Dead Reckoning

Serj Tankian Takes Total Control of His Home-Studio Produced Solo Album, Elect the Dead.
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Serj Tankian Takes Total Control of His Home-Studio Produced Solo Album, Elect the Dead.

“I’ve never considered artists more socially responsible than plumbers, or gardeners, or politicians,” says System of a Down vocalist, poet, activist, multimedia performer, and now solo artist, Serj Tankian. “I think everyone has a voice, a vision, and a reason to exist here. It’s each of our duty to connect with that vision, and to follow it full heartedly. If someone’s vision is to be socially or politically active, so be it. If someone’s vision is to write an amazing love song, then so be it.”

Tankian’s vision seems to be following his immense creative curiosity along every uncurling tendril of anything having to do with art—a direction typified by his tackling the songwriter, artist, producer, engineer, and record company roles for his new solo album, Elect the Dead [Serjical Strike/Reprise]. Working in his home studio—Serjical Strike Dungeons—assisted by only a few friends (most notably, operatic soprano Ani Maldjian, SOAD drummer John Dolmayan and Praxis, Buckethead, and Guns N’ Roses drummer “Brain” Mantia), Tankian marshaled his varied influences to craft an expansive hard-rock album that echoes System’s signature rhythmic twists and dynamic shifts, while embracing a near-cinematic architecture of tones and moods.

Somehow, Tankian is able to strike balances between seemingly disparate elements (vicious guitars and tender strings, near-poetic lyrics and silly banter, etc.) to conjure songs that initially hit hard, and then reveal vast soundscapes of adventure and intrique. As a result, Elect the Dead is not only a kick-ass conceptual-rock album, but also a fitting tribute to a man whose artistic force is divided between communicating deep truths and simply having fun.

Your songs are often more like novellas, than little ditties about love. Does that conceptual approach affect how you develop sonic landscapes for your work?
That’s interesting. But I think a great love song—even if it’s a dorky love song—will transcend the personal and become universal. If people will associate with what you feel, then that’s a good song. When you listen to a Beatles song, for example, you get that transcendence. You listen to it, and you say, “I feel that. I’m not them, but I feel that.” That’s good work, and it comes from the fact that music doesn’t belong to us as artists. Music comes from the universe, and, at best, we’re just great presenters.

But even if we’re all antennas for the muse, we still have to document what’s in our heads onto tape, so to speak. Is your process to leave the inspiration raw, or refine it?
When it comes to making the music, I follow my gut, and that’s that. But I do have the expanded experience over the years of working with [producer] Rick Rubin and Daron [Makakian, SOAD guitarist]—who is an amazing arranger. The System experience has taught me a lot about how to make things sound great. For example, when I did the vocals during a System session, Rick would always tell me, “Pronounce that word better. I want to hear exactly what you’re saying.” All of that stuff sticks in your head, so when you’re doing your own project, you can’t help but apply what you’ve learned to make things better.

Let’s say I’m listening to a song in the control room; the songwriter and producer parts of me agree that the bridge isn’t as powerful as it should be. So what do I do? Well, I’ll go in, and try something else. I’ve experimented a lot with this record to get things just right. I’ve re-recorded guitars, changed tunings, and changed tempos. I’ve even taken parts from songs and inserted them into other songs. On the song “Feed Us”, for example, the breakdown is from a whole different song that didn’t even make the record. The part is a different tempo, too, but it works perfectly. If I showed you the exact edit point, you might be able to hear the tempo difference, but it wouldn’t bug you very much. It’s done in a way where you wouldn’t guess it’s not a part of the same song.

Now, while you don’t want technical things to get in the way of a listener’s experience, I don’t think a recording should be perfect. I think it should be perfectly impassioned, but not technically perfect. For example, there are vocal lines in songs such as “Saving Us” and “Elect the Dead” that I left from the original demos because the vibe was so there. I couldn’t replicate it. I mean, I could replicate the words. I could sing it better. My voice could sound better. But that original organic and intuitive feeling that comes from saying something for the first time could not be recaptured or improved upon. After you’re forced to sing or play something three or four times, you’re going to lose some of that impassioned strength—and that’s as much a part of the quality of a record as the sonic side.

Given your desire to document those moments of discovery and passion, I’m assuming you save just about everything you record?
Thanks to digital hard drives, we can save whatever we want—and, yes, that’s everything [laughs]. However, I did lose four drives in the process of making this record. To this day, we don’t know what happened. At one point, we were losing data every two weeks. We didn’t know whether we needed to upgrade Pro Tools, or whether it was the computer. We didn’t know where to go. In three out of the four cases, we had other backups, but that fourth drive had more than 100 songs on it. I had to pay someone to recover the data. In fact, the original version of “The Unthinking Majority”—the first song from the album that we released as a teaser—was on that drive. The truth is, I even had a safety of that drive, but the data was backed up so long ago, that I didn’t know how many tracks had been changed or added since the backup. So the songs wouldn’t have been lost completely, but I figured I would have lost about 20 hours of new performances if I didn’t pay to have the data recovered.

Is this one of those “note to self” scenarios?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know if I was out of town, or what, but the backups clearly weren’t done when they should have been.

How did the songwriter, artist, producer, and co-engineer parts of your brain communicate with each other throughout the recording process?
As soon as you finish writing, I think the songwriter has to step aside, and the producer has to step in. I was doing both jobs, so, in my case, the producer was very in tune with the whole project [laughs]. But when I wrote the songs, I already knew how I wanted to hear things. Until the actual track was close to what I had envisioned in my mind—or better—I didn’t give up. I struggled. I recorded the album, and sat with it for three months before I started mixing. Then, I went back and forth, and tried all kinds of techniques. I took a lot of time mixing. As the artist and songwriter, I was happy with the songs, and I didn’t want to f**k them up as a producer. So I took my time, and I got some good advice from friends—musicians, producers, and many other people—and I got the tracks where I really wanted them. I wanted to have the confidence in my ears and mind to be able to say, “I know what the right thing is, and this is what I want.” When I got that confidence, I got the sound I wanted for the record.

But you also draw your musical experience from a lot of areas—rock, world music, film scoring, electronica, and so on. How difficult was it for you to focus your varied influences to produce a cohesive solo album?
I’ve always wanted to make as diverse a record as I could, but also somehow make it work as a whole. You’ve got to be able to tell a story with the music—even if it’s not a thematic or conceptual record. You’ve got to be able to start somewhere, and finish somewhere. That’s what’s great about putting out a record. If I released a handful of songs that was intended to be downloaded separately—and never be released together as a CD—then I wouldn’t care so much. But this is a record, and the songs have to connect to each other so that it all makes sense. Of course, the other trick is that not everyone will listen to the entire album. Some people will choose to download only a song or two, and so each song must also stand on its own. What works in the desert should work in the city [laughs].

You’ve had the benefit of working in big studios, and recording in your home studio. Do you operate much the same in the two environments?
Obviously, you’re a lot more comfortable in a home studio. You go in when you’re inspired, and you work as long as you want. In a major studio you’re paying for time, and you’re always conscious of that. But I think a home studio works for me, because I’m very hands-on. I’ll sit down—sometimes in the middle of the night—write a song, record it into Pro Tools, cut it the way I want it, do a rough vocal melody, and then leave it until I feel like coming back to it and arranging it further. And when it’s my own space, I can go and come as I please without having to drive to work [laughs].

How is your home studio set up?
My studio is about 1,000 square feet with three rooms—a control room, a live room, and an isolation booth. Everything is recorded on Pro Tools HD. I have a Digidesign Control 24 console with Focusrite mic preamps, and I also have some really cool outboard gear, such as a Neve 1073 preamp and a Urei 1176 compressor.

Can you detail your typical songwriting process forElect the Dead?
I usually wrote the songs on either a piano or an acoustic guitar. Once I had a basic sketch—including some rough vocals—I programmed the drums around it so that I had my rhythms figured out. Then, I recorded a basic electric-guitar track—just for me to have some melody ideas for the guitars, and some rhythmic ideas around the drums. At that point, I developed a bass line—which really told me what my rhythm section is doing. Then, I went back and redid the guitars, or started layering them.

How did you generate the programmed drum tracks?
I used a lot of stuff, but mostly Sony Acid. The only reason I keep a PC around is for Acid—most everything else I do on a Mac. I’d throw the rough vocal and acoustic guitar or piano tracks in there, generate a click track, and then build the drums using samples. Then, I dumped the drums back into Pro Tools, and started recording the rest of the tracks.

And, at some point, real drums were laid on top?
Exactly. We recorded the live drums at The Pass studios in Los Angeles with engineer Krish Sharma and assistant engineer Joe Oreland. But, ultimately, we did whatever worked for the song. The sampled beats were deleted entirely, or left in for certain parts, or used completely if the real drums didn’t make sense for a particular song.

What were the main guitars you used during the sessions?
I used a bunch of different stuff—a Gibson SG and a Les Paul Custom, a PRS, a Fender Strat, and a Jerry Jones electric sitar. I also used this really cool custom guitar that First Act made me. It’s right between the Gibson- and PRS-type warmth and the more high-pitched Fender sound. It doesn’t have a name, I guess.

How did you cast the guitars for each song? What would lead you to pick up the First Act, as opposed to the Les Paul or the Strat?
I used them all in combination with each other, and I did a lot of layering. I also used multiple amps. I’d start with one guitar—let’s say a Les Paul—and split the signal through a Little Labs PCP Instrument Distribution Box to a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, a Marshall Mode Four, and a Vox AC30. I wanted a lot of different tonal options so we could blend and/or construct sounds during the mix. For the rhythm guitars, we’d first find a guitar and amp combination we liked, and then we’d mix and match other amps and guitars until we dialed in sounds that were complementary. Then, on top of those layers, I’d overdub a part using a SansAmp PSA1.1 to get that cool, metal “shhhhhh” tone. I love the tremolo on the AC30, so I did some tracks using that, and I also played some sustaining guitar parts while plugged into a Moogerfooger MuRF pedal. Ultimately, there were at least eight rhythm guitars for each song.

How did you mic the amps?
I wanted some separation between the guitar tones, so I set up the Rectifier and the Mode Four heads in the control room so I could fool with the knobs, and I put the speaker cabinets in the live room with some foam panels between them. The AC30 was in the iso booth. I’d often mix up the speaker cabinets, and put, say, a Marshall 4x12 with the Rectifier, and a Sunn 4x12 with the Marshall. Most of the guitar sounds were recorded with Shure KSM-44s positioned close to the speaker cones—some dead-on, and some angled a bit. The KSM-44s are good for recording guitars. They’re pretty transparent mics with a sweet midrange emphasis.

When you layer a ton of guitar textures, out-of-phase signals and other frequency issues can often make the guitars soundsmaller. How did you manage to avoid this problem, and make your guitars so huge and ferocious?
I had a great engineer, Dan Monti, working with me, so that helped. If he heard anything out of phase, he’d deal with it. And, of course, the mixing phase is critical—you don’t want to have the whole kitchen sink playing back on the final track. You let your mixer weed out what he needs, and then go about separating the guitar sounds. That’s the beauty of mixing. If I had a bad mixer, I imagine all the guitars might sound mushy and small—which is the risk you run when you’re layering a lot of different instruments. But Neil Avron came in, and he did a phenomenal mix. He was able to separate the guitars in a really classy way so that they sounded thick, and all the tones supported each other. If something was unnecessary, he’d mute it. As long as it sounded good, I was into it.

Can you offer any specifics as to how Neil mixed the guitars?
I wasn’t there the entire time he was mixing over at Paramount Studios in L.A.—although I’d come in when he had something down, and make my comments. Most of the job was using EQ and panning to separate parts, of course. He’d pan some rhythm guitars hard right and hard left, and he’d also position each layer according to its frequency range. For example, a high guitar part might be panned at 4 o’clock, while a low-midrange guitar might be positioned more at 9 o’clock.

What about your bass tracks? Did you go direct, mic an amp, or use a hybrid approach?
I took the lazy way out! I was doing those tracks by myself a lot of the time, and as I had to engineer them, the easiest thing to do was sit at the board, and plug into a Line 6 Bass Podxt. Later on, I had all these Bass Pod tracks down, and I was too lazy to replay them through a proper amp. So, at the mixdown, I reamped the tracks simultaneously through an Ampeg SVT Classic, an Ashdown bass combo, one of the guitar heads with the Sunn cabinet, and a nice direct box. Just like the guitars, I wanted separate bass tracks available to blend or build tones.

Did you also lay down a modeled tone from the Pod?
No. I bypassed the sounds to get a clean signal. I basically used the Pod as a direct box.

What basses did you use?
I’ve got a really cool Fender Jazz Bass, as well as a Fender Precision, but I mostly used the Jazz.

How did you approach recording your vocals?
I pretty much went with the same signal path we’ve used on the System records. I’m comfortable with it, and I have the same setup in my home studio. I just dialed it in the same way, and went at it. The main mic is a tube Korby KAT47. It’s a really good mic, and it’s reliable. It doesn’t change sound throughout the session like some old, vintage tube mics can do. From there, the signal goes to the Neve preamp and the Urei 1176 compressor.

Do you like to hit your voice hard going down, or compress it lightly, and then refine the compression during the mixdown?
I like putting a general level on it—not a lot of compression, just something to warm up the voice and keep the dynamics reasonable. But, sometimes, I’ll sing a song section by section, and change the compression for each part, so that I get one type of sound on the intimate passages, and another type of sound for the heavier moments.

Do you like to sing with headphones on, or do you toss them and stand in front of some studio monitors?
I usually wear headphones and keep one ear off. I record vocals in the live studio, and I like hearing the track and how my voice sounds in the room.

What about the sweetening parts?
I wrote a lot of parts for cellos and violins using sampled strings. I recorded them myself, and then I brought in some string players—cellist Cameron Stone and violinist Antonio Pontarelli—to listen to the pieces and play the parts for real. The parts on the album are a combination of the live and sampled strings, because I wanted a big sound.

Did you have to notate the parts for the string players?
I wish I knew how to write on paper, but I don’t. However, these guys were friends, as well as great musicians. One of them listened to my tracks, and wrote out his part in music notation, and the other just played his parts by ear.

How did you mic the strings?
My engineer did the miking for the drum and violin sessions, but I know we did stereo passes for the strings, and he used a number of different mics to get different vibes. We recorded the violins in the drum room at The Pass to capture some really nice ambience. It’s a bigger room than I have. The cello was tracked in the live room of my studio.

As far as how you manipulate arrangements, are you someone who will edit right up to the very last possible moment, or, once you get the main arrangement down, is that how it stays until the final mix?
That’s a good question. Generally, once I recorded all the instruments, I didn’t change much, except for a bridge here and there. If a certain part of a song isn’t strong, then you have to go in and dissect it so you can make it stronger—whether it’s through changing the beat, rearranging the instruments, redoing the vocals, or inserting a whole new part. You’ve got to do that until you’re ready to mix.

Did you have any kind of creative epiphanies or other inspiration that told you when a track was done—when there was nothing more you could, or should, do to it?
Well, I wasn’t totally finished even when the mixes were done! It’s a feel thing—definitely—but I also went back and forth with the mastering about five or six times [laughs]. I was frustrated, but I knew what I wanted. I just knew. Sometimes, it would be as little as cutting the bass frequencies just a tiny bit so that the drums would come alive in the chorus. You start with the general mastering balance, and you initially like what you hear, but then you start getting nit-picky about every little frequency, pan position, and instrument level [laughs].

I had a great mastering guy—Vlado Meller at Sony Music Studios in New York—but if you’re going to produce a project yourself, you’ve got to be very, very critical throughout every step of the process. For mastering, you not only have to hire the best guy, but the guy who is right for the music you’re recording. I didn’t just pick a mix engineer or a mastering engineer, and go with it. I spent my time doing test mixes and mastering passes with people until I was sure I was working with someone who understood what I wanted, and who shared my vision for what the album should sound like.

Going back to the mixdown process, how did you direct Neil Avron?
I’d listen to the mixes, and say, “Okay, this sounds great, but I think we should have the strings panned this way, and let’s mute the bass in the breakdown.” We’d make those adjustments, and then I might say, “I think these MuRF guitars in the verses could be louder. Let’s build them up. Let’s have those guitars ramp up into the chorus, because there’s nothing else ramping up except the vocals.” I’d make all these notes—the bass could be louder here, the bass should be softer here, the guitars have to be thicker, I need more balls [laughs].

Obviously, you’ve got a little more of a pulpit to stand on because of the success of System of a Down, but it’s interesting that, just like a new artist, you still have to market this solo album, and figure out the best way to get it into the public consciousness.
Absolutely! Absolutely! But that pulpit I stand on—which you put so well—is a huge thing for me, because it gives me the comfort of being able to do things the way I want to do them without constantly worrying about how I can live off it. Thanks to the success of System, I don’t have that fear of survival. It’s harder for a brand new artist who is starting a career without money in his pocket. I realize that, and I’m very grateful. It gives me the strength and confidence to be able to do the right thing, and not compromise.

So, at the end of the line, was all the responsibility you undertook during the recording process an enjoyable experience?
It was awesome. It was a lot of work, but the experience I’ve gotten putting out records with major labels and for my own indie label has been invigorating and confidence building. I know what I want to present. For example, we made 12 videos—one for every song—and a crazy funny EPK [electronic press kit] that’s on YouTube right now. I brought in all these amazing artists to do the artwork and the websites, and everything is done in house—which lets us be really creative for way less than what a major label would typically spend. I told the photographers, “You know those crazy ideas you had when you were first starting out? That’s what we want.” We even pick who we want to be interviewed by, and we ask them to answer a question about civilization that we’ll compile and put on the website. So you and I are going to be doing an interview about the record, but then I’m going to be able to get your take on what you think about civilization.

For me, this is not just putting out a record—it’s an experience that I want all my creative partners to have fun with. What can we learn from this? How can we put out a rock record in a different way? We’re challenging the artistry in everyone around us, because this is an art industry. We’ve forgotten that, because major record labels are all about selling widgets. But this is about art and music and having fun, so let’s enjoy it.

Dungeon Toys

Here's a sampling of the tools Tankian has available in his home studio:

Software: Pro Tools HD, McDSP FilterBank, McDSP CompressorBank, Bomb Factory Classic Compressors Bundle, Digidesign EQ III, Antares Auto-Tune 3.1

Microphones: Korby KAT System with C12, U47, and U67 heads; Shure 514B, 55SH, Beta 52A, Beta 56A, Beta 57A, Beta 58A, Beta 91, Beta 98D, KSM27, KSM32, KSM44, KSM141, SM7A, SM7B, SM81, VP88

Console: Digidesign Control 24

Studio Monitors: Genelec 1032A