Joey Sturgis: Producing Heavy Metal in the Box

Record producer Joey Sturgis is helping to define modern underground heavy music, thanks to his digital-centric, often epic creations. A computer geek at heart, his “in-the-box” approach to recording is anything but.

 

These days, Joey Sturgis is the producer of choice for bands who want their metal hard, heavy, and with a flair for the dramatic. Working from a series of Midwest studios over the last decade (currently residing in Connersville, Ind.), he’s built an impressive, lengthy resume featuring works by a who’s who of artists currently defining the heavy music genres. His frequent repeat customers, and the rising popularity many of them are enjoying, is further testament to the magic Sturgis brings to a project. He’s also branched out to recently launch Joey Sturgis Custom Tones, which sells custom digital guitar and bass tones, and released a solo album in November called The Korean Lighthouse. And he hasn’t even turned 30 yet.

Some of the biggest names in underground music have turned to Sturgis to help them create defining works throughout their careers, including Devil Wears Prada, Asking Alexandria, Emmure, and We Came As Romans, just to name a handful. While he’s admittedly an in-the-box producer who works his talents within the computer, Sturgis’ methods are otherwise completely out of the ordinary, particularly his penchant for bringing theatrical, comic-book-esque splashes to the music. Get In Media talked with Sturgis between sessions, and he offered a wealth of insight on his trendsetting creative process.

Get in Media: Were you a musician growing up?

Joey Sturgis: Yeah, I played pretty much anything I could get my hands on. My family is musical: My uncle is a producer and recording engineer in Nashville, my parents both play in a band, and my grandpa played guitar until the day he died. I played drums and guitar. I found a drum set in our basement and started banging on those, and my parents said that even as a kid I’d be banging on pots and pans, so I kind of started as a drummer. My dad plays and teaches guitar, and has for most of my life, so it was really easy to transition to guitar, because as soon as I realized I wanted to play, my dad was like, “This is how you do it.”

I was in a band playing drums when I was like, 9, playing Metallica covers with 20-year-olds. I stopped when I was 19, because that’s when the recording thing picked up.

GIM: What made you gravitate toward recording instead of playing?

JS: It just kind of happened. The defining moment was when I was in one of the last bands I played in. We decided to record a demo, and at that time no one had home studios. If you wanted to record a demo, you had to get thousands of dollars and go to a huge studio. That was your only option, except my friend had this thing called Aardvark Q10, which is a really old, piece of crap hardware that allowed you to record eight tracks with your computer. It was a super basic setup, and he was recording some stuff and experimenting. He let me come in there at night and mess around with stuff.

Eventually, I learned how to record our own demo, so we didn’t have to save up all that money and go to some big place. We put it on MySpace and a friend of our vocalist heard it and was like, “Where did you guys record? We want to go there.” He’s like, “Oh, our drummer did it,” so they said, “Can we record with your drummer?” That’s kind of how it all began. For the first year, I was just recording friends of friends, and it spiraled out of control.

Joey Sturgis

GIM: You’ve worked with a lot of heavy bands. Is that your preference?

JS: When I started, it was all about metal, metalcore, grindcore, death metal … the heavier end of the spectrum. Nowadays, I’m older, and I’m listening to Imogen Heap, Shania Twain, all these guilty pleasures to a lot of people, or Satanic words like Nickelback. I like this stuff, so it’s weird, I’ve shifted over the years and I listen to everything. … I like to think I’m more open-minded, and that enables me to keep doing this even though a lot of the bands I work with have a formula now and there’s breakdowns in every song. It’s something we can’t necessarily get away from. I’d love it for a band to come in here and be like, “We’re going to do a whole CD with no breakdowns.” I’d be like, “Holy shit, that’s awesome.” But at the same time, a breakdown is what it is, and it gets people to move, it gets people excited at shows. That thing that it does is not going to go away. I’d really love to work with stuff out of the box, out of my typical metalcore range, but I just don’t have those types of bands knocking on my door, so I’m kind of stuck with what I’m doing.

GIM: How would you describe your creative involvement with the bands?

JS: It sways for different bands. With Asking Alexandria, Danny [Worsnop] has a voice that can do whatever I could ever dream of. That’s kind of cool because we get to play around with vocals and go back and forth on some ideas. At the same time, he’s a very charismatic vocalist, so he knows pretty much exactly what he wants to do with the songs. When you get in those situations, I’m not being like, “Hey, you should write this melody line,” or “You should try these lyrics,” because he’s already got that shit figured out. Then there’s other bands that are like, “Man, I have no idea what to say for this verse,” so I’m sitting there literally writing lyrics with them. I think it just depends on the band’s situation and the guys’ personalities.

GIM: Has there ever been anybody you’ve been flat-out unable to work with?

JS: There’ve definitely been bands that have been hard to work with, but there are different types of hard. Sometimes you get the band that comes in, and they’re hard to work with because their material is so good that you just don’t want to mess anything up, and so you’re internally conflicted about some things. Then you get people who are hard to work with because of how much freaking drama they have as a band, and maybe there are three members that always fight about the same thing, and it comes up four times in the recording process, and it’s a pain.

Then you get people that are hard to work with because they’re physically limited in their ability to do what they’re trying to do. That’s another issue I think bands need to address: They need to stop writing outside of their element. There’s always that chance to improve, but you need to sit there and do it. If we’re in the studio spending all day on one guitar part, obviously you shouldn’t have written that guitar part.

Joey Sturgis

GIM: Sounds like you have to do a bit of a balancing act.

JS: Typically, I’d say that even with the bands that are really hard to work with, for whatever reason, we still make it happen. … We still get along. There’ve only been a couple bands where it didn’t work out personally; professionally we finished the album, everything was fine, but I probably would never talk to them or work with them again. That’s only happened once or twice, so I’ve been really blessed to get along with everyone. I think people respect where I come from and they don’t put me in that position and I’m really fortunate for that. At the same time, I’m super open-minded. I don’t care if you drink, just don’t drink before you do your vocals, and don’t drink in my house. If you want to drink, go out to your van or go to a bar or something. As long as we can keep that relationship like that, we’re good.

GIM: Are you a gear hound?

JS: I tend to have more computer stuff. In high school I was taking a computer class for basic  things. They had job placement, so I got a job during my last two years of high school, where I was the right-hand man for a computer store. I guess the combination of my interest in computers and my musical background is kind of what started it all.

GIM: You’re considered an in-the-box producer because you start with raw sound files then do all the tweaking inside the computer. What are some keys to that approach?

JS: It’s harder for some people to manage because they get what I call “tweak happy.” It’s basically where you have this disease where since everything’s kind of raw in the computer and you have all these effects and stuff, you can sit there and tweak forever. You can open up the song and save it as another version of the song and then completely do a second mix, then a third mix. You get these people who never know when to quit. It takes a little bit of discipline to have all those controls in front of you on the screen and be able to modify them at any time.

Joey Sturgis

GIM: What’s your take on Auto-Tune?

JS: Auto-Tune is a tool just like anything else. No one yells at a guitar player for going on stage with his tuner and tuning his guitar before he plays. I understand that’s different, because it’s a mechanical instrument, but voice is an instrument, too. People aren’t perfect and everyone expects to hear perfect things when they listen to productions. If we’d never used Auto-Tune, people would be fine with it, but someone started using it, and then more and more people used it, and now our ears are trained to hear pitch perfectly. When we don’t hear it, we go, “Eew. That sounds awful.”

Then there’s the whole side where people are using Auto-Tune as an effect. I think that’s entirely opinion. I can’t say that’s wrong or right. Some people like to listen to that in their music, and that’s great. Obviously it’s working because there are tons of records with that crap. I don’t necessarily like it, but I can’t say that’s wrong. I just think it’s wrong to take someone who can’t sing and make it sound like they can.

GIM: You’re very pro-tech when it comes to recording. But what are the downsides, if any, of the digital music era?

JS: I want people to change the way things are going in the scene, and it’s mainly because we’re getting a lot of these digital upstarts. You’ve got five guys living in five different states, and they all decide they want to be in a band, so they make a Facebook page and now everyone thinks they’ve lived together for years, when in reality they write songs on laptops and they’ve never played a note together. I think we need to get rid of that, and I think more bands need to get together in a room and write songs and write music that way, and get away from writing music on their laptops, because it’s really going to hurt songs.

It’s so hard, because technology’s made it so easy for us to do it that way. It’s really hard for people to be self-disciplined and be like, “I’m not going to use my laptop to write this song. I’m going to get in a room with my band.” It’s kind of silly, but that’s what it’s come down to.

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