landed his first job at New York's Electric Lady Studios
in 1979 after a dare with a friend. Since then he's gone on to engineer, produce and mix some of the most influential albums of the rock and metal genres such as Metallica
's And Justice For All
, Alice In Chains
' Jar Of Flies
's Follow The Leader
. From his current base in Nashville, Joe Matera
put a call in to Wright to discuss his illustrious career so far for Ultimate-Guitar
's ongoing "The Producers and Engineers
UG: In the early years you were assistant engineer on sessions for artists including Kiss, Damn Yankees, Sammy Hagar, Heart, Michael MacDonald and Cheap Trick
Yes, I was a studio employee at the time so whoever would come through the door, I would be assisting for them. I worked at a place called One On One Recording in North Hollywood and the room was attracting all those kinds of A list artists you mentioned. So I got to assist on many of those records because they just came through the door. I got to work on albums by Kiss such as Crazy Nights with Ron Nevison producing and Cheap Trick's Lap of Luxury album.
How much of this experience held you in good stead for your later work as producer and/or engineer for records for Alice In Chains, Machine Head, Metallica, Korn, Primus, Sevendust and Slayer?
It taught me what not to do more than what to do. Conversely, I learned a lot of tricks on what to do and how to do it, and which came out the best. And learning from other accomplished producers is always a treat. Even today I work with accomplished people who have a different take on music. It was more along the lines of passion and how to treat an artist and what makes them comfortable and things like that more than the recording process itself.
You were also assistant engineer with Flemming Rasmussen on And Justice For All. Tell us about those sessions?
Flemming was flown in after Mike Clink had left the sessions and I took over engineering from Mike. Then Flemming was contacted and brought in as producer and he was amazing, I learned so much stuff from him. There again it was about how to treat an artist and there were a lot of tricks he used with Metallica to get that sound.
And how did you go about capturing the guitar tones on that album?
From memory James had a bunch of heads that he had in storage, Boogie MKIIs, and he played all the rhythms with them and then Kirk came in and played all the leads later on. But the sound was accomplished through James' recording rigs of which he had several of. He brought those in along with his huge collection of guitars.
Over the years there has been much written about why Jason Newsted's bass is burried in the mix, what's your take on it?
Well it is definitely there because I recorded it! It was due to Lars and James' philosophy that if you could hear the bass then it was 2db too loud. When they went to mix that record, Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero mixed it and I'm sure they were heavily influenced by Lars and James at that the time, as that was what they wanted. Lars was looking for a cutting edge record, something that was way different than anybody was doing out there and that is also how he came up with that kick drum sound. That was very different for the day, as it had tons of low end and lots of top. He used to carry around a little picture of the EQ we did.
A lot of your work is with many bands in the heavier genre. Is it a harder genre to record in the studio?
"Alice In Chains were an interesting and pleasurable bunch of people to work for and with."
No it is only a little bit different. I think it is more demanding on the players than it is on an engineer except for the listening part. The players have to do the physical challenge of being tight and usually playing fast with a metronome. So to my ears it is not that much harder to get the sounds. It is just knowing, where to go and what knobs to turn to accomplish what you aren't hearing.
You moved from being an engineer to a producer with Korn's Follow The Leader. What was that experience like for you?
Steve Thompson was producing at the time and I was hired as his engineer but something happened with him and the band and so he was let go and I took over. And we just followed the vision that the band and he started when they were in preproduction. We just kept on going with it and took it a bit further with all the experimentation I got to do in regards to the sonic quality of stuff and certain parts.
Being an integral part of albums that have gone onto become the benchmark of their genres, was that something that was a spontaneous accident where from experimenting it developed from there or, was it something that was pre-planned in many ways by the artist or whoever was involved?
With Metallica it was calculated in a large part by Lars but he didn't know how he wanted to get there. And as we twiddled the knobs a little bit and changed the sound from this to that to the other, in order to find something, it eventually just happened and we knew we had it. It was a spontaneous accident and we just left it there. It still sounds different but sounds good too. With Korn, it was basically me and my sound experimentation with them. I would be playing with sound off Jonathan's performances and he could get wild on the vocals, and I could do something with the instruments as well and we just did that. So it was all experimentation and feel and progress in the process.
What is your approach in the studio in capturing guitar sounds?
I usually stick with Sennheiser 421s and SM-57s for my dynamic mics. I will also use some small capsule condensers because I find that the bigger capsule condensers distort a lot easier at higher levels of volume. I like the sound that the dynamic mics gives me and I can be as loud as I want without distorting the microphone. I usually place mics right down the center of the speaker, but if it is a real harmonic driven part, or if there is a lot of harmonics in the sound, then I may capture an off the cone type of thing to get some of those harmonics.
Do you like blending different amp tones?
Oh yeah I have been known to get a few splitters and run five or six heads with four or five different cabinets all at the same time. It just depends on what we're looking for and what makes the player feel good. And what the player is comfortable playing.
Would it be a correct assessment to say then that to you the most important element in the studio, is about capturing the feel rather than the perfection of a take?
Yes, that absolutely would be correct. I care more about the feel than I do about being spot on with whatever. So if it feels good then it stays, and depending on the song and the band as well. If I am working on an industrial session for example, I don't care about the feel because there really is no feel in industrial music. In that case if I had a guitar player in that type of band, I'd make him play super tight, because there is no feel or swing.
Who have been some of the best bands to work with in studio?
They have all been awesome in their own way but some highlights are Alice In Chains. They were an interesting and pleasurable bunch of people to work for and with. Korn were really cool too. And the list goes on. It was all a bunch of education and fun at the same time. I have to add that working on the band's Jar Of Flies EP was one of the most memorable moments of my career. We booked ten days in a studio after the band had finished their Lollapalooza run and came in with no songs. So it was ten days of jamming, and at the end of the ten days we had recorded and done mixing as well. And on the 11th day I flew home and on the 12th day it was mastered. That whole session was quite amazing because we wrote, arranged, produced, recorded, and mixed all the songs in that time frame with nothing to start with except for possibly a few ideas. But it just flowed and came right out and there it was. It was the first EP ever to debut at number #1 on Billboard charts in the US and has gone on to sell over four million since.
Where do you see recording technology heading to in the future?
"Most important element is about capturing the feel rather than the perfection of a take."
I'm not too proud of it as I think it seems to have gone way down to a consumer level, which is great for consumers but it kind of takes the professionalism out of it, in the way that now, anybody can buy an M-Box and think they're a record producer. And I'm not too fond of that approach. I am very fond of the fact that with the internet, people can buy stuff, record and have a good time. I am not sure where the future is going to take it. You can look at it a few different ways. If people keep giving away their music for free, then all the music is going to come from the streets. You'll just be walking down the street and be dropping a dollar in somebody's can and pick up their little MP3 file. And that part of it is really sad. The other part of it which is confusing, is that since anybody can make a record, the market has gotten flooded and saturated with just junk, stuff that a record label would never ever touch if they were still in control. At the same time should that person who's just made a record in their bedroom be put up against whoever is in their genre as a superstar? I think the public's adaptation of the MP3 is the downfall in music as well, especially when we work so hard in the studio to make things sound a certain way. But then you've got to take a MP3 file and throw it out there and by doing that, it loses a lot of the nuances of the music. The quality is lost in an MP3. And people don't realize it. They literally hurt my ears to listen to with the way they have been compressed.
Finally, what are you currently up to?
I'm currently working on two television shows, one of which is finding undiscovered virtuoso talent around the globe and showing them off on TV and live shows. The other one is for the Discovery channel, and I am working closely with a racing team called Jet Black Racing, and we will also have a band with the name Jet Black, that will perform at the races and if we get a big single will then tour with the race team and do double duty with the marketing. I am also working on something that could be classed as a sound healing technology. It is a little departure from the music industry but it uses my talents in sonics as well. It is about healing through sound. It is a recurring dream that I have had every night for the past five to six years. I am taking what I hear in my dreams and reproducing it on a CD. I have passed the CD around to about 200 of my friends and have asked them to tell me what it makes them feel like. It is basically a relaxation CD, it doesn't really have music per se on it as it is comprised of a conglomeration of different sine waves mixed together in a certain way that it produces a relaxed state in your brain, thereby allowing you to sleep through the night better and also for those that meditate, a deeper meditation session. And all of my friends have reported positive response to it all, so it seems to be a successful technology at this point. I have also been approached by the US Government, to test this technology on the troops, as it can replenish the body with only 2 or so hours of actual sleep time, and feeling as though you slept a full 8 hours. It's amazing really. I will be getting together a website to sell it shortly. It is called Taummhoms.
Interview by Joe Matera