Soulfly

Assuming the helm position as producer, metal overlord Max Cavalera (ex-Sepultura, Nailbomb) has churned out what could well be his crowning achievement, the colossally heavy yet surprisingly diverse Dark Ages. Catching up with Max and his trusty engineer John Gray not long after the Saltmine sessions for the aforementioned release, EQ gets a brief, yet in-depth look into the techniques employed at flushing out what is inarguably one of 2006’s most aurally oppressive releases.
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EQ: While cutting Dark Ages, did you use any other albums as a sonic blueprint?

Max Cavalera: I did a lot of research on Paul Simon’s Graceland, which was a big inspiration as far as the organic sound and feel of the album, the integration of his music with tracks recorded by musicians in South Africa.

EQ: I hear many similarities in Dark Ages, with additional musicians recorded abroad in five different countries.

MC: One of my favorite things with Soulfly is being able to record in different locales with different musicians. We recorded one piece with four Russian classical musicians who didn’t really know anything about metal.

EQ: What was the integration process like?

John Gray: The tracks mostly came as Nuendo files on a CD or DVD, usually rough mixes with minor overdubbing. Max pretty much gave me carte blanche in lining the tracks up and figuring out where everything should ultimately go.

EQ: Any “square peg in a round hole” moments?

JG: I wasn’t too excited about these tracks coming from places around the world where I had no hand in engineering them. It was difficult when, after hearing a track a hundred times, I had to throw a trombone from a different source in it. . . .

EQ: I take it one of the more interesting times was recording Billy Milano’s tracks via cell phone.

JG: We’d done it before, actually, having people perform vocals from jail. We had a five-track radio system with a network adapter coming right up by the patch bay, which we then dropped the tracks from into Pro Tools. We had Billy set his phone on a houseplant, listen to a rough mix of the song on his iPod, and just go for it.

MC: We could have done all the vocal tracks like this — nothing but cell phones — the distortion was great. . . .

EQ: Even with all of the experimentation, the record is still very traditionally heavy, particularly the guitars. They switch from thick and contemporary to a very vintage metal sound. How did you achieve that balance?

JG: We started experimenting with different mics, and the Sennheiser 421 with the Royer 121 behind it really suited our needs. The rhythm guitar tracks were all tripled, and for what you would call a “chug” part we tracked an extra two takes of palm mutes. So you have five identical takes, all on separate tracks. I kept them from getting too out of hand with about 3dB of gain reduction. I think the biggest reason for the mix of both vintage and contemporary metal guitar sounds comes from the amps themselves. Using Marshalls, as opposed to the Mesa Dual Rectifiers on the previous album, Prophecy, really helped retain warmth, while also sounding very modern.

EQ: And, likewise, the drums veer from very crisp, yet natural, to a heavily triggered sound.

JG: I attribute a lot of that sound to Terry Date’s mix. We didn’t trigger any of the drums; actually we kept it very natural, with a lot of headroom. The ambient mics were crushed a bit with a Urei 1178, but a lot of what you hear is what we grabbed naturally by miking most of the kit with Crown PZMs.

EQ: What about Max’s vocals?

JG: We were mostly running an M49 through an 1176 with about 20dB of gain reduction on it, keeping it clean and adding any of the vocal effects in Pro Tools during the mix.

EQ: So, there was an integration of Pro Tools and tape?

MC: We mostly recorded directly to tape, because I like the warmer feel of it, but for the impromptu jams that are throughout the album, John would just keep running on Pro Tools and then we’d cut it together.

JG: They write so much in the studio that we usually have all the amps set up in a live room and I run the Pro Tools rig to grab the basic ideas, and I just set everything up so it goes through the deck and then into Pro Tools. So, after they demo a part, if they like it, I can just record on the deck. This saved a lot of tape, and made my life a whole lot easier. —Shane Mehling