Read interview outtakes with Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, and Adam Kasper.
The December issue of Electronic Musician went behind the scenes on Soundgarden’s King Animal, which reveals a new maturity in the band’s musical kinship and creative collaboration in the studio. Here, the band and production team share additional recording secrets.
BY KEN MICALLEF
Tell me about recording vocals alone.
On “Halfway There,” I tried it alone several times and it wasn’t working. So I went in with our mix engineer, it needed to be a performance from beginning to end with someone else hearing it. That does pull a different thing out of most people. No matter how well they know that person or how much it’s a person or an engineer trying to be a fly on the wall, they are still there. But it worked there. It’s just a matter of coming to the conclusion that that song needed that. And sometimes that’s the case.
Did you take an improvisational approach?
There are a few of the new songs where I sat down without any ideas and just listened to what was recorded a few times and started writing and singing to see what it would sound like. And then within a couple hours the song was done and recorded for the album. I've done that a million times as a songwriter creating demos, but it wasn’t til Down on the Upside that I actually did that and it became a final take.
How many takes did you tend to do?
Every song is different, but what I’ve noticed is, if I am monitoring correctly, as long as there are no strange sonic issues or pitch issues on what I am listening to, I will sing it four or five times and generally the third one is mostly the take.
When do you know you have nailed a vocal performance?
I am pretty confident that I’ve nailed something if there is nothing weird going on in the track. If I am having pitch problems with the song, that means there’s something wrong with the way I’m listening to it. Maybe there’s too much upper mid in the mix, maybe something is out of tune with another thing and I’m not yet aware of it yet. I was having trouble singing to the bridge of “Been Away Too Long” because Ben was pulling sharp on the bass; he was just hammering and beating the sh*t out of it. He was playing this very furious, menacing part, and the feel was perfect. But my pitch was weird. Then I realized a way of monitoring to that particular section which is I sang to the bass and turned everything else off. Then when I listened back, it was right on. Even when they added all the other instruments, it sounded perfect. It had a little bit of harmonic tension that makes rock music good, but it was right in there.
If my voice is working, I know when it’s the take. Halfway through, it just feels right, and I am not thinking about it and I’m just enjoying singing. It takes me a couple takes to get to that spot and then a couple takes after that to realize I am not there anymore . [Laughs] The only times I will sing a song over and over again is if there’s just something wrong with what I am monitoring to or if it’s written funny. Some phrases just aren’t that singable.
And sometimes if I am singing high notes that are screechy and screaming my ear canal closes off when my jaw opens and suddenly that is all I can hear no matter how loud the headphones are. And that can be a challenge. I have no reference at all; I am only hearing the screaming in my head.
On iso booths and headphones…
I'm not a big fan of the iso booth or headphones. In early recordings, we'd sit in the live room or in the iso booth with the headphones on, and if you had the amp cranked and the headphones cranked, you're blasting your head out. I like to keep the headphones a little bit quieter, so that means turning the amps down, I don't want to be in the room with them unless I'm trying to capture some feedback. When we recorded Screaming Life, we put the amps in the live room then stood out there wearing headphones trying to get a balance in the mix. It would be too loud, but we were younger then. Whatever squeals we got were part of our sound. We weren't worried about isolating noise and incidental guitar or bass squeals, we wanted all those things that engineers tried to dial out. Of course nowadays, I don't record in an iso booth at all. Chris worked in the live room a bit, but we tend to record guitars in the control room. And no headphones!
Were you looking to take a new direction in the studio?
We were not interested in veering off course from the records we had made before, and we didn't want to imitate those records. We picked up there using the same studio and working with the producer that we've maintained a friendly relationship with over the past decade or so, Adam Kasper. Over the past 13 years I've done session work with Adam for Dave Grohl's Probot and some other stuff. Adam also supervised the mastering and mixing of a number of projects that we've released in the past two years, including the Subpop singles, the live album live in I5, and the Telephantasm album. It was a natural to go to him and to Studio X, where we feel very comfortable.
On getting a good drum sound…
Between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Adam and Matt have a good relationship for dialing in really good drum sounds and that sets the palette for the whole thing. The way the drums sound define the room that the band is working in. If you get the kit sounding good and the drummer is happy, then you can imply the bigness of the room or how tight the band is and where the instruments sit, and it does affect the overall ambience. These psychological things are very important in mixing a record, from the room sound to the delays—the kinds of delay and reverbs you use also imply the room that you're in. It can sound like it’s outside, indoors, tight, small, like a big hall. Engineers and producers can dial in the room they feel comfortable with. It’s trusting the ears of the producer and the engineer.
What about recording demos?
I don't have a demo setup at home; I never really went in that direction. I write songs and commit them to memory. Back in the day we all had four tracks and we'd make demos and bring them in but I never did that. In the late 70s I'd record acoustic guitar and sometimes electric to a cassette player, but Matt and Chris and Ben did more 4-track stuff. I wasn't interested in wasting time with buttons and knobs. I've been doing it a certain way for a dozen years and that's what I am familiar with. Although the obvious benefits to multitrack are there. I'm okay with my memory.
How does Soundgarden credit songs?
Most Soundgarden songs are introduced on guitar. Everyone in this band writes on guitar, which creates a challenge for the principal guitarist, me, to have to learn to play guitar like the drummer or the bass player or the singer! Chris will sometimes start with a lyrical idea and build chords around it, but often we start with the music. In early Soundgarden, we would write songs on Herio Yamamoto’s bass. Then I would write guitar chords and dynamic guitar lines around the bass part. It bugged me cause I never got credit. For some reason, in this band we credit songwriting by linear arrangement. So from the start of the song, point A, to the end of the song, point Z, that line, temporally, whoever came up with the song, the arrangement, that defined that line temporally from beginning to end is who we consider the songwriter. That prejudice came from Chris being our first drummer and drummers tend to think in units of time from A to B. Having him move to vocals and guitar, might have affected that way of looking at arrangements. But so many arrangements are not linear or horizontal, many are vertical and you build on things. Many bands credit songwriting that way. But our band doesn't. So I have to point out what I do.
There’s no gridding?
Matt Cameron is the human metronome, he’s our benefit in escaping the Pro Tools hole, ‘cause he can create one beautiful performance from beginning to end. It’s live and it sounds strong. That’s a tough thing to do with tape edits or Pro Tools because there’s the ambience sounds that you get from a cymbal that is picked up by other mics. The ambience of the whole kit, you try to isolate drums, but the whole kit is in a room and that ambience is the ambience of all the waveforms bouncing off of each other. That f**ks up if you try to do it in Pro Tools. But it’s great for editing and overdubbing. But I wouldn’t want it to replace the sounds you can get by just being a rock band.
How would you define your role?
Everyone in the band has very strong opinions; they look to me for performance cues. We are doing lots of takes so I will comp them. We might run the whole song, then Kim will jam over it. I am helpful in that respect; I will remember things. I pick out good spots that Kim develops.
We all talk arrangement and music; we discuss things at length. Should an intro be longer? What does a bridge need? Say we are doing one of Chris songs, there's odd guitar tunings so we have to figure out which guitar can handle the tunings better. We choose a guitar, then we try different amps or perhaps the guitar needs different strings. Is it the right sound? How does it work with the other guitars? Their songs are bendy with odd tunings, there's lot of open, ringing sounds, so you have to really watch the tuning. If something is too fuzzy you can't hear the chords. We get in there; it's deep.
What were your amp setups?
We usually split two or three amps off at a time. We have powered splitters that run the amps in different combinations, and with the splitters we don’t lose any signal. That keeps the signal hot and you can combine up to four amps at a time. We used a Fender Supra, a Mesa Boogie with a 4x12, a Divided by 13 [FTR 37] and a combo amp. That gave us options later.
How did you track guitars?
The solos and improvised guitar parts are Kim, but with Soundgarden you never know for sure who is doing what. We took a different approach to tracking each song, we did vocals last sometimes. We can arrange a whole song without a vocal idea or a melody, sometimes we tweak it later arrangement-wise. Half of them are complete songs that Chris brought in. Mostly live takes with overdubs as needed. And very little editing of drums.
What’s your goal for getting a great drum sound?
It’s Matt Cameron and a great kit. Matt and I have recorded over 100 tracks together in that room. So we're able to get there fast. We didn't want to bring in a lot of room sound this time, Matt wanted a drier sound. But with Matt you'd be a fool not to get a good sound.