The rules of heavy metal are well established, but for their latest album, Pigsx7 guitarist and producer Sam Grant added a few of his own.
It's probably not a stretch to assume the phrase "don't let the name put you off" has become something of an epithet to Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. In fact, few names could better express the north-eastern British neo-metal band's energy, aggression, artistry (it's seven repetitions, no more, no less) and disarmingly lighthearted self-awareness. The band's rhythm guitarist and producer Sam Grant cheerily informs me that it's by no means the most off-kilter band name he's played under, and since this is a family-friendly magazine I won't quote him on that any further.
The 2018 release of critically acclaimed LP King Of Cowards saw doors open for Pigsx7 that they'd never previously thought possible, considering that up to that point they had thumbed their nose at almost every sensible career move suggested to them. Suffice to say, when third album Viscerals was announced in January 2020 the weight of expectation was considerable. Fortunately, the band couldn't have been better equipped to achieve what they needed. Not only can they boast a formidable player-producer in the form of Grant, a true sonic obsessive with a hawk's eye for detail, they also enjoy on-tap access to a studio lovingly built from the ground up by the man himself in the band's native Newcastle: Blank Studios.
"King Of Cowards had been out around six months," Sam recalls. "The gigs we were doing were really stepping up with each tour. We were heavily in tour mode, so finding the time to write was a bit more tricky. We booked a couple of weeks at Blank to demo and write, and we already had the recording dates booked in! It was a really daunting prospect, starting the demo process on tracks that we knew in six weeks we'd be recording for an album. That was scary. But we knew what each other had in terms of the formative ideas, so there was a sense of understanding about how it might look and how it would work."
Operating on the boundary of such a delineated genre as metal presented the band with a familiar dichotomy. Sam reflects: "It feels like you have a fork in the road. You could go down one route and say, this band is heavy, ergo they're a metal band, and so let's make it sound 'metal.' There are established tropes in metal production, with an audience that often expects a particular sound. But then, there's this sense that when we write and play music together the driving force is about euphoria and catharsis, elevation; and volume and weight are just vehicles for that. We don't necessarily want to be in a 'metal band' per se, but we find ourselves in that space via means. If you want to be in a metal band, then you need to sound like a metal band."
Sam Grant: "The rules going into an album are really important, because in this day and age you can go so far in so many directions that you can lose a sense of direction really quickly."
Central to Sam's methodology is establishing a finite set of rules to govern the recording process. "It's an album of rules," he says. "You set the creative rules and they define your decisions thereafter. The rules going into an album are really important, because in this day and age you can go so far in so many directions that you can lose a sense of direction really quickly. And they're arbitrary rules — you just set them because they force a creative window."
So what were the rules for Viscerals? Sam rattles them off breezily: "One: the AEA R84 ribbon mic was on every instrument in some form or other. It could be part of a pair, but it has to be there. It acted tonally as a mirror to where I wanted the album to head. Two: dynamic. That was a big one. It had to have moments of respite. Another one was to find the mid frequencies. Do everything possible to pull mids into the record — overload it! So then there's a really rich sense of harmonic. Lastly, the plate reverb is the primary reverberance."
Blank's custom plate reverb was all but installed specifically for Viscerals, and has since become a key element of the studio. Testament to his diligent resourcefulness, Grant built it himself. 'I'd wanted to do that for a long time, and bought a massive sheet of cold rolled steel a few years ago with the intention of making a plate out of it. I'd decided on King Of Cowards to use lots of room mics, lots of corridor mics. It was natural reverbs. This time around I didn't want to just get the same sound again. The nice thing was, because I'd built it myself, picked the piezo mics myself [phantom-powered PF5102 JFETs]... Everything about it is its own specific thing. All those things add up to something that's a distinctive reverberance, one that wouldn't be on another record. The plate is in the live room, on the wall, so no matter what is going on in there the piezo mics are always plugged in if you want them. You don't even need to be sending signal to it to get it. It's a really distinctive sonic signature.
Exacting the right drum sound was foundational to Viscerals, with Sam and engineer John Martindale pulling no punches when it came to ensuring the setup did right by Christopher Morley's playing.
"We took a day miking the kit, playing around with different snares, re-heading the drums. We got a nice big Ludwig kit and Chris had some nice Zildjian A-Custom cymbals. It was a felt beater on the kick drum, not a plastic one. A lot of metal these days wants a lot of click and I wanted to try and move away from that clickiness, that brightness. I wanted a darker kit.
"The principle was two [AEA] R84 ribbon mics as overheads. That's your starting position. Pull up those faders and build a kit around those R84s. There's a Neumann U87 just above the drummer's right knee, set to omni, kind of capturing the whole kit. It's quite an attack-y mic, but it's a bit of a glue when you bring it in. And then there's a parallel of that which is crushed through an 1176 compressor, so really distorted. Really thick and fat.
"On the kick drum we had a Neumann FET 47 on the outside, that was the primary kick sound, and then inside the kick drum was an AKG D112, lying down. A Sennheiser MD421 was up against the beater to pull in a bit of attack. With the snare it was more about fatness, so it was the Beyerdynamic M201 which is quite a fat-sounding mic, and that was alongside an AKG C451 pencil mic. They balance nicely; you get a lot of attack and crack off the condenser, and from the M201 you get that more accustomed fat snare sound. The snare was tuned quite low so you get that woof and punch from it, and it was about trying to make sure that was captured. There was a mic on the bottom of the snare too," Sam remarks, "but no one cares about that."
With careful adherence to his own set of album-specific recording principles, Sam knew from the off how he planned to capture his own and fellow guitarist Adam Sykes' performances. "I had a very specific idea of the shape of the guitars before recording them, and that is that the rhythm [guitar] is two takes, panned hard left and hard right so we've made that space for the drum kit. That also creates lots of space in the middle for the lead guitar and vocals. One thing about guitars is that tonally they have to be as thick as possible — as harmonically dense as possible. So it was a lot about multiple amps.
"I really like, for my guitar in particular, the Orange OR80 and the Vox AC30, totally blown out, and then combining those two amps. With the same take, all you're doing there is combining the different harmonic deliveries they give to make a thicker tone. Adam uses a Matamp. Really nice-sounding amp. Adam's sound is a bit more grabby, a bit tighter in the mids, and it sits nicely as a focused centre sound."
As Sam reflects on such aspects of the recording process, small visual cues serve as reminders of his integral role in Pigsx7 as a touring musician, as well as in the studio. His hand-wired OR80 amp head, for instance, is adorned (not by him, I'm told) with a strip of tape labelled 'Dad' in commemoration of the birth of his son.
Sam continues: "With the guitars it was again the AEA R84 and U87 as a pair, and then a set of Coles 4038s as room mics and some DPA 4090s in the corridor. I was still always tracking the corridor with the DPAs, across all the instruments, but most of the time they were turned down or off. I'll put more mics up than I need, knowing that I can just drop them in the mix.
"For the bass it was a Fender Bassman head, DI'd out for the most part. It's a phenomenal head, the Bassman. That was run through a cab with the FET47 and R84 on it as a pair. The bass tone was amazing. The distortion on the Bassman head is so nice compared to a lot of other bass distortions."
Frontman Matt Baty's powerful vocals by no means represent the only 'voice' in Pigsx7; a dynamic that Sam was keen to represent on Viscerals. "Adam, with a lot of his lead stuff, was working with Matt in terms of his lyrics," he explains. "You know, when one comes forwards the other one's stepping back, and then when the other goes forwards the first steps back. Then it was a bit of Middle and Sides EQ on it just to notch some of the centre frequencies that would otherwise make it difficult to discern the 'speaking' parts, so to speak: the solos and the voice, and occasionally the synths." A Moog Sub Phatty and Korg MS20 were the band's synths of choice.
"Matt can't track vocals all day because he'd just blow his voice out," Sam tells me. The answer was to choose their vocal battles carefully and time them wisely, with as few passes as possible. The producer was well aware of the pressure to capitalise on Baty's performances: "I needed to capture a vibe as much as possible. It was very much a case of the R84, but this time it was running through a BAE 1073. Instead of going through a nice clean ribbon preamp, it was going into a thicker, tonal pre, a much darker one. That was running into the 1176 compressor, because he moves to and from the mic in a performative manner. And then the two Coles mics were a few metres back, going through the ribbon pre. You can over-compress it then, on the 1176, but there's that bit of space there still.
"[Matt's] vocals have to battle with a really thick, heavy mix. You can go one of two ways about that: you could go with a really bright, edgy U87 or something; something that's going to be detailed and sit on top; or you can go down this route where you're saying, 'OK, let's take on the fight!' And that's what we did with this one."
Notwithstanding the unapologetic purity of their modus operandi, it would be remiss of Pigsx7 not to acknowledge the diversity of their growing listener base. Ever shrewd, Sam considers how the band's potential to extend a sonic hand to first-time listeners and metal uninitiates found its way into the recording process.
Sam Grant: "One of the things for this album in particular was the DACS MicAmp 2. It's a beautiful preamp for ribbon mics. I sing the praises of the DACS pres."
"Knowing that you've got the potential for radio play on an album makes you consider certain aspects. One of the big things with that is how the vocals sit. It's like, on the one hand radio will want this idea of the lead vocal, but on the flipside the metal world... well, it's the other end of the spectrum. So you're playing this game. The easy thing about these mixes, though, is that I don't actually have to worry too much. Like with the rhythm guitars creating that space, the vocals have a really nice space to sit in the mix. It's somewhere between modern, contemporary popular music production and Albini-style 'true to the material' approach. There's a simplicity within the arrangements, within the instrumentation and sonics, which allows for huge amounts of fun to be had in making each sonic as interesting and as deep and rich as possible. And, I guess that's not normally an attitude that's taken in rock or metal."
It was in the near-effortless mixing phase that Grant's attention to detail in the album's tracking phase paid its dividends. "I've got an idea of where it should go," the producer explains. And the rest of the band are really canny and just hearing the final mix go, 'Ace!' Loads of trust. It's really nice. Because I'm also in the band, playing with the others day in day out, we all know kind of where it is anyway — even just the mood and the direction. I'm not going to miss the point. The mixes tend to happen quite quickly. With my own music, I'll never get hung up on decisions, I'll just go on instinct. Sometimes I'll listen back and change my mind, but it's nice to have a project which is very quick and pure and direct."
Blank Studios' control room boasts a pair of flush-mounted ATC SCM50ASL monitors: "Super detailed in the mids," Sam emphasises, "like, super detailed. And when you want to create an album that's massively stacked in the mids and you want to make it all work, that's quite important!"
At this point, you might be expecting the customary engineer's ode to a talismanic, 32-channel studio centrepiece. Well, at Blank, there isn't one. "We haven't got a console at the studio," Sam tells me. So, everything is about preamp selection; picking preamps for sources. Over the past 12 years, as a group of engineers, we have had to go from zero. Like, we got five grand off the council in 2008 as part of a business development grant. And that's been it, really. But what that's done is forced our hands to understand every bit of equipment that we add to the setup. You end up starting to understand it as a modular tool, the studio. Because we'd never walked into a studio where it's just like, 'There you go, there's 24 Neve channels,' or 'There's 32 SSL channels...' That's not to say that in big studios people don't have that way of thinking, but I think we might think that way more than most. Because we have to. One of the things for this album in particular was the DACS MicAmp 2. It's a beautiful preamp for ribbon mics. I sing the praises of the DACS pres.
This setting would come to nurture a particularly valuable philosophy for the engineers at Blank, what Sam defines as "working with musicians psychologically, as opposed to with technology." Much of the sound of Viscerals lies in the very fact that no matter how much of a clinician he was with his technique and decision-making, Grant's priority was that Pigsx7's performance shone unwaveringly throughout the record, above all else. "A performance that's full of passion and nuance could be recorded on crap gear and sound amazing," he says. "The primary port of call for us is people. We're people working with people. I've been to a number of studios as a musician and it's just icy cold! And you just walk away like, 'Oh, my God. That was hard work.' It shouldn't be. It should be such a fun experience. You should almost forget that there's gear. You should almost forget that there are things between you and the sound."