It may come as a surprise to Gear Gods readers that some of the hardest, most rockin’ LPs of the last few years have passed through Portland, a city known more to the rest of the country as the hipster-haven inspiration for Portlandia, or as that place that John Oliver recently described as full of “stupid f**cking idiots.”
Well get rocked, John Oliver. Because in addition to bumbling $250 million of taxpayer money for its healthcare reform, Oregon can also lay claim to hosting one of the top heavy metal mastering studios in the country, Audiosiege Engineering. Helmed by From Ashes Rise stringslayer Brad Boatright, Audiosiege has grown from a home studio into a recording, mixing, and mastering force to be reckoned with. Brad has worked on some of the most smokin’, well received heavy metal and hardcore albums of the 2010’s; Nails, Beastmilk, Noisem, Vallenfyre, All Pigs Must Die, Iron Reagan, Baptists, High on Fire, Oathbreaker, Sleep’s Dopesmoker reissue, and OFF! are all notches on Audiosiege’s belt. That’s a client list that looks almost as good as Matthew McConaughey’s resume.
In May 2013, after three years of steady output and growth, Audiosiege relocated to the formerly unoccupied mastering room of Falcon Recording Studios, and brought on Toxic Holocaust’s golden boy, Joel Grind, to man its new recording and mixing business. I don’t know about you guys, but I sleep easier knowing that the dudes who helped make that Nails record are doing real good. I spoke to Brad and Joel about the new breed of musician-engineers, nailing metal recordings that sound organic as well as polished, and how they manage to stay so raw.
How did you get into the recording arts? Were there any engineers or producers that influenced you to want to explore what was behind the boards?
I think I’ve always been attracted to the technical and situational details that surround records and the recording process, and a lot of this has to do with just growing up listening to punk and metal records. Fringe genres are responsible – for better or worse – for a massive variety of sounds over the last several decades. When I was just discovering punk, hardcore, and metal, I worried less about how it sounded and just wanted to feel it. I wanted to feel the rage and passion contained in the grooves because I could relate to it. I wanted it to take me somewhere where I didn’t have to worry. So sound was secondary to music. But later on, as I developed a relationship with the music, I began to find it fascinating that so many records could have so many different sounds, and began to learn that sonics and material could be interactive to transform a record. It wasn’t until I experienced the recording process that I realized that there were limitations in place at the time that many albums I’d consider big influences were recorded. I’ve worn out records that were recorded by engineers who had no idea what to do with a punk band, just as I have with great sounding records that had everything in place. As much as I wanted to play guitar and scream my lungs out, I also wanted to be a part of the capturing and manipulation of sound. I enrolled in recording school in the mid 90’s to find it severely crowded, and I started a band, went on tours, recorded a bunch of records, and learned all I could throughout the process.
You’ve mastered a lot of Kurt Ballou’s recordings – Nails’ Abandon All Life, Beastmilk’s Climax, All Pigs Must Die’s Nothing Violates this Nature, Baptists’ Bushcraft, and more. I think it’s fair to say that there is a certain stylistic “force-field” between your and Kurt’s releases. What do you think it is about the two of you that makes for such symmetry of recordings – is it sensibilities, tastes, technologies, workflow, or magic?
Well first of all, I don’t want to take any credit away from Kurt or the artists. While my sonic fingerprint might be on them, GodCity and the bands are the main reason those records sound so good. He and I started working together frequently with Bushcraft, which I believe was late Summer or Fall of 2012, after Greg Anderson from Southern Lord recommended me for mastering. Kurt’s great to work with, and his talent is off the charts. When multiple engineers are involved in a project, their relationship and connection is just as important as the relationship and connections between pieces of gear in the studio, and I’ve learned a lot and become a better mastering engineer in working with him. Both of us have a deep-rooted relationship with the kind of music we work with, so naturally we’re both able to communicate well and work from within the sounds to realize the band’s vision. I think the combination is less about gear or workflow and more about communication and understanding. One thing I love about what I do is developing relationships with engineers from all over the world, and the same can be said about every one of them. We all learn from each other, and learn to anticipate each other’s moves and requests. I swear I can even get an idea of what a recording engineer’s mixing room sounds like from working on multiple recordings from the studio!
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Audiosiege was not equipped for tracking or mixing until last year. Was the decision to expand the studio made in tandem with bringing Joel on board?
No it wasn’t. I was working in a mastering room built in the basement of my house until May of last year, when we moved into the mastering room at Falcon Recording Studios, which had been unoccupied since the 90’s. Stan Wright has Buzz or Howl Studio across the hall so Joel records most tracks there. Joel wrote me while he was living in LA to ask about possible studio spaces in Portland, since at the time he was considering moving back and it was just a case of perfect timing.
Can you take us briefly through your workflow – if there are any pieces of gear you’d like to highlight, techniques that you use, ideologies that you align yourself with?
Every recording is different, as is every piece of music and the vision of every artist who created it. I’ve learned that it’s important to remember that I’m working with music, not gear, and to respect the signal above all. The pieces of gear are just tools used to achieve results, and understanding the characteristics of each piece and how it reacts to certain signals is critical. For example, I might try three or four different compressors on a mix because each one will do different things sonically, but a familiarity with each piece and its sonic footprint has to be there to avoid making excessive lateral moves and getting aural fatigue. Workflow is incredibly important because too long on something and the ears can start playing some pretty dubious tricks. I try to start out by listening to the music to get an idea of where the band is coming from stylistically, and I’ll listen for things that stand out that can be enhanced and sweetened or things that need corrective adjustments. I can usually get a pretty good understanding of the limitations of the mix after a first listen and go from there. So much of mastering is bandwidth and sonic space-musical energy has already been captured and mixed and it’s about optimizing this energy for a mix to become a song, and songs to become an album.
Communication with the band is huge though, and that’s make or break territory. I can listen to the music and twist knobs all day long but if I’m not listening to the wishes of the band or the producer then my effort is wasted. I get excited when I get to do a few passes on a mastering job because then I know I’m working with the artist, and we are communicating properly. With extreme music, you can often have components of the sound that to untrained or unfamiliar ears might sound “wrong”, but the band intended on having them there. I approach mastering like it’s a custom-fit thing. I’m making the adjustments but it’s the band’s name on the front of the record. Every day I have to tell myself that the album I’m working on is not just a job for me to do – it’s result of someone’s passion, creativity, and hard work. I have a very holistic approach to it.
As for gear, I use a hybrid analog/digital setup and I have to put an emphasis on ease of recall, since most of the bands I work with live thousands of miles away. Plugins and hardware with stepped controls help give me that. The sound of modern software based processing is insane. It’s come a really long way. There are dozens of masters that I’ve done that never left the box and didn’t have me wishing they went analog at all. The plugins from UAD, Slate, DMG, and Fabfilter are all really good and get a lot of use. I like the Elysia stuff, Dave Hill Designs Titans, and a 70’s Auditronics EQ that’s become a bit of a secret weapon for me lately.
What do you think goes into good mastering?
Primarily, I think a good mastering job is all about the approach to the material. It’s not about how someone used compression or EQ, or how loud the record is, or how dynamic a record is. It’s what they did to the music, and it varies from album to album. Secondly, does it turn up well? Does it sound good in the car and at home? Is it fun to listen to? Good mastering can also help make a record one that you want to play over and over without feeling like your ears need a rest-even with heavy music.
I’ve noticed that in your masters, you always achieve this incredible balance of heavy, deep low end on the bass, toms, and drums, while not sacrificing the attack of those instruments. Can you say a little bit about how you go about achieving that?
Thanks! A lot of it just has to do with different approaches to different frequency bands and parts of the stereo spectrum, as well as use of compression. I’m sensitive to pumping so I try not to over compress too much, although admittedly I sometimes will get carried away – especially if I’m really getting into something. I almost never compress the entire frequency range. I’ll pick a crossover point – on a well balanced mix it’ll usually be right above the kick-and compress above it while using a little more saturation below it. I use saturation and distortion a lot on heavy music. The saturation can keep the low end tamed but full, while adding harmonics to the midrange. Care has to be taken to keep things from getting muddy so saturation has to interact with EQ and compression. Mid/side processing helps keep it focused on the kick and bass guitar. Compression on almost everything I do is cumulative too. I’ll hardly ever go past a 2:1 ratio or do more than 2-3 dB of gain reduction on a single unit, but I might use a couple different compressors at different points in the signal chain, usually blended in parallel with an unprocessed/uncompressed signal.
Your masters stand out from the more polished, “flat,” so to speak, mastering jobs in metal, without sounding dated, aged, vintage, retro, etc. How do you balance the rawness with the “sleekness” of modern digital recording techniques?
A lot of that probably comes from being weened on records that didn’t have modern mastering jobs and, in effect, retained a bit of that rawness. When I started doing this it approached EQ like I was EQ’ing a guitar amp and I like a lot of mids in my guitar sound. I’ll try to keep from scooping things too much or thinning things out too much. A lot of modern mastering achieves loudness by thinning out the frequencies that occupy the most space, and some of those frequencies can be resonant or mask things, but I’ve found that they can add a certain character to the material as well, or in some cases keep the band sounding natural. I’d rather have a more dynamic, natural sounding master than one with off the charts loudness that has been overly thinned out. I like using dynamic EQ a lot. For instance, if there’s low end masking from stray bass notes, I set the threshold on a dynamic EQ to just cut when it reaches a retain intensity instead of a static notch that’s always cutting. If there’s a three note bass riff with each note masking the mids and upper mids, I’ll even use three different frequencies on the dynamic EQ – one for each note. Same goes for toms that get splatty. Crazy stuff that no one should try at home really.
How much does your process differ among bands of similar styles, but vastly different textures and sonic missions? I’m thinking in particular, for point of contrast, Bushcraft and Abandon All Life. Both are pretty punishing records, but for example, there is a plethora of depth in the guitar tones on the Nails record, where to me the focus of the Baptists record is directed more towards rhythmic interplay, percussiveness, and groove.
It differs a lot actually, especially when the mixes or engineers are different. The process always starts the same-listening for things to correct and things to sweeten, then figuring out a balance between the two along the way. From there it’s always a whole new ball game that depends on the music as much as the recording.
For plenty of musicians, mastering is a mysterious process. Sometimes it’s even a controversial one – the whole “loudness war” was really not that long ago (maybe we’re still in it? who knows!). After nearly a decade of being a professional mastering engineer, is it any clearer to you why this practice is shrouded in mystique?
Maybe because it’s working mostly with stereo tracks and the instruments are already mixed? I don’t really know why it’s shrouded in mystique but a majority of musicians and engineers work mostly with getting instruments to work together in a recording and mixing environment, and I work on optimizing the recording for the inside out. I guess that could be alien to some people. Another thing is plugin presets. You’ll have a plugin or plugin suite with dedicated “mastering” presets so instead of using them as staring points or examples, you’ll get people who run a mix through a preset and call it mastered without knowing what the hell happened. “It’s louder so it sounds better”… Sure, but you used the “EDM low end” on an already bass heavy mix preset and you’re listening on laptop speakers. Take the human element out of any process and all of a sudden it’s “shrouded in mystique.”
I’ve spoken with Colin Marston at length about the “problems” with recording metal – loud cymbals are difficult to make sound good with thud-y drums, distorted guitars introduce all sorts of EQ and compression problems, etc. – are there any things you would advise bands and/or recording engineers to be more aware of when they’re putting their music to tape? Or are these “problems” with making metal records simply the nature of the beast?
Try to nail the performance and have good sounds going in. If the tracking is good, often times the mixing will go smoothly, and the mastering after that. Always fix it at the stage you are in currently, and don’t leave anything for the next stage. With heavy music there’s sometimes a need to go louder and louder, so you can end up with a mix that’s slammed or overly compressed, or like you said guitars that aren’t EQ’d very well. I’m getting fewer and fewer slammed mixes these days, which is great, but I still often encounter problems that are the result of bad monitoring environments or phase issues caused by latency in guitars – reamping can cause that if you’re not careful. Basically, you’ve just got to be smarter than what you’re working with.
Both you and Joel are active musicians as well as engineers and producers. How do you feel about the role of musicians who engineer / engineers who are musicians in the future of heavy music recording, mixing, mastering?
I think it’s increasing and it’s great to a certain extent. Look at a lot of hardcore records that came out in the 80’s – there are a few that could have sounded a lot better had they had someone who understood the music recording them. There’s a lot of DIY and practice space recording these days that actually surprises me, and a lot that sounds like a DIY or practice space recording. Recording tools of decent quality are more accessible than they’ve ever been and $100 plugins sound pretty damn good right now. If an engineer knows the music and has experience with it, good things can happen.
Thanks for your time, Brad! Anything else you’d like to add, promote, highlight, that I missed? New bands that you’ve worked with that we should know about? The best place to get a sandwich in Portland?
Well, I’m lucky to have worked with a lot of great bands this year and to not list every one of them here would be unfair. Check out our discography list if you want to hear some killer bands, and keep track of our Facebook and Twitter posts since I frequently post links to the bands I’m working on.
Touring when you want to, making Toxic albums when you’re ready to, and recording other bands in the meantime – is this the dream?
It really is. Music has been my life ever since I can remember and I’ve worked really hard to get where I am. It’s been a labor of love through the entire journey.
Brad magically whisked you away to Portland to become the recording and mixing engineer at Audiosiege. Can you fill us in on how you guys came to work together?
This couldn’t have happened at a better time. I was at a stage in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do next when Brad mentioned me working with him at Audiosiege. I lived in Portland in the past but moved away to Los Angeles for a brief time for a job down there. That didn’t quite work out according to plan and I’ve known Brad in the past from playing with his band. Our mutual friend Greg got me back in touch with Brad and it kind of went from there.
What kind of experience did you have in recording studios outside of your own projects – did you work in any other studios, go to school for audio, intern for someone cool, wash dishes for a big-name producer? Or are you entirely self-taught?
To be honest, being around the studio life through Toxic Holocaust throughout the years made me learn so much – things that reading about or going to school can’t really teach. I think the most important thing is just submersing yourself in it and paying close attention to everything going on around you.
How have your roles as songwriter, engineer for your own projects, and engineer for other projects influenced one another? Do you have different engineering ideologies for Toxic and for Audiosiege clients?
I think that for my own projects knowing the engineering side of thing helps a lot because when I hear a sound in my head I know how to get it or at least what things to try out to get in the ballpark. For Audiosiege clients I like to ask the band a lot of questions first. I ask them about what records they are fans of and what sounds or feel they are trying to convey, then I try to capture that. It can be a challenge sometimes, but by making me try different methods that I wouldn’t think about or try normally it can be a new learning opportunity. There are really no right or wrong ways to do anything involving music: playing or production, it’s a creative process. People sometimes forget that.
Is the Venom album that has the best music also the Venom album that has the best production?
Well… I guess it depends on what you like. I’m a fan of super raw and lo-fi as well as big production and slick stuff. It all comes down to what fits the music. My favorite Venom is Welcome to Hell but I could never imagine (or want) it to be super polished or slick. I can record or mix things super clean or super blown out and raw, it all depends on what the band wants and what fits the music best.
One of the things I find rad about Chemistry of Consciousness, and really all of Toxic’s records, is that the raw, grindy voice of the music always comes through, without the production feeling at all retro. Can you talk a bit about any different recording, mixing, or mastering approaches you guys took this time in the pursuit of your sound?
I’m really happy with the way the last one turned out, it’s sort of the sound I’ve been looking for since the An Overdose of Death… record. I call it Hi-Fi Lo-Fi, it’s raw and blown out but at the same time it doesn’t sound like its recorded on a 4-Track either (Which I also love haha). I think the difference this time around is that I had a clear vision going in and that I had some time to really experiment with the guitar stuff this time around. All the guitars, vocals and bass were recorded in my house so that gave me the freedom of trying different things first.
It seems like in metal now, you’ve got this growing sect of musicians like Colin Marston, Devin Townsend, and Kurt Ballou who are involved to varying degrees in the actual nitty-gritty of recording, mixing, and/or mastering their own music. As one of the dudes who has always taken an active role in the technical production of Toxic Holocaust’s music, do you have any thoughts about what this changes about the art form as a whole?
I think it’s great. I’ve always taken a DIY approach to everything I’ve done so this is sort of the next logical step.
Do you feel closer to the Frank Zappa Work Ethic As A Way of Life now that you have a studio to call home? In other words, are you going to just keep going hard?
Absolutely. Frank Zappa is inspirational. It’s so impressive how he was always creating, recording and archiving. His back catalog of unreleased material must be insane!
Troy Polamalu’s hair is reportedly insured for $1 million. Have you considered taking out a policy for your golden mane?
I never even thought of that, maybe I’ll get a policy written up tonight so no one gets any ideas.
Thanks for your time Joel! Last question – will we ever see your project with Scott Carlson and London May come together?
I’m not sure if that will see that light of day or not. We did one demo but then when I moved back to Portland that band kind of dissolved. It was super cool music though, sounded fucked up like later day Black Flag meets early Melvins. One of those songs from that demo was just recorded for Reed Mullins solo record with Dave Grohl playing bass on it. Thanks for the interview, I had a bl’ast!