Disturbed is, from left: John Moyer (bass), Dan Donegan (guitar), David Draiman (vocals) and Mike Wengren (drums).
Photo: Travis Shinn
A lone Pro Tools rig may have been gathering dust on the bus while Disturbed hit the festival circuit in Europe last summer, but that didn’t keep guitarist Dan Donegan from seeking out a private room after soundcheck to lay down some riffs that would become the creative spark for their latest album, Asylum. After taking a month off post-touring, the band got the itch to start focusing on the new album, working on basic songwriting and arrangements before drummer Mike Wengren would need some downtime with his family and their new baby.
Pre-production began at Donegan’s home studio, where the band hashed out ideas for about two months. “I have a V-Drum electronic drum kit and [Wengren] has one at his house,” Donegan says. “We’re not bothering the neighbors enough where they’re going to call the cops on us! We’ll just record the structure, get a feel for what is coming musically to us, and at that point I’ll record it and give it to John [Moyer, bass] and David [Draiman, vocals] and have them add their parts and see what strikes David, vocal-wise.
“I’d say 98 percent of the time, what I sent to David ends up staying that way. We’re really on track with each other as far as having a good idea and a good feel for these songs and what each guy brings to the table. There might be a few changes here and there as [Draiman] develops a melody on top of the song. We may feel like we should double-up on a chorus. We really beat those songs to death before we even thought about going to a studio. We don’t waste time or money; we go in when we feel that the songs are ready at the demo level.”
At this point, baby Wengren entered the world and the band had a slew of material. Next stop, Groovemaster Studios (Chicago), where the band has tracked all of their previous releases, albeit at the studio’s former location; the studio has since moved to the South Loop area and should be finished with construction by the time you read this. “The thing I love about [Groovemaster] is that I’m home in Chicago,” Donegan says. “I don’t feel like I’m going to work to punch the clock or going to L.A. and have the record label pop in any moment they want. [Laughs.] Groovemaster feels like I’m going to a friend’s place where I’m kicking back, recording ideas and nobody interferes with us.”
The band’s past experience in working at this studio and self-producing their previous album, Indestructible, helped create a relaxed, but direct modus operandi as they once again self-produced. “Every time is a learning experience, especially working with the other guys in the studio,” Donegan says. “Working with [producer/studio owner] Johnny K, who was our first producer, we were doing our demos with him before we got signed and we learned a great deal: how to track things properly, how to get performances. And we’ve always had a good sense of the direction of the band and we never really had to rely on a producer to shape the band because we’ve already done that; we already know what we are trying to achieve. By self-producing, I personally like that added pressure of having to deliver. It makes everyone come into the studio knowing that it’s all on our shoulders to deliver a great record.”
Sans producer, Donegan took it upon himself to act as ringleader, overseeing arrangements and performances—pushing each bandmember to get more out of them. “I’m the studio guy who is going to be in [the studio] first thing in the morning and I’ll be the last guy to leave,” Donegan says of his nature to be involved in every aspect of the record-making process. “I think because the songs start with me bringing in a riff, I have more of a clear vision of what I’m trying to achieve musically: the syncopation of the drums or certain bass lines.” While Donegan is pushing Wengren and Moyer to go past a previous creative limit, Draiman handles his own vocal production, though Donegan will listen to his vocal performance and give critiques and such. “I can throw those opinions at him and push him in a certain direction,” Donegan says. “But overall, it’s me overseeing the majority of it and vocally David hitting his part. I think the challenge now is that it’s been so long—we’re five albums deep, not to mention all of the B-sides—lyrically, what do we sing about that we haven’t done? Musically, where do we go next? We want to continue to evolve and stretch out a bit.”
Mix engineer Neal Avron at the SSL 6056 E/G console at Paramount Recording Studios (Hollywood)
And the band surely did stretch out on this album. Hardcore fans will still experience that “in your face” raucous theme, but there are also more instrumental flavors. “Asylum,” the first track that Donegan wrote, is more than seven minutes long because of a two-and-half-minute melodic guitar solo, bringing in yet another color to the band’s hard and edgy vibe.
Tracking at Groovemaster took place over the course of seven weeks, with the assistance of engineer Jeremy Parker, who has worked on numerous albums, including those for Evanescence, Mudvayne, Godsmack and Slipknot. Parker used the studio’s Neve 8128 console and a variety of other preamps for tracking, including a Neve 1095 and Melbourne. Some processing was used for monitoring, but for the most part the mix was left open for mixing.
Monitoring was on ADAM A6 near-fields for critical listening, Genelec mains for “getting loud” and Cadillac car speakers for translating to consumer speakers. Yes, Cadillac speakers. “Johnny K brought in an old Cadillac through the side of the building [the studio was still under construction] to put up on one of the floors,” Donegan recalls. “Usually when we record and we’re doing rough mixes, we want to go into the parking lot and do a car stereo test. His idea was instead of us running out to the car, let’s bring the car in the building and do it that way.” [Laughs.]
As for the actual recording, each bandmember laid down their tracks part by part, doing the songs in groups. As there were originally 17 songs being recorded—12 of which ended up on the final—the band didn’t want to bang out all of those songs at once, just to keep them fresh. “[Drummer] Mike would do four songs, I’d jump on guitar and track my rhythm, and then we had John come in and track his bass. We’ll get just the basics down; I might do a couple of overdubs or a solo here or there, depending on what David wants to feel vocally. We want to give him enough of the fullness so that he feels the energy and his delivery matches in power.”
Miking each performer was pretty standard. Draiman sang into a Neumann M149 run through an 1176 compressor. The drum kit saw a variety of mics, including Sennheiser 421s on toms; Shure SM57 for snare top and bottom; an AKG D 112 inside the kick and a BLUE Mouse on the outside; Telefunken M16s on overheads; a BLUE Bottle on the room; and AKG 414s on hi-hat and ride. Guitar cabs took SM57s and 421s, while bass amps were miked with a Neumann FET 47 and 421. Asked about the mic selection, Parker replies, “My background is to keep it simple: Make sure the instruments sound good.” Plus, Parker wanted to keep the final tracks as clean as possible so that mixer Neal Avron could work his magic.
Asylum marks the third album Avron has mixed for Disturbed, working out of Paramount Recording Studios (Hollywood) on an SSL 6056 E/G console. “I’ve been mixing on that console for six years now. I know the board and I know the room,” Avron says. Equally helpful is that the tracks came to him clean and that the band, who were in attendance for each mix, “knows exactly what they want and they track it that way so there’s already a real focus and direction to each song. I don’t consider a Disturbed record to be a highly effected record when I’m mixing. The most effects were some of the keyboard sounds and loops they were using.”
For each song, Avron would either listen to a rough mix or put up all the faders and decipher what the band’s vision was. “With Disturbed, most of the record is very in your face, pretty dry and punishing drums and guitar, but still very melodic. It was more of just listening to each song and maximizing each part of the song so that the dynamics stayed there. I think there were a couple of songs where we added a percussion item here and there, but most of the tracks came out how they were sent to me. There might have been a few places where I was printing some delays and those kinds of things that I thought worked rhythmically for the song. I was trying to make things as big and wide and open and 3-D as possible.”
While those mixes tended to be quite full, this time around, Avron notes that the songs had significantly fewer guitar tracks; before, there were four or six rhythm guitars, while Asylum had two, “and that’s nice in the sense that there’s less to deal with and make each sound bigger as opposed to trying to get each little guitar tone its own space.”
Disturbed was keen on bringing out the drums on this effort. “The drum tones have gradually improved for us,” Donegan says. “There’s a lot of syncopation in Mike’s playing, which complements the guitars. We wanted to focus on making sure those drums cut through—feel those tribal beats, even the ride cymbal.” As such, Avron spent a lot of time ensuring there was definition between the toms and kick drum, as Wengren basically plays a lot of 16th notes throughout a section. “It was more figuring out how much tone we could allow for the toms and other drums, depending on the tempo of the song,” Avron says. “Where there was more space, we could allow more tone, texture and depth; when things got faster, they had to be tightened up.”
Once the band approved these little tweaks, Avron flew through the mixes, finishing nearly a song a day. “These guys are pros,” Avron says. “They know how to make records, they know the things they like and they try to get that down in tracking. It’s just my job to make it sound awesome.” Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound (New York City) handled the mastering.
Asked about his favorite part in making this record, Donegan says, “The thing I love about doing it in Chicago is that we’ve done a lot of [recording] in the winter, which is a pretty miserable time of year. I like that because there’s nothing to do outside so you might as well lock yourself up in the studio for 12 or 14 hours a day. I think that blue-collar mentality and being miserable helps the music in what we’re doing; that’s part of our sound.”