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Classic Tracks: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”

Today, San Francisco Bay Area–based band Metallica are aptly called “The Monsters of Metal.” But that wasn’t always the case. After finding their hometown not as receptive to their brand of metal, the then-current line-up (James Hetfield, rhythm guitar/lead vocals; Lars Ulrich, drums; Ron McGovney, bass; and Dave Mustaine, lead guitar) headed down to L.A. in the early ’80s to make their way into the burgeoning metal scene.

Metallica, circa 1990, from left: Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Jason NewstedMetallica, circa 1990, from left: Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted
Metallica, circa 1990, from left: Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted.

Today, San Francisco Bay Area–based band Metallica are aptly called “The Monsters of Metal.” But that wasn’t always the case. After finding their hometown not as receptive to their brand of metal, the then-current line-up (James Hetfield, rhythm guitar/lead vocals; Lars Ulrich, drums; Ron McGovney, bass; and Dave Mustaine, lead guitar) headed down to L.A. in the early ’80s to make their way into the burgeoning metal scene. They amassed a following but found themselves battling the ever-rising hair-club bands for true dominance. So they headed back to the Bay Area, where they caught a gig by metal band Trauma, whose bassist, Cliff Burton, joined Metallica shortly after, replacing McGovney. Meanwhile, in New York, a copy of No Life Til Leather (their 1981 demo) made its way to Jon Zazula’s record shop, the aptly named Metal Heaven. Zazula quickly had Metallica coming out east to play some shows and record an album.

Rumors abound on the actual reason why Mustaine was kicked out of the band after a few weeks in the Big Apple, but the guitarist was sent packing and replaced by guitarist Kirk Hammett. Metallica released Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lighting, and in 1986 Master of Puppets (produced by Michael Wagener) helped land them a choice opening slot on Ozzy Osbourne’s tour. But that high was soon crushed when a freak tour bus accident killed Burton. Still, the band trudged on, enlisting Jason Newsted to fill the role. They quickly released an EP and then their fourth full-length, …And Justice for All. It is at this point where we find the band on the verge of metal stardom.

In 1989, the band called on producer Bob Rock, with whom they hadn’t worked before, to help sculpt their next masterpiece. Rock had just finished producing Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, and the members of Metallica wanted to mimic that album’s bottom end. Rock brought along engineer Randy Staub to One on One in North Hollywood to begin the long and arduous process of recording The Black Album and its first single, and this month’s “Classic Track,” “Enter Sandman.”

Not only was the band working with new creative types, but Rock and Staub brought along a new way of recording an album. “The process was very different from any other record I’ve worked on—or since—in that the way they had recorded their previous albums is that they would construct a click track because there was a lot of different tempo changes in their song structure back then,” Staub says. “James would go in and play a rough guitar part, and then Lars would go in and play the drums to that, but he wouldn’t play from start to finish; he would play the first verse until he got it right and then stop and punch in and then do the chorus and stop and punch in until eventually they got a drum track. And then they would do what are called ‘air cuts’: You physically remove a slice of tape in front of a beat, a kick drum, and that moves the kick drum up in time. So after Lars got the drums done, James would go in and play all his rhythm guitar parts, then he would sing, then they would put the bass on last. Everybody doing it separately; nobody playing together.”

But for The Black Album, Rock and Staub wanted to have all four members playing together in the same room. “They thought it was a lot of work,” Rock says, “and they didn’t understand it. This was the only way I knew how to make a record. To me it was about capturing the feel that they wanted. I thought there was just this weight and size and heaviness in them that I never caught on their other records; not saying it wasn’t there. I think Kirk had the hardest time with it because he had to play solos for each take, but as it turned out, when it came time to do the solos, we listened to everything off the floor, and he got a lot of his ideas for his solos off of those.”

“It was pretty unusual for them to be sitting in a room and playing together,” Staub adds. “But the way they record songs, it’s a form of construction. They never play a song start to finish. The guys would play their parts and Lars would play the feel for the verse. We’d do that for two or three reels of tape [on a Studer 2-inch] and then do the chorus and then drum fills. Eventually, we’d have all the individual pieces recorded and then Bob and Lars would go listen to them all and make a chart of the parts they wanted. I would go in and tape them together—physically cut the tape and put them together to make what is almost the final drum track.

“There were so many edits on the tape, I was scared to play the thing because almost every beat had a cut or an edit on it. We’d transfer it to a 3224 digital machine at the time and that became the master drum track, and then from there James would go play his guitar parts, get the bass line down pretty soon afterward and then do the overdubs. It was quite the ‘construction.’ This whole process would take, oh, weeks. [Laughs.]”

“I don’t think Randy had ever edited tape like that before,” Rock says. “The way we were editing tape is how many people do it now in Pro Tools. We did a lot of editing; it’s legendary. [Laughs] There were so many edits in the analog tape that we had to transfer it to a Sony 24-track digital because we wouldn’t be able to play that tape back too many times. The Sony was the first machine that I ever felt comfortable with.”

It’s difficult to say exactly how they recorded “Enter Sandman” because the band would bounce from song to song during the recording, working on drums first. “I think [we recorded] half the record first and that took three months,” Staub says. “And then we started doing overdubs and give Lars a bit of a break. And then we went back and did the second-half of the record. The whole record took six days a week for months on end.”

According to Rock, the demo for “Enter Sandman” had the basic riff and feel, but the arrangements were worked out during much of pre-production. Originally, Hetfield’s first set of lyrics very blatantly talked about crib death. “And I had the wonderful job of telling him that they weren’t quite right, that maybe he could relook at them,” Rock says. “I said to him, ‘I think you can find a way to get at what you’re saying without being so direct.’ And that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship when we started talking that way.”

When Hetfield went back to the lyrical drawing board, he came up with the idea of having a classic children’s prayer in the middle of the song. So during Christmas break, Rock and his son, Mick, went into his home studio and recorded the lyrics: “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” Upon returning to the studio after break, Rock played the recording to Hetfield, who was happy with the result.

Rock and Staub recorded via One on One’s SSL using numerous Neve mic pre’s. As for the room, it needed to be a bit doctored up as it had numerous soft surfaces, so Staub and Rock physically covered those surfaces with plywood (one side lacquered) to create more of a live room for Ulrich. Much attention to detail was paid to Ulrich’s massive kit, using 50-plus mic models for double and triple-miking the set and room mics. Other mics include a Neumann FET for Hetfield’s vocal (though he tracked with a 57). “James had a very specific singing technique,” Staub says. “He wanted to do a lot more actual singing [than on other records]—and that came a lot from Bob.”

Once drum tracks were laid down, the live room was put to use for Newsted on bass—who played through a few SVT cabs and taken DI—and Hammet’s guitar; he played through Marshall amps with Mesa-Boogie heads.

Hetfield’s guitar setup was a bit more intense: “We ended up building this huge guitar cabinet for him,” Staub says. “It might have had an old Marshall head, and that would be just one part of the sound. I think his standard setup was this Mesa-Boogie head and then all these other amps were there to fill in the sonic picture. It would generally have a scooped kind of tone. I think we had nine or 11 cabinets—some stacked on top of each other, some on the floor, some baffled off from each other—and then we’d get this huge tent around this pile of cabinets curtained because as we were getting James’ guitar sound, he kept saying, ‘I want it to have more crunch.’ And to Bob and myself, crunch was more of a high-end thing, but to him crunch was more bottom end. What he wanted was when he hit the low strings, he wanted to have some length to it. And the only way to get that length was by curtaining off this small room around the cabinets and we’d have some mics farther away to get some ambience.”

This minute attention pervaded the making of The Black Album; Staub offers this example: “When we were doing drums, we changed the snare drum head eight, 10 times a day, and he’d play two or three takes on that snare drum head. And then when it was time to change the snare head, I’d take a sample of how that snare sounded and then half-hour to two hours to match how the new snare drum sounded to the old one.”

Another example: “With James’ guitar, we got to the point where instead of playing the guitar part from start to finish for the song, we’d play it from start to chorus, change the strings, and then double it from the start to the chorus. That way, the strings would be good by the time we got to the end of the song. And that would take days to do that.”

“Enter Sandman” was the first track to be mixed on A&M Studios’ (Hollywood) SSL 4000 Series console. And even mixing became a study in microscopic perfection. “One of the big things back then was that I would use the SSL 4000 compressor as the bus compressor,” Rock says. “But James didn’t like what it did to his guitars, which made me have to rethink the way I mix. What I came up with was, the fact that the SSL has three main buses, I could put an SSL compressor across the drums and bass, and I could leave the guitars uncompressed, which is James’ sound. That’s really the biggest part of how the Metallica album sounds; that’s why it has that weight.”

At this stage, Rock, Ulrich and Hetfield were at the helm, deciding on how the mix would sound. “Lars was a bit of a maniac about the top end of his kick drum; we called it the ‘lead vocal kick drum,’” Staub says with a laugh. “It was sometimes a battle between James and Lars: James wanted more guitar and then Lars would say there wasn’t enough cymbals. We spent such a long time on the sounds when we recorded them; the sound was set in the recording, not in the mixing. I think we spent a month mixing.”

Adds Rock: “What’s great about Metallica is that they have this attitude that we have to make something great; we have to break boundaries in terms of what people think is great and we’re not willing to compromise. In the end, we needed a bit of a kick in the pants to finish [the album]. For the last four or five days, I think Randy and I were surviving on bubble gum and coffee.”

Did either of them have any idea how big “Enter Sandman”—and The Black Album—would become? “I certainly didn’t,” Staub replies. “I knew it was a really good record, but by the time the record was finished, I was so burnt out on it that I didn’t have any real clear view on it. But I knew it was really good. I’m proud of that record—especially the amount of time I worked on it. Bob and I joked that we never fully recovered from that record.”

“When you’re in it, you just don’t know what it’s going to end up sounding like,” Rock says. “I was just trying to help them make the album that they heard in their heads as best I could. At the end, I told them, ‘This is great, but just don’t call me. [Laughs.] I’m not into doing this again.’”

But that obviously wasn’t true, as Rock and Metallica would continue to record albums together for several years—even through the rough departure of Newsted and introduction of Robert Trujillo. The band and Rock parted ways after wrapping up production of St. Anger (1997). Rock continues to produce many great albums; he is currently mixing the next Offspring offering.

Staub also worked on Metallica’s Load, Reload and Garage Inc., and has since made quite a name for himself, including being nominated for the Juno Award for Recording Engineer of the Year nine times, and winning in 2002 for his work on Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” and “Too Bad.” He still lives and works out of Vancouver, working on such acts as Stone Sour, Avril Lavigne and Alice in Chains.