AVALANCHE OF WORMS MIXER MARK LEWIS ON MODERN VS. OLD RECORDING TECHNIQUES
First of all, thanks to MetalSucks and Eyal for organizing this little takeover, and for allowing me to share my thoughts and opinions with you. Its been a pleasure reading the blogs on this site, and I love seeing the feedback from the community in general. It’s very cool to be able to be a part of this.
When I was thinking about topics I wanted discuss with you all, I knew immediately I wanted to talk about recording in metal music. Specifically new versus old recording techniques, and how modern recording and production has changed the face of music, and especially metal as we know it. How important is the production of a record to you? We have tons of great sounding albums being released these days… I myself feel like sometimes great production or mixing has overshadowed songwriting. Kind of like great special effects can really propel a movie with a shitty script. There is technology available to us that really allows an artist to achieve things that otherwise would have never been possible if we still cut records on tape. Flat out, bands are making records they cannot duplicate in an acceptable way live, by their own abilities. While I think that the technology is an awesome tool, I must say that in my opinion, creating a perfect record can sometimes be a detriment in the long run.
Now, let me try and explain why. I’ll start with drummers. Has anyone noticed how incredible drummers have gotten in the past seven or eight years? We’ve been lucky enough to have guys like Lombardo, Hoglan, Reinert, Menza, Benante, etc… in the past. Now it seems like every band is just laying down brutal and perfect drums that would make those guys shake in their boots. But these guys aren’t threatened one bit. And honestly, neither am I, or most of you, for that matter, whether you know it or not. I don’t find a flawlessly computerized performance threatening, and I’m willing to bet most of you don’t, either. I feel like the brain needs mistakes, needs dynamics and needs a human factor to fully be sucked into a performance and recording. A perfect performance as well as the lack of dynamics is both non threatening and fatiguing, two things that make you simply NOT CARE. It’s a proven fact that lack of dynamics in a recording literally fatigues both your ears and your brain. Simply said, you’re not gonna make it through the whole record, or the song for that matter. You’ll get bored, your brain will be tired, and you’ll turn it off. I so often see “audio gurus” complaining about modern mastering and how the overuse of compression is making things unlistenable, which I agree with, to a certain extent. But how come now one ever says anything about the drummer who’s kick drums are just as loud when hes playing 16th notes at 230 bpm as they are when hes pouding through a simple rock beat? Does listening to something with no real human soul really get to you the way an old Slayer record did? I’m interested to know… because for me, the answer is, “no.” But I also popped my metal cherry a long time before computers where a huge factor. How are these new types of records affecting young kids who are still discorvering metal? Quite the science project if you ask me.
Here’s an extreme example I can give… when I’m producing or engineering a record from the ground up, alot of times a band will come to me with preproduction that sounds absolutely awesome, almost like complete record. Then they give it to the singer so he can write his stuff. The singer then comes to me or the band and says, “Guys, I’m having a really hard time writing to these demos and I don’t know why,” Or “Fuck these songs, they suck, I can’t write shit to ’em,” depending on the singers “attitude.” I don’t blame the singer… how can you be expected to be inspired by music that has ZERO dynamics? Your ears are being pounded by a drum machine and you’re brain is turning off. It’s like being screamed at from six inches away for four minutes, or listening to white noise. I’ll tell the singer, “Do all you can for now and we’ll help as much as possible but when the real performances get laid down (and hopefully in way that is not not overly perfect).” It’s amazing how much easier it becomes to be inspired.
Before I go on though, let me say I am not in anyway against limiting the dynamics of a perfomance or enhancing it with samples, I am simply pointing out what overusing them can do. A good thing to ask ourselves is, since its so easy to make records nowadays, why arent we making more great ones? What is drum editing, pitch correcting and overly quantizing everything REALLY worth? How many of these new records are truly timeless? Like a Rust in Peace, Slaughter of the Soul, Master of Puppets, or Blackwater Park. All of these albums have editing all over them, but the bands still sound HUMAN because they’re not locked to a grid. And here we are, still talking about ’em. No one is arguing about whether the drummer played it, or if they can pull it off live (except maybe in the case of Metallica, who still rule, slop and all). We’re just arguing about which record we like more after all these years.
Is it worth it to quantize and edit drums to the point that the personality is gone? Sure, sometimes it’s the only option, but why do it to a great drummer? I have lots of drummer friends in the biz who cant even listen to some of the records they’ve made because they don’t feel like they are listening to themselves. Their feel is gone, and their dynamics are wiped away. Can you imagine how frustating that would be? And believe me, I’m not washing my hands of blame either.
How do you guys feel about perfect records? Are they necessary? Do you enjoy them more than the old school way of doing things? I talk about this stuff constantly with my friends. I get so excited when I make a record that is raw and unedited. It’s quite a special feeling to revel in a performance as it’s happening rather than trying to be excited about it after I’ve had to edit it into something listenable. Am I just jaded, or can you guys relate?
The last thing I’ll say is that these perfect records have become a comfort zone. For a lot of us, it’s easy to just snap something to the grid and go, “Well, that definitely can’t be any tighter than this.” Or when we’re mixing, we can use a drum sample we know that works and go, “I KNOW this band will be happy with this drum sound.” Take, for instance, the Levi/Werstler record i mixed. It’s a HUGE departure from my everyday work. No drum samples, no editing, and two guitar players that WANTED me to make the record raw and fucked up, but in that cool, look-at-how-human-w-are sort of way. It’s what THEY do. I just helped them achieve that vision. I can say it’s super rewarding and really eye-opening to be a part of a records like that, becaue they aren’t happening everytime I set foot in the studio. It can be a big step nowadays for a band or producer, in metal especially, to think outside the box and go, “You know what? Fuck it, I might have fucked up a little, but this shit’s got attitude, let’s keep it.”
Its not the computers that have attitude. Humans do.