When you talk to Jacquire King, it’s immediately clear that music is his first love. Yet he’s masterful at digging deep into technology to capture the most authentic performance from any artist. Over the past three decades, the Grammy-winning producer/engineer has shaped the sounds of many hit records featuring some of the most distinctive voices in pop, from Kings of Leon to Tom Waits to Norah Jones to James Bay.

We caught up with King at his Nashville studio as he was wrapping up a project with Daughtry, and starting work with City in Color and Parachute, to gain insight on his recording influences and production techniques and learn ways Auto-Tune helps him shape vocal performances of all styles.

Your recording resume goes back thirty years, but not everyone knows you really got your start back when you were just a toddler with a cassette deck.

Totally true. Yeah, when I was little, I wanted to be a radio DJ. It just started as a hobby recording on cassette, and then as a teenager I played bass and guitar a little bit; I hung out with my friends who were in better bands and I got interested in their P.A. and 4-track. It just kind of went from there.

What drew you to Nashville?

My wife; she’s from here. I came here to visit friends, and my wife was a mutual friend of theirs. We started a long-distance relationship, and then I had an opportunity to produce the band Switchfoot, which was signed to a Nashville label.

I was dividing my time between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and then I started spending more time here in Nashville. We got married and I made a life choice to move here. I didn’t really ever imagine that Nashville would become what it has; it’s probably the recording capital of the world at this time. I’ve been here for almost 18 years. I feel a little lucky in that way in life because I moved to San Francisco in the late ’80s ahead of when a lot of great things were happening there, too.

You’ve been in the right places at the right time. That was the Bay Area’s studio heyday, and now you’ve witnessed Nashville come into that.

Yeah, one hundred percent. I’ve had the good fortune to be in a lot of the right places at the right time. Just by following my intuition and doing what I felt like was the best for me. The only plan I ever really had was when I realized I wanted to make records professionally when I was 19 years old—I wanted to make great records, like the records that inspired me.

You’ve talked about your earliest influences being Tom Dowd, Rudy Van Gelder, and Les Paul. What have you learned from those greats?

Back in their time, because of technical limitations and the style of things musically, records were very much about capturing performances. Their ability to be pioneers technically but also pioneers in terms of capturing the art of the performers, serving the musicians and the songs in those moments … they really inspired me.

I discovered Jimi Hendrix when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. I started to have an epiphany: There was something more going on than just recording a band in a room; they were using the studio as an instrument. That opened my imagination and helped me start to listen to records in a different way.

I was never a very disciplined musician; I can play a little bit of a few things and program, but I’m not a great musician in terms of facility on any one instrument. I just decided when I was about 18 or 19 years old that the studio was the instrument that I wanted to master.

Going back to those three guys … there are lots of people you can reference, but those are the ones that are important to me in terms of the music they were making. Ray Charles, all the way through Cream and the Allman Brothers, through Tom Dowd … Eric Clapton and so many other important things.

Then, carrying all that stuff forward, what’s most important is to be able to go boldly with a recording capture that’s based around musicians performing a great song in part or whole, or creating a really cool vibe piece by piece that can emotionally connect people. Being a conduit for that, that’s what I’ve found myself loving having the opportunity to do.

How does that approach extend to choosing tools in the studio?

There are so many tools now; the knowledge that you have to have as a technically creative person is vast. Understanding the basic principles of record-making craft, those things I was inspired by, helps. Where something like Auto-Tune comes into play is, especially with vocalists, it’s about the emotion of the performance.

You can critique someone and say, “When you start the chorus you’re a little bit sharp,” or, “you’re under pitch here”… You can address those things, but sometimes in that critiquing process, you lose the moment and you lose the emotion, and it becomes a thinking thing. That is not going to convey to the listener the depth of emotion and be the feel that you want. When that chorus is sung sharp, if it’s sung well emotionally, it’s something you can manage with Auto-Tune and preserve the performance with the things that are important … use it not as a crutch, but as a tool to refine.

Now obviously, some pop music relies quite heavily on a more tricked-up Auto-Tune “sound.” It provides a different context, so understanding the ways that you can use all of these tools and create different flavors of nuance is really important.

How do you collaborate with an artist when you’re using Auto-Tune? Specifically, when do you introduce it into your workflow?

It depends on the personalities involved. I never want to use anything as a crutch to undermine the emphasis that needs to be put on craft and performance. The song has to be the best it possibly can be, the performance needs to be the best it can be, the sound needs to be the best they can be.

Sometimes you can call up Auto-Tune right away because you’re going for a specific aesthetic right from the beginning. But if we’re talking about correction, let’s work for the best possible result that we can get through performing and getting a great sound. Then if we need Auto-Tune to help in part or whole, then we’ll do that.

I typically bring it in when I’m comping vocals. I will often listen to the comping process through Auto-Tune, on a general setting to the key of the song and what the notes are going to be, and I get a feel for how much I might need it or how it might affect my selections.

Some artists take a lot of pride in not relying on it, but in the end might say, “Hey, would you mind tuning that?” I’m certainly willing to rely on it and use it when it’s appropriate. With some artists, it’s a discussion right from the beginning; others, you just wait and see.

I’m not a creator who has a specific script that I run every time for the records I make. That’s the thing I love so much about recording: You’re in a specific opportunity with specific people and talents with unique creative opportunities, and you embrace whatever that is. I do not think that my records all sound the same; I would be horrified if they did. I think if you listen across many of them, you’ll start to hear an opinion, an aesthetic, and a musical point of view. But it always should represent the artist first.

When it comes to pop production, have listeners’ expectations have changed?

Oh, absolutely. I think listeners’ perception has changed across the board, pop and otherwise. We’ve become much more accustomed to music that has a certain level of tightness and in-tune-ness, and the clarity and function of technology have changed the way that we document and interpret recorded sound. It still has to be about great feel, though.

I’m also glad that the loudness wars are going away. I think music is returning to a good time, a better use of technology. I think technology for a while in the ’90s and early 2000s got kind of overused. But genres of music are always the product of the technology that’s available, especially since multitrack technology came around, and sampling.

But yeah, what people expect to hear is definitely different. When you have a young voice, you sometimes want it to sound a little bit more obviously tuned because that is what’s going to tell a young listener that this artist is a modern, young, relatable voice … So sometimes you use tools to give something a modern signature or aesthetic.

Do you use Auto-Tune for creative effects as well as fine-tuning performances?

I definitely use it for creative effects, like on background vocals, or with a younger voice, or if it’s a dance-ier, more modern-sounding project. Maybe you want to have a little repeating hook, or the texture of a hard-tuned vocal. I definitely use it.

Something that I’ve done for a long time, there’s a section of Auto-Tune where you can create vibrato with it; I just like the sound of turning that on. I set it to sawtooth and then I turn the rate all the way down and the variation all the way down. I turn the onset parameters all the way up. It’s not really creating vibrato, but you’re sending the signal through this portion of the plug-in process. It has a kind of cool, gluing effect; it focuses the midrange in a way that I really like, and kind of pushes it forward. It’s like a weird EQ/compression/gluing effect that’s not actually doing EQ and compression.

When would you apply that?

Almost all of the time. I use that setting in conjunction with whatever style of tuning that I’m doing, whether I’m doing subtle pitch correction, and it all sounds very natural, to doing very hard tuning, creating the “Auto-Tune effect,” as it were. I just like what it does sonically, that little adjustment.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that generally I prefer to leave the input type on soprano. Now, I may be incorrect in this, but I think, based on the input type, whether it’s soprano, tenor, baritone, and you switch to instrument or bass, it’s kind of listening in frequency ranges. For me, Auto-Tune has generally been more forgiving in the soprano setting, where it’s listening to the higher frequencies to detect its pitch correction. I point that out because I don’t think you should necessarily use the input type based on the source. I think you should use it based on how you want the correction to behave, and its sound.

That’s a great tip. You’ve shared so much insight; is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Well, the additions that have been made recently with flex tuning and correction style and the humanized natural vibrato, those advancements have been really key going forward. I love the way Auto-Tune 5 sounded, and the quality of sounds it had and the way that the analyzing engine looked at things. That has now been incorporated into Auto-Tune Pro so I’m looking forward to having that option.

The Classic Mode algorithm.

Yeah. Classic Mode. I love that. For some voices, it’s really cool to have that option. The only other tip I would add … If I’m just doing a light auto setting, I leave it in chromatic as opposed to setting it to the key of the song, and then that way, some of the blue notes or whatever, it lets those things exist and feel as intended. A “notes between the notes” kind of thing.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones

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.