I’ve been making recordings for a really long time now, and it’s unbelievable how far everything has come, especially for all of us playing at home, who want to get our art out to the world at large.
There’s a few blogs where I’ve talked about what I started on, like THIS one for example (scroll down to number 5). Basically a couple of tape recorders, connected together with a $50 microphone mixer, and each new layer was played over the top live as the previous take from one of the tape recorders played back everything I’d recorded so far. That process was repeated until I had a (very hiss filled, terribly mixed) song.
That progressed to a home 4-track cassette recorder, then to a home 8-track cassette recorder, with all of the fun of manual punch-in edit points, tape splices, etc. My effects were basically a bunch of Boss pedals, and some very cheap hardware reverb/delay units, all going into a second-hand mixer with half of the channels not working.
Even back then, even as a clueless kid, I had a good understanding of how I wanted the band to sound. More often than not, either the tools or my own lack of knowledge made this completely fall short. But every recording was a learning experience.
My first pro studio experience was in 1992 at NuTown Studios in Sydney. Myself and our guitarist at the time, Dale Corney, travelled literally half way across the country, from the outback to the coast, to record the very first “proper” Dungeon demo tape. 19 songs, done in just a few days. The studio engineer there was blown away by our work ethic. We really weren’t impressed by the product, though.
This was no fault of the engineer’s though. Everyone has their own interpretation of how a product should sound, and we were both on completely different pages. He wanted a modern 90s alt-rock kind of sound, we wanted a huge bombastic 80s sound. We met somewhere in the middle and achieved neither.
I made the journey back to Sydney a couple of weeks later and decided to have a go at mixing this thing myself. My first time behind the console in a real studio, and I had absolutely no fucking idea what I was doing! Well, mostly, anyway. It’s amazing what trial-and-error, and really getting your hands dirty with actual hardware, no manual, and no presets or tutorials to follow will teach you. It doesn’t really stand up as a good sounding product today, but for what we were going for at the time, I nailed the brief. And down the mixing rabbit hole I went!
We eventually recorded the Resurrection album at Powerhouse Studios, on a wonderful old Studer tape machine, through a classic Neve console. Amazing gear, amazing room, killer mic collection, my good friend and experienced studio guy, Mark Worrall, engineering, and me producing.
As I elaborated on in the band history that came with The Dungeon Era box set, it was an unmitigated disaster of a product.
Sometimes the best gear won’t save a recording from bad decisions, and sometimes the worst disasters can be a huge teaching moment. This was certainly a teaching moment, I’ll say that much!
From then on, everything was digital for me.
Big analogue studios sounded great but were VERY expensive. Just a roll of tape was hundreds of dollars and you’d barely get 30 minutes of recording time. Editing was a nightmare, and if you wanted more effects, well… you had to have them on hand. It’s rudimentary to patch another instance of a compressor plugin into a track in your DAW. You actually need another physical hardware unit if you’re doing it the old-school way! Running out of tracks was always a juggling act: “I’d like to add that extra harmony in the chorus” “Nope, you have 24 tracks, and they’re all used up. Suck it up.” And tapes wore out the more you used them.
There’s a certain discipline that comes with working within these kind of limitations, that can really bring out some absolute gold from a session. You’re forced to choose what is going to work best for the song and nothing more. Sign off on effects and tones. Get it right at the source. It’s a very valid way to work that can be truly successful for a lot of people. But I have to say I really don’t miss that stuff at all. It always felt too limiting, and it was never quite enough to get my vision of the production over the line. I needed the flexibility digital gave you.
Of course, going digital in the early days on a budget wasn’t without its own compromises. Cheap audio interfaces, effects that really weren’t quite up to their hardware counterparts, recording in less-than-ideal spaces (one thing you can never quite replace in your “spare room” home studio setup is a proper acoustically designed room and good monitoring that you’d find in pro studios), and really learning how all of this new fancy tech actually worked.
A Rise to Power was our first proper digital recorded release and it was a huge step up for us. But tech and monetary compromises, plus splitting time between a commercial studio and a “spare room” home studio meant it never lived up to the aspirations, production wise, that I had for it.
By the time we did the Set in Stone album, I finally had a full architecturally designed commercial studio of my own. Audio plugins were improving in leaps and bounds, and although we still quite didn’t have the budget or some of the high end gear of a lot of other big commercial facilities, things were finally starting to settle into the “what are we actually wanting this to sound like” stage, rather than the “I want it to sound like this but things are preventing it” stage we’d had up until then.
Every studio album since Set in Stone has been, for the most part, a stylistic choice as to what it’s sounded like. Some have been closer to the mark than others, but that was due to decision making rather than shortcomings. The only thing we really kept in mind, especially with the re-recorded material like The Dungeon Era and A Personal Journey: Revisited, was we wanted it all to feel like it was part of the same lineage of production. Each album had its own distinct fingerprint (eg: Digital Lies being more “stiff” because of the technological theme to the production, the albums from The Dungeon Era purposely being more “live” because they were paying tribute to the feel of the earlier Dungeon albums, etc.), but overall we made the conscious decision to try to keep guitar tones and drum production somewhere in the same kind of ballpark.
With Fallen Idols, we started with an entirely clean slate.
I discussed the theme behind this album in THIS BLOG more, but the basic gist of it all was we took a step back and asked “What if there was no legacy? What if we started fresh, drawing influences for both songs and production from anywhere we found inspiring, and treating our now-extensive back catalogue as part of our list of influences, rather than any kind of template?”
We re-examined everything with how we approached the production on this album. We knew the goal was to have a very “nostalgic” album that gave very obvious tips of the hat to our heroes and come packed with heaps of Easter eggs that reference our past, but it also had to sound fresh and exciting, rather than a rehashing of anything.
We came up with the following guidelines:
- We wanted the guitars to sound heavy. Yeah, duh. It’s a metal album, of course we do! But this time we looked at the guitar tones and made sure they had that extra punch we wanted to get across. It had to give you that feeling of standing in front of a cranked amp, that was just a touch too loud to be comfortable, but you wouldn’t have it any other way.
- The bass had to stand out and really growl. For all of the shit we hang on Andy, bass really is kind of important to the sound of what we do, and it’s quite tricky. Getting that to cut through a mix where we’ve intentionally made the guitars extra in-your-face is no mean feat. We took a leaf out of the Eddie Jackson (Queensryche) book of Monster Bass Tones and based (bass’d?) the growl of the bass along the lines of his tone. Great depth and definition, but it roars!
- We really wanted the drums to sound more natural this time. More slap in the kick more crack in the snare, lots of ghost notes and flams. With albums like Digital Lies, we went to great lengths to take a lot of that out so it fit with the more mechanical feel of the samples, but this time, we wanted it to lean more towards the exciting drums of the earlier Dungeon era albums, and bring that liveness into it all.
- What we really liked about Digital Lies, however, was all of the synths and loops. We wanted to find a way to incorporate that in, but still have an exciting live-feeling album, that was genuinely heavy.
- And, of course, the huge choruses and vocals that changed style depending on what the song required was a given.
One other thing that we deliberately took a fresh look at was the mastering stage. For those who don’t know that that is, once an album is mixed and everything is how you like it, mastering is the final polish and assembly before it goes out for manufacture. The tracks are balanced against each other, and the whole album is balanced against other commercial mixes.
There was a big trend for a while there to make things as loud as possible. You only need to listen to some of the later Metallica albums to hear how ludicrous that can be when it’s taken too far. But if you wanted to compete with your contemporaries, you had to do something similar. Thankfully, that’s all settled down a hell of a lot since then. The loudness wars are most definitely over.
That said, there’s a great quality you get from a really slammed hot master all the same. The last few albums definitely were really slammed to compete with our peers, but in order to get them so loud, certain compromises in sound needed to be made. We had to sacrifice some punch, some low end, and we had to be really careful with any crazy effects.
This time, we backed things off a bit to give us some more breathing space to let the mix really shine. It’s still slammed, like a metal mix should be, but there’s a lot more definition in things like snare hits and kick drums, and we were able to bring back a lot of warmth in the low end to give the bass and kick drums more thump, and add in subsonic thuds and booms to sell some of the more cinematic moments.
How did we do? Hear for yourself! 🙂
LORD is typically very difficult to mix, though.
If you’ve grabbed the United single from our store (free with a shirt!) you’ll have heard previews of the entire Fallen Idols album. Going from the thrash/power monster of United to Counting Down the Hours, which is a ballad, to In Dreams, which is hard rock, to The Edge of the World, which is brutal thrash/death metal… you can see how getting this stuff to sound like it’s all part of a consistent album by the same artist would be tricky! You can’t mix the ballad to sound brutal. You can’t mix the thrash song to sound like a glam band. So finding the common ground that works for everything but without compromising anything in the process is the ultimate juggling act!
It’s certainly been a long road to get to this point – over 30 years, in fact, since I’d first decided to try to record my music. I reckon this new album might be one of the best productions I’ve worked on yet. I’m exhausted and completely sick of listening to it by now, and yet I’m still willing to stand by that. I think that says a lot! 🙂
I’m definitely curious as to what you guys will think of it all. We’re just tying up a few loose ends now behind the scenes, and sorting out the manufacturing of it all, but don’t be surprised if there’s another press release out sooner than you think. and you’ll be able to say if we hit the mark or not.