High-Volume Recording with Sunn0)))

Most engineers wouldn’t have the guts to do what Randall Dunn takes on. Working with drone gods Sunn0))) means recording guitars at 120db with no drums, no click tracks, and then spending hours sculpting the songs into a tapestry of speaker rattling sound. Sunn0)))’s new as-yet-untitled record promises to expand on their mountainous sound with orchestration, electronics, and the schizophrenic vocals of Mayhem singer Attila Csihar. But the heart of the band lies in the guitar/bass combo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. We sat down with Dunn in his home studio to talk about how his techniques make his recordings some of the most singular out there.

Why record at such high volumes?
That’s part of what Sunn0))) does, and I wanted to respect their process. Also, Litho Studios handles volume better than any room in Seattle. In some rooms, if you’re playing at 120db, the mics seize up and everything sounds horrible. But this room gives instead of takes, and it’s great to push that stuff, because one thing I think is often missing from extreme music is air. People are always going direct or using Amp Farm.

How do you set up your mics?
The challenge with recording high-threshold music is if the mics are out of phase—or if you have too many mics capturing the same frequencies—then this loud, imposing band gets tiny, and it loses all impact. I’ve been using these Little Lab phase adjusters that are awesome—you just move the knob until you hear the low end come back.

For mics, I love using Royer R 121s because they tend to capture all the high-volume overtones produced by the guitars. I can put them a foot away from the cabinet—positioned off-axis to avoid the direct sound pressure—and they don’t seize up. A lot of Sunn0))) tones don’t really develop until you get 20 feet out, so I also put two Neumann U67s far away, with the pad on, through LA2As. The sound is killer—tons of low end with a great stereo image and a lot of high end. Sometimes, you put up a close mic, and it sounds like a little mosquito.

How much layering is involved in a Sunn0))) record?
I’m really into guitar layering and panning the sounds hard right and left. Maybe it’s from listening to too many Alan Parsons Project albums [laughs]. Getting a good guitar sound doesn’t mean each sound has to be amazing. I often pick amps that produce different frequencies so that the final tone sounds like one huge, monolithic amp. For example, I miked a little Supro amp with a ribbon mic, and blended it with the bigger, louder amps.

Did you do any DI tracks in order to re-amp parts later on?
I’ve been resistant to it because you get phase problems, but this record really changed my mind. Some direct sounds worked, and some didn’t, but the ones that did were great. For example, Stephen’s guitar is so loud that when he moves you can sometimes hear his strap rustle against his shirt. So I was using a DI track for some re-amping, and I could still hear his strap creak. It was like a ghost was playing [laughs].

Were you recording to tape for the whole thing?
We went 2" analog at 30 ips, and synced with Pro Tools. Some of it went straight to Pro Tools because we couldn’t afford that much tape. The songs are long, and when you want to keep multiple takes, it’s just too expensive. But that’s the only reason. My problem with DAWs is that people aren’t listening to music anymore, they’re looking at a screen. And everybody wants to edit stuff, rather than play something over until it’s right. Not to sound like an old man, but early pop music has a beard on it. It has screw-ups and weird pops. Brian Eno wrote an article about how more and more steps are being placed between the musician and the music. It used to be just a mic to tape, but now you have converters, plug-ins, editing, and so on. Now, people are copying and pasting choruses, and using grid mode—even in metal music. This is supposed to be music that scares your parents, but now it just sounds tame. This is one reason I love tape—it changes your outlook of how to perform music. Musicians play, and not to support that talent by allowing so much digital editing to happen is really hurting music.