The unsung production hero behind Fall Out Boy, described as "emo's first superstars", tells us how he shaped the lead single from 2007's smash hit album, Infinity On High.
Neal Avron is predominantly known for his work with hit parade-storming younger rock bands, among them Linkin Park, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, the Wallflowers, Plain White T's, Lifehouse, Yellowcard and Everclear. With a background as a musician, he has a predilection for working with live musicians and particularly with bands. Avron's work with Fall Out Boy is among his most successful. He engineered, produced, and mixed the band's third album, From Under The Cork Tree (2005), which went multiplatinum and put them in the arena league. Avron steered the follow-up Infinity On High (2007) to similar success. Three of the album's 14 tracks were produced by others, among them famously hiphop producer Babyface, but Avron produced the rest, including the album's first hit single, 'This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race', the subject of this article.
Work on the album began with six weeks of preproduction. "I am a big believer in preproduction," stresses Avron. "We rehearsed for a couple of weeks in Chicago, and the rest of the time we were at Swing House rehearsal studios in Los Angeles. The pre-production time included rehearsals and some writing, and working out all the sounds and arrangements. I also do very crude recordings of the preproduction sessions, as a reference in the studio."
Avron recorded all the tracks he produced on Infinity On High at The Pass studios in Los Angeles, which is based around a vintage Neve 8078 desk. The drums were recorded first, with singer/guitarist Patrick Stump playing and singing along, to add "the vibe and energy that comes from playing with someone else".
Avron began by getting the sounds right in the recording area. "The most essential ingredient to a drum recording is to have great-sounding drums. I use a drum tech, and we had a bunch of greatsounding kits, including Andy Hurley's own set, and we went through every song and decided which kick to use, and which toms, and which snare, and which hihat, and so on.
"All sound starts with the instrument and the player. Figuring that out first makes things a lot easer, because there isn't necessarily as much trickery necessary later on in the control room to make things happen. So when I put the mics up and go to the control room, I first and foremost try to get a great representation of what happened in the live room, listening to the close mics and the room mics together. I'll EQ as needed, but if I find that I'm turning knobs too much, I know that I have to start looking in other places: maybe the mics aren't right, or they're not placed correctly, or maybe the instrument is not sounding good."
The drums were recorded "to a 24track Studer A800, 30ips, no Dolby. The main reason for doing this is the sonic thing. Tape saturation does something to the transients of drums and percussion that to me is very warm and naturalsounding. I'm not doing it with bass or guitars or vocals, because they don't have the same peak information as drums. It's not to say that recording them to tape doesn't sound good, it's just that I find that that the drums benefit the most from being recorded on analogue tape. After we have recorded several takes, and I feel the drummer has done enough to nail a performance, whether a whole performance, or to edit one together from different takes, the drums are dumped into Pro Tools.
"I made notes while were recording Andy, deciding on the fly which sections of which takes were good, so I could give my Pro Tools guy a road map, saying something like 'Take the verse from this take and the chorus from that take,' and so on. I prefer to edit in large chunks. I'm not necessarily a believer in microediting drum tracks, unless we're trying to lock up the drums to a loop or a programmed groove Wherever possible I prefer to leave the original feel in there.
"I like to use Pro Tools as a tape recorder, and this is partly the result of me enjoying the music of the past, which was not edited to death and in many cases not even played to click track. When I listen to a Beatles or Rolling Stones track I don't say 'Listen to how out of time or tune that is.' Instead I just notice that it feels really good. So if you have good musicians playing, you should let them do their job. I'd rather have a performer play several takes than create a performance out of bits they've done. And I never listen to the click when I hear the drummer play. I'm not interested in how close he stays to the click, that's his job. My job is just to listen for when it feels great. Perfection is called for in certain types of music, but for me, it's not always so appealing."
Many engineers and producers like to get the rhythm section down first, and will often record drums and bass at the same time, or overdub the bass next. But Avron goes for rhythm guitars as the second step. "The drums are edited in Pro Tools, and of course, its editing facilities are undeniable. The Undo button is such an amazing and magical thing.
"Once the drums are edited, typically with rock songs I will record the rhythm guitars next. Over the years I've had issues with recording bass first, especially when someone is hitting the strings really hard. For me it's difficult to tell whether the bass is in tune, because the fundamental is so low. When laying the rhythm guitars down first, it's much easier to tell whether the bass is out of tune or not. It also means that the bass has a place to fit. In the 'Arms Race' track we did the heavy rhythm guitars in the choruses first, to get a sense of how distorted and loud they were going to be.
"Once we had enough rhythm guitars down, we put the bass guitar down, and after that we overdubbed other guitars and instruments. I really like to record the singer as early as possible. The moment we have enough music for him to actually sing to, I like to get him going. It's a good opportunity to get a few takes under their belt, and you either get a great take, or he can figure out what he likes and doesn't like, and have another shot at it later on.
"On 'Arms Race', after the guitars, the bass and the lead vocals, we recorded the rest of the vocal production, first what are called the 'BG' tracks in the Edit Window, and then the 'V' tracks, which were sung by Patrick in different accents and with different voices, falsettos, basses. He's an amazing singer. Finally there were the 13 tracks of group vocals at the end. Along the way we also recorded the keyboards, including a Hammond B3, and the intro is a synth with a guitar played with an Ebow and some pedals I was messing around with, among them a Fuzz Factory pedal, and ElectroHarmonix Micro Synth and Memory Man pedals.
"I am a firm believer in recording things the way I think they should sound in the final mix. I don't rely on the idea of recording everything flat and fixing things in the mix. To me, the sounds that are being generated are integral to the vibe of a song. If a song needs punchy drums, yet they have been recorded fairly loose-sounding, trying to figure out how all the other sounds are going to relate to them is going to be impossible. So for me, while recording, each sound has to really represent what we're hearing in our heads, and that means adding EQ, compression, pedals and other effects."
"Regarding the mics that I use, I always try and change them, but I have certain regulars that I go to," recalls Avron. "Starting with the drums, on 'Arms Race' the kick mic was probably a [Neumann] 47 FET on the outside, and there are about three or four different mics that I'll use on the inside. The snare is typically an SM57 on top, and if I mic the bottom, also a 57. For the hihat I may have used a [Neumann] KM84, for the ride cymbal also a KM84 or perhaps a [AKG] C451. I change the overheads all the time; in this case I recorded a mono overhead as well, probably using something like a [Neumann] U67 or an AKG C12. The 'far room' mic was probably [Neumann] U87 or AKG 414 or a 67, sometimes I use a C12. I really mix that up. I also had what I called a 'shit mic', a lowquality mono mic, just to see if it added an interesting vibe to the track.
"In the second Edit Window at the bottom you can see a sound called 'SK', which is a four-to-the-floor kickdrum sample that we used in the verses. It's a sound that comes from Patrick's original, pre-production demo, and it really drove the verse. It had a vibe, and we looked for some replacement kick-drum sounds, but none had the energy that this one had. So he gave it to me via a USB drive, and we loaded it into Pro Tools and programmed it. There's also 'DS', which is a shaker, and some other drum samples, one being like an 808. There's a mono track called 'D4' in the screenshot, which is the drum kit recorded with just one microphone, it may have been an ElectroVoice 666, and squashed pretty hard with a Neve compressor. This mono drum track was used in the breakdown section, where you hear only drums.
"On the first Edit Window you'll also see some drum samples, in this case a snare and a kick sample. Once we have the drum sound and the tuning that we like, I'll record kick and snare and tom samples from the kit, for a couple of reasons. Mainly, after each take the tuning of the drums will go out of whack, and the sample gives me a tuning reference. If the tuning changes during recording, the drum tech can use it as a reference to retune the drums. That way, while editing takes, it doesn't sound like the snare is changing pitch. The other thing is that if the drummer is playing a very fast pattern and can't quite keep the same velocity going in his attack, and the part won't quite cut through, I can change over to the sample for a few bars, to get a better level, with exactly the same sound. In general I try to take care to get the samples from the actual drum kit, and not use samples from elsewhere.
"I don't recall doing anything crazy when recording the drums for 'Arms Race'. I compressed the mono 'far room' probably 4:1, sometimes I'll do 2:1, and the shit mic was pumping pretty good too. I probably compressed the overhead just a tad, usually about 4:1. This was using the Neve desk; if it was outboard it would have been stuff that was built in the room. I love the Urei 1176 and the Neve compressors, like the 2264, 33264 and 33609. They all sound great. At Ocean Way they have some great Fairchilds and old RCA limiters, and if I'm working there, I'll use those. I'm not set on one piece of gear: whatever sounds great. Unless I'm looking for something in particular, I don't like to compress the drums too much, because I already use tape compression, and I don't want to flatten the transients."
"With regards to the guitars, like with the drums, we spent a lot of time getting them to sound great at source. We tested many different amplifiers and cabinets, as well as a bunch of different guitars, trying out whether we want humbuckers or singlecoil, etc. I tend to use an SM57 on the speaker cabinet and a Coles or Royer ribbon microphone. I might have had a Neumann U87 or a U67 mixed in as well. Usually I'll put up several different mics so I can choose the ones that give me the colour we're after. I would have used a compressor, probably the Neve 2254 compressor they have at The Pass, or perhaps a UREI, I'm not sure.
"For the bass, the mics I use range from the Electrovoice RE20, AKG D112, or Neumann 47 FET, U87, U67, sometimes a Sennheiser 421. For this track, it might have been a 47 FET or a U67, but I might have had an SM57 mixed in as well. I probably used the same compressors as for the guitar. I recorded Patrick's vocals with a U47 tube in most cases, a U67 in other places, and compressed with a Neve 33264, a Distressor or an 1176. The vocal compression is not so much about level adjusting as about the sound it gives, giving the vocal the right attitude so it sits better in the track. It may have been 4:1 or 6:1, perhaps even 8:1. Typically I'll hit the vocal pretty hard."
• Writers: Fall Out Boy • Producer: Neal Avron
Given the care Avron takes in recording his sounds, it comes as no surprise that he describes his mix process as mostly being about balancing, though he emphasises that "even in the cases where I haven't recorded a track, a big portion of my mix time is still dedicated to balance. Since I had recorded and produced 'This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race', I already had my vision for the track. Basically, the challenge in mixing it was twofold. The verses were all about the four-to-the-floor beats and the vocal production, while the guitars were treated like a loop: they are hypnotic and lodge in your brain and then you kind of forget about them. They become part of the fabric.
"What really sticks in your mind is this incessant beat coming from Patrick's kick sample, and his lyrics and his delivery of them. The choruses go into this big, fast rock movement, and the trick was to make the verses big and thumping, while the choruses are also huge, in their own way. The choruses are too fast to be big and thumping, so they had to be more aggressive in the midrange with the guitars and at the upper end of the drums. I knew that getting that balance right was the key to the song working.
"I know that this will sound oversimplified, but the key thing here really was balancing. It took a little while to work out how the choruses would sound, and then I backtracked to the verses to figure out where things would sit volumewise. There wasn't any guesswork or any crazy processing going on; all the sounds already worked in the way that they were intended to. You'll notice on the screenshots that the EQ settings are very minor. Yes, there are lots of plugins on the Edit window, but in many cases I'll already have set the EQ for the whole part on the desk, and the plugins then just work on a small section of the part."
The desk that Avron refers to is the 56input, 6056 SSL E/G series that's in Paramount Studio A in Hollywood. "I went there for the mix for a combination of reasons," explains Avron. "First of all, the recall ability of the SSL, and secondly, the sonics. Having compression on every channel, as well as a wellfunctioning fourband EQ makes things very easy. As I said before, I like things in front of me: it makes grabbing knobs easier and faster. I do still feel very comfortable mixing on a console.
"I do some submixing in Pro Tools, however: regardless of how many tracks are in the Pro Tools file, I usually mix down to 40 channels. The SSL has only 56 inputs anyway, and not all tracks have the same importance. I don't need to have those 13 group vocals separate, I prefer to mix them down to stereo for the end mix. Having fewer channels also makes the end mix more manageable. In the days when I was mixing Everclear records, I used 7080 channel desks and brought back every track individually. It was doable, but very cumbersome. Pro Tools gives me more flexibility, because the automation is great, I can change balances from section to section, or automate EQ settings, and as always there's this Undo button.
"With 'This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race' I worked my way up from the bottom to the top, starting with drums, then the bass and the guitars, until I had the rhythm section happening. I checked the vocals regularly, to see how they were holding up in comparison, and then finished the track working on them."
- Drums: SSL EQ & compression, McDSP Filterbank E6
"The 'G' that shows on the kick drum in the Edit Window is a gate; the '4' is probably an EQ, but I didn't use it; and the '6' is the McDSP Filterbank E6, which boosts the low end a little around 154Hz and takes out midrange around 400Hz, just to give it a bit more definition. I probably used very little outboard gear on the kick drum, perhaps just a little compression and EQ on the board. I hate to be boring, but I had already worked hard at getting exactly the sound I wanted during the recording process. I recorded all the other parts around the kick drum I wanted, so I knew that they also fit together. Mixing in this way becomes more like mastering, ie. finetuning rather than surgery. I muted the overheads and the room in the verses, so Andy's drums really blended in well with the sample kick, and it sounds like someone programmed the drums, rather than Andy playing along with a sample kick."
- Bass: McDSP Filterbank E6
"The bass had some touch-up EQ, again the Filterbank E6, just adding 1.5dB at 65Hz in the choruses. Once the guitars start pumping, the bass gets a little lost, so I just automated a little extra midrange to let the bass compete. It's a very subtle thing. You can see on the Edit Window that I recorded the bass DI, via a mic on the cabinet, and via a Sansamp. For the mix I combined these three and put them on one Aux track, and that came up on one fader on the console."
- Guitars: SSL EQ, McDSP Filterbank E6
"The only thing I would have done to the main rhythm guitars is some touchup EQ on the console. There's a hook guitar ('HGT') on which I applied a McDSP E6 to give some more definition, adding around 564 and 4k, to make it cut through better in certain areas. The bass and the drums in the verses are very bottomheavy, and when listening to the mix I felt that the hook guitars could be more defined."
- Keyboards: Digidesign Lofi, Focusrite EQ
"There's also hook keyboard ('HFX') that plays the same part as the hook guitar. The keyboard sounded so clean that I put it through a LoFi plugin to distort it and noise it up. I took it down to 6 bits and set the distortion to 11. The '4' on 'HFX' is a send, the 'L' is the LoFi and the '2' is a Focusrite EQ that had 0.5dB at 14k. The next plugin was a delay that split delays left and right, with a 4ms and a 23ms delay to help spread the keyboard."
- Lead vocals: McDSP Filterbank P4, Waves C4
"I used two McDSP Filterbank P4 plugins on the lead vocal comp, one on the verse and one on the chorus section. As before, they're both very subtle, and different, due to how Patrick is singing and what register he's singing in. In the verse he was singing in a more low register, so I wanted a little bit more top end on his voice to match it to the way it sounds in the choruses, so I boost at 8.4k. On the chorus I did very little. I also have a Waves C4 parametric processor on the lead vocals. This was an experiment, as I hadn't used that plugin a lot. There were a couple of places where things were getting a little abrasive in the upper midrange, so I tried doing multiband compression. It's only compressing, or lowering, those specific frequencies when he's going into that register. As for outboard on the lead vocal, I don't recall, I might have used a short room reverb, just to give it more size. Sometimes I'll use short delays, or harmonisation, to give more size. But overall this track was kept very dry, so it stays in your face."
- Backing vocals: Metric Halo Channel Strip, Digidesign Reverb One and Mod Delay II
"There are three elements here: Patrick's left and right answering vocals in the choruses ('LVH'), the funny voices he did ('LVXL'), and the group vocals. I had the Metric Halo Channel Strip on the lead vocal harmony, basically just a little bit of EQ to differentiate them and set them apart from the lead vocal. I took out a little bit of low end to make them sound a little thinner, and added a bit of midrange. I used the Reverb One on the six tracks on which he sang in all sorts of different voices. Its job is to set these vocals apart from the other ones. You can do that in all sorts of different ways — compression, EQ, panning — but in this case I chose reverb. As you can see, it's a short reverb, about half a second, with very short predelay. I put it on an insert of the group, and so it's set to 55 percent wet. Finally, there's the Digirack Mod Delay II on the stereo submix of the 13 group vocal tracks. Again, it shows you that there's not a lot of reverb on this track. There just wasn't much room for reverbs. For the group vocals I created space by using short delays. I think they're set to 16th notes. I either set delays right on the beat, or in the case of more moody, balladlike tracks, a little slow. I don't like delays that rush. In more vibey songs, a slightly behind the beat delay can make things sound a little bit more laidback."
Unusually, Neal Avron always records through the desk, in contrast to many modern engineers, who prefer outboard mic preamps. "I have an issue with the whole mic preamp situation," explains Avron. "I'm simply not fond of having a kick drum preamp on the left of my control room, a kick EQ behind me, and a compressor somewhere else again. I prefer to have everything in front of me, all EQs and faders and compression, on a desk. It means that I don't have to think about so many outboard boxes everywhere, and instead I have more space to listen to the sounds and focus on the music. I've listened to a lot of mic preamps, and there are differences, but I've found that by the time you get to mixing the music, there's going to be more EQing and compression and panning and whatever other treatments that shape the sound, so as long as the console has its own highquality mic preamps, the convenience of having everything in front of me far outweighs any sonic difference."