How do you capture the essence of pure rock & roll? For Mike Fraser and AC/DC, the answer was simple: get the sound right at source, track to analogue tape, and don't mess about with the results!
Black Ice, AD/DC's first album in eight years, debuted at number one in an amazing 29 countries, and within 10 days of its release on October 20, had already outsold its predecessor Stiff Upper Lip (2000) by five to one. Black Ice was recorded and mixed by Mike Fraser. Known for his work with heavy rock acts such as Aerosmith, Metallica, Van Halen and Joe Satriani, but also with Elvis Costello, Kelly Rowland and Norah Jones, the Canadian engineer and producer has engineered and mixed all AC/DC's studio albums since The Razor's Edge, enjoyed a mix credit on Live (1992) and also clocked up an additional co‑production credit for Ballbreaker (1995).
Canadian legend Bruce Fairbairn produced The Razor's Edge and Live, Rick Rubin and Fraser co‑produced Ballbreaker, Stiff Upper Lip was produced by George Young (the older brother of the band's guitarists, Malcolm and Angus), and Black Ice is produced by Brendan O'Brien, well‑known for his work with Bruce Springsteen. With different producers involved each time, one might expect the recording process for each of these albums to be rather different. However, according to Fraser, there was not much between them.
"Each producer had a slightly different working method," explains Fraser, "but the band play the way they play, and they know what they're doing, so there's not a lot of coaching to be done. They have good instruments and the sounds come quickly, and because they pretty much do the whole record live, with only a few overdubs, the whole thing doesn't take a lot of time. We recorded and mixed Black Ice in eight weeks!
"Angus and Malcolm had written the songs in England, and I don't believe the band even rehearsed before they came into the studio. Malcolm and Angus played the band the songs here on a little computer, explained the structure and chord changes, and Brendan would add additional suggestions for the structure and/or arrangements. Then it was a matter of 'OK, let's try it,' and they would play the song through a couple of times. After that I'd roll the tape. They'd do three or four takes and then we pretty much had the backing tracks down for each song.
"I wondered beforehand how the recordings would go, because the last time they played together was for the SARS concert in 2003. But they didn't miss a beat and they were really tight. Right away there was this wall of sound coming at us. I'm a fan of the band, and I remember turning to my assistant, Eric [Mosher] and saying, 'Do we have the best job ever, or what?!'"
The album was recorded and mixed at Bryan Adams' studio, The Warehouse, in Vancouver. Recordings took place in Studio 2, which sports a large control room with a sizeable Neve desk, and a huge recording area with several isolation booths. The desk, says Fraser, "is the old Neve desk from AIR Montserrat. There are only three of these desks in the world, and they are immaculate and amazing sounding."
For the recordings, guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd laid down the backing tracks together in Studio 2's live room, with their respective speaker cabinets in each of the three iso booths. Meanwhile singer Brian Johnson ran around the control room with a microphone in his hand, singing guide vocals.
"Obviously we had the guitar and bass cabinets in the iso booths to reduce spill," explains Fraser. "In addition, one thing that I have learned from working with AC/DC over the years is to try and keep the cables from the guitar to the amp head and from the amp to the cabinet as short as possible. So they had their amp heads with them in the live room. With short cables, you get all the bottom end as well as a nice top end. As soon as you lengthen the cable, the magic of the sound goes away and you have to add more top end at the amp, or EQ on the desk, and the sound becomes fuzzy as opposed to crunchy. A lot of people ask me how I get such a huge guitar sound, because it's not doubled and it's simply Malcolm in one speaker and Angus in the other, and there are no effects. The short cables are one of the main reasons.
"AC/DC like a very close drum sound, so we built a small drum booth inside of the large live room in Studio 2. It was just big enough for Phil to swing his stick in: it really was small! On Stiff Upper Lip they wanted a super‑dry sound, but for the new album it wasn't quite so dry, so we had the option of opening the doors to get some ambience into the room. But they still like that immediate drum sound. They don't like things roomy or bombastic, they're more a thumping, let's‑get‑your‑foot‑stomping kind of band.
"All five members of the band had headphones; the Warehouse has a headphone system in which every musician has his own little mini‑mixer. I sent them four tracks of drums — kick, snare, and stereo drums — plus guitar, guitar, bass, vocal and talkback mic. Brendan would sit in the room with them and also had headphones on, and he had a little talkback mic and would coach them on the new stuff, reminding them things like 'OK, here comes the verse.' This recording setup remained the same for the whole album. We recorded in batches of three songs, laying down the backing tracks for them, then we'd take a break, and then Brian would add his vocals, Angus would do his lead overdubs, and we'd do background vocals. Once the songs were pretty complete, though not yet finished, we'd do another batch of three songs. This was to keep things interesting. Otherwise Brian would have had to do two weeks of vocals overdubs and Angus would have been playing solos for two weeks."
"I had two Shure SM57s on the snare, top and bottom, and on the toms I had an SM57 on the top and a Sennheiser 421 underneath. You have to be really careful in positioning these mics; the top gives more attack and the bottom will pick up a more round tonal quality. If there's not enough attack on the toms, I'll move the top microphones closer. I'll keep the top and bottom snare mics on separate tracks, but I had the top and bottom tom microphones wired together as they came into the Neve desk, so each tom came up on just one channel. There were three toms, which I mixed down to a stereo pair. The overheads were Neumann 87 or 47, and on the hi‑hat I used a Neumann KM84, which gives a nice crisp sound, but also has enough body in it. There is some tone to the hi‑hat and you don't want to get rid of it and have just this ticky‑ticky sound. I also had a couple of room 87's, mostly to capture the decay of the cymbals. If you mic cymbals too closely the sound just opens and shuts very quickly; you need your mic a bit further away to make sure the sound tails out nicely.
"On the kick I used a couple of different mics, sometimes the 421, sometimes the AKG D12, because that will give a good, thumping kick. I'll also hang an NS10 woofer in front of it, which adds some really good sub frequencies. When you solo the NS10 it doesn't sound very good, but it adds this really low thump. It means that you don't have to EQ, which is great. I'll end up with one track for the kick mic and one track of NS10 kick. All the drum mics went straight to the Neve, and there was very little in terms of EQ. Sometimes I'll filter out below 20Hz to get rid of any rumbling, or I'll retune the toms to settle them down. I like to use as little as possible in my recording chain, and was happy using the Neve at The Warehouse. It's top notch quality, all Class‑A electronics. I know there are lots of preamps out there, but I never use them so I can't say whether they're any good or not. You can drive yourself crazy always trying something else. Why not go with what works?"
"We used an Avalon DI box on the bass, going directly to the board. There was a split from the DI going to an Ampeg cabinet, on which I used a Neumann FET 47, and an SM57 right on the speaker cone to get some 'barkiness'. I would submix the two mics to one track, and vary the balance a little bit for each song. If I wanted more attack, I'd push up the 57, if I wanted a rounder and fatter sound I used more of the 47. I then added the DI for a clean sound. The Ampeg has some nice distortion and growl, but I like the punchiness and cleanness of the DI. I compressed both the mic and the DI signals quite a bit with an 1176, because you want the bass to be always there, you don't want it to disappear for a few notes. I had the 1176 as an insert on the DI, because it was just one channel, but put it on the stereo bus for the mics. Otherwise it was straight from the desk to tape.
"The guitars were SM57s and 421s on each cabinet, and I blended them to one channel for Malcolm and one channel for Angus. As with the bass, I'd vary the blend as appropriate for the song — sometimes a bit more 57, sometimes a bit more 421, depending. There was no EQ at all. If we needed to change the sound, we did so at the amplifier, or I would reposition the mics slightly. I didn't use any effects or compressors whilst recording the guitars, they were as straight as I could make them. For Angus's solo guitar I added an AKG C414 as a room mic. I don't like digital reverbs on the guitar, so prefer the option of a room mic. I used it in most songs, including 'Rock 'n Roll Train'."
"I love the sound of the Neve desk, and from there everything went straight to the studio's Studer A800 Mk3 24‑track. Neve gear going into an analogue tape machine, and then mixing on an SSL, as I did for this album: for me, that's the sound of rock & roll. Analogue tape just has a sound to it. Analogue records frequencies outside the human hearing range that filter down and are audible as sub‑harmonics, and this makes a big difference for the sound. And even though digital is getting closer with HD, it still sounds quite grainy to me and the top end has little teeth on it, whereas the high end of analogue is smooth and silky. I think the sub‑harmonics fill in those little sawtooth grooves. Also, tape has its own compression. There are plug‑ins that simulate this, but it's still not the same thing.
"Of course, there are problems with tape as well. You have more hiss, so the noise floor is louder, and it's not so easy to edit. You also don't have as many tracks. With AC/DC we ended up with maybe 12 to 14 backing tracks per song, and I transferred these over to Pro Tools for the vocal and guitar overdubs. The main reason was that you don't want to get cramped when you do multiple overdub takes. We decided not too go too crazy, we wanted it easy as well [laughs]. And Pro Tools was easier for editing. There may have a been a song where we took a chorus from one take and edited that with another take, but we didn't chop anything up and comp things. Overall, I used Pro Tools purely as a tape machine, also during the mix."
"Brian used a Shure SM58 in the beginning, but we ended up using the SM7 for most of the vocals because it has a little bit more top end. The vocals were also recorded straight into the Neve. He sang the guide vocals in the control room, but did most of his overdubs in an overdubbing and editing suite on the first floor with Brendan. The vocals went straight into the Neve, though I did use a Distressor compressor and I EQ'ed a bit, to get rid of any rumbling or banging. Because he's singing into a handheld mic there are some low noises that you want to get rid of. I don't like de‑essers, and the Distressor takes out some sibilance. I'd also cut around 3‑5k on the desk and add some top end to keep the air. That was all for the lead vocals.
"I recorded the background vocals in the live room with a Neumann tube 47. We put some gobos around the mic to cut down on the ambience. When Malcolm and Cliff sang backing vocals they just ran out and put their headphones on. Brendan sometimes joined them, but Malcolm and Cliff together is the AC/DC sound. We sometimes doubled and tripled the background vocals, and they sang every part, we didn't copy and paste stuff."
Mike Fraser: "Brendan and Brian were still overdubbing vocals in the editing suite downstairs when I started mixing upstairs in Studio Three. They would come up towards the end of the day to check my mix, and we would move on to the next song the following day. I don't really like to have people around when I mix. Not that I have any tricks or secrets, but I need people to walk in with fresh ears. You're sitting there a whole day working hard on it, and by the end of the day you may be adding too much top end because your ears are getting tired, or maybe your perspective is shifting a little bit. Also, they don't want to sit around a whole day listening to me soloing a kick or a snare drum! In addition, I find that when I mix something that I've also recorded, I sometimes overdo it. I'm used to working hard on mixes that I didn't record, but with my own stuff I have to remember just to mix it, and not EQ it like crazy to make something happen. After having worked on a project for six weeks or so, it may not sound as exciting as when you first heard it, but that's just in your head. So it's always good to have fresh ears coming in.
"When I mix a song that I haven't recorded, I prefer to not to hear the rough mix beforehand. I like to spread the song over the desk and listen to it with a fresh perspective. I'll just push all the faders up and I'll listen carefully to all the parts and I'll do a quick mix that I think works well enough. I'll then sometimes let that quick mix cycle around a little with the band and producer to get a sense of what they are looking for in the song. After that I'll start soloing different parts. I may just listen to the drums for a bit. But I like to get the vocal in pretty quickly, because it's the focal point of the song. The drums are the punchy aspect, so I'll usually start with the drums and vocals, get a good sound and a good balance, and then I'll start adding in the guitars and bass. I like to get everything in very quickly, because you can spend hours trying to get a good drum sound, and then when you bring in the guitars, you realise that some of the frequencies in them cancel out some of the drums. I learned over the years not to try to get a perfect sound on each instrument, because things are not going to blend that way. In many cases the individual parts may not sound very good, but together they work as a whole picture.
"On the multitrack tape for 'Rock 'n Roll Train' we had two tracks each of overheads, kick, snare, toms and room, and one track of hi‑hat and ride, totalling 12 tracks, plus two tracks of guitars and two of bass, so 16 tracks in total. In Pro Tools I also had two tracks of lead vocals, two tracks of lead guitar, and two or three tracks of backing vocals. One of the challenges in mixing AC/DC is to make sure everything is right on your face with only a few instruments. With most bands you have lots of tracks, which initially is harder to mix, but once everything is up and balanced, then that's your mix. With AC/DC it can be a challenge to make sure the drums are thumping enough, and that the guitars and bass are also in your face enough. The guitars have such a large sound that when you push them up, you lose the drums, so you push the drums up, but then you lose the bass, and so you push the bass up, and you keep pushing everything louder and louder, and suddenly you hit a wall and you have to start all over. That's the main challenge. But I've mixed several records, I'm a fan, and I know how they should sound, so it was not too difficult.
"With AC/DC I simply put one rhythm guitar in each speaker. Often when I mix other people's stuff, the guitars will be in stereo, and then they'll have double‑tracked them. In such a case it becomes a depth and a layer issue, which in the track doesn't actually sound that big. The thing about AC/DC is that they don't double‑track their guitars. I keep saying to young bands: if you want a really big guitar sound, just get a really good mono guitar sound! Of course, when you double something, it sounds bigger, but in the end result you have less guitar: you have to turn it down because it takes up too much space in the stereo image. The other way to get a big guitar sound is to pan it. Your kick and your snare and your bass will be in the middle, and your background vocals will be a little to the left and the right, and if you pan your guitars further out you get this whole wide spectrum of everything that's happening. In such a situation it's really easy to mix so that everything can be heard and everything sounds loud, instead of everything being on top of each other with lots of layers."
"The drums were almost entirely as I recorded them. On 'Rock 'n Roll Train' I added a little bit of EMT 140 plate reverb on the snare, just to add a little bit of decay. Again, these guys like the drums real and don't want big reverbs, but on some of the slower songs I did need a little bit of delay. I also added some BA6A compression on the drum bus. Plus I might have done some very minimal tweaking with the SSL EQ. And that's it."
"The rhythm guitars are absolutely bone dry. On the intros of some of the songs I added some EMT 140 plate reverb on the guitar if it was Angus by himself. His solo guitar would have had a Studer tape slap delay on it, about 140ms, the same as I used on Brian's vocal. Reverbs are usually too washy for my taste, but sometimes bone dry doesn't give you the emotion you want. In that case a delay can work. There are no effects on the bass guitar."
"The vocals are also pretty dry, but I used a bit of tape slap delay on Brian, about 140ms, with a Studer half‑inch machine. I also used some SSL EQ, and perhaps some of the SSL compressor. On 'Rock 'n Roll Train' I added a touch of reverb using the Sony DPS R7. I also added a little of the Sony reverb to the background vocals, to give them a bit more size and place them a bit further into the background. It would have been quite a short reverb, 0.8s or 1.2s, something like that. You don't want to use much reverb with a guitar band, because it just hangs there too long and takes space away from the guitars. So I try to keep things clear and natural and open and as little processed as possible, because I think it just ends up sounding better. If I can get a good balance like this and it sounds great, I'm not going to bother with throwing all sorts of effects on the mix. I'm quite a minimalist when it comes to outboard gear. My assistant loves working with me, because when he's doing the recall notes for the mixes he always laughs and says 'There's nothing to write down!'
"I mixed the whole album to half‑inch at 30ips, and it was mastered from there. The band have released the album both on CD and on vinyl, and when I A/B'ed the CD against the vinyl, the latter sounded amazing. That's the difference between recording in analogue and in Pro Tools! I also didn't use plug‑ins because I don't like working in the box, and they don't sound anywhere near the real thing.
"I remember a young singer who came in here recently, and who was being produced by a friend of mine. For some reason the singer wanted the plug‑in version of a Fairchild compressor on his vocals, and when he finally accepted to hear the real thing, he couldn't believe the difference. I think people use plug-ins because they're used to them and they're easy to use. They're convenient and look like the real thing. They sound OK, but I'm not a huge fan. I have gone through a bunch of them, and when I check out the 1176 or the L1 or any of the other compressor plug-ins they all sound the same to me. But if you listen to the real gear, they each have a different characteristic. People are losing the art of recording, and the new engineers just seem to grab for the plug‑ins and Auto‑Tune things and place the drums in a grid. But you don't need to do that if you're working with a great band."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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