“We didn’t say, ‘How do we make it sound like high fidelity?’ The point of the record wasn’t to sound as warm and round as possible,” says producer/engineer Naday Eisenman. “The record is beautiful, but it has some bruises and scars on it.”
“Bruising” is an appropriate descriptive term to use when one hears Herrera’s raspy, crackly vocal exorcisms blending with guitarist Brian McKinley’s colossal orchestrations of Boston-esque guitar squall, fired across listeners’ faces with triple leads a la Thin Lizzy. It’s largely McKinley’s contribution that sets Western Xterminator apart from retro-rock worshippers attempting to tow the line between vintage sounds and modern methods. Updating his approach by coming into the studio with a Gibson HD.6X-PRO Digital Guitar, McKinley sought to change not only the way he recorded his instrument, but how he wrote his guitar lines.
“It’s basically just a Les Paul,” he says of the HD.6X-PRO. “But it has a hex pickup near the bridge that converts the audio of each string to digital information. You can go straight into Pro Tools with this guitar. You can affect the spatial qualities of different strings, assign different sounds to each string, mute strings—there’s really too much you can do with this thing. It totally opened up the possibilities for me in terms of composition.”
Eisenman, who engineered most of the album’s ground tracks totally live in the studio, says the guitar was tracked direct, as the band was inspired by the ’70s recording technique of running a guitar right into the board.
“We think you can utilize modern technology to make better-sounding records these days,” says Herrera, “but that doesn’t mean we’re turning our backs on past methods that created amazing albums.”
“I like to build a good front end to ensure that the signal going into Pro Tools is warm and mostly tube,” adds Eisenman, who fancies himself a connoisseur of gear integration. “I have racks of great outboard gear—an Empirical Labs Distressor EL-8X compressor, a Chandler TG2, a Neve 1272, a Universal Audio LA610, and Ampex Vintage Tube preamps—but once I get in the box, I have no problem using the plug-ins on my Universal Audio UAD-1 card, or the Massey and McDSP plug-ins. It’s amazing what some of these guys are doing. Look at the EchoBoy—its tape emulation is unbelievable!
“I also can’t live without the Chandler Limited Germanium Preamp/DI. It can produce a very strange overdrive, and I’ve never heard anything thicker. We only had to put the Feedback knob at about 10 o‘clock to get a totally overloaded sound."
Herrera says that she went into the Western Xterminator sessions looking to diversify her vocal portfolio by going balls-out with processing. So Eisenman ran the lion’s share of Herrera’s vocals through the Tritone Digital ColorTone-Pro plug-in, which custom-designs reverb effects via impulse-response technology. The rest of the vocal chain was an AKG C 535 EB mic running through a Chandler TG2 dual channel and the Empirical Labs Distressor EL-8X compressor (set to a 2:1 ratio).
“The AKG 535 is one of the only condenser mics Jennifer will use,” Eisenman explains. “Her voice is really strange—it has a crackle to it—and most condensers make her sound too odd. But the 535 brings out all the right frequencies. We didn’t have to EQ our way to a sound in the mix—we just threw the fader up.”
Of course, Herrera’s insistence on massive ambience resulted in washes of reverb-laden vocals that added to the band’s tidal wave of sound. They also fought for frequency space with McKinley’s guitars.
“That was a conscious decision by the band,” says Eisenman. “They wanted the end product to be as thick and chaotic as possible.”