Electro Quarterstaff: In the studio with Winnipeg’s finest instru-metal prodigies

There is no doubt that Electro Quarterstaff is a true metal band. But when it came time to record their debut release Gretzky, the band chose to ignore the general trappings of metal recording practices — instead enlisting fellow Canadian Craig Boychuk to help forge an album that champions progression over replication. After numerous tries, we were able to get Boychuk and guitarist Drew Johnston to extrapolate on the sound of metal’s future, and explain how they took the first step forward . . . by leaving the bassist at home.

EQ: What was it about Craig’s approach to recording that made you think he was the best choice to engineer this little experiment of yours?

Drew Johnston: A very common approach taken by many modern metal bands is to sound as clinical and antiseptic as possible on their recordings. We wanted to avoid that kind of neutered aesthetic, and we knew from working with Craig in other bands that he could extract the most rugged, organic tones from us without sacrificing clarity. It’s refreshing recording with Craig; he really facilitates that kind of “live” environment and protects the natural warmth of our music.

EQ: Most metal bands, especially those that favor a speedy approach, tend to just trigger the hell out of their drums. Gretzky has almost a classic rock sound in respect to that instrument, which is rather anomalous in this genre.

Craig Boychuk: I tend to use the room sound a lot more in the mix, but I close mic just in case. So for this, I threw [Sennheiser] 421s on all the toms. For the snare, I used a Røde NT2 — a large diaphragm condenser without a pad — and a [Beyerdynamic] M 201, both on the top of the snare. The M 201 was nice and clean, but the NT2, of course, got ridiculously distorted on the snare, and the mix of the two preserved attack but also added a serious crunch.
For the kick, I stuffed a [Shure] SM7 and an Audio-Technica STM 25 in the shell, and I kept the sound of both of those prominent in the mix.
But, as far as room miking goes, I had a pair of Fostex M11RP cardioid printed ribbons set up about three feet from the kit, and a pair of M20RP stereo ribbons at the back of the room, and that is really where most of the sound came from.

EQ: How did you handle preserving clarity and balance in the mix with three guitar players?

CB: I double-miked all the guitars, using a [Shure] SM57 for all three, but mixing that in with either an SM7, an [AKG] D112, and the 201, respectively, on each rig. I also had a Microtech Gefell UM92 a few feet away from the amps, just in case. I had the two close-miked tracks mixed down to one, and then kept the UM92 separate as another track. Two tracks per guitar; six tracks total.

DJ: There is a fine line between getting impact and maintaining clarity, so we all decided to turn down the gain knobs on our amps to really expose the “string” sounds as opposed to opting for slosh-y, over-distorted and undefined guitar sounds. We found that, in the mix, by just putting all the guitars together we made up for any perceived “heaviness” lost individually due to the lowered gain settings.

EQ: With three lead guitars making up the bulk of the compositions, and no bassist to be found, did you do anything ridiculously guitar-minded, like approach the mix from the guitars up?

CB: I like to start with drums because, even in such a guitar-heavy band, if they sound bad so will everything else. So the most work I put into the mix was in regards to the drums. I didn’t really do much to the guitars, just a small bit of EQ here and there to make things fit better, plus some upwards expansion on the high end to accentuate the articulation. The trickiest thing was getting the drums to sit in the mix while maintaining a hefty dose of the ambience from all of the guitars.

DJ: We simply panned the guitars hard left (Andrew Dickens), dead center (Josh Bedry), and hard right (myself) for continuity, and so that it sounds like we do live. However, the solos were fired right up the center. We wanted a very guitar-heavy record, but not to the point of obscuring the drums, which I think are the true propellers of this music.

EQ: It’s a pretty open-sounding record, especially for a metal band.

CB: I really hate hearing obvious compression . . . but I actually like doing parallel compression where I have all the drum tracks in a subgroup. Then I’ll bus them to another group and smack the crap out of that one, and then mix that it in with the dry signal. I like that because you have the uncompressed sound riding on top of the compressed one, and I think it masks what my ear doesn’t like about most compressed tracks.

EQ: I’ve heard there were a rather large amount of obstacles working with RADAR 24, and a lot of time/budgetary constraints on this album. I think it sounds great, but are you still happy with it after having listened back to it so many times? Things sure do tend to pop up months later after you’ve mixed in a rush. . . .

CB: I still love RADAR 24, even if we did have a few problems with it during the album. For someone who loves tape, but has to go work in the box, I think it’s the most intuitive thing out there. And I think it sounds better than Pro Tools. I think we did a good job, though sometimes it’s hard to have an opinion on music you work on. It can get to the point where you don’t even really know what it sounds like. That’s one of the primary drawbacks to mixing in the box; it’s easy to get caught up in minutiae and neglect the real task at hand. Plus, the potential for endless revision is pretty dangerous. Sometimes, it’s better to just take the first take, let it be, and not mess with it.