Metallica – “Hardwired … To Self-Destruct”

The last time Metallica released a studio album, George W. Bush was still in office.  This release will precede President Donald J. Trump by mere weeks.  So what, right?  Well…it is *8* years.  We were given “Death Magnetic” and we, the Metallica faithful, were mostly sated.  There were production (*mastering*) problems that squashed dynamics and prompted several versions of “remixed/mastered/EQ’d” from the Guitar Hero III stems.  Much better.  So, we come back to today – the official release and while the vinyl hasn’t arrived at the door, the videos links have arrived in the email box.  I did a song-by-song deconstruction of “St. Anger” when it came out, but, sadly, it’s been lost to the mists of history – even archive.org can’t find it.  So, I thought I’d do that with this one, the new one, the shiny one, the one where the first three singles gave Metallica fans around the world hope that there might be a return to their thrash roots.  Let’s do this.

The Songs

01 – “Hardwired”

Churning.  A snare that sounds like a snare – that’s a positive.  Very punky vibe, but with enough chugging to make a metalhead happy.  Nice delay on the vocal – well placed and not overbearing.  Nice chorus. The solo breakdown feels like a solo and the post-solo section is solid.  I dig it.  I’m also digging the double-bass.  *Finally.* This has a good vibe to it.  I’m enjoying it a lot.  The slowdown at the end is really nice.  Good song.

02 – “Atlas, Rise”

Decent enough intro. It’s reminding me of the punk-infused stuff we used to get in the early-80s.  Decent riffing.  The vocals are good.  Pre-chorus is a not bad, but serves it’s purpose – it feeds naturally into the chorus.  Chugging is pretty good, lead fill keeps from getting overly repetitive sounding.  This feels NWOBHM-ish and I’m digging it.  The solo starts off like something from “Load.” OK – better movement but pretty wah’d up. However, the harmonized solo is really nice – reminds me of 7th Son-era Iron Maiden.  The ending is solid.  Good song. I can dig it.

03 – “Now That We’re Dead”

Mid-tempo chugging.  I can dig it. Even the drum fills seem to work.  Slow to build, though.  Reminiscent of mid-80s hard rock.  Very simple verse – it works.  Wow – the pre-chorus feels so very 1987.  Nice.  I’m trying to think of who this reminds me of.  Kind of like some of the mid-tempo stuff Armored Saint did around that time.  This isn’t a bad thing.  The chorus is a bit creepy, but nice riff underneath.  It’s keeping things very simple, and it’s working.  The song is growing on me.  The solo is pretty solid – not TOO wah-y with good movement.  Ooh – interesting post-solo crunch.  It’s like what would have happened if “Outlaw Torn” had more bite.  The ending…hmmm…pretty solid.  Another good song.  Cool.

04 – “Moth Into Flame”

Nice intro into fantastic chuggy riffing.  Where’s this been the last couple of albums?  Nice movement under the verse which is also pretty solid.  Pre-chorus bliss!  Really enjoying the riffing. Now that’s a catchy as hell chorus! The guitars are constantly moving.  Nice!  Back to the verse and it’s just got good chunky riffing.  Man.  Well structured song.  It’s funny how it almost *feels* mid-tempo, but sure as hell isn’t.  Oooh, nice breakdown.  Down picking heaven.  Solid bridge that feeds into the solo.  Not a bad solo, either – THIS sounds like KRK.  Nice re-entry riff and double-bass thunder.  Easily my favorite song, so far.  Just beastly riffing riding you off into a crescendo ending.  Excellent song.

05 – “Dream No More”

Doom-y.  Sluggish, but not plodding.  Meaty doom riffs.  Verse…interesting harmony.  Sounds like “The Cure” but is a boatload more listenable.  Pre-chorus is pretty decent.  Oooh.  The chorus *chugs*.  There’s no other way to describe it. So far, the chorus is the the best part.  Still doomy.  Huge sound, though – definitely a good thing.  Middle is pretty good leading to the solo.  Decent solo – interesting slower section, gaining nice harmonization.  Building to something – the sludgy, sloggy chugging.  Cthulhu imagery throughout is always a good thing.  This song will probably grow on me. Right now, it’s a good song.

06 – “Halo on Fire”

Nice harmonized intro.  Harkening back to 1987, it feels like.  Pulling back into a light acoustic trot.  Verse is sung nicely and builds.  The chorus is a little jarring, but gets bigger and is pretty good.  Nice break.  Good tone on the solo – fits the vocals.  The pre/chorus is growing on me.  Middle breakdown riff is nice and chunky.  The bridge is pretty good even with two parts; they work, I think.  Nice chunky riffing after the 2nd bridge.  This sends us into the solo, which starts with some nice harmonization and then pulls to the middle and isn’t too bad.  With the solo over, we riff and then back to a short acoustic break.  Solo 2 – almost sounds like Het’s tone. Nice movement into what was bridge 2 and now a slowly building solo that is over a nice galloping riff.  The ending is really taking off – I like it.  The song ends…and it’s a good one.  I like the movement within the song.

07 – “Confusion”

Marching – which I think is the point.  Crunchy.  It is nice to have a snare that sounds like a snare, again.  Ooooh – fun riffing going on, here.  Slows down to a mid-tempo.  Nice vocals in the verse, and gives way to the chugging which, in turn, gives way to the chorus.  Interesting. Nice transition back to the chugging.  Nice little solo before a solid bridge. Really touching on the PTSD aspect – heavy.  Good transition back to the chorus.  Bridge 2 is driving home the PTSD with a frenetic staccato bit of riffing.  Moves into a neat section that finishes off and drops us into the solo.  It’s not a bad solo – it really conveys a “barely in control” vibe that works.  That is just a sick riff.  Ending  on the marching.  Solid song.  I like it a lot.

08 – “Manunkind”

Acoustic meandering – nice bass working underneath.  Aaaand – heavy!  Mid-tempo?  Slogger?  It’s kind of giving a vibe of both.  Nice groove.  Sort of disjointed riff under the vocals which have a sort of urgency going on.  Feels southern rock-ish, but with a heaver touch.  I like the harmonization – I’m a sucker for a good harmonized vocal line.  Breakdown time.  The bridge is even more urgent, the exaggerated delay helps it out.  Not too bad.  Do we call this bridge 2?  It’s decent enough and leads to the solo which, after started kind of slowly, becomes a sort of wah assault.  It reigns it in to feed back to the bridge 2 thingo.  Very southern groove.  Reminds me a bit of “Ronnie.”  The ending is a repetition of “Faith in man-un-kind,” until it ends.  Not too bad.  This feels like one I’ll have to listen to more to get into.

09 – “Here Comes Revenge”

Definitely setting up a mood, here.  Feels dirty and sludgy.  Gives way to a pretty solid riff.  The solid riff becomes riffier and has a decent hook to it.  Dirty drums, slightly dirty guitar, interesting verse, leads into the what I’m assuming is the pre-chorus which makes good use of riff #3.  Decent chorus with a sort of stop and go thing that ends nicely enough.  Back to the verse.  I like the transitions.  Decent movement in the song.  It’s not dragging.  The hook-y riff gives way to a mid-tempo crescendo that leads into the solo.  Nice riffing underneath.  A more restrained solo that works well.  Galloping towards the end with the hook-y riff with some nice double-bass work underneath with the dirty, wah-soaked guitars we heard in the intro.  A solid song.  I dig it.

10 – “Am I Savage?”

Starting slow with clean tone and understated bass and drums.  Gets dirty quick.  Not bad – building towards a really sludgy riif.  This feels like something Sabbath – mid ‘90s Sabbath – would churn out.  And we now just hopped into an interesting off-tempo walking/talking part.  The chorus is decent.  Returning to the doomy, sludgy riff.  Definitely a sloggy feel, but not draggy.  The off-kilter pre-chorus is disconcerting which, I’m fairly certain was the point. Honestly, it has a “Loverman” vibe to it but, thankfully, is a vastly more interesting song.  Oooh – sludge.  The breakdown leading to the solo is chewy as hell.  Nice solo work – it’s a nice counterpart to the riffing underneath.  As it heads to the end, it chugs along, and I do mean chugs.  Pretty good – I definitely to listen to it more.

11 – “Murder One”

Nice clean tone interrupted by a fairly urgent heavy interruption.  Main riff is pretty fluid and gritty.  Interesting – the verse and vocals are pretty solid.  Pre-chorus? Bridge? Chorus?  Not sure.  Leads back to the verse. This takes me back to 1989.  It’s got a good vibe.  We’ll call that the pre-chorus – it compliments the chorus well.  Oh, my.  Well, hello, Kirk. A jarring solo, with very little transition.  It settles down and then feeds back into the pre-/chorus.  A decent hard rock groove feel.  I’ll have to listen to this more to get more of a feel for it.  It doesn’t feel as strong as most of the songs, but it’s not bad. We shall see!

12 – “Spit Out The Bone”

Frenetic intro – drums, bass and guitars chugging along and after a brief pause uses that riff to take us to a bit of machine gun-ish riffing.  Interesting melody interspersed.  Now it’s a homogenized, sick riff.  Hello, angry verse!  Barked lyrics with speed chugging underneath.  I really dig that main riff.  Need to harmonize it, though.  Man, this is moving.  There is a definite urgency, but not haphazard.  Breakdown to Rob’s solo. Cool.  Leads back to some more gymnastic riffing.  Digging the bridge and here we go into KRK land – the first part of the solo is kind of like the rest in terms of wah, but churns down to a nice slower, melodic solo.  The middle section is really nice.  New riff – solid.  Slowing down a touch with some chugging. I can dig it.  Slower still chugging.  What’s it building up to?  ‘cause it’s building!  Ooooh – channeling some of the Kill ‘em All energy, this solo is much more satisfying to me.  Enough old and new Kirk working together to make for a solo that works.  Frantic chugging and barking vocals – angry Metallica is good Metallica.

Oy.

Wow.  I’m a bit drained.  That was a killer ending to a solid effort that had many more high points than low.  Actually, come to think of it, I don’t really recall there being anything that could be considered a “low.”  To be completely honest, “Am I Savage” might be the weak track on the album, but even there – if that’s your “weak one,” I’d say that’s not too shabby, at all.

The riffing

There is plenty of riffing to be had.  Wow.  From open to close, there’s no shortage of chunky, chewy, ripping riffs that all work well with the songs and don’t feel forced.  What I mean is that some of the “speed riffing” on “St. Anger” seems like it was put in with the intent of showing us they were still heavy.  It felt like they were trying too hard.  This?  This sounds like a natural, organic album where there riffs don’t feel forced.  Even some of the riffing on “Death Magnetic” felt a little shoehorned.  Not here.

Review / Summary

I’ve been having a hard time NOT jamming to this album.  From the opening notes of “Hardwired” to the last shimmer of reverb at the end of “Spit Out The Bone,” it’s nonstop.  It’s funny – I read some comments, somewhere (I can’t remember where…) that the album had four ballads.  I’ll have to check my impressions of the songs, above, but I’m pretty sure there’s not a single ballad on this album.  There’s a dynamic that offers a good balance of “acoustic-y intro” to “all out thrashing,” so that might have been what they were talking about.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is the most consistent and solid album since, if I’m to be completely honest, “The Black Album.”

What about production?  I gave Metallica endless amounts of crap for something that wasn’t their fault, last album.  “Death Magnetic” was butchered in mastering to a point where all dynamism was flattened out and it was a wall of sound with no nuance.  What do we have this time around?  Well, it’s not mastered to death, thankfully.  Now, when the first three singles hit, I noticed there wasn’t much by way of “air.”  I had hoped that it was like the “The Day That Never Comes” where the album version was much more alive than the single/video release that just seemed dry and brittle.  Well, “Hardwired…To Self-Destruct” is much, much better sonically.  My only complaint is the aforementioned “air.”  It’s still pushed pretty hard and you can hear the compressors groaning under the might of the riffs.  That said – it’s so much better.

So?!  Was it worth the wait?  Eight years is a darned long time.  I’ll admit that really pushed the expectations high.  I wasn’t thrilled with “Lords of Summer,” but it wasn’t bad, so there was hope.  Then the date getting pushed back and pushed back.  But, it’s here. It’s tight.  It’s solid.  It’s a *Metallica* album.  It’s not “Master II” nor should it be.  This is a more mature thrash but there is thrash to be had.  So, I’ll say it’s worth the wait, but implore the fellas not to make us wait this long, next time around.

Chris Caffery – Your Heaven is Real

Chris Caffery – Your Heaven is Real

It’s funny…I remember seeing Chris on the “Gutter Ballet” tour and he just kind of hung back a little and let Criss do his thing.  From that point on, though, I’ve watched him grow as a guitarist, musician and producer.  His most recent work is something that we saw come to life through myriad postings on Facebook and it was an amazing process to watch unfold.  That’s kind of why I have resisted writing a review, to this point.  I had just finished producing an album, myself, so watching the process here, knowing what goes into it from a recording, producing, mixing and mastering stand-point, I have a different approach than I used to.  It kind of becomes a little club (you, the artist and thousands of his closest friends Smile ) watching a project grow and come closer and closer to fruition and wanting so badly for everything to pan out perfectly and become a sort of cheerleader.

That’s why *I* felt a little too close to it, even though I, really, had nothing to do with other than a few posts of encouragement along the way.  Then something changed.  I read a review.  Now, it wasn’t a horrible review, mostly.  It’s one of those that looks like it comes from a place of expectation that may or may not have been in line with what the point or purpose of the album actually was.  I feel a little sorry for the reviewer inasmuch as the full fury of Chris’ fans have been unleashed upon him.  For the most part, this is because the reviewer barely reviewed the music and, instead, chose to review Chris, himself.  That’s not how reviews work, really.  That said, as reviewers usually do, he brought it upon himself.  This is because no matter what your opinion is, someone will disagree.  Additionally, when you go after a person a lot of people care about, they’re going to push back, hard.  With that in mind – I’m going to talk about what I know with Chris, my perspective on the album and, towards the end, the music.

I’m not going to address much more of the other review, really, save for a couple points.

So, first and foremost, this is an 80s metal album.  Sure, there are some modern aspects to it, stylistically, but it conjures up — without sounding overly like — Savatage and Dr. Butcher with ease, and shows a lot of influence from those bands and from the songwriting he was exposed to, contributed to and learned from.  So, here’s where the divide, I believe, comes in.  I *love* hearing 80s metal musicians producing 80s metal.  I just do.  I loved a band from Richmond called Claude Zircle for exactly that reason — there were no pretentions.  They played their 80s metal hearts out, and that’s exactly what “Your Heaven Is Real” does.  Chris isn’t trying to win the nu-metal crowd.  He’s not looking for the prog-metal crowd.  He’s looking for people who enjoy honest, solid, metal.  In this, he delivered, in spades.  There’s something for every metalhead, here — there’s so much groove on this disc, it’s quite tasty.  If you don’t feel the 80s screaming through in “Just Fine,” I don’t know what to tell you.  The album, itself, also has a consistency across it — the tone, the energy, the love, the effort.

It’s funny, though, because it’s at this point in a lot of reviews where the comments start veering into “you’re a fanboy” or equally derisive terms that basically are implying that because you honestly like something and have good things to say about it, you’re a kiss-ass.  That always baffles me.  Me?  You get what you get.  If I like it, I say so, if I don’t, I say so.

Another aspect in which I felt a little too close to really review the album, objectively, was knowing the stories behind a lot of the songs, as revealed by Chris over the creation of the album via Facebook.  Once I know what something’s about, and how deeply personal these things are, and how much of an artist gets exposed by “putting himself out there” in a way that few people ever know — how the hell do you criticize that?  Even on the album I was just working on, it was much easier to be critical, as a producer, about musical and production choices, when I didn’t know that it was a song, for example, about the brutal hole left in the artist’s heart after the untimely death of his brother.  It’s at that point that it becomes the artist’s complete game – even as producer and mixer, there are things about which you just accept you have no say.  The same falls, for me, into that realm, here.  “Your Heaven Is Real” isn’t some attempt at a catchy chorus (have I mentioned that the song *crushes* and the chorus will get stuck in your head for a while?) without substance, but a very personal revelation about a pretty damned scary situation and brings, to me, two interpretations of the song that aren’t disparate — as a result of the experience, there’s a new appreciation of what is an isn’t real to Chris when it comes to the afterlife, and, really, it’s more of an affirmation and uplifting message than we’ve gotten from Chris, previously.  To me, that’s awesome — he’s in a happier place, which is exceedingly obvious if you follow him on Facebook.  Chris has always worn his emotions on his sleeve and produced music from the heart, and this is no different — something for which *I’m* grateful, though, I do understand how some folks aren’t always comfortable listening to songs that aren’t just about political rants, sex drugs and rock’n’roll, or any of the impersonal, banal topics we’ve come to expect in recent years.  That said, I’m in no position to criticize personal experience and expression for reasons I’ve mentioned before.

Oh, but make no mistake — Chris has socio-political rants, too, but there are more songs, here, about new and more personal topics, and are addressed with the same lack of compromise as “Pissed Off” though handled with more experience, wisdom and maturity.  What?  We all mature as we get older and, in this case, it just means the music is growing, proportionately, with Chris.  That’s not a bad thing.

I will address a comment from the review within one of the points from the review I wish to focus on, just because it’s something I didn’t have an appreciation for prior to last winter, when I was in a similar situation.  So, here’s the thing the review stated, “While the mix is clear, the overall sound is muddy and not sharp enough…” We’ll pair that with one of the comments on the review that stated, “…sounds like it was recorded on a PC.”  Here’s the thing — in several ways it probably was – so what?  There’s a lot of the home studio that is now piped through the PC to record and from what I’ve seen of Chris’ studio, I have no reason to believe any different.  Even in a larger studio, again, the trend is to pipe everything through a PC. That said, having just produced an album that was recorded in its entirety on a Mac (so, kind of PC…) and mixed/mastered on my studio system, I have a new appreciation for what went into this album.  I know how bloody hard it is to get a good, consistent sound that sounds good on your monitors, in your car, on your phone, and so on, and I also know what happens when you either don’t have the right monitors, the right angle on the monitors and the right distance from the monitors, ignoring the fact, for the moment, as to whether the room is treated, or not.

So, with that in mind, there are parts that I, as someone who has just spent time mixing songs until my eyes glazed over and my ears were so fatigued, and I dreamt of the songs for weeks, recognized right off the hop while listening to the album.  I believe it was on “Why” that I thought, “Ah, the monitors were <so>” when mixing the acoustics, as there were a couple of spots where they came hard through the back-side of the mix, on the sides a bit louder than probably intended, but was probably the result of a lot of late night sessions, you know – when pouring his heart and soul into this project.  It’s one of those things that I don’t think I would have given a second thought to if I didn’t have this stupid new quasi-curse of listening to albums like a flippin’ mixer/producer.  That said, “Why” is probably my favorite track on the album.

It’s kind of like once you’ve run your first kitchen as a chef, eating out is a whole different experience where you’re all at once over critical of everything and how you would do it differently, and here’s the thing — it doesn’t change the experiences of the people around you.  The real joy of a chef is peeking out from behind the swinging door and seeing someone take a bite of a dish you put your soul into and watching their eyes roll back and that “Mmmmmmmm…”  There’s nothing like it.

Likewise, as an artist, watching people start to close their eyes, bob their heads in rhythm and get taken to someplace else for a while through the music, that’s what it’s all about.  How they get there is subjective, and that’s I think what we’ve run into, here, with the review’s mention of “clear” yet “muddy and not sharp enough.”  One thing you learn pretty quickly when mixing an album is that your ears adjust.  So, if you’re working on a song, the small changes get absorbed into the song.  Try this — if you listen to music with your EQ flat, boost your treble up for about 5 minutes.  Now, change it back.  It sounds weird — even dull and kind of lifeless, doesn’t it?  Then, however, after another 5 minutes, it’s the “new normal,” again, and it just is how it is.  I would wager some of this happened not only when producing this album but when listening to it, as well.  I know it came into play on the one I worked on.  Good gravy, it did.  At any rate, the point is this — the mix is clean.  You can pick out every ingredient — the drums (Brian Tichy is absolutely on point), the bass, the guitars, the vocals, the spices (some synths, some choir-y parts).  There are times that the bass eats the kick, a little, but that’s also something that comes into play with this observation — this, like any album, depends upon that on which you’re listening to it.  In my case, I listened on my studio rig through my monitor speakers.  I’m very used to the tone on these, now, so I know their tendencies and I also have tried to keep them as flat as possible, response-wise.

So, this album is “flat,” and what I mean by that is that it’s not jacked one way or another, not over-bassy and not treble-heavy, and it is definitely not “lifeless.”  It has a good balance.  Now, there are places where there’s a little mud right in the 120-500Hz range where ALL the instruments want to play, but that is, to me, to be expected in metal, and, honestly, in pretty much everything short of piano concertos or pan flutes.  So, the clatter about “muddy and not sharp enough” really comes down to this — poke your EQ, sparky.  I know that when producing, there’s that goal that you produce an album that won’t “need” EQ-doinking, but reality comes crashing in when you realize every human on this planet has not only different tastes, but different ears that are more sensitive to different frequencies than others and, really, in order to make everyone happy, everyone’s going to have to put in a little effort.  Hmm…That came out funny, but I stand by it.

If you think a recording sounds a little dull, it may be one of a billion variables, but one of the easiest fixes, if you think a recording is muddy, is to poke the mid-high and high EQ sliders up a bit and maybe even scoop the mids a little.  I mean, growing up listening to metal on my little walkman with the 3-band EQ on the side, I adjusted it for just about every album I ever played in that thing, and I played a LOT of metal.  So, I guess my point here is that if you’re thinking it’s a bit muddy, tweak a bit, because the overall production is tight.  There are some places where it’s a little *too* flat, for my taste, but I’d rather have it flat and be able to adjust it to sound good to my ears than have it so jacked to one extreme or the other I a way that I can’t adjust it to my preference.  Those spots are also few and far between and don’t take away from the listening experience of the album.  It’s just something that, for better or worse, I pick up and hone in on, now, that I didn’t used to.

So, after all this, what do I think of that album?!  It’s a solid-ass effort from Chris that shows just how much he’s progressed as a musician and song-writer.  The songs are more involved, complex and produced with more dynamics and appreciation for white-spaces.  I appreciate the growth that’s gone into his vocals and, truly, he’s found his own voice and I dig it.  Again — 80s metal, man, 80s metal!  I enjoy the songs a lot.  I enjoy knowing the stories behind them.  I enjoy how the stories are told.  This album embodies what I wish more artists would try — honest, hard-working and just pure Chris.  Hmmm…I’m not saying other bands should try to be pure Chris, but try putting in the love and effort into their work.  It’s funny — the review that shall not be named inferred that Chris basically churned this out because he needed the money and some form of pity grab.  I have absolutely no idea where that came from.

For me, the standout tracks are the title track – a perfect, blistering opener – “Why,” “Hot Wheelz,” “I Never Knew” and “2-26-15,” which is elevated that much more if you know what that date means to Chris.  If you don’t, ask him.  That’s not to say that “Arm and a Leg” isn’t heavy as hell and well executed or that “Just Fine” isn’t a bad-ass jam that channels the 80s perfectly, or that there is any filler on this album.  It just means that those were the songs that I gravitated to, thus bringing this back to how subjective this all is.  I dig the album.  More to the point, I take the album as a whole – the effort, the late nights, the love and everything that goes into taking what’s in your heart and getting to unleash it on the world.  It’s the blistering solos, sure, but it’s also the person poured into it.  Take some time to get to know it and you won’t be disappointed.

In closing, “Your Heaven Is Real” is pure Chris and executed not flawlessly (though pretty close), but honestly — and it’s honestly a great album.

My Experience Converting a Passive Jackson Stealth to Active Pickups

I can not be the only person on the planet who has ever wanted to take a Jackson StealthEX or any other Jackson dinky or otherwise with the HB-SC-SC one volume, one tone, 5-way switch configuration and basically swap out the factory pickups with actives and replace the box switch.  I can’t be the only one.  If I repeat it enough, I may believe it.

Now, for the purposes of this article, the 5-way switch was quite generic and the pickups were Seymour Duncan Blackouts (AHB-1, AS-1b, AS-1n).  So, to review and convey the simplicity of what I wanted to do

  • Factory humbucker -> AHB-1
  • Factory mid -> AS-1b (tapped/split)
  • Factory neck -> AS-1n
  • Factory 5-way box switch -> new 5-way box switch
  • 250K Volume pot -> 25K volume pot
  • 250K Tone pot -> 25K tone pot
  • factory mono “lipstick” jack -> stereo “lipstick” jack
  • Fix any other internal weirdness encountered.

Simple, right?  Well, don’t you believe it.  Let me rephrase…don’t be fooled into thinking that this fairly thorough swapout will have *specific,* *applicable* help files on the internet to help you.  I spent close to a week pouring over stewmac and guitarelectronics and seymourduncan not to mention more obscure sites, in an effort to gain as much info going in as I could so that this would be a nice surgical strike…or as close to a surgical strike as replacing all the electronics in a guitar can be.  No dice, really.  I ended up with just about every wiring diagram available on Seymour Duncan’s site printed off as well as 4 others from different sites.  They all had one thing in common – they were all applicable to a point.  Not any one diagram covered every part of what I needed and my electronics theory is so rusty (this is the stuff I used to do in high school – over 20 years ago) that cobbling together the wiring diagrams into a happy, all-inclusive and functional wiring diagram that I could use for quick reference was not really in the cards.  Since, as we all know, using four+ schematics is about the opposite of “quick reference.”

With that in mind, I am, now, setting out to right this wrong and get a working wiring diagram out there for everyone, like me, who is/was looking for this information and could not find it for the life of them.  Here it is.  Eventually.  It would really help if I could remember exactly what I did.

An additional kibitz, on my part, was I got to a point where I got the theory quite well enough, but just needed to know what wire got soldered where, something not entirely obvious from some of these diagrams.  So, my plan with this is to draw up schematics for those who would like them and a wiring diagram for those who prefer that route.

Additionally, here’s what I did, once all the other parts were out:

After all the pickups are in their nice little homes on the front of the guitar and the wires are routed through and ready to be connected to things to make them sing, we say a small prayer, sacrifice a small goat, and set about some wiring.

Isolate all the white wires from the pickups.  These are hot, happy, and what you’re going to connect to the switch.  Go in reverse order from what your brain would say to do logically:  looking down on the switch connections on the back, numbering down the left side, 1 through four.  So, to reverse your brain’s desire, connect the neck pickup to connection 1, the mid to 2, the humbucker to 3.

Now, you’re left with one more on the left side.  Ignore it.

We’ll get to the right side in a bit.  For now, let’s just worry about getting the hot wires to their respective connections.  In looking at where the white wires originate, you’ll notice you’ve got about ¼” to work with as it splits from the main black wire as a white-bare wire pair.  Since the bare wires all go to ground, it’s impractical to run them right in to the switch, so, for what it’s worth, I added an additional short length of wire to each hot, enough to reach the switch from the volume potentiometer, basically, since that’s where the common grounds congregate.

Once the hots are soldered to the switch, it’s time to make sure the battery connections are all square.  You only need one (buying 3 active pickups, you now have three), and will take all of the red wires, one for each pickup, and solder them to the red battery wire.

To complete the circuit, the black wire from the battery connector should be soldered to the common ground of the output jack.

Now we have all of those bare wires to deal with from the pickups.  Ok, three, but still…  What I did was to do basically the red-wire trick and solder them all to a single wire and then solder that single wire to the top of the volume potentiometer (pot).  It may not be the best solution, but is a lot cleaner looking.

Now, so long as you’re soldering things on the volume pot, solder the third connector, the one on the right looking at it from the top, to the top of its pot.  A fairly painless way to do this, if you don’t want to bend the connector back to the metal of the pot, is to run a *very* short wire – like ½” – connecting the connector to the top of the pot.

Again, so long as we’re soldering grounds to the volume pot, run a short length of wire between the top of the volume to the tone pot.

The tone version of the connector soldered to the top should come with the AHB-1s in the form of a 25K pot that already has a 0.47pf capacitor soldered from the right connector to the top of the pot.  If this is not the case, then, you know what to do – solder a capacitor (at this is based on preference and desired outcome, more on this later) from the right connector to the ground spot on the top of the pot.  For your everyday tone, the 0.47pf capacitor will do just fine, but I’ve heard other companies talking about better results using a .10pf.

Finally, we’re to the right side of the switch and ready to tie everything together.  First, solder a ground line between the jack ground and the #2 position (counting from the bottom) on the switch.  Now, run a wire between the center connector on the tone potentiometer to the leftmost connector on the volume potentiometer.  Now, connect the leftmost connector to the #1 (bottom) position on the right side of the switch.

Once that’s finished, solder a wire between the center connector on the volume pot to the hot output of the output jack.

That’s it.  Now, if you’ve done it like me, you’ve got a bit of a bird’s nest going on in there.  I feel your pain.  Also, if you’re like me, and are migrating from passive to active pickups, you’re presented with a whole new problem: where are you going to stick the battery?  Well, if you are like me, then you will just wedge it in between the switch and the inner wall beside the jack.  It’s not pretty.  So, further, if you’re like me, you decided to purchase a battery box from a local electronics store, got some velcro, and attached it to the outside of the guitar on the back, close to the heel.

[Disclaimer of doom] I wrote this from memory looking at a schematic I drew…from memory…  What this means to you is that it could be completely wrong.  I don’t want you to hose up your guitar based solely on my info.  If there’s anyone out there who can either confirm or debunk any part of this, please do.  I’ll be placing the schematic and wiring diagram up, soon, maybe — I’m not sure where I put my drawings, since we moved — so those can be used as reference.

The original wiring diagram:
HSS_wiring_diagram_ish
In progress:
Jackson_in_progress_clear
Finished — note the different switch:
Jackson_complete

Producing an Album for the First Time: Part VI – Lesson Learned

A Time and Place

One of the more significant lessons I learned was about…well, honestly, patience. The situation was clear, however, I just didn’t anticipate the disruption. The album had some tracks that were monsters, literally and figuratively, and when editing them on my original desktop setup, I ran into major problems with the CPU seizing and, sometimes, simply rebooting the entire system. It had enough and, honestly, so had I. Additionally, there was just not enough RAM overhead to handle some of what I needed to do, as well. Applying a filter would involve significant drive-grinding time as the virtual RAM disk swapped data back and forth for what seemed to be eternity. For reference, my desktop, at the time, was a 2.6GHz Duo-core with 12GB RAM. The problem? It was a Dell, so I couldn’t just swap things out – I had to make sure they would play well with all the proprietary nonsense Dell saddles you with so that your next upgrade will have to be through them, or be done, yourself…

Now, this isn’t to cast aspersions on Dell products, it is, however, pointing out that there are some proprietary things about Dell systems that will make upgrading a …maddening… experience. First and foremost, the chassis connection headers are not going to match up to any motherboard you purchase and hope to put into your Dell case. Why would you want to replace your motherboard? Well, because you are limited to the type and power of the CPU you get, should you wish to replace it. In my case, I would only been able to upgrade processors to a quad-core and only up to 3GHz. Considering the deal I found for the Hex-Core 3.9GHz processor, I knew I was going to have to upgrade my motherboard, as well.

So, it came to be that I had the motherboard and the CPU, but I quickly discovered that there was no way I was going to be able to use it without a new chassis, since the panel headers were never going to line up and there were a couple of important ones – power on and reset. For reference, I didn’t realize that systems wouldn’t even boot without the reset being attached, at the least at the motherboard header level. The one that worked?  After a couple of attempts, I settled on probably the cheapest chassis out there that’s sold by reputable dealers.  The edges of the metal inside the case aren’t ground or beveled so are, in some cases, lethal…  However, the power supply location allowed the connections to still reach the motherboard, something the more expensive models missed being able to do by scant centimeters, but very real distances that couldn’t be overcome by wishy thinking.

The problem was that this process took a solid week and a couple days to get a system back up and running and able to do anything moderately useful.  The REAL problem?  This was smack in the middle of mixing Brendan’s album.

My justification was simply that I had run into a problem where there were three to four songs that I wasn’t able to listen to, in real time, when I was mixing, because the horsepower needed was more than the system currently had.  Here’s the thing – there are two approaches to take here and I obviously took one, which is to up the horsepower of the machine so it can handle all the plugins across the multitude of tracks in the mix.  The other approach, which I would recommend, is to simplify.  If you’re using that many plugins on that many tracks, it’s probably time to change your approach – but I was so new to this world that I didn’t know how to execute that fairly simple process.

For reference, something as simple as setting up a couple of FX busses and sending your tracks to the single FX source will go a long way towards reducing CPU overhead and also make it easier to keep a uniform FX application across all tracks on that particular FX bus.

So, really, the moral to this story is that if you have a song or four that have 15 to 20 tracks, each with effects, and when you hit the space bar to listen and it starts stuttering all over the place because your CPU is seizing and begging for mercy, the FIRST thing to do is look into simplifying the overall makeup of the song either through the use of FX busses or just reconsidering all of the effects, period.  If you’re still running into problems, it’s tempting to upgrade your hardware. Fair enough. My advice?  Don’t do it in the middle of a time-sensitive project.  Really.  It was bone stupid on my part and something I won’t be doing again, trust me.

So you know, though, current incarnations of the songs have 40+ tracks, limited effects bussing and relatively no CPU taxing.  It also helps that system is now a bit more juggernaut-esque, boasting a 3.9GHz six core processor with 20GB RAM. So, maybe the bigger lesson, for me, was how to craft a better mix without being reliant on CPU-heavy effects.  Yes, they sound better.

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…

Producing an Album for the First Time: Part V–An Open Letter To Metallica

One thing that happens with every album, ever, in the history of record production, is that it will leave the artists’ control completely and go to the hands of the Mastering Engineer.  This is the step that puts the polish, the pizzazz, the extra touches on the songs to make them come together as an album.  It’s also, of late, where a completely listenable album gets killed.  This was the lesson I learned from Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” album.

Dear Metallica:  Do NOT allow this to happen, again.  Please. Please. PLEASE.

For reference, as I sat listening to “Pack Your Bags,” the aforementioned monster with the wall of sound and face-melting music, I was reminded of the difference between the released version of “Death Magnetic” and what later became known as the “Guitar Hero Mixes.”  If you’re not familiar with the tale that wasn’t right, to borrow from Helloween, the following transpired:

  • Metallica recorded “Death Magnetic.”
  • Guitar Hero Metallica needed the mixes – so the unmastered versions were sent.
  • ”Death Magnetic” was sent to mastering.
  • Metallica went on tour.
  • ”Death Magnetic” was released…overloud, and completely lacking dynamics.
  • Metallica was unhappy, and rightfully so.

What’s missing on the allmusic credits is anyone actually directly called a “Mastering Engineer.”  I wonder if that was on purpose.  The upshot is that a very solid, listenable album went to the mastering engineer and left an overdriven, crispy, clipping, mushy mess.  What do I mean?  Well, take a look at the waveforms for “All Nightmare Long.”

AllNightmareLong_comparison

The top waveform is from the album version.  The bottom waveform is from the mixes sent for inclusion in Guitar Hero:Metallica.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the top waveform is barely a waveform at all, with no room for dynamics and with boatloads of clipping – which you can actually hear in the song as clicking and crackling.  The biggest thing I noticed listening to the quieter, more sedate version of the song was that the intro vocals to each verse are run through a neat filter like James was singing through a fan.  This effect is completely lost in the album version, which is too bad, because it was a neat effect.

Dear Metallica: Do NOT allow this to happen again.  Please.  Please. PLEASE.

This was the lesson that I brought with me into approaching what is already a mine-field in the self- or tiny-budget-production arena, and that’s mastering your own mixes.  It’s generally seen as a “no no” and something that, under normal circumstances, I would try to avoid.  However, with no budget, it’s kind of hard to justify $50-$500 per song for mastering.  To me, what “Death Magnetic” told me, in no uncertain terms, was that – no matter what – don’t just slide the volume faders all the way up.  It also kept me mindful of the waveform, that precious waveform.  What it didn’t really prepare me for is how hard it is to maintain that waveform, and keep those dynamics alive, when the feedback from the artist seems to revolve around, almost to the exclusion of anything else, “just a touch louder.”  It’s hard, and it’s a delicate balance.  I know I’m not the only producer to encounter an artist who wants the album to be loud and in your face.  I think the biggest difference is that most producers have more experience with not only handling these requests with a polite, “no,” or, more importantly, how to actually give the bumps in volume without the rest of the mix suffering.  That was the biggest challenge for me.

I think the worst part, for me, is that while working on this project, I was learning constantly.  Now, that, in and of itself, isn’t the bad part.  The bad part comes when you’ve sent all the masters off to the artist and they’ve been submitted for duplication and then you find that better way, that cleaner mix, that perfect sound.  Below is an example of that.  The song is “Tiocfaidh Ár Lá (Our Day Will Come)” and the top waveform is the album version while the bottom waveform is the “Perfexion Mix” that I’ve put together since.

Tiocfaidh_comparison

While it’s still nothing compared to the brutality that occurred with “Death Magnetic” and “All Nightmare Long,” it’s still a drastic difference.  While the bottom version of the song is obviously going to be quieter, meaning you’ll have to turn the volume up a bit if you want it to be the same volume, it’s also got much better definition, clarity and overall production quality and, for my money, sounds almost 100% better.  That said, this particular mix came two weeks too late and will, most likely, be relegated to a “remixed, remastered” version of the album to be released in the future.

So, this open letter I spoke of – here goes:

Dear Metallica,

Your music is enjoyed and treasured by millions. I have been a fan since “Ride the Lightning” back in 1985 – 30 of my 41 years.  I have been your strongest supported and, indeed, your harshest critic.  It’s probably a little strange, but, after all these years, you’re kind of like family and so, you take the good and you take the bad, but the love is still there.  I don’t know if you noticed that this past album, “Death Magnetic,” the criticism was not “wow…this is NOT metal, OR Metallica,” but instead, “wow – there’s so much of this album I’m NOT hearing because of the production and the decision to mash the living crap out of the mixes to win the ‘loudness war.’”

There are so many dynamics-related things on “Death Magnetic” that a lot of people missed because they didn’t seek out a little-known, but well worth the investigation, group of files called the MIII mixes.  These mixes were the pre-master mixes that all had everything – clarity, dynamics, tone and, yes, power.  Sure, you had to turn it up a little more in the car, but you could also hear the bass line in “End of the Line,” the guitar movement during the chorus of “Broken, Beat and Scarred,” and, as mentioned above, the filtered vocals in “All Nightmare Long.”  While I’m not expert or a producer on the level of Rick Rubin – heck, I’m not comfortable being in the same sentence with Mr. Rubin! – I am someone who’s got enough mixing and producing experience under my belt to know one thing – to hell with the loudness war.  It is, indeed, a war no one wins and when it comes at the expense of the band – you know, you guys…the ones who pour your heart, soul and money into producing the music you love – and, ultimately, the fans who are paying to hear the music you’ve produced, it’s definitely a war not worth fighting.

So, with that, please take that into consideration when you enter and, eventually, leave the studio.  For the love of all that is good in this world, make sure your waveforms are clean, gentle and beautiful – full of dynamics and perhaps, more importantly, clarity.  Please make sure that my ears will hear every note, every high hat, every heavy, palm-muted down-stroke, every harmony.  Please take every step possible to make sure that the producer doesn’t allow the mastering engineer to take your hard work and turn it into an overloud, unlistenable jumble of crap, but instead a polished, pristine album worthy of the name “Metallica.”

Sincerely,

Phil

Producing an Album for the First Time: Part IV–Creating Monsters

Now, I’ll preface this with saying, these aren’t tutorials.  There might be some nuggets of "how-to"-ness in there, but these are softer, more philosophical pieces that take you into the challenges I faced and how we got from "sure, I can help!" to "that’s it!  It’s perfect as we’re going to get it!  Let’s do this!"  For the record, we’re not there, yet.  Are we ever there, yet?

So…there’s this song.  It’s got a good hook and a good guitar line.  The vocals are good on the scratch track.  All in all, it sounds like a good track, probably on the back end of the album to help balance it out and make for a solid album start to finish.  Then something happened.  We brought in this fella John who was to play “fiddle.”  Well, John so happens to be brilliant and talented through and through and within one practice take with this song, we were all looking at each other like…”wow!”

At that point, the rest of the track needed to be laid down and with each piece, the monster grew.  Soon, there were re-recorded vocals, guitars, bass, bagpipes, bodhrun, djimbe, drums, and violins.  Some didn’t make the final cut.  Some takes got spliced and reworked enough to make a couple of solid tracks with the best all in one place.  If you were to place all the tracks into the mix and just let ‘em go, it would make you twitch – there’s THAT much going on in this song.

As happens, there were, in total, 48 mixdowns of this song to get it “right,” and, I think I mentioned, I’m not sure we are 100% there, but, we’re really close and part of it came from understanding that compression does when met with four main sources of volume in a track, even when there are 16 total tracks (excluding fx tracks).  We ran into a problem with the monster, once everything was fixed, tonally through EQs and light compression, some reverb here and there, and so on.  What’s the problem, you ask?  The monster gets hungry and has to eat things.

OK, so the metaphor may be getting stretched a little, but here’s the bottom line – when one thing gets loud, something else gets soft, and finding the balance is the true monster.  I tried so many methods to get the vocals to sit nicely while still allowing you to hear each part clearly.  It was almost comical, though, as I’d have what I thought was a good balance, and then after mixdown, the vocals would either be lost or so up front to a point where everything else sounded lost in the background…   So many iterations!  I finally discovered the culprit – the compressor in the Master track.

Full disclosure – I use the Slate Digital FG-X Mastering plugin and I really like it.   That said, it does what compressors/limiters do – when one thing gets louder than the threshold, it makes it quieter and when one frequency range is dominating the mix, bad things happen, overall.  What I found was, each individual track sounded absolutely fine when solo’d.  When I had vocals and “instruments,” it was fine.  The culprit?  The drums.  The train driving to oblivion was, in fact, obliterating the mix.  When I added the drums back in, the overall sound dropped ~3dB and, specifically, the vocals sank closer to 4dB. 

So, how does one tame a monster like this?  I basically figured out that I had to do what I tried a while ago – mix down the instrumentation and vocals separately and bring them together for a mixdown and then send that mixdown to the mastering round.  It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it was the only solution I found – remember I’m a bit of a rookie with this! – that allowed the full dynamics of the instrumentation (all of it!) and vocals to coexist.  The end result?  An Irish Rebel Rock song that feels a lot like the Motörhead “Orgasmatron” cover train looks.