Toby Wright: 'A Lot Of Tricks Were Used With Metallica To Get That Sound'

Toby Wright engineered, produced and mixed some of the most influential albums of the rock and metal genres.

Toby Wright: 'A Lot Of Tricks Were Used With Metallica To Get That Sound'
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Toby Wright 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 and Korn'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" series. 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 Toby Wright: 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.

"Alice In Chains were an interesting and pleasurable bunch of people to work for and with."

A lot of your work is with many bands in the heavier genre. Is it a harder genre to record in the studio? 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.

"Most important element is about capturing the feel rather than the perfection of a take."

Where do you see recording technology heading to in the future? 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 Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2011

30 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    dontstopblevin
    Damn, I thought we would get a good explanation for turning down Newsted's bass. That was just too ordinary. Also, I don't know anyone that can write a few songs in 12 days, let alone good ones...and somehow Jar of Flies was written in a week? If it's true it's incredible...I call shenanigans.
    GasPipe
    I've heard songs from ...AJFA with a bass track added in and the fact of the matter is it sounds so much better. The overall sound is much more solid and pounding, and the bass provides a solid anchor for the solos. And I think the turning down of the bass affected the drums, and was one of the reasons they sounded so clicky rather than thumpy. I'm not a huge fan of Metallica anymore (went through that stage haha) but AJFA is my favourite album from them that I believe was flawed due to poor production and a dislike of Newstead. Jar of Flies is BRILLIANT though.
    georgebushguy79
    ...And Justice For All's guitar tones are amazing clean and distorted... Even though it's at least a few guitars stacked. I love the sound of the album it's raw, heavy and just awesome (despite having the bass at 1 and guitars and drums at 11). Favorite Metallica record.
    mojosarmy
    Interesting! I would never have guessed that Jar of Flies went from nothing to mastered in 12 days, that album is brilliant from beginning to end.
    emphaticleech
    Rattlehead2 wrote: I don't know which production is worse, the one on ...And Justice for All or that on Death Magnetic.
    The one on Death Magnetic. At least ...AJFA had good songs on it.
    yukonchuck06
    I alwasy figured Lars was burying Jason's basslines, its cool to hear someone actually admit it. Jar OF Flies, how would you like to have that on your resume?lol I would totally hire this guy to do my album.
    ragzy02
    #1, there is absolutely NO bass guitar in the mix of And Justice for All. You're delusional if you think there is. #2 he said, there is no "feel" in industrial music. Wrong again. Music IS feel. In a way, I understand what he's trying to say though. #3 He said, "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." One man's junk is another's treasure, and I'm pretty excited that those crooks that run music labels are not in control anymore. Straight mafia-style Nazism. Other than this, the article was pretty good. He just comes off as bitter about the current state of this business, and I wanted to call it out.
    somekid413
    emphaticleech wrote: CrawlingHorror wrote: A rock star eating contest? It would never happen. They would keep folding the tiny sandwiches.
    make sure you don't give them square bread and circular meat
    saint_berzerker
    Ahhh...yet a little more insight to the missing bass on AJFA....the biggest musical mystery of the last 30 years.
    stoltobot
    Ibeanez wrote: Jyrgen wrote: "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." I think that's well said. True enough, but those record labels spewed plenty of junk out which never should have seen the light of day, both before and after the advent of the mp3.
    THIS! and the one above it too.
    emphaticleech
    CrawlingHorror wrote: A rock star eating contest?
    It would never happen. They would keep folding the tiny sandwiches.
    CrawlingHorror
    Oh, one other problem with Wright's quest for "professionalism" in recording music. The problem is that producers are as subject to sonic fads as the public are with regard to clothes and hair styles. For examples, in the 1970's, too many records sound so sterile that they robbed the artists they were recording of the power they have live. Listen to the early Kiss records, for example. Then the 1980'a was the era of the "slather on reverb" mentality so that albums would sound as if they were recorded in a warehouse. This robbed records of a real low end pulse and punch even as it was originally done in order to try to make the drums sound bigger. But even drums can get lost in a space that is too big for them and that is what seemed to happen with this phenomenon.
    CrawlingHorror
    "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." Can you say, "total cheese?" I mean, what's ,next, a rock star golf tour? A rock star eating contest? Give me a break. Other than that little bit, though, great interview. I agree that mp3's sound like crap, but they've been a very useful tool for spreading music by unsigned bands. So I'm not sure that the technology itself is really the problem. And don't forget that people regularly listen to radio, where the dynamic range is cut by more than half for technical and economic reasons. So the public has long been conditioned to accept less than stellar sonics when it comes to music.
    elvor0
    Rattlehead2 wrote: I don't know which production is worse, the one on ...And Justice for All or that on Death Magnetic.
    Death Magnetic by far, AJFA sounds good with the exception of the missing bass, Death Magnetic on the other hand sounds awful, just nothing sounds right on it, I had to download that Guitar Hero soundtrack version of it so you can actually hear everything properly, even then the bass is a bit TOO loud, obviously because the bassist needs to be able to hear what he's playing on GH. Mind you not that I listen to Death Magnetic, the only song on there I like is All Nightmare long and that's still 2 minutes too long. The rest are all just...eeh.
    Mr.Rodgers
    gwitersnamps wrote: Youll just be walking down the street and be dropping a dollar in somebodys can and pick up their little MP3 file. And that part of it is really sad. Huh. . . I think that would be pretty cool, actually. I feel like common people being able to record an album on their own rather than having to depend on an elitist industry can only mean good things, but that might just be the marxist tendencies in me. . .
    I think you misinterpreted that. I think he's talking about the fact that a lot of people only listen to or buy single tracks, rather than the whole album as a piece of art.
    sickassfoo
    this guy produced and mixed .. and justice for all? why dont people hate him instead of bob rock
    Rattlehead2
    I don't know which production is worse, the one on ...And Justice for All or that on Death Magnetic.
    gwitersnamps
    Youll just be walking down the street and be dropping a dollar in somebodys can and pick up their little MP3 file. And that part of it is really sad.
    Huh. . . I think that would be pretty cool, actually. I feel like common people being able to record an album on their own rather than having to depend on an elitist industry can only mean good things, but that might just be the marxist tendencies in me. . .
    Jyrgen
    "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." I think that's well said.
    K!!LsWiTcH
    production of justice sucked balls regardless of the lack of bass also
    satanxgod wrote: dontstopblevin wrote: Damn, I thought we would get a good explanation for turning down Newsted's bass. That was just too ordinary. Also, I don't know anyone that can write a few songs in 12 days, let alone good ones...and somehow Jar of Flies was written in a week? If it's true it's incredible...I call shenanigans. i heard somewhere about the reason: that album was the 1st album to be recorded with Jason, and Cliff died just a while ago, which still much of a shock to everyone. So this is to prevent fans from comparing Jason's bass with Cliff's bass
    no its really because theyre a bunch of *****s and didnt like him at first and hazed him cause they were dealing with cliff.
    E.harley
    i agree!
    Ibeanez wrote: Jyrgen wrote: "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." I think that's well said. True enough, but those record labels spewed plenty of junk out which never should have seen the light of day, both before and after the advent of the mp3.
    satanxgod
    dontstopblevin wrote: Damn, I thought we would get a good explanation for turning down Newsted's bass. That was just too ordinary. Also, I don't know anyone that can write a few songs in 12 days, let alone good ones...and somehow Jar of Flies was written in a week? If it's true it's incredible...I call shenanigans.
    i heard somewhere about the reason: that album was the 1st album to be recorded with Jason, and Cliff died just a while ago, which still much of a shock to everyone. So this is to prevent fans from comparing Jason's bass with Cliff's bass
    Andragon
    Was he even allowed to saw what he said at the end of the interview? Top secret tech! And he was obviously ordered by the band to tone down the bass. Not his idea.
    alexw1020
    UG - And how did you go about capturing the guitar tones on that album? TW - I wanted Kirk and James to really shine on this album, so I made sure to turn the volume of the bass track down to zero. That was the only way to make sure that Jason didn't detract from the "real" Metallica members. I expected the interview to go more like this haha
    emphaticleech
    We should probably look to him if we ever need bass mixed almost completely out of an album. :\ Jar of Flies, though.. AMAZING album.
    Ibeanez
    Jyrgen wrote: "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." I think that's well said.
    True enough, but those record labels spewed plenty of junk out which never should have seen the light of day, both before and after the advent of the mp3.
    cambo187
    Great Interview!! Love the bit about Jar of Flies. I can't believe those songs were written that quickly! That really shows the talent of Cantrell and co. The Taummhoms thing sounds very interesting as well, I will definitely be looking into that. Great job again Matera and UG!
    MrBrineB
    I enjoyed the interview down to the part where he said that he didn't like that the technology had gone down to a consumer level....where people can buy the equipment and "have a good time." Kind of sounds like he doesn't want the general public to see that PRETTY MUCH ANYONE with a little knowledge and experience can do what he's done. Meaning....after a while....HE WON'T BE NEEDED. And that's a fact. I like the albums that have been put out with his name on them...but he really tweaked my opinion of him with those comments.