Elegantly Raw

Ville Valo and Tim Palmer Juggle Impact and Atmosphere on HIM’s Metal Opus, Venus Doom.

If you’re looking for a quick metal fix, Sweden and Norway are sure-fire destinations. But Finland is quickly becoming the country to look out for, thanks in part to melodic metal maniacs HIM. Amassing a stable of international fans for the past ten years, HIM is the only Finnish band to reach gold status in the United States. And with the release of their heaviest album to date, Venus Doom [Sire], the band is poised to make Finland not just a site for great bird watching. Here, producer Tim Palmer (U2, the Cure, Ozzy Osbourne)—who has worked with the band since its breakout hit Love Metal in 2003—and home-recording enthusiast and HIM frontman Ville Valo reveal the secrets behind the recording of Venus Doom.

What is the sonic focus of Venus Doom, and how does it differ from past releases?
This is our sixth album, so we definitely know now what we want—and don’t want—in terms of sound. We’ve also learned to concentrate on the song, instead of being immersed in the details. I thought the last record was too layered, so we composed the new songs to be more stripped down. The challenge there is to capture good sounds, because they really count—especially when you are working with two guitar tracks instead of eight. You have to get a lot of mileage out of minimal sources.

Palmer: I agree that the last album took the concept of “moody and textured” too far. It was too complicated. I figured out that, for an aggressive band like this, it’s better to work fast, and capture as much as you can in one take. Then, you can worry about the details later.

You recorded in Finland, and mixed in the U.S.—how was that process?
We recorded at Finnvox Studios, and we had all we needed to get great sounds. We tracked on an SSL AWS 900, and used Neve 1081s for all the preamps. We had a great mic locker to pull from, and we had Genelec 1031As to monitor the sessions—which I love. The “pro” was that the band was very relaxed and comfortable, because it was near their homes. The “con” was that Finnvox is a pretty basic facility, and I ended up doing most of the editing and comping in Pro Tools LE. And this was on my laptop in the hotel room during off-hours, because I hadn’t adjusted to the time change [laughs].

Valo: Tracking in Finland was great, because Hiili Hiilesmaa, who produced our first album, was able to come in as an engineer and co-producer. He gets some of the best sounds of anyone I know—especially guitar sounds. It was great to have Hiili and Tim on board, because they could both edit and comp tracks in Pro Tools, using SoundReplacer.

How was the drum kit miked?
I must say this—I’m not a mic snob. I don’t need a lot of choices. I’ll use a Shure SM57 on just about everything, from snares to lead vocals. That said, I almost always use Neumann U87s for overheads, and Neumann U47s for the room microphones. I record drums so that I can have as much flexibility with the sound in the mix. To do this, I aim to get a strong close-mic sound—using pop filters if necessary—to get the sound directly into the mics with minimal reflections. But I also always mic the room so I can easily switch between the drier signals and more ambient room sounds within the arrangement of a song.

One thing I did that was interesting was to sample all the toms individually before we tracked the drums. Then, as I had so much time in my hotel room to edit, I carefully cleaned up the signal leakage between the tom fills we recorded. I kept the original performance, but I pasted the natural decay back in from the individual samples. I did this because I think it sounds great to have natural decay ringing out over the end of the drum fills.

How did you handle the bass guitar?
We first ran Migé Amour’s ’76 Fender P-bass through a DI box, and then we sent it out to a combination of amps. The main bass sound is a combination of a Mesa/Boogie and a Prince Piggy Bass 115 combo, which has killer growl. We also tracked a distorted bass track for each song that we later introduced into the mix as needed. For that track, he ran his Fender into a Budda Superdrive II Series 18, using an EBS MultiDrive Bass overdrive. His Hamer CH-12 12-string bass was put through the same chain. I’d record three or four takes of each instrument, and comp together the best parts on my laptop. I had a lot of fun tracking Migé—especially when he’d stop and scream into his pickups in the middle of a song [laughs].

What was the approach for tracking guitars?
We set up Mikko Lindström with a splitter box so we could route his guitar to three separate amps. The main source was his Laney VH100R with matching 4x12 cabinet. We miked the speakers with SM57s placed right against the grille, and positioned off-axis to the cone. We submixed all the signals down to one track. Mostly, Mikko used a Gibson SG for the rhythm parts, but we also layered the tracks with an old Levin acoustic from the ’40s that Ville brought in, as well as a Danelectro baritone for the really low sections. The solos were all tracked with a Telecaster or an ESP baritone guitar through the same amp setup. We also recorded a direct signal for everything in case we needed to re-amp later on—which we didn’t. But it was still good to have that direct track available, because we didn’t track the guitars live with the drums and bass, and getting a good guitar sound in isolation doesn’t necessarily translate to having a good sound in the context of a mix.

What did you use to capture Ville’s voice?
A Neumann U67. It has a really warm, full sound, and, if you crank the preamp, the mic distorts beautifully when the vocalist screams.

Valo: We went for a more baritone vocal sound for this album. We also wanted to stack the vocals so that there was some dissonance. We’d record takes where I was sharp or flat, and then mix them together with the main vocal. A lot of the sound is dependant on my body position, so I did overdubs sitting down, or contorting my body into weird positions. The body is a fragile instrument, and posture and placement really affects the sounds you get.

How did you arrange the keyboard textures so that you could realize the stripped-down sound you wanted for the album?
Instead of just playing synth pads all the way through a song, we used the instrument to play countermelodies, or to harmonize specific parts—such as playing a seventh or ninth on top of a guitar playing a root and a fifth. Things like that add dimension, not clutter.

Palmer: Janne Puurtinen used a Roland V-Synth, a Fantom X6, and a Clavia Nord Modular for most of the album. But we also recorded MIDI tracks for all his parts, so that we could apply plug-ins to the data, and then print a combination of the keyboard tracks.

Many rock bands are going back to analog tape to record their basics, so why did you choose to track the entire album on Pro Tools?
I’m not one of these people who romanticize the days of tape. I put in my fair share of years biasing 24-track machines! Of course, I love the sound of tape, and I still see its sonic appeal. But when you look at what you gain with the control and creativity of Pro Tools, then Pro Tools wins hands down. You can make extreme changes to sound and arrangements faster, and every change is non-destructive. With tape, crafting a completely new arrangement at the mix stage was a nightmare, and it was often avoided—often to the detriment of the song. With Pro Tools, I can try radical ideas that may really improve the song—right up to the last minute before printing.

What was your bit rate?
I’m not one for 96K recordings—24-bit/44.1K is fine for me. It’s funny that as we increase sampling and bit rates on the production side of music, the public is moving the other way, and downgrading to mp3s. They are showing us they really care about the songs, artists, and performances. That’s not an excuse for poor production and mixing, but it’s a reminder about what makes someone want to own a piece of music. The song is—and always will be—king. If the song is great, the recording is automatically in a good place. As they say, “The best cure for a bad mix is a great song.”

So how did you approach the mix for Venus Doom.
I mixed as I went. I feel that I can’t put off a decision until the mixing stage. I need to get it right immediately. I’ll put all my samples on the drums, ride vocals, put delays and effects on parts, and try my best to simulate the finished product. Doing this really helps prevent over-producing an album, and it keeps the music in perspective. I also think it really helps prevent “over recording.”

The HIM sound is not a meat-and-potatoes rock sound—there’s a lot of depth. The challenge is in keeping the raw, rock elements without taking anything away from the band’s soundscapes. As the arrangements are complex, telling the story successfully with the mix is vital. I try to keep the sound moving in sync with the musical changes so, when mixing, I’ll change my monitoring depending on what I’m listening to. To get a tight sound with the bass and the bass drum knitting together, I’ll play the music on the big speakers where I’ll get the best bass response. When I’m balancing vocal levels, I’ll listen more quietly on Yamaha NS10s. For checking the overall fidelity, I go more for Genelec 1031As or the big speakers. And, of course, the car is a good point of reference. That’s where everyone is going to hear the album anyhow.