Flemming Rasmussen made his mark and secured his reputation from having produced and engineered Metallica’s early classic trilogy of albums; "Ride The Lightning", "Master Of Puppets" and "And Justice For All". Aside from the Metallica albums, he has also has produced and engineered countless other albums by bands such as Morbid Angel, Blind Guardian and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. As part of Ultimae Guitar’s popular "The Producers and Engineers" series, Joe Matera put a call through to Denmark’s Sweet Silence Studios (owned and operated by Femming Rasmussen) to discuss with Rasmussen his approach to recording metal bands, how he captured that famed Metallica sound and doing things the old school way.
UG: Obviously the best point of reference to start the interview is to look back to those early Metallica albums you produced and engineered. In regards to capturing guitar tones, how did you go about it?
Flemming Rasmussen: Well we first discussed it together about what they wanted to sound like in and how to go about achieving it, but I have to say there were a lot of guitar amp issues at first. On the first album we did together, Ride The Lightning we had a problem with James’ amp. It was stolen a week before they entered the studio to start tracking. They were on tour when it happened. Now somebody in San Francisco had modified the amp but nobody knew what he had done. So what we did was we got all of the people we knew that played metal music and had good Marshall amps and cabs, we got them to come to the studio with their amps and cabs and we simply tried them until we found one that we thought sounded good. Once we found it, we started looking at mics.
What sort of mics did you?
I used a SM-57 as a close mic and on angle of 45 degrees from the cab and then a room mic as well. It was really critical where the mics were placed so I got my assistant engineer to move the mic back and forth until we got what we wanted.
You mentioned you had discussed the sound the band wanted to achieve prior to commencing tracking, was there anything specific the band sought after sonically?
They just wanted the albums to sound as loud as possible. And in those days in the Sweet Silence Studios in Denmark we had this back room, and it was huge like a storage room. It was 15 meters by 20 meters and so we decided to put the drums in that back room to get this huge sound. And I put up a lot of ambient mics. Unfortunately at the time of tracking, it was November and it was really cold so we had to a gas heater in the room along with the mics and you can imagine what that did to the drum sound.
What mics did you use to capture that huge sound?
I used an AKG D12 on the bass drum, a SM-57 on the snare a Neumann KM84 on the cymbals and a couple of U87s as room mics along with a couple of other different mics. We used something like six room mics.
Those Metallica albums were mostly recorded in the analog domain…
Yes we used analog all the way up to …And Justice For All and we had to slave two tapes machines together. We had one which was used for bass and drums and the one was used for the stereo mix of bass and drums as well as, we did all the guitars and vocals on It too. So there were two reel to reels, each with 24 tracks minus one for the time codes and so in total we had 47 tracks.
Moving to the digital domain, how did find the differences between both compared?
"We used analog all the way up to …And Justice For All and we had to slave two tapes machines together."
I more or less use the same method today in the digital realm but the thing with digital is you can do a lot of stuff that you can’t do on analog, like moving things back and forth in time. You can’t do that on analog. In the old analog days, you already had a lot of the restrictions right away that you needed to work with, like with the mixing of different mics and the volume of certain things. People tend to record everything separately these days. I don’t do that, I kind of mix everything more or less the way I want it to sound. So when you open a session you are actually not that far away from a mix. I make a lot of the decisions really early on in the process.
In what ways, can you give us an example?
Yes, for example I may use four mics on a guitar, and they might all end up on one track. For the first main rhythm guitar, I always put the room mics separately because that is so I can manipulate the sound afterwards. But for the overdubs that I do, they all wind up mono so that means I am mixing sometimes anywhere from three to six microphones down to one track. If you don’t, then you’ll have all sorts of phasing problems going on later on and so the decision has been made there and then. I think a lot of people spend a lot of time fiddling about with stuff that should have been done a long time ago. So it is not that difficult because a lot of the decisions have already been made.
When working on a recording session what key elements are important to you?
It all depends on the band really. I try as much as possible to not make it sound as if it is me who has made the album, in the sense that it is what the artist wants. So I need to emphasis that, so I try to figure what it is that the band are wanting to accomplish with their music and try and get that out instead of some sound idea I have in my head. I think it very important that you hear what the band wants and not what I want.
Are you meticulous in your approach in the studio, I mean are you after perfection or are you more about capturing that spontaneity?
I am more about capturing the vibe. I am not too keen on being too perfect, I would rather have a good groove and vibe than anything else. I think most modern music is boring in the sense that is so quantized where once you have that initial verse and chorus, the rest of the track sounds like a copy and paste thing. I want to avoid that as much as possible as I really like music. When I record something I always focus on the drums first but I always have a guitar and bass playing along with it to get a good vibe. And once you have a good drum track, I will redo the bass and guitar again to that. I am a firm believer in doing the bass as one of the last things especially with metal music, even after all the vocals have been done as well.
That is not the norm with many recording sessions, so why do you utilize this approach?
It is because a lot of the significant things in the songs are the guitar riffs, and if you start making the bass adjust to the drums without the guitar riffs and the feel of how the guitar players wants it, then it lacks that feel. And if you’ve done the bass already, you have to put the guitar riff to what the bass is doing, but I’d rather do the main thing which is the guitar riff first and then add the bass to that feel.
Nearly every musician seems to have a home studio these days, what do you think of them?
"I am more about capturing the vibe. I am not too keen on being too perfect, I would rather have a good groove and vibe than anything else."
I like it. I have a lot of clients who do their stuff at home and so I get it and mix it. For some of the sessions we do, I do the drums and bass and they come back and do the guitars and vocals and then I put everything together. So I think it is a good thing.
Have you any advice to offer those with home studios in regards to making better home studio recordings?
I would say go get a really good mic pre amp because a lot of people use the mic pres that are in the box. But you really need a good mic pre amp as it will get you really far in your recordings.
As a producer and engineer, is it harder to record the metal genre?
At times it is. I think a lot of people have this feeling that there is some kind of template for a metal album but there isn’t. Every album should sound different. Personally I want to do as much moving around as possible. When I did the Metallica albums I could have done another ten albums just like that, using the same stuff and people would have loved it, but I didn’t want to do that as I prefer different ideas always. I haven’t recorded two albums in the same way at all..
Where do you see the future of the recording industry heading to?
That is a really good question but I have absolutely no idea. But the way it is now, there are basically no record labels around. They’ve become custodians in a way. But you don’t really need a record label today because all the work… they’re no longer putting money into it and they’ve become basically a distribution company these days. The whole thing with A & R people and trying to get artists to perform better and write songs and do demos and where the label would then buy the masters and release them, today they’re basically nothing more but a distributing company. And they’ve basically fucked the industry themselves. I could never understand why a label didn’t just make a website where you could buy all their stuff like MP3s rather than have everyone else taking that money.
Looking back, have you any favorite sessions that you are fond off?
There are so many but I never rate sessions. I always feel that the stuff I am working on at the moment is the best I’ve done and the most important at the moment. I just made an album with a young Norwegian band called Tantara which comes out in June and they’re like 18 and 19 years old. They are really great and they’ve got that same energy that Metallica had in their early days.
Interview by Joe Matera
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