Mix Bus: The Elelments Of Death Metal

Chris Basile of SubSonic Studios in New York has spent more than 25 years behind the console working in the extreme metal arena. A member of Pyrexia—which formed in the late ’80s—Basile also launched in 2001, working alongside Jaime Locke (Agnostic Front, Prong, Cro-Mags), who has collected six gold and platinum album awards. In 2005, Basile decided to launch his own production facility that specializes in the art of extreme metal.
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What are you currently working on?

We are working on multiple productions simultaneously, such as a new Pyrexia album that’s mixed in 5.1 surround sound, mixing TenPoint’s debut—which features Metal Blade recording artist Mike Dimeo on vocals—and releasing a podcast series with Focal Press Books. I can’t stress how important it is to build a great team. With all of these critical projects going on, it’s important to have good people around you to keep everything running smoothly.

How are you approaching the 5.1 mix?

We are looking to do things in this mix that we’ve never done before with Pyrexia. In addition to the 5.1 version, we are also doing an entire mix of the album with sound effects and other sonic imagery. If your home-audio system is set up for surround, you will literally be able to hear a demon come up from behind you, and it will feel like things are coming at you from the sky. Surround sound is a huge creative advantage, because it adds a new dimension to the mix. Also, for this production we decided to purchase three separate sets of monitors in order to get a perspective on how our music will sound when played back in different formats. Remember, music can now be heard online, on your phone, and in Starbucks. You need to mix and master multiple versions of your songs for each format so you get the bestsounding version for each medium. It is also a big help to mix your work in mono and in stereo.

In general, how do you achieve a great metal drum mix?

I like to use specific panning techniques. For example, I make sure the snare comes straight down the middle of the mix, whereas I like to place toms across the stereo spectrum where you would imagine them spatially—as if the drummer were playing directly in front of you. Cymbals are obviously panned in stereo, as well, and how hard I pan them right and left depends on what sounds best in the final mix.

Triggers can also make mixing difficult if you are not used to using them. Triggers are devices you connect to a drum so that the stick hits can be isolated, which lets you replace the acoustic drum sounds with samples. Many Death Metal drum recordings made today rely on the use of triggers to get a clear, consistent, and accurate sound. You can also keep a drummer who may make inconsistent hits on the drum honest. This process actually helps the mix process tremendously by cutting a lot of time editing drums. If you are not using triggers, then you will probably have to rely on mix automation to ensure clear and accurate hits. You can also use a plug-in such as Drumagog, which can be used for re-sampling when building the drums in the mix. If the samples you use sound bad, or if they sound over produced, they can ruin your mix. DDrum and Roland both offer great sounds.

What do you do to get greatsounding guitars in your mixes?

Loud, heavy, and low-tuned guitars are the hallmark of any great death metal recording. Being a guitarist myself, I know the intricacies of getting different sounds for different types of recordings, and the quality of your instrument plays a large part in it. For example, because of the low tuning, specific adjustments need to be made to your guitar, as the strings are looser than when they are tuned to standard pitch. This may cause the guitar tone to lose clarity, and you may also get fret buzzes. If you tune low, it’s important to have a repair shop or guitar tech adjust the action for optimum playability, tone, and intonation. You should also consider using strings that help accentuate the frequencies that you want to capture in your recording. GHS, for example, makes strings specially designed to enhance low tunings. This helps tremendously, and you can hear the difference in your final mix. Of course, not every death metal band tunes low, but it’s common, so you have to prepare for it in your overall mixing strategy.

Also, make sure you fatten the guitar sound by recording multiple takes with different amplifiers, cabinets, microphones, and instruments. Plugins should be used sparingly, as they tend to make your guitar tone sound over-produced. Lastly, be aware of using too much compression, because squashing dynamics aggressively can ruin your guitar sound. It’s recommended that you try not to use compression on the guitars at all until the final mastering stage.

In many death metal recordings, the bass tends to get lost in the mix. How do you overcome this sitaution?

Most often, a bass tone is compromised because the guitars are overpowering the mix with their low frequencies. So if you put the bass in the same frequency range as the lowtuned guitars, you’re going to lose it. I find that it’s important to let the bass take care of the low end, so I usually carve out with low- and high-pass filtering any unwanted frequencies that may collide with the bass in the mix. I also recommend using multiple types of basses in your recordings. For example, we sometimes use a 12- string Dean bass—rather than a typical 4-string, passive bass—because of its unique ability to cut through a mix. It all depends really on what we are trying to achieve, but, primarily, it’s critical to ensure your bass tone is equalized correctly.

Any recommendations for new mixers?

There is no way one can summarize all that goes into producing death metal in one article—this is simply a list of items one would definitely want to consider when doing their work. When mixing death metal, it is extremely important to have a working knowledge of what sounds good, and what does not. So spend time listening to your own work, and the work of other artists who you like or respect, as this process will help you find a reference point for your own mixes.