If first impressions are lasting, then we’re all pretty much screwed. While it has been proven time and time again that the brute who looks like a Hells Angel can have the heart and demeanor of a bunny rabbit, society tends to read the glossy billboard and avoid the small print of one’s deeper persona.
As a “for example,” consider the seemingly cartoon-ish visage of Avenged Sevenfold: five dudes bearing arms rife with tattoos, wearing clothes that could have been snatched from the wardrobe of a reality show stylist, and exhibiting perfect L.A. hair. Cynics could mouth off that the Huntington Beach, California, group is some major-label Smurf’s wet dream of a corporate-metal money-making machine, rather than an example of a genuine and impassioned rock band.
But the cynics would be full of whale poop.
First, consider that only extremely dedicated wackos would dare play loud guitars if they were seeking fame and fortune in the current music culture. Check out the charts—unless Alicia Keys and Carrie Underwood and Fergie are shredding (they’re not), then guitar-based music is not exactly conquering the download generation.
Then, there’s the fact that Avenged guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance made the cover of the October 2006 issue of Guitar Player because they mastered the incredibly intricate and technically brutal art of sweep picking, stole licks from Steely Dan, and crushed nu-metal convention by taking long, blistering guitar solos. They even played—gasp—harmony lines that would have made Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd cry tears of joy.
And let’s not underestimate the band’s old-school work ethic and lofty creative aspirations. These guys seem to work as hard to make their music absolutely right as Bruce Springsteen does. And, arguably, they might even be a bit more, um, progressive than The Boss.
Finally—and here’s the f**k you moment for the cynical militias of the world—Avenged Sevenfold’s sweat has actually paid off. They have a rabid fan base, their songs consistently hit the Top 40 of U.S. singles charts, they copped Best New Artist honors at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, and they clocked tons of acts to reach the final four of FUSE’s “Best of 2007.”
For its recent self-titled album [Warner Bros.], the group upped its game some more, deciding to produce the record itself—a move that also inspired the members (which, in addition to Gates and Vengeance, includes vocalist M. Shadows, bassist Johnny Christ, and drummer The Rev) to crank up the excitement level by incorporating their varied stylistic influences into the band’s signature sound. The result is a soundscape that slams rock hard, while simultaneously molding prog-rock, hip-hop, electronica, orchestral, and music-theater elements into its core. Here, engineer Fred Archambault and Gates detail how Avenged Sevenfold crafted a metal epic.
What made the band want to take on the production duties for Avenged Sevenfold?
Gates: The easy answer is that we met with a bunch of producers, and no one really worked out. But there’s also the fact that we’re really into audio production. When we listen to CDs, we listen to all the elements. As much as we check out other artists, we follow producers, as well.
When you met with those producers, what were some of the things that prompted the band to think, “We don’t want these guys. Let’s do it ourselves”?
Gates: There were a couple of things. One producer was like, “I’m there to challenge you. One of the coolest things a band said to me was that I’m the best arguer around—I could talk them into anything.” And we thought, “Whoa, that’s a little too much for us.” We’ve grown up together, we’re all really great friends, and we didn’t want to argue about anything. We’re all pretty much on the same wavelength regarding tones, lyrics, and performances—there’s never a struggle. We also had a clear vision of the record, and we didn’t want anything to mess with our chemistry as a band.
What types of records were you referencing during pre-production?
Gates: We listened to lots of hip-hop records, as well as to Metallica to check out the bigger sonic stuff. A lot of metal records don’t really sound that huge, and we really wanted to produce a big and diverse sound—just like our favorite hip-hop records. If you play this record on a really nice stereo, it’s going to give you everything from the lowest lows to the highest highs.
Fred, what was your first impression of the material when you were confronted with it?
Archambault: I’ve been involved with the band since Waking the Fallen in 2003, so I’ve gotten to know the guys not only as musicians, but as friends. I know how musically diverse they are, so the album’s mix of influences and styles was not really a surprise to me. If you hang out in their tour bus when the band is on the road, you hear everything from Big & Rich to Danny Elfman. We actually talked about this record quite a bit—starting six months before the band decided to produce it. There was a lot of preparation and forethought going on. I’d listen to the demos, meet with the band, and talk with David Schiffman—who was the other engineer on the project—to start developing a game plan for the studio. And, ultimately, our job became trying to get the sounds the band was talking about out of the speakers.
Did you and David develop any overriding strategies to manifest the band’s sonic ideas?
Archambault: We quickly determined that we couldn’t rely on defaults. The normal things we often do—such as put a Sennheiser MD 421 on the kick drum and a Shure SM57 on the snare—might not produce the nuances of sound the band wanted. We also decided to craft sounds from the source. If Syn was unhappy with a rhythm-guitar sound, for example, we’d go to a different amp head, or a different speaker cabinet, or add a Tube Screamer to the signal chain. We wouldn’t just reach for the EQ, or manipulate a compression plug-in. There was a lot of purity in the crafting of sounds.
Which recording medium did you choose for the album?
Archambault: We recorded to Pro Tools, but the band wanted to use it more as a tape machine, rather than solving problems with mouse clicks. There was very limited plug-in action during the sessions—I think we used a total of three. The band really wanted an organic sound.
Gates: We’re a spur-of-the-moment group. We’ll certainly have ideas and melodies in place when we’re in the studio, but when you hit the Record button, we’re often flying by the seat of our pants, and we wanted that spontaneous energy reflected in the final tracks.
How did you record The Rev’s drums?
Archambault: The Rev has this amazing custom DW kit—two kick drums, seven toms, and a really wide variety of cymbals. So we had to customize our engineering decisions to make sure we were capturing all the nuances of his performance. For example, it’s a little bit frustrating trying to get two kick drums to sound exactly the same, because there are so many variables that can make each kick sound different, from the exact spacing of the microphones to the sonic characteristics of the mic cables. So we ended up using three different microphones. One was a Sennheiser MD 421—which is kind of your stock, go-to kick-drum mic. We also used a Shure SM91 cardioid condenser to capture some attack—as The Rev plays those kicks pretty fast—and an AKG D112 to supplement the SM91s with some low-end oomph. Each kick drum got the same mic arrangement, and all the mics were submixed to a single track so that we had one track for each kick drum. During the submix, the fader for the SM91 was set at 0dB, the 421 was at –5dB, and the D112 was at –15dB.
What about the overheads?
Archambault: We found that using Neumann U67s—our usual default mics for overheads—didn’t capture every single cymbal. For example, there would be a chime over his right side that we weren’t hearing as prominently as a crash up front over a tom. So we put up two additional overheads, positioning two Coles 4038 ribbon mics about ten feet over the kit. These kind of became room/overhead mics, and they pretty much got what we needed, but we added some AKG C 451s as supplemental “spot” mics to ensure we captured his intricate cymbal work.
That sounds like a phase nightmare.
Archambault: The biggest issue with the kit was getting the phase correct. It definitely came down to following old-school mic placement, such as adhering to the three-to-one rule [Editor’s note: This is a strategy for positioning multiple mics that typically prevents one microphone from interfering with the pickup of another. Simply put, the rule states that two mics must be placed at least three times the distance that either mic is positioned from the source sound it is capturing]. But, to be quite honest, it went pretty quick. We had a sound up within a day, and we pretty much had our phase correct.
Was it also a hassle dealing with seven toms?
Archambault: Once again, we had to customize our approach, because we had all these mic stands around the kit, and it was hard to get some mics in there. The first three toms were an 8"x8", a 10"x8", and a 12"x10", and we couldn’t squeeze MD 421s in there, because space was pretty tight over the hi-hat, and there were other cymbals around, as well. We ended up using Shure SM98s, which are miniature condensers often used to mic drums live. I haven’t really used them in the studio before, but I thought, “Well, that’s the only mic I can fit in there!” But they sounded great, and the signal rejection between toms was really good, because the 98s are hypercardioid. For the rest of the toms, we used MD 421s. The Rev’s two floor toms are 18" and 16"1 in diameter, and we weren’t getting enough body, so we added a bottom 421 along with the 421 on top. That helped us get the girth, and we didn’t have any phase issues.
Did you do stereo submixes to manage the toms a bit easier?
Archambault: We left the toms on separate tracks. The only things we bused were the kick-drum mics, and the top and bottom snare mics—which were a Shure SM57 [top] and an AKG C 451. I feel that when you bus your toms together, you’re too restricted at the mixing stage. We ended up with 33 drum tracks between the source and room mics, and I didn’t feel we were herding tracks that bad during the mix. The only concession we made was not going to analog tape for the drums—which the band wanted to do. Locking up two tape machines would have been a huge hassle, so it was way easier just staying with Pro Tools. Actually, I felt our track assignments were pretty conservative considering the drum setup we had—although it definitely helped to submix the kick drums and the snare mics.
What types of guitar gear made the scene during the sessions?
Gates: Our guitar tech, Walter Rice, brought in all these crazy amps, so we took the best elements of Bogners, Marshalls, and other models. We’d blend four different amps together to get the right tone. And, of course, I had my Schecter Synyster Gates signature model guitar, and Zacky used his Schecter Zacky Vengeance Custom.
Archambault: We had a lot of guitar stuff. Marshall sent over a bunch of amps, and I think we had every Bogner amp that has ever been made. Walter was absolutely an amazing resource for cool, one-of-a-kind amplifiers, and that gave us the palette to go straight for the tone from the source. We didn’t need to use multiple mics and mic positions. In fact, the whole record was done with one Shure SM57. We put that mic dead center to one of the cones in the speaker cabinet—an inch off the grille cloth—and ran the signal through a Neve 1073 or a Neve 1084 preamp with a touch of compression from either a Fairchild 670 or a dbx 160 VU. That was the signal chain.
What speaker cabinets were you using?
Gates: We mostly used a Marshall 4x12 cabinet loaded with Celestions G12L-35s, a Bogner cab, and a Mesa/Boogie 2x12.
Did you use a splitter to route the guitar into several amps at once, and then decide which tone worked best for the song at hand?
Gates: We didn’t split signals. We constructed the tones by choosing an amp for each track, and we layered the sounds one by one. When you play through several different amps at once, I’ve found that you lose the magic of what each individual amp can do. I’d rather play each overdub through one amp at a time. We also wanted each part to have its own unique feel, so we didn’t paste, say, a guitar part for a chorus onto all the other choruses.
Archambault: We did split the guitar signals for City of Evil and Waking the Fallen. We’d use a Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro, or a Radial JD7—which I’m a huge fan of—to send the signal to two or three amps simultaneously, and then blend the various amp sounds to taste. But, for this record, we wanted the best thing we could get out of, say, the Bogner Uberschall with just one microphone, and pan the signal to the left. Then, we’d get what we liked out of a Marshall DSL100, and pan it to the right. Like Syn said, we wanted the vibe and tone of the individual amps to be maintained throughout the rhythm layers.
In what type of room were the guitar amps recorded?
Archambault: We did the guitars at Eldorado Recording Studios in Burbank, California. It’s a one-room facility, but it has 30-foot ceilings, cinder-block walls, and a concrete floor. You can just imagine how reflective that room is! We had to cut down the room a bit using packing blankets in order to ensure we weren’t hearing the slap of the room in the microphone.
You were still getting significant room bleed into the SM57, even though it was positioned just an inch from the speaker cone?
Archambault: The mistake a lot of musicians make is forgetting that close miking doesn’t completely cancel the interaction of the room with the source sound. Avenged Sevenfold has these incredibly tight rhythm-guitar parts, and any amount of slap, echo, or natural reverb can compromise the sound. There aren’t many guitar players who can stack three or four rhythm overdubs, and still sound tight, but Syn is great at that. Obviously, we didn’t want the room to smear his performances.
Synyster mentioned that he and Zacky would record one song at a time, rather than doing an assembly line of rhythm or lead tracks for every song on the album.
Archambault: Yeah. Unfortunately, we had to take the assembly line approach for the drums, and run through all of The Rev’s drum tracks for the entire album, but we had the luxury of focusing on one song at a time for the guitars. Not many rock records get made that way. We’d typically finish all the guitars for a song in three or four days. This obviously allowed us to get the right tones for the right song, but another cool advantage was that it prevented Syn and Zacky from getting burnt out doing nothing but rhythm tracks for two weeks. This is especially important for Syn, who always leaves a lot of room in the studio for spontaneity. He’ll write a solo while he’s tracking, and, a couple of hours later, the other guys will run into the studio to check out what he did. That kind of stuff keeps the energy level way up throughout the whole process of making a record. I think the album required 72 hours of tracking time, but it never felt like a drag. Everything always sounded fresh, and that energy is really evident in the final sound of the album.
What was the typical approach for the bass?
Archambault: We would always track rhythm guitars before doing the bass tracks. I did this for two main reasons. First, if you record the bass before the guitars, you can get this great big bass sound that leaves no room for the guitars—and Avenged is definitely a guitar-driven band. This is not to say that the bass isn’t important to the band—it very much is—but I felt we had to find the sound of the rhythm guitars first, and then determine where the bass tone would live. The second reason has to do with intonation. The worst situation is when your bass tracks are slightly out of tune. Then, your rhythm guitars become nearly impossible to track. And, actually, a third reason is that Johnny sometimes follows Syn’s rhythmic accents, and doing the bass after the guitars allows him to better define what the bass line is doing.
How many sources do you juggle for the bass tone?
Archambault: I always record three sources for the bass. The first is a direct signal, and the second is an amp sound that’s pretty clean, but with a little grit. The third source is either a super-distorted signal through a guitar amp, or a patch on the Line 6 Bass POD. The bass amp was the main sound, but I liked having three sources to blend together. Being able to add a little bit of distortion, for example, can help glue the bass sound together.
What was the bass amp?
Archambault: There was a SVT classic—which Johnny has had for a long time—and a Gallien-Krueger 2001RB. That’s a great two-channel head that puts out an amazing distortion sound on channel B. We ran it through a Gallien-Krueger 410—which was the main bass sound—and a Gallien-Kreuger 115 for the distorted-amp sound.
How did you mic the cabs?
Archambault: We put MD 421s on both cabinets. The mics were maybe two or three inches from the dead center of the speaker cone, and the preamps were Neve 1073s. The bass cabs were set up in a vocal booth, so I didn’t have the big-room challenge that I had when tracking the guitars.
I’m assuming that, unlike the guitar tracks, you ran the bass into all three sources simultaneously?
Archambault: Yes. We used the Little Labs PCP to split Johnny’s bass signal to the bass amp, the guitar amp or Bass POD, and the direct line. All three signals were also routed to Empirical Labs Distressors set to about 6dB of gain reduction, a 4:1 ratio, and a really fast release with a very slow attack. This is usually a safe, yet aggressive compression that retains much of the high end of the bass tone. I also did something pretty cool with the DI signal. I ran it through a Little Labs IBP—which stands for “In Between Phase”—that allows you to dial in precise phase adjustments. I’d start by checking the phase relationship between the bass amp and direct signals before moving on to check the phase on all three sources. Basically, I was adjusting phase to get the most low-end clarity. When everything sounded good, I’d pop on the subwoofer for Johnny so he could feel the bass as he played.
Did you submix the three sources into a single, monaural bass track?
Archambault: The bass tracks were not submixed at all, because I wanted [album mixer] Andy Wallace to have three distinct bass sounds available. I didn’t want to deny him the opportunity to, say, add some distortion to a chorus in order to pump up a song’s dynamics.
Considering the range of sounds and styles on the record, did Johnny use a number of different basses for his tracks?
Archambault: Johnny’s Ernie Ball 30th Anniversary Stingray with ebony fretboard is on 80 percent of the record. There were a couple of other basses around, and we’d definitely record a bit, and then sit back and decide which bass would be best for the track. On “Dear God” he used an ESP 5-string bass, and he had him overdub a wall of bass for “Scream,” which he really dug.
Did you use any effects?
Archambault: I’m a huge fan of the Visual Sound H2O Liquid Chorus & Echo pedal, and it sounds great on bass. You don’t want to overdo it, but if you use it lightly, it’s really cool. So we used it on the cleaner parts of the slower songs to add that Guns ’N Roses chorus sound that the guys love.
How did you audition mics for M. Shadows, and which model was selected as the main vocal mic?
Archambault: Actually, when we cut City of Evil at Ocean Way Recording in 2005, we discovered the perfect vocal mic for Shadows. That studio is like a microphone museum, and we literally put up every mic they had, from an AKG C 414 to a Neumann U47. The mic that brought up every nuance of Shadows’ voice was an AKG C12. Luckily, when we did the vocals at Eldorado for the new album, the studio had not one, but two C12s. This allowed us to A/B the two mics, and you’d be surprised at how different they sounded. We ended up using C12 number two, because it enhanced Shadows’ gritty vocals with a little more bite than C12 number one exhibited.
Can you detail the vocal signal chain?
Archambault: As with the guitar and bass sessions, we kept our single chain pretty much the same from song to song. The mic preamp was an Aurora GTQ2 Mark 3—which is a Neve 1073 copy made by Jeff Tanner—and the compressor was a silver-face Universal Audio 1176. The compression ratio was usually 8:1, with what we call the “Dr. Pepper” settings: a slow attack, a fast release, input level at 10 o’clock, and output level at 2 o’clock. I also set up the other C12 in another part of the studio to accommodate low vocals or background vocals. This mic was routed through a Vintech X73 preamp and a dbx 160 compressor, and this is what most of the guest singers used. However, I put up a Neumann U47 to round out the girls in the choir parts, because the C12 really has a bite to its sound. Also, as the brighter C12 was Shadows’ mic, I wanted to make sure he had his own sonic space in the mix.
Does Shadows like to record his vocals by listening through headphones, or is he more comfortable with the tunes blasting through studio monitors?
Archambault: For the last record, he switched between headphones and studio monitors, but, this time, he used only headphones. He doesn’t seem to have a preference, and he has learned to help himself sing on pitch by removing one of the earpieces if he’s having intonation issues. Another thing that helped is that we used guide keyboard lines.
You mean you’d actually play the vocal melody on a keyboard, and pump that into his headphones?
Archambault: Oh, yeah. Distorted guitars can be so much white noise that it’s sometimes hard to find a solid pitch reference. So, a few hours before Shadows was set to sing, we’d sit down and literally play out the entire vocal melody on a keyboard. I wish more people knew about this, because when there’s definitely no issue as to what the note should be, it often frees up the singer to concentrate on phrasing and delivery.
How did you approach the engineering of “A Little Piece of Heaven”—which is almost a bizarre theater piece. Were you challenged to expand the sonic landscape in order to address the song’s cinematic layers?
Archambault: I was around when that song was written, so I was aware of its strong visual focus. There are very few songs out there that actually transport you somewhere when you close your eyes. It’s an amazing work, and it’s based on a piano part that The Rev had written. When he played it for the band, all you heard was piano, drums, and a vocal melody for like eight minutes. Everyone looked at each other, and said, “This is like a Danny Elfman score.” At that point, we pictured using strings, brass, and woodwinds, and that’s why we brought in former Oingo Boingo member Steve Bartek as the arranger. In a sense, that song was the hardest to pull off technically, but it really wasn’t any trouble—if that makes any sense. I mean, there were a lot of elements, but we really didn’t do anything different from an engineering standpoint. We put up Neumann U67s and Earthworks M50s for the strings—a combination of close mics and room mics. But the core of the piece is actually pretty simple: drums, guitar, bass, a main vocal, and 12 tracks of strings, woodwind, and brass. When the bed was laid down, we did some sound effects—like breaking bottles outside—and crazy vocals with all five guys in the vocal booth.
Gates: We didn’t establish any rules for Steve’s arrangement, or for ourselves. And doing the vocals was awesome. We had one big, fun, drunk day, and laid down a million and one vocals.
There was a time—not too long ago—when a diverse album such as Avenged Sevenfold would have been considered commercial suicide by major-label A&R squads.
Archambault: Absolutely. So I say, “Hats off to management, hats off to the label for allowing them to do this, and hats off to the band for pulling it off.” In a sense—because the band conceptualized and wrote this whole epic—I think Avenged Sevenfold may have the biggest pair of balls ever.