone, and our conversation is presented below.
Aaron Rogers: Hey Joe, are you there?
Joe Barresi: I am here.
AR: Cool, alright. So you just wanna dive in?
JB: Yeah, man. I’m actually drinking some EarthQuaker beans right now.
AR: Nice! I’m actually in my basement at home, working on my “Aaron’s Bass Hole” Blog . . . You would appreciate this, I’m doin’ a compression column, getting people up to speed on the Warden.
JB: Oh yeah, man. I actually just worked on a record and the guitar player had the Warden on his pedalboard.
AR: Yeah, it’s nice. You don’t see a lot of stompboxes that have Attack and Release controls that are that small. And the Warden’s quiet, too.
JB: Yeah. I used to help design shit for DOD back in the day. They came out this Punkifier pedal for me. it started while I was doing a Melvins record and they used this thing called the BuzzBox . . . DOD asked what kinds of pedals I thought they should make so I collaborated on several. There was no ring modulator out at the time so we did we did a ring modulator; we did a compressor called the Milk Box that had a high-frequency boost on it . . . We did a flanger, the MeatBox - the subharmonic generator . . .
AR: I actually bought the Mantic clone of the MeatBox - they call it the Beef Bag. Got it at Eastside Music in Nashville. I brought it home and thought I’d put it in my bass rig, and I turned it on, and it sounded amazing for 15 seconds, then the voice coils seized up and I had to buy new speakers.
JB: Ha! Well, the whole idea was a subharmonic generator and octave divider in one, because nobody does that kind of shit.
AR: That’s one of those things you almost have to run to its own input on a mixer and give to your front of house guy and let him do it.
JB: I’ll tell ya what the other hot tip is, though, man. I did some shit with Ibanez for a while, too, and the Tone-Lok series - the PhatHed is a winner on bass. You find that thing for like 50 bucks now . . . That is a fuckin’ serious low-end booster for bass guitars.
AR: I remember seeing the ads for those! At that time, they were hooked up with KoRn? I always thought of them as “the Ibanez band . . .”
JB: Yep. That is the gem winner, right there. Nobody knows about that pedal, but the PhatHed is a sick fuckin’ guitar pedal. It’s actually a sicker bass pedal.
AR: I’ll check it out. Going back a little bit, you brought up the Melvins. How’d you get involved with them? It seems like the way they work is so bizarre.
JB: Garth Richardson was a producer that I’d worked with in the past, and he was co-producing Houdini with Kurt Cobain, and after that he was going to produce the next record by himself. That was Stoner Witch. He asked me to help him do the record, so I recorded and mixed it. Basically, they’re sick musicians. We had 17 days booked at the studio. We did the whole album - recorded and mixed - in 14. Then the drummer did a solo record in a day, and then Wayne Kramer came down and we cut an MC5 song with the Melvins another day, and then the Obsessed came down, and we cut a Skynyrd song with them the next day.
AR: Was that the Dale Crover EP? I remember they were doing the KISS solo record thing.
JB: Yes. Exactly. And then after that Garth and I did Stag. And then I did Honky by myself in 6 days, the whole record. That was an experiment in drum machines and speed. Every song is just whack. One mix in the left speaker, one mix in the right speaker. One mix forward, one mix backwards. Pretty crazy shit.
AR: Those were the Atlantic Records?
JB: Two Atlantics and an AmRep for me.
AR: It’s kind of amazing still that they got those records out on Atlantic, but I guess that was kind of the time . . . post-grunge . . .
JB: Well, the A&R guy [at the time] was doing some cool shit at Atlantic.
AR: So who was the bass player then? Was that Lorax?
JB: No, it was Mark. Who I loved. I did a solo record with Mark after that. Mark is super great because he could also play guitar really well, so there was some pretty interesting shit, and he also brought this whole Texas big-hat thing to the vibe.
AR: Changing gears, reading and listening to interviews with you, it seems like you’re a big fan of making physical changes to alter sounds – moving mics, changing drum placement within the room – you’ve said that on Tool’s “The Pot” (from the 10,000 Days album), you intentionally stored the tape heads out (as opposed to tails out, the “proper” way to store tape) so that the bleed-through would affect the vocal sound, which is a very tactile, elemental, primal way to alter sounds. It’s almost like there’s two parallel universes of audio – the physical source in the room and its electronic representation. In what situations do you lean on electronic sound manipulation (ie., effects pedals) rather than tactile?
JB: Personally, the idea is the source is really the key. If it sounds bad at the source, it doesn’t matter what you do. So, always in my mind I’m thinking about changing where the source is. Whether it’s moving a drum kit a foot forward, or a foot back, or in the corner, or in the center of the room. Before you move the microphone, you’re tuning the snare. And then you’re moving the microphone before you add EQ and compression, things like that. Or you’re changing the mic, or changing the head, so that part is more organic. The electronic part is the fun part to me.
Like, on the Chevelle La Gárgola record there’s a lot of direct guitars. Some songs were guitar, fuzz pedal, straight into the console. Old School. Some were guitar, fuzz pedal, into a head, and not using a speaker cabinet, just direct record the output into a Palmer, or Rivera RockCrusher, or Mesa CabClone, whatever it was at the time. So, I think it’s really a combination. It’s not really “get the sound electronically” - it might be just a specific electronic sound or approach as opposed to “this is what I have to do because everything else sucks.” You try the acoustic thing first - the natural way of getting the sound.
On the Melvins’ Stoner Witch record, we set up three drum kits. We had a full-blown, heavy duty, top and bottom mic’d drum kit, and then a drum kit with a lot less mics, and then a drum kit with like, three mics. And then we’d cut between. Some songs would have the drum kit with three mics, some would have the full-blown kit, some would be the verse with the three mics, and the rest of the song with the full-blown one, you know what I mean?
AR: And those were all in the same room?
JB: Sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes you do crazy stuff. For Queens of the Stone Age, we’d mic up the drums with guitar pickups - like, these acoustic pickups you stick on your acoustic guitar or your cello, contact mics, basically - then we’d pump those through guitar amps and mic the guitar amps up, so the guitar amps would be in another room, but the drum kit would be mic’d up in a regular room. Sometimes it’s the combination, or inspiration, or the desire to achieve an effect…
On Tomahawk’s Mit Gas, since we cut the record so fast, all the drums were done in two days. I just overdrove the preamps on a couple songs - it just made the drums a little more blown-up, but not by adding distortion from a pedal, but distorting the mic pres by turning them up a few notches higher, just blowing them up a little more . . .
AR: Sure. And then the harmonics jump out . . .
AR: Talking about direct guitar, the guitars around the 1:10 mark on Queens of the Stone Age’s “Fairweather Friends” have this super up-front, edge-of-speaker presence, but also have a saturated, “pinched” quality. Can you elaborate on the overdub and mixing workflow on that track?
JB: Well, I can tell you I only mixed that track except for the vocals and re-amping stuff. They wrote that song with Elton John and just recorded it. I think they weren’t quite ready, arrangement-wise, so they spent quite a bit of time on it. Josh [Homme] called me and said, “Can you mix this one track? We’re having an issue with it.” So he came over, and we whittled it down in a day to what was usable and what wasn’t usable, and at that point, I said “you probably need to re-sing the vocal.”
I actually had just gotten a Caroline Wave Cannon pedal, and there’s some brass, and so I started re-amping shit through the Wave Cannon, so I basically started making the vocal fucked up and re-amping the brass parts through this distortion box I just got a couple days before. So honestly, I didn’t record much of that except for the lead vocal and whatever I re-amped. I just mixed it. But I know what you’re talking about, that little guitar solo, the very direct solo - it does have this cool left to right thing that happens on a note. It’s like a short slap delay kind of thing. The guy that recorded it was Mark Rankin, and he did a fine job.
AR: When re-amping, do you find that the stompbox pedal format makes you work in a different way than if you were using traditional rackmount gear? It’s more of a performance based thing. I was wondering what your take was.
JB: Exactly. That’s exactly it. Back in my early days it was out of necessity because you couldn’t afford a $4,000 Eventide Harmonizer, or a $6,000 reverb, or whatever, so you bought a $50 guitar pedal and turned your volume down going into it. This was before re-amps. We didn’t know what re-amps were. We just turned the signal coming off the tape machine down, or fed it off a send on the console. When you have a piece of gear in a rack, it tends to sit in the back of the room on a preset or two, but you don’t really tend to play it as much as you do when you’re re-amping with guitar pedals. That to me is definitely a more performance-oriented way of making of music.
AR: I think just having the ability to bypass something right at your foot makes it easier to use.
JB: Yeah, for me it’s sitting on the console and I’m moving it by hand, but that’s not to say I haven’t used a wah-wah on a whole mix and ran it with my foot. The Kaoss pad was one of the first multi effects - almost like a rack piece of gear in a hand control situation for me. But that’s kind of specific to the sounds that are in it. Having a guitar pedal takes it to a whole other realm of ability. The sound changes with every pedal you buy.
AR: Any pedals you’re hooked on? Got any new stuff?
JB: It’s very band-specific. In my studio, pedals are everywhere, so I just grab what I think might work, and if it doesn’t work, I can grab something else right by it. But if I go somewhere else, I try to take a couple dozen pedals, and then it might fluctuate as the project does on. For tracking, I get into the more basic stuff - overdrive, and sometimes an EQ if you need a bass sound to be brighter, that kind of stuff.
As you get into Overdub Land that’s where it really becomes creative. Like the last record I worked on, the Electro-Harmonix weirder, organ-y, keyboard-y pedals came out. That was cool, because now I can get into keyboard land. The Lester G was pretty awesome because we didn’t have access to a Leslie. The PitchFork is one of my favorite ones as well, because it tracks so incredibly well. Then getting into mixing, it’s a whole other realm. The Afterneath is my top mixing friend. Since I got it, it’s so rad I’ve been telling everyone about it. I bought a few. It’s one of those pedals that just does crazy weird shit, to the point where I’m creating harmonies on vocals and guitar parts because your delay or reverb might stick, and as you move certain knobs you change the pitch. I use the Gray Channel, the Warden, Disaster Transport - or it might have been the smaller one - Ghost Echo?
AR: Yeah, Ghost Echo.
AR: Yeah, that one’s a challenge. It’s one of those pedals where we almost dare you to find a way to make it work, and people do. And it always sounds awesome.
JB: Yeah, you have to play into it. It’s just a cool-ass pedal. I’ve used the Organizer quite a bit, too. Sometimes I’ll use a POG, but the Organizer’s a whole different beast . . .
AR: It’s dirtier sounding, yeah.
JB: . . . the Bit Commander is one of those things you want to use on a solo, or some keyboard stuff… I just got an Avalanche Run in the mail a couple days ago . . . that’s how I work, I’ll test it out on a mix. I was actually mixing Monster Magnet when the first shipment of weird stuff arrived . . . so that’s how the tremolo got on the bass guitar, which was amazing, but I don’t remember which trem it was.
AR: The Hummingbird?
JB: It was that one. Yeah, it’s green . . . Phil from Monster Magnet was sitting there turning the knobs as the bass was playing . . . I think I have 40 EarthQuaker pedals, so I’m pretty close to having everything at this point. My friend said there was one called the Speaker Cranker that he got when he went down there to visit you guys, he said there’s not many of those?
AR: We still make ‘em. It’s basically a gain stage. It’s like sticking another preamp tube in your amp.
JB: Sometimes the simple ones do a lot more than you think, man.
AR: Yeah they do. So what’s your background? Do you have a degree in electrical engineering?
JB: No, man. I just tinker with shit. I build some pedals myself. Normally, I just like fuckin’ around with shit, man. Or you’re working on a record and people hear a sound and they go, “That’s kind of interesting.” I’m into it, ‘cause I like hearing new stuff.
AR: Yeah man, that’s one of the joys of EQD. I wasn’t there at the time, but when the Rainbow Machine first happened . . . it’s become like company lore now.
JB: Well you’re definitely coming up with some creative stuff, that’s for sure. It’s just inspiring when you’re working, and you throw something on to see what it does . . . that’s usually how it happens for me.
AR: Yeah, that’s where the fun is. You chain things together and see what happens, see if they’ll play nice. Or if they don’t play nice, at least they make a cool sound.
JB: Exactly. Sometimes it leads to other stuff.
JB: Well hey, thanks for all the killer pedals. I’ll continue to spread the word. Let me know how I can help, other than having to actually type something out myself!
AR: Ha! Right. That’s what I’m here for.
JB: Well, I appreciate it. Have a great weekend, Aaron.
AR: You too, Joe!
JB: Thanks! Bye.