Recorded, mixed and co-produced by Greg Fidelman, Metallica’s Hardwired... To Self-Destruct has proved an unexpected career high point.
The title of their latest album Hardwired... To Self-Destruct reflects the unlikeliness of the fact that, after 36 often turbulent years, Metallica are still going strong. Their 10th studio album, it reached number one in 57 countries and ended up as the eighth best-selling long player of 2016, despite only being released in November. It has been called Metallica’s “finest record in 25 years” in a reference to the widespread view that the band peaked with their four albums Ride The Lightning (1984), Master Of Puppets (1986), ...And Justice For All (1988) and Metallica (1991) before gradually losing their way. The consensus is that Metallica have managed to recapture a lot of their old glory on Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, which, wrote one critic, “shows audiences a side of Metallica that’s been sorely missing for the last 29 years: fiery, focused, aggressive, disciplined.”
Famously, the band co-produced most of their previous albums with either Flemming Rasmussen or Bob Rock, the main exception being 2008’s Death Magnetic, which was produced by the legendary Rick Rubin. Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, however, was co-produced by Greg Fidelman with Metallica singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich.
Fidelman’s association with the band in fact also goes back to Death Magnetic. Having worked as one of Rubin’s regular engineers and mixers since the late ’90s, Fidelman engineered that album and also mixed part of it. He has since played a crucial role in every Metallica release, engineering, mixing, and/or co-producing a movie project, a live album, several covers, and their collaboration with Lou Reed, Lulu.
All sessions for Hardwired... To Self-Destruct took place at Metallica’s studio and business headquarters, which is located in San Rafael in the Bay Area and called, well, HQ. In interviews, the band have said that Rubin had taught them, in Ulrich’s words, not to keep “chasing something we didn’t really need to chase”, and that this attitude also filtered through in the new album. “One of the conversations I’ve had with the band was that in the past there was always some reasonably well-defined place they wanted to go with each album,” recalls Fidelman. “For example, with ...And Justice For All they wanted to go in a more progressive rock direction, and with the Metallica album they wanted to get more straightahead, and so on. But the marching order for the new album was that there weren’t going to be any marching orders! It was just: ‘We’re going in and we’re going to make music, we’re going to record some songs, and we’re going to have some fun, and we’re going to make everything as good as we can and we’re not going to kill each other while doing it!’
“In 2011 or so I’d engineered a couple of Metallica sessions in LA with Rick producing, but they didn’t really go anywhere. The band then took a long time to figure out when and how to do this record. Once they did, they wanted to do everything at HQ, and the first time I went up to HQ for this album was at the very end of February 2015. I met James and Lars there, and they played me 20 song ideas that they had, with some more developed than others. We went through them, worked on a couple of them on the studio floor, and after a few days I went back to LA again, because they were still doing shows and had other things going on. I returned a couple of weeks later for what you could call pre-production. At this point I was working with Lars and James, and sometimes Rob [Trujillo, the band’s bass player] as well. Kirk [Hammett, lead guitarist] wasn’t there yet. We worked on these 20 song ideas off and on until the end of May, and then we picked a top 12 that we were going to record, with Kirk and Rob.
“Kirk spends a lot of his time in Hawaii, and with James and Lars both living in Marin County [just north of San Francisco], and Rob in LA, it was the hardest for Kirk to come to the sessions. He didn’t contribute to the writing of this album, but delving into what went on was not a good use of the airtime I had with these guys. In general, producing Metallica is pretty unique compared to the other bands I’ve worked with. You’re dealing with pretty big personalities, and the trick was to avoid confrontations that weren’t productive, and try to force confrontations that were.
“Because I also engineered, I really needed to focus on what was essential and productive. I had a lot of help on the engineering and editing front from the regular HQ studio guys, Mike Gillies and Kent Matcke, as well as Sara Lyn Killion, who has been my assistant for many years. I could not have done the record without her. She’s super-organised, has great Pro Tools skills, and her note-taking is impeccable, which was great in the Metallica situation, because we record literally everything that is going on, so you end up with hard drives and hard drives of material. Also, in general I like someone else to sit at the Pro Tools rig during recording and do the nitty-gritty, because you need a certain amount of mental focus to operate it, and this stops you from being immersed in what is going on creatively.”
According to Fidelman, the actual recordings took place during four distinct sets of sessions in June, July, September and November 2015. Three songs were recorded in each of these sets, while the album’s opener, ‘Hardwired’, was recorded in February 2016. Fidelman often continued working at HQ once recording sessions were completed, which allowed him to sift and comp and work on rough mixes and in general hone the sound he was after. Hardwired... To Self-Destruct sounds extremely hard-hitting and alive, and also remarkably transparent for a heavy metal record. According to Fidelman this was by design...
“Stylistically and from a sonic point of view ,the band repeatedly said that they wanted a ‘lively’ sound. It was the word they liked to use. This meant not too dry, but rather more ambient and with a more rocking feel. They wanted it to sound like a studio record, but with a feel that’s more dynamic. This record took a long time to make, and the time I was there when they were not there offered me to opportunity to experiment with acoustics and move things around. Next to their control room they have two very large rooms, each being 38 by 51 feet. They use one of these rooms to write and rehearse, and we set up to record them there. Strangely it’s the room that doesn’t have a direct visual connection with the control room, so we used two-way video feeds.
“That room has a very high, curved ceiling, starting at around 15 feet heigh at the walls and in places reaching as high as 30 feet. The drum area is soft-carpeted, and the other half of the room has concrete walls and floors, and is usually draped off. Mike, Sarah, their drum tech and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get the best drum room sound. We opened the drapes to get more reflections and came up with some cool room microphone configurations in that faraway part of the room, which gave a nice length on the snare and other instruments. We also put plywood behind the drums and over the carpet around the drums to make them sound even livelier. The guitar and bass cabinets were all placed in the other room, as well as a vocal booth, and the two rooms are connected with a glass sliding door, which we sometimes opened to use the room mics that we had placed in the main room.”
With the recording setup in place, a way of working quickly emerged: “The modus operandi was that they’d all four be in the main live room, with us recording them playing live together. They were all wearing headphones and using the Mytek Private Q for their balances. It was rare that James was singing — he only gave occasional vocal cues. In general we did six takes per song with the whole band, maybe eight, and we then edited the final drum takes from them. Something that Lars has always done is that after all the takes are done, he’ll do a bunch of crazy fills, and he likes to later get creative in the editing process and use the fills he likes best when we’re putting the master together.
“Once the drum track was put together, we for the most part redid the bass, most of the rhythm guitars, and overdubbed vocals and guitar solos. Rob and I would work hard at coming up with the best possible bass parts that worked with the guitars and drums, and would overdub them. Rob is an accomplished player, and once we agreed on a part, there would maybe be a couple more takes. The guitars happened in a similar way. It would mostly take James a couple of takes to wrap his head around exactly how he wanted the play his part, and once he got into it he usually did just two or three more takes, and I’d compile a best-of. For solos, Kirk did a lot of improvising, and Lars then gets heavily involved with the solo assembly. Lars and I cut the best from Kirk’s crazy takes together and we then presented that to Kirk, and then the three of us get collaborative and Kirk may do another bunch of takes in the spirit of what we already had.
“On a couple of songs, ‘Dream No More’ and ‘Now That We’re Dead’, we used bass and rhythm guitar off the floor, because they were magical moments. We actually had a version of ‘Now That We’re Dead’ that was 90 percent done in late February 2016. At that point Lars was listening to stuff on his iPod, and a rehearsal version of ‘Now That We’re Dead’ popped up and it rocked more than the version we had been working on. So we ended up trashing the master we had and proceeded to work with the rehearsal take, doing some fix-ups, overdubs and so on. What you hear on the album is 90 percent live off the floor, with a vocal and solo overdub.
“While they were still putting songs together I’d spend a lot of time on the floor with them, wearing headphones, but when we were actually recording I’d go back to the control room to monitor the sounds and the performances. James, Kirk and Rob also liked to come into the control room to play their overdubs, which were recorded in the other big room with all the cabinets. James sang his vocals in a vocal booth. He does not like to sing with headphones so we had a pair of big Genelecs up on stands. This causes some bleed in the vocal mic that I have to deal with, but his performances are so much better without headphones it’s well worth it.”
Greg Fidelman brought his own monitoring system to augment what was already present at HQ. “The control room is fairly large, but not quite as well-treated acoustically as I would like it to be. The back of the room has a very strange low end, so I try to stay away from that part of the room. My main speakers are a pair of ProAc Studio 100s. I also used a pair of NS10s, which I have to the side, so I can either go over to them to listen in stereo, or listen peripherally, almost as a mono thing. The big speakers there, which are on stands, are ATC SCM150s, with a 15-inch woofer. But I used the ProAcs the most.
“The studio has an 80-channel SSL 9000 K desk, and tons of outboard. I didn’t use the SSL during the recordings, other than for monitoring. But there’s a 24x8 Neve sidecar that used to be part of an EMI Neve board and has 1093 modules, which are similar to the 1081 modules. I recorded a lot of the guitars through that, and also the kick and the snare, so I could use the sidecar to sum things before they went into the 96 I/O Pro Tools HDX2 system. I used the studio’s 20 BAE 1073 modules for the things I didn’t sum, like overheads, cymbals, toms and so on. The studio also has eight original Neve 1081 mic pres and 24 API 212 mic pres. The latter we used for the room and talkback mics. I also brought some of my own gear, because the idea was to have everything permanently set up for instant recording, so there was no doubling of any recording signal chains and we didn’t need to unplug or move things.”
The miking was, for the most part, not exactly minimalist: “For drums I had a Neumann FET 47 and Sennheiser MD421 on the inside of each of the two kick drums, and another FET 47 on each of them on the outside. The snare drum had a Shure SM57 underneath it, and a 57 and Neumann KM84 taped together at the top, plus a Neumann KM86 that picks up some of the shell of the snare drum, but I don’t lean on that too much. The toms were SM57s on the racks and 421s on the floors, nothing fancy. I had AKG C451 spot mics on each of the cymbals.
“The close overhead mics were suggested to me by Joe Barresi: two Violet Amethyst Vintage mics, which are similar to a U67. At about 10 feet above the drum set I had a pair of AKG C12s, which gave me a kit sound with lots of snare, cymbals and toms, but not a lot of kick. The real room mics got kind of complex. We had two AKG C414s set to omni fairly close to the drums, and I bussed them together for a full room sound. I also had two Neumann U87 mics in the middle of the room, and the mics I probably leaned on the most for the room sound were Violet Design Wedges which were placed at the other end of the room. It’s a really great room mic that worked great in that space. For the slower songs, I also had another Neumann U87 placed really far away where there was a lot of weird subsonic build-up from the kick, and I compressed that, took out all the top end and boosted some low end with an API 560, and that ended up being a really useful part of the low end of the drums.
“I recorded the bass guitar with two DIs: a Little Labs PCP and a [Ridge Farm] Gas Cooker. The bass also went through two SVT amps, one relatively clean and one really overdriven, and I took a DI from the clean amp and had 421s on each amp.
“The electric rhythm guitars were a combination of three amps and multiple cabinets, and each amp had multiple mics which went through the Neve sidecar. For his solos, Kirk used an old modified Marshall amp that he’s used since the ‘black album’ [Metallica], and that sounds insanely good. That provided 60-70 percent of the solo sound, and in addition he also used a Mesa Boogie and his signature Randall Kirk Hammett. The guitar cabinet mics were mostly 421s, KM84s and a couple of SM57s. We also used a Neumann TLM102 as a room mic, and as I mentioned before, in a couple of cases we opened the sliding doors between the two recording areas, and I got some room sound from the Violet Design Wedge mics in the other room.
“We cut almost every lead vocal with the Shure SM7, which is great for the aggressive stuff. For a couple of more quiet vocals we used the Telefunken ELA M 251. The vocal mics went into a BAE 1073 with hardly any EQ and then I had a UREI 1176 with a medium amount of compression, and I’d then send the signal through a [Retro Instruments] Sta-Level compressor, so it’s double-compressed. The Sta-Level also isn’t set very hard, but added a little bit of thickness to the vocal that I liked. I used the same chain for backing vocals, and in the few cases that James and Rob sang at the same time I used a Neumann U87, with the same 1073/1176/Sta-Level chain.”
By February 2016 the recordings were complete; and with everything comped and edited, the material was ready to be mixed. There were, however, a few details still to be straightened out, as Fidelman explains. “Lars, James and I had a listening party, and we made notes about all the songs we had recorded, and even at that point made some dramatic changes to some of the songs. When we were considering the sequence of the record, Lars and I had a similar experience, which was that we felt that there was no obvious opener. Or, if we used the song that seemed most suitable, we wouldn’t have a good closer.
“Metallica and I love the idea of having a good closing song for an album. Many artists put their least favourite songs at the end, but we don’t like that. The first song is always important, but we want the last song to be equally impactful. So we needed one more song, which had to be super-effective, short, quick, trashy and aggressive, with a cool intro. As a result they went in and wrote the opening track, ‘Hardwired’ which turned out to be the only song written to marching orders, and which was recorded very quickly.
“We now were ready for the final mixes. I’d always kept the option open of bringing in a fresh perspective with someone else mixing the album. However, it was decided that I would mix the album. In addition, there was an ongoing debate about the track listing and what songs to leave off. In my head I’d always expected that we’d leave two or three songs off the record. Certainly ‘Lords Of Summer’ never felt like part of the same writing cycle to me: particularly lyrically, it didn’t seem to fit, and I thought some others were likely to become B sides.
“But then the band’s management suggested that we put everything out and make it a double album. It had been eight years since the previous album! While the songs were mixed we all were into this idea, but ‘Lords Of Summer’ remained a head-scratcher, so it was eventually decided to make that a bonus track. This meant that we could fit everything on one CD, but we were by now married to the idea of making it a double CD. A third bonus CD was also added, on which they collected some of the covers, which had never been available on a Metallica album, and included a number of live recordings, which I also mixed.”
Fidelman says that although rough mixes of all the material had been done when the songs were assembled, there was a distinct final mix stage. “Each song took about three days to mix. It’d start from my rough mix: I laid that out over the SSL, and I’d then spend a day creating a final mix. At the end of the day I’d send that out to the band, and the next day I’d get their comments. I’d make the changes they asked for and finalise the mix, and I’d send the new version to them, and the third day there’d be one more round of comments, which I enacted. In between waiting for comments I was printing options and stems and so on. Most of the time I was one my own. James likes to listen in his car, and Lars feels he loses perspective in the studio, so he also prefers to listen in his own environment.
“The way I laid out the Pro Tools sessions over the SSL board was similar for all songs, and most songs had similar treatments. We were into giving the album as a whole a consistent sound. My mixes were hybrids, with me doing some EQ and other things in the box, but not too much. I try to record things the way I want them to sound, so once it gets to mixing there’s no need for major surgery any more. It’s more about balances and some EQ here and there, and perhaps I’ll be adding some subsonic energy somewhere. I’ll also be fine-tuning the room sounds and adding some extra reverb, plus I do a lot of parallel compression to beef up certain sounds.
“I mixed this album mainly old-school on the console, because it was a continuation of the way we had been doing the album up until that point. I do mix in the box sometimes, but I still have a love affair with mixing on a large-format console. There is something about you being able to instantly adjust something on the board while you are listening, and about having all that visual feedback from the buttons and faders in front of you. The physicality of mixing on a desk is very different from mixing in the box. Making small tweaks is much faster for me on a desk. When I’m in the box I tend to stop listening to make adjustments. Obviously, it’s what you grew up with, and for me mixing on a desk is very natural, while mixing in the box is like speaking a second language.”
The Pro Tools session for ‘Moth Into Flame’ is by modern standards fairly average in size, containing 109 tracks. This breaks down into three grey mix master tracks at the top, no fewer than 38 drums tracks in purple, five bass tracks in blue, 32 rhythm guitar tracks and 11 solo guitar tracks all in different shades of green, eight vocal tracks in red, one vocal master track, and 11 aux tracks, with reverbs in grey, Eventide H910 Harmonizer tracks in dark purple and ‘AC/DC’ delay tracks in yellow. The session is extremely well organised, with many of the microphones used noted in the Comments box. The session also has relatively few plug-ins.
“I used a fair amount of outboard during these mixes,” explained Fidelman. “Also, there are some cases in this mix session where I printed stuff that had plug-ins on it, especially with background vocals. The SSL console has six effect sends and a couple of buses and they were routed to the Pro Tools session where I had my reverbs and delays. Most of the console channel EQs were probably engaged during mixing, but again, I had recorded everything the way I wanted it to sound, so didn’t need to do tons of stuff.”
- Drums: Avid D3, EQ3 & Time Adjuster; UA Fairchild 660, dbx 160, Lexicon 224, Maag EQ3 & Studer A800; SoundToys Devil-Loc; Waves Renaissance Compressor; SSL desk compression; Lucas Limiting Amplifier.
“There are four kick tracks, with ‘Con’ standing for Condenser, and you can see the FET 47 and 421 tracks for each kick drum. The top two tracks are the right-foot kick — the left-foot kick only shows up in a couple of spots. The most important thing in the plug-ins on the kicks is the gating from the Avid D3 Expander/Gate and the high-pass filter from the Avid EQ3 1-band. The snare plug-ins are the same, and the first ‘Snare Top’ track has a UAD Fairchild adding a little bit of compression, plus there’s a seven-band EQ3 on the ‘Snare Top 86’, which took out a frequency I did not like.
“Below that are a ‘Tom Verb’ and ‘Tom Return’ track. All my toms were sent to the latter, on which I have the UAD dbx 160, and the Lexicon 224 reverb is on the track above that, and that comes back on the desk as a stereo pair. The individual tom tracks also have the D3 and the EQ3 for gating and high-passing. Below the toms are the two Violet Design overhead tracks, which have the Maag EQ3 to bring out some more top end, adding air. Then there are the two high overhead C12 tracks, which have a SoundToys Devil-Loc for a little bit of extra crunch.
“Next are the seven cymbal tracks, which have the Time Adjuster plug-in, because phase can be a nightmare with all these mics, and also, aligning the snare bleed on these tracks helped to keep the snare focussed. The ‘Cymbal Swim’ track is like a crash/ride cymbal, and I used the UAD Fairchild 660 to make sure it didn’t poke out too much. But that made it a little harsh, so I added the UAD Studer to soften it a little and make it more washy.
“Next are the room tracks. The two ‘Far Room Violet Wedge’ tracks each have the Waves RCompressor, which are just mildly compressing to make it sound more ambient. ‘TB’ means talkback and those are the two 414 mics. Finally there is a kick sample and a snare sample, which add a little bit to the sound, maybe just 10 percent. The main sounds come from the actual kick and snare mics. Regarding outboard on the drums, on the desk I had a parallel for the entire kit that went through a regular SSL stereo compressor, and the kick, snare and bass guitar all went to a mono bus, on which I had a Lucas Limiting Amplifier, which is a tube limiter, and super cool and punchy. It adds a little low end and is very focused. I love it. I brought that up as a parallel.”
- Bass & Guitars: Avid Time Adjuster & EQ3; SoundToys Devil-Loc & Echo Boy; UA Precision EQ, 1176, MXR Flanger, Roland Dimension D, EP34, Neve 1081 & Helios Type 69; Tube-Tech LCA-2B; Lucas Limiting Amplifier.
“There’s a Time Adjuster on the Little Labs PCP DI bass guitar track, because I wanted it better in phase with everything else. There’s something about the wireless pack that Rob uses for his bass that’s very much part of his sound, and we’d plug his bass cable into the PCP and that would feed the wireless pack, but of course that would introduce a slight amount of delay. The clean SVT mic track has a Devil-Loc for a bit more crunch. Looking at the guitar tracks, ‘Jmz’ stands for James. Several of his rhythm guitar tracks have the UAD Precision EQ on them, to add some mid-range clarity. The instances of the EQ3 1-band again are high-pass filters.
“There’s a UAD 1176 on two sub tracks that helps to make it more consistent, because those tracks were a little jumpy. There are two stereo pairs of ‘chords’ tracks, with make up a brief fill that appears twice, and they go to Master 29-30, which has a UAD MXR Flanger track that’s automated. The 12 tracks marked ‘Pv3’ are for a brief but big-sounding four-part guitar harmony that occurs in pre-verse three, and all guitar tracks have the EQ3 for high-pass. Below that are the guitar solo tracks. There are two groups of four solo guitar tracks, each group with a different part, and they all have similar treatments, with the Avid EQ3 seven-band doing some carving, and a UAD Dimension D on the ‘Room’ tracks to widen the stereo image.
“The sends go to Bus 50, which is an aux track called ‘solo eko’, which has the UAD EP34 tape echo emulation plug-in, while the ‘solo throw’ send goes to an aux track with a delay throw from the SoundToys Echo Boy. All these solo guitar tracks are sent to an aux track called ‘Solo ret’, which has the UAD 1081 and Helios Type 69, doing some EQ. I do a parallel compression thing on the desk on all the guitars with a TubeTech LCA-2B. The bass is also parallel compressed on the board with the Lucas Limiting Amplifier. By the way, the track names with a ç [cedilla] signify a comp that’s ready for use. On a Mac keyboard that’s Option+C.”
- Vocals: UA Precision EQ, Precision De-esser & LA-2A; SoundToys Radiator, Echo Boy, Microshift & Little Alterboy; Brainworx bx_saturator; Universal Audio LA-3A; Waves H-Delay.
“The vocals are a bit more plug-in intense. The main lead vocal signal chain is all-UAD, starting with the Precision EQ, adding some presence because the vocal wasn’t quite popping out enough, two LA-2As — one grey, one silver — that sound slightly different and which both add a nice tonal characteristic to the vocal, and then a Precision De-esser. There’s a vocal double which has the SoundToys Radiator for some drive. I like the double to sound a little more aggressive, and for that reason there also is the Brainworx bx_saturator.
“Both these lead vocal tracks get sent to the same fader on the desk and parallel compressed with a vintage UA LA-3A. There are some additional vocal effect tracks, with the Waves H-Delay for some stereo ghosting effects, Echo Boy for a more straight delay, and a SoundToys Microshift to give them some width. There also are three backing vocal tracks, with again the Radiator and bx_saturator for some aggression, and the SoundToys Little Alterboy, which changes the formant and makes it sound less like just one guy.”
- Effects & Stereo Bus: UA Roland RE-201 Space Echo, AMS RMX16, EMT 140; Eventide H910 Harmonizer; Brainworx bx_saturator; Avid Mod Delay 3; SoundToys Echo Boy; dbx 120X Subharmonic Synthesizer; Aphex Type 2 Aural Exciter; SSL desk compressor; Sontec MEP-250EX.
“At the bottom of the session are 11 aux effect tracks. The ‘Guitar Eko’ with the UAD RE-201 receives a send from SSL FX channel 3, the ‘Snare Verb’ [UAD AMS RMX16] from FX channel 4, the ‘Main reverb’ [UAD EMT140] from FX5 and the ‘Space Echo’ [RE-201] for the vocal from FX6. The four Eventide 910 tracks are mostly about that old stereo trick of micro-shifting one channel up a little and the other channel down a bit, and then giving them different delays. I also used the bx_saturator to overdrive them a bit. The bottom three aux tracks are all about a plate reverb that I call the AC/DC plate, because it’s the kind of reverb you hear on Highway To Hell or Back In Black. The plug-ins I used are the Mod Delay 3, the Echo Boy and the UAD EMT140. All three tracks receive their signal from bus 9 from the SSL. All 11 aux tracks came up on channels 1-2 on the desk. For the rest, I used a little outboard from the dbx 120X Subharmonic Synthesizer and an Aphex Type 2 Aural Exciter.
“I bounced the mix back into the session. I had the desk console compressor on the SSL stereo bus and a Sontec MEP-250EX EQ, and the mix went through the Lavry Gold A-D converter for print, and this version went to mastering. I also had a two-mix copy which I treated with the AOM Factory Invisible Limiter plug-in, which gave me an extra 2-3dB for a very hot version. This was purely for the guys and management to listen to, so they could hear how it compared to other things out there.”
Metallica’s previous studio album, Death Magnetic, came in for a lot of criticism because of the extreme brickwall limiting that had been applied to it, leading to audible distortion and an extremely low dynamic range. According to the site DR.Loudness-war.info, the dynamic range of the CD averaged 3dB. Fingers were pointed at producer Rick Rubin and mastering engineer Ted Jensen, but the inside story of who was responsible and why was never revealed.
The dynamic range values given by the Dr.Loudness site for Hardwired... To Self-Destruct are better, at 6-7 dB for the digital versions and 10-13 dB for the vinyl versions. One would have imagined that the mastering approach for the new album would have been talked about in great detail because of the furore of eight years ago. Strangely, however, according to Fidelman the issue was barely discussed. “Lars and I had a five-minute conversation about it, and that was it. We did do a mastering shoot-out between four mastering engineers with a blind listening session. Sara had level-matched all four versions and simply marked them A, B, C and D. Luckily the band and I agreed on the one which we liked the best, which was done by Dave Collins. It sounded great. The nature of this music is not very dynamic in any case, particularly with the faster songs, so we were not that worried about dynamic range.
“The funny thing about the different dynamic ranges for the vinyl version of the album is that everything comes from the same master! To me the vinyl version doesn’t sound as good as the high-resolution digital version. Some people think the vinyl version is better because of the increased dynamic range, but that’s kind of crazy. You’re talking about all sorts of variables that are introduced during the transfer to vinyl, and then again during the transfer back to digital so you can measure the dynamic range.
“The iTunes version also has a slightly larger dynamic range, but that’s because of the inter-sample peaks that occur when you bring things down from 96kHz to 44.1kHz. Obviously, when you master a record, you first master in the native format, in this case 96/24. After you’ve done that, you bring it down to CD and iTunes quality, and I drove Dave Collins insane, because I felt these versions didn’t sound as good. He spent a couple of days experimenting with different sample-rate conversions, and he ended up with another way of doing it that I thought sounded better, with a more compact low end. I don’t know what he ended up using. What mattered to me was that it ended up sounding really, really good!”
With Hardwired... To Self-Destruct still one of the world’s best-selling albums at the time of going to press, many people clearly agree...
Greg Fidelman began his music career as the lead guitarist of the band Rhino Bucket, with whom he recorded three albums between 1989 and 1994, the first two on a major label. Twenty years later, he has a very impressive credit list as an engineer and mixer, featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele, Johnny Cash, U2, Neil Diamond, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, the Dandy Warhols and Bush, and in recent years he’s produced, engineered and mixed albums by Slayer, Slipknot and Metallica. How and why did he switch from being a guitar hero to becoming a successful but behind-the-scenes studio man?
“I was always the guy in the band who was interested in recording and sonically curious,” explained Fidelman. “The first Rhino Bucket album was engineered by Brendan O’Brien and what he did was very inspiring for me. The second album was produced by Terry Manning, who is more of an old-school guy who’d worked with ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin, and he was very generous with his knowledge and became a bit of a mentor to me. Our third album was done on an independent label, and although we worked with a more experienced producer/engineer, I was for the most part able to get hands-on in the studio. After that I decided to focus on engineering. We were not selling millions of records and while I liked being in a band, I realised that for me the most enjoyable part was being in the studio.
“I was really lucky to call Sound City at a moment when they needed a runner. This was at the end of 1994. After six months they started throwing me into the deep end and I began assisting gigs. I worked a lot with Garth Richardson and also with Sylvia Massey. Then Rick Rubin came in to do the second and third Johnny Cash records that he was involved with, and my real break came in 1998, when Rick was producing the first System Of A Down album, which I engineered the basic tracking sessions for. I have continued working with Rick, and in the late ’90s and early ’00s I also worked a lot with Dave Sardy.”