Joe Chiccarelli: A Multi-Award Winning Producer Speaks
Stefan Hedengren, January 2011

While working with Frank Zappa, The White Stripes, Elton John, Beck, and U2, Joe Chiccarelli has achieved legendary status as an engineer, mixer, and producer. We got Joe to take a break from his current work producing The Strokes' new album to have a chat about his career, influences, and workflow.

Can you start by introducing yourself - who are you and what's your background?
I'm a Record Producer/engineer. I started as a bass player and lots of unsuccessful local rock bands as a teenager. My fascination led me to an assistant engineer position in a few recording studios. Which thru a few lucky breaks led me to this amazing career I currently am experiencing.

My new addiction is the Tonelux Tilt. How brilliant is Paul Wolff?

I've been able to cover many roles in my career from player to Producer and Engineer to A&R rep to Music Supervisor and even Studio Designer.

Which album are you most proud of, and which was most fun to work with?
I'm not sure I have an album that I am most proud of. As in any work there are moments where you feel it all connected. The music, the song, the arrangements, the sound, the mix etc. Those magical moments are few.

However, my time spent in the studio with many great artists like Elton John, The White Stripes, Beck, U2, The Shins, Etta James, Rufus Wainright and many others are times that I treasure. To be working along side such gifted talent is the thing I'm most proud of.

Who would you say are your biggest influences?
My biggest musical influences are artists who are unique and singular in their vision. Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Varesse, Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, Thelonius Monk. My real idols are painters, architects and film makers. These artists all work in a much higher and more difficult mediums than music.

Softube products have become an integral part of my work environment.

There are the great mavericks Miro, Scorcesse, Orson Welles, Basquiat, Mies Van Der Rohe, Koolhaus. People that have created their own language and a world that is truly unique to them is what excites me. As a music listener being able to jump into an artist's world and be totally immersed in his creation is the greatest pleasure and success.

You engineered for Frank Zappa, can you tell us a little about your experience with Frank?
My experience with Frank was a real gift. He taught me how to push the boundaries and break the rules. No other artist who I have worked with has the lack of fear and disdain for convention that Frank had. I owe him my career. It's not so much what I did as engineer working with him but what I didn't do. No room for the ordinary.

He was known for being creative in the studio, speeding up, slowing down etc. Did you get to do much technical experimentation?
The sessions were all about experimentation. How far could you push things. How many compressors could you use on a drum or guitar. How much sound could you capture on one microphone or perhaps a cassette recorder. Does this sound call for a hifi approach or does it communicate more if it is left very low fidelity? The process is not important to the listener just the overall emotional impact.

Of late I've been using the Dynamite plug in on drums. Combining it with the FET Compressor I can create some pretty aggressive drum sounds quickly when I need them. Snare drums just seem to crack thru any track with little effort.

You also worked with White Stripes. Can you tell us a little about your approach in recording and mixing them?
When I teamed up with The White Stripes they wanted to make an honest analog album but with all the punch and life of a modern day recording. They do not embrace digital technology but certainly love the flexibility that it offers. My challenge was to find way to achieve all that you can achieve in modern digital recording and editing facilities but in a 16 track analog world.

Quite a challenge at every moment but very rewarding. Use old school methods to deliver a modern state of the art recording! Jack White's true gift is knowing when a performance is all there and preserving and honoring that performance with his life. I have such respect for him as a musician and record maker.

You are now working on the new The Strokes album. Can you give us any insight there?
The Strokes are extremely creative musicians. Their love of experimentation is to be highly applauded. They are never ones to settle on one easy approach. It is vital for them to experiment and try many different options before choosing the final approach that best suits the song. Constantly changing instruments, drums, environments and overall aesthetics. It taught me much about the extremely broad overview a producer must have as well as the grand perspective an artist needs to be truly satisfied with his work.

You use Softube products, how do they contribute to your work?
Softube products have become an integral part of my work environment. The FET Compressor offers some sounds that classic analog compressors offer but in a very new way. Having so much radical control in one plug in is untypical of the way most compressor plug ins are currently. Plus I love the interface. Everytime I open it up it reminds me of my old Marantz stereo. I can almost smell the vinyl discs in my old apartment.

Of late I've been using the Valley People Dyna-mite plug in on drums. Combining it with the FET Compressor I can create some pretty aggressive drum sounds quickly when I need them. Snare drums just seem to crack thru any track with little effort. My new addiction is the Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live. How brilliant is Paul Wolff?

Did you use any Softube plug-ins on any recent album?
I did use them on the current Killers Xmas track "Boots" and they are prominently featured on the solo album for Killer's drummer Ronnie Vanucci as well as upcoming album for Warner Bros. solo artist Rachael Yamagata.

Any word of advice to young and upcoming engineers out there?
I'm a big believer in listening to all types of music. I think having a broad appreciation and understanding of all types is very healthy. Even understanding why you don't like certain types of music can aid you in working on music you feel kinship towards. Simply being open minded and respecting the artistry of real musicianship is crucial.

Freelance Writer