A lot can happen over the course of eight years, especially if you’re a band like the Stone Temple Pilots. Multi-platinum forefathers of the postgrunge movement and one of the planet’s last great rock ‘n’ roll bands, STP has stood on the proverbial precipice more times than they’d care to remember, but as any seasoned veteran will tell you, perseverance pays dividends. After a career racked with tabloid drama and a tenuous end to their 2002 tour, the band released a greatest hits collection, Thank You, before disbanding in 2003 to pursue other creative avenues. Five years later, after Velvet Revolver fired its last round into the big empty, Scott Weiland, drummer Eric Kretz, and the DeLeo brothers (Dean and Robert) announced a six-month, 65-date North American reunion tour. Stone Temple Pilots were back, but a new album was anything less than a guarantee.
In February of 2009, the DeLeos and Kretz convened at Kretz’s Bomb Shelter Studios for three weeks to flesh out a select batch of new material. With so much time between albums, most of the songs came in fully arranged and developed. Weiland—who at the time was finishing up a bit of solo recording—laid down melodies and lyrics over the band’s demos at his own Lavish Studio. The next few months were spent arranging and tracking the songs, with Weiland fine-tuning the vocals with the help of producer and friend Don Was. After a short summer tour, the band completed the final two songs sometime in November. The self-titled album, their first since 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da, had all the big hooks, epic solos, and scorching vocals that one would come to expect from an STP record, but with one glaring difference. Brendan O’Brien, the hard-rock wizard responsible for the production of each of their five LPs, did not man the boards.
“Some people look at you like you’re crazy,” Kretz says with a laugh. “‘Why would you want to produce yourself? Produce everyone else in the world; just don’t produce yourselves.’”
“We were very fortunate to have someone like Brendan show us how things could be done,” says Robert DeLeo. “In some ways, I think we closed a certain chapter with Shangri-La. We took that production and that format to a certain level. This is definitely a new chapter. We’ve had some heavy people involved in our records, but I felt like it was finally time to take that on.”
Eric Kretz’s Bomb Shelter Studios.
Located underneath the intertwined concrete freeways of downtown L.A., Kretz’s Bomb Shelter Studios sits inside a 104-year-old brick building that once housed a candle-making company. Completely refurbished, the space features two separate iso booths, a 30x25-foot control room furnished with planks of Madagascar poplar, a spacious lounge area, and a live room big enough to house a batting cage.
Meanwhile, Robert DeLeo’s HomeFry studio, overlooking the picturesque beach communities of the South Bay, is the result of six years of hard work. Packed to the gills with his vintage amp and microphone collection, HomeFry boasts a fully restored 1972 Neve 8014, a 16-channel board with 2254 stereo compressors, eight 1073 preamps, and eight 31102 preamps taken from a later model board. With four 1066’s racked outside, it’s the ultimate Neve package.
By contrast, Bomb Shelter’s centerpiece is a 1997 SSL G+ 4048 with 48 returns, but Kretz’s Neve Sidecar—outfitted with the classic 1066 and 1073 preamps—was used on everything from bass and guitar to select drum tracks. Meanwhile, Weiland’s vocals were tracked through a Neumann U 47 and Sidecar of his own at Lavish.
Stone Temple Pilots [Atlantic], it should be noted, is the first STP album not recorded to tape, but a surplus of finely attenuated gear—coupled with an appreciation of classic studio techniques— made for a smooth transition. An avid reader and vintage collector, Robert DeLeo was inspired by recording stories he had read in books like Temples of Sound and Recording The Beatles, and with five hit records under their collective belts, STP were well up to the task of self-production.
“You have to wear a lot of hats,” Kretz admits.
“It’s not just about the music. You have to deal with all the personalities, and there’s always been a referee to come in and help settle any disputes. Now you have to settle those disputes and deal with the consequences and the emotional stuff that goes along with it. That’s the only difficulty in producing yourself—the emotional side of it. There really isn’t anything else. We’ve been doing this for so long, and it’s all based around tried and proven ways of making records.”
MIX & MATCH
When it came time to choose the right guitars and amplification, both Robert and Dean DeLeo agreed that a vintage, stripped-down approach would work best. For Dean, that meant a handful of reliable weapons like a ’57 Strat, a black ’78 Les Paul, a ’67 sunburst Telecaster, and a ’50s-era Danelectro double cutaway with three lipstick pickups that accounted for the buzzy crunch of songs like “First Kiss on Mars” and “Hazy Daze.” For his acoustic, Dean used a Gibson J-50, which accounts for the acoustic guitar parts on most of STP’s catalog.
Amp-wise, small vintage combo amps such as a ’71 Ampeg GU-12 (for the solo on the epic “Dare If You Dare), a Gretsch 6159 bass amp (for “Between the Lines”), and a ’64 Supro Thunderbolt were the order of the day. Most of the time, three mics were set up and ready to go for any given amp. The most consistent pairing was a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser MD 421, with a Royer R-121, RCA BK5, or Neumann U 87 mixed in as a variable third option. On a few songs, engineer Russ Fowler miked the rear of an open cabinet and blended it with the front, placing the Royer about five or six feet away from the speaker. Other times he would use only one mic for an extra tight sound.
“I try and align the capsules as best I can,” Fowler says. “Sometimes I would use a coincidence pattern with the 57 and the 421, then sit the ribbon on top of that. Alignment of the capsules can make a big difference.”
“We wanted to capture something that had a little age to it, but in a modern way,” seconds engineer Bill Appleberry, who doubled as the album’s keyboard player for standout tracks such as “Maver” and “Take a Load Off.”
Considering that Dean tracked most of his guitars in the control room, extra-long cabling was needed. To combat the delay and loss of high-end, guitar tech Bruce Nelson outfitted a 12x12 board with a Sonic Research Turbo Tuner and a Fryette Valvulator tube buffer to take the signal from high to low impedance. The 50-foot cable was manufactured by Elixir, a company that once made bomb detonation cable for the military. Once a certain tone was achieved and the part laid down, Dean tracked it again with a different guitar and amp combination, panning the two tracks to complement one another.
“I used a Pultec-style Summit EQ and a Blackface 1176LN on the electric guitar bus,” Fowler remembers. “With the Summit, I would add overall top end, varied from 4k to 10k, and chop out the low end. The 1176 compression amount also varied but mainly a slower attack with moderate to fast release.”
Usually a proponent of the punchy tones offered up by his collection of Schecter PJ basses, Robert DeLeo recorded on a new Gibson Thunderbird. With a penchant for mixing and matching heads and cabinets, he formulated the perfect blend of smoothness and bite with two main rigs. For maximum grit, DeLeo unplugged the speakers from his 100-watt Ampeg VT-22 guitar amp—made famous by Keith Richards on Exile On Main Street—and lined the power section into his 1970 Marshall 8x10 cabinet outfitted with vintage Celestion speakers. For a rounder, more fullbodied sound, he ran the Thunderbird through a Demeter Tube Direct Box and into a 1961 Fender Bassman with a 15-inch speaker. The Bassman was miked with both an Electro-Voice RE20 and a Neumann U 47 fet, while the Marshall cabinet was miked with a Sennheiser MD 421 and a Shure SM57. He then used an A/B box to blend tones.
But for the tracking of “Cinnamon” and “First Kiss on Mars,” rather than blend two different amps, he used a 1968 Fender Bandmaster dirtied up with an early ’70s Maestro BB-1 Bass Brassmaster pedal. That setup was miked with an SM57 and a Neumann U 47 fet pointed at the top speaker, and a Yamaha SKRM-100 subkick placed next to the bottom.
“Being a bass player, I’m always asking, ‘Can you hear what I’m doing enough?’” Robert says jokingly. “But the way I look at it, I worked way too hard and way too long to not be heard, you know? I can’t express how much of my soul I put into this.”
Endorsed by GMS since 1994, Kretz stayed constant with his kit, although he did cycle through nearly 25 snares to find just the right ones for the album, including a vintage 6-1/2-inch Ludwig Black Beauty, 6-1/2-inch brass and maple GMS snares, some custom pieces from Orange County Drum & Percussion, and Robert’s monster 8-inch Gretsch, which can be heard on the album’s first single, “Between the Lines.”
“We tuned that thing as low as possible, so it sounds like a pillow,” Kretz says. “It’s got that fat, late-’70s glam rock feel, but it’s hard to play because there’s no bounce that comes back to you. It’s like hitting a bunch of sheets!”
The size difference between the tracking rooms at Bomb Shelter and HoneFry meant the drums had the most variation in terms of microphone selection and placement. To rein in the sound, Kretz bookended his kit with massive six-foot gobos packed 10 inches thick with pegboard and Auralex foam, plus a tented canopy festooned with Christmas lights for extra vibe. Sennheiser MD 421s were used on Kretz’s 12- and 14-inch rack toms and again on the 16-inch floor tom, but to capture the bellow of the larger floor tom—as well as the overall rumble of the kit—a U 47 fet was used for the 18- inch. Shure Beta 98 mics were placed underneath both floor toms as well.
As digital recording can be unforgiving on cymbals, Kretz and Fowler used vintage Royer R-122 ribbon mics for the overheads, which naturally roll off top end. (DeLeo’s Sony C-37A was used as an additional overhead mic during drum tracking at his studio.) AKG C 12As were used for room mics, with an SM57 on the hi-hat, but it was the snare and kick drum configurations that required the most tweaking. A vintage ’60s AKG D 20 and SKRM-100 subkick were set up outside the kick drum, while an MD 421 was placed inside.
On a gobo in front of the kit was a Shure Beta 91, which went through one of the 1066 preamps on the Neve Sidecar and into an Empirical Labs Distressor. Atop the snare, Fowler used two mics: an AKG C 451 B and a Shure SM57 run through a Neve 1073 in a lunchbox and then a Pultec MEQ-5 to boost the uppermids. Underneath the snare, Fowler used an AKG C 414 set in bidirectional mode and aimed at a 45-degree angle toward the bottom of the snare. “I call it the snick,” Fowler says. “It picks up the beater side of the kick and the bottom of the snare simultaneously.” At DeLeo’s studio, Fowler used a more traditional Sennheiser MD 441 in place of the C 414 “snick” mic.
For added character, a vintage Shure 55SH vocal mic was set up waist high approximately six feet in front of the kit, and a Lawson L47 was placed behind Kretz’s head and aimed at the snare drum. The 55SH subkick was crushed with a Smart C2 compressor on the way in, while the L47 went straight into the SSL. Apart from the 55SH, most of the drum tracks featured very little compression. The tom and cymbal mics were recorded through the SSL, while the kick and snare mics passed through the Sidecar’s 1066 and 1073 preamps.
DeLeo and Fowler slightly tweaked the configurations at HomeFry, using a pair of AKG C 12As for the overheads, which were a little breathier on the top end to account for the lower ceilings. A U 47 was placed in front of the kit, and a Coles BBC 4038 was stuck in the corner of the room to pick up extra low end. “Cinnamon” and “First Kiss on Mars,” two of Stone Temple Pilots’ most distinctive and sonically broad cuts, were both tracked at DeLeo’s studio.
“I purposefully held those songs until last,” DeLeo says. “I knew I wanted to do them at HomeFry. It meant that all the blood, sweat, and tears I put into this place were finally coming to a head, and I was able to hear it rather than just see it.”
THE LORD’S WORK
STP tapped renowned specialist and Grammy-winning engineer Chris Lord- Alge for mixdown. “I tried to treat it more like a Beatles or a Zeppelin album than a contemporary album,” Lord-Alge says. “Let it be more of a mid-range record, and let the drums be more ambient and less reverb-y. I look at Dean as our era’s Jimmy Page, and Robert is 50% John Paul Jones and 50% John Entwistle. They play stuff that works together like a puzzle.”
“Everything is so much louder than when it left here,” says Kretz of the finished product. “It’s easy to make something sound loud, but then you lose something else. There’s a finite amount of stuff that can go in there, and usually you have to take stuff out in order to make things sound clearer. Chris has a way of jamming more shit in there and making it work.”
Lord-Alge brought out his Universal Audio LA-3As and all four of his bluestriped 1176s, especially for the snare drum. A Marshall Tape Eliminator was used on the vocals, with twice the amount of slap he’d normally use. “Really going for the Lennon thing as much as possible,” he explains. For other reverb, he matched up a vintage Lexicon 224 with an EMT 246 to capture a Young Americans-era, David Bowie feel, as on “Bagman.”
“I panned this record as wide as possible,” Lord-Alge says. “If I could have put it outside the car window, I would. Sometimes I’d take one of the bass distortion amps and pan it right so the fuzz is coming from one side.”
STP’s focused, uncomplicated approach is evident throughout the album, from the bratty snarl of “Hickory Dichotomy” to the easy Sunday morning vibes of “Maver.” In order to go big, they first had to go small, coaxing golden audio out of vintage combo amps, guitars, and snares, then capturing the performances with the finest microphones.
“There’s a certain amount of your brain you shouldn’t use when you’re producing your own music,” DeLeo says. “I don’t necessarily think it’s dumbing it down, but the final product should just be rock ‘n’ roll music. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just trying to make a great record with the best songs we can make, and I think we’d done that from the beginning.”
Robert DeLeo shows off a few of his favorite mics.
RCA BK5 These were movie mics made to take big shotgun blasts, but they’re really great for electric guitar. “Huckleberry Crumble” was recorded with this late ’50s mic and a Royer R-121. It’s really fatsounding, and great on a snare drum, too.
AKG D 30 This one’s pretty rare, and a great kick drum microphone. I also own a deadstock 1964 D20, and I have another D20 that’s used on every kick drum on every song on the record.
Coles 4038 I have a pair of these original BBC ribbon mics. These are great on acoustic guitars, vocals, strings . . . everything!
RCA 44BX Eight pounds of mic. This one is in original condition— probably a late ’30s or ’40s model—and was used over at Eric’s above the kit and behind the drummer.
Neumann KM 86 i This was used on all the acoustic guitars on the record. I bought this from Germany on eBay, but I think it came out of Townhouse Studios in London. I was watching the making of Dark Side of the Moon and saw these being used on the piano and guitars.
Sony C-37A Endorsed by the Capitol Records crew, this 1961 mic was used on overheads for the drums. Supposedly this was Sinatra’s preference for a while.
Neumann U 47 This is the first mic I ever bought back in 1995. At the time, it was $6,500. Now they go for around $15,000. Use this on everything you possibly can. This was put out in front of the drums as a mono room mic.