Bob Rock is a foundational pillar of modern day rock and metal production, the architect of a drum and guitar sound he pioneered on cornerstone releases, including Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood and Metallica’s seminal The Black Album, which has sold over 16 million copies and took the heavy metal band mainstream. Looking back on 30 years, Bob Rock’s approach to recording rock and metal has changed the sound of both genres forever. The following is from conversations spread over a few years between 2005 and 2012.

Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood turned 25 a few years ago. That sound helped usher in a new, mainstream respectability for metal production. What were you hearing differently from the rest of your peers to inspire you?

My production, at that point, was more to do with sonics. In the ‘80s, production was about sonics; about the sound. Coming from an engineering/mixing background, I went into Mötley with that in mind. With Dr. Feelgood, I was trying to make everything as big and powerful as I possibly could. There was no preconception as to what I was doing. It was more like, “Okay, let’s get in there!”

Do you consider pre-production an invaluable and essential part of the record-making process?

Pre-production with me – for every band – is the same. Every time I’ve short-changed pre-production, it’s never really worked. I try to get into a rehearsal hall with a really basic tape recorder and work on all the songs – the structure, the riffs – and find out what’s missing. I work on the drum beats, guitar parts, vocal parts, and figure out what needs to be worked on. It always works; any song worth recording should stand on its own with just one mic in the room. So that’s what I try to do.

Your drum sound is legendary. How did you create and capture that to tape?

Back then it was the beginnings of hip-hop, and I think bottom [end] was becoming bigger and bigger. My mic techniques that I had at that point were all ones I’d picked up from working with the different people. Then, in time, I’d adopted my own sound. Everything is derivative so, for instance, when Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #84] was in the studio working with Bryan Adams, I’d go in at night after session, look at all the mics, and combine that with other people I had worked with through the years. It was a question of learning good mic’ing techniques. It’s pretty much stayed the drum sound – without being mixed – it’s pretty much what I get these days. Back then, I used a [Sennheiser MD] 421 in the kick, an [Electro-Voice] RE20, and usually a [Shure SM]57 or [Shure SM]86 on the snare. For overheads I used [Neumann U] 87s or [AKG C] 460 Bs, room mics were condensers, and I’ve always double-mic’d my toms; top and bottom. That’s stayed the same, pretty much to today. Metallica records are slightly different. With The Black Album there was maybe another 40% of top-end on everything; I think everything became a little tighter, and there was a lot more damping. A lot of Tommy Lee’s drumming, back then, I think the big shocker there was I had to open up the mics – he was such a loud hitter that he would actually compress the drums. He hit so hard that the drum would almost compress itself, so I remember I would have to back off the mics. It was really a question of trying to tame that energy, as well as getting the right distance on the cymbal mics because of the size of the cymbals. I think the big thing with the sound of the drums on these albums came in the mixing. In mixing it was pretty much Tommy pushing me, and me figuring out a way to make it happen.

You broke some new ground in relation to the hybrid way you built out Tommy Lee’s drum sound on Dr. Feelgood. Could you deconstruct that for us?

By using samples in conjunction with the drum kit to get the weight and the size of the drums. Tommy would tap me on the shoulder and say, “Rockhead, could I have a little more bottom?” Of course we’d add bottom to the kick; the kick would be thumping, and there wouldn’t be any bass [guitar]. Then we’d increase the bass and the definition would be gone. If you listen to the beginning of Dr. Feelgood, what I did was triggered a bass tone with an AMS [digital delay] – like one hit on the bass that’s hammered. And that’s with the kick drum. In mixing the drums on that record, it was a question of detuning, as well as finding the right balance between all of those drums and the guitars. The best thing I can do to describe that (and then what I did on The Black Album in comparison) was “weight.” I tried to give as much weight to the drums as possible.

On the heels of Dr. Feelgood, Metallica’s The Black Album took radio and MTV by storm. When you got the call to do that record, what new territory were you looking to take the band into?

Metallica told me that they sought me out to produce The Black Album based on the drum sound I’d gotten for Tommy on Dr. Feelgood.

What strengths of each player were you focusing on to get the best sound out of both their kits, and with the natural way they each hit the drums as players?

I think what Tommy always brought to Mötley was pushing the muso-quality of the band. He was always trying to push, like with the different beats. For instance, with Dr. Feelgood, things got a little funkier. In terms of the rhythms before, it had always been pretty straight ahead. All of a sudden, with Dr. Feelgood, Tommy sort of broke away from what had been their traditional drumming sound. To me, Tommy, as a drummer, is like an open nerve end, whereas [Metallica’s] Lars Ulrich is probably closer to Keith Moon than anything. Tommy is a classic back-beat drummer; he is the basis and a rhythm kind of guy. He does have syncopation, but he’s a rhythm machine. Whereas what makes Lars Ulrich’s drumming so wonderful and so unique is that he’s reactive to the music. The Black Album was him consciously trying to be more of a backbeat, keep-the-time kind of guy. Most of his fills and unique drumming all comes out of the fact that he plays to the riff of the music, much like with The Who. The Who and Metallica are very similar, because Keith Moon played to Pete Townshend’s solid rhythm playing, and Lars Ulrich has always played to James Hetfield’s solid rhythms. I don’t believe Lars  thinks in the terms that most drummers do, I think he thinks in a musical world that is unique. He plays to the riff, rather than trying to control the riff.

When you’re collaborating with personalities as strong as those of Metallica’s James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, where did you look to strike a balance as production decisions were made on The Black Album?

Lars and James are equally the life-blood of Metallica; that is a marriage when it comes to Metallica. Not at all short-changing Kirk Hammett [lead guitarist]. Kirk has always been the mediator between the two, but James and Lars – when they’re both strong – they’re the sound of Metallica. When one or the other dominates in any situation, it changes drastically.

The “Bob Rock Guitar Sound” still reverberates in today’s world. What are some of the secrets?

I think the one thing with me is to always try to get the guitar player involved, and get what he wants. I think that comes from my engineering background, and being a guitar player myself. I had some early experiences in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when I started. In some cases the producer and the engineer used to supply the drum kits and amplifiers, and say, “Here’re the drums you’re using. Here’re the amps you’re using.” There were so many rules, and growing up in the industry I was thinking, “You guys have got it all wrong. You’re supposed to try and capture what these guys are doing, rather than trying to force them into sounding like this or that.” Right from the beginning I learned to get in sync with the guitar player and his sound. I think the big thing that I brought to both Mick Mars and James Hetfield was using multiple amps, as well as using the differences in phasing, cabs, and heads that all combined to get one sound. Different volumes on different amps, for different frequencies and clarity. That’s basically what I’ve always done to record guitars. Multiple amps and multiple mics, and finding that sound. It’s basically a process of building the sound in the studio. Some people, like Eddie Van Halen, throw one mic in front of an amp and make it work. I think sometimes you have to build that sound. I use [Shure SM]57s, [Sennheiser MD] 421s, and [Neumann U] 87s when I’m mic’ing amps. I think the big thing with amps for Mars’ sound was that he used Jose [Arredondo] modified Marshall [amp heads], which John Sykes [Whitesnake] was using. I used that same amp on The Black Album, and really every album I’ve made since. That became a mainstay.

When you were matching microphones to amplifiers, what was your approach with each player?

Mick’s sound is about size and sheer volume, not unlike James Hetfield, John Sykes, or other players who have a big, monster sound. That has a lot to do with Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi; that style of playing with single-note riffs. That sound is like a monstrous power-chord. That has to do with the playing, and Mars has a style that is very much his. Very light strings, and a very soft touch, but very loud. I tried to get on tape what I heard. We went through all the cabinets, I got him involved in the control room, and we did it ‘til we got it right. That was it. The big thing is Mars, like James, has different amps – you get four different Marshalls and you get four different sounds. When I group Mick Mars and James Hetfield together, I do so for what they bring to their bands. As players, make no mistake, I would say James Hetfield is absolutely the best rhythm signature-sound guy I’ve ever recorded. It’s phenomenal. I can pick up the same guitar, with the same amp, a minute after he’s played and it will sound like crap compared to him. He’s got that. Mick Mars is much the same way. I can’t pick up Mick Mars’ guitar after he’s played and make it sound like he does. I would say the sound of Metallica is built more around James, where I would say Mars is the collective in Mötley. As far as Mars’ playing, I think it comes down to him being solid as a rock. Mick brings it all together; the wildness that Nikki [Sixx] and Tommy have, respectively. Even in his solos, and the little things he does in terms of accentuation, nothing is wild. It sounds wild, but it’s really well played and executed. I think he’s highly underrated. To me, this goes back to some of the better players that have had these great signature sounds in bands: it’s Tony Iommi, James Hetfield, or Mick Mars. These guys are the backbone of the band; there’re always the drummers that are responsible for the rhythm, but I think one of the reasons why Tommy works is because the guitar playing is so solid. Tommy can’t do what he wants, all the syncopation, and all the other tricks he likes to do, without a solid player behind him. Mars is like Pete Townshend; he’s really rock solid.

James Hetfield credits you with being the first producer to actually coach real “singing” vocal performances out of him. What’s your approach to helping a lead singer find their voice?

During The Black Album James Hetfield became a singer. It was something that he wanted to work on, where with Vince Neil [Mötley Crüe], I think he likes to do his “thing” and that’s it. I don’t think there’s any conscious effort on his part to say, “I want to be somebody else. I want to work on this and improve.” Vince is a realistic guy who knows what he is, and what he does, and that’s fine with him. That’s the funny thing; Vince really gets where he is in the band, and he really gets Mötley Crüe. He is the perfect Mötley Crüe guy, realistically.

As a producer you’ve had to navigate some heavy moments, like in the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster. Is there any advice you’d share about how to bring that balance to the studio?

My philosophy is that with any band, an individual’s mind will ruin anything good. Basically, “logic” in bands, and individual personalities, destroy bands. Rock music, and heavy rock music, are as artistic as classical or jazz. There’s a dynamic to it that’s very delicate and mysterious. It’s a delicate balance, within all those personalities – there are so many things that come into it. I think working with both Mötley and Metallica through the years, as well as any other band that I’ve had a long relationship with, it’s individual personalities – those people, their thoughts, and their logic – and some of the things they come up with, ruin the music and the bands. It’s what bands do, from The Beatles up to whoever’s falling apart at the moment. It’s impossible to completely prevent it, much like you can’t reverse the divorce rate. I think today, more than ever, is the generation of “me.” I think musicians are definitely, first and foremost, huge in terms of egos and the “me factor” in today’s music. I think that’s why so many bands fall apart.

Critics, fans, and bands have referred to the “Bob Rock Sound.”

I hope there isn’t a signature Bob Rock sound, because I’ve worked many years so that it doesn’t happen. I like making records, and I like making records that interest me, and there’s not supposed to be any formula in that. To be quite honest, I’m not into being a career record producer. It’s not about my career. There was a time in my life where it was, but since The Black Album I’ve tried to be a better producer, as well as work with bands I find interesting and challenging at any given moment, and help them realize what they want to do. It’s not a Bob Rock record; it’s never been about me.

You’ve created studio masterpieces in both the analog and digital eras of sound recording. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of working in one medium vs. the other?

Our industry has changed so much that – unless you’ve got the money or the time – you’ve got to use Pro Tools. I think we all love the sound of analog and what it does. I still do prefer the sound of it. But there are some great things with Pro Tools now. The record companies are giving out less money to make records. The time factor is even worse than it’s ever been, and if you’re making records these days, you’ve got to use Pro Tools because it’s the standard. There are probably very few bands in the world that can even do it in analog anymore, timewise, to get it the way it should be done. The thing you’ve got to remember is that Pro Tools or analog, these are just the tools we use to make records. I think it was five or six years ago, I actually sat down and finally went, “You know what? I kind of feel like I know what I’m doing.” Not that I know everything, but I just felt that after 25 years of doing this, I have a certain amount of confidence. Like I feel I could go in front of anybody and get something good. I think that comes with working hard for 25 years, starting with sweeping floors at Little Mountain Sound Studios, working up through the whole gamut of analog and digital, and trying to be good. My life has always been about music. I love music; it’s the biggest thing in my life, second only to my family. That’s what I live for. I think it’s a huge commitment, in terms of the love of music and the time and work that you have to do. To me, it’s not something you can learn in three or four years. I think youth brings energy, and I think that’s a fantastic thing, but with age and experience comes another aspect that I, more and more, cherish. And that’s with anything; whether it’s people who write books that are older, or people who make movies. There’s this experience aspect that you can’t underestimate.

How does that translate to advice for the younger generation of Millennial laptop producers?

I’d say to anyone who is young, “Just work your butt off, absorb as much as you possibly can, and use whatever tool you have in front of you to do the best job you can.” Also, “Don’t stand for anything,” that’s the other thing. It’s interesting how many people are like, “I’m the analog guy,” or, “I’m the digital guy,” or, “I’m the programming guy.” They’re just tools. Somebody said to me many moons ago, “A poor carpenter blames his tools.” That’s what I would say. The guys who I respect, who are still working today in this business, do so because they’ve been working at it for a long time. They’re really good at what they do because they’ve spent a lot of time in the studio, as well as listening to records, forming opinions, and doing it. There’s no substitute for experience. That goes for musicians too. The bottom line is you’ve gotta hang in there if you’re young. Do as many records as possible, and work really hard. Most people really get work in this business, not because of some manager or school, rather they get work and stay in the business because of the last record they made. It’s about people digging what you do, and so that’s what you’ve got to do. Lots of it.

What advice would you share with aspiring producers, should they have the good fortune to start working with bigger and bigger bands?

With every job I do, I work at that record so I get to do another one. I don’t take any of this for granted, because I work at the pleasure of the band. It’s always like, “I’ve got to do the best I can ‘cause I hope somebody likes it. If somebody hears it, maybe I’ll get another gig.” With anybody, I want to do the best I can so I can get another job. The day after The Black Album went number one, I was worried about where I was getting my next job. I still do. It’s part of the business. I still hear all the things that are wrong with Dr. Feelgood, and The Black Album, and all the records I’ve made since and before. All the things I would change. Like I said, I feel like I know what I’m doing, but I still feel like I learn every single day.

What gives you the greatest joy about continuing to get out of bed and head to the studio each day?

On a personal level, it’s always been about trying to make the band happy, because I know – through personal experience – what it’s like to make a record and not be happy with it. I lived with that early on in my career, and it’s just the worst thing. I’ve always been an artist-driven producer. I guess it’s as simple as wanting to be remembered for helping the bands I work with make the best albums they could.

Bob Rock Playlist on Spotify

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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