If you’ve listened to metal records produced in the last two decades, you’ve surely heard the work of Andy Sneap. Killswitch Engage, Megadeth, Carcass, and Judas Priest are only a few of the artists whose works have been given his treatment: tight, snarling mixes where the bands’ virtuosity and chops can be heard with full force and clarity. In 2018 and 2019, Andy toured with Judas Priest as one half of their twin guitar attack, subbing in for an ailing Glenn Tipton. With touring ground to a halt throughout the pandemic, Andy’s studio work has resumed with albums from Saxon and John Petrucci (Dream Theater) among his upcoming batch of works. We caught up over Zoom at his home in Derbyshire, UK, to chat about his evolution as an engineer from his early days in Oakland, California, to rehearsal spaces, to producing Judas Priest’s warmly received Firepower.
The first thing I want to trace back to is 1997 and Another Lesson in Violence by Exodus. That was recorded live at the Trocadero [in San Francisco], correct?
I didn’t actually record the live bits. The first album I did in America was The More Things Change… by Machine Head. I was the mix engineer on that. I tracked the guitars with Robb [Flynn] in San Francisco and then mixed it in L.A. After that I did Skinlab for Century Media, and then I did Exodus. They had the same management, Debbie Abono. I got linked in with Exodus then and never looked back.
There’s a whole Bay Area connection there with Skinlab, Machine Head, and Exodus.
Testament, also. I’ve done a lot of work in the Bay Area. It was done at Hyde Street, which used to be Alpha & Omega [Recording]. I did loads of work there. A lot in rehearsal rooms. What’s that main one?
We’ve done loads of recording at Soundwave. Testament’s got a room in there. We also had Craig [Locicero]’s old room upstairs, which we called Flabby Road Studios.
On some of those early albums, like The More Things Change…, that was the mid- to late-‘90s, when Pro Tools was starting.
We were still on multitrack tape, running two 24-track Studer machines on that. I remember I was running Cubase on a PC for triggers, moving kick drums around. It wasn’t until Nevermore [on Dead Heart in a Dead World], which was one of the first albums where I used Pro Tools for pretty much all the tracking. I was still using a lot of outboard gear on that. Pro Tools slowly crept in toward the end of the ‘90s. In fact, the first album I used Pro Tools on was the first Blaze Bayley [Wolfsbane] album [Silicon Messiah]. I bought my first blue and white [Apple Macintosh] G3 with Pro Tools 4.3 on it. I had one [Digidesign] 888 [I/O] and an ADAT bridge. I was using my ADATs as interfaces, transferring onto ADAT with the BRC, and linking it all up like that. That would have been ‘98.
You were talking about using triggers in Cubase. Were you using hardware triggers?
I was just triggering into Cubase using an [Alesis] D4 [drum module] to create MIDI. We used an Atari ST [computer] before that. I think it was [Emagic] Notator [Logic] to do a MIDI note, using SMPTE off the tape, and MTC [MIDI time code] to sync it up. It worked pretty well. I used the D4 and an Akai S1000 [sampler] for sounds. When we couldn’t do the MIDI side of it, we’d go off the sync head, delay it, and put it back in time. There are ways around it, but it was very basic back then.
The collection of kick and snare samples that you had must have been a lot more limited, right?
Oh, it was totally single-shot. That’s why those albums do sound a bit machine-like at times. There was no real variance in the sounds. That’s come a long way since back then, but it worked. We blended it, and it gave us that consistency in the sound we were after to help get clarity on the mix.
With a lot of those thrash bands – and I’m sure [Andy’s first band] Sabbat –didn’t get the clarity of the kick drum back in the ‘80s. Plus, there were no high-gain guitar amps yet.
In the ‘80s I was using [Marshall] JCM800 [guitar amps]. On our second album [Dreamweaver] I was using the [Marshall] Silver Jubilee with a Boss GE-7 [graphic equalizer stompbox] and a noise gate to tighten the front end. But on the third Sabbat album [Mourning Has Broken], we did trigger the kick drums on that. We triggered it live off the recording; there was probably one or two mis-hits on that. That was the early ‘90s. Some of the other albums that were around, people were using the old TC [Electronic delay] units to trigger. You could store samples in that and fire off it.
When I listen to that first Testament album [The Legacy], I hear this little tap on the kick drum; but when Louie [Clemente] gets into the big triplet [double bass drum] parts, it loses it all.
I know, right? You listen to those Slayer albums. The faster kick sound is there. You can tell it’s there, but it’s a blur, isn’t it? It’s that rumble. It’s kind of nice, in a way. It’s a bit more natural. But if you keep it like that – more natural – for a drummer now, they expect to hear the kick drums more.
Albums like Violent Revolution by Kreator or The Gathering by Testament were coming to you. I’m putting myself in Mille [Petrozza] or Eric Peterson’s head and thinking, “This is the way we wish it would’ve sounded when we were 19.”
I know! It’s funny. I’ll listen back to The Gathering or some of the work I was doing in the late ‘90s. People say, “Oh, it’s a benchmark album.” Blah, blah, blah. But I don’t think it actually sounds that good now. It does sound a little dated to me. It’s not got the clarity and natural feel. Mind you, saying that, we did that in the rehearsal room on ADAT, bouncing it back through the Soundcraft Ghost [console] onto two tracks of the ADAT. It was pretty primitive. We did okay, for the time. Obviously, if we were doing that album now, it’d be a bit more refined.
People complain about music being more digitized and less natural sounding as years go on. You’re talking about your productions becoming more natural sounding.
I went to a point where I realized how much you could edit something. [In the] early 2000s, a lot of people – including myself – fell into this thing of getting parts so tight, so precise, and so mechanical. We’d be going in and editing everything, so it was sucking the life out of it. It was perfect, the performance, and we’d be looping parts. It got to the point where I was like, “This is so boring to listen to!” We want to hear a bit of that rawness there, and a bit of movement. A more mature approach is to try and get the best performance, refine it a little bit, and get it tight. But you’ve also got to know when to stop with that and know when you are actually killing it. When I listen now to what I’m doing, I think it’s tight and it’s in tune. It’s got a good vibe. That’s part of the thing about being a good producer. I’m keeping the energy in there, keeping that vibe, the tightness, not killing it, and I’m getting the clarity out of it as well.
How does that translate to your guitar mic’ing? I know you’ve been a [Shure SM]57 guy for a long time.
I still always use a 57. I try a few other mics now, even some room mics. I was always thinking, “It’s gotta be close mic’d and really direct, in your face.” I’ve come away from that a little bit, and now I try to get it a little more vibey. Nothing drastic; I try to get a fullness with a different sound left and right to widen the mix. That’s something I was never doing back in the early 2000s; trying to mix it up a bit and make it more fun, rather than the same thing every time.
How do you keep it fun for yourself when you’re working on thrash and death metal albums regularly?
I don’t really work on that stuff all the time [now]. When you look at what I have been working on, it’s been a lot more classic metal; something with a bit more melody to it. I’m a bit more selective now. I’d rather have a couple weeks off than sessions back to back all the time. It wears you out. This job really does; it beats you down after a while. And a project will always take longer. If I’ve got the extra time there, I’ll use it. I’ll eat into it.
Are bands coming to you more for your role as a producer rather than as an engineer? Are they looking more for your musical input rather than just a knob-twiddler?
It still varies. Something like Judas Priest; I’m there in a production role. Thinking about recently, for John Petrucci [Terminal Velocity] I was just the mixer. It’s still across the board, really. The fact people know me as a producer and a guitar player, especially as a guitar player now, they realize I’ve got something to put in on the production front. But with the COVID thing, there’ve been a lot more mixes happening. People have tended to record their own tracks and have been getting in touch to get them mixed.
Is re-amping playing a big role in that?
I try not to re-amp. If an artist has got a sound that they particularly want to use, and they’ve tracked with it, then I’ll go with it. I’ll try to work with it as far as I can. If something’s really not working, or I think it could benefit them, then I’ll talk to them and see what we can sort out. But I’m not one of these guys who is dead set on re-amping everything he gets. Again, going back to John Petrucci, he’s very particular. He’s got his MESA/Boogie [guitar amp] that he wanted to use. It was a little dark for me on his solo album, but I thought, “Right, I’ll get what I can out of it with EQ.” It pushes me. I usually find that we can reach that balance where they’re getting what they want, and we can make it work. We had three EQs in the chain trying to dig some more top end out of it; but it worked well, and it ended up as something different than if I would have re-amped it. It was cool, in a way. I always learn off every project that I do.
In mixes I’ve done, the high end of the bass [guitar] seems to be in a constant fight between the click of the kick drum and the presence of the guitar.
I never had that problem. If I’m using a bass amp, I’d be using a [Shure] Beta 52, which has less of a high end click to it. It’s got more of that rock knock to it when you use it for a kick drum. I’m looking around 800 Hz to 1 kHz for that small, nasal frequency. A hair of it can help you on small speakers. Sometimes I’ll throw the [bass] DI back to a SansAmp and filter it, so it’s just a narrow band and blend it in. You can be 10 dB down on this in the mix. It gives the bass that extra little space. I find that DI and the mic blended, as long as it’s in phase, it’ll set the bass where it needs to be and not get in the way of the guitar. I’m looking at the mids; that 1 kHz area. I call it a “pig hunting for truffles.” You’ll get that “snorting” to the bass sound. I remember Shane [Embury] from Napalm [Death] used to run into a SansAmp. It sounded like a digger; like some mechanical device grinding away in the background.
I always think back to [Metallica’s] Master of Puppets; the gold standard for the original heavy metal bass tone.
It’s got scooped guitars, and the bass fits in that hole. You can almost see it when you think about it, where everything’s sitting.
We’re using our ears, but at the same time the mix almost becomes visible. It’s like a puzzle.
You’re slotting everything together. When I’ve been on a mix for two weeks, I’ll get a bit lost and can’t see the wood for the trees. I’ve been mixing Exodus. Gary [Holt] contacted me the other day and said, “Are the guitars too quiet?” I listened to it again with fresh ears and they weren’t too quiet, but they were lacking something in the mids. There was a bit of a hole under the vocals. So, we recalled it, recalling the desk and the outboard gear. Straightaway I could hear what it needed to be, and what should be dialed in. At the time, we were focusing on all this other stuff and couldn’t hear it. Sometimes walking away and coming back, putting another project between myself and the mix I was doing, is so valuable. I’ve got instinct when I first hear it, “Ah! I hear what’s missing now.” I always try and do that. I try to walk in in the morning and listen to it, and then, within the first 30 seconds to a minute, make a call on where levels need to be. Then usually I’m in the right place.
Are there certain times of the day when your ears are going to be working better for this pretty up-tempo and energetic music?
First thing in the morning. I get to a point, usually around eight o’clock in the evening. I work quite late sometimes, but if I’m doing donkey work – like triggers, editing, and cleaning tracks up – that’s fine. I’ll try and do that late in the day. But I always avoid anything like EQ’ing hi-hats or overheads late in the day. I don’t think it’s our hearing, but I’m in a different place mentally. We’re tired. When you’re tired, your perspective changes. I need that fresh approach and that gut instinct to get the right thing going. The attitude.
When it comes to decision making, the thing that always kills me are drum overheads.
That’s it! That’s what I’m saying. I say the two hardest elements to get right are cymbals and bass. There’s so much variation in both, and it’s down to the player, as well. Especially with metal and thrash drummers, they can be so hard on the hi-hat and just tickling that cymbal when they’re coming off it. And it’s the way cymbals and bass are recorded, as well. The low end varies with kick drums. Or the way the bass player plays; whether it’s with fingers or a pick. I’m trying to get that constant low end to it, where it doesn’t get in the way, but also so that it doesn’t get too boomy. I can guarantee on a mix the two things that I come back to at the end of the mix – after we’ve tweaked everything and ridden everything – it’s always the cymbals and bass that are the last two parts to get altered.
Whenever I’ve done the spaced-pair configuration for overheads, there’s this back and forth… It ends up being a decision of how much of the full kit do I want, or do I want the clarity of a stereo spread?
It depends on what you’re doing. I’ll do a stereo pair above the kit now that’s almost like room mics, in a way. I tend to use the room mics to get a bit more of the body out of the cymbals and the overall kit. I’ll be using the spot mics to try and pull the clarity out a bit more. With China crashes, I’ll go in and edit between the China hits so I can get it to pop out in the mix. It literally might be gone in a matter of seconds, so I might end up pasting a China in to give a bit more sustain. But, yeah; I can spend forever on cymbals. I hate them.
And love them. When they work, they sound so awesome and feel good when you have a good drum mix going.
To be honest, you hear a lot of albums with low cymbals because it’s easy to mix that way. When the cymbals aren’t getting in the way, everything’s so clear. But if you can get that excitement on the overheads, it adds a top end excitement to your whole mix. I just did the Accept album [Too Mean to Die] and I was saying to Wolf [Hoffmann], “The cymbals are too loud!” It got to that point. He’s like, “Nope, it’s the drive of the kit.” You stand in the room with the drummer playing a kit, and the cymbals will kill you. You know what it’s like in a rehearsal; the cymbals are so loud. It’s very hard to get cymbals too loud, in a way. I’ll try to get [the mix] to a point where I ask, “Are they too loud?”
If you can contain the top end and get it under control, then why not give [the mix] that “on a train” excitement?
And if you’re using a lot of samples in your kit, it’ll glue it together as well. It gives it a more natural feel. You get a little bit of that attack on the toms and a bit of the snare in there.
Are you gating the toms or the snare? Or is there Strip Silence editing going on in Pro Tools? I can’t bring myself to trust gate plug-ins. I’d rather go in and make the edits myself.
I’ll edit between the toms. I’ll go in and totally clean the tom tracks up, so you’re hearing just the toms. For snare, I’ll do the snare trigger. I’ll use Massey Plugins DRT [drum replacer] to make a “blip,” so I’ve got a separate track of a “click” for the snare. Then I can go and make a MIDI track off it, or I can use it with a [Steven] Slate [Drums] Trigger. I’ll also use that into a sidechain of a gate on the snare, so it gives me a clear snare track. Then I’ll use a little bit of [Sound Radix] Drum Leveler on it. I’ve still got the dynamic tone in there, but it brings the level to a manageable point before I hit a compressor.
Is that compressor on your SSL console, or is that outboard gear?
No, I’ll do most of that within Pro Tools. I’ll tell you what I am liking: I’ve got three of the [FMR Audio] RNC, the Really Nice Compressors, and I’ve got a TK S-Blender so I can parallel mix it. I’ll smash the RNC with the snare and blend 50 percent back in with the TK S-Blender, so it’s a nice parallel compression. I’m running everything in stereo on the AWS SSL. I’ll have a stem of the snare, with a little bit of a room mic and maybe a stereo sample in there just to brighten it up, as well as a lot of the natural snare. That’s coming back on one [channel]. Then I’ve got another channel that has all my snare samples on it. I’ve got a snare sample track and a natural snare track that I’m blending and using some parallel compression [on].
I don’t know if this still holds true, but for a while for vocals it was just a [Shure SM]58, right?
No, not really! No, I’ve always either used a [Shure] SM7 or a decent condenser. On sessions like Exodus with Zet [Souza], or Warrel [Dane] and other people who’ve got quite a midrange in their voice, the SM7 is always good. It grabs it a little bit. I’ve got quite a collection. I’ve got [Neumann U] 67s and [Neumann U] 47 types. I haven’t got real ones, but I’ve got good replicas. I’ve got a [Neumann M] 149 that I use. I’ve got an [AKG] C12 replica. Whatever studio I’ve been working at, it’s always been a decent condenser that I’ve used.
For Rob Halford [Judas Priest]?
We used an Advanced Audio CM12 on the Firepower album.
I did want to spend a little time talking about Firepower. Judas Priest said that it was recorded live as a band.
Kind of. We still did quite a lot separately. What had happened since Painkiller, believe it or not, the drums had always gone on last. They’d used the demos as a template. It’s such a backwards way of doing it. I wanted to get a bit of the band feel back again; a bit of the push and pull, old-school vibe back. I wasn’t so bothered about using a click if we didn’t have to, though we did use a click for the most part. We had about 23 or 24 ideas; rough outlines of songs. Scott [Travis, drums] hadn’t jammed them. Richie [Faulkner, guitar] just played to a click at Glenn [Tipton, guitar]’s place and they put these blocks of ideas down. To me, as a band you haven’t even worked the ideas out. The amount of times bands come back six months later and go, “Oh, I wish we could record the album again now,” is because something’s pushing and pulling. Someone’s had an idea and is playing something different, and it’s embedded itself in the song now. The chorus might pick up a couple of BPM. There are all kinds of ideas. You know what it’s like with bands: People throw ideas backwards and forwards, but it doesn’t take away from the main song idea. It adds a band vibe to it rather than one guy writing on a laptop. I wanted to make sure that [the album] had that. We had Richie, Scott, and Ian [Hill, bass] all set up in Glenn’s live room. We were doing a day of preproduction on the ideas before we put anything down. We had it set up to record so we could listen back to it properly. We’d be jamming it. If there was a good take on the drums that was on the grid, we’d keep it. Or if there was a good section, we’d keep it and mix it in. It was a lot more of a band vibe of them all playing together. I wouldn’t say it was recorded as a live album – it certainly wasn’t that – but there was a lot more of a live vibe to it. I wanted for the drums to go down first, which was what was important to me. It shows big time, because it does feel like people are playing to the drums.
Scott’s performance on Firepower was also so much more freewheeling.
Well, it’s funny, because I did all the demos with them. This was before Scott came in. I went down there and sat with them and saw all these rough ideas. I took the hard drive away and programmed all the drums on the demos. I was putting the fills in. “Yeah, we’ll have a bit of [former Judas Priest drummer] Les Binks here, a bit of Scott Travis here.” We were having a bit of fun with it. There were all these different bits I was putting in. Scott heard the demos and was laughing, “Yeah, good luck getting that fill past Glenn!” I would say, “Oh, well; don’t you worry.” And he came up to me a week later and was like, “Dude, you did it! We did it!” Scott was pleased that he was given a bit more freedom, and I think having the drums programmed helped. Not that he followed what I did, but [the programmed drums] gave people more of an overall picture before Scott came in. Scott was able to elaborate and do his thing. He was given a bit more freedom on it, which is great because Scott’s such a good drummer. He’s got some great chops; it would be a shame not to use that skill on an album.
You mentioned, “Good luck getting the idea past Glenn.” You, Tom [Allom, co-producer], and Mike Exeter [engineer] were the production team on Firepower. What role did Glenn play?
Glenn’s the boss. He’s the guy who oversees everything. I get on with him great. He’s so dry. He’s very astute at writing and keeping what’s important to a song. You can tell he’s refined the song. If something doesn’t play a purpose, it’s out. He’s said to me that a solo’s gotta be an extension of the song. It’s gotta be a song within a song. If you listen to what he’s done on what he’s written in the past, it’s so right. Glenn’s very much the guy who sees the overall picture. Glenn has to approve it, even if Tom and myself are producing.
In the final months leading up to the album’s release, they had posted something online like, “Glenn’s working on final little touches.”
Obviously, we knew about Glenn’s health issues [Tipton was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2008] when we were doing the record. We had two rooms going. Glenn knows Mike really well. They’d worked together before on Redeemer of Souls, and Mike had built Glenn’s studio. Mike and Glenn were working in a B-room sort of setup on Glenn’s tracks. Me and Tom were with Scott, Richie, and Ian in the main room doing the bulk of the recording, and obviously recording Rob [Halford, vocals]. That gave Glenn the chance to work to the drum tracks and focus on his playing. Obviously, it was taking more time than it would have in the past to go in and tweak it. We’d take Glenn’s tracks and slot them in, “All right, we need to sort this part out. This bit feels a bit strange. Let’s try to tweak that.” We were bouncing between each other. Once we’d got the basics down, and Glenn had got his solo ideas down, I went with a separate Pro Tools rig and worked with Glenn another week or so on solos, piecing them together and getting these ideas together. We developed this way around the issues that Glenn’s got, and we made it work.
If you listen to the solos that he does in “Lightning Strike” or “Rising From Ruins,” you couldn’t tell that’s someone with Parkinson’s.
No, and bless him; he was struggling. But he had his ideas – his basic structure to the solos – worked out. He’d gotten all that on his laptop. I went back down to the studio with him and sat down, “Right. We’ll try a little harmony on this part. Let’s try and get this bit a bit cleaner.” It was a case of piecing it together. But, mentally, he’s got a good way of piecing it together. He knows where he wants to go with it. We’ve got a good relationship. Being a guitarist as well, he can explain it to me. I can sit there with a guitar and we can figure out what it’s meant to be and what the harmony would be. I’d sit there, be patient, and get it out of him. It’s all you can do.
It almost sounds like a vocal tracking session.
I saw something from Rob Dukes [vocals, Exodus and Generation Kill] not too long ago, where he was saying you record ten takes of one line and, word by word, find something cool.
Same with Rob Halford, as well. Rob would come in and do what he wants to do on that part. Tom would have quite a few ideas vocally, as well. And then we’d try it with a bit more attitude, a bit more spit in it. Maybe a bit more dynamics on the front of the words. A bit more breathy, maybe. Then we’d piece it together to get the vibe and play it back to Rob. He’d say, “Right, let me try this.” There would be a lot of going back and forth to get the right attitude on it. Rob is the king of timing, when you listen. Everyone goes on about his screams, but his dynamics and the timing – the way he snaps the words – no one else does it quite like he does. He’s got a personality. It’s partly his accent, as well. That Brummie [Birmingham] accent; it’s the way he delivers the words. I wanted to get some of that, that British Steel midrange to his voice, the attitude in there.
The last time I heard Rob Halford roll his ‘r’s might have been on British Steel.
I’ll take full credit for that! I was like, “Roll the ‘r’! It’s great.” It’s so Rob Halford, isn’t it?
You’re in an interesting position where you worked with a band and then toured with them. How does being a performing member with them change your dynamic as a producer for the next round?
It’s strange, isn’t it? It’s difficult sometimes with bands. You can become such good friends with them – when you spend a lot of time around them – that that artist/producer relationship disappears. The Priest guys are so cool, anyway. There’s never going to be an issue with those guys. Sometimes with bands, that gets to a point where your opinion isn’t valued as much. I’m not saying that’s the case here at all. But sometimes it gets to that point where it’s like, “Oh, it’s just Andy.” You feel you’ve got to step back. It’s gotten to a point sometimes when I’ve gone, “Guys, I think it’s time for you to start working with someone else, because you need a fresh approach.” For me as well, [it] can be boring sometimes, if three, four, five albums in with a band, you’re sort of burnt on ideas for them. So, it does get to a point with bands where it’s important that things change.