Jason LaRocca: from Punk to Paddington

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Jason LaRocca is one of a fascinating and inspiring musical breed you come across. He started out on one successful music career path before turning his prodigious talents in another direction. And he's made just as much of an impact in a new arena. Already a rock guitarist in punk band The Briggs by the age of 19, LaRocca then turned his attentions to film score engineering and producing. Within a few years he forged an impressive resumé mixing for top motion pictures. These include Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Joy, The Accountant, Snowden, and Paddington – not to mention TV scores Once Upon a Time and American Crime.

Making this switch and bringing rock n’ roll to the movie role is not something LaRocca sees as extraordinary; in fact he believes his teen education sharing stages with Rage Against the Machine and Dropkick Murphys set him up perfectly to properly ‘feel’ the music he engineers. And he brings a real passion and perfectionism to his work. He talks to us about this honed musical intuition, being a ‘bit of a gear-head’, and his true love of reverb.

Who doesn’t want to be a rock star?

From an early age, says LaRocca, he had an inherited appreciation for the arts in general, and for music in particular; and like many a teenager he dreamed of being a rock star. Unlike the majority, however, he went right ahead and achieved this, almost making it sound easy: “My parents were very into music; they didn’t play musical instruments, but they were really supportive of the arts. So I had a high appreciation for the arts from a young age. They had kept all their wonderful vinyl records that they had collected as young teenagers - Beatles records, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and all that stuff - so I listened to a lot of that, immersed myself in it, and they were very supportive of it. Having picked up the guitar I wanted to be a rock star and travel the world being a guitar player. And I actually started doing that when I was 19 or 20; I started touring in a punk band [The Briggs, formed with his brother Joey and bassist Matthew Stolarz]. We toured a lot, playing with bands like Dropkick Murphys and even sharing the stage with Rage Against the Machine.” But not content with pursuing just one dream career, LaRocca always nurtured a desire to be an engineer or producer “on the other side of the glass”. “So I always kept my hand in the studio world: when I wasn’t touring I was finding projects to do at home in Los Angeles, to record and produce, and keep the rent going when I wasn’t on tour.” After a while the studio work took on a life of its own and LaRocca decided he preferred it to touring. Having worked as an intern for Mark Isham he had encountered film music in particular, and it was this genre that really captured the young rocker’s heart. “That just happened to be where I landed studio-wise because I had a friend who was working for Mark Isham, and he was leaving his job there and was looking for someone to replace him. Because I was friends with him I got a shot with all the other people who were up for the job - mostly Juilliard grads and things like that - and I just came in super-honest, being the guy that I am. I said ‘Listen, this is my heart and soul in music. I don’t necessarily know about film music but I know a lot of things and I know how to learn things quickly, so why don’t I just hang out with you for a few days and you see if you like me or not?’... And I’m still working with Mark to this day, almost twenty years later!”

Movie mixing: the rock and roll of the studio world

The switch from punk to producing was, as time shows, a successful one, with LaRocca quickly picking up engineering gigs on movies from Whisky Tango Foxtrot to Paddington. But can movie mixing ever live up to sharing a live stage with Rage Against the Machine? LaRocca has no doubts at all: “If there is a stage to be on, as it were, in the studio world, film music is probably the most exciting one there is. Getting to record with a hundred-piece orchestra, and mix in 7.1 or now Atmos, if you sit back and look and that, that’s kind of a rock star thing. And while carrying on the rock star thing certainly wasn’t my goal, it is a very exciting place to be, sitting behind the console looking out at so many players who really know what they’re doing, playing your music (or the music you’re producing). To hear it sound the way it does, that’s pretty awesome.”

He also points out that the crossover between rock and more orchestral-based film scores is not as unlikely as people might make out: “I’ve always liked rock or pop music when it’s had orchestra in it, or some kind of classical music element. The Beatles’ A Day in the Life is a good example; that’s an incredible piece of art from a pop music perspective. The first time I heard it I didn’t know why I liked it so much, but I think that’s a big part of it – George Martin pulled a lot of this from his world of knowledge. And of course The Beatles were always pushing boundaries in any way they could. So I feel like the rock-orchestral crossover is not totally so far left-field. To be honest; the two worlds do come together. If you sit back and look at it, they’ve been married together in the past. Maybe not film music per se, but orchestral elements and pop and rock elements have been married together before. To me it’s all stuff I grew up with, it’s all familiar.”

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You have to play it and feel it and know it

And there’s no question that a background in the live music world and recording as a musician in his own right has stood LaRocca in good stead for mixing and producing. “I have a pretty good ear for time and for pitch; and I didn’t go to school for that, I just know it from when I was making my own records. I produced them, and wanted them to be as great as they could be. Because I knew we didn’t have the budget of a lot of the bands that we were trying to compete with. So I really tried to push myself forwards in any way I could on my own to give myself that extra edge: we did it for years that way. And that has helped me a lot; that background, being in the trenches as it were, on tour and making my own records kind of was my school in a way.”

It might have made LaRocca rather a perfectionist (“I kind of annoy myself because when I listen I hear very minute things that I could disagree with about my own recordings and mixes and productions – I listen a year later and go ‘How did I miss that! That’s about 10 milliseconds ahead of the bass drum!’), but it has also made him the naturally talented intuitive engineer he is today. “I get a magnifying glass to that stuff with my ear, and that’s all just from having done it, from playing it, because you really have to play it and feel it to know it. You’ll never know those things by just being told ‘listen to where the kick drum is to the bass drum to the guitar, hear how they’re not on the same spot’ - you can’t just ear-train someone to hear that. You have to play it because you feel it in your chest. You want certain things to feel ahead or behind, to fall in the right place; it’s all about the musical feel. And to have the musical feel or that knowledge, that really is playing it. So for me, having that background of having toured and done that in my grass-roots way gave me that ability to really feel the music in the right way. It's very helpful to the composers and the people that I work with, because they don’t always hear that stuff when I hear it.”

Sticking to the gear essentials

LaRocca readily admits to being “a little bit of a gear-head”, but is trying to tone down his gear impulse-purchases: “I’ve calmed down a little bit! I have key things that I feel like are really important to me, and I try not to get too many things that I don’t really need. I really try to stick with what’s essential. The same with plug- ins; I try not to get too many because I buy a bunch then forget I have them! I think keeping things pretty close to an essential set of tools is great. I like to buy one thing and really learn how to use it and exhaust every possibility for that tool until I feel like I’ve really got it, then I’ll get something else. I think buying fifty microphones at once or a ton of outboard gear all at once is kind of odd; you’re only going to take time to learn one thing at a time anyway. So that’s how I look at it. I try to introduce one new thing per project, then that’s how you learn how to use it, get into the trenches with it then you go ‘cool, now I understand how to use it. Let’s get a new piece of gear.’ Every time I have a project, I think what I might need; I don’t just buy all the plug-ins on sale for July 4th weekend, luckily I’ve gotten over that!”

Reverb, on the other hand, is not something LaRocca will ever ‘get over’ – “it’s usually always there in my score mixes, added somewhere to the recordings. If we’re at Capitol or one of the studios that has chambers, and we’re doing something more like a pop record vibe or an old jazz record vibe I might use all natural chambers. But a lot of the time when we get back to the mix there’s still reverb that gets added to it. Even with the projects I’ve done in London at Air, I’ve still added reverb to those too: I did this movie, Life, earlier this year, at Air, and that sounded great; it has great natural reverb and sound that Air has. But I still added some R2 to it just to help lengthen it a little bit and make it a little more like an infinite space. Sometimes I’ll add some extra reverbs that are just discretely out there in those further-back surrounds just to kind of give it a cool extra bit of length way out in the back of the room. So yeah, I use reverb a lot. And it’s not always score stuff too. I just did this commercial where we had Janelle Monáe singing on it, and I used the R2 reverb on her vocals for that. It came to us very dry and it needed to match the ambience of the rest of the track. So it’s really great for that. I love reverb in general, so when there’s a place for it I’m not shy to put it there!”

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Exponential: all the character, without the volume

It wasn’t long before such a fan of reverb came across Exponential Audio... “It was just in a discussion with some engineer buddies. I was trying to explore some new possibilities; I had some go-to reverbs and just wanted some more choices and a couple of trusted engineer friends mentioned it and I saw no reason not to try it out. Of course, when I did I thought it was great, and it started replacing some of the go-to things I had on certain instruments. It started to feel like it had a character which was kinda cool. Because a lot of the time it’s something I have to tweak a lot to get it to have that character. It worked really well right out of the box, especially for things like vocals and orchestra.” He particularly rates the front panel: “the buttons and knobs tend to be all I need, I’ll just play with the length of it or play with the filters a little bit, just right there on the main page, and that tends to be all I need to do. I also like that it has the filters because I do like to EQ my reverbs, and the R4 has a lot of filter choices which is really nice. And I really don’t need to do too much other than dig in for a few seconds, and I’ve got it dialled in.” He appreciates the flexibility of being able to filter on the way in – “I would do that a lot in the past with just the standard EQ plug-ins in Pro Tools; it would take a second to get all the filters set up the way you want. But I like the choices in the R4 and the Nimbus that are already there, because they’re tuned to the sound of that plug-in, which is really cool.” And he’s also a fan of the Warp function: “it gets it kind of gritty, kind of like when you would overdrive a chamber or plate or something like that in analog. I love that sound, because I think that’s when you get a lot of people who want to go to studios that have analog chambers or plates, they want to impart some extra character that you wouldn’t otherwise know quite how to get. So I love that part of the plug-in, it’s very useful.” Not to mention its exceptionally low CPU-usage, crucial to a movie mixer working with dozens of elements simultaneously: “I have some EQ plug-ins, some compressor plug-ins, and these for reverbs, for that very reason, because I have to use a lot of them. For instance, just one reverb send for a vocal or the orchestra is usually going to be three instances of an R2 or three instances of an R4 because I’ll do maybe front, middle and back; and when I’m doing that for each stem that builds up quickly. Reverbs tend to be very CPU-intensive so it’s nice with a plug-in like this that isn’t, so I can use a lot of them because just by the nature of the style of mixing I’m doing I have to.”

You’ll get to sleep at some point...

For such a prolific engineer, mixer and producer, schooled in the non-stop world of live music, it’s hardly surprising his advice to anyone following in his footsteps would be to stay calm and always say yes, regardless of how many hours there are in the day: “I would advise anyone starting out on this road, to just not worry about it - you’re going to sleep at some point! There will be those periods of down time where you’ll finally get to sleep and you’ll realise you didn’t have to freak out for those three weeks that you were working on a project thinking ‘when am I actually going to sleep, this is going on forever!’ Then you’ll have a day or two to sleep...and otherwise keep saying yes and keep doing your job!”