Soundgarden (clockwise from top)— Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, and Ben Shepherd.
WHEN SOUNDGARDEN disbanded in 1997 after millions of records sold and the grunge style they helped birth having turned as clichéd as a plaid flannel shirt, acrimony seethed from every pore of their combined being. The band’s black hole had finally sucked out the sun.
“We weren’t behaving with the band’s collective interest at heart,” guitarist Kim Thayil reflects. “We had become selfishly oriented, and when you’re selfishly motivated, that’s not good for bands and families and other partnerships. When you’re younger, you champion your own selfish interests. Those behaviors are oriented less toward the band and more toward one’s self, and those can be destructive elements in the survival of a band. They can lead to friction and conflict, which isn’t good for the creative process.”
King Animal, Soundgarden’s first album in 15 years, confirms the rebirth of the band’s mighty creative approach, encompassing their songwriting, performing, and recording processes. Recorded simultaneously to Pro Tools HD and two-inch tape, it’s a blast of raw rock passion in an industry sorely in need of a scourging cleanse.
“I really can’t stand modern pop music in the sense that everything is pitch corrected and Beat Detectived and picked over to the degree that everything is perfect,” singer Chris Cornell snarls. “I don’t connect to it emotionally or in any way.”
By contrast, King Animal is a natural, warm, and transparent recording produced by the veteran crew who helped track and mix 1994’s Superunknown and 1996’s Down on the Upside. Recorded on home turf at Seattle’s Studio X, produced and engineered by Adam Kasper, assisted by second engineers Nathan Yaccino, Josh Evans, and Sam Hofstedt, and mixed by Joe Barresi, King Animal employed the digital domain, but with an analog heart.
“I recorded directly into Pro Tools HD and also off tape through a Studer A827,” Kasper explains. “I lined up the tape portion with the Pro Tools track and that gave us both options. Coming from a tape background, you learn to record drums with compression and understanding how things hit tape. You want to get things pumping and sounding big, and I learned how to do that by understanding how tape responds to kick drums and snare drums and saturation. Running [the signal] through two-inch tape you get that flavor, so I always maintain that signal flow to Pro Tools.
“If you track directly to Pro Tools and tape simultaneously,” he adds, “then blow up the waveforms in Pro Tools, you’ll be amazed how the analog waveform looks rounded and limited, in a way, but the Pro Tools version has spikes and hard edges; your ears must be able to hear that.”
Soundgarden’s origins lie in the largely pre-digital mid-1980s, and they still favor the sound and style of analog recording. The band acknowledges the speed of digital tracking, but don’t necessarily embrace the sonic results.
Ben Shepherd (left) and Chris Cornell work out a track.“Obviously, technology has changed quite a bit since 1996,” Thayil says. “Engineers have greater facility working with Pro Tools, but we have an aversion toward Pro Tools. We like the way records sounded in the ’80s and ’90s, and we definitely think there’s a difference between analog and digital. We were raised with LP and even the 8-track! When CDs first came out, I didn’t like their sound. Maybe those fairly audible scratches and pops were part of the general ambience philosophy that I was used to hearing with LP. The LP sounded warmer in terms of the low end, and it sounded natural. The CD, it sounded like something was missing. And it seemed thinner and colder.”
Soundgarden tracked drums and bass in Studio X’s large live room, then overdubbed guitars in the control room, tracking multiple amps and effects simultaneously in an iso booth. For much of the King Animal sessions, Cornell recorded vocals home, alone, like a painter splashing canvas.
“Chris sang through a 1966 Neumann U67 modified to the original specs,” Kasper explains. “It’s the best mic for Chris, a blowing-up, spinning, killer sound. We usually run two compressors, an LA2A, and a UREI 1176, also a third one for monitoring, which helps a lot because Chris has low-range vocal sounds, then he gets up high. He has two different tones, at least. I don’t EQ his vocal, but it does get a little sibilant at times so I may adjust the attack or deal with it later by de-essing. But that nice distortion happens organically with the tube mics and Chris screaming into them.” [Laughs.]
Cornell diagrams his home rig as a “Chandler preamp, an LA2A, through an Apogee converter using a variety of different mics including a hot-rodded U67. I used that on several songs on Superunknown and Down on the Upside.” Logic Pro 9 is his platform of choice when going it alone.
Cornell records resonator guitar.“I’ve had the best luck cutting vocals by recording when I am the only one there,” Cornell explains. “I started recording at home for that reason. I’d written a song, ‘The Keeper’ for a film called Machine Gun Preacher. I recorded the track at a friend’s studio, but it wasn’t happening. So I tried it again at home and it worked. That led to me singing a lot of the new Soundgarden album at my home studio.
“I’m not communicating with another person there so I can try ideas very quickly,” Cornell continues. “Recording digitally allows everything to happen so fast. For instance, there’s a harmony vocal in the chorus of ‘Black Hole Sun’; I was recording myself and I threw it on there. I liked the way it sounded. If I was in a room communicating with an engineer, I might not have bothered. I couldn’t have immediately listened back to it on speakers, which is a better way for me because I hate referencing vocal takes on headphones. I can’t tell if it’s what I want until I’m standing in front of speakers. Then, if I’m singing through the vocal chain that I will be using for takes, what I come up with can be the keeper takes. I can capture that weird spark that a demo has. I’m not over-thinking. It’s all brand new and for me it works.”
Cornell elaborates on his “demo as final take” approach: “There’s often a spark to a demo, to the first time I sing something, where I’m literally reading the lyrics off a piece of paper cause I just wrote it. I don’t know what the phrasing is or what the melody exactly is yet. It’s happening in the moment and I’m demoing it then I discover it. And I have better luck if the vocal is the last thing I do. On Down on the Upside Down, ‘Pretty Noose,’ ‘Burden in My Hand,’ ‘Boot Camp,’ those were all the first time I ever sang them, and those became the final vocal takes. I’ve beat my head against the wall many times where I did a demo at home, obviously not well recorded, but there’s something about it that I just can’t replicate no matter what I do or where I’m recording or who is engineering or what mic I am singing into.”
But with Cornell and Thayil’s unusual guitar tunings, it can be difficult for Cornell to get his voice around a track, even if it’s one he has written. In those instances, he or Kasper (who supplied many of the guitars, basses, and amps for the session) will insert a reference note as an anchor.
“Harmonic tension is often a large part of what it is about the personality of a recording that I like,” Cornell says. “That harmonic tension is necessary but there’s a limit to how much that works. [Laughs.] There’s a fine line between tension and awful. And I can straddle that line surgically; I will obsess over it. The first song I ever did with Soundgarden, ‘She Likes Surprises,’ we were out of tune but we liked the recording so I played a very clean electric guitar track strumming bar chords through it, which I never would have done as an arrangement. And then I sang to that and we liked the feel. If we add a track just for vocal reference, sometimes it will work within the context of the song. We do it to have something warm to sing to so I don’t have to struggle for pitch.”
“The big challenge has always been having something Chris can sing to,” Kasper adds. “Chris has such volume in his voice that he projects acoustically. I have to get the headphone mix up above his singing volume so he can pitch off of the track. Everything is really hot, so sometimes a guitar might be too fuzzy or slightly bending oddly so we might put in a clean guitar or a piano chord for him to pitch off of. Once he has something solid to sing to, with the volume and the response of the compressors set, then he just nails it.”
Kasper added effects both during and after Cornell’s vocal takes. “When you hear panning, feedback, and delay,” he explains, “that’s AudioEase Speakerphone plug-ins. They’re amazing. You can do three or four effects simultaneously, and they’re all actual samples. You can have a Leslie effect in a bedroom or a garage with an old Neumann mic running through a speaker phone. We’d use that for vocals. We might run a guitar through a Speakerphone plug-in but we used it mostly for vocals. It has filters, compression, all kinds of EQ, speaker phones, and radio toys. These are actual things they have found and sampled and you can see little pictures of them. They even use a trunk speaker from an old Volvo.”
Soundgarden was no less painstaking when tracking guitars. In a band where everyone, including drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, compose on guitar, Thayil had his hands full. “On every record we’ve made except for our first Sub Pop EP, Chris and I would double the guitar performances,” Thayil explains. “But these days, I like more of a streamlined guitar sound. And it’s less time consuming to create. But the multiple guitars are still in there (Thayil: Guild S300, Guild S100, 1966 ES335 Trini Lopez, Gibson Firebird, Gretsch Duo Jet; Cornell: Gibson ES335, Gibson Archtop, Gibson Les Paul Custom, Martin D28). I’d record one guitar, Chris would do another one, sometimes an acoustic (Neumann M49, 10 inches away, aimed at the 14th fret), and we’d record different amps simultaneously (Mesa Boogie Electra Dyne/4x12 cab, Mesa Boogie Tremoverb, 1970s Ampeg combo, 1950s Fender Champ, Divided By 13 FTR 37/2×12 cab, Matt Cameron’s 1960s Vox AC30). We miked them separately (Shure SM57, with Royer 121 and Neumann U87), isolated them with a room divider, and aimed each one differently. We’d create a blend of the different amps. We might put a delay on one guitar or treat them as separate tracks. And it’s also easier to accent certain parts of the arrangement now. We’d have one main performance, then go back and overdub a chorus or color a certain guitar section. We’re accenting or emphasizing different parts.”
As on all Soundgarden albums, King Animal features some of the greatest guitar sounds this side of Frank Zappa’s nicotine-drenched SG. “Been Away Too Long” buzzes with cathartic, manic tones; “By Crooked Steps” offers freakish delights; “Bones of Birds” closes with a dying crow’s cry.
“The guitars in ‘Been Away Too Long’ sound like angry mosquitoes,” Thayil laughs. “There’s a number of things there: a delay, and tremolo, and vibrato. We were really trying to make it sound as dentist drill-like as possible—shrill and piercing. We cranked up the high end on some pedal. And we have a digital Leslie pedal that creates a Rotovibe, Leslie effect. It captures a fast spinning Leslie. We wanted to make that sound as irritating as possible.
“‘By Crooked Steps’ is more of a performance thing,” he continues. “I’m playing beneath the bridge on a custom Gibson ES 335 Trini Lopez. I’d do that effect on my Guild S100, which I love, as well; both of them have a lot of room between the bridge and the tailpiece. You can get the string to sound out like harmonics playing it there, so I was picking beneath the bridge while bending the string either at the nut or above the 12th fret, which gives you this higher, shriller sound. Then we threw a delay on it. It creates a ghostly, spinning, turning sound when you add the delay.”
Cornell’s “Bones of Birds” is one of the album’s most memorable, menacing moments, a study in sludge ecstasy spinning a tale of time lost and survival of the fittest. It ends with eerie cries. “I love guitar solos just being a swirling squeal for 30 seconds and not having to actually play anything,” Thayil says. “’Bones of Birds’ was like that. The effects at the end sound like a murder of crows. That was something Adam read about that Pink Floyd did on Mettle. It’s a backwards wah wah and a delay and then controlling the volume knob and dialing it in until it’s right about to squeal and twist and bend. You cock the delay pedal at a certain angle and just by turning the volume off and on you get that ‘whee whee’ bird’s sound.”
Ben Shepherd switched between Fender Precision and Fender Telecaster Precision basses, played through an Ampeg SVT VR head/8x10 cab and a Mesa Boogie Carbine head/6x10 cab. Nathan Yaccino printed a Little Labs DI combined with Neumann U47 FET “for each cab, placed far away—mic placement for guitar is close, but for bass it’s backed off ten inches and aimed at a middle driver.”
Currently playing switch hitter between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, drummer Matt Cameron is the band’s not-so-secret weapon, his staggering ease in navigating the band’s odd metered grooves and oddly phrased guitar rhythms part of his formidable style. Add to that Cameron’s incredibly deep pocket and musical phrasing, and you have a drummer beyond compare.
“With Matt Cameron, you could put up one 57 five feet away from the kit and it would sound awesome,” Yaccino says. “He almost mixes himself while he plays, the way he hits all the drums is very even. It’s so easy to record him, it’s unreal. We did have room mics up, but Matt wanted more of a dry sound, so we didn’t use the rooms. Studio X has a large live room so we stuck the drums smack center in the middle of the room, which is unusual. We were then able to bring baffles around him and be more strategic about placement. Having more control over deadening, we had 360-degree space to place baffles.”
Yaccino used two mics on Cameron’s bass drum: a Shure Beta 52 inside and a Neumann U47 FET out, Shure SM56s (the prototype to the 57) for snare bottom and top, Sennheiser MD421s for toms (tops only), and Audio- Technica MK40s as overheads left and right, and an old RCA ribbon 77 as center overhead, placed 12 feet high and 15 feet on either side pointing away from the drums. As with the guitars and bass, Neve 1073s were used throughout the signal chain.
“A big part of the drum sound is the overheads,” Kasper explains. “Close-miking was just if we wanted to boost the level, the main sound is coming from the overheads. Matt wanted a dry sound. No room mic sound at all, no reverb, no triggers. I pumped up the low end and the compression to get a full kit sound. With a great drummer it’s almost better if you use less mics. A player like Matt can mix himself in the room pretty well. He isn’t hitting the cymbals too hard, and he plays as a performance. If a drummer is bashing cymbals way too hard, those mics will collapse and the toms will sound tiny.”
Sixteen years on, stronger, still strange, and more proficient than ever and ultimately surpassing the hoary grunge tag, Soundgarden lay most rock bands to waste on King Animal. The album may create its own tsunami in style, and perhaps scald clean the sensitive croons and subdued strums that have replaced much of what used to constitute American rock. Cornell may not love gridding nor Beat Detective, and Thayil will probably never maintain a personal Pro Tools rig like his fellow band members. (He commits everything to memory.) But does he see any advantage in digital technology?
“Of course,” Thayil replies, “it expedites recording. There’s no downtime between takes. With Pro Tools, you can do 20 takes almost immediately and decide which one you like best. We used to do analog backward effects. Chris did that brief backward guitar part in the beginning of ‘By Crooked Steps’ when he was demoing vocals, on his computer. We used to do backward guitar solos by flipping over the tape and playing to the track. With Pro Tools, I tried turning the computer upside down but it didn’t work! Doing things like that are pretty amazing facilitated by the computer. The benefits are pretty amazing in that things work quickly, but it’s the way things sound. I do not like things that sound all Pro Tools-y, I like things to sound organic and natural.”
Thayil hasn’t forgiven digital or embraced Pro Tools. But Soundgarden has made personal amends, and accepted each other and their extraordinary musical kinship. “It’s human nature to be somewhat altruistic in looking out for your brothers and offspring or parents,” Thayil muses. “It exists in various groups like that. So as a band we grew up. We loved each other as friends and as individuals but when you put four guys together in one band we may have neglected the band’s vision as a whole. We’ve matured, and we’ve all learned to appreciate our family and our band as a whole.”
Ken Micallef has covered music for the usual joints, including DownBeat, The Grammys, Rolling Stone, and Emusic.com.
JOE BARRESI ON MIXING KING ANIMAL
On his recording tools . . .
I use Pro Tools HD3 or Studer A800 tape machines for playback through my SSL G+ desk. If there is any digital processing, it may be a de-esser inside the box (like Massey or McDSP plugins), or the occasional delay effect with [Line 6] Echo Farm. All processing is usually analog and done on the SSL, with access to a wide variety of outboard gear as inserts, effects, etc. I have an Alan Smart compressor and Sontec EQ on the stereo bus into a Lavry A/D for the main mixes. For compressors, it could be Tube-Tech, Pye, Neve, Distressors, etc., along with the console channel compressors. Most EQ is done on the desk, except some Quad 8 and Neve strips for fattening; delays are always Wem. I have nine sets of speakers—everything from NS10s to KRK V6s, NHT Moos, NHT A-20s, NHT M100s, M-Audios, Radio Shacks, Acoustic Research, and Blue Skys—and I try to listen on as many as I can, to see how well a mix will translate on all types of systems.
On balancing the mix . . .
On this record, I tried to make the panning like the band plays live—with most of Kim’s guitars on the left, most of Chris’ on the right. I’d say this holds true on about 85% of the album.
When Adam and the guys tracked, they basically recorded multiple amps as a single performance, leaving them on three to four tracks, so I had complete control to rebalance the guitars as I saw fit. This flexibility allowed me to change guitar sounds in different sections of the song if I needed to.
On carving out an articulate low end . . .
My main concern was to keep the bottom end of this record big. I loved the bass on Superunknown; when those songs were played on the radio, they destroyed anything played before and after, so I tried to keep the bass on this record as important.
On the “hi-fi” aesthetic . . .
There are a few tracks that are on the dirtier side—that comes from overdriving the desk or certain pieces of gear. It’s fairly normal in the analog world to think in terms of gain staging because there are so many variables: playback levels, line inputs, insert points, fader levels, parallel and serial processing, etc. I don’t think many people think like that when mixing strictly digital. For instance, I could change the sound of the vocal by how hard I would push it into the channel limiter or the inserted compressor—not something I would ever think of in the digital world. But for the most part, I tried to keep the record open and more “hi-fi.” Matt’s drums sounded great, and a lot of that is derived from the overheads and room sounds, so that was the starting point for each mix. Then I made sure Ben and Chris’ voices got heard through the wall of guitars. Sometimes reamping the bass and certain vocals through small amps worked to make them sit in the track better.