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Classic Tracks: Metallica 'One'

Producer & Engineer: Flemming Rasmussen By Richard Buskin
Published May 2011

...And Justice For All marked a turning point for Metallica — one that would launch the cult band into the mainstream. The man at the controls, Flemming Rasmussen, tells us how it happened.

Metallica touring ...And Justice For All in 1989. From left to right: Jason Newsted, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield.Metallica touring ...And Justice For All in 1989. From left to right: Jason Newsted, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield.Photo: Redferns/Ebet Roberts

In January 1988, Metallica regrouped following the release of three increasingly successful studio albums and the death, some 15 months earlier, of bass player Cliff Burton, who had been crushed beneath the band's tour bus when it crashed in Sweden. Bassist Jason Newsted joined singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich to begin work on ...And Justice For All.

Recorded over the course of four‑and‑a‑half months in LA's One On One Studios, this would turn out to be the breakthrough project for the Californian thrash-metal virtuosos, reaching number six on the Billboard 200 en route to eventually being certified eight times platinum by the RIAA. In what has since been named one of the 10 biggest upsets in Grammy history by Entertainment Weekly, the musically complex progressive‑metal album lost the 'Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance' award to Jethro Tull's Crest Of A Knave. Despite its popularity, the record also courted controversy among Metallica's growing legion of fans. Many listeners were critical of what they perceived as the album's overly dry and clinical sound; one which, for reasons that will be explained a little later, was largely devoid of Newsted's bass. And for another, a lot of diehard fans weren't happy that the band joined the commercial mainstream and courted the likes of MTV by shooting their first music video. Said video accompanied 'One', the fourth single off the album and Metallica's first record to crack the Top 40 in the US, climbing to 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. With a running time of just under seven‑and‑a‑half minutes, its lyrics were inspired by Dalton Trumbo's provocative anti‑war novel Johnny Got His Gun, in which a WWI soldier lies helpless in a hospital bed, trapped inside what's left of his body having lost his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, arms and legs in a mortar shell explosion. Despite struggling to get radio airplay, 'One' became Metallica's first hit single, and remains a staple of their live performances.

"That song is more or less the theme of the whole album,” says Flemming Rasmussen, the Danish producer/engineer who produced the group's two previous long‑players, Ride The Lightning (1984) and Master Of Puppets, at his own Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen before embarking on ...And Justice For All. "At that time they had already acquired the rights to the [1971 Johnny Got His Gun] movie that they used for the video, because they knew 'One' was going to be the big thing that all the metalheads would latch onto.”

Flemming Rasmussen

Flemming Rasmussen (right) and in‑house engineer Toby 'Rage' Wright in the One On One control room during the recording of ...And Justice For All.Flemming Rasmussen (right) and in‑house engineer Toby 'Rage' Wright in the One On One control room during the recording of ...And Justice For All.Photo: Flemming Rasmussen

Born in Denmark's capital city on New Year's Day 1958, Rasmussen began his career there as an assistant at the Rosenberg Studios facility run by producer/engineer Freddy Hansson. In 1976, Hansson founded the state‑of‑the‑art Sweet Silence, and after having been installed as his sidekick, Rasmussen progressed from teaboy to engineer, recording the 1981 album Difficult To Cure by Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. The previous year, he'd become a co‑owner of the studio that he would eventually take over in 1999, and it was in early 1984 that Rasmussen first hooked up with Metallica. Impressed by Rasmussen's work with Rainbow, the band approached him about collaborating on Ride The Lightning and he duly obliged, engineering and co‑producing this highly progressive and influential album.

"I hadn't heard Kill 'Em All yet,” he now says of Metallica's quickly recorded debut LP, "but I did hear it the first day they entered Sweet Silence. James's guitar amp had just been stolen, and he kind of liked the sound he had on Kill 'Em All, so I heard it and said, 'All right, let's see what we can do.' The amp had been a modified Marshall, but of course nobody knew what the modifications were — classic!”

Rescue Mission

Another view of One On One's control room.Another view of One On One's control room.Photo: Flemming Rasmussen

After Master Of Puppets was also recorded and mixed at Sweet Silence during the last few months of 1985 and released the following March to even greater acclaim, Metallica reconvened at LA's A&M and Conway Studios in the summer of 1987 to lay down the first tracks to feature Jason Newsted on bass. These were issued on the self‑produced $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re‑Revisited, comprising covers of five numbers by British new-wave metal outfits.

"From Ride The Lightning to Master Of Puppets we went in a certain direction and almost perfected it on Master Of Puppets,” Rasmussen explains. "That was the big, crunchy, rocking‑in‑your‑face heavy-metal sound with loads of guitars. However, I was not supposed to do ...And Justice For All. The band wanted to start recording on 1st January, 1988, and they booked One On One Studios for that purpose, but I was tied up all the way through January with other sessions — in those days, our studio was booked three to six months in advance. So they decided to work with Mike Clink, who had recently done the Appetite For Destruction album with Guns 'N Roses. They really liked that record and wanted to do something along those lines, but for some reason — maybe because the Metallica boys are who they are — they and Mike Clink didn't click, and three weeks into January I got a phone call from Lars, asking, 'When can you be here?' After managing to rearrange my schedule, I landed in LA on February 14th, having listened to their demos on the flight and familiarised myself with their songs. Then I met Mike and he got fired.”

Or, as James Hetfield described this little episode in a 1991 interview with Guitar World magazine, "Mike Clink... didn't work out so well, so we got Flemming to come over and save our asses.”

"At that point, they'd already been in the studio for several weeks and had done virtually nothing,” Rasmussen continues. "All they had done was check the sounds, switch some guitar amps and record a cover tune — we'd always start a Metallica session with a couple of cover tunes for me to fine‑tune the sound while they got into the studio vibe. It would also provide them with material for 'B' sides. In this case, however, they were definitely not happy with the way they sounded.

"They hated the guitar sound. Mike Clink had been around for a long time and he was from the old school where they'd stick a mic in front of the amp and that was that. Well, I had done a lot of tweaking on Master Of Puppets and maybe they'd gotten used to not having to fiddle around. I therefore took everything apart and started over. They had some new Boogie amps with graphic EQ on everything, and they sounded pretty dodgy in my opinion — I couldn't get them to sound as crunchy as I liked, so I inserted a B&B Audio equaliser on the amps' insert loops. That meant I could actually sit and adjust their sound from the control room — the amps with my inserted EQ were in the control room while the cabs were in the studio when we recorded the rhythm guitars and the solos. So ...And Justice For All probably ended up being the most tweaked sound we ever did.”

The in‑house engineer at One On One was Toby 'Rage' Wright, who set up and maintained the equipment while Flemming Rasmussen kept his fingers on the faders.

"We'd work until we were tired and then we'd go home,” says Rasmussen who, together with the band members, also made the production decisions. "Sometimes that meant we'd be in the studio until two in the morning and then, instead of starting the next session at 11, we'd push it back to noon. That would happen every two or three days — we'd push the schedule back an hour and continue to work 14 or 15 hours each day — and at one point that meant we actually started in the studio at about five in the morning. It was ridiculous. So, because Toby was hired to work a more regular daytime/evening schedule, he took care of all the bass recordings. I'd set up the bass sound and give him and Jason pointers as to what needed to be played, and after the rest of us went home at six or eight in the morning the two of them would set to work.”

One On One

Flemming Rasmussen editing tape with One On One's Studer A800. Flemming Rasmussen editing tape with One On One's Studer A800. Photo: Flemming Rasmussen

At that time, One On One was equipped with an E‑Series 48‑channel SSL 4000, two 24‑track Studer tape machines and Tannoy monitors, which the producer bypassed in favour of his own JBL 4311s. Having recorded Metallica's two previous albums with the Trident A‑Range console at Sweet Silence, Rasmussen was no great fan of the E‑Series, and so he used One On One's old Neve desk for all of the inputs, retaining the SSL as just a monitor console.

"The only input that went through the SSL was for the bass,” he says. "That was the DI, while the amp went through the Neve preamp.”

Whereas Jason Newsted played his five‑string Wal on the left side of the main room, with his amp in a rear booth, Lars Ulrich's drum kit was on the right side of the live area, facing the control-room window, for recording on to an entire 24‑track reel. Accordingly, there were five Shure SM57s on the toms, a couple more 57s above and below the snare, Ulrich's recently acquired contact mics underneath each of the cymbals, recorded in a stereo spread, Electro‑Voice RE20s on both bass drums, and about half a dozen room mics.

"The guys were in a layering mode, aiming for perfection, so we'd lay down a guide track for the tempos, as well as a click track for Lars to play to, and then we'd do all of the guitar parts as a dub,” Rasmussen recalls. "Kirk and James stood near Jason, on the left side of the main room, and [their ESPs] were each recorded with a Shure SM7 placed at a 45‑degree angle close to the cone of the best‑sounding speaker in the [Marshall] cabinet, as well as a Neuman U87 right next to it. Then, for a room mic, I'd use an AKG tube mic which was a replica of the old C12 tube, placed at a 45‑degree angle about three to four feet away from the corner of the cabinet, while for ambience I used some B&K 4006 omnis. That meant a total of four mics on each cabinet, and we probably used two cabinets for everything, with me mixing and matching them when we did the recordings. The basic rhythm guitar was always recorded on two tracks — one with the cabinet [and one with the ambient mics] — so I'd mix the SM7 and U87 right away, and then for the rest of the guitars I'd mix everything into a mono track and double it.

"James's vocals were all recorded with an SM7, as were Jason's backing vocals, going through the Neve mic pres with some EQ or through a Urei 1176 compressor. Everything went on to tape and I think we ended up with three reels for each song — one for drums, one for the bass and guitars, and one for anything else that we did. You see, we recorded each of the instruments right across the album. So, if Lars needed a break, we'd start doing the guitars and lead vocals on those songs that already had finished drum parts. In fact, some of the last stuff that we did was the bass. Jason's playing was very different to Cliff's — he was much more of a bass player, whereas Cliff was like a bass artist; a one‑off who was impossible to categorise and whose kind we'll probably never see again. He might have problems with some of the easier stuff, but he was fantastic on all the crazy, difficult shit, and in that sense he was irreplaceable. Jason, however, did a great job in his place and did it in his own style.”

Bass Cadet

An entire 24-track machine was needed just for Lars Ulrich's kit. An entire 24-track machine was needed just for Lars Ulrich's kit. Photo: Flemming Rasmussen

Newsted himself was less than happy with the results, later remarking, "The Justice album wasn't something that really felt good for me, because you really can't hear the bass.”

Flemming Rasmussen agrees: "It's inaudible. Jason, Toby and I are probably the only people who know what the bass parts actually sounded like on that album, and that's down to Lars and James. I didn't mix Justice — Steve Thompson and Mike Barbiero were already hired to do that before I became involved with the project, and after Lars and James heard their initial mixes the first thing they said was, 'Take the bass down so you can just hear it, and then once you've done that take it down a further 3dBs.' I have no idea why they wanted that, but it was totally out of my hands, and I didn't even know about it until the album had been released. When I heard it, I went, 'What?' I wasn't too keen on it, either.”

Ditto the producer's response when I ask him about what All Music reviewer Steve Huey has described as the record's "weird, bone‑dry production. The guitars buzz thinly, the drums click more than pound... It's a shame that the cold, flat sound obscures some of the sonic details, because ...And Justice For All is Metallica's most complex, ambitious work.”

"Don't ask me what happened, because I wasn't there when they mixed it, but it certainly sounded a lot fatter when we recorded it,” Rasmussen insists. "The ambience was there, as was all of the fatness in the bass track. I treated it a lot to get a sound that was probably a cross between Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, because what made the drums sound so grand on those albums were the room mics that we used in the studio in Copenhagen. We put Lars in a huge, warehouse‑sized room, I had mics in the corners, and that was pretty high in the mix. But when Steve Thompson and Mike Barbiero mixed Justice I don't think they used the room mics from One On One at all. I think they just used the close mics. But again, I can't be sure because I wasn't there.

"There are probably tapes somewhere of their mixes that sound a lot different and more like what people expected. Then again, since the record's release its sounds have influenced plenty of metal bands. They really love that album and most really hard metal bands now have its drum sound. So, go figure.”

Military Precision

Flemming Rasmussen today. Flemming Rasmussen today. Photo: Flemming Rasmussen

Despite all of this audio‑related controversy, what few dispute are the musical merits of ...And Justice For All, and more specifically, those of 'One', which would eventually gain the band a Grammy in 1990, for Best Metal Performance. Military sound effects, unconventional time signatures and harmony guitars frame the song's disturbing theme and haunting lead vocal, underscored by both guitarists' rapid‑fire coordination with Lars Ulrich's machine‑gun drum breaks. Kirk Hammet's initially gentle playing conrasts with his blistering, highly acclaimed solo as the pace accelerates, before he and James Hetfield duet towards the end.

"I had been fiddling around with that B‑G modulation for a long time,” Hetfield told Guitar World in 1991, when describing how he devised the intro to the souped‑up, multi‑section ballad, which he had co-written with Lars Ulrich back in November 1987. "The idea for the opening came from a Venom song called 'Buried Alive'. The kick drum machine‑gun part near the end wasn't written with the war lyrics in mind, it just came out that way.”

"'One' was played entirely to a click track, and it took us probably half a day to figure out the varying tempos,” Flemming Rasmussen now recalls. "The chorus was actually a lot quicker than the verses, so I had to manually punch in and out a Linn Drum click track on the 24‑track to make sure we got that tempo transition over the bridge, before it then fell back to the original tempo for the verses. Kirk and James played their guide parts together with the drums. Then we took the tempo from that and, once we had laid down the click track, Lars did a quick run‑through and the guitarists played their parts to that. From there, we started building the track, section by section.

"The whole thing with that specific song — as well as several of the other songs — was their desire for a technical perfection that would have been easy in these days of computer editing but which, back then, we had to achieve manually. Lars's playing had to be extremely tight, and we did 20‑ to 30‑second segments with me punching in and out over 18 drum tracks. When we got a good bit, we'd sit and listen to it a couple of times to make sure it was cool, and if, say, one hi‑hat hit was a little late, I'd chop out a tiny bit of tape with a razor to make it exactly right. That was a long and tiring process, and whereas it would now take about half a day to complete one of those drum tracks, back then it took us a minimum of three to four days. For each song I had a big envelope full of bits of two‑inch tape that I had chopped out, and I remember joking to Lars that they should hold a competition for the fans, enabling them to win lost bits from his drum tracks... He didn't find that at all amusing. However, for that time, what we ended up with was almost computer‑accurate, even though it was just him playing.

"As it happens, even though most people might think it was difficult, the easiest bit for Lars was the machine‑gun part. He was really good at that and it was all done in one take. I was totally impressed. I remember telling him, 'That was good!' and when he said, 'Nah, let's do it again,' I said, 'Fuck that! Come in and have a listen.' His playing was amazing.”

As was that of the guitarists, whose parts were added next.

Metallica 'One' | Classic Tracks"The song starts out with clean guitars, and for the chorus there were a couple of James Hetfield rhythm guitars that helped build it up,” Rasmussen says. "Then, when we got to the machine‑gun part with the double bass drums, we began layering rhythm guitar tracks. By the end of the song there were six or eight rhythm guitars, played by James on different amps with different sounds on top of each other. However, he was so tight that this just sounded like one big wall of guitars. And if anything needed to be punched in, he'd just go back and pick it up right away. He was extremely fast and extremely accurate: in my opinion, probably the best rhythm guitar player in the world. It's unbelievable what that guy can do.

"As for Kirk, he received cassette tapes all the time and he was sitting at home, composing solos. Then he came into the studio and played what he'd written, and most of the time we'd go, 'Nah, we hate it.' Lars actually constructed most of the solos on the album, and I'm pretty sure that famous solo on 'One' is a Lars/Flemming/Kirk construction. When it came to the actual performance, some it Kirk ad libbed, and he probably did five or six takes before we figured out which parts were great and put them together. Then he learned that and played it again. In the end, that solo probably took most of half a day to do.”

Next came the bass, which Jason Newsted played to the rhythm guitars.

"With metal, it's really important to record the rhythm guitars and lead before the bass goes down,” Rasmussen asserts. "If the guitars had to play to his interpretation of the riff, the end result would be crap. So, the rhythm guitars rule in metal — that's just the way it is. At around the same time, we also did the vocals. You know, when Lars needed to go away for a week we'd spend that time recording James. Then Lars would come back and James would piss off — that's how it went. So, when Lars was away we set up the vocals with the SM7 and James did his thing.

"He was writing the lyrics as we went along, and while they had often been done by the time we got to a particular session — as was the case with 'One' — that wasn't always so. He'd even change some of the lyrics after we'd recorded them, and we'd therefore do a vocal bit by bit — do a part, double it; next part, double it; and we'd work our way through the song just like that. On some songs, where there were a lot of words and he screwed up, we'd go back and he'd do it again. However, at that time he wasn't really interested in singing. The singing part was not important to him. It was more about wanting that hard vibe.”


On 'One', the last elements to be added were the sound effects, including artillery fire and flying helicopters, but these weren't handled by Rasmussen since they were left to the mix.

"I usually mix the things I've recorded, so ...And Justice For All was probably the most extreme case of there being dramatic changes after I was no longer involved,” he says. "When Metallica were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, I spoke with Steve Thompson and Mike Barbiero at the bash in Cleveland and we all agreed that it would be really funny if we could get hold of the tapes and redo the mix. Still, even though it would be nice for the world to hear Jason's lovely bass playing, those tapes are safely locked up in the vault at Metallica's HQ, and that's fine with me.”

Indeed, as someone who believes in working closely with artists and trying to achieve things from their perspective, Rasmussen states that with Metallica he felt like the fifth member of the band. "We were together 15 or 16 hours each day, so that was bound to happen,” he remarks. "I would identify with the emotions they were trying to convey on the record, as well as their motivations for making that music — after all, it was their album, not my album.

"['One'] was an amazing song and, I think, one of the best ones they wrote in a long time,” says Rasmussen, who is currently working with a number of different Danish artists while building a new mix room in the centre of Copenhagen, close to the site of Sweet Silence — which has been torn down to make way for an apartment complex and a car park. "I also liked the album when it came out, although I had mixed feelings because it sounded so different and we had all worked our asses off. I mean, in four months I had just three days off, and one of those days was after we'd worked 24 hours straight. I got another day off when a band photo‑shoot dragged on, and then I also had a day with my family at Disneyland, and that was it. However, it was worth the effort. I loved those songs.”