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Riff By Riff: Deftones go for a super-heavy, ultra-tight, stripped-down sound on Diamond Eyes

6/1/2010

Keep it simple, play from the heart, and at all costs make it heavy. That about sums up what veteran alternaslammers Deftones had in mind when they got down to creating their sixth album, Diamond Eyes, just out on Reprise. While the band has rarely failed to elevate their brave brand of riff-tastic, brontosaurus beats to spacey new heights, Diamond Eyes brings the sound—and the song—right on down to earth.

IMG_6170Deftones (left to right)—Stephen Carpenter, Sergio Vega, Chino Moreno, Frank Delgado, and Abe Cunningham.

Recorded by Grammy-winning producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, Velvet Revolver) at L.A.’s The Pass Studios, the new album’s game plan was to get back to keeping things real, albeit in Deftones’ singularly surrealistic way

“I really wanted this record to have a punchier, it’s-a-little-more-about-theriff type sound, and less about the ambience,” Raskulinecz says. “I wanted it to be dense and thick and really heavy. And I wanted to create the space and atmosphere through Chino [Moreno]’s vocals, instead of having the music and the vocals be like that, which is a pattern they had fallen into with their last couple of albums.”

 

 

SUPER-REHEARSALS, TIGHT PRODUCTION

In late 2008, bass player Chi Cheng was in a serious car accident and slipped into a coma. His recovery has been very slow (see progress reports at Oneloveforchi.com). In light of Cheng’s condition and the band’s belief that the sessions for their album, Eros, didn’t represent where they wanted to go creatively, they delayed the release and changed tack. Substituting for Cheng, old friend Sergio Vega filled in on bass for Diamond Eyes.

The band underwent intensive preproduction rehearsals/writing sessions with Raskulinecz, who served much like a film director in shaping the band’s new songs. Under Raskulinecz’ strict aegis, the band put together nine of the album’s 11 songs in the first week of warmup at The Alley in North Hollywood.

“We wrote it in the rehearsal space, and those guys just played,” he says. “I wanted to take it back to the basics, and part of doing that was just getting them in the room together and sweating and getting close and really tight. When they set up in the room, they had all their amps and other gear spread really far apart, like they were out on a big stage, and I made them push all their amps as close as they could to the drums. I wanted everybody to be standing really close together—I wanted ’em to be a band, you know, and it totally worked.”

By the time the band did get into the studio, they were well prepared and rehearsed, having played every single day in that rehearsal room from noon to six. “When it came time to start recording,” drummer Abe Cunningham says, “we were ready to go. It was a breeze, and a joy. We hadn’t been that prepared in 15 years.”

The band and producer chose The Pass Studios for its famed and rather peculiar combination of super-tight and ultra-huge acoustical properties. “There are two studios in the building, and the room we were in is an older, ’70s kind of room, with a big control room,” says Raskulinecz. “The tracking room has a very high ceiling, and it’s kind of rectangular, but it starts to twist at one side and almost turns into a triangle. It’s a tough room to work in, because it’s really dead.”

Even so, that sonic tautness was exactly what Raskulinecz thought Deftones needed. “I knew by the time we mixed this album that it wasn’t gonna be about how big the drum room was, it’d be about how tight and punchy the drum sound was,” he says. “It’s hard to get that in a big room, because you get that sound in all your mics, too; you can turn it off, but it’s still gonna be in the overheads, it’s still gonna be there every time you hit the snare.”

TOTAL TREATMENT

imageChino Moreno (standing), engineer Paul Figueroa (left), and producer Nick Raskulinecz.

Utilizing the studio’s Neve 8078 board, Raskulinecz opted to go allanalog front-end, with old tube mics and Neve preamps going straight into Pro Tools. The album’s hardcrunching guitar and bass sounds were entirely grabbed off miked cabinets, with nary a trace of direct-inject into the board. He used the Neve 8078 for all the drums input, and did all the guitars with Neve 1073s. While he favors a pure analog tracking into those old Neve boards, Raskulinecz favored a wide range of digital tools for EQ, delay/reverb, compression, and other enhancements, all mixed through an SSL 6000 K console at Paramount studios in Hollywood.

“I like the Waves SSL G-series Channel Strip for combining EQ and dynamics,” he says. “I like the Renaissance EQs—they just sound good. You turn the dial and you hear it; it’s subtle, but it’s kind of aggressive; if I’m gonna EQ something, I wanna hear it.”

Diamond Eyes’ paradoxically punchy but widescreen wizardry is dominated by Raskulinecz’s beloved Line 6 Echo Farm effects. “I use it on everything, especially vocals,” he says. “But I really like the UAD plug-ins, too, and I think overall they probably sound the best; I love the SSL stuff, but the UAD stuff is great because they have a lot of the same versions of the same things.”

For that devilishly tricky process known as compression, Raskulinecz keeps it cheap and simple: “The dbx 160XT is my favorite compressor. You can buy them for a hundred bucks apiece on eBay nowadays, and I’ve got like eight of ’em that I’ve bought over the years. I’ll use them on everything, because they’re really fast and really clean.”

Raskulinecz also owns a number of dbx 160 VU compressor/limiters as well as a Teletronix LA-2A, and for other simulated tube compression he currently likes the Fairchild 660, as well as Retro Instruments’ Sta- Level and 176 Limiting Amplifier.

DIRTY GUITARS, AMBIENT VOCALS

Mixing it up mic-wise was a way to capture Diamond Eyes’ spectacular instrumental textures. For guitars, Raskulinecz used a Neumann U 47 alongside a Shure SM7. “You get the width, depth, and clarity with the fat U 47; then you add the SM7, and that gives it the guts and the beef and the hair.” For the bass, he used a Telefunken Ela M 251, which, he says, never fails to provide a very full range of sound.

Yet the guitar and bass sonorities were the product of an odd hodgepodge of varied amplifier heads and cabinets alongside assorted mic combinations. The sole amps employed were those of guitarist Stephen Carpenter, with Marshall JMP-1 preamps.

“This record has a cool sound to it,” Cunningham says, “because Stephen is playing a custom ESP eight-string; it’s the first album he’s done that on, and it really put the bass guitar in a totally different spot, because the guitar is actually lower than the bass.”

There’s very little “clean” guitar on the album, and most of the ambience comes from Moreno’s vocals, the clarity of which was ensured with a Telefunken Ela M 251. If Moreno wanted to use a hand-held mic, Raskulinecz and his engineer Paul Figueroa assembled a U 87 with a radio broadcast windscreen, a large piece of foam around it, and a lot of duct tape.

MYRIAD MICS, MINIMAL OVERDUBS

And as for the album’s simply spectacular drum sound? “There were mics everywhere, just an insane mic setup,” Cunningham says with a laugh.

“I like to use a lot of mics,” says Raskulinecz. “I’m very particular about recording drums.” His drum-miking arsenal for Cunningham included a Shure Beta 57 on the snare top, a Neumann KM 84 on the side of the snare, and a Sennheiser MD 441 on the bottom of the snare. There was a Sennheiser e 602 inside the kick with an Adam ANF10 speaker on the outside. Toms were captured with AKG C 414 condensers. Overheads were the Ela M 251s, and then there were several room mics, including a pair of RCA 44 ribbon mics in front of the kit, placed close to the drums but spread wide, and Neumann U 47s handled the big, faraway room sound.

Given the modern recording studio’s tantalizing temptation to conjure enormous heaps of sonic magic, how on earth does a band keep its eye on the prize? Raskulinecz is convinced that simplicity—and the message in the music—is the key.

“I try to keep it stripped-down the whole time,” he says. “It’s really easy to get too dense and go too far with it— and you know, sometimes we do, depending on what the song calls for. But it’s really about the song and not about the overdubs, not about how cool something sounds—it’s how great the song is.”

Ultimately, Cunningham says, a band ought to sound like a band: “The studio is the place where you can get as busy as you want to get, especially these days with the infinite amount of tracks you can use with digital recording tools. But you might shoot yourself in the foot when it comes to re-creating that live. It shouldn’t be that difficult. For lack of a better word, we’re a rock ’n’ roll band.”

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