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Mastodon’s ‘Emperor Of Sand’

Rockers Mine Saturated, Psychedelic Sounds In The Studio

Over the course of six albums, psychedelic metal-masters Mastodon have crafted a mighty oeuvre of mind-expanding rock that is practically unparalleled in modern times. The band’s seventh, and latest, release, Emperor of Sand (Warner Bros.), is arguably the quartet’s most high-rez and visionary recording to date: a magical melding of grandiose melody, soul-stunning instrumental journeys, doom-laden vocals rendering drummer Brann Dailor’s surreal lyrics, and some of the greatest guitar production this side of Electric Ladyland.

“Any opportunity to introduce more psychedelia into the music is fun for us,” Dailor says by phone from his Atlanta home. “If we can meld the worlds of super catchy songs that have meaning with our technical prowess as musicians, that’s great. We walk the fine line of overindulgence and accessibility.”

Dedicated “In loving memory of Catherine W.,” Emperor of Sand was recorded while three of the four bandmembers’ mothers endured chemotherapy for cancer. That the related fears of dealing with disease made Mastodon’s music more visceral, more immediate, and ultimately satisfying is strictly conjecture. But there’s no denying the wrap-around-your-brain vision of Emperor of Sand.

Produced by frequent Mastodon collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Brendan O’Brien, primary tracking for Emporer of Sand occurred at the recently closed Quarry Studios in Kennesaw, Ga., with Tom Tapley engineering. Studio owners beware: Mastodon may bring you down.

Recording Engineer Tom Tapley

“We’re pretty good at closing down studios,” jokes Dailor. “Our last record comprised the final sessions at Southern Tracks (Atlanta, Ga.). We were the last band to record at Sound City in Los Angeles, and with this album we were the last band at The Quarry. It’s a symptom of the new society, obviously: these classic big studios becoming dinosaurs.

“There’s something to be said for the musical ghosts that hang around those infamous studios. It’s not the same when it’s Pro Tools in someone‘s bedroom.”

Before starting sessions at The Quarry, guitarist Bill Kelliher created the Sand demos in his home studio with Dailor playing live drums. Kelliher laid down bass scratch tracks for bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders to recreate later. Then, Dailor, Kelliher, Sanders and lead guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds hit The Quarry along with O’Brien and Tapley, and the party began.

“[Mastodon] never enters the studio with any preconceived notions,” Dailor says. “We play whatever magically appears. We knew if we got into the room with Brendan O’Brien the production would come with all the bells and whistles. That’s when we got all prog nerdy and brought out the Mellotrons and sound effects. We wanted the record to be super-saturated and super-wet and super-drenched in delay. We wanted the music to sound like you’re on drugs without actually being on drugs.”

Engineer Tom Tapley also worked on Mastodon’s Crack the Skye album and is a frequent working partner for the band. Speaking from his Projector Room studios (Decatur, Ga.), which he shares with Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, Tapley marveled at Mastodon’s recording zeal during Emperor of Sand.

“Recording Mastodon, you make sure it sounds awesome and it’s heavy and you stay out of the way,” he notes. “They’re on fire.”

Tapley was familiar with The Quarry Studios’ API 2488 24-channel recording console (four vintage 560B graphic EQs, two 550B parametric EQs, two 553 3-band fixed EQs, two JDK 4-band parametric EQs). The desk has seen heavy action in Atlanta-area studios. The Quarry Studios offered the API as well as a Toft ATB 32-channel mixing console for real-time mixing.

“The API’s EQs, routing and preamps were smoking!” Tapley exclaims. “The computer is my friend, but for mixing I use a real analog desk, thus the Toft. That API had lived in so many different spaces over the years in Atlanta, the monitoring section was unreliable. It survived a fire—a crazy history. We needed an analog monitoring section, and the Toft was a very good choice.

“The more analog gear we can run signal through the better,” Tapley continues. “I have an API 1608 and I love it. And I have zero problems recording into a computer (The Quarry Studios’ Mac G5 8-core with 8GB R AM; Pro Tools HD2 with UAD solo card; 32 in/16 out). But I like the sound that comes back from running signal through analog gear at all times.”

The band gathered in The Quarry Studios’ warehouse-sized live room to track, with amplifiers isolated and cabinets in their own containers. Hinds, Kelliher and Dailor tracked first, while Sanders added parts later.

“You could send each of these guys a click track and they could make a record that way,” Tapley laughs.

Of course, it also helped to have the blueprint that O’Brien created for the studio sessions, based on the band demos. “Brendan is a master arranger,” Tapley notes. “The guys had these cool templates for songs. We sent them to Brendan, and began tracking. We’d pull up a demo and Brendan would rearrange the song. The structures were there; then Brendan focused on specific parts. He’d changed the arrangements in the studio and the band performed everything live.

The rhythm section, L-R: Hinds, Dailor and Kelliher

“The awesome thing with Brendan is if you get an awesome live guitar and drum track it will stay in the track,” Tapley adds. “There’s a sense of urgency about this record; sometimes that’s the sound of a tracking guitar that Brendan liked. If they killed it, we used it. We flew in some effects from the demos but Brendan did all the crazy sound effects and keyboard bass.”

Mastodon recorded a slew of hardware effects, including TC Electronic effect pedals; Fractal Axe FX Systems; and Chase Bliss, Wren & Cuff, MXR, and Way Huge pedals. But as with many renowned musicians, the sound is in their fingers—not their gear.

“So much comes from how they play their instruments—that is the sound,” Tapley says. “I did talk Bill into playing a fuzz guitar during the breakdown in ‘Steambreather.’ If an effect sounded cool in-line, we would commit. If we were doing Leslie guitars and the guitar pedal sounded great inline that is how we tracked it. Basically, if it was a sound that was inspiring we went with it.”

Tapley brought outboard gear including his custom Leslie cabinet, which allows him to insert any guitar amplifier head inline. Tapley’s ADR Audio Design Vocal Stressor includes “an awesome compressor and EQ that I use on drums,” the engineer explains. An Empirical Labs Fatso touched on Coles 4038 room mics for drums. An SPL Transient Designer 4 hit the drums on the monitor path; EL Distressors sat on the guitar buses.

“If I have three microphones on a guitar cabinet,” Tapley explains, “they all get summed through bussing on the console so I can compress and EQ them overall using the API EQs, an EL Distressor, and a Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier.”

Tapley captured the band’s guitar rigs—Kelliher’s ESP Ltd. Sparrowhawk, custom and Silverburst Les Paul guitars, Friedman Butterslax Signature Series amplifiers, and Fractal Axe FX; and Hinds’ Gibson Les Pauls and Flying V guitars, Marshall amplifiers, and Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb pedal—with a straight-forward approach.

“Brent can play and make it sound like he’s playing backwards,” Tapley notes. “I used three microphones per cabinet,” Tapley says. “A Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421 and a Coles 4038 ribbon, the last of which I EQ’d up real weird so we could experiment with different guitar sounds. The 57 went over the dustcap; the 421 off-axis; the ribbon straight on the dustcap.”

Troy Sanders played a Signature Fender Jaguar Bass, Warwick Custom Basses, and Zon Basses, through Ampeg, Mesa Boogie Bass Amps, and Orange Bass Amps and Cabinets, to which Tapley ran AKG D12 and Sennheiser MD421 microphones, with DI.

Tapley captured each vocalist via a Neumann U67 or Shure SM7 microphone. “I go to a Neve preamp, a Tube-Tech compressor to a Tube-Tech EQ, then a dbx 160 VU compressor/limiter. Brendan is very hands-on with vocals, so sometimes we would open up an API mic preamp really hard so we could grit-it-up a little bit.”

Throughout the Emperor of Sand sessions, O’Brien eschewed plug-ins entirely in favor of plate reverbs and hardware delays. On Brann Dailor’s drums, he used the API’s coveted 560B Graphic EQs and a rack of eight Neves.

“Drum-wise,” Brann Dailor, “I cited the first couple Heart albums, the songs ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Magic Man’ mainly, for my go-to sound this time. That drum sound is pristine. That drummer [Michael Derosier] is rarely talked about; what a tasty player. That was your basic rock drummer at the time, so good. These days you’re hard pressed to hear anybody getting adventurous behind the kit on a regular rock record.”

“Thick, heavy cymbals and lower tuned drums” were the order of the day, Tapley says. “We achieved it at the source via drum tunings. Same for guitars—adjust the amp settings before touching an EQ.”

Tapley positioned an Audix microphone near the snare drum head. “The Audix is basically a Shure SM57 but it doesn’t have that 4k peak that drills your ears.” An SM57 covered the bottom snare drum head. Sennheiser MD421s picked up toms; overheads were a Neumann U67 pair.

Tapley says that Coles 4038s were placed “closer to the kit, but up high, with a Fatso compressor,” to capture the room sound. “Sometimes I’d place the Coles down low near the bottom of the kit to get the room sound of the kick drum. After the first couple of takes I moved them up high.” An MD421 was located inside the bass drum while an old AKG D30 was used outside the shell. “They get bussed down to one track and I use the ADR EQ there,” Tapley notes.

Following the tracking sessions at The Quarry, overdubs took place at Henson Recording Studios, Hollywood, with engineer Tom Syrowski. The record was mixed by O’Brien and Syrowski at Henson as well, and finally mastered by Billy Joe Bowers at Casa de Amor, Atlanta.

Seven albums on, a band of mystery and muscle exorcising demons through musical bloodletting, Mastodon fearlessly continue on their soaring arc.

“It’s always positive working with Mastodon because they always get better at what they do,” Tapley says. “And I like that the music was heavier this time. They brought elements of psychedelia and prog rock into this record and really let it rip.”

“I’m so close to all of our albums, but I’m in love with this record now,” Dailor says. “It’s a beautiful piece of work that we can add to the 90-something songs we’ve written together as a band. I feel like we still have it after eight albums. The same four guys for 17 years. No matter how we get it done, we seem to be able to always get it done. Time will tell where Emperor of Sand fits in with our catalog, and it’s up to the judge and jury of the people of the world whether it’s garbage or whether they love it as much as we do.”