Now that “Abigail” is done, I thought I’d write up some notes on how it was recorded and mixed, in chronological order. This should be interesting to the two audio engineering nerds in my social circle and is probably going to get pretty long, but fuck it.
(PS, yeah, it turned out to be really long, disorganized and not at all edited or proof-read. This is engineer prose, with which you will become familiar should you start lurking on pro audio forums.)
Pre-production consisted of the band sitting around during a break at practice, slugging the customary Budweiser tallboys and pirate liquor, figuring we should play a show soon. Which led inevitably to the idea of doing a demo; we knew we were ready to kill an audience, but we had to convince promoters of that. From there it was a matter of choosing the songs and devising a plan. I was the de-facto producer on this gig, so the plan was mine for the making.
I was sure of a few things: we’d record in the basement of our apartment (where we practice), we’d use equipment we already owned, and we’d stay as close to our live sound as possible (i.e. no extra parts via overdubbing). With the exception of the last factor, this is how I’ve done all of my recording: in a shitty, bad-sounding space, with inexpensive but carefully-chosen equipment.
I debated recording us as a full band and overdubbing Stolas’s vocals later, but the space was too small, and the band too loud, for that to be practical. It would have ended up as unintelligible mush. Had we been recording much smaller guitar amps we could have gotten away with it, but the beasts that Zosimus and I play through demand accurate near- and far-micing. (More on the beasts later.)
I decided that we’d layer tracks one at a time, and had a rough idea of the order: drums, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, vocals. The rationale for recording lead before rhythm is that a lot of my lead parts are completely solo – no one else is playing, and I set the tempo of the part, and often the rest of the song.
I also wanted to stick with my usual philosophy, cribbed from much more successful and talented engineers than I: make it sound as good as possible now, whenever now is. No fixing it in the mix or in the master. This is uncontroversial but bears repeating. You hear me, The Thungs?
Through some kind of black magic, Xristophage acquired a Sonor drum kit at a laughable price exactly when he needed it. It’s a small kit, which suits us, oddly; properly tuned, it’s nice and crisp, and sounds more black metal than power metal, properly emphasizing Xristophage’s completely fucked-up style of drumming.
(There’s another kind of black magic at work in the basement: it used to be an iron worker’s workshop and one night while messing with some new designs he had a heart attack and died. Where we practice. This is not a lie.)
We recorded through Zosimus’s PreSonus 8-channel interface into my MacBook Pro, running Logic Express. We’d used this for the Seize Them! record, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: not as pretty-sounding as my Aardvark, but definitely up to the task.
I like the drum sound on the record because I did some weird stuff with mic selection and placement and it worked out well. Recording drums is by far the trickiest part of recording in a bad-sounding room and I think this one went well. Here’s the mic list:
Kick: AKG D112 (luv u 4eva baby)
Snare: Shure SM81 (a fucking weird choice, I’ll explain later)
Rack Toms: one SM57 each
Overhead left: Behringer Omni
Overhead right: there was none, ha!
Floor Tom and right cymbals (aka not an overhead): Rode NT1-A
Standard choices: AKG on the kick, 57s on the toms and hat. No surprises.
For snare, I’ve always followed the two-57s-one-over-one-under-flip-polarity gospel with great results. This time, since a bunch of my SM57s had disappeared, this wasn’t an option; I selected the SM81, a small-diaphragm condenser, thinking it would get all crispy on me. It did.
I’ve used a matched pair of Behringer omnidirectional reference mics as overheads before and always really liked them (especially since they were like $20 each). Somehow I managed to lose one of them (only to find it a few days later), so I improvised: the Rode NT1-A, a large-diaphragm condenser often used for vocal or acoustic guitar, positioned pretty close so as to pick up some proximity effect on the tom (meaning extra bass – the “croony” feature of large-diaphragms), and somewhat off-axis from the cymbals. That way I’d get a solid tom with plenty of presence, and the cymbals wouldn’t bring out the nasty top-end presence that the NT1-A is notorious for.
This was a stroke of genius on my part and it worked really well, considering the environment. That’s not hyperbole. I rule because of that decision.
Xristophage recorded two takes of each song. Generally speaking the first one was absolutely fine, but X wouldn’t be satisfied for no reason he could articulate, and then we’d do it again and it would be that microscopic bit better, satisfying whatever lies in X’s dark heart.
His headphones kept flying off so we strapped them to his head using a bright-orange surgical material generally used for treating burn victims.
Schneidaar, Zosimus and I played scratch tracks to give Xristophage some reference while he was playing. Because I am a total fucking idiot, I did not print these tracks to tape, making my life extremely difficult later (but not anyone else’s).
Man, this sucked so, so fucking hard. Every Flaming Tusk song features yours truly, Don Blood, playing throughout the entire song with no breaks, often as Xristophage provides accents to solo lead parts. And I didn’t print the scratch tracks, meaning that for any part where it was just me playing, I had to try to reverse-time my parts so I would come in exactly on time with X. Some of these parts are 10-15 seconds long, which may not seem like much, but remember that to come in on time I’m talking microseconds.
I got lucky, or maybe I’m good, because that process could have gone much worse, but it still hurt like hell. Plus I was recording alone so I didn’t even have anyone to hit the buttons for me: play the part, fuck up, do some shit on the computer, play the part, fuck up.
I’ve recorded a shit-ton of myself playing guitar but never anything near this breakneck. This was the first time I was actually nervous to lay down guitar tracks, and I settled into it, but it was still a beating. At the end of the winning take of “I Nap In Blood,” I was in that beautiful recording state, where you’re doing everything exactly right, but only because there’s an inner voice going “don’tfuckupdon’tfuckupdon’tfuckup.”
I almost vomited after that one.
Anyway, nerd stuff. I play a cherry-red Fender Stratocaster, basically the least metal guitar possible, set on the bridge pickup, through an Orange Thunderverb 200 with an Orange 4×12 cabinet (loaded with Celestions). I close-mic’ed a 57 on a speaker picked at random. For my far mic, I used the pride of my collection: an Audio Technica 4060 tube mic. I wanted to take a little bit of the sizzle out of the Orange but have the flexibility to put it back in later, and to emphasize the bass on the JUDJUDJUD parts.
After two evenings of recording I comped my parts (i.e. took two or three takes and selected the best parts of all of them). This began a wonderful trend on the EP: almost no comping. X’s and Stolas’s parts weren’t comped at all, Zos’s parts only once or twice, Schneidaar had maybe four edits. I was the comp king, with about ten edits across the four songs – mostly due to the reverse-timing problem.
Because Zosimus has a somewhat unpredictable schedule, we ended up recording Schneidaar next. He plays an Ibanez Verdine White Signature right-handed bass but plays it lefty. Yeah, that’s right. Whenever we play he’s mentally inverting everything. It’s really disgusting and impressive, especially when you consider that he plays a lefty bass in his other band. Damn.
We ran the bass through my Pod XT, for which I had downloaded the Bass Pod Upgrade 9000 or whatever it’s called. It’s just a set of patches for the Pod that recreate classic bass amps instead of guitar amps. There was no way I was going to mic his bass amp; it was either the Pod or direct-in. We got a pretty solid sound out of the Pod, and I resisted the impulse to make him sound like the dude from The Smiths.
Schneidaar knocked his parts out in an evening (a short one, even) while we drank beer. If memory serves he did two takes of two songs and one take of the other two.
Now would be a good time to mention the I Nap In Blood Club. We’re all members, because each one of us slammed out a winning take of I Nap In Blood, in its entirety, on the first try. Which is really sick when you think about it, especially as we’re not godlike studio guys or anything.
RHYTHM GUITAR Zosimus plays a Gibson SG (somebody has to play the badass metal guitar). He runs it into a Hiwatt head – before he got it I told him it was really the only amp that could make me jealous after the Orange – and some crazy frankencabinet 4×12 made by an insane man somewhere. He has two types of speakers – can’t remember which – two up and two down. One pair is a shade brighter than the other which gave us some options.
Our sigil is painted on the tolex of his cabinet in dried-blood red.
I close-mic’ed one of the brighter speakers with a 57, because in general the SG+Hiwatt gives him more bottom-end than even he really needs and I wanted to take the edge off. Especially since we’ve all tuned our guitars down 2.5 steps. For the far mic I used the same AT4060 I used on my amp and for the same reasons.
Zos knocked his parts out really, really fucking fast, beating Schneidaar, even. All brangin’ with the JUDJUDJUD really hard and not fucking up. It was a pleasure.
This was Stolas’s first time recording, ever. I’m pretty psyched to have been the one to shove a microphone up his ass. It was truly a new experience, too, because he’s used to shoving a microphone down his throat.
Okay, it wasn’t his ass: it was the AT4060 again, my go-to vocal mic. We used an actual pop filter (the thing that keeps you from making nasty plosive sounds and spitting flecks of corn chip into the mic), because Zosimus had one, and not my years-old nylon-stocking-over-a-coat-hanger homemade version. It’s a really croony mic, and looks the part, what with the shock mount and all. Stolas told me he wanted to swing it down to the floor a la Bobby Darin; I told him if he did that I’d punch him in the mouth.
After a quick lesson in backing off the mic when you want to get loud, Stolas was off to the races. I ran him through my RNP and RNC – the Really Nice Preamp and Really Nice Compressor. If you do any budget home recording, buy these. They’re reasonably cheap and fucking indispensable.
We double-tracked his vocal to give it some extra body. He did great with this, except on a few minor occasions. I had the option of recreating the double-tracking by taking one take and time-shifting it slightly, but I actually liked the mistakes as they were – fucking creepy.
Mixing this record was really easy. This is the beauty of the “make it sound good now” approach, and the fact that we were going for a straightforward sound anyway. (I did fuck around with gating all of X’s drums and it sounded retarded.) I did almost zero EQ; equalization was done by balancing the mics, since we had more than one mic on every instrument except bass and vocal, and the mics were placed well. (The old listen-with-one-ear trick is still king for placing mics.)
I added a touch (seriously, a touch) of compression to each guitar so they would sit in the mix. The bass was limited all to fuck as is SOP. The drums got a healthy dose of compression, and a bit of EQ on the kick and snare, in both cases to de-emphasize bleed and bring out the natural instruments.
Spatially, the setup was pretty straightforward – drums panned according to drummer’s position (as opposed to audience’s position) on all tracks but one. Bass slightly off from center, guitars hard left and hard right (though the lead is positioned a touch toward the center, relatively speaking).
For the vocal, I panned each track 1/8th left and right, gated them, and added a touch of black-metal reverb.
Once I had the mics balanced, I created sub-mixes for all the instruments for ease of fader-pulling.
I did a bit of gain-riding (and everyone laughed every time I said “gain-riding”) to bring up the solo in “Ichor” and bring out a few vocal parts that had gotten lost.
I went through about four rounds of reference mixes, listening on different systems until I had something that translated reasonably well. The rest of the band, especially Zosimus and Schneidaar, provided vital feedback throughout the process, especially when things sounded really out of whack, which they often did. I mixed on headphones, which sucks, and makes broad reference listening absolutely necessary. Comes with the territory.
I really wanted to master this record, but my mastering setup was pretty much destroyed when I moved from PC to Mac earlier this year. X has a friend, James Cargill, who did a great job mastering the record for us. The painful piece was listening to the first master with the band and reverse-engineering what he did: what plugins and in what order. He’d explained his process to X, who confirmed all my guesses. After taking the record from nonexistence to final mixes, not taking the last few steps kind of hurt, but at least we found a guy who did as well as I would have – probably better.
The demo became an EP after we heard James’s masters – I just couldn’t call it a demo anymore. It’s a solid, home-recorded EP, made under crappy conditions but with outsized returns.
So that’s the extremely long and somewhat disorganized story. If you actually read this whole thing, you have passion and emotional problems, which are the hallmarks of engineering talent and potential, so keep recording, or start doing it. Music never lets you down.