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My Chemical Romance Make Anti-Matter

By Ken Micallef | January 1, 2011

The dark-hearted Jersey boys of The Black Parade return with a “poisonous” punk-disco-power pop hangover on Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys

“We wanted modern rock to move forward,” producer Rob Cavallo says, regarding his latest My Chemical Romance production. “We wanted the record to not sound like anything else that was on the landscape of modern rock radio. It’s the next leap. The next invention of My Chemical Romance.” “I wanted it to be a poisonous album,” My Chemical Romance mastermind Gerard Way adds. “I wanted it to contaminate things. I want the album to have this ‘neurotoxin’ quality.”

A supercharged progression from The Black Parade, My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is what happens when a band directs their fate. Initially recording with Brendan O’Brien, the album was considered completed and then played for the press. In late ’09, however, MCR suddenly dumped the record and started from scratch. Enlisting The Black Parade producer and Warner Bros. chairman Rob Cavallo, MCR tumbled into his Lightning Sound studios with nothing, and emerged with an entirely new Danger Days, a graphic audio novel of multiple styles wrapped in Cavallo’s glistening studio sheen. Gerard Way details the journey:

“Working with Brendan was like, ‘Let’s be in preproduction a lot, let’s write a bunch of songs, let’s record live.’ But the spark wasn’t there. The record felt naked and empty, and there was no fixing it. Once we got to Rob Cavallo’s place [in January, 2010], we built the music in the control room together. We’d start with a drum loop, then add a guitar, and if I had a lyric, I’d sing it in the other room; we’d build and build. Most of the tracks were completely constructed in a control room, as opposed to a band playing instruments together. It was like improv rock.”

Working in Cavallo’s renovated six-car garage-turned-recording studio with engineer Doug McKean at a Pro Tools Icon controller, MCR stacked tracks. Way, lead guitarist Roy Toro, rhythm guitarist Frank Iero, and bassist Mikey Way built up each track, layering instruments, with Way cutting vocals in the live room, often only minutes after he’d penned the song’s lyric.

Basically a home studio outfitted with pro gear, Lightning Sound has recorded Shinedown and Paramour, among others. Speed, adaptability, and recallability are important factors in the studio’s working process. “We use Telefunken V76s for vocals and acoustic guitars,” McKean explains. “But I also use Altiverb and ReVibe plug-ins because Rob and I jump around from project to project. It’s really a matter of recallability. There are a lot of presets in Altiverb, dialed-in IR rooms that are copies of the reverb settings for specific rooms; some of them sound better than a lot of outboard reverbs. We have an EMT plate, a Gold Foil plate, but I can’t use them much except in the mixing phase, because the recallability is tough when you are juggling projects all day.

McKean runs drums through a Neve Melbourne sidecar with 33114 modules. Guitars, vocals, and acoustic guitars go through an Aurora Audio MK GTQ-2 mic pre, which McKean describes as a “Neve copy. They are better or as good as having real 1073s, because they are little more open, but they have exactly the characteristic.”

With proficiency in mind, most of the equipment settings at Lightning Sound are dialed in, each session adapting to different artists. Though MCR used drum machines before overdubbing drums, McKean often begins with drums.

“I figure out placement while the band isn’t here,” he relates. “I blend bass drum mics: a Shure Beta 52 inside the kick drum, blended with a Shure SM7 halfway in the hole, then on a separate track, I’ll record a Yamaha [SKRM100] Subkick. I like the old Unidyne III for snare—very similar characteristics to an SM57, but with a peak around 4k, which is good for snare drum. I mike under the snare drum with an SM57 or a Sennheiser 451. For toms, I always use [Sennheiser MD] 421s, angled directly at the head. I try to get it 90 degrees to the head to get more tone. On overheads, I love using the [Telefunken] ELAM 251s, although at the studio, I also use AKG C24s. I put the overheads right above the drummer’s head; I don’t like the mics to be too onaxis with the cymbals. I go a little behind the drummer and point the diaphragms right at the toms. For room mics, I use AKG C12As in a Blumlein pair array [a mathematically precise stereo miking configuration] in the middle of the room. And then another 251 or an SM7 pointed at the wall; I use a lot of compression on that mic.”

McKean favors the Sony C800 for guitar cabs, through the Aurora GTQ2. “The Sony sounds great and different from what everybody else uses,” he says. “I get all the lows and nice midrange coverage. It doesn’t sound too peaky in any different spot in the midrange. It goes right on the grill, between [the points] where the dome glue is on the cone.”

Unlike many engineers, McKean prefers miking bass cabs to going direct. Lightning Sound has a re-issue Ampeg and an SVT cabinet, which McKean mikes with an SM7 or C800.

“I prefer much more amp sound, ’cause it sounds bigger,” he explains. “It has more character, more air around the note. Direct is easy to mix into a track. An amp requires work to make sure the low-end curve is fitting into the drums and guitars.”

Tracking Gerard Way’s vocals was like the rest of Danger Days—a lesson in improvisation. Never more than four takes were needed, with little or no punching-in required. “Gerard liked to hang on the mic and really rock out.” McKean says. “I used an SM7 through a Telefunken V76 pre. It’s a great mic pre that I use a lot on vocals; it handles a lot of different types of levels and different frequencies really well. Then [the signal went] through an old bluestripe UREI 1176, recorded flat because the way they were working was so sporadic and different. Sometimes Gerard would sing an idea for a verse, then keep part of it, then go back in. In that case, I would EQ it in the computer so I could get the same sound back easily on any track. We’d only punch in for overlapping lines but Gerard likes to perform the song as much as he can top to bottom.”

“I start with a ton of reverb on my vocals, but slowly go completely dry,” Way adds. “When I am singing, I have a ton of room and reverb in my ears, because traditionally, when doing shows, I am just hearing the room. I am so accustomed to that. I want to feel like I am in a theater in the studio.”

“There is a concept to Danger Days,” Rob Cavallo concludes. “It’s inspired by Gerard’s unpublished graphic novel, set in 2019: World War III has already happened. It’s about the idea that chaos creates true beauty. The line between good and evil is not drawn in black, it’s drawn in invisible ink. We wanted to create anti-matter, because matter is boring.”

Want more? Read interview extras with Gerard Way, Rob Cavallo, and Doug McKean HERE.

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