Shining a Light on the Grammy-Nominated Mixing Engineer, Jesse Ray Ernster
February 18, 2020
By: Alia L
Music is transcendent. There are no words that can completely describe its complexity and its impact on our emotions. There are some people who understand music on such an intimate level that they cannot help but produce songs that move masses. Jesse Ray Ernster is one such musician. This Grammy-Nominated professional has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, such as Kanye West, Burna Boy, Andy Grammer, and UMI to name a few. If you’ve heard Kanye’s ‘Yhandi’ or ‘Jesus Is King’ album, then you’ve heard Jesse’s work.
Raised in a musical family, Jesse spent his childhood immersed in sound, both physically and emotionally. It was at this point in his life that he began to truly understand music and its complexities. He learned how different frequencies and pitches could fill the listener with joy, or even sadness. This is where Jesse’s evolution began. The mixer spent a lot of time perfecting his craft and developing his own bombastic style. His dedication to his work has given Jesse the ability to hear music emotionally and make creative decisions within the mix of a song to bring out desired emotions in every single listener. Whether it's moving on the dancefloor or being moved to tears, Jesse will take you there.
Check out our exclusive interview with Jesse Ray Ernster below.
Welcome to BuzzMusic, Jesse Ray Ernster! You've developed quite the tracklist for yourself as a mixer, ranging from work with Andy Grammer, Burna Boy and having a role on the latest Kanye West "Jesus is King" record. Did you ever expect your career in music to extend this far?
Thank you! It’s been an amazing road so far, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be living this life. I’ve encountered a few lucky moments that accelerated my climb into the major leagues, but that’s also not to dismiss the many many years of blood, sweat, and tears I’ve put into working on my craft. I’ve always known that this is the path I wanted, so I’ve always done my due diligence to ensure that I was prepared to deliver when a big opportunity would arise.
You've described yourself before as one who is able to "hear the music emotionally". In what way do you think you've cultivated your persona and music inquisitions up until this point that allows you to, essentially, have a personal and intimate relationship with music as a mixer?
Yes, “hearing emotionally” is a concept that I learned from my dad; he believes that the flaw of many engineers is their detrimental over-emphasis on the technical aspects of mixing and that they listen and operate in a highly-analytical fashion. A certain amount of technical knowledge is obviously required to do this job, but most listeners don’t absorb music that way. The true mark of a great mixer is his/her ability to tap into the emotion of the song, and then assess the aspects of the production that are contributing to that feeling, and then MAXIMIZE those elements! I have an acute sensitivity to specific patterns of notes, chord voicings, and a variety of other harmonic stimuli; these phenomena provoke daydreams, memories, and scenes in my mind, and I aim to recreate and exaggerate those elements in order to enhance the music. For instance, if I’m working on a song with a dark theme, and I arrive at the bridge section that contains an inherently-happy-sounding major chord, I may accentuate certain instruments to trigger an array of delays that emphasize the harmonic overtones, and swell in and out around the vocal. Subtly-embedding this type of move can help convey the feeling of the section; I may even get kooky and decide to crank the fader up slowly to allow the delays to act as a rising crescendo that would guide the listener through that transition into the next section of the song.
Looking back to when you first started out mixing, what do you think has been your primary drive regarding the motivation and vigor it takes to build yourself the way you did?
It started with a strong passion for music, but the sustaining factor that drives me is my inner-demand to achieve artistic excellence and complete mastery of my craft. I have such a profound love for what I do, that I lay awake at night brainstorming, analyzing, and conceptualizing new methods I can use to reach the next level of sonic quality. I constantly consume interviews and tutorials from my heroes, in hopes that I can dissect and absorb some of their methods. I am highly focused on being the best mixer I can be, and that involves both the technical and interpersonal sides of things: how can I nail the project, better-serve my clients, and offer them the most valuable experience.
Being brought up in a musically-inclined family, what are your earliest memories of becoming exposed to the music world? Introspectively thinking about the role your family has had in your musical upbringing, what are some prevalent elements to the way you construct your sound today that was extracted from them, in a sense?
My parents both played in bands, and my dad always had musicians over to record in his studio at our house. As a result, I had a wide influence from many eccentric musical characters. As a youngling, my favorite thing in the world was going to hear my dad’s band play live. The musicianship, arrangements, harmony structure, and live mix were all absolutely incredible. Their front-of-house mixer in the ’90s was evidently a big fan of rock music (and would eventually go on to introduce me to Metallica’s black album.. oh boy.. that changed everything!). He would push the faders up until the kick, snare, and bass guitar was pumping so hard that the resulting sound just knocked me right in the chest! I left those shows feeling completely inspired and full of wild musical ideas, so I would go home to play my drumkit, only to be disappointed with my inability to emulate the extraordinary tonal qualities I was hearing live: the reverb, compression, and (most importantly) the skill of the musicians. That is when I began my lifelong devotion to dissecting and reverse-engineering those mixes to uncover the sounds I had been envisioning in my mind. This lead to learning to play multiple instruments, figuring out how to write parts, recording them, and then turning knobs endlessly to get the final mix just right. Both of my parents were extremely supportive of my creative endeavors, but my dad and I developed an an-especially close bond after working together in the studio for so long. My dad helped me make records for my band in high school, and eventually, that working relationship became less of him educating me on the process, but rather, we teaching each other. Now, it’s been several years of us emailing mixes back and forth and comparing notes, critiquing, and overall enjoying every moment of our unique musical relationship.
Are you able to give us a little delve into your personal creative process, and how it is you're able to blend together a variety of sonics to produce your characterizable soundings?
Of course, as many of your readers may already know, mixing involves taking all of the hundreds of layers of audio files, instrument tracks, and vocal parts, and folding them down nicely into one 2-track audio file. Mixing a modern production is like being handed 200 thick college textbooks, and then being asked to stuff all of them into a small backpack. To address this task, I utilize many of the usual audio manipulation tools such as equalizers, compression, saturation, reverb, delay, etc. I also implement a pretty extreme amount of intimate fader moves into the pieces I work on. This includes drastic fader movements, variations in panning, and constant fluctuations in FX levels; these moves help to impose excitement into a song.
Amidst this highly-advanced audio world filled with the latest offerings of digital audio plugins, I prefer the kindred use of a lot of vintage hardware compressors in my setup. Many consider compression to be a way of controlling the dynamic range of a sound source to even out its volume, but I see it more as a way to impose character into the instrument. I use compressors to manipulate the flex, push, and pull of any given instrument’s transient attack within a song (imagine pulling a rubber band and letting it snap against your hand.. the velocity and intensity applied will affect the force of the band’s strike). A compressor has parameters (such as attack and release) that allow for precise timing of how fast or slow you want the compressor to react; I avoid presets or popular settings, and instead, dial these parameters in by ear, according to how they pulse and flex to the tempo of the song. Doing this causes the speaker cones to push and pull air according to the groove/feel of the song; most listeners will never detect that this type of science is going on behind the scenes of their favorite song, but they’ll feel it, and oh boy, will it feel good! I also treat equalizers (EQ) in my own special way. Instead of dialing in an EQ and then leaving it alone, I like the EQ bands to fluctuate throughout a song, depending on the requirements of the part. I do a lot of automating the bands of an EQ to move around in order to tame certain harsh consonants. i.e. “K” has a different fundamental resonance than “t” or “s” (If I were to do a constant static EQ duck at one of those frequency pain points, then the other vowels and sustained sections may consequently suffer and lose detail). There’s no perfect piece of equipment or AI that can hear and asses the inherent idiosyncrasies of human vocal folds, as well as a human engineer with his/her ears, turned on!
Out of each track you've appeared on thus far within your career, which body of work challenged you and your artistry greater than the others? Whenever challenges typically arise during the mixing stage, what are some steps you have in place for yourself to rise out of the slump?
One of my jobs is to help the artist realize their vision, and sometimes that involves a bit of searching to find the right sound to match their intent. This can be time-consuming, and sometimes requires several emails, phone calls, and attended sessions, but I retain my attitude of servanthood, roll up my sleeves, and do my best to get the project to the finish line! I’ve learned over time that a lot of those struggles can be minimized by having an initial conversation in order to assess the artist’s goals, sonic vision, and expectations before starting a project. I was greatly challenged by some of the initial college acapella records I worked on back in Minneapolis. Every song had thousands of vocal parts (literally) to record, re-record, re-re-record again, tune, edit, time-align, volume-match, and then mix. I co-produced the project with the group’s leader/musical director, and he was brilliant and wildly-meticulous in every possible way. At the time, I was frustrated with the level of scrutiny that the project demanded, but years later, I now realize that the extra level of care was what made that album sound so incredibly-special. That process was so educational, and it completely shaped my work ethic, mixing style, and outlook on collaboration from that moment forward.
Your dedication is unmatched, Jesse Ray Ernster! It was a pleasure to hear more about your work and the way it was cultivated over the course of your career. Is the 2020 year plan to continue mixing for similar artists? Are there any surprises you have up your sleeve for the music industry?
I’m fired up about some of the new artist relationships my team is currently cultivating. I obviously love working with big artists, but I’m especially excited to be a part of building some up-and-coming artists right now. There’s nothing more exciting than being a part of a new artist’s journey as they rise to fame and change people’s lives with their music. It’s a new year, I’m digging in and learning more than ever on how to be the best I can be!
Connect with Jesse Ray Ernster on Instagram.