Legendary Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne is still rocking in his sixties. The musical powerhouse behind his latest hit album Scream is producer, engineer, songwriter and instrumentalist Kevin Churko.
One night in the Autumn of 2007, Kevin Churko woke up with "the most basic riff ever” running through his head. Rather than dismiss it, he was alert enough to sing it into his iPhone, "so I would remember it the next day”. Churko multitasks as an engineer, producer, songwriter and drummer, and also knows his way around piano and guitar. The next day he rolled all these skills into one to lay down "a rough recording” of the riff in his Pro Tools rig. He then took his hard drive to Los Angeles to meet up with Ozzy Osbourne at the latter's home studio, The Bunker. The singer liked what he heard, and so the two men, with help from British keyboard player Adam Wakeman (son of Rick), developed the basic riff into a six‑minute epic called 'Let It Die'. It became the opening track of Osbourne's 11th studio album, Scream, released in June this year to much acclaim and commercial success. Coming 30 years after Ozzy's groundbreaking debut solo album Blizzard Of Ozz, Scream saw Osbourne part company with Zakk Wylde, his guitarist and co‑writer of almost two decades, and replace him with a new guitar hero, the Greek Gus G.
Both Scream and its predecessor, 2007's Black Rain, were co‑produced by Osbourne with Kevin Churko. Born into a musical family 42 year ago in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, Churko started to play the piano at age five, eventually graduating to the drums. During his teens, he toured extensively with his family band, featuring his parents, his sister and his brother Cory (now a well‑known guitarist and violinist). Along the road, it gradually became clear that Kevin Churko's first love lay with the recording process. "When I was 10, I was already doing sound‑on‑sound recording using two ghetto‑blasters and a tape deck. I later convinced my brother to split the cost of a Tascam 244 four‑track cassette recorder, and we later traded that for an eight‑track Fostex reel‑to‑reel. I gained a lot of experience from my home recordings, but the recordings Cory and I later did in expensive studios always left me disappointed and feeling that I could do better. Eventually I became such a pain in the arse for the studio guys that they would just say, 'You do it, then.' Eventually, Cory and I ended up recording at Vancouver's famous Little Mountain Studios, which was an absolute thrill for me. However, it was like flying the Starship Enterprise to me when I was only used to flying gliders. We were very lucky to get to work with Mike Plotnikoff, who went on to do great things [Josh Groban, INXS, Aerosmith]. He was very patient with me and I learned a lot from him.”
Another big name in the recording world from whom Churko learned a lot, and the one who propelled him into the big time, was the legendary Robert John 'Mutt' Lange. The Canadian moved to Switzerland to work with Lange in 1999 and acted as the great producer's engineer and programmer until 2003, clocking up credits such as Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Britney Spears, Celine Dion and the Corrs in the process. In 2003, Churko moved to LA, but finding property prices prohibitively expensive there, he ended up in Las Vegas. He still lives there today, and runs a Pro Tools‑based studio called The Hideout from his home. He's currently building a dedicated studio in a commercial building nearby.
Churko's connection with Ozzy Osbourne began in 2004, when Churko was asked to test out Osbourne's studio by studio designer David Frangioni. Ozzy's producer at the time, Mark Hudson, then asked Kevin to help out and engineer some projects for him, including Osbourne's covers album, Under Cover (2005). A year later Kevin was asked back by Ozzy, to engineer Black Rain. As so often, one thing led to another...
Churko's work on Black Rain laid the foundations for the making of Scream. "Zakk and Ozzy wanted an engineer with strong skills and opinions, but not a dominating producer. As the project progressed, Ozzy began assigning other duties to me, until they eventually gave me a co‑producer credit. The beginnings of the songs for that album were laid down by Zakk and drummer Mike Borden, who would come into the studio in the evening to improvise, and we'd record lots of riffs. Ozzy and I would go over them the next morning and he'd give feedback, and we'd develop them together. Eventually that led to me getting co‑writing credits on all the songs on that album.
"Zakk and Ozzy also started work on what was to become Scream, but then Ozzy made the choice to stop working with Zakk. He hadn't found another guitarist yet, and not to let work grind to a halt, he asked me to come up with things. So I wrote many rough outlines for songs from scratch, and he would listen to my ideas and tell me what he liked and didn't like and what he was looking for. He'd write melody lines and lyrics to my ideas, and other songs started with melody lines and lyrics he had developed on his own, to which I'd give him feedback. The way we worked together was very interactive. Ozzy knows what he wants and he can instantly tell whether something is good or not. He wasn't there the whole time while I was working, which was great, because he could come in with fresh ears and tell me whether I was going in the right direction or not. Adam Wakeman was also very instrumental in the earlier writing process of several songs. We'd fire ideas at each other via the Internet.”
While most of the writing took place at The Bunker, Churko occasionally retreated to The Hideout to work on material when Osbourne was otherwise engaged. "Writing, recording and mixing the album took one and a half years altogether, but we were not working all the time. Ozzy wrote his autobiography, I did records with Five Finger Death Punch and In This Moment, we both went on holidays, and we both did a lot of other things during that period. Sometimes I'd work alone at my studio. I don't like calling the material I recorded at this initial stage demos, because I don't believe in too much pre‑production. In many cases, the best things happen early on, and I really try to capture those moments, rather than do things time and time again and eventually end up with something stale.
"The process was that once we had an idea, I'd play a scratch drum track and I'd then overdub other instruments to get the idea across. I'm not a great guitar player or piano player, but I can fool around enough on these instruments to give Ozzy an idea of the track. As soon as we had some kind of scratch sketch going, Ozzy would start to hum some melodies, which I would record. We'd use that as a rough guide to further develop the beds. Ozzy's actual vocals were laid down probably midway through the whole recording process. As soon as we had a final lyric and melody, we'd record some solid vocals and then I'd build everything else around that, sometimes replacing or changing what we had done earlier.
"Obviously, the vocal is the most important element, and I like getting a good vocal take early on. Everything else has to be designed to support that. Once we were confident of the song structures and arrangements, and once we had the map for each song, we got the band in to give the tracks some love. Even though we ended up replacing many things, if the original ideas sounded good, we kept them. Of course, the players would change their parts as they felt appropriate. I particularly encouraged Gus G to get involved in that way, and both he and Blasko [Nicholson, the band's bassist] really came prepared and gave it all they could. I'm sure it was an unusual situation for Gus to be in, but he selflessly and graciously worked hard and laid down some great tracks.”
Churko cheerfully agrees that the way in which Scream came into being was, in many ways, the antithesis of the approach Eric Valentine and Slash took in constructing the latter's eponymously titled solo record (described in July 2010's Inside Track: /sos/jul10/articles/it_0710.htm). He should know, because Churko, Osbourne and Slash co‑wrote one of the tracks, 'Crucify The Dead', on Slash's solo album, with the Canadian also recording Ozzy's vocals on that track. While the songwriting for both albums was mostly done before the recordings, Valentine choose to record live in his studio — Slash played at the same time as his rhythm section — using vintage and/or analogue equipment, including tape, and mixed mostly outside the box. By contrast, Scream was recorded into Pro Tools as a series of overdubs, and the sessions remained in the box from there on.
"Yeah, my approach on Scream was almost the opposite of Eric's,” agrees Churko. "Eric is really one of my heroes. He's like a mad scientist. He has such an incredible handle on all the gear he's using, and all the old and custom‑made stuff he has is amazing. By contrast, my approach is much more pragmatic. Like Eric, I started my career on analogue, and obviously there are still huge sonic advantages to working in the analogue world. But the practicalities of my life these days mean that I am enchained to digital. It makes life much easier, and I can concentrate solely on the music. Today, Pro Tools is the most functional way of moving around from studio to studio and not having to start from zero each time you are recording or doing a board mix. Ozzy and I have compatible systems, so I could start tracks at his place, bring them back to my house, do some additional work on them, and then take them back to his place.
"We did Black Rain at Ozzy's house in Beverley Hills, but since that album he bought another house just outside of town, where he had a studio professionally made, again by David Frangioni's company Audio One. The Bunker has several racks of preamps, everything from Neve, GML, SSL and so on. It has tons of gear, but no desk. Instead there's a Digidesign Icon D‑Command. I had a drum kit set up there from the start of the project right until the very end, and so if I wanted to add or change a section, I'd just arm the tracks to record and would run to the drum room and play. The signal paths remained more or less the same throughout the recording. Once I had the drum setup dialled in, I only did very minor tweaks. I made sure that if I wanted analogue effects on certain tracks, I'd record them on the way in and I'd print them. So compression for the most part happened before Pro Tools. Analogue compression seems to squish the sound a little bit differently than Pro Tools. Especially the vocals sound better if they have been compressed before Pro Tools.
"Ozzy's vocals were recorded with an AKG C12, which he was already using before I showed up. He likes that mic, and I thought that it sounded good on him, so I went with that. The C12 went through a Brent Averill reconditioned Neve 1073, then an LA2A, and after that a Distressor, and then straight into Pro Tools, via the 192s — the resolution for the whole project was 24/48. Before Gus G showed up, I had mostly been using a Marshall JCM800 and various amp plug‑ins in the box for special effects and colouring the guitar tracks. Gus brought a Blackstar Series One 200 amp, which sounded great, so we ended up using a combination of the Blackstar and the Marshall.
"I recorded Gus with a very simple setup, using a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser 421, going through Chandler LTD1 preamps. I applied a little EQ with the Chandler, but didn't use any compression. In the beginning, I spent quite a lot of time moving the mics around to get the best position, but once it sounded good it stayed that way for the remainder of the recording process. Gus also played acoustic guitars, and they were done in two different ways. If it was just for a rhythm background guitar I used a Neumann M49, going through a Neve 1073 mic preamp lightly compressed with an [Universal Audio] 1176. Lead acoustic guitar parts were recorded with the M49 plus two Coles 4038 mics, going into two SSL mic pres, and also using some light SSL compression. This helped me spread out the acoustics a little wider for the intro of 'Diggin' Me Down', for instance.
"The bass went straight in. Blasko played his Music Man DI'ed through an SSL preamp, and the signal then went through an [Empirical Labs] Distressor. All the bass processing was done in the box. Very simple. But the drum setup was quite complex. I had three mics on the bass drum: a Shure C91 on the inside, an AKG D12 on the outside, and a Yamaha Subkick. The snare had an SM57 underneath and on top, and all snare and drum mics went through the Averill Neve preamps. The toms were recorded with Sennheiser 421s through a Chandler TG2, and I had a Coles 4038 as well as a pair of AKG C414s for overheads, plus an SM57 for a mono room.
"I also had a couple of Neumann 87s as room mics, and because the room was quite dead‑sounding, I opened the door to the bathroom, where I placed a couple of Shure KSM44s for some ambient slap. The AKG mics went through two SSL pres, the overheads through GML stereo pres, and the rooms through a Dbx preamp. When I'm not recording in my own studio, I'm pretty flexible with using gear the studio has. Through experience I know how various mics and preamps sound, but in some cases it's a case of trial and error. I try not to be too predictable. Sometimes good things can happen from odd combinations you wouldn't think would work. Rule number one never changes: it has to sound good. If not, change it. The keyboards? They were mostly soft synths, like Omnisphere and Trilogy for the bassier synths. The only real keyboards used were a Minimoog and a small piano part, for which I recorded Ozzy's Steinway with two AKG 414s.”
The significance of mixing has increased over the years, to the point where it has sometimes become the most important stage of making a record, with a star mixer called in to apply his or her own special touch. However, DAWs are also eminently suited to a mix‑as‑you‑go approach, where the final mix is a formality. This route is increasingly exploited by professional engineers, Churko clearly being one of them. He remarks: "Yeah, I mix while I'm recording. This is why Pro Tools works so great for me. I try to make things sound as good as I can in the box from the start and build from there. I'm making decisions at every step of the way, and if I have, say, a good drum track that I know is staying, I make it sound as good in the box as I possibly can. But when the guitars are added, or the bass, or the keyboards, they may make it necessary to change the drums a little bit, and so on.
"You make decisions on what you already have, because the sounds are all dependent upon each other. Everything has to relate, and I'm constantly making tweaks while recording. You can have the baddest guitar tone in the world, but if it doesn't fit in the track, it's irrelevant. But while recording it's really great to know exactly where things are sitting in the track, so that you know, as a producer and mixer, whether it's working or not. It's the same for the artist. In the old days you were basically guessing while tracking, and by the time it came to the mix, you might suddenly realise that this or that may be wrong and/or couldn't be fixed as much as you thought it could. I'd rather take all the guessing out, and make sure that I know as early as possible how the end result will sound. I want to hear exactly what's happening while we go, and the same goes for Ozzy, who has to sign off on the music.
"This means that with tracks that I have recorded myself, the mixing is really quick. I've working on the track all along, and by the time it comes to the mix it all happens fast. The only thing that really matters is the big picture, the impact the track will have on the average listener. If someone who is not a musician listens to a track the first time, what will they hear? That's mostly what I'm interested in during mixing. When I have my engineering hat on, I try to make all the individual elements in a song sound as good as I can, and so if I want to make the snare sound a little punchier, I will solo it and work with EQ, compression and what-not. But then I will open up the other tracks pretty quickly again and listen to the whole picture. The overall impact is the only thing that matters. It doesn't matter how good individual tracks sound in solo mode, it only matters whether things sound good when everything is playing at once.”
When asked how he remains objective in judging the "overall impact” on a project like Osbourne's, in which he's acting as a songwriter, musician, engineer, producer and mixer on a project, the Canadian laughs wryly. "It's not easy! Many years of failing over and over again does one a lot of good. I think I've learned how all these independent processes are related to each other, and it can be great wearing a lot of those hats at the same time. Honesty with yourself is very important, though. Whilst I'm engineering and focusing on the sound, I also have my producer's hat on and I may realise that something may sound better in the overall picture if I use one of my engineering tools. It's all interrelated and every decision is important. It's all about making sure that all the little things give focus to the overall big picture. I also depend on other people for more objectivity. The main one on Scream was obviously Ozzy. He came in while I was mixing and always gave me good insights. My son Kane, who is my assistant, also isn't afraid to tell me what he thinks. He gives his opinions, and I trust them.”
Kevin Churko: "It took us a long time to write and record 'Let It Die'. We first worked on it right at the beginning of the project, and we were still at it by the very end. The song went through a lot of changes after I first came up with that riff. At one stage Ozzy came in and said that he didn't think the middle section, in which Adam was doing some slow piano thing, was that great. Ozzy wanted the track to keep on rocking. It took me three tries to find a middle eight that Ozzy actually liked. In fact, he sang me some of the middle eight, so it was a collaborative process. There are three tempo changes in the song, it's six minutes long, and there are a lot of interesting things going on — some obvious, some not so. It took a great deal of work. There are some songs in which we made some arrangement changes or replaced or added some vocals right at the end, but by the time I mixed 'Let it Die', we had all the parts nailed down. The big struggle was over. During tracking and arranging of this song, I had also been very conscious of the mixing, so the mix was relatively easy and quick. I think it took half a day to go through the track and tweak it. I did the final mix on April 21, 2010, one day before mastering. But if someone had given me a track like this raw, it might have taken me two days!
"The song is very full‑on, with busy drums and multi‑layered guitar parts, so during the recording and the mix I was very concerned with how all parts relate to each other, and that there's space in the frequency spectrum for everything. The guitars need to be heard, the bass has to be heard, they have to interact with the drums, and everything is interrelated into one piece of sound. During the final mix it's about finding the right EQ and the right levels, even though from a producer's point of view it's first and foremost about finding the right combination of parts. You do your work on getting the parts until everything matches and fits like a three‑dimensional puzzle, and it's the same during mixing. I'll be listening with all of my hats on at the same time for any weaknesses, whether sonically or musically something different needs to happen in certain places.
"If you want full‑on impact, it's not just a musical thing, it's also a sonic issue. But the idea with 'Let It Die' was not to fill every hole: the verses are not quite so full, to give people some relief from the onslaught of sound. But the full‑on sections are a very conscious effort to create a wall, and I had lot of tools at my disposal to construct it, from the bass drum upwards to the cymbals. The fact that the drums are everywhere is actually rather tricky, because the thicker the drum sound, the more sonic space they take up, and it gets difficult to retain space for other instruments. That was a major challenge in this track. There were a lot of layers and changing one level changed everything else, so there were sections where I had to strip things down a little in order to get things where I wanted them.
"By the time I got to the mix I was already quite happy with the sound, so I started with everything muted and then brought in things one by one just to double‑check some of the decisions I made while tracking. I wasn't trying to reinvent anything, just to fine‑tune. Also, all the plug‑ins that you can see on the Edit Window were already there before I began mixing. I only tweaked them when something sounded wrong. If I listen to a track and it sounds great, and it fits in the whole, I won't even open it up and look what's happening. However, there are a number of plug‑ins and processes that I can't do during the recording stage but that I can do during the mix, for example because of delay compensation. So I have a listen to everything from the ground up, and I'll make more detailed mix moves and I'll perhaps adjust the EQ a bit, though not that much. Because the sounds and effects are already there, it's mainly just a matter of balancing what's there.”
"You can see the drum tracks on the Edit window, including all the room and ambient drum tracks. At the top are three tracks of me hitting the toms. 'BNC' means bounce, and 'XX' means that the track is edited and signed off. 'SHK3' is a shaker and 'CR' is a cowbell. As I said before, I will mostly only use analogue outboard on the way in, and lately I mix entirely in the box, only using plug‑ins. On the drums there are '3', which is the Digidesign Expander/Gate; '4', which is a four‑band Waves Renaissance EQ; '6', which is a six‑band Renaissance EQ; and the 'S' on the kick is the SSL Channel strip — I would have used compression and EQ. With the toms, rather than gate them, I drew in the volumes manually. The lines at the very top of the screen are parallel busses for the drums. The close mics went through three different parallel auxes, one flat without plug‑ins, one with heavy compression and one with a Sansamp on it for a bit of distortion, mostly for the snare. 'MUSC' at the top is the music bus, through which I put everything but the drums, so it's easy to mute if I want to listen just to the drums.”
Guitars, bass & keyboards: Waves Renaissance EQ & IR1, Line 6 Amp Farm.
"The first four tracks are Gus's rhythm guitars played through the Blackstar and Marshall. 'EG' means simply electric guitar. The main plug‑in is the six‑band Renaissance EQ (6). The colour and special guitar tracks have already been bounced down with their plug‑ins on. The bass was three tracks that I bounced down, and the plug‑ins are the two‑band Renaissance (2), and there's also an Amp Farm plug‑in. 'MM' stands for Music Man. I mostly just used the Renaissance EQ plugs on the keyboards, apart from some Waves IR reverb on the piano. That reverb was also on the cowbell. Other than that, there's no reverb in the track. I tend to not use too much synthetic reverb unless absolutely necessary. I prefer to get it from the room itself.”
"The verse vocals have different effects than the chorus vocals. 'Vox Aux' and 'Vox Aux 2' are mostly for the choruses, which have a more natural vocal sound. The plug‑ins I used on that were the Sonnox Oxford Equaliser, for some low‑end roll off and boosting the high end, the Sonnox Supresser for some dynamic EQ, Waves' De‑esser, and the Waves MaxxVolume for some levelling. 'Ozzy Lo1a' and 'Ozzy Lo2a' are the verse vocals, on which I wanted some kind of lo‑fi effect. I tried a whole bunch of different new plug‑ins on that, including some amplifier plugs, but ended up going back to using Digidesign's free Lo‑Fi plug‑in. That was the first time I used that but it just seemed to work. The 'Robot' tracks are just one line in the second verse, 'No One Loses', a really low‑pitched sung line, which goes through a whole bunch of plug‑ins that have been bounced down.”
Mix bus: Sonnox Oxford Equaliser, Inflator & Limiter, Waves Pye Compressor.
"I mixed back into Pro Tools at 24/48. I always have things over my stereo bus, and it gets quite involved. I usually even automate the limiting threshold. I also have that chain there during tracking, to make what we're doing sound as much as possible like a record, right from the beginning. That way if I give Ozzy a CD or a file, he's not complaining that it doesn't sound as loud as the other things on his iPod. It's a more honest way of comparing what you're doing with other stuff out there. The reality is that people listen to stuff before mastering, and they need to have an idea of how good it is in relation to everything else. My usual chain is the Sonnox EQ, which goes into a Waves Pye compressor, into a Sonnox Inflator and then a Sonnox Limiter. When I send my mix to the mastering engineer [Bob Ludwig in this case], I back off the limiter a little bit, and let the mastering engineer do his stuff.” .