Recording a live heavy metal concert would be challenging enough — but when you throw an 80-piece orchestra into the mix, all bets are off!
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony are playing in front of 18,000 fans for the first of two S&M2 concerts, which are being recorded and filmed for a major release. Suddenly, during the first set, just into a song aptly called 'Confusion', Lars Ulrich's in-ear monitoring cuts out. Usually, that wouldn't be a problem — the drummer would simply pull out his in-ears and be able to hear what's going on. But not this time. There are no regular monitors, no amps, nothing generating sonic clues on the stage, which has been specially designed in the round for S&M2 to accommodate band and orchestra in as uncluttered a layout as possible. About all Lars can hear is the slapback of the PA in this very big room, which is not helpful.
And now there's a problem. In the recording trucks, it's clear that something went wrong in 'Confusion', and the crew know they have one last opportunity to record a good performance of the song during the second concert. Responsibility for ensuring this happens falls to Greg Fidelman, the producer of the S&M2 concert recordings. Greg has been Metallica's go-to guy for all things audio related since he came on board as engineer and mixer of the Death Magnetic album in 2008. He's also worked with Slipknot, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Slayer, among many others.
Greg decides that on night two, he will have to make an on-the-spot judgement of the performance as it goes down. Then, with 'Confusion' played, the band will take an extra 60 to 90 seconds pause between songs while Greg gives them his decision. And if it's a no, they'll immediately play the song again. "That was probably the most nerve-wracking part of the show for me," Greg recalls. "It was like: 'Come on guys! You're almost there!' But there were no mistakes on that second night," he adds, relieved, "and I told them to go ahead with the rest of the set."
It's not hard to imagine how stressful that must have been. But the entire event was a massively complex undertaking, not least because it involved an 80-piece orchestra, two conductors, a large recording crew, and a band who, luckily, Greg had good experience of recording live as well as in the studio.
"This particular job was probably the most interesting thing I've done since I started doing this work," he says. "It was super challenging and incredibly difficult, but I like that — that was the thing about it I liked the most. I learned more in the months before and after the concerts than I've learned in any given year since I started. Yes, it was hard and it was stressful, but it was also exciting. And I made good friends in other genres of music, people I probably wouldn't even have access to meeting normally. As far as the gigs go on my top 10, this one is definitely right up there."
It all began for Greg in late January 2019 when Lars called him to talk about a 20th anniversary S&M event. The first one had taken place over two nights in April 1999 at Berkeley Community Theatre, featuring Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony and billed as Symphony & Metallica (S&M). That original project had been a brave and, as it turned out, successful merging of metal and classical.
Now the band wanted to do it again, but in typical Metallica fashion it would be bigger and better this time. They would collaborate with the same orchestra, and these first discussions centred on how to incorporate some of the band's newer songs and deciding which songs to use again from the first S&M project — now referred to as S&M1. As with S&M1, a major component would be to record and film the concerts for release. For S&M2, this was at first intended to be an exclusive one-day-only worldwide cinema release, but later it was widened to include CD, vinyl, streaming and DVD/home-theatre versions.
"I don't think anybody has a lot of experience doing this kind of thing," Greg says of the metal-orchestral amalgamation, "because it just doesn't happen very often. So there are no experts to rely on. That being said, we got lucky, in that the San Francisco Symphony's music director and conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who's awesome and obviously ridiculously talented, is also surprisingly open-minded and embracing of all things Metallica. He connected us with Edwin Outwater, who ended up conducting the majority of the show, and Bruce Coughlin, who did the newer arrangements. I don't know a lot of people in the world of orchestras and classical music, but I can't imagine there being another two individuals better suited for this gig. They were both tremendous to work with and really great collaborators. I know from other experience I've had that when you bring rock and classical musicians together, it's not always the most comfortable or natural thing. The worlds are different."
A lot had changed technically since S&M1 was recorded back in 1999, but Greg gained much from talking to some of the team from that earlier project, and also he went back and listened to the '99 master tapes. "I wanted to hear what the bleed was going to be like, for instance, because I was concerned about the bleed in the orchestral mics. When is it so bad that you're in trouble? What little amount of it is OK and you're not in trouble? I needed to understand and be able to gauge that sort of stuff. And the S&M2 shows were in the round, which complicates bleed. The orchestra was broken into four segments surrounding the band in the centre, so now you've got bleed coming from 360 degrees around you as opposed to just the front in a normal live setup."
Another aspect borrowed from S&M1 was to have two recording trucks at the event, with one dedicated to the orchestra and the other to the band. This made good practical sense, with each team able to focus on the specific requirements for capturing their part of the performance. As the plans developed, meetings were held that included Greg as overall audio producer, along with John Harris from M&K Sound, who provided the Music Mix Mobile (M3) trucks; Metallica's front-of-house main man Big Mick Hughes; San Francisco Symphony's sound reinforcement team of Hal Soogian and Jon Johannsen; and the video director and producer Wayne Isham and Dana Marshall.
The setlists began to take shape, too. Some songs would use the 1999 orchestral arrangements by Michael Kamen, while Bruce Coughlin began to consider the new ones. "Once the band and I had picked the songs, I sent them off to Bruce," Greg says, "and he would start to send us mockups of the arrangements he was doing. These would be live versions I sent Bruce from the archive of Metallica playing the song, plus his little orchestral mockup. Then the band, Bruce, the conductor Edwin Outwater and I would listen to each one critically. The band would come back with comments, I would work with Bruce and Edwin, and we would go through some of the things we liked about each one and any of the things we might want to be different, or better, or whatever."
Greg's recollection is that Bruce rewrote the intro to 'Enter Sandman' half a dozen times. "I remember saying to Bruce, this is the most iconic 60 seconds of heavy metal music. It's the most recognisable, it's up there with 'Smoke On The Water'. People hear this, and everybody knows what it is by the third note. This is a little bit subjective I suppose," he says with a smile, "but to me it's as close to a masterpiece of an intro to a heavy metal song as you can get. And so the orchestral part has to completely get out of the way — but then what's the point? So the trick is how to do more but not step on it. At one point I was apologising to Bruce — 'do it one more time!' — but he was so gracious. We would say, 'Oh, it feels not serious enough, but we don't want it to be scary, we don't want it to sound like it's a horror film, either. But we don't want it to sound light and joyful either. How do we get the vibe right and also make it an interesting thing to listen to?' In the end, he nailed it. It's one of my favourite parts of all the new scores."
Recording and live crews were in place, new arrangements were written, staging was built, and concert design was under way. The next step was rehearsals. The concerts were set for September 6th and 8th 2019 as the inaugural events in a brand‑new venue: Chase Center, a big arena in the San Francisco Bay Area and home to the Golden State Warriors basketball team. And as the arena was still not fully completed, rehearsals for S&M2 necessarily took place elsewhere, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, a few miles from the Chase Center location.
With so many people involved, staging two rehearsals was itself a major undertaking, and while it wasn't at the concert venue, the in-the-round stage was ready to use, and the recording trucks were brought in — though not actually recording because of union restrictions. "The whole idea was to set everything up, to make sure everything works," Greg recalls, "to figure out what's working and what's not. We didn't have as many rehearsals as I would have liked, but those two proved to be extremely handy."
The decision had already been made to have no monitors of any kind on the stage, primarily because of concerns about bleed in the orchestral mics for the recording. This meant that the only way to hear properly and accurately what was going on was through in-ears and headphones. So no vocal wedges, no sidefills, nothing.
There were a few items on stage that looked like PA wedges, but in fact these had artist-facing teleprompter-style screens. "James sometimes has key lyric things on them, but here it had more to do with the fact we didn't have many rehearsals with the orchestra," Greg says. "So, for instance, when we were doing 'Outlaw Torn', the little screen would say something like 'Outlaw Torn, Lars 8 count for entrance', these little cues to help. For S&M2, the band had to change the way they would normally start and stop songs, so that they could be in sync with the orchestra. They're just so used to doing things live a certain way, but for this they had to break those habits. So the screens would tell them, OK, you're going to pause here, and everyone's going to look at Edwin, the conductor, and when you know everyone has eye contact, Lars will do his eight beats, and the song starts. That way, everyone was always on the same page. More than actually playing the songs, we probably spent more time at rehearsals on that, making sure the starts and the stops were clean — and especially the starts."
Later, in addition to the two Cow Palace run-throughs, there was a two-hour dress rehearsal during the afternoon of the first show, and this one was recorded. Understandably, the band wouldn't play much before a show, especially James, who would hardly want to sing for two hours. They played two or three songs and then left, but Greg had made guide tracks of all the songs, again drawn from the band's archive of live performances, and built clicks to go with them. This meant they could run whatever they needed with the orchestra at the dress rehearsal.
Fortunately, the acoustic of the Chase Center turned out to be acceptable. Greg admits it was one of the scary factors, playing the first shows in a new venue where no one has played live music before, let alone something like these two adventurous metal-meets-classical shows. "Yes," he agrees with a smile, "it was a little scary. That being said, we were probably a little bit lucky. For a venue of its size, I would say it didn't have any nasty ambience at the top end like you might expect. Right up at the very top end was a little kind of nutty, but there wasn't any of the hard slapback echoes or stuff you sometimes have to deal with. It was pretty good."
It was super challenging and incredibly difficult, but that was the thing about it I liked the most. I learned more in the months before and after the concerts than I've learned in any given year since I started.
When it came to the concerts themselves, Greg was confident that he knew how to record the band. He'd worked on several DVD projects, including the live soundtrack of Metallica's 2013 movie Through The Never, but also he's overseen the band's habit of recording and mixing every live show, many of which go to their livemetallica.com site. "I'm plugged into what the band does live and how to record that," he says, "as well as knowing the people that are with them when they're live, people that can help me record, people that do front-of-house — I know all the people in the camp, and that's a great help."
The concerts required some 130 mics, ranging from a large number of DPA 4061s and 4099s for the orchestral strings, as well as more 4061s for Lars's toms and cymbals, through to choices made specifically for this event, such as a pair of Violet Design Amethyst Vintage mics for room overheads. "I love those," Greg reports. "We have many at the Metallica studio, and I own a pair myself. They're very good — they pick up just enough ambience where they don't sound stuffy, but they're not really noisy, especially in a venue like the Chase Center."
Metallica's customary no-amplifier staging helped them aim for a super-tidy setup at S&M2, using Fractal Axe‑FX processors for James Hetfield's and Kirk Hammett's guitars and for Robert Trujillo's bass, rather than physical amplifiers. "I also grabbed a clean DI from them, so I could amend those sounds if I wanted," Greg says.
Rehearsals had again proved useful in highlighting particular requirements, for instance revealing the necessity to consider carefully the orchestral tympani, because several songs featured the tymps as key features. "I kept stressing to the orchestral truck how much garbage was coming through on those tympani mics," Greg recalls. "I wanted the tympani to be really loud, and if there was that much bleed, I was probably going to be in trouble. So I said could they please make sure the tympani is really loud but won't mess up the mix — and we changed the mics on the tympani several times. We ended up with some not-super-hi-fi Shure dynamic mics really close to the tympani, a very different scenario than I would normally use. But I would prefer loud with a little less fidelity. Rather that than better fidelity but with a bunch of PA garbage all over it, and where I couldn't make it as loud as I wanted to. And it worked out great! I thought the tymps ended up sounding really good."
As well as the recording crew in the trucks, one engineer had a specific job that arose after a problem became apparent at rehearsals. Greg explains: "I work with Sara Killion all the time — she's been on every Metallica project I've ever worked on — and at S&M2 she was making a band mix for the orchestral headphones. After the first Cow Palace rehearsal, we realised that people's ability to hear what they wanted to hear was not working as we'd expected. So we created this extra little Pro Tools rig, where the mic feeds we sent to front-of-house went to her as well. She then balanced them and sent out to the orchestra truck a drum stem, a bass stem, and so on. The Metallica guys all had their normal monitor engineers doing their in-ears, and as the flip of what Sara was doing, they got an orchestral set of stems that were coming from the orchestra truck."
With the concerts recorded, you might imagine everyone relaxed after all that hard work. No such luck. The date for the movie presentation of S&M2 — "for one night only in movie theatres around the world" — was only a month or so after the concerts themselves. This meant Greg and his crew — Jim Monti, Sara Killion, Billy Joe Bowers, Jason Gossman, Dan Monti, plus Metallica's house engineer Kent Matcke — had just nine days from the second show to turn in their final mix.
"What we had to do was insane," Greg recalls, shaking his head at the memory. "We literally went from the gig to the band's HQ studio, also in the Bay Area. There we were, at 2 o'clock or whatever the following morning, immediately going through stuff. We knew we had no time, so we had to pick at least three songs from the first night that we thought were really, really good, and start work on them straight away. We had to jump on it, almost a 24/7 operation."
They created several editing areas at HQ: one in the main control room, plus a further makeshift control room with 5.1 facilities, and two more rooms in the building ready for stereo editing. "Billy Bowers dealt only with the orchestral elements for all the songs, and my other guys got songs assigned to them," Greg says. "We simply didn't have time to go through 101 individual orchestra tracks, so we decided to use Jay Vicari's stems. Jay had been the main guy in the orchestral truck, and he had the tricky job of dealing with the one-to-one orchestra recording and sending orchestra stems to me in the band truck, so that I just had a couple of faders for orchestra. So now we used those, unless there was something really wrong with them — but I believe there was only one occasion when I asked Billy to go to the multi for the movie mix."
The movie director Wayne Isham and his team had a similarly uphill battle to meet the nine-day deadline. "I don't think nine days was enough for them to even watch all the footage from every camera," Greg says. "So they, too, had to be fast and furious with their editing. The other super-stressful thing during the mix came when we went to a movie theatre setting, because I knew we needed to hear the 5.1 in its intended setting, rather than in the control room at HQ."
Following what Greg describes as "a kind of funky technical evening" at the studio, the playback at the theatre did indeed push up the stress levels still further. "We had all kinds of sync issues in certain parts of the film," Greg remembers, "which are not that hard to fix, but they're time-consuming to fix. By this stage, we knew we had 20 hours left to work on it, and after the theatre viewing we calculated we had 50 hours of work to do. So it was a matter of deciding which 30 hours of work we were not going to be able to do."
They pulled it off, of course, fixing as much as could possibly have been fixed. "We had to leave some of the edges raw," Greg says, "that was just the nature of it. The final day, I left it printing with two of my editing team. I said I have to lie down, I'm going to faint — but I don't want to print this without somebody watching and listening, just in case there's a hiccup. Because once this is printed and sent off, it's too late. I went home, slept for two hours, came back, and they told me everything went fine. We did a little spot check for a couple other things, and basically buttoned it up."
The band had to change the way they would normally start and stop songs, so that they could be in sync with the orchestra. They're just so used to doing things live a certain way, but for this they had to break those habits.
With that marathon out of the way, the now suitably refreshed team turned their attention to stereo mixes for vinyl, CD and streaming. With more relaxed deadlines, this meant they had time to prepare and consolidate the material available. For example, the guys focussing on the Symphony elements could mute mics when instruments or sections weren't playing, losing any bleed on the individual mics, which all along had been the biggest issue with the orchestra.
"My band guys were doing a similar thing," Greg says, "muting the toms or the cymbals where necessary, but always leaving the overheads open. The individual spot mics on the cymbals sometimes sound better when they're either muted, or at least almost gated — but it's so hard to set a gate, even on toms on Lars's drum set. If you get 70 percent of what you want out of a gate, you're lucky. So I would have the guy solo the toms, and go through and automate the gate to close — except where he hits the drums. So, there's a drum hit, the threshold drops so the gate pops through, and then the threshold goes all the way back up as soon as the hit's done. Then when I'm mixing I can simply adjust how much of the bleed I want to get rid of. It's rare I mute it completely, because I like a little bit of the sound of the drum set going on in the tom mics, but way too much cymbal bleed to leave them completely open."
When a Kirk Hammett guitar solo came up, Greg would go to a different set of tracks so that he could EQ and do different effects treatments where necessary. And the same thing when Kirk and James were playing clean guitars: he would break them off to a separate set of tracks so that, for example, he could change the panning and EQ. Another piece of preparatory work they were able to do before the final mix was to make vocal comps for each band member — because there were nine vocal mics on stage, and who sang when into which of them was not planned, but rather at the whim of the performers.
Metallica and the orchestra are all seasoned musicians, so there weren't too many mistakes to fix. Greg and his team had the two shows to draw upon, of course, and naturally there were some composites made using parts of night one here and night two there. They also had what orchestral people call a patch session, from the afternoon of the second show, which was a recording of orchestra only.
"On that patch session, we had run a couple of things I was concerned about from the first concert," Greg recalls. "For instance, 'Moth Into Flame' was a little bit rough, and there were a couple of other spots where I felt like the orchestra had gotten off from each other or off from the band, so we hit those things. Because the patch recordings were more isolated — there was no audience, we didn't have the PA on, and the band wasn't playing — I used them for a couple of the more intimate solo-y orchestral elements, most often putting them into the mix to go alongside the show recording rather than actually replacing anything. All of this was just trying to make it sound as great as I could."
With the stereo mixes completed for the CD and so on, work shifted to a DVD/home-theatre mix, with the video element re-edited compared to the movie version. "When the visuals change, two things happen to my world," Greg says. "The actual length of some things might change, so in-between songs might be altered. But there's also the possibility of a performance change here or there. For instance, they might say they have this amazing long swooping shot at the end of a particular chorus. But we were using night one and this is from night two, and you can see James on the mic and it's not in sync. So would it work if we cut? There weren't too many instances of that kind of thing, though, and in fact none were too awkward or too complicated for me to accommodate."
Greg says it's been astonishing how many different lives the S&M2 event has had: the original two arena shows themselves, and then the one-off Trafalgar movie theatre presentation (actually shown for two nights only in October 2019), and the CD, vinyl, streaming and DVD versions, all due for release during the coming months in 2020.
An interesting footnote is that S&M2 marked not only the 20th anniversary of the original Symphony & Metallica project, but also the 50th anniversary of the first attempt to record a live collaboration between a metal band and a classical ensemble: Concerto For Group And Orchestra, the concert with Deep Purple and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded at London's Albert Hall back in September 1969.
Greg concludes that S&M2 was a remarkable event, in all its guises. "For me, being able to work on it with people of such a high calibre in such different worlds to what I'm used to, and to come out with something I'm truly proud of, was the most challenging thing and also the most rewarding. One of the things that's great about working with Metallica is that they put you into these opportunities where you can do something that's so insane — like putting a band with a full A-list orchestra in a brand-new venue, in the round, and film it, and mix it for release in all these formats. And in the process, they create something that is the best it could ever be."