Satellite radio giant SiriusXM produces a staggering amount of content every day, servicing close to 35 million listeners with more than 200 radio channels and 400 web channels. In 2019, the company expanded its reach even further, inking content deals with Google and Walt Disney’s Marvel division and purchasing Pandora, bringing the streaming service’s broad array of content and 100 million listeners into its portfolio.
Jackson MacInnis has had a front-row seat for SiriusXM’s productions for nearly two decades. As senior director of broadcast operations, he’s overseen sessions with thousands of A-list artists, mixing the likes of Jack White, Coldplay, John Legend, and Robert Plant, just to name a few.
Based out of Washington D.C., MacInnis oversees recording studios in D.C., New York, and Nashville, as well as SiriusXM’s new Hollywood complex, which opened in October with a series of broadcasts with Howard Stern and performances by Green Day, Maroon Five, and dozens of other artists.
MacInnis is also a successful composer who’s worked on films, television shows, and interactive media; his scoring credits include feature films American Skin and The Brotherhood and dozens of documentaries for Animal Planet, MTV, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and public television.
Here, MacInnis shares insights on how he and his production teams manage SiriusXM’s steady stream of artist sessions around the country and rely on Auto-Tune and other go-to studio tools to dial in album-quality sound every time.
You’ve been with SiriusXM almost since the beginning, right? Almost 20 years?
Exactly. It was almost just a concept then. I’d worked at CNN for five years before that, but I got hired in as one of the first operations guys, which meant testing the hundred channels that they were trying to broadcast, and at that point it was very crazy that we were going to broadcast a hundred channels all at once from one facility. I think only Direct TV had really done that.
So, you were a Berklee guy, but you went into broadcast right away.
Yeah. Right out of college it was, “I’m going to work at nightclubs.” I worked at some DC clubs running sound, and was also doing some film scoring, but Washington was about broadcast. My easiest gigs to get were freelancing around the city doing audio for bizarre things like Inside Edition, where I would have a boom mic and follow political people around like G. Gordon Liddy around.
You’re also a composer; tell me about that side of your work.
Early on, I was a film scoring minor at Berklee, so not only was I an engineer geek—as a kid I had my own 4-track—but somewhere along the line I started doing scores for friends’ films. And at some point it got to be, ‘Hey, Discovery Channel’s in town,” and, “National Geographic is in town”… I got intermingled with some of those producers, and for 10 years straight, I was doing a lot of side work at night in my own studio, scoring with them.
How has your role at SiriusXM evolved over the years?
I was hired more on the operations side. The ECC is this control center where we had a view to the hundreds of channels in service. It looks like the bridge on Star Trek, with literally a chair that you sit in, and it has insight to all of the CPUs in all of the studios, so if anything goes wrong, like a DJ went out and had a cigarette and that channel went off the air, I would get notified and we would go to automation for that channel.
One day I happened to be having lunch with Tony Masiello—he’s kind of famous in the compression world; he worked at CBS in the ’70s and was part of the first MP3 development—I was telling him that I had been working on this Shark Week documentary, and he was like, “Really? You write music? Did you mix it?” I did; it was in my studio. He said, “We’re building this performance studio this next year. Would you be interested in helping me with that?” And here it is, 19 years later.
We went from building this great studio to doing more than 10,000 recordings in the past 20 years. I guided the purchase of the gear and the backline, and isolation, and microphones and really got to be a part of that from ground level. There are three studios now in New York, the original DC location, another one in Nashville, and our new studio in LA just opened. So, it’s been quite a ride.
How hands-on are you with production these days?
I got to mix major artists that have come through over the years, but as it has progressed, I have been delegating more. I’ll maybe do a few sessions every couple of weeks now, whereas in New York we do ten or more sessions a week. In DC, it’s little smaller number, but we do all the post-production and mixing of concerts.
Tell me about the post-production process.
Any channel can request a performance, versus just an interview. That can be anything from a couple songs to an hour-and-a-half special with an audience. Because such a wide diversity of artists comes through the doors, from classical, to heavy metal, to rap, the engineers have to have an interest in making mixes that sound good for all of those different genres.
And quickly, I imagine.
You know that saying, “you can’t have it done fast and good”? We really have no choice. Our mantra has always been, “how do we increase the quality?” After 20 years, I feel like we’ve gotten a really amazing way to capture things, to make the artists very comfortable. When they walk in they’re not walking into a radio station, they’re walking into a full-fledged recording studio, and that sort of puts them at ease.
How much time do you get to spend with an A-list artist?
Let’s say it’s just an average five, six, seven-piece rock band; they’ll come in for a couple of hours the day before to set up. Then when they arrive, everything’s lit up. They even like using our backline, the drums, the amps. I’d say two to three hours with them in the room.
And you’re doing this multiple times a week?
Oh, yeah. In New York, it’s five a day between the two studios. We have very understanding management who knows we have to do post-production, and that’s at our discretion, and also the artists’, because some artists want to hear a program before it goes on air. We spend whatever time it takes to remix, depending on how big the session is, and most of the time we just send it straight to programming. Some artists want approval, some don’t.
It sounds like you have the process dialed in. How does technology support that? Are you aiming for consistency across the studios?
We definitely have consistency in rigs now. We went with SSL consoles in all five of our main studios. We got the C200, which is fully digital. I can send an engineer to New York, or send my New York guy to LA to do the Howard Stern opening, for example.
What kind of functionality are you looking for in these tools? Are you looking for a simple interface? Do you seek out tools that focus on a specific purpose or lean toward multipurpose tools?
In terms of the console itself, I really like the idea of a knob per function. Because sometimes an artist will come in with his or her engineer, and if it’s set to something obscure, with menus and all that, they would feel less comfortable.
Talking about artists bringing in their engineers, how much does the sonic identity of a record inform the aesthetic of what you’re producing?
A lot. We all tend to give a listen to the latest record before we finish a mix. I think that’s the least we could do, is that kind of diligence to their aesthetic.
Do you collaborate with the artist on that?
If they’re interested. A lot of them are; they do a lot of radio stuff. We’ll come back and listen to the rough mix and have a sort of a quick, from-the-hip conversation. Very few artists will sit there and demand that we mix while they wait.
Do you have to make concessions for broadcast processing? Or, do you approach things more like a mastering engineer?
Mastering obviously is part of what we do; that sort of bus compression and final EQ. We are not to the level of granularity of a real mastering studio, but we definitely give it that thought.
Have listeners’ expectations have changed as far as what defines a modern radio sound?
Well, it’s funny how much things have changed. I think about growing up listening to the John Bonham drums, the classic, great drum sounds … I listened to Houses of the Holy and I was thinking how the snare just sounded so dark compared to modern snares. And I thought, when did I change my opinion? Music does evolve.
I ask because people often talk about how the presence of Auto-tune will signal that “this is a modern pop song.” How has your use of Auto-Tune evolved over the years?
I think the refinements in the application itself are amazing. It used to be that you had to babysit it more, and now there are these transparent modes where you really can’t tell it’s on. Now, it takes almost no time to just apply it here and there very transparently. The algorithms have improved a lot. I think that probably has to do with the amount of processing power.
In film scoring, I’d like to dig more into EFX+ as It transforms a vocal into synthesis. I think that’s just amazing.
When you work with artists, what kind of tool is Auto-Tune in your palette? Do you use it both live and in post?
If we’re talking about Auto-Tune Pro, it’s definitely post-production. Once in a great while I’ve had someone ask me to put it in live; I know that there are people who of course use it live all the time. But for us, it’s definitely a post-production tool.
Do you tend to collaborate with artists on that, or are you using it as a corrective tool?
No, the most we’ll get from the artist is, “boy, you’re going to need to ’Tune that.” Or, it’s a whisper from the production guy. But it’s not like it used to be, where it could have been seen as a negative. Now, since every last artist uses it, it’s a mainstream tool, like an EQ or anything else.
Do you have any go-to settings?
Definitely Classic mode; it’s pretty obvious what you want to use if someone wants to hear it. But a few of the presets are incredible. They’re literally called Transparent, and you can switch from chromatic to minor to major, depending on the tune. I don’t know what kind of magic is behind that, to be honest, but it is truly transparent.
What kinds of new opportunities is radio providing artists now?
Live music has become really important again; we went through a period where the record industry changed, and now we’re at the other end where the true artists are real performers. There’s fake stuff out there and I think that coming into our studios is like saying, look at me, I’m here. I’m the real deal.
I’m dying to ask you about every artist who’s come through your studios, but do you have any standout moments?
I have a little list of artists that I’ve had a chance to work with: Paul McCartney, BB King, Sonic Youth, Allman Brothers, Jack White, Willie Nelson, Rush, Chicago, Yes. I grew up in this parallel universe; most engineers have record credits, and people behind the scenes can sometimes tie themselves to an artist. But we’ve had 10,000 artists through here. I’ve really just been a fly on the wall to this amazing parade, and we’re always humbled by the fact that we have these chances to work with people we love.
The hard part, of course, is the moment when Paul McCartney walks in, and I didn’t realize that he has a traveling documentary crew that follows him wherever he goes. What’s funny about that session was, I had our piano tuner come up on a Friday, and it was perfect. But then the session was on a Saturday and his people called me that morning and said, “We just want to make sure the piano tuner is onsite when Paul gets there.”
I had my intern, and my assistant engineer, and all three of us started calling around because my guy didn’t answer. We were literally in the yellow pages, an hour before Paul McCartney is showing up, calling all these piano tuners. No one’s answering on Saturday. We get through to one guy and we told him it was Paul McCartney, and he hung up. They weren’t believing us.
And then we finally got through to somebody 40 miles out of DC, literally in the country. The guy shows up just in the nick of time. He’s 22, he has a huge black funeral suit on, like his dad’s suit. I said, “Just go stand over there. I don’t think we’re going to need you, but you’re just going to stand over there.” And we were just all praying that they didn’t ask him to touch the piano.
He didn’t ask him to touch the piano, but that to me is still my favorite story.
Music and Technology Writer
Sarah Jones is a writer, musician, and content producer who chronicles the creative and technical forces that drive the music industry. She's served as editor-in-chief of Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician magazines and is currently the live sound editor of Live Design magazine. She’s a longtime board member in the San Francisco chapter of The Recording Academy, where she develops event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.