THE FOO FIGHTERS TAKE A LOW-TECH APPROACH TO HIGH-INTENSITY ROCK
“You know that scene in The Wall where the faceless people are falling into the machine that’s grinding them into paste?” asks Dave Grohl from his 606 Studio in Los Angeles. “Digital editing has robbed drummers of their identity, just like that. I’m heartbroken by what heavy-handed producers have done with drummers over the last 10 years.”
“A drummer walks into a studio,” he continues, like he’s telling a Borscht Belt joke. “He says, ‘This is how I play the drums,’ and the producer says, ‘That’s not good enough. I am going to make you sound like a machine.’ That’s f**king lame! I am not the greatest drummer in the world, but when I record drums, it doesn’t sound perfect and I am all over the place and the cymbals wash a little hard, but that’s how I play the drums. If you don’t like it, don’t call me back. I wish that every drummer would tell their producer, ‘That f**king machine doesn’t make me sound like me. It makes me sound like you, and you’re not the drummer, motherf**ker.’ We’ve got Taylor Hawkins— who is the greatest f**king rock drummer I’ve ever played with—why not let Taylor sound like Taylor? So that’s why we used tape and no computers.”
Wasting Light, the Foo Fighters’ seventh album, is a messy, often distorted, over-the-top record that pulses with attitude and energy. Every Foo Fighter’s album is an adrenaline junkie’s dream, the twin powers of Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins guaranteeing maximum energy like twin turbojets propelling a 747. But Wasting Light, recorded analog to tape (API 1608 32-track, two Studer 827s) with no computers, not even to mix or master, is an entirely different beast. You hear guitars clipping, cymbals pushing VU meters into the red, the sound of a live performance: blood, sweat, and tears (literally). What you don’t hear is a grid. Or Autotune. Or perfectly lined-up drums.
Deciding to track at Dave Grohl’s house with producer Butch Vig and engineer James Brown (veteran producer/engineer Alan Moulder came in to mix), the band (Grohl, Hawkins, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel, and Chris “Shifty” Shiflett, and bassist Krist Novoselic on one track) set up in the garage (drums), the living room (control/live room), and in closets (vocals), with no sound treatment and plenty of bleed. Three baffles were placed behind Hawkins’ vintage Ludwig drums, but that was it.
“I am no stranger to tape,” Grohl says. “Call me dumb, but the simple signal path of a microphone to a tape machine makes perfect sense to me. There’s not too many options, and the performance is what matters most.”
But not everyone agreed with Grohl’s “analog only” rule. “The first song we recorded, we get a drum take and Butch starts razor-splicing edits to tape,” Grohl recalls. “We rewind the tape and it starts shedding oxide. Butch says, ‘We should back everything up to digital.’ I start screaming: ‘If I see one f**king computer hooked up to a piece of gear, you’re f**king fired! We’re making the record the way we want to make it, and if you can’t do it, then f**k you!’ Nobody makes us do what we don’t want to do. ‘What if something happens to the tape?’ ‘What did we do in 1991, Butch?’ You play it again! God forbid you have to play your song one more time.”
With that behind them, the team settled into the tracking process: Hawkins recording drums to click, and Grohl’s scratch guitar and scratch vocal to a master reel, which was the reel used for edits. Rather than recording numerous drum takes, punch-ins and edited transitions completed the master takes. The master reel and a blank slave reel were striped with SMPTE timecode: “We would lock those two striped reels together and simultaneously bounce down the drums to four tracks (kick, snare, and a stereo mix of all the other drum tracks); Dave’s scratch parts would also get bounced over,” says Brown. “We would then record all of the overdubs to the slave reel. We never went back to the master reels, due to the fact that we ended up mixing back up at the house...under normal circumstances, one would lock the master back up with the slave and use the first-generation drum tracks from the master reel (in other words, not the bounceddown drums on the slave reel) when mixing . . . however, with only 32 channels on the console, that wasn’t an option for us. All of the mixes, with the exception of ‘Dear Rosemary,’ were mixed using the bounceddown drums.” Everything was mixed with all eight hands (Grohl, Vig, Brown, and mix engineer Alan Moulder) on deck, riding faders in real time to tape.
“In Pro Tools, you can take a band that’s not very good and make them razor-tight,” Butch Vig explains from Silverlake, California, where he is working on the forthcoming Garbage album. “But this became more about the band’s performances, about what they would have to do in order to make a great record. They wanted a challenge. That was exciting. Somebody would want to do a punch, and I’d say, ‘If you go over it, it’s gone.’ The Foos rehearsed very hard to pull this off , and not many bands could do it.”
Vig and the Foos did allow a click track for drums; they’re not insane. But even then, Vig discovered the joys of free flying and forgetting the grid.
“Clicks were used, but it’s loose,” Vig says. “Sometimes we’d worry about the timing or a snare hit. Then we realized that when everything is off just a few milliseconds, the sound gets wider and thicker. If you zoom in with Pro Tools and put everything exactly on that microscopic downbeat, it’s so perfect that it loses a thickness. If everything is off just a little bit, the music just gets wider and thicker.
“It all made our brains switch into a different focus,” he adds. “For one thing, everyone is used to looking at a computer screen, so you look at the music, what the timing is, what the waves are like. There was no computer screen at Dave’s, so I would look at the meters, which is how I initially learned how to record. We set up this huge HD monitor on the meter bridge of the tape machine so we could see how hard we were hitting the tape. Eventually we started feeding that live to the Net, with no explanation!”
BUNKER DRUMS Down in the concrete bunker/basement that functioned as a drum booth, engineer James Brown had his work cut out for him. Brown used the same close mics as he would for any date: Yamaha SKRM100 Subkick (with custom API pre) and an AKG D112 (custom API pre/Inward Connections EQP2/Distressor) on kick; Shure SM57 on snare top and bottom (custom API pre/EQ’d and summed in API 1608/Distressor); AKG 452 (Neve 1073) on hi-hat; Josephson E22S (API 1608 pre) on toms; AKG 452 (Neve 1073) on ride.
But as the concrete floor created mad reflections, Brown experimented with overhead and ambient placement. Grohl demanded more “garage” whenever things became too tidy-sounding, which meant turning up the room mics, and turning down the close mics. For overheads, after a shootout, Brown settled on a Violet Designs Stereo Flamingo (Neve 1073) and Shure SM58 “trash” (custom API/Urei 1176 (all buttons in, “Brit mode”). Kit ambience (about four feet out) was a Neumann M49 (Great River/Harrison 32EQ/Retro Instruments Sta-Level); overhead ambience was a Violet Black Finger (Neve 1073/ Urei 1176); main ambience, two Soundelux 251s at knee level against the garage door (custom API pres/ Dramastic Audio Obsidian). For floor ambience, a pair of Crown PZMs (custom API pres/DBX 160).
“I’d use the same mic placement in that garage, regardless of the mics,” Brown explains. “Turning the Soundeluxes away from the drums and pointing them into a corner tempered the top end. The mic choices were more about choosing cymbals and asking Taylor not to hit so hard. That allows more room for the snare and kick to cut through in the ambient mics. That’s when you can really hear the garage; the air isn’t getting sucked up by cymbals and midrange.”
Top: The control room, with video feed of the API 32-track’s meter bridge. Bottom: Taylor Hawkins’
Room mics were placed eight feet out from the kit— basically, against the garage door at the farthest point away from the drums. “It was purely to temper the cymbals,” Brown says. “The garage being untreated and literally a concrete box, it was a very harsh, loud environment. So it required an unconventional miking setup. The Crown PZM, whatever you stick it to, it expands its pickup area, so those added a lot of punch in the low/mid area. The Shure 58, I stick it directly behind the drummer’s head and compress the living daylights out of it with all the buttons in on the Urei; that adds a trashiness to everything. The Neumann between the garage door closer to the drums is to capture some of the air around the kick drum. There are three mics on kick drum: one inside, aimed at the beater; then the NS10 sub bass; and the kit ambience from the Neumann. The mic pre choices are what I generally use. For tom, kick, and snare, I used my goto choices.”
Grohl sang through his time-tested Bock 251 (Neve 1073/Distressor); Brown used his go-to mics for bass and guitar. Bass choices were an Avalon U5 DI (Neve 1073/Inward Connection EQP2/Distressor) and two close mics on Nate’s Ashdown ABM 900 EVO/ Ashdown 8X10 cab: Lauten Clarion (FET) and a BLUE Mouse. Guitar mics were many: two RCA BX5s, Royer R121, Josephson E22S, Shure SM57, Shure SM7, Sennheiser 421. Guitar pres were “almost exclusively Shadow Hills Quad Gama—occasionally, I would use the API board pres,” says Brown. “That would in turn be fed through a Universal Audio LA3A limiter, just touching the peaks. Nearly everything went through a fader and EQ on the API 1608 console that Butch would manipulate during performance to send as clean a signal to tape. We had to tape a guitar pick to the fader track to stop him burning a hole in the tape!”
After tracking instruments, Grohl cut vocals, typically sitting next to Vig and Brown in the makeshift control room. As with everything he does, Grohl pushed himself to the max.
“Ask Dr. Phil about my headaches!” Grohl laughs. “I like to make vocals feel atmospheric and ethereal. But then I want them to sound like I’m in primal scream therapy. Some things I am singing I can’t make sound pretty. Punk rock is my identity. I am from a little town in Virginia, a high school dropout who wanted to play punk rock. So when I am screaming my balls off , it’s because I don’t feel any different than when I was 15.
“Anyway, I do get headaches. I want a song to have maximum emotional potential when I am singing in the studio. When the mic is picking up every tiny inconsistency, you really strain to make it sound right. And I sit down to sing. That’s the only way I know how to do it. Maybe I feel funny ’cause I don’t have a guitar on. I project the same; I don’t know how else to do it.”
RETROSPECTON, INTROSPECTION “We did a couple songs where Dave sang right next to me,” Vig says, “like, ‘I Should Have Known.’ Lyrically, there are references to Kurt Cobain, but I don’t know if Dave would admit to that. We ran Dave’s mic into a Space Echo there—it’s got this spooky, distorted sound. At the end of that take, the hair on my neck stood up; I couldn’t say anything. Dave looked like he was crying, ’cause he was singing so hard. He was obviously channeling something inside. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, and the darkest and weirdest, in a way. I love that song.”
Grohl won’t confirm that “I Should Have Known” is about Kurt Cobain—only that the doomed legend is in there, somewhere. “There is something to be said for starting over,” Grohl says. “To be able to say, if this all ended now, I’d be totally okay with it, and I’d start over again. ’Cause that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always felt like this is temporary, ever since Nirvana became popular. So a song like ‘I Should Have Known’ is about all the people I’ve lost, not just Kurt.
“There was a lot of retrospection and introspection going back to the way we used to make records,” he continues. “and with someone who started my career 20 years ago: Butch. I wouldn’t be doing this if not for Butch Vig. After we were finished, I realized there’s a reason why we’re here, and why we made the album the way we did, and why we used Butch, and a reason why Krist Novoselic played on a song. I was writing about time. And how much has passed and feeling born again, feeling like a survivor, thinking about mortality and death and life, and how beautiful it is to be surrounded by friends and family and making music.”
Ultimately, Wasting Light is a life-affirming, uplifting record, like most Foo Fighters records—from the roaring opener, “Burning Bridges,” and the guitar shrapnel counterpoint of “Rope,” to the Ministryesque death-metal howl of “White Limo” and the introspective “I Should Have Known.” Somewhere in his 40s, Dave Grohl comes to grips with his past by facing his present.
“This band was a f*king fluke,” Grohl says. “To think now that we can headline these huge shows and there are these huge expectations, like, ‘You better make a f**king hit record!’ That kind of shit. So, okay, I’ll go back to my garage, ’cause that’s what everyone thought we shouldn’t do. It diffused any of that expectation. If we have songs that mean something, and you hear them once and they stick, and they’re recorded so it sounds like a beautiful explosion and it feels like human beings making music, then we’ve accomplished everything that we’ve wanted to do. It made perfect sense. Why do it the way everybody else does it? I want to sound like us, like the Foo Fighters.”
BIG SOUND ON A SMALL BUDGET
ENGINEER JAMES BROWN’S ADVICE FOR GETTING PAST GEAR LIMITATIONS
“If you only have cheap mics and pres on hand, it doesn’t mean you can’t get good sounds,” Brown says. “Understanding mic placement can be the difference between your work sounding like it’s made up of a bunch of disparate sounds, as opposed to a cohesive, robust-sounding recording. The main rule of thumb is, if it sounds good in the room, there’s a good chance it will sound good recorded. Then if you can add to that an understanding of phase cancellation and how to avoid it, you’ll be on your way. The rest of it is all about the way you hear things. But it’s hugely important to nurture an understanding or feel for how musical parts and sounds interact and fit together—the alchemy of it, if you will. There’s an art to engineering music, so at some point you have to let go of all of that knowledge and start thinking about it in those terms.”