Diabolus In Musica

Frederik Nordström tells how he recorded Dimmu Borgir’s devilish new album In Sorte Diaboli.

Dimmu Borgir. The name has been synonymous with grandiose, symphonic black metal for more than ten years. But that probably means very little to many EQ readers, as black metal is not a style that has garnered much of a fan base on American shores until very recently. Tabloid stories of the murderous, building-torching proclivities of a few early ’90s Norwegian black-metal bands aside, the genre has largely been ignored by the popular American music press.

And that’s a shame.

Sure, black metal is a bit subversive for many tastes—if not downright off-putting in its aural extremity and Lugosian aesthetic. But the music is (generally) expertly crafted, and it makes for a unique listening experience.

However, black metal’s relative obscurity is coming to an end, thanks to Dimmu Borgir. Though widely celebrated abroad (2003’s Death Cult Armageddon sold more than 200,000 copies internationally), increasingly regular rotation on MTV2 and Fuse, as well as some Ozzfest stints, are opening the band up to a wide audience of American metalheads. And now, sporting a revamped lineup, and a superior new album, In Sorte Diaboli, the boys in black are poised to further their sonically unholy evangelism.

EQ caught up with Swedish producer Frederik Nordström (Arch Enemy, In Flames, At the Gates), who gave us an exclusive look into the recording techniques used to track, mix, and pre-master Dimmu’s latest sinister opus. So sit back, ready thy goat horns, and read how the best-of-the-best records the blackest-of-the-black.

You’ve recorded real orchestras for accompaniments in the past, but decided against it for In Sorte Diaboli. Why?
For past records—namely Death Cult Armageddon, where we tracked the Prague Philharmonic—we would have up to 80 players all being recorded simultaneously through five mics. This created problems, because the entire orchestra would be on just five tracks, and we couldn’t raise the volume of the cellos, and lower the horns, for example. So Mustis [Dimmu keyboardist] spent weeks creating a virtual orchestra in TASCAM’s GigaStudio 3 in order to have each instrument as a separate track.

But don’t the orchestral players control the dynamics of a piece? If they are conducted properly, the levels between sections shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
True. If it was an orchestra alone I would agree, but it’s an orchestra performing within a song like “Progenies,” and the instruments function differently in the context of a heavy metal song. Metal is not dynamic like classical music is—its purpose is to make your ears fall off [laughs].

Do you find that sampled strings lack the depth and dynamic impact of a real string section?
It was a big challenge for Mustis to create these parts and make them sound realistic. It sounds awesome, but does it sound totally like the real thing? No. This is where being thoughtful with your mix will help a lot. I envisioned where the players in an orchestra sit, for example. Horn players are always far back, so I put a lot of reverb on the horn tracks to make them sound farther away. And the tympani is usually to the left, so I panned it that way.

How did you record Mustis’ keyboards?
Just through a DI box into Pro Tools. I prefer this method to running the signal through a cabinet and then miking the cab. You get the true sound of the keyboard through a DI. A keyboard is a very full-range instrument, so running one through a guitar cabinet will limit its sound. Now, some say that miking a cabinet makes for a fuller sound, and I think it sounds cool for some bands, but it’s not appropriate for Dimmu Borgir.

How digital is In Sorte Diaboli? The last time we spoke, you were recording to tape, dumping the tracks to Pro Tools, and then mixing on an Amek Angela II.
Everything was done in Pro Tools HD3, and mixed using the Icon D-Command, so that I wouldn’t get “mouse arm” [laughs]. We used two Digi PREs and two 192 I/Os—that’s it! I call it an upgrade, though purists will argue that. I think each generation of Pro Tools just gets better and better.

Perhaps it sounds too good. Maybe that’s everybody’s problem with it? I figure I can always use the Lo-Fi plug-in the D-Fi bundle to make things sound more retro. Or Crane Song’s Phoenix, which rules for tape emulation. I record vocals through a Tech 21 SansAmp to get a dirty sound, and I use Waves SSL 4000 G and E EQ, which sounds very hard and icy when you crank the treble. It’s perfect for black metal.

What mic and preamp combinations did you use for Shagrath and Vortex’s vocals?
For Shagrath, we used the Shure SM7. We call that the “Metallica vocal mic,” because that was James Hetfield’s sound on those old Metallica albums. For Vortex, we used a Neumann U67 because his parts are all clean, and that mic matches his voice perfectly. Both signals were run through the channel strips from my old Amek Angela II.

What equipment did you use to get the guitar tones on the new album?
The guitar sounds can be attributed to the Engl E670 Special Edition amps I have in the studio. We would match each guitar with an Engl 4x12 cabinet, and then slave the preamp signal from the heads to an Engl Savage 120 and an old Marshall 4x12. I put a Shure SM57 straight on the cone—about two inches from the grille—of the Engl cab, and another SM57 right on the grille at a 45-degree angle from the cone of the Marshall. Each was assigned to a separate track. The straight-on SM57 sounds very bright, and the off-axis SM57 is very dark. Galder and Silenoz each did two tracks on each song, for a total of four. All their effects came from the Roland GP-8. The guitars sound way better than what they did on Stormblast—that sounded like they ran their distortion pedals straight into the console [laughs].

What about Vortex’s bass?
It’s only one track. His Warwick bass ran through an old DI box I stole 20 years ago [laughs]. Real simple—which is good, considering how difficult it can be to record Hellhammer’s drums.
His kit makes Neil Peart’s look minimal!

His kit is all close-miked, heavily gated, and he has DDrum triggers on everything, as well—two kicks, six toms, two snares. All in all we had 30 tracks of drums on this album. We did record the drum shells, but most of what you hear are the triggers. He plays so fast that it’s impossible for him to hit hard, so we’d run the trigger signals directly into SoundReplacer, and get our sounds in the program.

We only had four mics as overheads—two Neumann KM 184s, and two KSM 141s. If you place them equidistant from the source, then everything is okay. In this case, each mic was about 50cm above the cymbals. The only immediate issue is that the roof of the live room is very low, and that creates a peak around 3kHz that needs to be immediately cut with EQ.

What about the close mics?
I used a Sanken CU31 for the snare, and Shure Beta 56s on each tom. There were no mics on the kick drums—they’re 100-percent triggered. Each mic was placed within a half-inch of the head. We did this because—as I said—he hits quite soft. This can be tricky—especially with the cymbals. He keeps them real tight so they don’t move much, so he can hit them multiple times very quickly. That’s why the overheads were only 50cm from the cymbals. We had to make sure we were picking everything up. We’d keep a certain amount of the miked tracks, as that adds a human quality to the recording. It’s maybe 20 percent real drums on the album.

Is it a concern that so much triggering and replacement of the acoustic drums might not sound natural?
Triggers won’t make you sound bad if you know how to use them, and the drum plug-ins of today are really good about giving you optimum control of your sound. You just need to know how to handle them. If you understand drums, then you will be fine. You just have to understand the instrument you are emulating. Same goes for things like GigaStudio. Mustis understands how strings are played, so he can compose with that tool, and make it sound good.

Beyond that, there are many practical reasons for triggering, or using a program like SoundReplacer in the studio. I don’t think EQ works all that well for changing the sound of certain drums without making them sound unnatural in the process. If you’re lacking bottom end on a snare track, boosting the low frequencies doesn’t magically fix the problem—it usually just makes it sound muddy. In that case, you’re better off substituting the track you recorded with one that has more low end built into it.

For example, just today I recorded a snare that was very short and crisp. It had tons of attack, but no ring or ambience. So I found a sampled drum that was mostly ring, and almost no attack. Blending the two tracks together made for a very live sound. It’s about picking the right samples, and making them complement the song.

Records keep getting louder and louder as mastering engineers continue to crush the mixes to death in an attempt to appease the label guys who only care about getting radio airplay. What do you do to your mixes to try to keep the mastering engineers from killing your dynamics?
I try to give them limited room to work by getting the mix as hot as I can before sending it off. I’ve been using the new TC Electronics MD3 plug-in before I send the mix off. I’ll run the final mix through a tape emulator to give it some warmth, and then I’ll throw that through the MD3. It’s pre-mastering. You can get the meters to stand on 0, and it still sounds good. The mastering guys can’t do anything to surprise you after that [laughs].