Recording involves several processes — preproduction, tracking, mixing, and mastering. The methods involved in each step have changed greatly over time. Musicians, engineers, mixers, and producers have more choices than every before with regard to how they navigate through the recording process. From preproduction all the way through the mix, Armored Saint, the Los Angeles-based classic metal band, along with engineer Bryan Carlstrom [Tape Op #28], incorporated a multitude of unique, innovative, and practical techniques while recording their latest album, La Raza. The recording and mixing was done at Tranzformer Studios in Burbank, CA, which is co-owned by Carlstrom and producer/engineer Dave Jerden.
Armored Saint released La Raza, their sixth full-length studio album, in the Spring of 2010. In Spanish "la raza" means "the race." The term has often been used by the Chicano movement as a way to express pride in their Mexican heritage. Joey Vera [Tape Op #62], the band's bassist and producer used it as a working title for a tune that utilized an Afro-Cuban 6/8 feel — a clear sign of the band's wide musical interest and ever-evolving songwriting skills. John Bush, Saint's lead vocalist, stated that although the band has it's roots in the predominantly Latino area of East Los Angeles, not everyone in the band is Latino or of Mexican decent, including Bush, and therefore it might be more fitting to use the term "la raza" to speak about the entire human race.
If the band meant for La Raza to mean an actual race to the finish line it would still make for an appropriate album title because it accurately describes the recording process of the album. Armored Saint was given a tight budget to work with. As a result, 12- and 14-hour days were the standard. The band had 32 days to record and mix, but wanted to figure out a way to get the absolute best possible recording in the best possible studio for the money.
Gonzo Sandoval, Saint's drummer, had reconnected with Bryan Carlstrom — the engineer that worked with his long time studio partner, Dave Jerden, on the band's 1991 release Symbol of Salvation. I asked Carlstrom about how he came to work the band again. "You know that's an interesting question. About two years ago I got back in contact with Gonzo. The studio was at another location at that point. He came over and we hung out. I expressed to him, 'Oh dude, I would love to make another Armored Saint record if that ever happened.' I was even back then trying to think of how could I come up with enough time where I could just ask them, 'Come in and let's just make another record.' Me and Gonzo talked about it. I think Gonzo didn't think that another Armored Saint record would be happening, but me and Gonzo stayed in contact. Apparently at some point Joey and John started writing and Gonzo told me they're going to be doing another record. I didn't know how or where, but I just told Gonzo, 'Listen, I want to make that record. I really want to do it.' And he talked to Joey and Joey called me and said, 'Well do you really want to do it? I don't know if you could [work within the band's budget].' Me and Joey talked it over and decided it could be done and I really wanted to do it. Things worked out."
To give you an idea of how the record was made I did extensive interviews with most of the band members, as well as engineer Bryan Carlstrom and assistant engineer John Nuss. In addition, I was fortunate enough to work as the drum tech as well as record percussion on two songs. After the drum tracks were recorded I stuck around as much as possible throughout the recording and mixing sessions in order to make observations, take notes and ask questions when appropriate. Basically, I tried to be a fly on the wall. When there was a break in the action and I gauged that people were receptive to questions, I opened up a dialogue.
This article is not a plug for the record. Listeners will have to decide for themselves about the music. As the drum tech for these sessions I had the opportunity to gain a great deal of insight into the minds of the musicians and engineers. Throughout every take and after conversation that I heard, I learned something new. It occurred to me early on that sharing the experience would be a worthwhile endeavor. Moreover, publishing this article in Tape Op's online article section affords me the opportunity to offer more information than would otherwise be possible in a print version — extended interviews, numerous photos, and loads of gear information. Our journey begins with the preproduction and goes through the recording and mixing of the album. As you will see, the album was recorded in a very unorthodox way by using the album demo as a foundation for recording rather than recording scratch tracks. Upon completion of the album Joey Vera stated on his website the following:
"For all of you tech nerds out there, a few quick bits on how we made this one: We used nothing but analog gear, most of which was custom built by Rupert Neve for Bryan Carlstrom. We hit every signal (drum mics, guitars, vocals) with custom or vintage analog gear before recording into Pro Tools. We even used rare vintage amps for most of the guitar overdubs. At mix time, we mixed on an SSL 4000E console and went to a 1-inch tape reel (one of only two on the west coast) for our final masters. Uh... you DO know what tape is, don't you? What does this all mean? It means we spit in the ear of the age of the MP3, teenie, tiny ear bud listening culture that has turned its back on what it means to experience music. This record is FAT. We means, Obese! Full on cardiovascular failure stuff! Old School, Baby!"
Joey Vera — Armored Saint's Bassist / La Raza Producer & Co-Mixer:
Tell me about the pre-production process.
That's probably the odd thing about this is that there really wasn't much of a pre-production because we never rehearsed as a band. Here's pretty much how it went. John and I wrote the music. We made demos over the course of about 13 or 14 months. Then, when it came time to get ready to plan on making this record we had to figure out what the logistics of it was going to be. The person who had, aside from myself, a [big] job was going to be Gonzo [Sandoval — drums] because he was going to have to perform all the songs [in their entirety]. At that point [he] and I were the only ones that technically did any pre-production for this. I gave Jeff [Duncan — guitar] three or four songs to listen to and to learn to play the rhythm guitars for and then the remainder of the songs I was going to play [rhythm guitar]. Then, for guitar solos I gave Phil [Sandoval — guitar] and Jeff pretty much an even split. You know, Phil plays on these five and Jeff plays on these five. So, everyone got versions of the demos. For instance, the two guitar players got versions of the demo that didn't have anything in the guitar section so that they could, at home, work stuff out on their own, and then when we came into [the studio] all they were gonna play was over sections that they had already been practicing at home to. What me and Gonzo did was that I gave him stems of the songs. I took the [demo] sessions and I created a stereo guitar track, a stereo vocal track, a mono bass track and a stereo drum track. Plus, I gave him click tracks, plus the tempos. I also gave him my version of the "road map" which was basically my description to him as to how I perceived the song arrangement[s] and I would break it down by bars — B section 16 bars, chorus eight bars, that kind of a thing. I would make a road map for him based on that arrangement so that when he listened to the song he could read along and figure out what the parts were. Now, when he got it he made his own interpretation of that because he interprets things differently than I do. So, he would break it down to how he hears it.
But without changing the song per say.
Yeah. I would give it to him in a musical term like this is in eight bars and it's in 4/4 and this is the tempo. This happens for eight bars, this happens for 16 bars, this happens for 32 bars, but he would break it down into a much more simplistic, manageable way for him which is fine. And then once he got all the songs in that form he would practice on his own learning the parts. And he would take some things that I had written in the drum program and sometimes he would use them verbatim, but I told him to make them his own with the exception of certain things. If there was a particular groove that I had written with the bass pattern going against the kick drum I asked him to maintain those sorts of things. But for all transitions and anything that was like a place for him to sort of show his own personality I told him to "make it your own." For the most part he did that, but a lot of times he liked the way the drum program went so he basically would emulate what was going on in the drum program. So, it was a combination of all those things how he came up with his parts. Once we got to a place where he was comfortable we rented a room for him. At first I got the program Sonar and I put it in my laptop. I broke out the stems into a mixer and then we mic'd up his drums. My idea to him was that I wanted him to play to the sessions that I had already created for the demos because some things we were going to keep, like the lead vocal tracks and some of the overdubs. In order to do that he had to play to the existing sessions that I had created in Pro Tools. I wanted him to have an environment so that once we came into the actual recording studio that is virtually the same that he was used to hearing — playing the songs with headphones, listening to click, listening to the rough guitar tracks and bass tracks (which were ultimately being replaced but they were basically the same parts). He was also hearing all the overdubs and he was hearing all the vocals. So he was basically playing along to a finished song. I wanted him to have that experience so once he came in [to the recording studio] it wasn't something completely alien. Normally, a band rehearses and everyone plays in the same room and you play the songs live. [Then] you come into the studio and you're basically setting up another rehearsal situation in the studio. Everybody puts on headphones, we stand in the same room and you play the songs live. We've done that every single record. This time was completely different and he was playing with virtual band members. It was very different in that respect. I just wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to be completely alien for him once he got [to the recording studio], which is why we did this playing along with the actual sessions and the stems. When we came to do the session at Tranzformer the sessions were exactly the same as he had been using in rehearsal. You know, we had a few issues with getting the headphones right and loud enough for him to play over in the room, but once we sorted that out...
At the recording studio?
You know it's different equipment. We were feeding him stems coming from the Pro Tools rig and we broke it out into the patchbay. Once we got a decent mix in his headphones then it was basically the same. It was no different than him practicing along in the rehearsal room that we had over the last month. That's a long-winded description of what was involved with preproduction!
Gonzo Sandoval — Armored Saint's Drummer:
Tell me about the preproduction process and how that has differed from the way Armored Saint has done preproduction in the past.
Well, we used to rehearse together as a band, write together, figure out parts and work as a band. This record is being done completely different from anything that I'm used to, but I welcome the challenge. The way we're doing it is songs were written by John and Joey, and they demoed the songs with a drum machine. Joey had sent me the stems of the songs, which are the vocals, bass, guitars and drums, and I uploaded them to my Pro Tools digital audio workstation and I have Roland V-Drums [electronic drums] connected to my computer so I'm able to hear the songs and record the practice. That's one method that's different from the way we used to do things. The other thing is that we recorded the click along with all the stems, but what I do is I make a version that only retains the click track, the bass guitar, and vocals. So, it allows me to preview exactly what I'm going to be hearing in the studio. It's good preparation.
Joey is the bass player in the band, so when he's rehearsing with you in this way is he playing bass along with you?
No. Since he wrote the songs on guitar he plays guitar. So, basically I'm familiarizing myself with the songs and him as the writer. [He] is playing along with me so that we can [practice] live.
I notice in your setup in this stage of preproduction, you have your drums mic'ed and you are listening to the tracks through headphones, and the drums are mic'd into your headphones. Is Joey mic'ed up too when he rehearses with you?
Yes. So we feed it into the Mackie board and we take the master out into a headphone amp, and since I'm going to be recording with headphones, that is the way I'm practicing — with headphones. So that I become very familiar with not only the songs, but the up-close feeling of wearing headphones so that nothing is alien and everything is more natural.
Phil Sandoval — Armored Saint's Guitarist:
(Jeff Duncan is Saint's other guitarist)
Preproduction is different this time around. How has that been for you?
We want to come into the studio very well prepared, knowing what to play and knowing the songs. Having the songs demoed completely before coming in helps a lot.
What are some of the important things you may have learned from this recording process as compared to others?
I think the writing of the material should be done way in advance, like it was in this endeavor. Everybody knows their parts. Everybody knows what they need to play and they know what each person is going to do and what their role is. There is definitely a main person, Joey, that's kind of leading the whole thing, and it helps knowing who the leader is in the recording process. It's very helpful actually. I'm actually very excited of the new album. I'm very grateful and thankful that we're doing it and grateful that I'm part of it.
You touched on how working with the demo helped you to prepare for the recording. Can you elaborate a bit more on how the preproduction process went for you?
I actually got a book and I tried to elevate my playing to another level. I actually learned a couple of new things just by research. I wanted to elevate my playing to a different level because I didn't want to rehash any [of the] things that I had been playing before. Being able to come in 75 to 85 percent structured and leaving room for magical moments... which did happen.
In addition to all of the high-end equipment at Tranzformer Studios, Bryan Carlstrom can never be found without his premium quality cigar in hand. Like the smoke and pleasing aroma of Carlstrom's fine cigars wafting through the air, the recording sessions flowed easily from start to finish.
Since Gonzo Sandoval's birthday was during the first week of recording, he asked Carlstrom if it was alright to bring his PA and have a small gathering of friends over to the studio. Carlstrom obliged and also said that he would like to set up the PA in the drum room and have the drums go through the PA at a controlled level during the recording as a way to enhance the drum sound. One speaker sat on each side of the drum kit, which blended nicely into the room mics [PZM condenser floor mics and a Mojave MA-200 as the overhead mic]. During the recording of the drums we had several snare drums to work with, but on one track we were not necessarily finding the particular sound we were looking for. Carlstrom mentioned he might have something that would work and presented us with an Anvil case. Inside was a Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum that can be heard on some of the tunes on the Rolling Stones' album Dirty Work. Jerden brought the snare with him to the sessions when he engineered that album. In addition to using the Black Beauty on two songs, Carlstom generously offered up various combinations of amplifiers and guitars to be used as the band wished.
Tuning drums in a studio environment can be tricky. Drum heads are easily affected by the cold climate of a recording studio, and new drum heads often need some time to adjust to the edges of a drum. Furthermore, each drum's sound has an effect on all of the other drums around the kit. Therefore, each drum must be tuned in a way that resonates well with all of the others. Also, Carlstrom noted that it's difficult to record kits with lots of drums because you need more mics which means you tend to have more difficulty with phase and balance issues.
As the producer, Joey Vera was very particular about the snare drum sound. He likes a snare tuned somewhere in the upper midrange, but does not like to hear any high end ring overtones. On the other hand, Carlstrom liked when we tuned a snare a bit lower for one tune. He stated he likes to capture the low end of the sound and then afterward, enhance it by adding a sample with some high end. I learned a great deal from Joey, Gonzo and Bryan about obtaining various snare drum sounds in the studio. The tones of the bass drums were obtained by switching the pedal beaters from the felt side to the plastic side, as well as using Evans EQPad bass drum dampers and MXL A-55 bass drum mics.
Tell me about the pencil on the vocal mic technique.
Well, that's pretty old. That's just something that I picked up years and years ago from other engineers.
Is it common?
Well I don't know if it is today, but it certainly was 20 years ago. That really is just if you're having a popping issue and the pop screen is not taking care of it, you use a pop screen with a pencil in front of the diaphragm, right in the middle. When the "P" hits the pencil, it splits the energy and kind of causes it to go outward and not just hit the diaphragm straight on.
You used the Neumann U67 for the vocal mic.
You recorded the vocals in the control room and vocalist John Bush was wearing headphones.
The reason for having him in the control room was just for the interaction between him and Joey [Vera]. That's the way they've gotten used to working at Joey's studio when they recorded the demos and it was just more personal for them to work that way.
What mics did you use for the guitar amps?
[Shure SM] 57s.
How was the mic positioned?
Right dead center on the speaker pointing straight ahead.
What kind of mics did you use for the bass?
Well on the [Ampeg] SVT we used an [Electro-Voice] RE20. And then on the other two tracks they were both DIs [direct inputs].
Would you elaborate on how that worked?
Well, the two directs were two different SansAmps. The three tracks were the bass amp itself with the RE20 on it. Track number two was a PSA 1 SansAmp. Track three was an RBI [rack mounted] SansAmp. The bass amp itself is fairly clean. It just sounds like a SVT. The PSA 1 had quite a bit of distortion on it and then the RBI was kind of in between. It was a little bit of distortion and growl. When I mix I can then fit a blend of what works for the song as far as distortion verses being clean. I can also make one section sound more growly and distorted where another section we may make sound like John Paul Jones, you know, really super warm, no growl at all. Like on that song, "La Raza," it's a semi-distorted bass throughout the song, except in the bridge it suddenly switches to a bass sound that sounds more like John Paul Jones on "Ramble On," where it's just bottom end, clean, in that classic very old bass sound.
So you guys came in really prepared. You did your homework and worked on your own playing but still had room to be spontaneous.
Yeah. You gotta leave room for spontaneity. On one solo I worked on it for a while and then it turned out to be something that didn't fit the song. I just had to play something completely different. It's good to take direction from people, because you might not be an objective observer of your own playing. Somebody might go, "Why don't you try this?" And I'm the kind of person that's [going to] go, "I'm gonna try it." I'm very open. I'm very much a team player in the band. I will continue to be a team player and that's what it's about. It's being a band. Playing together and making the band sound as good as possible.
Did not doing scratch tracks change the way you felt about the whole process?
Sometimes it's good to let somebody else drive because it's just better that way. I mean James Hetfield [Metallica] does all the rhythms to the Metallica records. Kerry King [Slayer] does all of the rhythms. A lot of people don't know that. I've learned to let other people drive. You know? It's much better sometimes because they can drive the car better than I can. Or it's going to go smoother that way. Why is it going to take time for me to learn all these rhythms when somebody already knows them? Actually, coming in and seeing how they're played, I learned a lot of stuff! I would go home and I would practice the songs and go, "Now I know it.!" So that's good and I think I know my position in the band and I'm comfortable with it. I'm very comfortable with it. So it enabled me to concentrate on my part when I came and I think it went pretty well.
How did you record the guitars?
I went through a Marshall [and] a Bogner with a 4 by 12 Celestion speaker cabinet. I used a [MXR] Phase 90 and a wah-wah [pedal] with delay. It was a very simple, straight, very organic sound.
And you went direct also.
No. I didn't go direct. That's usually used for clean guitars.
You recorded a complete demo. All of the instruments, programmed the drums, and John Bush is doing the lead vocals, with you on backups. Did you keep anything from the demo on the final tracks?
We kept quite a bit of things. In particular, we kept the lead vocal for three songs. The reason we did that was because they were good performances and although we could have gotten a slightly better audio sound and signal we opted to just keep the original vibe and performance and just make it fit into the rest of the record. Luckily you don't hear that much of a difference, so that was the biggest thing that we kept from the demos. Everything else we kept was all of the background vocal tracks. We didn't re-sing any background vocal tracks.
It's not like it was done on a 4-track. It was done at your studio, The Bridge.
Yeah... to be honest something that needs to be talked about is that when we first started doing this — John and I writing these demos — we had no intention of using any of these tracks on the end result record. I continued to make my demos in a sort of haphazard way. I like to work very fast. I don't spend a lot of time scratching my head and trying to get the best possible sound for this or that. I plug something, I get a level, and if it sounds good then I record it. I did the same thing with John's voice. He would come over, I would set up a mic, we'd run through it twice and then we'd run the song and start recording it. We did the demos at a really low resolution because in my mind I was thinking I was going to save hard drive space by doing the sessions at 16-bit/44.1 kHz and had I'd known that we'd end up using these tracks on the record I would have done it at a much higher sample rate. I have an HD rig. I could have recorded this at 24-bit/96 kHz, but I opted not to because I didn't know that it was going to end up on the record. So that decision didn't come until much later. Pretty much we were practically done writing when I started having conversations with John about [making] this into a record and to go in and recreate this with the band. He didn't really want to redo the entire thing. He wanted to keep some of the performances that he had. It was at that point when I realized, "Oh shit, we'll have to use some vocal tracks that are good takes, good performances and work around that." Once I realized that we were going to do [the recording] at Tranzformer [Studios] and we were a little bit limited on the amount of time we could spend on actually tracking, I had to go back and refer to certain tracks that we were gonna end up using from the demo. It was a little bit like looking at spilled milk and saying, "Oh, how am I gonna make that work?" In the end you just have to, so we did it. We're doing these sessions at 88.2 [kHz]. So we up-sampled everything into new sessions and we just made it work.
What songs did you keep the lead vocals for, or do you want to keep that off the record?
It's not really that much of a secret. We kept the lead vocals for "Chilled," "Black Feet" and for "Head On."
I would have never known.
Like I said, we lucked out on these three songs where it just happened to have such a vibe that I didn't want to try to redo it.
And you're doing some backgrounds.
I did all of them. It was almost out of necessity at that point... mostly because we just got down to the last days of tracking. I could have re-done backgrounds... not because they weren't done well, but we wanted to redo them so that Jeff's voice [Jeff Duncan — guitar] was in there.
Is he singing of some of it at the end?
He isn't singing on it at all [laughs], but my intention was to have him sing in the end because I wanted to have more variety. As it turned out backgrounds were the last thing in the order of things to do. We basically ran out of time. So I decided to keep the backgrounds because they were good enough for the purposes [and] that it didn't really matter that much. We also kept quite a few guitar overdubs that I had played. For instance, the main clean guitar sound in "Chilled" is from the demo and various other overdubs — little spice guitar parts here and there. Again, it was one of those things where they sounded good enough to use and having to spend two hours setting up another sound and trying to recreate it really just wasn't the practical picture so to speak. We didn't have the luxury of spending extra time just to get everything done.
You guys really budgeted your time well. I was very aware of it.
You have to. The other thing that swayed my decision was that Bryan Carlstrom was pleased with a lot of the sounds on the demo. He said to me, "Why are you gonna recreate this? It sounds really cool. We could spend two hours trying to recreate that, but why? It's already there." I was trusting his judgment, too, you know, so his input had an influence on me in keeping certain things.
Tell me about the recording of the bass. You didn't just mic the amp. What did you do and why?
Well we put a mic, an RE20 on the [Ampeg] SVT cabinet. Then we split the signal into two more places and we went with the SansAmp RBI. We also went into a PSA 1, which is mostly made for guitar but has some bass patches on it. That has nastier upper midrange distortion that the RBI doesn't have. So we combined the three of those things.
And you used all three on all of the songs?
Yep. I knew we would use at least one SansAmp, but once we got here Bryan was all for using three. I said, "Let's do it. No problem." And [with] the guitars we did six tracks of guitars.
Okay. Tell me how you did the guitars.
We did two tracks of Jeff's Marshal, two tracks of the Bogner and tracks of the SansAmp PSA1.
And all of that is recording at once?
No. Six performances. We would plug into the Marshall head and then we'd play the song two times. One goes to the left one goes to the right. And then we'd plug in the Bogner — two more times — one side for the right, one side for the left. The PSA 1 — same thing... two times — one for the right and one for the left. In the end you have six performances of guitar.
That must be why mixing is so intense. You've got 18 channels of drums and six performances on the rhythm guitars.
And three tracks of bass. I mean luckily I only had to play the bass once.
I was wondering if you are looking forward to the opportunity to getting in the same room and playing the songs, because you guys haven't done that yet. Is it a different feeling not having played the songs as a complete unit or complete band until after the recording of the album?
Well, it is different.
But it didn't affect the quality of the recording.
The funny thing is that it used to be a concern when we were younger. We made music all in the same room — that's how music was born with us when we were younger. There's a lot of merit to that and there's something about that that is genuine and you can't fuck with that, but the way that this came about was maybe backwards or the opposite. These songs were born mostly out of songwriting, not performance. I never had a concern, or John [Bush] or any of us really, about what this is beyond actually recording this, as a song. It's actually liberating because we don't have to worry about, "How do we play this live?" or, "How do you recreate this with a band?" John and I talked about it, but in the beginning that was the furthest thing from our concern. We don't care about that. We're making this for the record. This is going to have a record production value to it that is not going to keep us from making it great music to listen to — that we want to listen to. Which is a very selfish way of looking at it, but that's just the approach that we took.
I love it!
Like I said to your earlier question, the only time I have to listen [to the songs outside of the studio] is in my car. It's usually on the way here because at the end of the night I don't want to listen to anything else because I've been listening to music for 14 hours. I'd like 15 minutes of silence on my way home. But I listen on the way in. I listen to music for 15 minutes in the morning and I've been catching myself driving fast, so I think that's a good sign!
When I asked Bryan Carlstrom about how he approaches the mixing process and whether or not he had a general system he followed he responded by saying, "The mixing really starts with the recording. When I'm recording a record I'm recording it in a way that I know it'll mix well... what I need guitar-wise, what I need bass-wise, the drum production, any samples that I'm going to be using and the ambiance that I'm recording around the drums. So when I get done with a project the songs are mixable." Carlstrom notes that he always has the mix in his mind consciously or subconsciously as he goes through the recording process so that when he is finally at the mixing stage things fall into place easily. "As I'm recording a project I'm trying to work on the balances and EQs of things along the way, because in the SSL [Solid State Logic 4000 E/G] I can store setups. I'm gradually figuring out the EQs that work across things so that when I do get to the actual mixing of the record each song is already set up [and] across the board things are coming up where they're supposed to be for mixing, as well as the general EQs. There's going to be some tweaking, but most of that is going to be setup and somewhat dialed ahead of time. When I start mixing, it's really going to be just working the overall foundation of the mix — making it solid, balances, and then adding any effects or production that I'm going to be adding in."
I still wanted to know where square one is when Carlstrom begins a mix. In other words, what instrument does he work with first? "The natural way to balance things for me is to some degree balance the drums first, then balance the bass against that and guitars against that." He also mentions that he is continually "working with the EQs" and "bouncing back and forth" between all of the instruments throughout the mix. Like a fine sculptor, Carlstrom is adding a piece here, taking away a piece there, and then continually standing back in order to see how the overall shape is coming together. "I'm kind of bouncing back and forth like, 'Oh, I need to do a little more of this to the bass. I need to go back and readdress the drum balances.'" Carlstrom also points out that the "multiple layers of guitars and how that balance within those layers" is achieved is by revisiting the "the guitar EQs and the balances within the rhythm guitar tracks."
The mixing sessions for La Raza were very organic. Carlstrom and Vera were not only feeling out how to work with each song, but also how they were to work with each other. In describing how Carlstrom collaborates with others on a mix he states, "to some degree it evolves a bit over the first three or four mixes where it's like I'm learning with each song." As they hit their stride at about the fourth or fifth song in the mix, Carlstrom points out he and Vera "ended up coming back and recalling those first four or five songs just to incorporate what I've learned up to that point. At about the fourth or fifth song is where I really got into not just what works sound-wise, but I was also able at that point to focus on actually sitting down and showing Joey how the SSL automation works, and letting him step in and do those moves because it's a lot more creative. Rather than him trying to explain to me what he's hearing [I can] teach him and let him sit down and actually [run the board]. With the artists that can actually function on that level, I like to do that because it ends up making them a better artist and more of chemistry happens. It just makes them more creative and it makes for a much more creative process. I'm absolutely not one of those guys that goes, 'DON'T TOUCH THAT!' I can't even relate to that kind of thinking. I'd rather teach the guy in the band who has the capacity for it, teach him how the SSL works and begin to tag team. Let him sit down and do his moves and let me sit down and go, 'Okay, let's do this and that...' And then listen to his feedback. Chemistry for me makes records better because if it's just left up to me, with no chemistry, I think it [gets] kind of stale and stagnant. It ends up making me a better engineer. It makes the project better. It makes the artists better at what they do and makes us feel [we can] make better records in the future.
Tell me about the mixing process.
With the Armored Saint record, Joey was producing and obviously he wrote all of the material with John and had worked on it over the course of a year. Joey has a great ear for balances, of just exactly how loud the rhythm [guitar] should be, or bass should be. So I really thought that the two of us working together really complimented one another. I enjoyed working with him too. I just think it's a good fit.
Watching you work and interact with the musicians, it made me realize that an engineer is almost like another member of the band.
Having worked with Armored Saint before, I knew pretty much what the overall sound should be like and I knew their personalities already. To tell you the truth, of all the bands that I've worked with in the past Armored Saint was just one of those bands where if I could have picked a band that I could have worked with again, that was the band. It's not just heavy metal. The riffs that they write are cool and the music has got this great vibe. They have a sound that is so unique to them and I was just a huge John Bush fan — vocally and lyrically. There's something there that is really valid in music. As corny as it sounds, it's something that I thought should be heard and done well. I had several reasons for doing this record and that was one of them. You know, wanting this record to be heard how it should be heard, within my abilities to do so, in the amount of time that we had and I really gave it my all as for as what I could do.
You used the Aphex Aural Exciter when mixing. You stated that it, "Adds sheen to the overall mix." Do you use it on every song on every record?
Dave [Jerden] probably [has] been using it for 30 years on every single record he's done. That's how I started using it. Watching him and seeing what it did and it's the only box that I know of that does it.
Are there many of them around?
They stopped making [this one] in the '70s, I think.
So that adds uniqueness to the production quality.
It excites certain harmonics and generates harmonics on top of the mix and adds this brightness and sheen to it. It's not the same as just turning up the brightness on an EQ.
Switching over to drums, what does it mean to "trim" the toms?
We record the toms down to two tracks and what I'll do is duplicate that stereo mix of the toms so that there's left and right toms coming up on the board on two faders. But then I'll duplicate them so that I'll have another left and right toms coming up on another two faders on the console. In Pro Tools we'll go through and clean out all the leakage and only have the tom hits and the fills themselves. So the tom tracks that have the leakage, I can blend those into the drum kit and blend them in at a level where it's like all that leakage and everything makes the drums sound good. That's where they should be at — the leakage that makes the overall kit sound good. And then the tom tracks, which I end up calling the fill tracks, they just have the fills or tom hits on them only with no leakage, I can bring those up to a level that make the toms themselves sound right. Because if you just brought up the tom tracks that have the leakage on, if you brought those up to where the leakage makes the drum kit sound good then the toms are too low. And if you bring those up to where it makes the toms sound good, then the leakage on those tracks would be so loud that they make the snare and the kick not sound right.
How do you separate [a tom] that has leakage and one that doesn't if it's coming from just one mic?
Well, what's happening is there's four toms recorded on two tracks in stereo mix and what we do is we go through and just highlight the leakage in between the fills and just hit delete. Just delete that part of the file. And usually how you do it is, it will be deleted [and] there will be no file up until where a tom gets hit. Say it's a fill, we'll have the file from where the tom fill starts up until like a snare hit, a crash, or a kick drum hit. Right after the tom fill, we'll cut those files right there so it will musically work so that that leakage and the tom fills will be up until that cymbal — usually it's the cymbal crash hits — and we'll mute them there again so that those tom tracks cut off on [a] musical hit and it will musically work in the mix.
How long does it take to do that on one song?
You know that's actually pretty easy. That doesn't take very long at all. Pasting in kicks and snare samples on a song — that takes some time.
It's almost like your whole recording process is like a Rolls Royce — it's all hand made.
Yeah, it is.
How do you decide which samples to use?
There are samples that I've made over the last however many decades, but then out of that library for this material I'll [suggest] what would work well. I'll use them differently from song to song. Certain sections may omit certain samples. Maybe on the verse I'll take out two of the snare samples and one of the kick samples and then add all of them in at the chorus to create dynamics and sounds.
I remember when you were talking to Joey about a section where the groove had the bass drum going "ba-boom" and you suggested taking the sample out of the first sixteenth note of the two and leaving it in for the second.
That's just more to really preserve the dynamics in Gonzo's playing. The way that Gonzo's playing is that there's dynamics in the kick pattern. I may want to lose the dynamic range a little bit, but I don't want to close it completely.
That's really thoughtful. You are listening very closely. You're thinking about how the drummer is playing.
You have to think musically. You have to think in those terms. "Musically, what is right for this?" You have to do that. You can't just go, "There's a kick hit, so just put the kick samples on it." You have to [ask], "What is the pattern here? Dynamically, what's happening? How am I going to incorporate samples across that pattern so that it doesn't suddenly make it sound musically wrong or not musically true to what should be happening?"
There is a whole art to putting those samples in.
Over the years of doing it so many times, you just develop a gut feeling. It probably would work the other way, but it wouldn't be musically correct.
John Nuss — Assistant Engineer:
You were in charge of adding all the samples to the drums. Could you tell me about that process and what you were doing?
Yeah. We added all the samples to kick and snare. [In] this day and age in digital recording there are so many plug-ins and programs that you can [use] to replace a sound, like Sound Replacer [Digidesign] or Drumagog, but those are replacing [the sound]. But I hand paste them in physically. Every single snare hit and every single kick that's done I do it by hand and the reason for that is we're not getting rid of the regular snare and we're not getting rid of the kick. It's a technique Bryan and Dave have used for years and years and years. It adds to the initial sound source, the original sound source. You can get a drummer that's got a badass kick and it just sounds beautiful, but [we want] to kind of accent it. Just add some samples, but on a different module on the SSL board which lightly blends them in. So it's not replacing anything. It's just adding to, and just fattening up the sound.
That sounds like it can be a painstaking process — to do each song "by hand" so to speak.
It is. It's pretty time consuming. I do it with Pro Tools. You can actually see the transients, the phase of the waveform, and with the samples that we use we line them up perfectly in phase. Some of the sample programs, they trigger off of the transient peak which is where it shoots up really high and then it kind of goes down because the sound source has decay-sustain-release — all the different points of the sound [traveling]. But it just triggers off the peak. So sometimes it could be out of phase or just milliseconds off and every millisecond counts so you just want it to be lined up perfectly.
Is that hard to do if there if is a fill that involves snare and kick, not toms. What do you do then?
Well, you do look at the waves and with mic'ing a kit of course there's gonna be bleed into every other mic because it's not like an isolated guitar. With that it just goes back to musicianship. Just listening to the tracks, soloing, and I use the Scrubber tool a lot to find out where [the drum] is struck. And just lining it up. Going back and listening to it over and over and making sure there are no flams and just making it sound musical.
What if there is a flam? Do you have to hit it twice?
If there's a snare flam? Yes. I'll put two samples in there. They'll be like milliseconds off so it'll be the first one and then another one layered on top of it. So it will be a trigger flam as well as the snare flam.
How did you manage the pace of these sessions and how does that compare to a lot of the other stuff you have done? You only had one day off after recording before the mixing process started.
Oh man, it's brutal for every session, but it's so much fun and so enjoyable! The tracking is one thing and then the mixing is a completely different animal. I have to be completely on my game because for mixing, documentation is so key and so crucial because there's so much outboard gear that we use. We've got so many different types of compressors, EQs and effects processors. Everything's got to be precisely documented. I mean down to the fractions of the Summit Audio... When the song is over, after we printed back to 2-track tape, back to the one-inch, and after Joey's reviewed and likes the way it sounds, then it's my job to write everything down exactly the way it is.
And you do that for each song?
After every single song.
Does that take a long time.
Uh, yes. I mean right now [for] outboard gear it's like 20 plus pieces of outboard gear. And it's got to be meticulous on the chain. The signal flow of every single one, and what every single one is set at, like the effects processors such as the Eventide Harmonizer that we're using. It's got delays, reverbs. You've got to write down the delay times for each single one. And it's got a bank and there's so much information to write down on that. That's just one unit. We're using tons of gear.
And do you store that on a disc or something? Or is it all paper?
It's all paper.
So you're using all outboard gear instead of plug-ins?
Yes. Using as much analog as humanly possible.
You mixed with one day off in between tracking and mixing?
Yeah, I mean there's not a lot of time to shift gears. You just have to do it. I mean along the way you're planning it in your head as you're tracking, but the only trouble, the only thing that was maybe against us was that we were working so much, tracking, that there was no time to really think about anything else.
Bryan mentioned how it took about four or five songs before you guys hit your stride during the mixing process.
We had to relearn how to dance again. Bryan [was] figuring out what he was trying to get out of the drum set [and] the guitar sound — the two biggest components in this record — and I sat back and let him exercise those things, you know work those things out by himself. We were mixing a song a day so I just had to let some things go and let him work those things out, but as it turns out he arrived at a place where we both agreed that, "Yeah, the guitars are sounding ferocious now, and the drum set is sounding cohesive and it's all a nice package." It took us about four of five songs before we got to that point. Up until this point I was really less involved in the actual automation part of the mixing. So those first four songs, for lack of a better term, they were more static than they were being automated. They were basically faders, levels set, and the song was let go. There wasn't very much being written in terms of vocal levels and things coming in and out, the rhythm section, guitar overdubs being faded in or out, or special effects. But again it was something I had to let Bryan do because, going back to the trust thing, I had to trust that he was going to arrive at a place where the both of us were content sonically. About four songs in we got to that point and it was right around that point where we discovered a working method. He would start a mix by himself, he would tweak the drum set [and] tweak the guitars. He would be calling the settings from the mix prior and applying them to the new song so that each song was starting at the basic same point. He would get things blended where he thought they were cohesive. He would spend a couple of hours doing that and then he would come in and say, "You're up." Then I would go in and I would make some global adjustments myself. Then we would write the automation at that point. We would write all the faders where they were and then from that point to the end he would leave me alone and (as you were watching us on a couple of days) I would go in and really nitpick all the segues, the lead vocal performance, the soloing, things fading in and out, transitions between parts — making the song basically have a life. You know it has an intro, it has builds, and it goes back down in the middle, and it's got a break down, and there's a crescendo in the end. So, again, he got to a point where he could trust me to carry the mix out to the end. I would occasionally ask for his opinions on things if I got a little snow blind and got stuck on something like, "I can't tell if the snare is a little too low here, but it also seems too loud in other places. What do you think?" He would come in and give me his opinion. By the fifth or sixth song we really got into this killer groove and so we finished out the mixes to the tenth song. So, when we did the recalls the recalls went relatively quick because we just applied the same formula. I've worked on SSLs before, but always with an engineer sitting next to me. This was the first time where he actually left the room. So Bryan taught me all the basic stuff, the things that I needed to do, or to know, in order to make the fader mix have a life of its own. He taught me a lot in a short amount of time and it made me feel super confident by the second or third song. I was like, "This is great. I could sit here all day doing this!"
I heard him say to you, "You caught the automation bug."
Yeah. I mean I'm used to working on Pro Tools. I have a Control 24 surface and it's different. In Pro Tools you can actually see your automation on the screen. You could pull up all the volume faders and you can see on the screen what is going on in your automation. It's a little different on a SSL because you don't physically see the linear automation happening. Basically you have your memory to go by and you have to kind of remember what you've done. We don't have flying faders here [at Tranzformer Studios] so the faders aren't moving. You have to really trust your ears a lot more than looking at a computer screen. You really got to listen and that was a little challenging at first because I [felt] like a fish out of water. I'm so used to looking at a computer screen. It took about three or four days to get used to.
Imagine how good Bryan's ear is from doing that all of the time.
Yeah Bryan loves his SSL and he turned me on to a lot of it.
You didn't notice this, but a lot of times while you were mixing at the board Bryan would peek in and see how you were doing. Mostly, he would see you cookin' away so he didn't say anything. Sometimes I would hear him say, "I gotta walk back over there and make sure he doesn't need me." He was always conscious of the fact that you were there and he wanted to make sure that you were comfortable. I saw that. Very diligent.
Absolutely. He had my back the whole way.
You planned on mixing one song a day. Did you do more than one a day ever?
No. We never did more than one a day. I mean it's a lot to do more than one a day. I suppose if you had the luxury of knowing that you could have more time you might get into a groove and work faster than that, but we were basically filling up every channel on this board. Most of the songs have a lot going on in them, so they're not really easy mixes. We're not like a four piece blues band. There's a lot of instrumentation, a lot of dynamics, so they're not easy mixes. So it was at least a song a day.
What do you approach first when you're mixing? How do you know where to start?
Well, it's probably a better question for Bryan because, like I said, he was the one that set up the launching pad for me so to speak. I think in general what we were both striving for, we were calling it "the bed." So we would set up what the bed was. The guitar sound had to be right and the drums had to be in their own pocket and blended within themselves. We had, I don't know, some crazy 18 or 20 channels of drums alone, so you have to make sure that all of that is blended within itself properly. So basically we were setting up a general rhythm section I would say. And then from there we would introduce other elements [such as] all of the vocals. The last thing we would do were the overdubs, percussion, and the solos.
So it's kind of similar to the recording process?
Yeah, you gotta have a solid rhythm section and it's gotta be cohesive between each mix because you don't want to have a record where the mix within the rhythm section is all over the place. You want the record to have some continuity. So that's why once we got to the point where we were happy with our mix even in sort of a broad stroke way — once we got to that happy place we could call up all the settings for each song and have that same starting point. So in other words, the drums were basically sitting at a particular dB level on the faders from that mix on. And the same with rhythm guitars and the bass guitar. So they were in a relative place as a good starting point.
Is the producer usually always involved in the mix?
Not always. Sometimes producers only take it to a certain point in the recording process and then a mixer will come in and they will put the mix in a different light than the producer. Every situation is different. Like what I'm doing is anally over-involved. [laughs] Other times someone might send the project to be mixed by someone in a different country and they won't even be involved at all. So the mixes will ultimately come back to the producer for final approval, but they are not sitting there telling the guy, "Turn that fader up," or "Turn that fader down..." Every situation is different.
Will you be credited as a mixer on this record [Vera ending up being credited as a co-mixer]?
I probably will. I didn't intend to, to be honest with you. My intention when we first started this was that Bryan was going to mix it. As it turned out, like I said, he has enough experience to realize that... and this is something that happened with Symbol of Salvation as well with Dave Jerden [see Tape Op #62], was that someone in the band, and that person happened to be me [laughs], had a vision to steer in a particular direction. Bryan's been doing this long enough... like I said, once we got to the fourth or fifth song we realized that we got to a place that we were both happy, but then he needed to relinquish the rest of it to me. It wasn't even something that was very conscious or that I would ask for. He may have even suggested it one day like, "Why don't you sit here and I'm going to put all of the faders in right where you think [they] should be. It was never far off at all to my liking or taste. In the end, I would put the faders in a place that was to my liking and he trusted me enough to let me take it from there.
I heard Bryan say, "I'm going to delegate comping the solos to you."
It was almost the same thing that happened with Jerden. Again, it's another trust thing. I could have said, "You do it," but in the end I'm going to have an opinion about it anyway, so let's cut to the chase. [laughs] Cut the middle man out and [have] me do it. Again, it's going back to being very practical and very efficient. This is the quickest way we're going to get there.
That's great because everybody is secure enough to allow others to step in.
It's a great team!
You brought your monitors from your studio The Bridge. You set them up in the isolation booth to listen to the mixes as you were moving along. Tell me more about why you did that.
Mostly I did it to change my reference points. Normally, what I like to do is have a lot of down time in the studio and kick back and play music that I like and relax and hang out and have music playing in the background. It really gives you a sense of how you hear things in a room. Everyone has their own favorite CDs. You take that CD and play it in a completely different environment it's going to sound different to you. It just is because the room is different, the speakers are different and the components are different. We were working so hard here that we didn't have a single day where we could change our point of reference. For me from day one all I was listening to was his Tannoy speakers and only listening to our music in [the control room]. I had no reference point. To me it was like I don't know what this really sounds like in the real world... I have no idea. So when we got to the mixing stage I said I gotta change my reference point. So I brought speakers from my studio that I'm used to listening to and I put them in the other room — it was really only so that I could have a different point of reference. What I would do is that I would take a mix as far as I could in the control room and get it to a point where I thought everything was right. At that point I'd go into the next room and they would pump the mix into the next room on a different set of reference speakers in a different room. That's why I would take a notepad and pencil and I'd sit there and suddenly I'm noticing things that I didn't notice before — "Oh, that transition is not smooth enough, the echo is too low on this section, the solo is not loud enough here, the toms are a little under" — whatever it is. And I would take down notes, go back into the room, reevaluate the mix, make a few changes, and we would do that a couple of times before I would finally sign off and say, "Okay."
Did it have anything to do with the fact, too, that this control room is open as opposed to being in a more sealed room?
That didn't have so much of an effect on me because I'm not listening to the mixes at really loud volumes. I'm listening to them at a volume where I'm pretty much getting the direct [sound]. There's not a lot of reflection happening. Earlier, when I said I had to sit back and let Bryan tweak his mixes for the first four songs, he was doing so at a very loud volume and I'm not used to working that way. It was alien for me to listen to music for extended periods of times at that volume. I would literally leave the room and once we got to a point where he would [ask], "Where do you think the levels should be?" — The first thing I did was I'd take that volume knob and I turned it way down. Then it started to make sense to me. Again, it was part of his exorcism to get that — that's how he works. He knows this room, he knows those speakers, he knows the equipment he's using. I don't know the room that way so I couldn't sit there like that, but that was his method of getting there.
And I noticed you used the headphones, too.
That's another reference point for me because I enjoy listening to music on headphones. I couldn't say it's very safe to mix on headphones because headphones are very deceiving in terms of how the real world hears music. It's a different environment when you listen on headphones, plus, every set of headphones is different. Again, they're my headphones. I know what they sound like. I can hear a lot more detail and the depth of the detail better. I'm listening for mistakes in the audio files, or I'm listening for subtleties like, "It sounds like the pick hit the pick guard at that point. Can we fix that?" I'm looking for details that sometimes get lost.
After the mix it gets transferred to one-inch tape and then it gets transferred to 192 kHz.
Part of something Bryan is very proud of in this studio is that he owns a one-inch master tape machine which is not very common. For obvious reasons you can store a lot more information, so you have a greater dynamic range on one-inch as opposed to half-inch. It's twice as much. So he was adamant that we put the mixes on the one-inch. It also is hitting the mixes on analog tape, which is old school. We grew up analog so it's cool for us to have that. It's adding a little bit of tape compression. It's adding a little bit of high end on it, as well as some nice warm low end on it and it takes your digital mix and it sort of glues it a little bit together.
All these little fine points.
Yeah, the little subtleties that tape does to a mix than if you didn't have it. Then after he records it on the one-inch he dumps it back into Pro Tools at 192 kHz. From there those files are what goes to the mastering. Our sessions originated at 88.2 [kHz].
When you began here at Tranzformer Studios?
Yeah. We recorded at 88.2 kHz, dumped over to the analog machine, and then we come back in at 192 kHz.
I've been listening to you guys talk about the importance of getting a good master.
BC: It's really important. When we mixed this, I mixed it, obviously, as close to it sounding like a mastered product as possible so that not so much is left on the mastering guy's shoulders to try to make it happen there. That's obviously a combination of the sound of the record itself with the balances of brightness and bottom end. We mixed down to a one-inch 2-track and then from there I lay it back to 192 [kHz] so that the mastering guy gets the highest resolution files possible. Then it's really about using a great mastering guy, because that's a talent all in and of itself.
THE LONG HAUL
Working 12-14 hours a day is difficult no matter how much you love what you are doing. After completing the drum tracks for all 10 songs in just five days, Gonzo turned to two of his other passions — photography and juicing. In addition to documenting the sessions with his photography, Gonzo brought in his juicer and would make a healthy elixir that provided much needed energy to everyone. Gone are the days of endless partying in the studio. Instead, everyone was focused on the tasks at hand. For some further insight into managing their time, as well as their stamina, I asked Bryan Carlstrom and John Nuss how they paced themselves throughout the sessions.
You guys had amazing powers of concentration while you worked. Ultimately, you were under a deadline so you had to put in some extremely long hours. How did that affect how you worked?
BC: You know, I was a little concerned about the hours going into it because I knew it was going to be fairly intense. What I didn't count on was, because it had been so long since I had worked with them, the hours weren't as fatiguing as in many other situations because of the personalities. There wasn't that fatigue of working with the band personalities itself. That just helped greatly. Everybody's really professional. They know what they're doing. We did have to run it like a railroad, though. It's like, the train's stopping here at this time and it's leaving at this time. We had to keep up that pace for five weeks nonstop.
How did you manage the pace of these sessions and how does that compare to other sessions you have worked on. After recording you only had one day off before the mixing process started.
JN: Oh man, it's brutal for every session, but man it's so much fun and so enjoyable! The tracking is one thing and then the mixing is a completely different animal.
You're arriving at the studio before everyone and you are the last one to leave.
JN: Pretty much right now all I can say is this is my life. I mean I wake up and first thing just get a shower. Then come here, set everything back up, turn everything on, do whatever needs to get done, work all day, and do a little bit of tidying up at night.
Want to see more? Here's a cool video tour of Tranzformer Studios given by Brian.