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Linkin Park: 'A Thousand Suns'

12/1/2010

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With A Thousand Suns, their most ambitious and divergent album yet, Linkin Park blaze a new trail for alternative rock

“We wanted to create something that’s challenging to us, not fall back on the things we’re used to doing. So we threw the rule book out the window, and when it felt we should go left, then we should probably go right instead.”

Chester Bennington and the rest of Linkin Park are sitting onstage at the Music Box Theatre in Hollywood, fielding questions from a packed house of fan club members, music press, and VIP guests about their newest full-length, A Thousand Suns. For the 47 minutes prior to the Q&A, the band debuted the album in its entirety, synced with a laser light show that would enthrall even the most seasoned raver. With nearly half the songs containing up-tempo BPMs and dance music cadences—not to mention the noticeable absence of anthemic rock guitar hooks and only three tracks featuring raps by Mike Shinoda—the experience couldn’t help but accentuate the differences between this and Linkin Park’s previous body of work. With the exception of Bennington’s trademark guttural screams, any resemblance to the rap rock genre they helped define has been rinsed out. Intensity and ferocious introspection are still the endgame, but the path has changed. And when that path is lined with more than 50 million album sales, two Grammys, and nine Number One singles on the Billboard Alternative Chart, throwing the rule book out the window takes more than a simple leap of faith.

THE CATALYST
To understand the variant sound of A Thousand Suns—its elusive melodies, fractured guitars, and protracted interludes—you first have to understand the way Linkin Park function as a band. Rarely, if ever, do more than a handful of the six members record simultaneously, nor do they “jam” as a group, traditionally speaking. There’s also no division between writing and recording, and demo ideas frequently make it into the final mix.

“I would say, in general, that we don’t have a standard way of doing anything,” laughs guitarist Brad Delson. “You go in for two months and you cut a record, right? Our process is nothing like that, and I think that’s one of the reasons the sounds on this album turned out the way they did.”

The band tapped legendary producer Rick Rubin—no stranger to shepherding artists through transitory periods—to co-produce. Having worked with Linkin Park on 2007’s Minutes to Midnight—in itself a bit of a departure, musically and vocally— Rubin helped reinforce their creative path and maximize the effectiveness of the band’s unique songwriting approach.

“When we did Hybrid Theory and Meteora, Brad and I did the bulk of the writing,” says Shinoda. “We would write the music and I would write the vocals and we’d give them to the rest of the band to make notes or change it, but essentially we were doing it like a hip-hop production team. This is the track, these are the vocals.”

“Rick tried to get us to cut more stuff live on Minutes to Midnight,” Delson continues, “and I think he realized that the strength of the band lies in a more hip-hop project approach to recording; a much more digital, studio-based way. That’s where our art lives.”

The key to A Thousand Suns was a combination of organic, small-group writing sessions and diplomatic Monday roundtables, wherein new material, revisions, and opinions would be shared among members. The goal, according to the band’s selfpenned bio, was to see whether or not they could “abandon the precepts of commercial ambition in pursuit of what they believe to be honest art.” To do this, they would need to start with a foundation of hand-crafted source material that blurred the lines between synths, guitars, and percussion. For Shinoda, the group’s primary sonic architect and beatmaker, this meant getting back in touch with gear like the Akai MPC1000 and rekindling shades of 1994, when he was sampling and mashing together Wu-Tang Clan, Nine Inch Nails, and the Smashing Pumpkins on a cheap Roland MS-1.

“That attention to the ear candy sets the tone for a record,” says Shinoda. “If it gets as much attention as the song itself, it could really add up to something special.”

HYBRID THEORIES
The bulk of the album was recorded at Shinoda’s studio (The Stockroom), turntablist Joe Hahn’s studio, and NRG Studios in North Hollywood, where the band has locked out Studio A, off and on, for roughly two years. Shinoda’s space is set up like a u-shaped control center, with important pieces of gear such as his MPC1000, Access Virus TI Polar, Roland Juno-106, M-Audio Axiom Pro 61, and Moog Voyager just an arm’s length away. Rather than eat up real estate with a console, all mix channels are housed in two SSL X-Racks that feature eight VHD input modules, two Mic Amp modules, two Super- Analogue EQs, two SuperAnalogue dynamics modules, one 8-channel input, and a master bus. All hardware and outboard compressors are run through three 48-channel, 1/4-inch patchbays, which then connect to the X-Racks. Monitors are ADAM A7s and Mackie HR824s.

At NRG, the band had a 64-channel Neve 8068 at their disposal, monitored through Yamaha NS-10s and YST-SW100 subs, plus a pair of vintage Auratones, powered by a Byston 4B amplifier. ProAc Studio 100s and a Perreaux amp, Rubin’s preferred combination, were also brought in. Many of the same hardware pieces, including an array of effects pedals, went back and forth between studios.

“The concept at NRG was to encourage the band’s workflow,” says engineer Ethan Mates. “We wanted to have a million things set up and ready to go at once. I think we had 48 Pro Tools inputs at any one time.”

To help the band keep track of everything, Mates and assistant Josh Newell created laminated sheets listing all the available instruments and their corresponding inputs. A quick peek at any of the video clips on LinkinPark.com—segments taken from their making- of documentary, Meeting of A Thousand Suns—gives you an idea of all the toys at their disposal. With piano central to the album’s mood and pacing, a Yamaha C7, Rhodes suitcase 88, and a Hammond B3 with a Leslie cabinet were always available. Many of the bass parts were also tracked with keyboards, using a combination of GForce soft synths and hardware instruments such as the Juno-106 and Access Virus Indigo and Virus TI Polar. On actual bass tracks, Dave “Phoenix” Farrell played a 1950s Fender P Bass through a vintage Ampeg SVT head and an 8x10 cabinet, miked with a Royer 122 and a Heil PR- 40, one on top of each speaker. Mic outputs were sent through the Neve console preamps and bused through a Universal Audio LA-2A. Tones were achieved through a variety of effects pedals: On the caustic, low-slung “Wretches & Kings,” a musical and lyrical big-up to hip-hop’s golden era, the bass was run though a ZVex Mastotron pedal with a copious amount of Fuzz. Other ZVex pedals such as the Woolly Mammoth, Tremolo Probe, and the cheekily named Super Hard On were used on guitars. “The guitar played a great supporting role because it really filled out certain areas,” says Shinoda, who wrote and recorded many of the guitar parts on A Thousand Suns. “That’s been the joke inside the band: If you left it up to our guitar player, there’d be no guitar on the record. It’s not that Brad dislikes guitar. It’s that he’s been so excited about experimenting with sounds and song structure.”

Three primary guitar rigs were set up, each to accentuate a specific vibe. A Fender Blues Jr. combo amp, miked on-axis with a Neumann FET47 about four inches back from the speaker cone, was used on songs that needed more of a large, echo-y tone. A Hiwatt Lead 100, run through a Marshall 1960A cabinet, was miked with both a Sennheiser MD 421 and a Shure SM57, and was featured primarily on more dynamic songs such as “Waiting for the End.” Mates also brought in an Orange Tiny Terror and PPC112 cabinet—the head upgraded to a “Holy Terror” with the aid of Mercury Magnetics transformers—which he miked with a Mojave MA- 100. The combo amp was most often recorded to a separate track and used for completely wet effects, like a 100% mix from a Fender spring reverb tank or a tape echo with no original signal.

“If we were blending cabinets together, all the summed mics would end up going down a single bus, which had the 1176 and a Chandler Germanium EQ after it,” says Mates, who set the 1176 for slowest attack and fastest release, maxing out at about 4dB of compression. “Using a compressor and EQ across the bus instead of on each mic helps glue the sounds of the different amps together and makes it easier to dial in things like sustain.”

Like bass, guitar, and synth, the drums were also a mix of programming and performance. Drummer Rob Bourdon played a Gretsch kit on the more aggressive songs, while a ’60s Ludwig kit was used on slower, breathier numbers. With a few exceptions, miking was generally the same for both kits: AKG D112 and Yamaha SKRM-100 on the kick, Shure SM7 and Mojave MA-100 atop the snare with a Sennheiser MD441 underneath, Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat, AKG C451 on the ride, and Sennheiser MD 421s on all the toms. A single Royer 122-V and a stereo pair of Royer SF-12s and Neumann M49s captured the room. A small Rogers kit was also set up in a blanket-laden vocal booth and miked with a Shure SM7 on the snare, an Electro-Voice RE-20 on the kick, and a Neumann U47 for the overhead.

“There are times Rob is playing with the loops, [then] there were times he came to the table with a live drum part that was so spectacular that it killed all the sampled drums,” Shinoda recalls. “We want the listener to have a hard time telling when something is a physical instrument and when it’s not.” A perfect example of this approach is “Burning In the Skies,” which begins with programmed kick and snare, with Bourdon providing hi-hat and tambourine. As the song builds, Bourdon’s parts are overlaid with the existing programmed beats. The Pro Tools session for “When They Come for Me,” the album’s most complex rhythmic track, comprised more than 100 tracks, and took more than a yearand- a-half to complete. “I don’t know how we’re going to play it live,” jokes Delson.

VOX POPULI
On Minutes to Midnight, Shinoda and Bennington experimented freely with microphones and signal paths, which ended up complicating the recording process. For one, it separated their voices a bit too much. In addition, using multiple setups made it difficult to punch in quickly and seamlessly. In the end, they ended up going with a Neumann U47, first through a Neve 1073 and then into either a Chandler TG2 at The Stockroom or a Universal Audio 1176LN re-issue at NRG. Shinoda’s mic configuration for his raps was a bit different: a Shure SM7 into a 1073 and an Empirical Labs Distressor. In many cases, Shinoda and Bennington would record and double melodies and harmonies, then choose the “vocal hierarchy” during mixdown. With multiple tracks to choose from, they were able to blend and fade between each singer. “Robot Boy,” for example, begins its first of three separate movements with six overlaying vocals— one main and two harmonies per singer—then balloons to more than 24 tracks packed with volume fades and EQ automation. “We decided to go for a more vintage vocal layering, a la the Beach Boys and The Eagles—again, to contrast a robotic, mechanical-sounding track,” says Shinoda.

As important as it was to create vocal consistency between the two singers, it was also important to apply that handmade sonic aesthetic to create divergences when the song called for chaos. In the pulsating, dance-rock “Blackout,” a mash of pedals and outboard gear was used: Bennington’s chorus was scratched up and imbued with stutter edits by Hahn, then run through a Thermionic Culture Vulture valve distortion unit and recorded back into the MPC, where each member took turns handplaying different patterns through the pads.

“We had about 30 passes of each guy rocking out, and everyone had a different style,” says Delson. “We took the best moments and comped them into that cutout vocal solo.”

At the crescendo of the chorus on “Waiting for the End,” vocals are again mixed with pedals, guitars, and scratching to create a unique robotic effect. While Delson played the riff, Shinoda manipulated an Electro-Harmonix HOG (harmonic octave generator), which was connected to an expression pedal to control the octave sweep and a resonant filter to add some edge. Layered on top of the guitars is a track of Hahn scratching Bennington’s chorus. The HOG is used again on the song’s spacey, pad-like guitar, but followed by an EHX Holy Grail reverb pedal and a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo.

“As we progressed throughout the process, Rick was adamant that nothing sounded standard, nothing sounded stock, and nothing sounded like anything you could just dial up,” explains Delson. “I joke with him that going on this wild, two year experiment was his doing, but he was quick to push back. What he does is bring out the best in each group. He reinforced the path that we set for ourselves.”

“The best artists follow their instincts,” says Rubin. “It’s easy to remake the same album over and over again, and while certain fans will claim they want to hear more of the same, in reality it gets old fast. Linkin Park came to power at the end of the rap/rock wave, along with Korn and Limp Bizkit. That wave no longer is in vogue, so to make another album in that style would have probably shortened their trajectory and the relevant lifespan of the band. But most importantly, Linkin Park have moved on as artists from that old sound. The new sound is likely to alienate some old fans who, for whatever reason, aren’t growing along with the artist they follow. Also, many new fans who would have never liked them before have the chance to find Linkin Park as a band they can love. For the long-term creative health of the band, spreading their wings, challenging themselves and moving forward is the only choice.”

Click HERE to check out interview extras with Mike Shindoa

Click HERE to read more from Linkin Park collaborators Frank Zummo, DJ Cheapshot and others

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