When Levi started his career, his musical radar was not aimed in the direction of metal. He was writing orchestral music and playing in pop-rock band. “The whole metal thing was kind of a side project, for fun,” he says. But the side project, the metal band Dååth, got offered a deal by Road Runner Records. “That ended up being what got signed and paid the bills, and here we are.”
Of late, Levi has been involved in educating would-be producers and engineers. “For the past year, I've been working on cutting-edge education type products and services and doing seminars for Creative Live,” he says, “and that's expanding into these boot camps I'm starting to do, and it's a huge focus for me. I'm actually getting more of a kick out of it than producing.”
Levi will be soon launch his “Unstoppable Recording Machine” tour, a series of intensive three-to-five-day recording boot camp programs. The first one will be at RobArnoldWorld Studio, the studio of Chimaira guitarist Rob Arnold, in Cleveland, Ohio, October 3-5.
How much of your work is as a producer and how much as an engineer?
I don't know, maybe 70-30 or 60-40 in favor of producing. I don't mind engineering, it's fun. In lots of ways your job is a lot more defined as an engineer. It's like when you're a session musician for a band, which I've done before. You go on tour with a band as a session guitarist, you have one job. It's great. You don't have to worry about anything but your one job. And when you're an engineer under a producer, it's the same sort of thing. You've got your job, and that's it.
Tell us about the Unstoppable Recording Machine classes.
Well, the big idea is that when you take a master class or a clinic, it's typically a guy talking about what he's done. And the students asking about what he's done, and maybe a little bit of Q&A, and you're out of there. The difference is that this is going to be more about them than about me. So, the reason they're being called “Boot Camps” is that they're going to range between three and five days, ten hours a day, with a break for lunch. The one in Cleveland is three days long. It’s going to be immersion style. And everybody in the class is going to be put on the spot, and will actually have to do the things I'm showing them. It's not just going to be me going "I did this on such and such album, I'm so cool." It's going to be "You guys actually have to do this." So the focus is not going to be a huge depth of knowledge, it's going to be about getting some more very specific skills and drilling them in so that people are efficient with them.
That sounds like it will be quite an experience.
Another one of the big ideas is that since I'm using well-known artists as the guinea pigs in this, the students will have a chance to punch-in somebody professional. People can read about recording online, they can study tutorials, go to school, whatever; but the one thing that's missing typically is some sort of a standard, like a bar. To actually know what the professional standard is. That's elusive, so I think people might often think they're doing a good enough job and when they get a taste of what it's like at the pro level, they're nowhere near it. Which is often why interns who come straight out of schools don't do very well here. I have to retrain them completely
So you’ll have name artists in studio for the students to record.
Every boot camp is going to have a different guest artist. I may bring a few of them to different places, depending on the schedule. But it's going to be somebody who is really good and is well known. And in lots of cases they'll write a short piece for the boot camp, or we'll go through a song that they're well known for, and we'll record it. And the students will record it to. I'll show them how to do it, and then they're going to get up and do it in front of the class. It will be pretty cool.
The first one is in Cleveland?
Yeah, the first one is going to be in Cleveland October 3-5, and then the next one is going to be in Portland December 4-7, I believe. And then we're working on a bunch of other cities as well. The class size is going to be pretty small: 10 to 15 people maximum. I need to make sure that it's small enough to where everyone can get individualized attention. Otherwise, it becomes a master class, and that's not the idea
What do you think is the main difference between producing metal or producing a more straight ahead rock or pop thing?
Space. I think space is the big difference. Metal is very cluttered in terms of arrangement and in terms of everything masking everything else frequency wise. Metal is a big carving act. Whereas in rock, the music is slower, in general, and there's not crazy double bass going the whole time, and the instruments generally aren't written to be melody instruments, generally it's the vocal. While there are melodic vocals in metal, a lot of it is screaming vocals. And the melody will move around in the instruments. It will be in the guitars, then it will be in the synth, then it will be in the leads. So you constantly have to find what the foreground instrument actually is.
So the vocals don't function in the same way as in rock and pop?
Right, because they're more of a rhythm instrument. That's not 100 percent true all the time, because there are melodic vocals and there are vocals that have hooks and taglines that people remember, and that's a very important part of it too. But it's not the same thing as a melodic vocalist that takes center stage with a soaring melody. So, yes, you have to approach it more like another rhythm instrument that is sometimes going to take the lead role.
What kind of effects do you typically use on a screaming vocal?
Well, a lot of the same effects that you'd use on any vocal, like compression, more compression, and them some more, and then possibly some sort of distortion. It just depends, really. The thing is, with the screaming, you have to know what your goal is. You’re going for an aggressive sound that kind of ties everything together. So you want the vocalist to basically sound like his neck is three feet wide and he's screaming right at you. So whatever it takes to achieve that and a lot of the times it is just a combination of compression and distortion; but then obviously, you use de-essing and EQ as well.
It doesn’t sound like there’s as much in the way of ambient effects on screaming vocals as there are on melodic vocals.
No, there aren’t. There are still your standard reverbs and delays and doublers, though. You do get some bands in the screaming genres, like in Black Metal, where it's supposed to be more ambient, where they drown in reverb and effects because it's supposed to sound spookier and scarier. But in general, no, I don't find that you do as much in the way of ambience with the screams.
Typically if you're producing a singer in a session in a different genre, you have to be careful after a certain amount of takes, because they could burn their voice out for that day. Is that more exaggerated when someone is doing screamed vocals? Do they only have a certain amount of takes in them?
Oh yeah. It comes down to technique. There's a right way and a wrong way to do screaming. If you do it wrong, you're going to completely destroy your voice, sometimes permanently
How do people learn how to scream correctly? Are there teachers for screaming vocals?
Yeah. A lot of people watch this DVD called The Zen of Screaming by this vocal teacher named Melissa Cross. She’s pretty brilliant. She's a legitimate vocal instructor who adapted what she does for screamers, and she works with the biggest ones in the business.
In a lot of pop styles, music is edited rhythmically so that it conforms to the grid. Is it the same in metal?
Absolutely. Different producers have different levels of gridding that they go for. But in general, you can't get this style of music sounding punchy and tight without it being pretty locked in, because it's so fast, and there are so many things going on at the same time, and so many things that are supposed to be synced up, that once you start layering multiple guitars, the double bass, and everything is supposed to be tight — people don't actually play like that. It just doesn't work to not do some sort of corrective editing, I think. There's a fine line too. You've got to be careful not to ruin the music.
What DAW platform do you work in?
Pro Tools. You know, all the DAWs these days pretty much do the same thing, but I've been using Pro Tools for a few years.
Let's talk about recording guitars. Is there a ton of layering going on in the rhythm guitar parts on metal songs, generally speaking?
Everything is tuned down, right?
That depends on the band. Now people are [using guitars with] up to 9 strings. I have a particular opinion about the down tuning. And I've done it myself, and it sounds cool. But I feel like a lot of people mistake down tuning for good powerful writing. If you write good parts, they're going to be good heavy parts, regardless of your tuning. Back to the layering: the general rule of thumb is the faster the music, the less layers, because the level of tightness still has to be there.
Otherwise it gets muddy?
Yeah. And it goes to mud very fast, when you're trying to double these types of riffs, it can get very tricky. So when you get to four guitars, man, it better be really tight. In general, it will be one guitar per side if it's faster music. If it's a little bit slower you'll do two per side, sometimes three. It depends on how big you want them to sound and how non-distinct. Because you want the guitars to be more like a blanket, so you actually will add more guitars, because it will take away the individual nuances of each performance. It just depends what you're going for.
Are you talking mostly about chordal rhythm parts or lead parts? They're not done in the same pass?
Everything is done separately. This kind of music is constructive in the studio. Nobody is tight enough to actually do this, maybe a couple are, but you can't wing this stuff, you have to construct it.
When you're editing the rhythm of a part in Pro Tools are you using Beat Detective or Elastic Audio or both?
For drums, Beat Detective and Elastic Audio. But honestly, my “go-to” is to do it manually. Hopefully, the drummer is good enough so that you can just slide things around and get away with it. But yeah, I feel like every editing method other than doing it manually has its cons: Elastic Audio adds artifacts, and Beat Detective cuts up the sound. You're definitely going to end up with a less true representation of what you recorded, so there better be a damned good reason for using Beat Detective or Elastic.
So if one of the kick drum hits is a little early compared to the guitar hits or the bass, and it's a little off the beat, you'd just slide that one forward?
Well, you would make sure that the drums are right before tracking anything else to them. You don't get the drums and then track on them and then edit. You get the drums, and then you edit them and make sure that they're absolutely what they need to be, and then you track on top.
When you're recording a band, what are the first things that get recorded?
It depends how pre-pro[duction] savvy the band is. Because you have some bands that have all their pre-pro done and sounding good. So then, you'll just record the drummer to their pre-pro. Sometimes, they're not so savvy, and you have to record some quickie scratch tracks. And then I guess it depends on how tight the guitarist is. If the guitar is not that tight, you can't use that because it will throw the drummer off and make it hard to know what's going on. In that case, we'll do MIDI versions
So the band will often have done their own pre-production demo in advance?
And then the drummer will track to it, and it's always done to a click?
Because otherwise the editing would be a nightmare?
Man, that would be bad news. I mean, I'd love to do a click-less record, but the band would have to be really badass.
Do you have a typical setup that you use for drum recording?
In general, you should close mic a lot of stuff. Anything that you think you're going to want to automate in the mix, you're going to want to close mic. That's the general rule. So don't leave it to the overheads. And a lot of times you consider the overheads to be close mics for the crashes. Basically, the idea is ultimate control, so you're miking with that in mind.
What about guitar miking? Do you have a standard method for that, or does it depend a lot on the amp being used?
It depends, but you can't go wrong with an [Shure] SM57 on a [Celestion] Vintage 30. There are things you can try like an [Audix] i5 or [Sennheiser] 421 and find a cool balance sometimes. But in general, I find that most of the guitar tone is going to come out of the guys hands.
Do you generally use more than one mic on the guitar amp? Like a close mic and a room mic, or two on the speaker?
Not so much, because that starts to take definition away. Some guys do that, but it's not quite as prevalent. I think lots of the metal guys will start with one mic, in general, like an SM57 or an i5, and make that the "go to."
Let’s talk about mixing. Metal has so much going on, and you need everything to be tight, and have its own space. How do you approach the way you look at a mix and the way you pan the instruments and so forth?
Panning wise, just general rules: guitarist to the sides, kick and snare and bass up the middle.
The same as other musical styles.
Yeah. But I think that the one thing that's really helped me is to not look at the instruments as individual instruments, but look at what the collective sound is doing. Like if you have chuggs, for instance, like "duh duh duh duh," and you're just worrying about the guitars sounding huge, then you're forgetting about the fact that that sound is part bass, part guitar, and part kick drum. So when you go to EQ, and to get everything working together — even if you're EQing individual channels — you have to look at them more as a group that works together — and as one big sound. Otherwise, you end up with guitars that sound great and drums that don't exist. Or guitars and drums that work together and bass that's not there, or a bass that's too loud. You end up with a really weird balance. And metal mixing is all about balance. There is very little use of the solo button. If you're trying to find a problem frequency that's one thing, but in general, there's very little use of the solo button and a lot of carving things to work together.
Do you do a lot of EQing to make space?
Yes, but at the same time I've got to say that it really does help to get great drums at the source. You don't have to nuke things with EQ if you did a good job at the source.
So if the playing, arranging and recording are all good, the song should almost mix itself?
It should be a lot closer to that ideal. But either way, no matter how it's getting to that point, the idea is that the instruments need to work together and the instruments are all overlapping each other. So you have to figure out where it's ok and where it's not ok. So for instance, with bass guitar, you know that it's providing sub, you know that it's providing some regular low end, and you know that it's also providing a little bit of definition in the mids. So you have to make a conscious decision as to where that's going to work in relation to the kick drums and the guitars, because they'll want to be in the same spots. That's not a foreign concept in other genres; it's just not quite as extreme. You have to be pretty extreme about it in metal.