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Deftones – Modeling for Mayhem

February 14, 2013
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AFTER THE 2008 car accident that sidelined Deftones bassist Chi Cheng, the Sacramento-based metal-cum-experimental quartet released Diamond Eyes, a head-on collision of attitudinal fury and bombastic physicality that was anything but pretty. But it was necessary, a purging brew that expressed all the collective pain of a pack of wounded wolves. Known equally for their head-butting jams and intense intra-band squabbles, The Deftones finally found a way to put the past to rest.

Diamond Eyes was the record they needed to make to reunify the band,” producer Nick Rasculinecz explains. “It was a record of heavy riffs. This new record was a less about the riff, per se, and more about getting back to this futuristic, progressive sound that defines what The Deftones have become.”

On Koi No Yokan, The Deftones find artistic fulfillment in an evolutionary album of cerebral moods and psychedelic sounds coupled to the most propulsive rhythm section grooves the band has ever recorded. It’s Deftones 2.0. Or is that 3.0? “The songs are very different from each other—not heavier or slower, but more dynamic, going toward several directions; it’s heavy, but beautiful,” said vocalist Chino Moreno.

Tracked at Paramount Recording Studios (Studio C, Hollywood), Ameraycan Recording Studios (North Hollywood) and the now-defunct The Pass, Koi No Yokan was largely enabled by some fairly freakish guitar and bass processing, allowing The Deftones to create songs from sounds and tones rather than riffs. Moreno howled his trademark nausea-inducing spew, guitarist Stephen Carpenter played his Signature ESP SC608 LTD Baritone 8 (and seven) String Electric Guitars, bassist Sergio Vega followed suit with his Fender Jaguar bass, keyboardist/turntablist Frank Delgado worked in Ableton, drummer Abe Cunningham produced the brightest beats of his life. But regarding the recording process, the real game changer was Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX II Preamp FX Processor.

“The Deftones have always had a futuristic element to their sound, but it’s not as prevalent on the last record,” Rasculinecz says. “[This time] we started with brand-new sounds from Fractal Audio, which was a big sonic shift for the band. It’s the first record where Stephen hasn’t used the same amp and cab as on every record before. That alone lent itself to creating a fresh take on the music. Fractal opened up a whole new world of sonic elements that we didn’t have on the last record and it really took Stephen and Sergio out of the box.”

“We put a lot of energy into our tones,” Vega explains. “Both Stephen and I used Fractal Audio Systems Axe-Fx II. It’s like an amp modeler, but not really. It’s in that vein, with different effects and MIDI control that lets you link to various outboard pedals. The Fractal gave us a means to express ideas that would be harder to execute using standard equipment. It’s compact, so we’re able to take tones and work in a way that we couldn’t with traditional gear. We used [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig on Diamond Eyes in conjunction with amps. Then we heard that Chris Traynor from Bush had been using Fractal. He explained Fractal to us and we quickly fell in love with it.

“We can bring Fractal into hotel rooms and run it into software and record ideas and flesh them out later,” he adds. “You’re literally listening to the same unit you bring to the stage, the same unit you bring to the studio, the same unit that you have at home. It’s compact, and it works in all these different environments. It makes the most out of those moments of inspiration. It’s not so much a scratch pad; everything is working toward the final track. It’s great to have that consistency.”

At Paramount and The Pass, engineer Matt Hyde set up multiple amp and miking scenarios; Vega and Carpenter recorded with all amps running, then dumped the sounds into Fractal. Guitar amps included Bogner Ueberschall Series 120W, Diezel Herbert, Marshall JCM8000, and Engl Special Edition E 670 100W, with various 4x12 cabinets. For miking duties, whether on bass or guitar amps, Hyde used a Beyer M160 or a Shure SM 57, or a 57 with a Sennheiser MD 421 through various Neve preamp. “Maybe I will put a room mic up,” Hyde explains, “on axis, off axis, or combine the two; it depends on what you’re trying to get out of the cabinet. And you don’t want to use the same speaker size and mic over and over again; it will repeat that sound later on.”

Vega’s Jaguar Bass ran into a Marshall 9200/Marshall 4x12 stack, as well as an Ampeg SVT/Ampeg 8x10 cab. The bass signal was also shadowed into a Palmer Audio tube DI, and a standard DI for reamping.

Hyde explains the Fractal Audio process: “It performs a frequency analysis of the sound. You mock up a sound similar to the [guitar or bass] with a similar gain using the Fractal, but it won’t sound anything like the sound you are recording. You record eight bars of a sound through a Diezel or an Ueberschall then record eight bars of the same exact part into the Fractal, then you hit ‘match’ and suddenly the two sounds becomes one. It’s bizarre, like a tone-modeling thing. It has a comprehensive foot-switching feature and looping device and effects.”

“It’s not so much that Fractal gives you sounds you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Vega comments, “but it gives you sounds that you would have needed a lot of different outboard amps and pedals to achieve otherwise. So with this one unit, we had a wide series of amp models and effects and mics, and we built these really cool presets. If you’re using traditional pedals, you’ll have these long chains. Using Fractal allowed us to do more manipulation more efficiently. It allowed us to route things to a particular switch and do something more drastic. It helped us create different tones, which were at the core of the writing process. It’s the inspiration the sounds gave us that created the parts.”

But the Fractal inserts only occurred after an organic immersion into live tracking. This isn’t the programmed electronic terrain of Skrillex, after all, but the dark, dragging-the-river-for-corpses sound of The Deftones. Rasculinecz details the process: “We tracked guitar, bass, and vocal to a click, then recorded the drums to that, then replaced the bass, guitar and vocals. I don’t make Tom Petty records. There’s never four or five dudes playing in the room together. It’s more of a systematic approach; we get a rough guide, then focus on each instrument for tuning and timing. I usually record drums, then guitar, then bass, then vocal and other overdubs. I like to tailor the sound based off the instrument’s individual characteristics and how they work together.”

“Everything was organic,” Vega confirms. “We had fun playing around with gear and making different tones. Usually something will catch and we’ll start jamming on it. We spend a lot of time refining a spark. We don’t give ourselves too many parameters other than that. We just show up and experiment with tones and building parts. We’d all start noodling and someone’s riff would congeal and we’d all fall in line with that. All the while we’re recording into Pro Tools or Ableton, then we’ll edit the results to work on it. We’ll work on ideas, listen to the progression then build on that. The main thing was all the tones we created.”

Paramount’s Hollywood Studios were built in the 1970s based on a Westlake Audio design. Rasculinecz describes it as a “cool, ’70s kind of vibe. It’s dry sounding. It added to the overall punch of the record. It’s not too big of a room so nothing was washed out. It’s a big, live room that was actually really dead sounding.”

When possible everything was recorded at 24/96 even though there were downsides, something not often mentioned when discussing the digital frontier of super hi-res recording.

“24/96 is a whole other odyssey, and requires a different approach,” Hyde explains. “You have to cut the drums and assign them to one drive, then once done with drums, you do everything else on a second drive, otherwise it all gets too bogged down. 24/96 is better, if it can be done, budget-wise. The resolution is higher, and there is more information. When it comes to depth, it makes a huge difference. The upside is sound quality, but the more tracks involved, 96k halves your processing power and you have half as many plug-ins. It makes mixing more difficult and as you continue, it’s more taxing on the system. It’s smoother to run at 24/48, but 24/96 sounds fantastic. If it’s critical with less overdubs, I won’t have as many tracks anyway, and I won’t need as much processing. But with a lot of processing and when you go to mix I want all my tools available.”

In addition to Paramount’s SSL consoles, Hyde brought in Neve preamps of every description, including a Neve sidecar with 1065s, 1055s, 1073s, and 1081s, and a “whole bunch of API and Helios stuff.” The sum total is a big, roomy sound that particularly benefitted Abe Cunningham’s drums. Hyde also pulled some old school techniques out of his trick bag.

“Paramount’s room sounds great, and I also did a lot of work with the room tracks using Valley People Dyna-Mite to key the room mics,” Hyde says. “I’ll key far room mics with an expander off the snare drum mic. When the snare is struck those open up and a kind of distorted room sound mixes in with the other room sounds. The signal passes through continuously, but it’s ducked down by about 6dB, then when the snare hits, it opens up to the full amount and is somewhat distorted. I’ll have several room mics up and blend in some larger, more distorted room mics so they only enter during the snare and kick hits and that adds to the liveness of the room tracks. Ultimately the recorded room sound is very dynamic and pulsates with the drum sound.”

The drum sound on Koi No Yokan is massive, owing to Cunningham’s kinetic rumble, the room’s characteristics, and Hyde’s extensive miking approach. “The first thing I do when miking drums is listen,” Hyde explains. “We make sure to listen in different places in the room and then place the mics based on that. For room mics I used RCA 44- BX ribbon mics about six to eight feet out and to the left and right, they happened to sound great. The RCA ribbon mics mostly picked up snare and kick. So I moved them more to the middle and they became these center mono ribbon mics. Deeper out in the room, we used a pair of Coles facing down at the floor, low to the floor; I don’t want to pick up a lot of cymbals. That’s one way to get smooth room sound without a lot of cymbals. Then we added some condenser mics: Neumann U47s and U67s, far out in the room. We used a really beautiful pair of Bock Audio 241s as overheads. In this case I did the whole 3-to-1 ratio left and right over the cymbals, one off to the ride, one off to the hi-hat and snare mic. I placed them until I got a good stereo image without phase cancellation, no weird figure-8; I went for the old, typical left-and-right placement. Then a mono Shure SM 57 behind the drums, and I messed around with gating that too. I gated the condensers with that distorted idea again.

“Another trick mic I use a lot is a Shure 520DX Green Bullet Harmonica mic right behind the drummer’s head,” Hyde adds, always ready to reveal secrets gained from years of experience recording everyone from Monster Magnet, No Doubt, Slayer, and Staind to Sum 41 and Pornos for Pyros. “It sounds like hell, but I do a whole thing with it where I will use some kind of compression and make it sound very trashy and midrangey and mix it into the overall kit sound to give the snare some attack and midrange. But you have to be careful ’cause it can sound like sh*t when the cymbals are up. For that, I usually use a Urei 1176 with all buttons in.”

Though room mics played a large role in the album’s expansive drum sound, of course close miking was also employed. Hyde taped together Shure SM57 and KM84 mics for the top snare head, with a Sennheiser MD 441 on the bottom snare and Sennhesier 602 clip-on mics for the rack toms. AKG 414EBs covered the floor toms, a pair of matched Bock Audio 251s for direct overheads, and a Shure KM 84 over ride cymbal and hi-hat. Three mics picked up the bass drum: a Sennhesier 602 in the kick, Neumann U47 FET on the outside, Yamaha NS10 subwoofer for low frequencies. Last, but certainly without placing least, Moreno’s stomach-churning vocals got the full Rasculinecz and Hyde treatment.

“We really focused more on the songs and vocal melodies,” Rasculinecz says. “I pushed Chino to sing more and get beyond any boundaries or confines from the last record. He just needs encouragement and honesty and a mic. He has so many ideas, and like any singer he might have a hard time in a certain spot so he looks to me for an honest evaluation. He’s made a lot of records and works with other bands so he is constantly singing. The big thing on this record is just how great he sounds. These are some of his best vocals ever.”

Chino vocal’s chain was a dual affair: the Bock Audio 251 into a Martech MSS-10 preamp into a DBX 160, sans EQ. For “harder, heavier vocals” (according to Hyde), a Shure SM 7 was inserted into the same chain, and they “turned the mic pre up a couple clicks.”

“The Martech has a massive amount of headroom to provide for that amazing, super-smooth mic,” Hyde says. “The Bock Audio (now Sound Deluxe) 251 is a beautiful mic. They consistently beat out most vintage 251s. We used it pretty pure with a little compression for Chino. But in Pro Tools, he wants to hear a lot of distortion and delays, depending on the part he’s laying down. It’s all done in the box as he’s doing it. So we dial up a vocal sound similar to what we want to hear in the mix as we’re doing it, but it’s all in the monitor; it’s not always recorded that way. In the past, I used an old 1950s RCA P.A. head into a Palmer speaker simulator and got my vocal distortion that way.”

A collective effort that mirrors a communal soul dredging itself up from some personal hell with slamming rhythms, neck-snapping yet slinky beats, ethereal moods, and space rock sounds, Koi No Yokan is The Deftones advancing their art. From off-kilter pounder “Swerve City” to the ominous, bloodletting riot “Leathers” to the atmospheric “Tempest” to The Police-worthy allusions of “What Happened to You?” it’s an album of calculations and permutations. The Deftones have never sounded so concise, so purposeful, so ready to destroy the box of expectation. They’ve retained their heavy metal pummel crunch and crash, yet upped the game with something that almost escapes definition. Futuristic? Progressive? Poetic? And to think they did it by taking advantage of all technology has to offer. While many embrace old-school technologies, The Deftones refuse to be haltered to the yoke of fashion.

“It’s funny,” Frank Delgado says. “Stephen always wanted the biggest amps, but now he’s into the Fractal. But even with no amps, it’s still loud as hell and we’re still a rock band. There’s nothing pretentious, we bang it out and we fight, but we have a good time. All the technical stuff aside, it’s each of us in our own little worlds on our separate workstations trying to make it as easy as possible when we do get together. It’s all about the songs; the technical stuff and the gear is in the back of our minds. We’re just trying to make cool sounds.”

Ken Micallef has covered music for all the usual suspects, including DownBeat, the Grammys, and Rolling Stone. His first book, Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is currently in reprint status while he manages his family’s cotton farm down south and ponders the future/past of the vinyl LP and tube amplification.

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