Extension. It''s a word that can hang heavy over a recording artist. And for the band Korn, it''s a word that directly influenced the direction of the group''s tenth album, The Path of Totality (Roadrunner Records), which sees the quartet commissioning the talents of more than a half-dozen synth-mangling dubstep producers to complement the heavy music mainstays'' already low-end-friendly signatures.
“You still gotta hustle these days,” laughs founding guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer, who welcomed a new opportunity to punish subwoofers alongside frontman Jonathan Davis, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, and drummer Ray Luzier. Even as Korn nears their 20th year together, the band recognizes there''s an element of adapt-or-die for every artist. “We''ve always looked to extend our careers by doing something new, something challenging, going out on a limb. We did that sort of thing in the early ''90s when we introduced rap with metal. We figured people would either get it or eventually come around to it.
“So I wouldn''t say doing this record is a departure from what we do; it just has some different characteristics,” Shaffer continues. “I think people have this preconceived notion that we made a dubstep record, but what we did was make a Korn record with dubstep elements. We retained the elements that form the integrity of Korn—guitars with that aggressive midrange bite, heavy bass, Jonathan''s vocals—and we introduced some of those forceful parts of dubstep.”
Korn became fans of producer Sonny “Skrillex” Moore''s bass mania on the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP. The band approached him to collaborate, and the result is “Get Up!”, The Path of Totality''s first single. Jim Monti, who has engineered six Korn albums to date, confirms that “Get Up!” was a challenging, but rewarding puzzle to solve.
“Tracking and mixing that song was all hands on deck,” reflects Monti. “We didn''t know if it would end up on EP or an album, because it was such a different thing to put in front of the band''s audience. And it took five days to mix to figure out how to merge the new sub-heavy electronic parts with those distinctive, fat Korn guitars and Field''s five-string bass, which already goes low; and, how to balance parts of Ray''s drums with samples.”
“The process for ‘Get Up!'' was definitely not typical for us,” says Shaffer. “We were less involved with each other during writing and recording, but even busier when editing and mixing. We had a lot more concerns about whether things were too compressed, not compressed enough, too endy, too flat. But we didn''t rush it, and it helped up figure out what worked best for this type of song.” Ultimately “Get Up!” gelled, and the band proceeded to solicit outlines from additional producers Noisia, Excision, Kill the Noise, Downlink, 12th Planet, and Feed Me.
The band would receive various song segments, isolate their parts as much as possible in the local rig, and then determine the best way to configure a verse/chorus/verse structure over what would essentially be an elongated rhythm track. Adding intro riffs, pre-chorus, bridge, and outro in separate sessions, the band found that working with bass-focused, synth-centered compositions meant reconfiguring more than just how Korn traditionally sequences its work collaboratively.
“A lot of the producers were sending tracks that were in F and F#, and we''re used to writing in the key of D or A,” reveals Shaffer. “So we basically changed the guitars up a half-step to match the original parts and it seemed to move air more. There was also new stuff in B, which was unconventional for us, so we had to tune up to have that frequency pop.”
Performance Photos by Sebastien Paquet
Martijn van Sonderen, one-third of Dutch production trio Noisia, confirms that their end of the contribution was relatively simple, as the producers were asked to indulge creative freedom when providing wobbly and distending “instrumental dance floor listening tunes,” though tempering percussion and riffs with considerations. Noisia assembled a demo arrangement, minus the full regiment of synths and basslines that would traditionally occupy the space for vocals and guitar. Then it was sent to Korn to transpose keyboard parts to guitar/bass and develop alternate rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. “We mostly only needed to account for and pull back the parts we would usually use to do the ‘talking'' in the midrange, and they added their energy into our sound design,” says Sonderen.
Tracking was built around a new foundation in ways both musical and physical, as the band was constructing a new studio in its home base of Bakersfield, CA, as it recorded, literally conducting sessions in one room while concrete was being poured in another. The former Buck Owens Studios was undergoing renovations, with a control room centering on Davis''s personal SSL 6000E console, as well as a Neve 8014, reinforced by a full array of Pultec, Chandler, Universal Audio, Tube Tech, and GML outboard mic preamps, EQs and compressors.
“The SSL has the G Series computer and E Series EQ, making it a good rock desk to mix on,” says Monti. “It doesn''t have that poppy sound a lot of guys like from the J Series. And the Neve is full of 1073s so it kicks ass, sweetens things up. We run a Pro Tools HD rig clocked off the Antelope Audio Trinity, and we use LavryBlue A/D and D/A converters for everything—24 in, 48 out.”
Loading the tracking and iso rooms with gear—such as Munky''s Marshall, Diezel and Bogner amps, Ibanez, Fender ad Hofner guitars, and many signature tone sculptures like the Digitech XP100 Whammy Wah—the band indulged spontaneity as it cut its parts, creatively drilling through already textured beds. There were several experiments that fortified the album''s atmospherics, such as the use of sitar, an octaves-gluing 12-string Hamer bass guitar, and the distortions produced while Davis shocked himself with an antique 1930s “medical” stimulator supposedly for invigorating blood flow/curing ailments called the Violet Ray.
Recording was broken up by a tour of Asia. So Monti accompanied the band to record vocals on the road. “We brought a Digidesign 003 interface and my laptop with Pro Tools, a Tube Tech MP 1A pre, the UA 1176 compressor and a Sanken CU-44X mic in one big Pelican case,” he reveals. “We''d redo a South Korean hotel closet with some pillows, blankets, and headphones to make a booth, and we''d book crew around us to make sure people wouldn''t have to deal with the screaming. I try not to set the compressor too hard so I always have to have my hand on the gain knob, because Jonathan''s voice has such a dynamic range and I don''t know what he''ll do next while he''s working something out. ”
Running chains for multiple band members while adapting to a range of producers, varying locations, and odd hours was no mean feat, but the greatest challenge came in the later stages. Monti gives great credit to Downlink and Skrillex for stepping in and helping him grasp the value of sidechaining, a staple of dubstep production. Using the FabFilter Pro-C plug-in and setting ghost hits as a guide, Monti set up the compressor to duck and allow all the dominant basslines, noisy strums, and pounding drums to coexist without turning into mush. Coupling these techniques with some GML EQ for final tucks and boosts and the SSL console''s compressor for 4 or 5dB gain reduction on the stereo bus, Monti assured there could be headroom, top end, and heavy subbass from all contributors without muddying in the 400 range or masking Korn.
Ultimately, The Path of Totality entailed more recording in-the-box and thinking outside the box than any previous Korn productions. “I think it worked so well because the band reached out to people at the top of their field; they didn''t just try to see if they could make a beat like a hot producer would,” reflects Monti. “Everyone involved was working at such a high level, introducing all these new ideas while playing to their own strengths at the same time.”
Engineer Jim Monti''s Tips for Drumming-Up Drum Presence
Really making sure the drums are hitting hard is how we started finding the balance on tracks. Even if you have the particular guitar and bass sounds you want, it won''t work if the drums appear to be weak. What helped me a lot was utilizing parallel compression with the Alan Smart C2 Dual/Stereo Compressor. I would put that on another pair of faders with drums across the board, sending the kick and snare, which would return on their own faders; that, combined with sidechaining, would help and was done on every song.
There''s one thing I do to make the drums stand out that I learned from Jim Scott, and it''s setting up a trash chain. You''d send some signal, like an aux signal from a snare or kick, to a Universal Audio 1176 with all buttons in and completely demolish it and send it back straight to tape as a new track that doesn''t even need to return to the board. So it would be extremely trashy, but the benefit is that instead of having a mono room mic you can trash but with tons of cymbal, this is completely on kick or snare and it will crush just what you send to it without the hiss of the cymbals.