Strat-ish-Caster, Part III

Sitting here listening to Joe Satriani’s new disc (check it out, if you haven’t) and sipping coffee with Kahlua and Baily’s at close to midnight while looking at the pile of parts sitting next to me. It’s not looking bad, from here, and that’s not just the coffee additives talking.  I’ve been steadily working on this project since just after Christmas and, honestly, am starting to make progress.  I think there are two 0122182237reasons for this: I happened upon an inexpensive sander (if you can find an open box floor model on clearance, I recommend it.  Just under $15 well spent…), and I finally have visions of how I want this to end up.

Now, it would be super-dee-duper nice if the weather would warm up so I could head back out to the garage to work, but since it’s late January, I don’t count on that, really.  So, I’ve been working in small increments and, today, I worked on 0125182224amore fine-detail work.  I’m getting a bit more comfortable just horking around with the file.  Hmmm…that sounds unprofessional.  Is there a single word that encompasses “working with a large file in ways that are gentle, when needed, in tight confined spaces and not making ugly, irreversible wood-manglings?” Nope?  “Horking,” it is.

I’ll tell you this for nothing, robo-sander beats hand sander for removing existing 0125182224finishes from guitars.  I know…I should be using a heat gun of some sort and peeling the finish.  However, in the absence of such wizardry, this will do.  I have the back finally just about there, but the 0127182350afront has a little ways to go.  However, one the things I want to is a partial mirror of the back, and that’s contour and reshape (shorten and flatten out) the top horn.  I went ahead and sketched it out in sharpie and set about my business.

At the same time, I decided the neck needed some love, as well.  In borderline Strat heresy, I decided to shave a bit of the headstock “heel” and slope it up a bit towards the … well, it’s going to be the top of the headstock since it will, by necessity, be a reverse headstock.  I’m OK with that.  I’ll just need to get a nice lefty pre-slotted nut.  I guess I could file a blank, myself.  I digress.

0125182224b0127182349As mentioned, the sander really sped things up, as these things do, and got the back from looking a little leprous to looking like something with actual decent grain.  The lower horn/neck access looked good, so I sanded it to a point where it looked not only intentional, but like it could have always been that way.  That’s always the goal, right?  That meant it was time to turn my attention onto the upper horn.  This was going to have to be just as well done, if not better, as it’s the front of the guitar.

0125182225So, with the sharpie guides, the work has begun on the front contour and, at first blush, it definitely looks like a hack job.  Thankfully, it’s improved since this picture was taken and it’s starting to take shape, so to speak.  The curve up into the horn, itself, is basically finished, so what’s left is getting a nice access-like pocket.  About half way, there.  Once it’s where I want it, my attention will need to turn to the end of the horn.  I still have a ways to go shortening it, slightly, and working the contour into the final bevel.  It’s getting there, but, again, it would be easier if I could do this in the garage when massive clouds of sawdust aren’t a problem.

0127182346So, on to the neck.  Most of my focus was on the headstock.  I know it’s blasphemy, but I’m just not a huge fan of the stock strat headstock.  That said, I feel that it’s OK to keep around, just with some gentle tweaks.  The first thing I wanted was to shave a bit off the neck to headstock transition and give a large, wandering thumb someplace to rest.  Unfortunately, the pictures 0203180046don’t really show the transition very well.  There’s a much smoother transition, but I’ll have to figure out how to get better contrast photos, or just stop taking said pictures at my desk in fairly awful light.

I set about making little contoured places in several places along the headstock as well as a pronounced bevel around all the outer edges.  The focuses were the knob at the end and making it have sort of smooth grade whereby it starts at the bottom of the knob about 1/4” shallower/thinner, then by the time you follow it around the knob, 01271823480127182347you’re back to the full thickness.  That’s probably an awful description, but all I could come up with, so, there you go.  This cutaway/transition thing is also mirrored on the back of the headstock, as well.  It doesn’t look too bed, to my eye, so, I think it’s finished, there.

The final tweak to the headstock was right at the transition from the nut to the pegboard where I tried to do another contour but with still some of the original height, kind

0203180047of giving it a sharper line.   It looks pretty good, as well, but, again, lack of contrast in the photo doesn’t really bring it out.

I turned my attention on the neck heel and the neck itself.  I didn’t really want to do much to the neck, itself, but I did flatten out the “thumb zone,” ever so slightly, making it more comfortable to my hand.  That’s what it’s all about, right?  At any rate, I then worked on the heel, smoothing it on the portion of the heel that will line up with the access contour on the back of

0203180047athe body.  Again, nothing too dramatic, but enough that it felt a bit more comfortable when I placed it in the neck pocket and just felt how the two came together.  All in all, it could have been a much larger mess than it is and, really, it’s coming along well.

Next steps?  Moly…there’s still so much to be done that Old Man Winter is keeping in check.  Once the rest of the body is sanded clean and the top horn shortened and sanded, final sanding on the body will commence just to make sure that the contours look good, and everything has a smooth transition from one feature to the next.  Then, once the rest of the parts arrive, in drips and drabs, it will be time to start thinking about finish color, any modifications to the pickguard, as well as moving forward with filler, primer and so on.  This is feeling pretty good.  I’m looking forward to getting this closer to playable.


The Strat-ish-Caster, Part II

Status, Sulu?

The Strat-ish-Caster is coming along.  It’s slow work, mainly because, at least at this point, I’m not using any power tools.  It’s also too cold to work in the garage – even with the space heater (it doesn’t make large amount of difference when the air temp is 4…) – so, I’ve been working a bit inside which, as you know, is a dust nightmare when filing/sanding.  So…I’ve been taking it slow.  That’s not to say that I haven’t made progress, it’s just not as quick as I’d like.  Since there’s no way I’ll be priming or painting for at least 3 months, I’m not in a huge hurry.

Neck and Neck

One thing I’ve started to investigate is headstock shape.  I’ve got a 21-fret Strat neck and, honestly, I’m just not a huge fan of the Strat headstock/pegboard.  As such, I’m looking at design options and how I would achieve the look I’m going for.  It looks quite obvious that I’m going to need a coping saw and keen and steady eye/hand coordination.

The other consideration for the neck is that it’s not pre-drilled.  This is to be expected, of course, since hole placement is not universal.  So, I’m pondering the best way to go about this.  I’ll figure it out.  The only thing at this point is to keep all of this in mind while I’m working on the neck pocket, as well, since there’s a LOT of excess paint in there and I want to make sure everything still fits hunky dory after stripping that out.

Body Check

As mentioned previously, or at least I hope I mentioned, the curve on the horns of this strat thingo were not to my liking.  I don’t know why, exactly, I just didn’t0114180853 like how they looked.  So, I set about fixing that.  I’ve been working on the lower horn, since that’s also where the contouring will be happening, but I figured I should give you a before shot of the upper horn and from it you’ll be able to extrapolate what the lower one looked like as well as see it before I modify it.  You can see it’s a little longer and thinner as well as a bit more hooked inward.  Not a fan, really.  Again, I don’t know why, but, again, it’s how it is and it’s got to go, at some point.

Sometimes I have a clear idea of what I want going in.  This was not one of those times. I wanted a) a shorter, rounder bottom horn and b) a contoured cutawa0114180852by neck access.  Yes, I know, a 21-fret neck on a strat body does not require extended neck access.  Guess who doesn’t care?  This guy.  This was about proof of concept and making a go of something that I would probably want to do in the future and wanted to learn techniques, pitfalls, and so on. On the right, you can see the obverse (front) of the guitar.  Don’t ask why I’m using numismatic terms.  It’s my blog, I’ll do what I want.  As you can see, the horn is filed and both shorter and not hooked.  This makes me happy.  I have also started filing flat across in order to give it the proper bevel I want as well as accommodate the pickguard, which I’m still a little on the fence about.  I’m not sure the best way to go about the look I want…so…I’ll work on the back.

On the reverse (back), I started really working on the contoured sweep back between the neck and the horn, itself.  The access is about the right depth from neck pocket to horn and depth from where the original curve started and where it imageis, now.  I know that’s a crude way to put it, but I’m not sure of all the terminology.  You can see that the approach, or maybe, transition to the neck pocket, still needs a bit of rounding and smoothing.  Part of that is the angle from which the picture was taken and part of it is that it does, really, need a bit more love.  Thankfully, though, it’s not a lot of work left, there.  The cutaway contour is coming along nicely and this is where the “not knowing what I’m looking for but knowing it when I see it” comes into play.

I started just creating the access cutaway and making sure it had depth and was smooth and rounded.  Then I started noticing that the horn transition to the back of the guitar was becoming more pronounced.  I like it, a lot, so it’s something I’ve imagenow been working to enhance and while making it more obvious, not making it, well, dumb looking by cutting away far too much wood.  Cutting is probably  a misnomer, since I’m using a file and only a file for this project, so far.  As you can see in the picture, it’s shaped along the grain of the wood.  I will be fading it into the body in, probably, another 1/2 inch.  Also in that plan is to look into making a small, but usable, knee cutaway.  I just want about 1/4” deep contour for my knee, when sitting.  I know, I know.  It’s what I want, though, so if it works, it will be cool.  If not, I’ll be the first to admit that it was a mistake.

Oh, and about the paint – I’m leaving it on and working through it because a) it’s noxious and b) I want to be able to see where I’ve been and keep in my head what I’m doing.  Trust me, I need this.

What are going to be the next steps?  I hope to finish the bottom horn and contouring revolving around it, soon.  I will then move to the upper horn and remove the curve/hook.  I’ll also sand back the strap button hole and fill it.  The strap button on the back of the horn is a lot more comfortable and I tend to inadvertently pop the strap a lot less.  From there, we’ll see.

The Het Project

When I discovered and was entranced by Metallica, frontman and rhythm guitar maestro James Hetfield was crunching away on a fairly beaten up Flying V, which he recently restored, by the way.  So, then came “Master of Puppets” and James’ pristine, white Explorers.  Over the years, these have evolved and he’s used white, black, wood grain, metal and gone from Gibson to ESP and, finally, to his signature model ‘Snakebyte.’  Well, I do tend to live in the past, especially musically, and my love for this guitar was no different.  What I didn’t really want to do was spend a bazillion dollars on some signature model, nor close to a bazillion on one of the new-ish Explorers.  So…I found a compromise.  I ordered a DIY Explorer kit from  There are other kits out there, but this was one of the few that didn’t have the pickguard layout, which I didn’t want.  I haven’t seen this particular kit, recently.  If you should be looking for an Explorer kit, I’d drop them a line and inquire.  I’ve heard scuttlebutt there’s a mahogany version, now, but haven’t seen it.

At any rate, for $141, it came with everything you’d need to get an Explorer up and jamming.  It just needed to be painted, finished, put together and named.  Well, I guess you don’t need to name it, but mine came pre-named: “Li’l Het.”  This was because of a nickname I was given in high school.  I’ve since decided that sounded weird, so it’s just “The Het.”

I’ve never really had much confidence when doing projects on my guitars (as demonstrated by the 1.5 year pickup replacement project…), let alone putting together a kit and making a working guitar.  So, when this kit arrived, I was immediately overwhelmed with the monumental task that lay ahead.  I’m really not about the long game, and this was going to be a long game.  That said, I’ve learned a LOT putting this together.  So…this will chronicle this journey – the good, the bad and the definitely ugly.

Sanding is something that I’ve always been pretty decent at doing, all the way back to wood shop in the 8th grade when my balsa CO2 racer took second (or was it third?  It was 30 years ago, so it’s blurry) in a city-wide competition.  At any rate, I enjoy sanding.  I enjoy taking an unfinished product and getting it “smoov.”  The things, here, that require sanding are the body and neck.

06 - primed and ready for sanding Here we have the neck and body primed and partially sanded.  What you can’t see in the first photo but can, below, was a fairly large irritation.  So, I had it resting, comfortably, and drying on a box configuration I’d been using for the past three weeks without issue.  I prime and then I head out to do something else, closing the garage door behind me.  Upon my return, as the garage door is going up, it was obvious that something was wrong because those parts that were expected to be in a certain place, weren’t.  Instead, the neck and body were piled over the push mower.  There was minimal damage on the neck, but a significant 05 - I got a dentdivot on the Explorer’s body.

I’ll be the first to admit that my woodworking skill is suspect at best and limited to sanding, really.  That said, I went out and got some wood filler and set about making it less tragic.  Spoiler – it’s not perfect, but there has been nothing about this project that was about perfection.  As much as I wanted this to be the perfect replication of Het’s iconic Explorer(s), I knew that it wasn’t going to be, so I just set out to do the best I could in what would be considered a learning experience.  It really, really reduces the stress when you allow yourself to make mistakes, which is good…

At any rate, one of things I was learning was that a good painting area was paramount and, in our garage, hard to come by.  I finally settled on a tall cardboard box, bungee cords and a wire hanger.  In conjunction, these came together for a usable area that I employed the rest of the way.  So, I then set about painting.  I started with the neck.

07 - Neck painted whitePainting was fun and went pretty painlessly.  Well, except for when the temperature was a little lower than my non-updating weather app told me and I watched the paint on the back of the guitar literally become craquelure. Not cool.  Well, actually – bottom line is don’t paint below 55 degrees F, and certainly not when it’s 42.

04 - Primed and PaintedSo, with the neck in good shape with several coats of paint, I should probably talk about the paint used.  I used DupliColor Artic White and Bright White for the main colors.  Priming was the 2-in-1 Filler Primer.  It worked really well.  Sanded down nicely.  I was, however, overly concerned with the number of layers and sanding between applications.  I really didn’t need to do that, from reading.  Next time, I may try a different approach.  So, I painted the neck, but wanted to wait until affixing the neck to the body before painting the body because I didn’t want to have to sand down a ton of excess paint to get the neck happy.  It  wasn’t a *bad* idea.  I just, apparently, was a little tired when I glued the neck.

08 - Locktite Neck I used a happy clamp to press together that nice neck and body with Titebond Ultimate III waterproof glue.  Best and worst decision ever.  First, best – the neck isn’t going anywhere.  Worst?  Well, yeah…Apparently, when I set the neck in, I managed to go past the line I had drawn in with pencil, so it was just  under a 1/4” too far forward into the neck pickup cavity.  This wouldn’t be so bad, but I didn’t notice until a bit later…enough later that it didn’t matter.  It wasn’t going anywhere.

As a side note, I used the aforementioned Titebond to repair an acoustic guitar bridge and it seems to be as solid as anything one could ask for.

09 - White painted whole guitar So, it came time to paint the whole she-bang.  I learned a  lot of what not to do during this time frame.  The first was that when I masked off the neck the first time, I used standard blue masking tape and lots of it.  That led to missteps, el grande.  The main thing that happened was that the lesser tape grade (more on that in a minute) allowed a bit more seepage than I wanted or expected.  Then, I was a giant idiot and tried to sand the paint and tape residue off the fretboard.  Note to self and to those of you who would be tempted by this path:  Coconut Oil and elbow grease will do the job and not leave your fretboard look like it was partially inserted into a garbage disposal.  I’m kind of embarrassed by it, but it is what is, at this point, so we move on!  This next time, I masked off the neck with Blue Platinum (I highly recommend this tape), this time, and it was a much more satisfactory experience.

10 - cracking paintSo, I got the body and neck painted and sanded.  It looked pretty tight, at this point, except for the neck carnage – as evidenced by the next couple of photos – and I was ready to start putting the beast together. Well, OK – start getting all the pieces together and making sure they are ready to go when I am.  That went mostly painlessly.

11 - that neck thoughSo, here you can see the butchery on the fretboard.  Man…deep regrets, here.  But, everything else was looking good.  I put things in their places – pots, switch, pickups, and just about everything was as it should be.  What wasn’t?  Well, that would be the neck pickup.  If you recall, I didn’t notice that the neck was 1/4” (or less) too far forward into the neck pickup cavity.  How did I figure this out?  With a demonstration, of course, when I tried to fit the neck pickup into it’s nice cozy home…and it didn’t fit.  So, I did what any ra12 - guess what doesn't fitnk amateur would do, and that was to break out a file and start contouring the pickup cavity to accommodate the pickup which was mainly too wide based on where it would end up because it was a bit forward.  So…the corners.  This is why we love humbucker pickup rings.  They dutifully covered the carnage when everything was said and done.

A note on pickup rings and EMGs – make sure they’re similar.  I say this because the rings I had came from the humbuckers that shipped with the kit.  I have no idea if the included pickups solid or not, as to fit the Het aesthetic, they needed to be EMGs, and sonically, they needed to be the 81/60 set or, in this case, the passive equivalent, hence the Hz H4/H4A 13 - EMG in mounting ringcombination.  So, the pickups and rings were from different eras, it would seem, and the screws from the EMGs were decent enough for the rings, but man, I had to dig around for springs because the ones that came with the humbuckers were a bit on the long side and, as you can see from the photo, look like they would be perfectly poised to launch the screw at several hundred feet per second.  So, I adjusted slightly and then both pickups were in their rings, waiting for installation.  One slight problem, though – with the neck so far forward, the neck pickup was literally touching the neck, meaning the ring was going to need a little modification in order to be used. More on that, later.

This is pretty much just a picture of the pickup cavities for the sole reason that those little holes, there, are supposed to take *both* sets of pickup wires to the 14 - Ready for clearcoatelectronics cavity.  I suppose that if you were using the stock pickups, the hole would probably be the correct size.  As it stands, both sets of 4-wire connector for the EMGs was a bit of a train wreck.  I’m honestly surprised they work.  Basically, even after enlarging the hole a bit, they still weren’t going to fit.  So, I had to sever and splice which, as we all know in guitar circles, isn’t necessarily optimal.  It was, however, how things would have to be since there was no way that both sets of wires plus each connector end was going to fit through the hole provided.  It’s a good thing I’ve gotten comfortable with soldering, again.  I don’t think I’ll go the “quick connect” route, again, with passives.  It’s just not that much easier, really, than just soldering.  I’ll address the connections, later on, in the wiring section.

OK – so, back out to the garage/workshop (mainly garage…) to do some final things, now that the paint has had time to set – but not enough, because I’m a 15 - Laid out on the workbenchrookie and impatient.  So, masking the neck, again, I use DupliColor clearcoat.  I apply a coat at a time, 5+ times (I don’t remember…it was sometime after midnight by the time I finished.) and then bring it inside to cure, as it was supposed to get down into the 40s, that night which, as we’ve learned, creates undesirable results.  Unless weird crackling everywhere is what you were going for, in which case, that’s a pretty easy way to get that look.

My attention span and enthusiasm tag teamed to get this thing back out into the garage on a warm-ish day to put some of the final touches onto The Het.  First, I 16 - Spa day - polish and stainmask off parts of the body and the sides of the neck – I’m going to try to do something about my abuse of the fretboard.  I got a nice ebony stain.  I figured at the very least it would help darken up the spots that I sanded the hell out of and, at best, would make it look ebony-er.  You heard me.  It actually worked pretty well.  The main side effect that could be considered “bad” would be that the inlay dots all but disappeared.  That said, I like the look.  Ah, but you’re wondering “what’s that green stuff?!”  Good question.  Once the stain had set, I used turtle wax and “swirl eliminator,” for what that’s worth.  The good?  It gave it a nice shine, without over-glossing, which is what I was looking for.  The bad?  I still have green in some of the hard to reach areas.

Additionally, while I was in the workshop/garage, I decided to do something about 17 - Headstock lovethe truss rod cover.  I know that on Hetfield’s Explorers, a) the headstock is black and b) so is the truss rod cover.  Guess what?  You’re not the boss of me.  I wanted the white headstock in case I felt the need to scribble a logo on it or something.  I didn’t, but what I did want was just a little personality up there, so I took the black truss rod cover and did a marbling effect using the white paint and the red paint I was originally going to use for the Red Wings logo on the main body horn.  Since I went for the pure white Het look, I had some red paint I felt needed some love.  So, I used the rag I used to polish the body, applied red paint, dabbed at it a bit, applied white paint and dabbed it as well.  What came out was a sort of weird red marble looking thing which I kind of dug, so I left it that way.

On to the electronics.  This is where all sort of weird things had to happen.  The first thing that was a) regrettable and b) kind of unavoidable, at that point, was that the neck pickup was going to need to be rammed in there to get it into the hole.  18 - Biiig body itty-bitty houseSo, I put the wiring through the miniscule hole and into the next pickup cavity.

Attaching the easy-connector thing, I set the H4A in and pushed to get it as far as I could, manually.  It was then necessary to put a nice cloth over top, folded a number of times to reduce what was coming next, and then hammer it into place.  Yeah…physically beating a $70 pickup with a hammer.  On one hand, it’s never coming out…ever… and, thankfully, was able to be put in to a level where it’s not interfering with string clearance or anything like that.  That’s good, because, like I said, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.  So, that brought on the second painful modification.  I measured and measured again and then clipped the pickup ring in the requisite spots so it hugged the neck, nicely, and looked like it was meant to do that.  I then drilled the holes and affixed the pickup ring for the neck pickup. Thankfully, the bridge pickup was a lot easier, the only real challenge was when I realized there was just no way that the 4-wire bundles and connectors were going to fit, so something had to be done.

20 - wireyI then cut and stripped those beautiful 4-wire, shielded bundles, separating out the leads and soldering other wires to it that would, indeed, fit through the wire hole.  This felt like sacrilege, but it worked.  Well, OK, it mostly worked.  Like I mentioned, the neck pickup may have had some issues and, at this point, it doesn’t work.  I’m not going to stress about it too much, at this point, as I really mainly do rhythm chugging, anyway, but, at some point I’ll need to figure out if it’s the wiring to the switch or actually the pickup wiring.  One has a much greater chance of being able to be fixed.

I mentioned the connections and the “easy connectors.”  Yeah, that didn’t all work out the way I think anyone intended.  First and foremost, the Explorer electronics cavity was not made for such things and so the main connector patch section thing is stuffed in just on top of the volume pot.  The other challenge was that the screw down terminals for the grounds and switch connectors were…iffy with thinner wires.  Even screwing down the terminal screw as far as it would go, the wires would pull out almost immediately.  This, to me, was irksome, so, I soldered the wires to their terminals.  Now you see why I am just thinking it’s easier to just solder everything from the get-go.  I will say that the spade connectors for the jack were very helpful, but also were soldered – they just held on, themselves, when soldering.

And so, it became time to see if this thing worked, from an actual playable instrument point of view.  To the right is a picture of the 19 - The Hetwhole assembly and you can see the neck is a bit darker than standard rosewood and there’s really only one inlay dot visible.  I think it looks pretty good.  It’s not perfect, but I never expected it to be.  I know – why did I do it if I didn’t expect it to be perfect?  Because I wanted to get a feel for what would be involved taking a kit – I think we can all agree I’m not ready to take a plank of wood – from bare wood to assembled, playable guitar. I have a much better understanding of what is involved from a primer/filler/sanding/painting standpoint.  It’s a pain, sometimes, but that’s mostly because I don’t really have a proper place to do this kind of thing nor do we have a consistent enough temperature around the time I started this to get decent work done without a lot of errors.  I’ve also learned that there are some *ahem* Chinese outlets that have some of the hardware and luthier equipment for pennies on the dollar and that I can cut down on some costs, that way, while still keeping the final product looking and sounding good.

All in all, this was an amazing experience, and it didn’t take long to get hooked.  I’m a little twitchy, now, since it’s coming onto winter which, as we found out earlier, is not a good time to paint anything.  Ah, well.  Could be worse.  It’s not like I’ve got another project waiting in the wings…or do I?



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 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.


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.

“17 Rules for Governing My Country”

Well, Big Don.  You did it.  You won the big chair.  It’s time to put on some big boy pants and act like an adult who understands the situation you’re now in.  You’ve just become my President Elect, soon to actually be my President.  That’s right – *my* President. I’m not happy about it.  It’s a lot like getting Cruella DeVille as your new adoptive mother.  Still, he’s been elected and, so, here we are. 

That said, there are some conditions you should know about that might give me, and possibly other Americans, some glimmer of hope rather than wishing for a giant meteor to destroy the Earth.  These are not in any particular order ’cause I’m really tired and my thinker is wibbly.

1) Humanity over corporations. Period.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, then just peel back the fake human mask and reveal the Lizard Person that people have started to say you are. I didn’t say *I* thought you were a lizard person.  Your eyes don’t blink in the correct direction.

2) America has always been great, even if you were too myopic to notice — don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.  Just…ease off the accelerator, Sparky. There ARE things that are wrong, but your 100 day “plan” looks like a recipe for civil war, so, um…let’s not, yeah? Bring in your big thinky advisors and look at the big picture rather than telling your new constituency what you think they want to hear.

3)  Fix what’s broken.  And, no, that’s not the ACA. It’s not immigration. It’s not gay marriage. If you can’t figure out what it is, when I’m not dead tired, I’ll fill you in. If you fly me in, we can discuss it, in person.  I’m down for that.  You in?

4) Treat people with respect.  You’re in a position where people are watching you — a lot of people, some of whom have nuclear arsenals.  Let’s not say something off-the-cuff to get us wiped off the globe, ‘k?

5) Women matter. Reproductive health matters. Access to Planned Parenthood really is a good thing.  Just ask Mr. Pence what the elimination of Planned Parenthood did for Indiana.  Hint — it involved a dramatic rise in HIV cases and LOT of STDs.  Yay, Gonorrhea!

6) Hell, let’s be frank — your plans to repeal gay marriage and the ACA will destroy so many American lives it’s almost unfathomable.  Is THAT how an American leader leads? If you promise to bring America together, then let’s start by not immediately tearing it apart. No good will come of this.

7) You’re going to have to sit on your hands when you give speeches.  I’m getting more dizzy than with Herbert Walker. (This is more or less tongue-in-cheek, but really…reign it in a little, please.)

8) For the love of all that’s holy in this world, *stick to the script.*  You’re going to have speech writers who will get paid a LOT of money to make sure you say all the right things.  You know why people poked fun at W? When he went off-script, well, it was kinda train-wrecky, at times.  Oh, and keep the swearing to a minimum.  While the 12-15 year-old white male demographic thinks it’s cool and funny to drop the “F-bomb” on something that will be seen by billions, those of us with a higher than 6th grade education (since studies show your speeches were delivered at a 6th grade level…just going with the stats, man) think it’s a bit crass for the leader of the free world.

9) Stop spreading fear. Just forget about your wall.  Forget about the idea that it’s the undocumented that are making the problems in the US.  Remember, they paid more in Federal Taxes than you did.

10) Eschew the associations with the KKK and neo-Nazi groups.  Now.  Before people start asking a lot of hard questions like, “Does this mean you support these domestic terror groups?”  You know…those kinda questions.  Just do everyone a favor and tell David Duke to shove it where the sun don’t shine.  It’ll be easier to not be labeled “racist,” “Hitler,” whatever the kids are calling you, these days. Remember – unifying the country, not tearing it apart.

11) If you’re itching to repeal something, repeal the Patriot Act. Since most of it has been deigned unconstitutional by various and sundry courts, I’m not sure anyone would be terribly sad to see it go.  All the gee-whizzery from the NSA existed before, it just wasn’t put into law to legitimize the complete disregard for our citizenry or the constitution.  The time and energy would be MUCH better spend shoring up the absolutely porous governmental computing systems.  You wouldn’t have had 1/2 the ammo for this campaign if people knew how to set up proper intrusion countermeasures and were given the budget to implement it. So, you know…before someone gets into *your* emails.

12) Don’t make the mistake of galvanizing *all* the terror groups outside the US by trying something as foolish as deporting “all the Muslims” from the US.  You want to know why certain segments of the world’s population hate the US? Do that and you won’t have to wonder, anymore. Again – and you may sense a theme – UNIFY the country, don’t tear it apart.

13) Don’t keep stoking the xenophobic fires.  Aside from San Bernadino, you know how many of the acts of terror on US soil were actually perpetuated by actual Muslims and not freak-pie, radicalized pretend Muslims? Hey – I said *aside* from San Bernadino (bearing in mind they were US citizens…). One, and he probably qualifies as “freak-pie” and/or “radicalized.” In the *history of terror attacks on US soil,* only one.  And that was the Florida night club, last year.  So how’s about this – worry about our domestic terror groups (you know, the ones you’ve not distanced yourself from) and stop putting into every easily influenced American’s mind that Muslim == terrorist. If the logic is that “it could be any one of ‘them’,” then, by all means, let’s deport all the domestic terror threats starting with the KKK, the Aryan Brotherhood, oh, wait – does that mean any white American could be a terrorist.  Damn it.  And here I was thinking we were supposed to feel safer.  So, see – we need to unify our country, be a little less panicky and judgey and lot more in tune with what the underlying causes of the unrest are, motives for terror attacks are and all that jazz and start working on THOSE problems rather than causing more by just being weirdly focused on one group.  Oh, and I don’t want to hear “most terror attacks ARE carried out by Muslims!” Why not?  Because they’re carried out in bloody Iraq, or Afghanistan, you know…countries where Islam is the primary religion.  We’re not condemning the Jewish people in the US based on the actions of Isreal and Palestine, are we?  Are we?  

14) Nuclear war is not something to joke about. Ever.  It’s not something to even consider.  Ever.  It’s the global equivalent of saying “BOMB!” in an airport, nowadays.  You may have a death wish, but I do not and I’d prefer you not make THAT decision for me.  Okeydoke?  The Cold War sucked.  Big time.  Let’s not fire that up, again.  Oh, wait —

15) Putin is NOT your friend.  Remember that.  You, at this point, my good sir, are his puppet.  He played this election like a “harp from hell” to borrow a phrase from our favorite unhinged denizen of the cold and dark, Oswald Cobblepot.  So, just remember, when he says he’s looking to “renew relations with the US” after you take office, that’s a clever euphemism for “test the waters and see how easily you can be manipulated.”  Trust me.  Who do you think paid the hackers who gave you the emails that submarined HRC?  So.  Does this mean that as soon as you start to look like a strong leader, you’re going to get torpedoed, too? If I were a betting man, I’d almost guarantee it.  Don’t let that happen.  We already have relations with Putin and his pals. There’s no need to give him the keys to the White House.

16) I mentioned that ACA above.  Despite what you and far too many people with not enough Google skills believe, the ACA isn’t what’s driving up insurance premiums.  It’s a two-pronged attack on American healthcare being perpetrated by Big Pharma and douche canoes like Pharma Bro who think that’s it’s just good business to price an important drug out of the range of those who need it most – and that’s not capitalism, it’s being a shithead. The other side of this two-pronged attack comes from the other unregulated entity, the insurance companies.  With a CEO pulling down $66K A FREAKING HOUR, I’m pretty sure keeping the premiums a little lower won’t hurt the insurance companies more than the drain of their CEO’s greed. Americans want to know why their premiums went up – well, you need to tell them, “Because of the insurance industry’s unmitigated greed.”  So, instead of repealing the ACA, how’s about looking into regulating the insurance industry and their routine fucking over of the common citizen and come up with ways to modify and massage the ACA into something both good for the people and acceptable to the people who think that everything’s Obama’s fault.

17) Alternative energy sources are your friends, and not the invisible ones that throw tea parties in the attic at night.  Instead of promising the coal industry a return to black-lunged glory, why not invest that same money in not only green(er) energy, but workplace training for those workers who could then work in the green energy industry and, perhaps, not die of black lung, and pensions for those old enough that workplace training really isn’t an option who will, odds are good, need to look into what the ACA offers.  You know, take care of Americans AND not completely hose up the environment. If you keep insisting on this Fracking crap, that Midwest that helped you carry the vote is going to sink into the crust of the earth just because Big Oil has its claws so deep into our political system – the one you said you’re going to completely turn on its ear.  So, seriously, dude.  Call up Elon Musk, have a sit down, and come to understand that Big Oil is only in it for themselves and don’t give two shits about you or our country.  

There are more.  I am too tired to come up with them.  Bottom line?  Don’t fuck this up. I know…I got on you for “strong language.”  But, seriously…as much as I want to, I can’t hope for you to fail, utterly, because that would take down the country I love and believe in.  I can, however, hope that you come to understand what it *really* means to be President of the United States and look at it with the seriousness it deserves.

Recent Production Trends

So here we sit at the cusp of something we, the Metallica faithful, have waited for, patiently-ish, for 8, yes *eight* long years.  So, what’s the first thing I do?  I complain.  I know – I’m trying not to because, well, honestly?  The first three singles represent the best metal Metallica has put out for decades.  So, then, why be a whiny, complain-y guy?  Well, let me preface it by saying it’s not directed at Metallica, specifically.  They just happen to be the most recent band whose album is mixed with something missing – the high end.

Now, there’s high end.  I know that.  The cymbals are crisp and the guitar solos have bite.  That said, what they don’t have is “air” or “breathing room.”  What?!  What am I talking about?  I’m talking about that lift in the upper frequencies that actually allows *everything* to have a little more room to shine.  I’ll have to demonstrate because I’m not sure my brain is equipped to parse it all out intelligibly, right now.  So – let’s look at things that will help me explain.


This is where I noticed it, first.  So, here’s a sonogram of how it is without the little tweaks I give it to give it air and more – in my opinion – life.


You’ll notice there is a lot of blue at the top.  That’s where the “air” lives.  It seems like a small thing.  I guess that’s where my frustration came in.  It was obvious to *my* ears – why was it not obvious to the mixer, producer, mastering engineer OR anyone of the fellas in Metallica?  My second frustration came from the fix taking, literally, under a minute of fiddling with my standard Mastering Bus plugs.  How much of a difference could it make?  This is what it looks like when I kick in the plugins:


You’ll notice there’s a TON more in the “air” frequencies.  You’ll also notice that there are more hotspots within the other frequencies, as well, meaning they’re getting more space and you’re able to hear them.

I have taken both versions – the original mix and my re-EQing and intertwined them.  You can hear when the blanket is lifted and then is there, again.

[Hardwired — Comparison]

As you can hear, there’s a marked difference.  Now, I tried to match volumes as closely as I could, but there are a couple spots where they’re crossing over where it gets a bit louder.  The thing is, it’s not rocket science.  That’s what is frustrating to me.  On the track, itself, I just hit it with an EQ that took out some resonant points that became obvious when opening up the top end.


Then, on the master bus, I used FabFilter’s Pro-L and Pro-G, Slate’s Virtual Mix Rack and T West’s “After” which, if I may say so, is one of the handiest little filters out there.  Here are the settings:

image  image


and image

So, as you can see – there’s no voodoo involved.  It’s just tweaking here and there to expose more of the depth.  It’s not just this track, though.  Of the three singles released, “Atlas, Rise” needed the least amount of high-end massaging.  So, I’ll go on record saying to Metallica – Hey! I’ll fix those for you! and then move on to the song that really started me listening more critically to new releases.

Mirror.  Neat band, good talent, good producer (I mean it – he’s got a great pedigree), but muted and muffled production.  I had a little row with someone about it and their point was that the band *wanted* it that way and that it sounded “retro.”  I guess he could be right, if by “retro” he meant demo tapes from the mid-70s.  I can understand a band wanting a warmer sound than the almost sterilized, clinical mixes that have been coming around, as well.  I can.  I appreciate the warmth and tone of older recordings.  What I have a hard time getting past is when there’s *no* high end, no opening up and it all sounds muddy.  Now, this isn’t perfect – it’s re-EQing for demonstration purposes.  Obviously, I could make a better comparison with the actual stems and remixing it, that way.

[Mirror – Galleaon Comparison]

So, I guess my real question is *why?*  Why have so many good albums been mixed/mastered with no “air” to them?  I mean, I’m listening to Anthrax’s “All of Them Thieves,” and Jay Ruston did a great job capturing the music *and* giving it room to breathe.  So, what is the decision making process?  I have a hard time believing that a band would listen to something with dampened high end and decide that’s how they wanted their hard work to be presented.  I could be wrong.  There could be something charming about it.  It just all feels to me like when Nevermore sent “Enemies of Reality” to Andy Sneap to have him re-mix/master the album because the high-end clarity was missing.  Their hard work wasn’t showcased, completely, and with some love – and air – “Enemies 2.0” was sent out from Century Media and all was well.

In conclusion, I guess it melts my mind a little when we have hard work put in by musicians, hard work put in by the mixing engineer, hard work put in by the producer and hard work put in by the mastering engineer – but it still sounds like it’s buried under a layer of silt.

The Continuing Saga of Erin

I’ve talked with some people about mixing/producing “Erin,” by Brendan Loughrey, and it comes up, often, that I’m not completely happy with the album as it is available, now, via iTunes, Amazon, Google, CDBaby, and so on.  Now, that is not to say that I think it’s a badly produced or mixed album.  My dissatisfaction, actually, is largely because I’m a freaking perfectionist, for one thing, and secondly, and most importantly, we were in a time crunch and I don’t think I gave Brendan’s music that he poured his heart and soul into enough time, love or attention.  There are some mixers out there who would say that three to four weeks was ample time to mix 13 songs and, on some level, I concede that fact.  That said, when you’re learning things from the ground up and having your utopian little mixing world turned upside down as you encounter things you’ve not had to work with before, a month is nowhere near sufficient. 

I think what I’ll do, here, is a track by track look look at challenges that each track introduced and how, now, in retrospect and in practice with new attempts at mixes, have addressed them.

Track By Track

01 – Tiocfaidh Ár Lá

If you look up the definition of “Irish Rebel Rock,” this should be the definition you find.  Full of vitriol and bite in the original versions you can find smattered across the youTubes, this song lost some of that when we recorded and produced it.  It sounded…produced.  Weird, right?  Well, part of the charm from the originals that was missing were doubled vocals and some fairly yelled.  Now, we didn’t record any that were that up front, no yelling.  That said, we did several takes.  So, when listening to the version on the CD, it always felt…softer…than I wanted.  Part of that is the violin.  It adds a lot to the song, but also introduces a kinder, gentler dynamic.  That’s OK – it needed a little polish, especially since it’s to be featured in the film “Dougherty,” later this year.  Anecdotally, it would seem they chose to use, at least for the trailer, the version of the song from YouTube.  I’d rather they use the version I have, now.

So, the biggest challenge was keeping the bite while giving it some polish.  There were other factors involved, but what I have in front of me, now, is a much better mix, in my opinion.  Also, I believe I was able to get better dynamics out of it, as well.  The waveforms look better and are only marginally different when played at the same volume, back to back, with the new mix being ever so slightly quieter…maybe 0.5dB, tops.

Finally, and this was just a personal “I wonder if this will sound good” addition, I placed Liam Neeson’s delivery of Michael Collins’ quote about “refusal” leading into the music.  I think it worked.

The CD version of the song:


The new mix:


02 – I Believe

“I Believe” is a fun romp that will get your toes tapping and your hands clapping.  Seriously.  It’s a fun song and it’s got a lot going on, even though it’s just the guitar, bass, vocals and drum.  Brendan’s strumming style is actually what opened up some challenges, this time around, as it tended to eat the high hat with the sound of the strum.  Equally problematic, the drums sound, to me, like “metal” drums and not necessarily, “Irish Rebel Rock” drums.  When it went to press, I felt the vocals were too far forward, the dynamics of the drums were less than I wanted and the drums, themselves, sounded too “big,” if that’s the right term; they just didn’t fit, to me.  I didn’t know what to do with with, then.  The more I tweaked the vocals, the more the guitars disappeared.  The more I tweaked the drums, the more subdued the vocals got.  The more I pumped the bass into the mix, the more everything got overwhelmed really quickly.  So…

I wanted to try the multi-take, vocal doubling on this, as well.  It wasn’t really as good, in a lot of ways: it actually lost power – softened it up, a bit. So, I basically just worked on stereo expansion at the “power points” in the chorus.  My problem is, I don’t like how a lot of the stereo expanders sound, so I knew I couldn’t just apply it to the main vocals and go.  I ended up copying the main vocals out four times, setting them at –100, –45, 45 and 100 degrees, respectively, and applied volume automation to make them come in at the correct times.  It sounds fairly seamless, which is what I was going for.  I also just had a problem with just how dry everything was, except for the drums, which leapt out of the mix, so this time, the big focus was balance.  I think I found it while still retaining a decent dynamic range.  There’s only a miniscule difference in volume between the two, but this is a MUCH better mix.

The CD version:


The new mix:


03 – Lyrics of Your Own

This was a hard song to get a handle on.  First and foremost, the snare on the CD version, in the intro, is harsh, snappy, way too forward and kind of painful to listen to.  On the release, though, the vocals were just about right.  Actually, pretty much everything else with the song made me really happy as it got sent off to press.  It all came back to the snare, for me.  Well, that, and the overall volume pushing and lack of dynamic range.

So, what I set about to do was get that snare reigned in – mostly an EQ issue, as the “honk” tone was really what stuck out, to me.  From there, it was just getting everything to sit nicely in the mix and balance each other out.  Thankfully, like I said, I was pretty happy with the one that went to press, so there wasn’t really a lot to do.  Now, it just came down to keeping the dynamic range in check.

The CD Version:


The new mix:


04 – Happy Days

A nice, shuffl-y, groovy song that, really, my only kibitzes revolved around how out front the vocals are and how overly pumped the whole song was.  Well, that, and I really wanted to give it drums that didn’t sound like they would be at home in an Amon Amarth song – they just didn’t fit, to me.  That, and we made the executive decision to cut out the whistle because I didn’t know how to wrangle it into the mix without just cutting through and stabbing your ears.  I wanted to see if I could put it in, in some capacity.  The dynamic range, as was the case with mostly everything, needed a little caressing, as well.

So, a lot of re-balancing and EQing.  I also wanted to give it more depth and give the vocals a bit of reverb.  I ended up with light reverb almost all around, but mostly on the back edges, since it wasn’t really a song that needed much more than just that little sprinkling of depth.  The whistle fit in, but needed automation.  I ended up with it coming in during the intro and then, sparingly, during the chorus.  It seemed to fit and work pretty well.  Overall, I like the balance a lot better and I reclaimed some precious dynamic range in the process.  I also tweaked the bass a little to give it more of the “precision” sound.  It fits well.

The CD version:


The new mix:


05 – I Quit Drinking

Another romp of a song that could very easily be a country hit, if given the chance.  This song was a bear, mainly because it is such an upbeat and busy song.  There’s a lot going on with the high hat.  There’s a lot of strumming.  The bass guitar line is rocking.  That said, the vocals had to be pushed hard to stand out in this mix and the bass was a different bass than was used on a lot of the songs and cut through with aggression to burn.  So…dynamic range was out the window with this one when sent to press and I cringe when I listen to it, now, hearing the vocals crisp out, or the guitars get a little thin or the bass crunch.  So, really, the challenge was to get the song to the same level of energy and at least close to the same volume without pushing the song into the realm of absolutely pumped out.

So, I had gone the route of a billion tracks in order to give the vocals some beef without compressing the hell out of them, and, well…I trimmed those back down.  A compressor here, a limiter, there, and it started to sit well, together.  The one thing that I started doing was not only mixing in mono, but without anything on the master bus – leaving the mastering to…the mastering.  It was interesting, though, because the song didn’t have much punch, that way, in mixing, but I could hear where everything was sitting and could make sure everything could be heard.  Now, in this case, to squeeze this for everything it was worth, I have less dynamic range than I would have liked, but it’s still much more shapely than what we shipped and, volume-wise, they’re close, with the CD version winning every time.  That’s OK – this still rocks and I don’t hear anything sizzling, crisping, crunching or otherwise cringing under the weight of the compression.

The CD Version:


The new mix:


06 – Another Year

This track is why I started writing this blog entry, originally.  It was Brendan’s brother Barry’s birthday.  The crux is that Barry died 15 years ago, leaving Brendan with a huge hole in his heart and what, after hearing the story behind it, is a very hard song to edit.  If there was a song you just want to *be*, it’s this one.  So, criticizing it, in any way, is hard, too, because of how close it is to the heart, anyway, so it was something I tried very hard to make “the perfect track” (there’s no such thing…) for Brendan.  I, ultimately, wasn’t happy with the result.  Sort of the same reasons that have been cropping up – the voice a bit too up front, the flute was almost invisible, there was a note on the guitar that was just off.  I’m glad Brendan went with the thunder in the beginning – he was initially afraid it would draw quick comparisons to Garth Brooks’ “Thunder Rolls.”  That said, I did a poor job transitioning that into the beautiful guitar and violin parts on the album version.  So, bottom line – this song deserved better and I was going to give it a go.

What I really wanted to do was get it to where it was right after the first listen with Brendan after we did a rough mix with the violins.  For reference, it hit everyone and was pretty emotional – we were all awestruck at how much that violin added.  The mix on the album, though, I don’t feel had that same raw, emotional feel.  So…how to capture that – that’s the question.  I think I did.  We’ll see.  There’s not a huge difference in waveform or dynamics because it wasn’t horrible, it just needed finesse.

The CD version:


The new mix:


07 – Pack Your Bags

I’ve described this track a number of ways – freight train, monster, behemoth, and so on.  The bottom line is that it is an absolutely huge track with a massive amount of sound, the proverbial “wall of sound,” if you will.  Basically, I was happy with how it ended up on the album, but, again, vocals that were a little too up front and there was a deplorable lack of dynamic range.

One of the biggest challenges, and why the vocals kind of stick out more than I wanted to, was because the vocals employ a good deal of dynamics, themselves, moving closer to and then away from the mic, giving it enough variation that just picking a level and going will lead to one line being way too soft – almost unintelligible – while the next line will blow your ears out.  The key was automation and taking the time to learn some different techniques, as well, for making vocals thicker and louder without crisping them out.  I started looking into other methods and found an interesting method by which I wrote a vocal track with a rider to an automated track.  This gave me a leveled, partially processed track that didn’t sound as forced or crackly as what I had gotten when trying “normalization” techniques.

The biggest challenge was something that I discovered with compression on this track for the CD – the more one thing gets bumped, the more something else disappears.  It was really frustrating to try to get each element to sing on its own: the voice, the guitar, the drums, the violin, the bass and the bagpipes all needed room to breathe and it was really crowded.  This time around, I used a bunch of different methods, but the thing I really tried to do was make sure the frequencies weren’t battling it out.  The guitars and violin are the main challenge, as they occupy a lot of the same frequencies and I couldn’t just use ducking because of the strumming style on the guitar – it would ALL be ducking. So, I just shifted where they were in the sound field and it seems to work pretty well.  The waveform doesn’t look a whole lot different, but there is room to breathe – though, not much – so there’s, to me, at least some feeling that I brought some dynamic range to this monster powerhouse.

The CD version:


The new mix:


08 – Most Days

This was a song that was much easier to work on before knowing the stories behind it.  It’s wasn’t as much from the “oh, man, what a downer” or anything along those lines but more from the same standpoint as “Another Year” and that’s wanting to make it perfect.  Of course, that is the bane of any mixer/producer’s existence, that fabled “perfect.”  In this case, though, I was really happy with the overall feel of the song.  The violins were perfect.  The voice was emotive, though, again, forward for my tastes, and the drums didn’t sound like they were borrowed from Arch Enemy.

So…again, the main focus, here, was getting the vocals to sit better in the mix – and the mix allow them to sit and still be heard clearly – and to get the dynamic range back because even for a ballad-esque song, this baby was pretty beefed up, signal-wise.  So, my goal was give the mix enough headroom that everything was crystal clear but still able to amplified, tweaked, compressed, you name it, and still maintain a good waveform with dynamic range.

Now, it’s quite obvious the new mix is quieter.  It’s consistent with the rest of the album thus far, though, and I prefer the more sedate version where I let the vocals get crisp – gruff, even – in a couple of spots.  I could have used automation to “iron it out,” as it were, but, you know what?  This is such a visceral song when it comes down to it…I don’t see it as out of place.  I would actually pay money to have a version of this where Brendan duets with Tom Waits.  At any rate, the drums don’t sound “metal,” the bass is still quite present, the guitars carry through and the violins soar while Brendan croons, which is as it should be.

The CD version:


The new mix:


09 – Jack

“Jack” is another jamming song full of vitriol and catchy hooks.  It also had, when we sent it to press, vocals that were too far forward, drums that sounded a bit too “metal,” and, again, very limited dynamic range.  That said, this is a song that is meant to be in your face and pushy.  So, there was a balance I had to find with it to give it aggression as well as a mix that had gotten a bit more massaged and opened up a lot.

The vocal rider wasn’t as necessary, but was a good first step.  I was able to trim down from my original attempt to beef the vocals without over-pushing them, which ended with 10 parallel tracks at different pans with different levels.  So, it was nice to have only two tracks – main and the reverbed background vocals.  The drums just needed a little massaging since they needed to have the power they had, but needed more life.  Reverb on the snare brought that out.  From there, it was just a matter of getting things to sit, properly and not overwhelm each other or disappear, completely.

I managed to keep the apparent volume almost identical.  By apparent, I mean, obviously, it’s reduced in the overall dB output, but it still *feels* loud and in your face enough to be considered “Irish Rebel Rock.” 

The CD version:


The new mix:


10 – Sweet Road

This is a song that would fit perfectly playing in the background of a bar scene, black and white, with a man holding a glass of whiskey – Irish, of course, alone while the rest of the world bustles around him.  Capturing that feeling was my primary goal and I feel like the album version falls short, in that regard.  Again, a lot revolves around the vocals.  In addition to them being too far forward, I missed a LOT of distortions – mainly as a result of pumping the 44KHz audio further than it should have been – that, for me, took away from the overall feeling of the song.  That said, I could see how some distortion in the voice could definitely add to the song, giving it more of an air of that desperation that would fit.  Unfortunately, it was the peaky, crispy distortion that makes me cringe.  Also, the drums were too “metal” and the bass could have used some EQ shaping.  So, what to do, what to do…

My main goal was to give roughly the same volume while dialing back the vocals to a point where they fit well and sound good and opening up a lot more dynamic range throughout.  I felt the vocals needed some reverb, too.  Not the 80s “every song sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral” reverb, but some plate reverb to give it a little more life and breath and fill in some of the hollow parts of the mix.  The snare needed some reverb, as well, to help it poke through the guitars.

The “perfexion” mix sounded a LOT more polished than the CD version, making it sound more like a demo, something that makes me both happy and sad.  I wished I had been able to give Brendan *this* version for the CD.

The CD version:


The new mix:


11 – Tattooed on My Tears

This song was really fun – it’s a great song, with a great vibe and great movement.  The violin shines, the drums fit nicely, the guitar sits well, the bass is rock steady and the vocal line is really engaging.  So, what’s my problem with it?  Like the previous song, I have a hard time listening to the CD version because the vocals are a bit too up front, but more important, are victimized by distortions and compression issues that came from only having a limited experience in trying to get the vocals out front.  Now, it’s sort of another wall of sound song, inasmuch as just about all frequencies are spoken for at one time or another.  That said, there was still “space,” and it needed reverb.  Not whooshing reverb, but some life to the vocals, snap to the snare and maybe some delay/verb on the violin to just make it pop.  There was also a need for dynamic range because, well…the top waveform looks like a little stuffed sausage.

The most important part of “perfexion” was to get the vocals to work – and be loud enough – while keeping everything else in balance.  I think it turned out nicely, and, again, wish that this was what I could have given Brendan on his CD.

The CD version:


The new mix:


12 – What’s the Use?

Another song that would fit perfectly in a bar scene, it’s another one where I listen to mix and feel sad that I wasn’t able to do better – the bass is audible, sometimes; the guitar sits nicely, but doesn’t have much personality; the violin feels like an afterthought and the vocals are a bit far forward. 

So, again, the challenge was to keep the perceived volume in line with the CD version while giving each instrument its own voice and space within the mix and still having breathing room in the dynamic range.  In actuality, the violin actually fit better In a more background capacity, this time, and fit well, while still adding depth.  Overall, I really like how the new mix sounded: more subdued but, in my opinion, more powerful than the CD version.  I think the biggest change was simply pulling the vocals back a little, but also reigning in the drum so that it wasn’t making the overall track compression go a little overboard.  I reclaimed a bit of the dynamic range and gave it to the guitars.  I think it worked a lot better.

The CD version:


The new mix:


13 – Old Ireland

A slow building rebel-rock tune, this builds in volume and energy from the beginning to when the first chorus kicks in, bringing the full force of the song to bear.  If it weren’t for crisping out of the vocals and a little bit of “burying” in the overall mix, I would say this is one of the ones I was most happy with on the produced CD.  My main complaint was that the “reentry” portion of the song lacked enough dynamics to give it a lot of power.  By re-entry, I mean where the song lulled to a slow drive and then jumps back into the full-bore, driving, song. That said, I really like the “perfexion” mix a lot.

I EQ’d the drums a bit better.  I put reverb where it needed to be – mainly the snare.  I reigned in the volume a bit, but without stifling any of the energy.  There’s a lot to be said for a CLA76 thrown into the mix, so to speak.

The CD version:


The new mix:


In summary, “Erin” was an amazing album to be a part of, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity.  My only regret is that I wasn’t able to give Brendan that album I feel he deserved because I didn’t have the skill he needed, then.  I’m glad things are changing and I’m learning a lot and producing better music and, like I said, I’m so grateful for the learning opportunities and experience.  Oh, and as a bit of a shameless plug, you can find Brendan Loughrey’s “Erin” on Amazon, CDBaby, GooglePlay, iTunes, and from Brendan, himself when he’s at shows. 

Maybe, at some point, I’ll play the new mixes for Brendan, if he wants, but for now, I’ll keep refining and learning – not necessarily on these songs, but will be getting to a point where if there’s a new album to record, or simply wants a remastered version of “Erin,” I can give him what needs and what I wanted to give him, the first time.