Metallica’s Tone, Lars and Production

So, an article surfaced on the net speaking of a man who says that while he was working as a mixing engineer on Metallica’s “…And Justice For All” album, conscious decisions were made regarding tone by Lars Ulrich.  If you wish to read it, it lives in a lot of places, but the version I read was from here ( http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/lars-ulrich-is-to-blame-for-lack-of-bass-on-metallicas-and-justice-for-all-album-mixing-engineer/ ).

There have been conspiracy theories, there have been musings, there have been rants, but one thing remains a constant – “…And Justice For All” is a solid, seminal album that shaped a generation of musicians and helped start the meteoric rise that Metallica enjoyed and, for the most part, has continued to enjoy.

Here’s the thing – I, for a long time, considered “AJFA” to be darned near close to perfect.  I noticed the drums sounded paper thin and there was no audible bass, but those were things that once I got a stereo and external EQ, was easy to take care of and I didn’t think twice about it.  Having started that road down mixing and production, however, I’ve discovered that one of the goals of a producer should be to deliver an album that doesn’t need external equalization, but will hit the listener with full-range, full-bodied music with a flat EQ.  “…Justice” just doesn’t do that, unfortunately.

The thing that I find most interesting, over the years, is how many of Metallica’s “bad” decisions come back to Lars.  I’m not sure it’s a 100% fair criticism, but I will say that his choice of drum tone on “Justice” and then “St. Anger” should be clear enough evidence to keep him away from the EQ knobs even regarding his own tone. His personality must be extremely overpowering to be able to push around producers to a point of having “this tone stinks” be countered, successfully, with “I like it, so it stays.”

So, there’s your dilemma.  You’re a mixing engineer, or producer, being paid a zillion dollars  by Metallica, and you have a mix that you think sounds GOOD.  Lars, the most vocal and, arguably, the most influential in this portion of the recording process listens to it and promptly says, “no.  I don’t like it.  Go with the other one.”  The other one is the one you listened to earlier and thought was god-awful.  So, what do you do?  It would be different if you thought any discussion would end with something other than, “I’m @#$%@#$ Lars Ulrich in @#$%^&@ Metallica.”  It’s kind of hard to argue with that, really, except that I would have to take the stand I take in programming, which is “do you want it, or do you want it right?” which, of course, refers to unrealistic deadlines imposed in the software industry.  In this case, my argument would have to be “do you want it how you want it or do you want it to sound good?”

I don’t really have an answer for this because, honestly, it *does* come down to the band signing off on an album sounding the way they want it, even if the producer disagrees with the production.  I went round and round with my wife on this very topic a couple of times because I would vent in frustration about not wanting to do something specific to the album I was producing, usually involving volume, and would just get back, “it’s what the artist wants and it’s the artist’s album.”  I agree with this…to a point.

It’s kind of like the adage, “the customer is always right.”  For the record, the customer is rarely purely “right,” but more than anything needs the feeling of validation that comes with being listened to.  The same is going on, here, when an artist seems to be making requests that would be counter to what the producer thinks would sound good on the album.  I’m just not sure how I would approach the situation with Lars, you know?  I’d love to have the opportunity to work with Metallica, and help shape that seemingly elusive next album, but wonder about how it would be to work with such strong personalities on their artistic baby.  I say that because “…And Justice For All,” “St. Anger,” and “Death Magnetic” all have choices that were made on them that I find truly baffling.

On “…AJFA,” the obvious questions revolve around the drum kit that when the album was released friends and I joked, “oh, he found his ‘Muppet kit!’” as well as the burying of the bass in the mix.  I have messed with the “stems” from Guitar Hero for some of the “…AJFA” songs and I can tell you without a doubt that giving the drums some dimension and bringing the bass up to audible levels makes the songs not only completely different from the album versions, but also come alive in a way that I think has been missing for close to 30 years.

With “St. Anger,” there is a certain amount of “where to begin,” especially when it comes to the overall “production” of the album.  I know they were going for raw, but even “raw” garage bands have a better sound that this album.  I also have an “A Clockwork Orange”-themed fantasy regarding Lars’ drum tone and just imagine him being stuck in a room with his snare on infinite repeat for hours on end.

Finally, “Death Magnetic” has problems from the ground up, as a lot of the “unmastered” stems that have circulated over years, thanks to Guitar Hero, still have audible clipping.  This is a problem.  There’s nothing you can do with it, ultimately, if the recording process gives you inferior audio to work with and if you’re mixing pre-crackly, pre-clipping guitars and drums, all the gentle mixing and avoiding being a participant in the “loudness war” will matter very little – you’re still going to have a crispy, clipping album that will displease the listener, much like Metallica has seen with “DM.”

You know what I think would be fun, though?  I think it would be awesome to have Metallica have a contest.  You know the kind of contest Metallica is known for – BIG, BOLD and OVER THE TOP.  What kind of contest, you ask?  Simple: Remix and Remaster their albums. This could be a free-for-all OR controlled chaos.  Honestly, in order to protect the music, since we know that Lars and the boys – rightly so – are big on this, have a buy-in.  For example, $10 gets you an albums worth of honest-to-goodness raw stems for the album…none of this Guitar Hero nonsense, no I mean straight from the Zazula archive, in the case of “Kill ‘em All” or Rasmussen’s for “Ride,” “Master,” or “AJFA.”  I’m not sure you really need “NMB” (James’ pet name for “The Black Album” was “None More Black,” and I always have found it more poetic…) or the “Loads,” as, despite what your feelings are about the actual music on the albums, they sound GOOD. That would then leave “St. Anger” and “Death Magnetic.”  Maybe have a sliding scale from $10 up to $50 to get a chance to reshape the albums that have shaped us.  At any rate, with a buy-in like that, it would cut down on rogue distribution, a bit, since there would be a list of who had what album, and so on.  Also, it would give added incentive to produce an awesome album because you would want the prize – your name as producer on a Metallica album, a chance, perhaps, to meet the boys, be flown out to wherever, have a release party and whatever else Metallica would feel like making it worthwhile for you to pay for stems and them to have to listen to thousands of versions of their songs.

Now, this is all just in fun to think about, but I think it would be an awesome opportunity.  Of course, my preference would be to actually get to work with Lars, James, Kirk and Robert, producing their next album, but I see that as being as likely as Jimi Hendrix playing live at my next birthday party…

So, in summary, there’s that line between giving the band what they want and giving them what they need and I’ve found that, in my experience, the big bands win.  I’m not sure it should be this way, but when you’re faced with, “I’m Lars, I like it, so it stays,” sometimes that’s how it has to be and when asked about it, later, you say, “Lars liked it, so it stayed.”  That said, I’d still love a crack at the next Metallica album…

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