Your Favorite Death Metal Album Was Triggered
Maybe not more than you just were reading that headline. Maybe.
While lying awake in bed a few nights ago, my body refusing to go to sleep because of the Jet Lag I forced on it, I decided to pick up my copy of Extremity Retained and opened it to a random page. I wasn’t planning on reading for long (I was really just looking for something to tire my brain out), but as it turned out, this particular interview with Jim Morris of Morrisound Studios was so interesting I couldn’t stop until I finished it.
Jim talks about the first wave of extreme metal albums they created there, a lot of them in collaboration with now legendary producer Scott Burns. He gives very cool insight into the techniques they used when recording and mixing, as well as the problems they had to overcome. And I’m sure the most common of these problems might not be what you’re expecting:
[…] some drummers would come into the studio and be unable to perform their own songs. They were playing like half a song, and then they couldn’t play anymore. They were playing just beyond their level of competence. So, in order to get the record done in time, you couldn’t send the guy back again and say, ‘Do it again, do it again.’ We were using samplers to do the kick and snare replacements […] The trick was to get all the drums to ‘speak.’ The blast beat especially was a challenge, mostly because they were often not played correctly. It was very difficult, and 90% of the drummers were not doing it correctly. I remember suggesting that a click track be used […] if I could record these drums to a click, then all of the drum replacements would be so much easier. […] But it really couldn’t be done; I mean, the guys just were not sophisticated enough in their art form yet to get to the point where they could play to a click track. That took years.
Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn, son! Although he never gives any names, I can’t say I’m really surprised about this. What I’m extremely entertained and bewildered by is how they dealt with this type of situation:
“[…] we were all doing it on a 2” tape at the time and there was no computer editing, so I developed a technique using a MIDI-sequencer locked to the time code and a calculator, and we would sit there and calculate the distance in milliseconds between snare drum hits, ask the drummer how many kick drum hits are supposed to be between them, then figure out in milliseconds how far the kick drums were apart, and then we had to type them in. This was not visual, it was all in DOS – we were doing this before Windows. We had a guy working for us named Brian Benscoter – we called him ‘Super Brian,’ because he is a genius level IQ-type guy […] we would get Brian to sit there with the calculator, and he would sit there for the rest of the night just calculating kick drums and putting them in, because the drummers just could not play them. It was not necessarily anyone’s fault; it was more that they just were not really prepared.”
“[…] a lot of the growing reliance on technology stemmed from shrinking album budgets. Back in the late 1980s, we would spend an entire day just testing out different drum sounds. […] The recording budgets are so low now that even if you do it in your own house, sometimes the drum replacement thing is the only way to do it, so then you end up using BFD or Superior Drummer as your drummer instead of your own drummer. […] I mean, we were not doing anything that bigger producers like Bob Clearmountain had not already done with Bruce Springsteen. We were just doing it louder and heavier and faster, with lower budgets. […] There was just no other way to do it at the time, because the budgets started shrinking, yet the quality had to be the same.”
This is priceless. It’s enlightening from a sound engineering perspective as much as it is from a fan’s point of view. I, for one, thought that this level of drum editing in underground metal just plain didn’t happen until the advent and standardization of Pro Tools and similar recording software. And here at Morrisound they were literally punching in bass drums by the millisecond in fucking DOS!! I’m smiling with nerdjoy right now, obviously.
What I want with this article is for YOU, diehard extreme metal fan, to face it: when it comes to recorded vs. live performances, 95% of extreme metal drummers aren’t Dave Lombardo, and a significant chunk of those are probably closer to Danny Herrera. Your favorite drummer is replacing his/her performances or having them heavily replaced whether you want to realize it or not, and it’s been happening since extreme metal has been a thing. I do have to say that, in my humble dork opinion, these practices aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves if used correctly (and usually sparingly). For me, at the end of the day it’s about two things:
- Drummers: be honest with your fanbase. If you’re basically programming your drums, at least have the decency to learn and be able to play what’s on your record in a live setting to a minimum standard (especially if you’re performing to a metronome, come on). If you can’t do that, don’t charge people for an underwhelming performance you set up unrealistic expectations for by having a perfect, polished album. Asshole.
- Fans (and musicians too, I guess): for the love of FUCK, stop complaining about how extreme metal drumming has lost all its “realness” or “character” and citing the good old days to pull up examples of talented drummers who didn’t need to rely on “cheating” tactics like metronomes and editing/sampling to sound amazing, because the odds are they did just that.
Alternatively, you can also discard this whole article, get shitfaced at a metal show and have a blast without paying attention to whether the drummer is playing the bass drum triplets in time. Your call.
Do you think sampling is evil? Do you think it’s OK as long as it serves the music? Do you care in the slightest? Let me know your take in the comments (though it’s probably that last one). Also please check out Jason Netherton‘s Extremity Retained because it’s a fun and insightful read into the history of all things extreme metal and if you don’t you’re a fake metal poser.