AFTER SOUTHERN DOOM ROCKER MASTODON completed its 2006 opus, Blood Mountain, the Atlanta-based quartet knew they wanted more. Drummer Brann Dailor wanted a bigger, fatter, beefier kit sound. Guitarist Bill Kelliher envisioned the songs of Mastodon’s eventual fourth album as having a greater sense of continuity. Dailor dreamt of Bonham. Kelliher imagined a magic man who would propel the band into the next phase of their career without tampering with their core metal-prog attack.
But before they could get busy with that, all hell broke loose. Much of what would become Crack the Skye [Warner Bros.] was inspired by a beat down (and the resulting vertigo) that guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds experienced while attending an MTV Music Video Awards after party in 2007. And, before the album was finished, Kelliher had developed a mysterious stomach ailment, his aunt died, and his wife was hit by a car. Not to be outdone, Dailor’s mother was evicted from her home, and her husband died. Talk about a bad day at the office.
For Joe Average, this amount of mayhem would be a perfect reason to escape, and Dailor, who doubles as Mastodon’s lyricist, is no different. Crack the Skye’s resultant themes involve amputation, astral projection, time/space travel, wormholes, and 1800s Czarist Russia. Mastodon’s new music propels Dailor’s fantastic imagery into the great beyond and the greater unknown. Tapping into their influences— King Crimson, Metallica, Melvins, and Frank Zappa— Mastodon (which also includes bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders) succeeds in creating a true landmark recording and undoubtedly one of the great albums of 2009.
As it turns out, Kelliher’s vision of a magic man appeared in the form of producer Brendan O’Brien, who saw a little of himself in Mastodon’s retro-riff monster fest. Recorded at Atlanta’s Southern Tracks Recording, Crack the Skye benefited from an incredible array of analog gear, including a Solid State Logic 4072 G+ console, dozens of Telefunken and Neumann microphones, an EMT 140 plate reverb, Neve mic preamps and EQs, Fairchild 670 Stereo and Urei 1176LN compressors, and other outboard options too numerous to list. Tweaked and treated by O’Brien’s platinum-selling approach, Southern Tracks’ main live room became Mastodon’s phantasmagorical express to another dimension.
Here, four of the men behind Mastodon’s latest epic—O’Brien, Kelliher, Dailor, and engineer Nick DiDia —discuss the various processes, concepts, and techniques that brought Crack the Skye to life.
THE PRODUCER: BRENDAN O’BRIEN
“As a producer, your main job is to make sure that the music and the groove is doing what it’s supposed to do, and if it’s not, to try to help everybody figure out how to make it work,” says Brendan O’Brien. “There is a prog element of Mastodon that I like, but their records didn’t connect maybe the way they could. I felt like I could help them to do that.”
Your drum sound is almost legendary. How did you place the drum mics for Crack the Skye?
For this band, I felt it needed to sound a little more human. Brann wanted to serve the song more, so we adjusted the sound to relate to that. Also, there is less individual separation between the drums, and more of a centered sound—more like one thing, than having it be so specifically defined.
Are you okay with bleed through on the drum mics, or do you prefer isolation?
I don’t care about that at all. If you get a lot of cymbal in the kick drum, that is just part of the sound. Sometimes, you can’t get the kick drum to sound good if the mic is shoved right into it—you might have to pull it back a little bit. If there is a lot of cymbal in the drum sound, you work with it. You figure it out. That is part of your sound.
Do you favor heavy tape saturation in the drum sound? Is that part of the fatness?
Some. We do track to tape. If the snare and kick are hitting hard, some of the attack will get knocked off, which I like. That is one of the main reasons I still use tape—I just like what it does to drums. Tape hasn’t gone away, and we love it.
True or false? You apply heavy doses of Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso to the drums.
[Laughs.] I do use that as an addition when I am mixing, for sure. It was designed for something else altogether—to make a mix sound more like tape. I put it on drums, and it was like, “Wow.” However, it does tend to make the snare and kick disappear, so you have to address that.
Similarly, you’re a fan of the SPL Transient Designer for compression?
I love them. Generally, I put it on kick, snare, and toms. It is cheating a little bit. If the toms are giving you a lot of trouble for whatever reason, and you put that on them, they sound pretty damn good. I don’t know how it works, but I am a big fan.
The vocals on “Ghost of Karelia” have a weird, watery pitch.
Sometimes, we do the old trick of running vocals through a Leslie cabinet. We didn’t use plug-ins very often. We used mostly outboard analog effects. And we used the Electro- Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb—a $100 guitar pedal—for vocals and outboard stuff.
How do you approach mixing?
Whatever we start tracking with is not drastically different from what we end up with. I am always tracking and listening in mix mode. As we are doing overdubs, I am still in that mode. When I do mix, I just want to make it blend better—there is no real dramatic difference. I am just refining it.
Nick DiDia implied that your EQ changes at the mix stage.
EQ in the mix is just a matter of addressing the excitement level. If I do have to EQ something, I don’t use the same EQ I recorded with. I will use the SSL EQs in the mix because we almost never use them while recording.
Do the drums change at all in your mixes?
They are the exception. The drums go to tape very EQ’d. I get in trouble putting drum compression to tape. I may compress the overheads and the room mics, but the kick, snare, and toms we don’t really compress. Those are being addressed as we mix with Transient Designer, EQs, and that kind of stuff.
Bill Kelliher said you were eager to produce the band. What did you hear in their demos that you liked?
I couldn’t hear anything at their first couple of rehearsals, because it was so loud and crazy. But then I’d hear bits and pieces that I knew we could grab and make happen, and that is how we did it.
THE ENGINEER: NICK DIDIA
You could say that engineer Nick DiDia is Brendan O’Brien’s righthand man, and he wouldn’t disagree. DiDia aided superstar producer O’Brien for Pearl Jam’s Vs., Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream, Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire, and many more.
Did you use the SSL 4072 G+ console at Southern Tracks as a tracking or monitoring board?
We always track to tape, then transfer to Pro Tools HD—which is running on an Apple Mac G4 933MHz—to do most of the overdubs.
Did the sessions for Crack the Skye consist of live band performances?
It was all tracked live to a Studer A827 24-track 2-inch machine. A lot of the record is the result of Mastodon tracking live in the studio, and I think it sounds like that. It has that vibe. Of course, if you can spend more time on the guitars later, and track the players while they stand in front of the control-room monitors, you often get a better performance than if they were recording live while wearing headphones.
What was the signal chain for recording the drums?
I placed an old AKG D30 on the outside of the kick drum, and a Sennheiser MD421 in the soundhole. I probably used the SSL preamps for the kick drum, routed to an Audio Design Recording F769X-R Vocal Stressor—an old piece of gear that has an EQ side and a limiter side. I use the EQ side on the kick because it has a certain sound I like. That goes to tape. The snare drum would be a Shure SM57 and an AKG C451 B on top, taped together and pointing at the top of the head. That signal goes through an SSL preamp and a Pultec EQP-1A.
How do you balance the two snare mics?
The 451 gives a little more lowend thud, and the 57 is the traditional high-end snare sound. The bottom of the snare is another 57 or a SM58. The overheads are a pair of Neumann KM 184s through two Teletronix LA-2A compressors, or a Summit compressor—but they are first routed through a pair of Neve preamps, like the 1073s. Generally, I try to make the overheads sound like the whole kit—not like cymbal mics. Then, I add everything in around that.
Were the toms close miked?
Yes. A Sennheiser MD421 was on top, and a Shure SM57 was on the bottom. We use a phase cable between the top and bottom mics so we only have to use one mic preamp for each tom. The hi-hat mics were either a Shure SM58 or a Neumann KM 84. For a more midrange sound, I use a SM58. And I also use a mic between the kick and snare that we call the “kick-snare” mic—a technique was shown to me by Alex Gibson at A&M studios. It’s just an AKG C 414 B-XLS that sits on the beater side of the kick drum. You put it in a figure-8 polar pattern, and it catches the bottom of the snare and the front head of the kick to produce this amazing low end The room mics are typically a pair of Coles ribbon mics, or maybe a stereo pair of Neumann M 49s.
How did you mic the guitars?
With heavy guitars, I will put two Shure 57s on one cone. Andy Johns showed me that trick. You put one mic right on the cone, and another one at a 45-degree angle pointed at the same spot. Then, I’ll position a Neumann KM 86 on another speaker in the cabinet, or, sometimes, on the same speaker. We will listen to see which one we like best. Mic preamps will be Neve 1081, 1066, 1079, 1089, or 1073 for guitars, bass, and vocals. The guitars are either Neve 1073s or 1076s. I occasionally use a room mic on the guitars, as well—an AKG C 414 or another KM 86.
Did you DI the bass?
We used a D.W. Fearn VT-3 Dual- Channel Vacuum Tube DI that sounds awesome. And we probably used an Ampeg SVT-CL Classic amp through an 8x10 cab. Troy had a Mesa/Boogie amp and cab, and we used that setup for the more distorted tones.
There are a lot of lush vocal harmonies on Crack the Skye. How were these typically recorded?
The main vocal mic for Troy was the Shure SM7—a glorified SM57. Often, we would track where the guy has to sing in the live room, and the SM7 sounds great. Brent used the Telefunken Ela M 251. It just depends on the singer, and what sounds best. Neve 1073 peamps were used for the vocals.
RHYTHM GUITARIST BILL KELLIHER
Mastodon rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher collects Gibson guitars, and his favorite 1979 Les Paul Custom is all over Crack the Skye. A Marshall JCM800 Reissue head provides his clean signal, and a Marshall 2203KK Kerry King Signature JCM800 head and Ibanez TK999HT Tube King pedal handle the overdrive tones. Both heads run through Mills Acoustics Afterburner 4x12 cabs.
When speaking with engineer Nick DiDia, he mentioned that a lot of the wild sounds we’re hearing on the album originate with your pedals.
We used an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail and a POG, an MXR Custom Audio Electronics Boost/Overdrive MC-402, and some Moog Moogerfoogers—like the MF-103 12-Stage Phaser and MF- 104Z Analog Delay.
Behind the guitar solo in “Divination,” there’s a shrapnel-like, shredding effect.
That’s Brent. He was playing a Telecaster with a lot of reverb on it, doing a surf-guitar tone. His basic setup is a Gibson Flying V and a 30th Anniversary Gibson Les Paul goldtop. Brent pretty much runs everything through a Monster Effects Mastortion Overdrive pedal. His main rig is a Marshall JCM800 and a Marshall 2466 Vintage Modern head.
“Ghost of Karelia” has a spiraling tone at one point.
That was this weird keyboard that Brendan had—like a kid’s thing from the ’50s. It made some weird sounds. In “Ghost,” I played a First Act 9-string guitar with the Moogerfooger delay.
What overall production approach did the band discuss with Brendan?
We wanted a lot of continuity in the songs, as well as in the whole structure of the record. We didn’t want too many effects, and, with Brendan, that organic sound really shone through. It also helped that we got to use his billion-dollar guitar collection!
DRUMMER BRANN DAILOR
Mastodon’s principal lyricist, Brann Dailor, was responsible for the album’s title (Skye is the name of his late sister). And, as the band’s drummer, Dailor nails Mastodon’s overcharged prog-metal rhythms as if his life depends on it. Playing a bastardized kit of a Slingerland bass drum (owned by engineer Nick DiDia), Fibes toms, and Tama Warlord and Ludwig Black Beauty snares, Dailor realized his goal to sound like the thunder gods of yore.
Did you have an iconic album reference for the drum sound of Crack the Skye?
I wanted to hear my sound put through that John Bonham/Alex Van Halen filter—that beefier sound. In the past, my drums sounded really close together. I wanted more room sound, and a more bombastic sound—that classic-rock drum sound.
Did you use a click track?
Yes—it was my first time. I always looked at the click as something scary. I associated it with being super schooled, which I am not. But Brendan said, “Let’s just put it up and see how you do.” I did it, and I really liked it. A lot of the newer material has moments where the tempo really fluctuates throughout the song. Without the click, I would be thinking, “I will have to reel it in, but I don’t know if the tempo I’m playing later in the song will match the tempo at the beginning.” That was an issue on Blood Mountain, so the click alleviated a lot of stress on Crack the Skye.
Mastodon was enveloped in turmoil during the recording of this record. How did all the havoc affect the recording sessions?
You have to put it on the side, and carry on and do your thing. Then, you deal with it when you are out of the studio. Luckily, we had time to deal with it all. But I definitely feel what was happening around us gave a little bit of fuel for guitar solos and lyric writing. We have enough living under our belts to supply any Mastodon record.