If you’re ever looking for a one-stop lesson in the sound of now, perhaps look no further than the work of Josh Gudwin. Whether it’s R&B, pop, Latin or an unmistakable fusion of all three, there’s a sound and a straight-to-the-point professionalism that oozes from all of Gudwin’s Grammy-winning output.
Perhaps most famous as Justin Beiber’s go-to collaborator, it’s Gudwin’s work with Latin artists such as Bad Bunny and J Balvin that helped put the sound over globally - winning Gudwin three Grammys and six Latin Grammys in the process - while mixing pop smashes for Bebe Rexha and Dua Lipa has only cemented his reputation for versatility and tenacious ‘can do’ attention to detail.
We caught up with one of today’s most in-demand studio stars during a moment of rare downtime at his LA-based setup.
So, where are you at right now?
“I'm at my place, in Henson Studios. I have two rooms - a Dolby Atmos room and a stereo mix room here.”
Over the years you’ve worked with some of the best. What is it that you think that people come to you for? What is it that you bring to a piece of music?
“I don’t know. I just tried to just encapsulate an emotion, somehow stamp it emotionally. You know, it's like a subconscious sonic thing. Songs and music are special like that.”
You've nailed such a great reputation with Latin artists. It feels like people are coming to you for a particular sound. How do you think that has happened?
“I love the music. And it's very easy for me to mix that kind of music and it comes very naturally. So I think that has something to do with it.”
It seems like you’ve become a master with the 808…
“Yeah, and usually with some sort of synth bass. A lot of the Latin stuff also has real bass behind it, layered underneath. But a lot of that is programmed synth bass with an 808.”
Are you big on hardware? Or are you working in the box these days?
“They’re all tools… and I have a lot of tools. But I’m hybrid, you know? I have stuff on inserts. Hardware inserts on my master… insert on my summing mixer… and lots of outboard equipment, just to plug in and play when I’m recording stuff as well.”
Are you a hoarder? Any prized vintage stuff in your collection?
“Nah. I’ve got some vintage stuff. But I don’t have ‘prized gear’. I have gear that I really love. I’m borrowing some [Telefunken] M269s right now that I'm really loving and thinking about buying. And a [Neumann U] 67 that belongs to Henson. And I’ve got some old guitars.”
Tell us what a typical mixing session might be like. Do you get a Pro Tools file and a rough mix?
“Well, I like the session that I’m given to already to sound like the rough mix. Just so that I'm not going backwards in the process of finishing a song. In my mind, I'm already assuming that it sounds pretty close to the reference. But I don't like to hear anything until I press play… I don’t like to have any preconceived thoughts about what I’ve got to do for the song. The first sound that really gets my attention in the song is the one I usually like to hit first.”
You always seem to pay such deference to the vocals. Your vocals are very upfront and clear. It’s like all the trickery is in the instrumentation.
“You know, I used to do a lot of tricks on the vocals, especially when I was doing tracking sessions and rough mixing after a song was recorded. But I found now that really doesn’t do it for me. But I'll probably go back to it later. Maybe a couple years down the road when I get bored of hearing vocals like that.
“But we're not here to play. By the time it gets to me, the engineers and producers have spent so much time digging in on that stuff. So I'll do some delay throws in there and some kind of deeper vocal treatment if I feel like the song is lacking in some kind of space. If I need to create some sound design, I'll definitely do that. But if it’s not needed, I don't put it in. “I don't want to change up the song too much unless I’m asked to. I just want special elements in there and then stamp that to make an emotional moment.”
Are there any techniques you always use?
“Nothing too out of the ordinary. Early on in my mixing I would use a lot of time-based effects. Lately I've been putting a side chain on my verbs or my delays or a tremolo - anything to create a subconscious movement, anything like that. I try to keep the left and the rights as undistracted as possible. Unless it's part of the treatment of the vocal.
“I prefer it when you subconsciously hear something. So it sounds like there’s not a lot of stuff with the vocal, but there’s still a lot of stuff going on.”
When it comes to drums you can really make an 808 snap. Is there a secret to getting that kick and snare working?
“It's just listening, balancing… and having the right producers that worked on it! It’s their sound selection and treatment that is very important. I’m just making sure that on my end the balance is great. The EQ and compression are great. There's no real secret to it - you just gotta make it work and there's a sweet spot for everything.”
So you’re not doing much rescuing? When you pull the faders, do tracks sound pretty good these days?
“You know, luckily, I work with a lot of talented people. But that’s not to say that I haven’t rescued a few tracks in my career.”
Do you mix alone? And do you always mix at your own studio?
“I always mix up at my studio unless someone requests me to be somewhere. But I have all my stuff in here. My assistant engineer is here. I'll mix with them in the room. I usually do mix alone, but I have an open door policy on my sessions.”
So you don't mind if the artist is there on your shoulder? Disagreeing with you?
“If the artist wants to hang while I mix, they’re more than welcome to! But most artists don't want to do that. They just want to hear the song. Keep in mind when you send an artist a song, they’ve already listened to it 1,000 times usually before it even gets to me. They know that song so well. So now they're just waiting for it - finished.”
Are you still at a place where you’re jetting around? Or do artists come to you?
“Yeah, both. It all just depends. If I need a big room, I go to a big room. If I'm mixing or writing, artists come to me. It's a very dynamic job. It's an evolving thing.”
So when you go to a new studio, do you have a ‘rider’? An equipment list that you want to work with?
“Absolutely. I always bring my stuff. The reason being that it has to be consistent. We have to deliver consistency in what we do. I need my speakers, I need my computer. I need my trackball! All of my essential tools that I need for me to operate efficiently. My engineer brings all that stuff over and coordinates with the assistant engineer on the session and gets all that up and running. So when the artist comes in, everything's ready to go.”
Tell us about what monitors you’re using. What are your favourites?
“I got ATC [SCM] 45s. I just got upgraded from the 25s just because I had two pairs and I was getting bored so I thought let’s upgrade the other one. And then there’s the Amphions with the bass system right there. They’re great. Then I got my [Yamaha] NS10s and the cubes, both powered with a Bryston 4b.”
Do you still use those much?
“Oh yeah. I go one, two, three in the middle [gestures across the monitors out to in, large to small] and four in the stands, and then I go to headphones.”
“The Audio-Technica. M50. I like them. I don't listen to music casually in them unless my [Apple] Airpod Maxs are dead, but I listen to all my mixes through them. And I like them for recording, too.”
You mentioned Atmos earlier. Are you big into spatial and mixing for spatial?
“Yeah, I mix all my stuff in spatial. I call it ‘immersive audio’ rather than spatial. But yeah, I have a Dolby room with PMCs that’s fully decked out, right next door. So once I get things done, I get the stems over there and then hit it in an immersive format.”
Let’s go way back to the start for a minute. How did you get into music?
“Well, music was always a passion for me. My dad was in a band. I always had good music playing and, growing up in Miami, it’s a very cultural city. We had a lot of different music inspirations all around us - a lot of language. And then I grew up and I joined the Marines. While doing my four years in the Marines I always played and wrote songs as a hobby. And when I got out I came out to LA to visit some friends and they were all making music in their apartments. And I was super inspired by it, because, coming from the military… It's like a polar opposite but it's actually very similar. But I really felt at that moment that ‘I'm gonna get into the music industry somehow.’”
So did you learn an instrument?
“I played guitar. I could write. But yeah, I'm no multi-instrumentalist! It’s more like the personal connection thing that’s like the instrument of mine, you know? It's like I'm able to really lock in the emotional aspect of a song and be a part of that. That's my favourite thing.”
And getting a connection with the artist. Do you have a routine that they fit into? Or do you fit into theirs?
“Every artist is different and I fit into their routine. If I'm writing a song with an artist, they'll come to me and like, we'll write it together. They'll come into my routine. But, you know, some artists want to work daytime… Some artists only want to work night time… Some artists are only inspired a couple hours a day. And then there’s all the personal stuff. Who knows what someone else is going through? You know what I'm saying? People are also busy.
“I'm not dictating time. If an artist has this tiny window to come in and knock some shit out? Then, yeah, let's do it then.”
Something we hear a lot is the fact that producers would love to spend longer with the artist, but there's always that time pressure.
“The older you get, the more we value our time, and you value your family and you value your person. You have different values over time and they change. You’ve got to adjust and, again, artists usually are very busy.”
Typically for a mix, how quick do they expect you to turn something around?
“It depends on how busy I am, how many mixes I have to do. But Buffy, my manager, makes sure that stuff stays in line as best as possible. But yeah, sometimes someone needs a 911 mix, and of course, we'll try to accommodate as best as possible.”
Do you ever have to turn down work that you wish that you could do but you just haven't got the time?
“Sometimes, yeah. Other times we turn it down for mental sanity. For psychological reasons. But I try not to turn work down. But mixing is a special thing. Because it's a big energy transfer. And there are certain songs that don't give you the energy back. So I make sure that my energy is protected as best as possible.”
Who's choosing things like microphones on a recording session? Do artists have a favourite mic that they like to work with?
“Some artists like the way certain microphones look… And some artists know what microphones are what. But for the most part - I would say 90% of the time - there's no questions asked as to what mic’s in front of them. And I'll have a few. I’ll have a [Neumann U] 47, a [Telefunken E LAM] 251 and a [Sony] C800G.”
Will you know, before you start recording, which one you’ll go with?
“I’ll just start with one as an example. Like the C800G - we’re starting with that. And if it doesn’t sound right - if it's some extreme thing I can’t adjust for - we swap it out. Take a quick little pause, do a quick little line switch and then move over to another mic very fast.”
What's the setup for somebody like Justin Bieber?
“The chain is real simple. 47, 251 or C800G through a Neve [preamp] and a [Tube Tech] CL1B [compressor]. And everything else is the vocal and the way it's captured.
“The most important thing is the vocalist and making sure you're not messing up on the capture.”
Do they lay down a guide vocal these days? Or do they just want to go straight in and make it happen?
“Sometimes the first melodies and mumbles that come out are the special ones and they make it to the end. Your first instinct, in a lot of aspects in our life, is the best - your initial gut feeling. And if you're laying down melodies and scratch vocals, that's when the magic comes out a lot of times.”
How do you feel about the rise of the vocal producer - a producer that just really works with an artist and specialises in vocals?
“That’s one of my bags. The thing about vocal producers is that when you're dealing with a vocalist, that vocal is their instrument. And a vocal is a very sensitive instrument. So it's nice to have someone help you get there. It's hard to record yourself, it's hard to communicate. There's a whole bunch of things that a producer helps with. Just to get that best performance and deliver a solid vocal.”
Are you primarily working in Pro Tools?
“Always in Pro Tools. I have templates. The most important thing for a template is making sure it talks to the studio you're in. I mean, every professional works with a template. If they're not working with a template, they're spending a lot of time on building up each session and that just takes time away from the song.”
Are there any plugins - be it producing or mixing - that you know that you're going to use?
“Of course. The FabFilter stuff. Always FabFilter stuff. And just some basic time based effects, you know? All my tracking templates are very minimal with a ton of plugins inactive but at the ready when needed. EQ, comp, harmonics, etc, on inserts. Reverbs, hall springs, plates, any delays I could send to. Just basic effects that I can send to if I need to treat a sound, then build them up if needed.
“And so I'll just open up what I’m gonna need. I’ll open up the templates and I’m like, ‘no, I need this. I need this. I need this.’ If you don't need it, you don't mess with it.”
And you have your own plugin, too?
Yeah, I just put out a plugin called Magic Flow. I put a lot of stuff into that box. The stuff that I use here is in that box. I put it together with Studio DMI and Acustica. Sonically it sounds like my rig, sampled through my SPL mixer (hardware inserts and summing), my outboard gear and Lavry converters. I put it into sections and it’s the same way that I dial things in on my sessions. So there’s filtering, peak levelling and multi-band we built up. A preamp and some saturation EQ that are great for a mid-bump.
“There’s a dynamic resonance controller that you can listen to and sweep through and pull down frequencies that you don’t like in a sound source. And there’s a dynamics balance and finishing compressor. I’ve put four EQ settings that I like in there so the user can switch them in and pick one they like.
“I wanted to put a lot of what I use flow-wise all in one box.”
Going back to artists, Dua Lipa is huge right now but you worked with her really early on for New Rules. That early work really put her on the map.
“Yeah, it's one of those things where you don't know what you got until you press play. So it was New Rules and I Don't Give A Fuck and a couple of those songs from the first album. Yeah, she's just a special one. So it's a blessing when you get a song like that. It’s like I said earlier with the energy transfer - you give it to it and it gives right back to you. So yeah, it was a refreshing exchange.”
Was it one of those tracks where you push the faders up and you know that it's a hit?
“No, I didn't know. It was towards the very end of it. It was mixed and it was going back and forth with Joe Kentish, her A&R. Just dialling it in to the point where it's like, ‘Dang, this is a special record!” Yeah.”
And global mega-hit Despacito, too. How did your work on that come about?
“Well, that original song was out and done. Then I got a call from Scooter [Braun, manager of Justin Bieber] and he’s like ‘I need you to go to Colombia to get Justin on this remix.’ I was supposed to go on holiday to Turks and Caicos on the weekend when I got the call… Meanwhile Justin was down in Bogota, for a concert. So I had to find a pocket where I could go right there and then fly right to Turks and Caicos.
“It was a 24 hour thing. I hit the studio that night with Justin, we knocked it out, finished it and then I flew to Turks and Caicos as planned. But the whole time I was still mixing it. I was doing final tweaks at the airport. In the American Airlines lounge. I finished it in the airport lounge and then I did my final tweaks at Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos on a Bose Bluetooth speaker, and headphones… It was crazy. But the song had to come out. I was getting last minute revisions from Justin and I was on vacation. I just had to knock it out. It was just one of those interesting moments.”
But you were confident that you could nail it?
“Yeah, well, that’s because Jaycen Joshua mixed the original. So I was working with Jaycen’s stems. I had to do some arranging, mixing in Justin and tweaking some sounds and vocals around him. But I checked it in a lot of places! I checked in headphones, I checked it in the Bluetooth speaker. I drove around Parrot Cay in a golf cart listening on a speaker to make sure it felt good. I did a lot of vibe checks out there! The combination of Jaycen’s stems and knowing how to deliver the song, plus a mastering engineer finishing it… Every person in line delivered. And it was a quick window, not a lot of time for back and forth.”
How do those big remix collaborations come about? I guess when someone like Justin says ‘I want to work on your track’ the doors just open?
“Sometimes Justin says it, sometimes people come to us about it. They come from anywhere, right? You’ve just got to make sure that they're the right ones. If I'm taking my cue from an artist, which I like to do, it’s all about what Justin brings to the table.”
And when you’re working with big artists is it always smooth running?
“Life is never smooth, my friend! No, no. This is a very intimate thing that we do so, of course, there's ups and downs and there's peaks and valleys. Every artist knows what they're capable of and how they feel. So, if an artist is doing something and they're tired or they don't feel like they're getting it, we just take a break. We move onto something different and hit it fresh. And if I’m like, ‘oh man, I don't know if I can finish this mix’… It's a rare thing. But when that happens, I take a break. I start a different song or pull it up first thing in the morning when you're creatively fresh.”
So you’re a morning guy. You get up and you go to work?
“Dude, I’ve done my all nighters! I’ve worked 16 hours, 24 hours, multiple day-ers in the studio. I’ve done that stuff.”
Do you have a busy schedule? Do you have every day mapped out as to what you’re going to be doing?
“To an extent it’s mapped out. I’m working every day. I can’t say what I’m working on right now as it’s coming out so I can’t discuss that, but today I’ve got an artist coming over for an immersive session, to listen to his mixes in Atmos. And I’m doing some songwriting later and aiming to get home about eight o’clock tonight.”
So do you have a benchmark record - one that you really love where you just want every track to go as good as that one?
“No track ever goes that way! It’s not like that. I don’t keep favourites. They’re all special moments to me - even the hard ones.”
So what’s it like winning Grammys for your music?
“I told myself I’ll get one and retire. I’ll be good with one! But I’m on a streak right now. It’s nice to suit up, it’s nice to go, and it’s always awesome to see our friends nominated and winning! I’ve met so many interesting and unique people from going to the Grammys and being an LA chapter Governor and co-chair on the P&E wing.”
And how’s the rest of 2023 looking? What would you like to achieve this year?
“2023 is the year of having fun. It’s the year of being creative and building things. I put my plugin out, I want to build more plugins, do more songwriting and have more fun.”