Audio Primer: Producers
Old Man Doom explores the realm of production and recording in extreme metal.
I was reading through the comment section on Red Fang’s newest song, “Flies,” the other day when I came across a disturbing comment. This particular comment said something to this effect: “Man, I can’t believe they compressed the guitars so much. This is doom metal, it shouldn’t be compressed. What a terrible producer and mastering.” Now, the actual comment was far less intelligible and far more profane, but the crux of the argument here is that the sound of the new Red Fang song displeased this semi-illiterate listener for some very specific reasons. I took exception to this comment – and many others like it lurking on videos and forums all over the internet – because it revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of audio, production, and the roles of those involved in making an album.
This particularly ignorant example inspired me to write this piece, and several corresponding pieces, on this exact topic: audio in extreme metal and hard rock. My goal is to clear up some of the misconceptions about the different aspects of recording, production, mixing, mastering, etc. that come up in almost every discussion of new albums and songs. I am personally invested in the audio production profession, so this topic is close to home for me – but my perspective is just one of many, and I do not profess to hold any objective truths about it. If you’re still with me, let’s jump into a crash course on audio, starting with the role of the producer.
It is probably one of the widest used terms in any discussions, reviews, or copy of new music. It is also the most vague in terms of the responsibilities and duties one must perform when taking on this role. In short, the producer is an individual whose job is to make sure an album is delivered to the record label on time, on budget, and on par with (or exceeding) the quality of the band’s previous work. This last responsibility is often times subjective. A producer’s duties might include booking studio time, managing the band’s studio time, communicating with the audio engineer, writing music with the band, delivering the various iterations – instrumental version, remixes, etc. – of an album to the label and into your ears. This is, more or less, my working definition of what a producer can and most likely should do for a band.
We have all heard horror stories from musicians, bands, managers, and even producers themselves about the production of certain nightmare albums and the evil producers behind them – but in reality, especially in our insular extreme metal community, good producers are more abundant and can really make a difference, taking an album from pretty good to KILL. Yes, there are those producers who are notorious for doing virtually nothing for a band and literally sleeping on the job (*cough* Rick Rubin *cough cough*). These guys are far and few between, at least in our community. More commonly, a lot of our favorite band’s work with producers who make it their job to combine their technical know-how with their creative experience to draw out the very best a band has to offer and more. Guys like Kurt Ballou, Dave Otero (Cattle Decap, Cephalic Carnage, COBALT), Billy Anderson (Sleep, Agalloch, Pallbearer), Jens Bogren (Amorphis, Ihsahn, The Ocean), Ross Robinson (Slipknot, Red Fang, Sepultura), Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis, Alice In Chains), Joey Sturgis (The Devil Wears Prada, Delugé), and many others put on the producer hat and get involved down to the microscopic level with a band’s material.
How did Kvelertak rise from an unknown band with no recording experience or demos to their name to releasing one of the best debut albums of 2010 (my favorite debut of all time)? It was a deadly combination of great songwriting, work ethic, and an entire month of pre-production and recording with the master, Kurt Ballou (Converge), at his now legendary Godcity Studios. The man has perfected the methods for achieving maximum clarity with maximum rawness, even before hitting the record button. This producer-driven input absolutely defines Kvelertak’s self-titled debut.
“I can’t take anymore do-it-again’s. If I have to do it again, I’m gonna pitch a bitch.” Yeah, well the dudes from Mastodon have Producer Matt “Do It Again” Bayles to thank for their excellent, career-defining albums Leviathan (2003) and Blood Mountain (2006). There is no such thing as fixing it in the mix, only perfect takes are real. Bayles may have been a tyrant in the studio, but all those extra takes and the band’s willingness to work with him made for some killer records at the end of the day.
Ross Robinson would make bands like Cancer Bats and Red Fang track their songs live in the studio while throwing cups and bottles at them and pushing the musicians around to simulate a rowdy audience. In turn, this gave the performances a pissed-off, aggressive edge that can’t be achieved while tracking instruments individually in a clinical, closely edited environment. As ridiculous as this method sounds, I think it definitely accounts for that little extra venom on the Robinson-produced records by those bands.
Producers do a lot to influence how an album turns out, from holding sway over songwriting decisions to making sure that the musicians are giving it a 110% in the studio. They are not so much quality assurance as temporary band members whose goal is to visualize an album as a whole rather than instrument by instrument, as the musicians do.
Sometimes there are caveats to producing. There are bands out there who know their material well enough and can produce it accordingly, trimming the fat where it’s needed and keeping a balanced perspective on what works for them (Rivers of Nihil). But many times, bands are unable to keep that perspective, and the musicians – or individual, as is most often the case – in charge of producing their material can overindulge in the writing and riff/song-vetting process (The Faceless), yielding a confused and inconsistent end-product. A producer can sometimes be that outside creative influence – a consultant of sorts – that helps balance and give perspective to a band that would benefit from it.
Our extreme metal community is host to a number of fantastic, legendary music producers. They are part of the reason why our favorite albums sound the way they do and why that awesome riff comes in at just the right time. They tend to stop studio “experimentation” from going too far and they can really hone in on the best aspects of a band and bring them to the fore. Producers have sometimes been heralded as “the worst” or “evil,” but when you look a little closer at the process behind making some of the great albums that are released each year, you might notice just how much a good producer is worth.
Next time on the Audio Primer, I’ll be discussing the roles of the Audio Engineer, the Mix Engineer, and the Mastering Engineer.