Anthrax, Testament, Overkill, Stormtroopers of Death, Nuclear Assault, Vio-lence... Alex Perialas is responsible for dozens of classic metal records from the '80s and '90s, mostly made in his studio, Pyramid Sound, in his hometown of Ithaca, New York. These records are near and dear to my heart, so I came in with pages of questions when I visited Alex. His 40-year career includes a lot more than '80s thrash metal, and we covered probably five interviews worth of material -- engineering for Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Aaliyah, Ginuwine; recording the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia; microphone-based ear training; making records with Overkill and Bad Religion; designing symphony halls; racing motorcycles -- and those are the conversations I had to edit out!
This building has been in your family for a long time.
My father was in the [music] business. I went to my first recording studio with him when I was eight or nine years old. When I was about 16, he was trying to slow down the traveling to New York City, and he started doing more demos at a local place here in town called Sleepy Hollow Studios. The engineer's name was Bill Storm and the other owner's name was Doug MacLean. That building still stands -- it's a community arts building now. They decided not to renew that lease, and to build this facility [instead]. My father had his booking agency and management company that he did real estate out of as well -- because in the music business, you need to be diverse. The doors opened in May of 1974.
And they built a studio here?
Yes. The [current] footprint is identical. This was the control room, and that was the studio. The machine room wasn't there, and it was a little different in the hallway. They were in this building for around eight months, and the two other partners couldn't see eye to eye. They came to my dad and said, "John, that's it. We can't get along. We want you to buy us out." My father was like, "I don't want to own a recording studio! I was only doing this because I wanted my space up front, and I wanted access to a studio. I'm not an engineer. I don't want to know about that." But my father bought them out. So here he is with a recording studio and no engineer. Friends of friends put him on to a fellow named Les Tyler. I don't know if you know who Les is -- he owns THAT Corporation [who design and manufacture high-quality audio integrated circuits].
Oh, okay. Wow!
Les was an electrical engineering student at Cornell [University]. So my dad hired Les in 1975. Les was here for maybe a year and a half; then he got an offer from dbx to be a design engineer, which was really his calling. I was sad, because we were really close; he taught me an awful lot, and he still does. I've been lucky to be surrounded by really smart people. So, my father was looking for another engineer. He went back to Cornell and found a guy who I instantly disliked. My father gave him the keys, and said, "By the way, Alex knows the room very well. He knows where things are, as well as how the console works." This was a custom-built, homemade console with Opamp Labs components; a very odd desk. This guy looked at me and said, "Yeah, yeah. I'll give him a broom to sweep up." That weekend I walked by the studio and there were a lot of cars outside -- I knew there was no session booked. I walked in, and he's in here with his friends, hanging out, pretty wasted, and cranking the monitors. He looked at me and said, "You, get out of here!" I said, "Me, get out? Guess what, you're fucking fired. Get out of here." I shooed them all out and took his keys. I was a college kid. [laughs] My father found out the next morning and he was so pissed off. He said, "Who's going to run the studio?" I said, "I am." He said, "You can't; you're in school!" But I started working 50-hours a week here, and I made it work.
You went to Ithaca College, right? Did you graduate?
Yeah. My degree was in Radio Television. There were no audio schools in those days.
Okay, so it was 1976.
I was in here with that original console and a Scully 2-inch, 16-track. There were a couple of local rock bands that I was friends with, and we started learning how to record. I got really close to getting a band signed to a major deal. We had some development money for a regional band called Tokyo and another band from the Binghamton area called Lord West, which was sort of a cross between Mercyful Fate and Rush. There was another engineer involved, Tony Volante; we were both young and we learned a lot together after Les left. He is still a mentor to my students in New York, and he's a long-form film mixer. Tony was offered a job and went to a studio in Boston called Soundtrack -- primarily a jingle house. Here I was with this 16-track and a homemade console -- I wanted to mix something in a real room. So, I went to Soundtrack, and that was my first experience with a Neve console, as well as with my first Studer. I came back and said to my father, "We need to buy new gear." This was 1977-ish. He said, "We're in upstate New York, and you want to spend how much money on gear? I'll have no part of that." So, I reached out to one of his old friends who got me an interview at a studio called Park South. I told my dad, "I think I have a job. I'm going to move to New York City." He said, "Alright, alright. I'll cosign on a loan!" I bought a 36-channel Harrison MR3 -- that was the console that made all the guitar tones that you like so much -- and a Studer A80 24-track, which is over in the corner here, and also a 1/4-inch Studer B67.
Do you remember how much that console cost?
I borrowed $250,000 from the bank. That was a lot of money in 1981. To get a 2-inch machine in those days, you had to go to New York City or some major market. When we got [our 2-inch deck] it was a big deal, because now we were saying that this room was upgraded to be like a New York room. We bought a bunch of microphones, compressors, and limiters -- but we still had minimal gear. But it was a real console, with a real Studer 24-track tape machine. That early console had automation too -- the Valley People 65K. It didn't use time code; it had a data track that was pulse-based.
So, you had to stripe the tape?
Two tracks. You lost track 1 and 24. What happened was the automation -- it scanned the VCAs [Voltage Controlled Amplifiers], and all it was looking for was offset. When the fader moved to a new position, it'd scan a change.
Did you have to start from the start of the song? Or could you back up to the middle and make it work?
I could. It was a ping-pong situation. It would record onto track one, and then, when it went to 24, it took that, plus the updated information, and recorded it on 24. There was no computer. When we started using SSL-like automation, it was timecode based. It was locked to something. But this [Valley People 65K] would drift. If I did really tight mutes on the front of a song, eventually it would start clipping the beginning. So, when I did my opening mutes, I got to a point where I would make those mutes a little loose; 20 passes later, it would get closer.
It seems like 1981 was when things took off.
The next layer is the Megaforce [Records] story. I had done a bunch of projects with Carl Canedy, who was the drummer of The Rods. He was a very influential producer, in the early days. Initially I did a bunch of The Rods' records with him. I also did early Joey DeMaio projects, before they were Manowar. The studio was busy, and we were doing a lot of regional work. Things started to really crank when Carl was working on The Rods -- they were signed to a major deal.
Did The Rods record here?
They did, but they also worked in Rochester at Music America Studios. That's where the first Metallica record, Kill 'Em All, was recorded. This is where the story gets crazy. That record was done by Paul Curcio, who owned the studio, and a young engineer named Chris Bubacz. Chris was a good friend of Carl's, so Carl started doing some work up there and this connection happened between Carl, Chris, and Jon Zazula [Megaforce's co-owner]. After Kill 'Em All was done, Music America was supposed to get new gear. Anthrax was the next band that was slated to go into Music America. They loaded up all their gear and went to Rochester, and there was no gear. The band is freaking out, sleeping in cars, and looking for a studio. Of course, there were not many choices.
Was this for Fistful of Metal?
Yes. Carl was going to produce the record, and Chris Bubacz was going to engineer. So, Scott Ian [guitar, vocals] and Charlie Benante [drums] called me. They came to Ithaca and said, "Can you play something with guitars?" Because I'd been working with those guitar-driven bands -- especially Lord West. I put that up, and instantly they got on the phone with Jonny and said, "We found the place. These guitar tones are insane." That's the beginning of the Megaforce era.
Jon Zazula started Megaforce to release Kill 'Em All, right?
Yeah. He owned a record store in New Jersey called Rockn' Roll Heaven. He brought Metallica to the East Coast to make Kill 'Em All. That was the studio where it all started. You make your own luck, but it was one of those things where if there was gear at Music America, Anthrax never would have come looking here. Here's the cool part. Jonny Zazula -- who's still a dear friend -- would not get money until he delivered a record to Music for Nations. Jonny and my father met and made a deal. They shook hands, with no paperwork signed, that we would carry Jonny financially until we delivered a record, then we'd all get paid. That happened for a bunch of years, and he never broke his word. So, kudos to Jon Zazula and his wife, Marsha. From there, we did the second Anthrax record [Spreading the Disease], then Feel the Fire -- the first Overkill record. We became the place where all the Megaforce recordings were happening. There's a back door here; gear was coming through the front door as gear was going into a truck out the back door. It was insanity. That back wall was cool, because every band would leave a note for the band that was coming in next.
Spreading the Disease was Anthrax's big upswing. There had to be some pressure.
There was definitely pressure, but nobody works harder than those guys. They were all business. They weren't drinkers; they weren't partiers. That's why I gravitated towards being around them. They really wanted to do good work, and they were all really good at what they did.
Everything was on tape back then?
Yes. They had to get it right, and I had to be really good at punching in and out, as well as editing tape.
Was there a lot of tape editing?
Some. Not as much as you might think; mostly comping. If we're going to quickly dive into the notion of today versus yesterday, this thing [holds up iPhone] is the evilest thing in the world for somebody's creativity and attention span. I shut mine off. I know that if a text came in and this thing buzzed, I'd look at it. It's the way we're programmed. We're a little older -- think about a kid who's only known this. They are so glued to this thing that it's an obsession. They can't put it down. Working on tape forces you to be engaged on a different level. Not with your eyes on Pro Tools, or your device in your hand, worried about what's going on with Facebook. The control room phone was basically on mute. I wanted the band to be that engaged in what we were doing. You didn't have to talk to about that with some bands. Anthrax, Testament, and others we worked with -- they were laser-focused on the chore, which was making great music.
People like you had to figure out how to capture those fairly new sounds, such as a super-fast double-kick or scooped, very distorted guitar tones. Was that challenging, at first?
Absolutely. The key was huge drum kits. I thank my lucky stars that Carl Canedy schooled me about drums. He's a fantastic drummer, and I learned a lot from him about tuning drums. I've always had a thing for guitars. But no drums, no record. Carl was good at what head combinations work on what drums, what style of drums, and how drums want to be tuned.
So, Scott Ian [Anthrax] walks in and plugs in his guitar...
When I heard that guitar tone, it was like, "Damn, that's pretty severe!" It was two 100-watt heads. His trick was to use a TC [Electronic Booster+] Line Driver & Distortion. Then, to split the signal -- because there were really no boxes in those days -- he used a [TC Electronic] Stereo Chorus+ Flanger; he just never turned it on. That was it. It was mic'd with [Shure SM]57s and [Sennheiser MD]421s. Simple close mic'ing, but 99% of getting those guitar tones was about pickups and pickup height. It's crucial to change the pickup height to get the sounds right. Also, the type of pickups matters. EMG pickups had a certain thing. Most of the guitar tones that I gravitated towards, more than the EMG world, was the Seymour Duncan JB model.
There's a tightness. I assume those guys didn't run their amps very loud.
No, they were loud as fuck. Preamps were dialed up pretty well. Master output might have been in the 2 to 3 range.
With the master at 7, you get a different tone.
It's a different effect with the output transformer. It changes quite a bit when you turn up the master.
With all that palm muting, it seems like most people go for tightness. It's not about squishing the power amp so much.
Yeah. That's about controlling the low end. I was making sure it was the right cabinets, that they were all tight and right.
Was that all Marshall cabs back then?
A lot of them. Mostly 30- and 35-watt speakers. They weren't 75s, because they broke up differently. Some of the cabinets were stuffed with insulation for tightness so they wouldn't rattle. Nine times out of ten, the heads weren't on top of the cabinet because the low end vibration makes the tubes act differently.
And how about double-tracking guitars?
Two on each side?
Depending on how it'd be broken up. But it was always going to be four performances. We tried to get takes super tight. I was really a prick about this. The key is that I'd get a performance that was punched together, then I'd do the second take. I'd sit in the center, and the original would be panned left, and the second one we were tracking would be panned right. The second that I heard anything that was remotely out, it'd be, "Stop! Go back, punch in, and get that one tight." Then I'd shut off that second guitar, do track three, and then track four.
With different tones, or the same tones?
It depended. Later on, I'd do two of one guitar and two of another guitar. The [Gibson] Explorer was my center guitar, and then I'd put whatever else on the edges. I'd just pan those things out.
Anthrax's Spreading the Disease took a while. How long do you think you spent on drums?
We didn't really spend much time on drums. Most of the time, Charlie was done in two or three days. The only song that gave him trouble on that record was "A.I.R.", the double bass part. He'd try it, and if it wouldn't work he'd try to do it the next day.
You couldn't grid up drums back then!
No, he played it. There was no triggering. There was no bullshit. You played the shit. That was one of the cool things about that era.
We have to talk about the S.O.D. [Stormtroopers of Death] record [Speak English or Die]. The story I heard is that while you were working on Spreading the Disease, someone was fucking around playing all these crazy riffs, and you said, "You guys should do something with that!"
Towards the end of the Anthrax record, things were getting a little bit laborious. Those guys had a lot of free time because we were doing a lot of vocal work. Scott was still friends with [ex-Anthrax bassist] Dan Lilker. I'm a sucker for a guitar riff. I heard the riffs and went, "Shit, what is that?" I think I called Jonny Z and said, "This shit is ridiculous. Can I do this with these guys?" He was like, "Just do it!" We did the whole thing in three days; recorded and mixed. A lot of coffee. They were all passed out in the control room while I was mixing.
Did you track everything live?
We tracked the rhythm section live. It's only two guitar tracks. Everyone's like, "That's the guitar tone from heaven!" It's really about how tight Danny Lilker can play with Scott Ian. And he downpicked everything on bass, with that distorted bass tone. If I pulled the tape out and put up the rhythm guitar tone, it's much thinner than you think it is. But with the bass, it becomes this thing.
You produced Carnivore's Retaliation; a great record, but you didn't do any of Peter Steele's later Type O Negative records.
I was never good at the whole "get on the phone after the record is done" and do the, "Hey man, how you doing? Let's hang out," thing. I was always on to the next project. Not that I didn't stay friendly -- it's just that I was never working the angle. If my services were needed, I would be there. A lot of times, as the bands' careers developed with their record companies, the management and the band had different ideas about who they should work with. You want to try something different? That's fine. There was never animosity. There was never a project where I left on bad terms with a band. Ever. I'm okay with that.
I drove up here from New York City, and for the drive I made a playlist of your records from '83 to '90.
I've never done that. It might be scary. [laughs]
It was great. I wish you were in the car with me! It was really interesting. There's a decrease in reverb over time, the drums slowly get more defined, and so on.
Realize that bands like Anthrax, Testament, and Overkill -- they were involved in every part of the process. There's not any one decision that was made where it's like, "Oh, I wish Alex hadn't done that." There'd be times where I'd go, "Are you guys sure you want it to be like this?" There was always a collaboration.
Testament's sonic arc is pretty dramatic. Practice What You Preach sounds very different from the previous Testament records.
We made Practice at Fantasy Studios [in Berkeley, CA]. They wanted to make that record live. I said, "If we're going to say in the press that it was made live, then we're going to make it live." I wasn't going to put my name on something and say one thing about it, and then have it be something else. So that record is recorded live -- every guitar solo was live. Every day we'd run through the set twice. We'd do it during the day, and we'd do it at night. Every night I'd pull master takes off the 2-inch reels. We had a shitload of tape. We kept tracking, and every time we got one that felt like a killer take, we'd pull it. That was the choice tape. Then we'd do the set again the next day and pull a take. I might have five or six versions of a song that were good. Every time I got one that was better, I kept that and threw the other one away.
You had the best record, at that moment, at all times, and that was about it?
Yep. If one got better, I'd throw [the previous version of the song] away. I'd just erase it, so I didn't have to think about it. I didn't want to know. It was gone.
How many days did you do that? Do you remember?
That's a lot of passes of each song to choose from.
Yeah, but they got better. We'd talk, and they'd get better.
Did you comp takes?
Nope! Absolutely not. The vocals were the only overdubs. They were done with a handheld [Sennheiser MD] 421. He was holding a piece of a mic stand. We wrapped foam around it and taped it up. That guy [Testament singer, Chuck Billy] is a monster.
One of my favorite records that you've done -- and probably my favorite-sounding -- is Wrathchild America's 3-D. I lived in DC for years and saw those guys a lot. They were an extremely good band.
Oh, what a good record. Great musicians. Fantastic guitar players. And Shannon Larkin was a monster drummer. You've kept track of [singer/bassist] Brad Divens -- he's a front-of-house guru. He also did a stint as an engineer, making records, and as a producer, too.
Sonically, that record is totally different from all those others. It's really dry.
I tracked that record here, and I mixed at Hit Factory in New York on a Neve. That was my first experience with a Neve VR. I came back and bought one. I was never a huge SSL fan.
Did you like it for the workflow, or for the way it sounded?
The way it sounded, and the automation was to die for.
Can you tell me anything interesting about that record?
There was lots of preproduction. I tended to demo a lot before we tracked for real. We went to a small 16-track studio near Baltimore. There was one track from the demo where the drums [ended up] on the record. "Desert Grins" might be the one. The feel was just so good.
That was 1991. Records didn't sound like that, at the time.
It was the beginning of the grunge era.
It was also the beginning of triggered drums in metal.
Yeah. I don't think you'll ever see anything from my early discography that's triggered.
How significant was mastering in the '80s?
I used [the late] Tom Coyne as my mastering guy, pretty much my entire career. He was one of my closest friends in the whole world. It was always significant to have someone you could trust in the mastering room, especially when you were making vinyl. A lot of times when you hear these versions that are on the internet, or versions that were turned into CDs -- they were never transferred [properly]. If you've done any studying about making vinyl, the process is complicated. The master tape would sound a certain way, so that you'd know you'd get a good cut onto the vinyl. If you took the master tape, transferred it to digital, and made a CD without the notes -- without the proper settings [EQ, limiting, etc.], it would just be ass. Horrible. That's a lot of what I hear people commenting on today, like, "Wow, listen to that record. What the hell was going on?" They're just transfers of the master tape.
I've long wondered -- when people say vinyl sounds better than digital or CD, who knows how the digital transfer was done? There's nothing wrong with the way CDs sound.
No. Cutting a vinyl representation of the master tape is a process. That took someone highly skilled. We got pretty good at making a master tape that would transfer to a piece of vinyl. That wasn't designed to go to digital without the notes, because there's a lot that was involved with the mastering console. Someone was tweaking a tenth of a dB here, a quarter there, volume changes between tracks, different compressors for different songs, and so on. When you cut the mother -- the first acetate that got plated -- that was a performance. You couldn't stop! You had to run the whole side; and you either got it right, or you didn't. There were tweaks in the choruses, and tweaks in the verses. People don't realize. A lot of my old work is off the master tapes, and it's horrible. It doesn't sound anything like what we made. Nothing.
So, would you say the ground truth of those records is the vinyl?
Not the audio on your 1/2-inch master.
It was close! I'd rather have people take a copy of that than take a copy off of, god knows, a third-generation copy, or something. You don't even know where it came from.
Were you supervising digital masters in the '80s?
No, not yet. In the late '80s, we were approving things on CD. That would be different. Also, remember when we were doing vinyl, there were multiple versions. There'd be a 12-inch that went to radio stations, maybe two songs. When CDs came out, there were promotional CDs with three songs. That would be a different EQ than the one the record was made from.
Through the '90s, you kept making records and helped run a record label, but let's jump ahead to your teaching career at Ithaca College. When did you start?
In 2003. The teaching thing is huge. It's a fantastic way to leave the earth. I oversee one of the most prestigious, up-and-coming recording programs in the country. It's a four-year Bachelor of Music degree. You have to be accepted into the school of music, playing at a very high level. If you're at the top of your game in NYSSMA [New York State School Music Association], those are the kinds of people I teach.
How many people in a class?
My first full-time year as director of the program was in 2007, and we took five incoming freshmen a year. I took 18 this year.
That's a small department. It's cool that the school supports that.
The facility has an SSL Duality console. We have a great microphone selection, great outboard, and great mic pres. I've wrangled all my friends in the industry to help me. "You want to make lifelong users of your product? Hook me up." They do. One of my former students, Shani Gandhi, was nominated for a Best Engineered Record Grammy for Sarah Jarosz's Undercurrent. David Bowie's Blackstar beat her, but that record did win two Grammys. Shani also mixed [Grammy Best New Artist nominee] Kelsea Ballerini's single "Peter Pan." That's just one of my former students. Another one, Kevin Harper, works at Warner Bros. A student who graduated last year is over at Georgetown Masters.
You're bringing in very qualified students to start with, putting them through a legitimate audio program, and helping them find real, professional gigs.
When a mother or father comes up and hugs me at graduation and thanks me for looking after their son or daughter, saying that I was like a parent to their children... What else do you need? That's better than any snare tone.