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RSR054- Josh Harris – Defining His Sound as a Remixer & Studio One Expert

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR054- Josh Harris - Defining His Sound as a Remixer & Studio One Expert

My guest today is Josh Harris, a producer, composer, engineer, remixer and music industry educator. He is a classically trained pianist and composer who likes to fuse different musical genres into his writing and remixing. 

Josh can easily migrate from the studio to the stage and has toured with Grammy award winning artist, Seal, as his musical director and keyboardist. His credits include top name artists like Seal, Madonna, The Killers and James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem). While some of his his corporate clients include composing and mixing for NBC, ABC, MTV, VH1 and the USA Network.

With over two hundred major-label remix credits, Josh has received nominations by the International Dance Music Association (IDMA) for best remixer. And his music has been used in several TV shows, such as MTV's Damage Control, Room Raiders, and America's Next Top Model.

Josh is also a founding member of the Brooklyn-based, band and production team, Lindbergh Palace. And he currently resides in his hometown of St. louis, where he is the founder of STL Hit Squad, a collective of local artists, engineers and songwriters.

Outside of the studio he is a gifted educator serving as adjunct faculty at Ex’treme Institute by Nelly, teaching entertainment and media business. And he has multiple courses on mixing and remixing on Lynda.com as well as working closely with Presonus. In fact it was here in Nashville at summer NAMM in 2015 that I first met Josh demonstrating to a room of producers just how awesome Presonus Studio One is!

"A lot of my success as a remixer has been born out of the fact that I am a trained musician and I know how to sit down and reharmonize and pull the original chord changes"

Josh Harris

Josh's First Dabblings in Midi

It’s wild man, I tell some of the kids I teach how hard it was, how much we toiled over putting together music back then. You had a sequencer, 16 midi channels, and maybe one sound module while you were trying to lay parts down, you had 4 tracks, and you were trying to bounce. The early days of midi I thought were really exciting because you could have one keyboard controlling sounds from these rack mount pieces and it made live playing completely different than having to bring out a synth for every keyboard part. You could split your master controller into zones and one octave could handle one module so you were able to streamline the process as a keyboard player. Back then midi really had a place on stage as well as in the studio, it was a force in both areas. Now with the current DAWs, I don’t want to say midi doesn’t exist because DAWs do handle midi information, but everything's internal. Everything in the early days of midi was external with a controller and a module and another module and a board.

Similarities Working in Midi Then vs. Now

You could look at patch organization and the patch library work that you had to do back then as sort of the 1980s version of how we organize our sample libraries now. You notice with the benchmark releases of Studio One and Logic and maybe some other DAWs, there’s always an update to the browser. There always seems to be an update for searching, now we have tags and different descriptive words we can use to find the five kick drums that have a sub frequency in them out of our thousand kick drums where patch and sound organization have always been there, this is sort of the modern day version of it and it’s audio as opposed to midi.

“It’s very different to stay creative when you’re scrolling through 75 synth pad sounds”- Josh Harris

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What’s the First Step you do when
you get a New Synth?

The way I organize my time in the studio, I actually set aside afternoons sometimes purely for sound organization or sample auditioning. Let’s say I have all these libraries that I recently added and need to go through, I think there are different states of mind in the studio. It’s very different to stay creative when you’re scrolling through 75 synth pad sounds so I dedicate time throughout a couple of afternoons each month to go through sounds. Really when you think about it, making music doesn’t necessarily take a long time, but choosing the sounds and creating the sound palette can be the thing that takes the longest. So if I got a synth, I would spend part of a Saturday if not the whole Saturday scrolling through sounds and writing down patch numbers that I liked until I had them committed to memory. I would use those as a starting point. The sooner you learn your sounds and the sooner you have a handle on your sound library, the easier it is to just make music.

“The sooner you learn your sounds and the sooner you have a handle on your sound library, the easier it is to just make music” 

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How Do you Capture Your Musical Ideas?

To be honest I think I hear some of my best ideas in the car. Like a lot of people now, I sing a lot of things into the phone. In the old days I would leave myself a message on my answering machine and maybe sing a bassline. But it can be that basic where I might hear 3 or 4 notes or a hook or a chorus in my head, and I’m pretty much a pop songwriter at heart so almost everything I write melodically has that pop commercial sound. So I’ll leave myself a memo on my phone and I’ll come back to it the next day or a few days later. The way I work now, because I’ve been a one man army for so long, is I actually do my best to build the track, mix the track and sort of fuse the composing, sequencing, arranging, and production all at one time. I really like this process to be the fusion of what I’m hearing in my head comes out in the studio and I’m mixing as I go, then I’m hearing melodies on top of the track I just built, and then lyrics start to come in from that point. It becomes this very channeled process.

Remixing The Killers

I had the chance to do a remix for The Killers “Somebody Told Me”. There had been rock remixes done before and most of the remixes I had done prior to this remix were complete reproductions where I would just take the vocals and that would be the only thing from the originals that I would use. I would gut the whole things and do a ground up new track. But when I got the chance to work on this, having been in bands and being a huge rock fan, I knew better than to try to reinvent the wheel. So what I did was I used the guitar stems, bass stems, obviously the vocals, and keys, then did new drums and did a club arrangement with vocal tricks and stutters and I kept it really, really simple so that the integrity of the original was still very much alive and present in the remix and the band loved it! When that remix was done, it got a lot of attention. That one remix in 2004 caused my phone to ring for awhile. 

                                Josh Harris - Somebody Told Me Club Remix

Are There General Guidelines to Remixing?

I’ve lived in the mainstream dance world, but because I’m a song guy and a songwriter most of the remixes I do where I have access to the full vocals, I will keep the original song form, but I usually take out the bridge. I’ve done so many remixes of pop songs where the bridge sometimes just doesn’t make sense in a club arrangement or if there are key changes I would maybe not do that. But generally speaking I will keep verse 1, chorus 1, verse 2, chorus 2, and then maybe change it up from there. The other thing I like to do is I’m a big believer in instrumental hooks. Going all the way back to Motown records and you think of the guitar lick for My Girl and how that’s such a signature part of the song, I think like that where I’ll put an instrumental hook (typically something new) after the chorus and that will be a signature part of the remix.
Some guys to check out in this style: David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia, Axwell, Avicii. The electronic music coming out the the Scandinavian area is really cool. There’s also a production outfit out of England called the Young Punx, there’s a guy named Phonat his stuff from 2009 is really cool, and I’ve also been a long time Daft Punk fan

“Let’s be honest, the pop music industry is all about numbers and sales and money” - Josh Harris

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Reasons to Record Vocals and Bass in Studio One

I like the track layers. Layers is the ability to basically save your takes, think of it like a playlist in Pro Tools. What’s cool about the way Layers works is you can see all of the takes you have recorded and then highlight the sections of the takes that you like and they get promoted to a composite track so you can really quickly comp a track. Melodyne Essential comes with the Studio One Professional version. Melodyne Essential is the baby version that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, that being said Melodyne is integrated so all you have to do is highlight an event (audio regions) click command + M (on a mac) and Melodyne will automatically pop open, read the file, and the blobs are there.

“Don’t be seduced by the latest OS update” - Josh Harris

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Jam Session 

Q- What was holding you back at the start?
A -Mixing hands down. I got through that barrier very slowly and painfully. When you start out in recording you know that something doesn’t sound right but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is and want your stuff to sound done like the stuff you listen to and I was so out of my depths in the early days of just putting songs together. I’ve never used a compressor, I didn’t know how to place a lead vocal, just dialing in the sonics of everything freaked me out.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?
A - As producers and engineers, we are in a service business, unless you’re doing your own artist album, and your clients are going to have opinions and you may not always agree with them. One thing I had to learn the hard way when I started doing work for major labels was that it didn’t really matter what I thought past a certain point, it was going matter what the artist or client manager thought. It’s difficult sometimes to remove our own emotions from the work we do because we’re passionate about that work and we want to make things excellent, but then there comes a point where you have to realize this is a track I’m doing for an artist that’s signed to a label and this has their name on it and I have to concede on some things.

“I think signature hooks really helps as a producer, helps to define your sound” - Josh Harris

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Q - Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
 I think it’s important to mix at a moderate level. I see young and even some experienced engineers crushing their ears working at really high decibel levels. I believe if you hang out in that 60db, mid volume, where it’s loud enough and you turn it up occasionally to check to make sure nothing is ripping your head off. Mixing is such an important part of what we do. You have to keep in mind the clients and the artists and whoever is listening to the music we do, they’re really only commenting on how things sound, the sonics. With that being said it’s important to save your ears. When you’re working long hours in the studio, don’t keep your volume knob on 11, turn it down a little bit!!

Q - Do you find that you trust the vocal level nuances more when you’re mixing quiet or more when you’re mixing loud?
 I have found that if I mix too low then I’m off with the vocal level. I’m probably mixing with the music the loudest when I’m automating vocals so that I’m not lulled into a false sense of placement. So that’s where I dive in and spend most of my time is automating, I admit that medium to pretty loud level and then I go really loud to make sure nothing rips my head off and then I’ll turn it down low and see how it feels. But yeah I have to get it up around 70-80db at least for vocals to know that I’m dialed in right.

“Nobody wants to hear something that sounds like a demo anymore” - Josh Harris

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Q -Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 I love my UAD apollo. I love the fact that I can track with plugins, it’s really changed the way I work. I actually sold some outboard gear once I bought it. Again with workflow I’m able to have some amazing vocal sessions and track my synths through the apollo. I just love the whole UAD platform. For the podcast I’m using the Beta58 through the 610B through an 1176, they are the plugin versions.

Q -Share a favorite software tool for the studio
 I love the UAD precision series. I’ve got almost all of them now and I use them for mastering and have them on my master fader. I don’t know what they were modeled after, but they just sound good. I’m in that mindset that unless I’m doing something deliberate, I don’t want to hear if a plugin is working. If you can make something in the digital world almost fool people to think it was mixed to tape, then you’re on point. I will throw in an Isotope plugin it’s their new vocal plugin, vocoder talk box, that’s a cool one. I like to throw vocoders up underneath the vocals for pop mixes as treatments and coatings to just give that sheen.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with grabbing a pre-recorded loop and floating that in on top of your own stuff” - Josh Harris

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Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - I’ve taken a look at some of my best years in the business and when I’ve had what I would call “down years,” I have to say that I got away from face to face. I think that while it could be argued that some of the conventions, whether it be NAMM or other conventions that go on throughout the year, are expensive and everyone goes, I think that the music industry was built on face to face relationships and studio work is really at it’s best when it’s face to face, so I’m going back to face to face. I’ve scheduled a lot of meetings here in STL, I’ll go out of my way to go out and get lunch or a drink with people and I’ll invest the time and money into traveling and doing the face to face, even coming down to Nashville.

Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A- For many years I’ve been a believer in laptop recording. I would get a top of the line laptop, it’s worth investing in a laptop you know you’re going to get 3-5 years out of, jump on board with a DAW that you feel works with the way your brain works, get a decent set of monitors, treat your room well so that you can do some basic mixing, get an audio interface maybe like a UAD apollo duo (the little desktop), and then invest into one $400-$500 microphone so that you can do vocals or voice over work because once you can record the voice in your own room, whether it’s yours or you bring in a singer, then you’re able to start to work with other people.

“I think that the music industry was built on face to face relationships” - Josh Harris

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Q- If you could go back and give yourself advice for when you were starting out, what’s the single most important thing you would tell yourself about becoming a rockstar of the recording studio?

A -  I think patience. I was very impatient in my 20s when I lived in Nashville and it worked against me in a lot of ways. Patience with my own skill set development, and patience with how a career unfolds, the natural trajectory of a career. If I could have that conversation I would just say, “Relax man, it’s going to be fine.”


Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!