It's been a tough couple of years for Metallica fans. First they weather the hair-cutting controversy, fret over the acoustic leanings found on Load and Reload, and then they hear their favorite head-banging heroes are going to jam with the San Francisco Symphony.
Much to the chagrin of many, the lads pulled off a pair of critically acclaimed performances with the San Francisco Symphony (Grammy(r) winners in their own domain) in the middle of April. Knowing it was a unique evening, much care was taken to capture the performance both visually and aurally. Months later, longtime Metallica producer Bob Rock and mixing engineer Randy Staub found themselves in Sausalito's The Plant Recording Studios with the responsibility of taking 96 tracks of music-48 from the band and 48 from the symphony-and making it work. The CD was due to be out November 23, with the multichannel DVD release some time around the end of the year.
According to Rock, there was a lot of hard work put into this album before they even walked into The Plant's 5.1 mixing room, known as The Garden. "Knowing what we were going to do with it, I definitely spared no expense and time in getting the best equipment and signal path to get this down on tape," explains Rock. "The isolation on stage is comparable to that in a studio. I mean it is unbelievable how much isolation we had between band and orchestra."
The sonic isolation became important during the mixing because Rock wanted to take a completely new approach to working on this album. "We're definitely trying to get the orchestra up there in your face as in a pop mix rather than any kind of classical situation," he says. "We're treading new territory here, so I wanted to make sure we got as much isolation as possible."
The first step to get from here to there was dumping all of the orchestra tracks into a Pro Tools 24-bit system and synchronizing that with the band. They also took some time to clean up any obvious "clams or mistakes within the sections," says Rock. Digi-design's Pro Mix was used to clean up the orchestra's levels, and then it was brought into The Garden's SSL 8096 G+ Series console (which features Total Recall, Ultimation, the Surround Mix Module and 48 E Series EQ) via Apogee AD-8000 8-channel 24-bit converters in 16 subgroups. Any EQ or reverb used on the orchestra tracks were applied via a Focusrite plug-in within Pro Tools. Surround monitoring was provided by custom loudspeakers, which were created by Manny LaCarrubba. Rock and Staub also used Yamaha NS-10s for near-field monitoring.
Although the band was captured both on digital and analog tape, Rock preferred to clean up the tracks in Pro Tools and then dump into the analog SSL board. As Rock explains, there were a lot of folks who wondered out loud why he didn't just turn to a digital board like a Neve Capricorn to finish up the project. "To me, Metallica are still an analog band," he answers. "Ultimately the idea was to keep Metallica where they are, and that would be analog in terms of mixing."
Rather than being constrained with off performances, the production team opted to take a best-of approach to the songs on the final DVD release. "The approach was to leave the better performance on any given night as is," Rock says. "The only time there was any cut and paste was if there was an absolute 'oops.' Then we had to find it within the song or go to the other night. I think there was one timing thing that we had to do on the orchestra where we had to cut and paste the whole orchestra, which was interesting. So we basically flew in the whole orchestra, which was pretty funny. Technology is kind of silly now; it's way out of control."
As Rock is explaining that process, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett walks through the door. After taking a second to say hello, Rock continues his thought: "If you think about it, putting an orchestra in time...I mean, it would have been a nightmare to try to do this 15 years ago." Without missing a beat, Hammett offers, "It wouldn't be impossible; it would be stupid."
Once they had everything cleaned up and dumped into the SSL, Rock took a bit of time trying to figure out what should go where in the surround mix. (Not only are they doing an AC-3 and DTS mix of the entire project, they are also splitting out the band into a surround mix, as well as the orchestra. There will also be a stereo mix on the disc.) According to Staub, they first got both the band and orchestra mixes in shape in the stereo format and then began to work up a surround mix. As with some surround mixes, vocals will be in the center channel while the rest of the instrumentation will be spread. The sub will carry the bottom end of the kick drum and bass guitar, while the surround channels have been used for orchestra ambience. The crowd's applause and participation, which will be mixed in during the post-production process, will also be put in the surrounds.
"We're creating the 'hall' situation," reports Rock. "Because of the loudness of the P.A. and the loudness of Metallica in general, it's pretty hard to get into any depth of field in terms of the orchestra. To bring the best out of Michael Kamen's arrangement, we're pushing the faders of all those instruments. The idea was to make Metallica as big and powerful as they are on record, add the orchestra and still retain the power, but have the orchestra also be powerful."
Because this is going to be a DVD and VHS release, Rock and crew sent video editor Wayne Isham completed mixes as they went along so he could finish that portion of the project. While they had a rough cut of the video up on the Sony 42-inch Plasma Hi-Resolution Monitor, Staub says they only referred to it during the surround mix. "We didn't pay attention that much when we did the stereo mix," he explains. "When I do the mix with the surround, I'll look at it more just to see how it fits with the picture. It's funny, as soon as you see the picture it sounds different."
Rock says he has enjoyed the sessions. He smiles easily while explaining the process and says, "I like the fact that James and Lars and the band are into being aggressive with [the orchestra] and not trying to take a traditional approach," he says. "They were like, 'Let's just treat it like any other instrument on a Metallica album. Let's really push the fader, and when it's not there, bring the fader back and bring up something else.' Which is kinda cool. I like that. I've always been one to try and fit too much into a mix. That's what I've done in a lot of cases, so I like that challenge." Hopefully Metallica fans will like the challenge as well.