In this three-part series, we follow the painstaking production of a metal album, all the way from rehearsals to release.
This is the first in a series of three articles which deconstruct and explain the processes involved in a modern metal production. Providing this style of music with maximum sonic impact — the desired balance between ‘heaviness’ and ‘clarity’ — requires that numerous challenges be overcome. I discussed this in general terms in my SOS November and December 2009 articles (free to view at www.soundonsound.com/techniques/extreme-metal and www.soundonsound.com/techniques/mixing-metal). This time, I hope to reveal even more about this demanding genre by discussing my production of the Damnation’s Hammer album Unseen Planets, Deadly Spheres.
I’ll start this month by covering the planning and pre-production, before moving on to the studio recording sessions in part two. In the final installment, I’ll explore all things post-production, focusing on the mixing and mastering. Hopefully, by following this project from inception to completion, you’ll get a good feel for how you might best approach a modern metal project — or, in fact, any other guitar-based production, because while metal has its own unique sound and demands, most of the techniques and decisions involved are relevant to other genres.
The world’s best-produced metal albums feature the most emotionally charged sounds and performances, and they involve meticulous planning during pre-production. In rare instances, bands take care of pre-production themselves, and your involvement as producer at this stage may be minimal. But it’s far more usual — and effective — for a producer to play a significant role in a band’s pre-production, as in this project.
If I had to choose three qualities that best sum up the sound and performance approach of Damnation’s Hammer, they’d be ‘heaviness’, ‘heaviness’ and ‘heaviness’, in that order. This involves doom through to thrash influences, entwined with avante-garde ’80s metal, less-than-conventional time signatures, and sections featuring dark effects-based atmospherics. When founding member Tim Preston initially contacted me, it became clear that the band were seeking to convey this sound via a powerful, loud and clear production — which was fortunate, since I tend to loathe lo-fi metal productions! It was apparent, through their references to other productions with a very natural/organic vibe, that they also desired a comparatively unprocessed, warm-sounding album. As we were reading off the same battle-hymn sheet, my thoughts turned quickly to pre-production: a critical yet vastly undervalued stage of a successful metal project.
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