Welcome back to Inside the Producers' Studio. In this series, top producers from across extreme metal share their knowledge and wisdom about recording and production. We’ve hand-picked some of the best and most interesting producers; some from large studios others from more niche circles, whatever their situation, you’ll be sure to pick up tips and get an insight into the minds that are shaping metal in the current era.
The first article was dedicated to studio set-up, the second one was about pre-recording, the third one – about recording drums, the forth one — about recording bass, and the fifth one — about recording guitars.
This new article is focused on how different producers, Herbrand Larsen, Børge Finstad, Joost van den Broek, and Lasse Lammert, record and capture performances from various instruments and how they manage to integrate them into metal mixes.
Herbrand Larsen is the owner of Conclave & Earshot Studios in Norway, throughout his career he has worked with the likes of Taake, Gorgoroth, Vulture Industries and Wardruna. Herbrand has also provided vocal and keyboard duties with bands such as Enslaved, Abbath, and Ahab. Contact: conclave-earshot.no
Toproom Studio in Oslo is home to Børge Finstad, for the past 25 years he has helped record and produce some huge names in extreme metal, bands like Ulver, Ihsahn, Arcturus, Mayhem and Red Harvest have all sought the handiwork of Børge through the years. Contact: toproomstudio.com
Joost Van Den Broek initially achieved acclaim with After Forever where he played keyboards, since the demise of that band he has focused his efforts on production, dealing with music from nearly every genre. Within metal he has helped produce the works of Epica, Powerwolf, Mayan and HDK to name a few. Contact: joostvandenbroek.com, facebook.com/joostvandenbroek.official
The German musician and producer Lasse Lammert has collaborated with more than fifty bands from around the world. As the owner of the LSD-Studio, Lammert has worked with Alestorm, Svartsot, Halcyon Way, Synarchy, Trials, Inner Sanctum, Steel Tormentor, Lucy's Doll and many other groups. The releases, produced by Lammert, have oftentimes got into the American, British and German charts and been positively received by the critics. In addition to his work as a producer, Lammert is also the guitarist of the metal band Killfloor Mechanic. Contacts: lasselammert.com, facebook.com/LasseLammertStudio
Recording additional instruments
Which instrument was the most the most difficult that you’ve ever had to record, and why?
Herbrand Larsen: I haven’t experienced any instrument that is hard to record. As long as the instrument is in tune, fit into the arrangement and is played well there should not be any big problems. A good room is also important when it comes to acoustic instruments. I think that a good musician, with a good instrument, in a good room, in a good arrangement is the key.
We have an old pipe organ in the studio that is tuned 0.3 cents lower than 440 Hz. That means that you either have to tune the rest of the instruments lower or tune the pipe organ in the DAW after the recording up to 440Hz. As long as you are aware of this it’s not a problem.
Guitars that are not properly intonated would be almost impossible to work with and sometimes voices distort, not in a good way. I have experienced voices that on some days just have a weird distortion. Then you just have to wait till the next day. The distortion usually goes away.
Børge Finstad: Every instruments is difficult to record. All depends on the musician and the the instrument. And the room! It’s all makes it together. A bad player can make a instrument sound bad, and a good one make a bad instrument to sound good! In a bad room, everything will sound not pleasant. Most of the cases, the musicians brings good instruments, and know how to play them. But I remember a production (Big Bang "Wild Bird"), I want the guitarist to play the electric guitar acoustic. I placed the mics, and it sounded really good. But the click track from the cans bleeded so much into the mics, so we had to work hard to get i right. So the bleed from the cans is most of the times the biggest issue.
Joost Van Den Broek: There are quite a few ethnic instruments that are pretty difficult to capture and make sound good in a (modern or full) production, since their sound doesn't come from one place, but forms a total sound when combined. In order to gather the same experience when you hear the instrument live in a room, but use close mics to capture their raw and direct sound, takes some skills, experience and vision. Also these instruments can have a lot of 'noise' like clicking parts, falls air, crackles. Especially when close micing, plus using a bit of compression and EQ, these 'noises' can easily become too loud and distract from the performance and music… so you'll need to find the right basis.
I'm talking about instruments like: different types of accordions, Uilleann pipes, an Indian sitar.
Because it's best to use a multiple mic setup, you also have to keep really good track of phasing, even more so since these instruments can be quite low in volume and need quite some preamp gain.
Lasse Lammert: For this answer it’s hard to disconnect the recording stage from the mix, principally everything that makes a sound can be miked and recorded, but depending on the mix, arrangement and the other instruments it might be rather difficult to make it heard in the mix against other instruments or to get enough of the instrument’s character through a dense mix so that it still sounds natural.
I’d say up there with the most difficult ones was definitely a hurdy gurdy I recorded with a Danish folk band called Huldre. The gurdy consists of a drone part and the melody part.
It’s got a very nice "medieval" kinda sound but when placed in a dense metal mix with walls of electric guitars, the drones quickly become just a weird wobbly noise in the background, so it’s extra important to get them perfectly in tune with the rest of the instruments.
The melody voice of the gurdy is very similar to a fiddle/violin in terms of sound (attack, tonality, frequency range), and since that band also had a violin playing the same7similar melodies in the same range, it was extremely challenging to give every instrument its place in the mix.
So while recording an instrument from a purely technical point of view might be fairly easy, seating it in a busy mix might be not, so that’s something that should already be considered in the recording stage or preferably during songwriting/arrangement.
"The Watcher" feat. Herbrand Larsen — Keyboards, Organ, Vocals (clean), Producer, Engineering
When a band utilises synths (physical or computer-generated) how do you approach introducing them to the rest of the mix? How often do you alter the initial sound to integrate better with the overall mix?
Herbrand Larsen: The balance between synths and guitars can be really hard to get right. I usually prefer the guitars to be the dominant instrument in metal/rock. When it comes to synth pads they can flatten out things and make things less punchy and in your face.
It's also important to not have to many different melodic lines going on at once. Doubling guitarlines with keys could be cool to make them sound different and make a difference. Also basslines could be cool doubling.
To add a touch of distortion on keys, using plugs like Decapitator from Soundtoys is often a good thing. Put some overtones and dirt into sounds.
It depends of course on the initial sound if I alter them or not. If there is a good plan behind the sounds I don’t alter them. The biggest problem is often that keys are played in the wrong range. Meaning they are often one or two octaves to low to cut through a mix. It depends on the role the keys would have in the arrangement. If I have the MIDI tracks it obviously easier to change sounds or layering existing sounds. Putting in octaves can be a cool trick to make sounds cut through better.
Børge Finstad: Well, If a band wants to use a synths and generated sounds, its a reason for that: the budget is not there for the real thing! I can talk a lot about that. Ten years ago, I had music production for my primary salary. Now, I make my primary salary as a teacher. I give lessons in sound, film-making and Norwegian at high-school. Cause of Internet and downloading, the record companies don't make money, and so do not I. But in the last 90’s and in the beginning if of the 20’s, we got more money to use orcesteral, choirs.. rent studios/places with Steinway grand. These days, the budget is around nothing, so the bands must use computer generated music. Sometimes we add the generated orchester with one to four real strings to make the human fell, but that still eat at lot of the budget... most of the budget... With bands like Solefald and Borknagar, we hire a real Hammond B3/C3, and the Larz, the player make it sound like the instrument deserves!
Joost Van Den Broek: It really depends on if this sound is chosen completely by the right vision of the production as intended or has a big role, or if it’s an extra element and should enhance the band. In the first example I would actually build the band around this synth sound, using EQ and panning to make it work together and not lose impact. In the second case I would alter a sound in order to make it work as an extra or enhancement, not changing anything in the initial mix.
In both cases you always have to check what part of the sound you need and will work in the mix. If you already have a lot of low end, you can easily filter low end out of the synth sound, since the bass and guitars make up for this. Especially the high end is something that can make a synth sound not blend with a band mix, since the high of a synth can be more aggressive or bright than any 'acoustic' sounding instrument.
Lasse Lammert: In general I like to commit as early as possible, when it comes to adding synths I usually have a rough mix with drums, bass, guitars ging already, so I’ll know pretty much right away if a sound will work or not. If I get outside recorded tracks to mix it might be a different beast, in that case I still rather tweak the existing sound than changing it altogether…
Some of my most common tools in those cases are distortion and saturation to give the synth a more distinct character and help it cut through the mix, some multiband compression can also go a long way in helping to create some space and making the synth not swallow everything else because of it’s very wide frequency range.
Børge Finstad — Engineering, Co-Producer, Mixing
How often do you as a producer introduce the concept of a band using other instruments to add more texture or further a composition?
Herbrand Larsen: I have added stuff in things that I produce. Mostly some keys or acoustic guitars. Putting some acoustic guitars with a touch of distortion (again Decapitator/Devil-loc) behind electric guitars is a cool trick. Acoustic guitars recorded with a 57 for a more grittier sound. Adding more of the that direct string sound. It doesn’t have to be pretty or loud.
If I get ideas for arrangements I of course ask the band what they think. Some are up for it. Some are not. Hehe...
Børge Finstad: Depends on the band. With Borknagar in the early 2000, I want them to think a bit new. I introduce the acc. guitar and the high stringed guitar as well. To prog the album even more up, we used Hammond C3 and Steinway grand piano. Borknagar also made an acc album "Origin" with lots of flute, that the flute-master played by Steinar Ofsdal [Norwegian composer and musician — Noizr]. They still use those instruments in later productions.
Joost Van Den Broek: Very often and most musicians/bands are very interested in that, since it mostly creates a more unique sound and blend. It depends on how much room this extra sound/instrument can take… if it's a lead, so it’s almost an extra lead musician or just an extra flavour to create an additional dimension around the existing sound of the band. Anyway, it should fit the band's vision, look and feel and their live performance. Thereby a small extra thing to take notice of is if this extra instrument should be only in 1 song or comes back in multiple song on an album, creating a more clear red line… I mostly prefer the 2nd way.
Lasse Lammert: There’s a vibraslap track hidden in every Alestorm album so far.
But other than that the opposite is actually more often the case, bands tend to go overboard with their arrangements and often end up with a way too busy piece of music where a lot of different instruments are fighting for the same sonic space. Often it’s necessary to cut down a little and focus on what’s important (Vocals? A lead line? A rhythmic beat?…) then help that track by carving space around it and removing instruments that are fighting for attention in the same range. That’s a very difficult process because you’re asking a musician to alter or even remove their track from a part of the song, definitely one of the moments where trust between the producer and musician is rather important. Ego on both sides can get in the way and it’s inherently difficult to step back and try to assume an outside position and listen with fresh ears.
Joost van den Broek — Programming (additional), Score (choir), Arrangements (choir), Arrangements (orchestral, choir), Recording (choir), Recording (choir)
Are there any instruments that you would like to see incorporated more into compositions?
Herbrand Larsen: I like acoustic guitars and tambourines. Also in metal and rock. Generally acoustic instruments can create depth and originality into your composition. The problem in metal is that drums and lots of big guitars eat up all the space and room in your mix. Again, arrangement is the key for a good production/sound.
Børge Finstad: A lot! Bring more folk-instruments! Norwegian bands do this a lot, but it seems to do it most in black metal. Bands from other countries seems to be afraid to do this, but I know that its lots of uncommon instruments which want to be recorded and blended into rock/metal music!
Joost Van Den Broek: That's a very hard question to answer, since it's totally depending on style and culture. I think the music nowadays is very open for all hybrids and crossovers possible...if it's ethnic, classical or electronics...it's all possible and could all possibly work out great!
In addition to that, I do feel that sometimes bands tend to forget a bit too much about the importance about having real instruments (whatever they are) record and performed in a great way, added a lot of authenticy, dynamics and soul to their sound and production. Of course you can do amazing stuff with programming, but still...
Lasse Lammert: I’m in the lucky position that I get to record exotic instruments all the time, I’ve worked with a lot of folk bands that are using all sorts of ancient/special/rare/uncommon instruments, I even recorded music in an improvised studio in the jungle of Thailand with orphans and some old native Thai instruments… At this point I’d actually love to mix some straight metal where I just have to balance guts, bass, drums, vocals on a total of 30 tracks instead of trying to carve space in a busy 150+ track beast of a mix. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love working on those folk and orchestral mixes, I do love the challenge, but I’m doing it all the time, so mixing a regular death metal band would feel like a vacation [smiles]. So to answer your question… No, most of the time I definitely do not think of adding even more instruments.
Lasse Lammert — Recording, Producer, Mastering
When dealing with acoustic instruments, how do you usually record them?
Herbrand Larsen: I often use stereo techniques if there is room for it in the production. AB or Blumlein mostly. Sometimes a combination of a close mic and a stereo pair with some distance. Recording in stereo gives you a natural with and depth that are impossible to create with reverbs and effects. Recording stuff with ribbon mics often give a natural result. I have a pair of Coles 4038 that never disappoints me. You can use them for anything that sounds good in a room. They are a bit brighter than other ribbons. Also killer for overheads.
I used them for instruments like Arabic oud/lute on the latest Aeternus album. Also some Norwegian Seljefløyte (willow flute) and bukkehorn (Billy Goat's horn) were recorded with the Coles.
Børge Finstad: In right order:
- A good player
- A good instrument (and a player who know it)
- Good mics
- A good room
- A good mic pre
- A good engineer!
This can be an article itselves.. I love good instruments and the players! It all starts here! Then I must have good microphones. I tend to use Neumann like U47, U87, KM84/184, Sony C800G. The preamps… I got a lots of them. But the microphone is still the most important part.. exempt from the player and the instrument. ...And the room!
Joost Van Den Broek: You could write many books about this, and many people have already… but you have a few main ingredients… good mics, a nice sounding room (or a complete dry room) and great preamps. But most important, no matter what technical aspects, a perfect and skilled performance, plus a great sounding and well maintained instrument. If you have these 2 elements, the rest is a sideshow.
Lasse Lammert: This again depends a bit on the mix, or actually a lot. Knowing what else is going on in the mix and how much space is left/needed in the sonic landscape is very important before you even start placing the mic. In general I like using my ears first, as in "be in the room with the instrument", trying to get the best possible sound there… that might be achieved by moving the musician around in the room, setting the mood, helping the musician relax, putting new strings/skins on the instrument etc, I then try to capture that sound I’m hearing with mics.
But that’s the more general approach, usually you’ll have to look at the position of the instrument in the mix, so the biggest or most natural sounding recording might not be perfect for the mix.
While I might for example mic an acoustic guitar for an intro of the song with a stereo set of LDC or a Blumlein configuration of ribbon mics, that probably won’t work anymore once the entire band kicks in with heavy guitars, drums and distorted bass, then an SDC mono track or two might be working better for that same guitar.
But yeah, as a general guideline I’d still say use your ears first, move around the instrument and find the spot it sounds best/most natural/most fitting and then put a mic there, listen back and adjust.
By Dan Thaumitan