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Perfectly Not Perfect

Producer-guitarist Rob Caggiano reveals his metal methods

If you’ve listened to any rock/metal music over the past two decades, you have undoubtedly heard Rob Caggiano’s handiwork—both in back of the board and in front of it. Rob is currently out conquering the world as the lead guitarist for Danish hard rock pioneers Volbeat, but as a record producer he’s worked with a wide variety of artists throughout the years, including Anthrax, Cradle of Filth, Volbeat, The Damned Things, H2O and Jesse Malin. His work is critically acclaimed and he’s been Grammy-nominated five times.

Caggiano joined forces with thrash metal icons Anthrax back in 2001 as their new lead guitarist and produced the album We’ve Come For You All. “That album really opened the doors for me on many levels,” Caggiano says. “I jumped head first into producing records and I jumped head first into playing guitar for one of my favorite bands.”

Caggiano’s tenure with Anthrax would last until 2012. Just prior to leaving the group, he produced and played guitar on two career-defining records—Anthrax’ Worship Music and The Damned Things’ Ironiclast, which featured him, Scott Ian of Anthrax, Joe Trohman and Andy Hurley of Fall Out Boy, and Keith Buckley from Every Time I Die.

“The reason I left Anthrax was because my heart wasn’t in it anymore and I needed a change,” says Caggiano. “I am very proud of my work with the band and I’m proud to be a part of the Anthrax legacy. We accomplished a lot together—the albums we released and all the great shows over the years. I basically grew up in that band, but it got to the point where I just felt like I had taken things as far as I could take them.”

After leaving Anthrax, Caggiano decided to focus on producing while he figured out what he wanted to do next as a performer. He didn’t have to wait long, as he was called in to produce Volbeat’s 2013 album Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, and things clicked so well that he was asked to join the band very early into the process.

“The stars just aligned,” Caggiano says. “We had been friends with Volbeat for years—The Damned Things toured with them. Even then we had talked about the idea of working in the studio. It seemed like a good idea, but our schedules were tough. When I moved on from Anthrax it was perfect timing, as Volbeat didn’t have a guitar player. Initially they asked me to play some solos, but we just really clicked and it turned into a lot more than that. I ended up contributing a lot of creative ideas to the songs and it quickly turned into a very powerful dual-guitar-player band.”

He also co-produced Volbeat’s current album, Seal the Deal and Let’s Boogie, which debuted at Number 2 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart and contains the song “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown,” which was Number One at Active Rock for 10 straight weeks. He also produced legendary comedian Jim Breuer’s recently released musical project, Songs from the Garage.

“Making Jim Breuer’s record was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the recording studio,” says Caggiano. “On top of being one of the funniest people I ever met, he is super-talented and he has a really strong creative vision—and he’s a huge metal head! I understood exactly what he wanted to do with this record, and it was my job to connect the dots and make it come to life.

“We spent a considerable amount of time in preproduction because the songs and arrangements all needed to be figured out,” he continues. “Jim and I basically wrote the entire record together and I ended up playing all the guitars on the album, too. Jim is an elite international comedian with a very strong following. However, plenty of comedians have tried to cross over into the music world in the past and it doesn’t always work out. As a producer, my greatest challenge going into this record was trying to create an overall sound that was potent and a batch of tunes that were undeniable. I wanted people to take this seriously when they heard it, but at the same time I knew we couldn’t make things too serious! The spirit had to be light-hearted throughout, and it had to be funny at times. There’s a fine line with this kind of thing, and it was a learning process for both of us, actually.

“Jim didn’t know it before we started working together, but he was about to become an amazing rock singer. My approach with him was a bit unorthodox, but it worked great: We would figure out the lyrics together and get a general idea of the melody; then I would go in and sing a guide vocal. Jim would go in there and sing on top of me until he had his own command of the part. That’s how we did every song.”

Rob Caggiano, Brian Johnson of AC/DC and Jim Breuer in Clear Track Studios in Clearwater, Fla.

For Caggiano, the biggest highlight of producing Songs from the Garage was getting the chance to work with one of his personal heroes, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, who supplied guest vocals on the song “Mr. Rock ’n’ Roll.”

Back in Black was the first album I got when I was younger. It got me into music and made me want to play guitar,” Caggiano says. “It is one of the best-sounding records to this day, and it also has the best vocal performance of any rock record I’ve ever heard. So I ended up doing some research for the vocals on Back in Black—what did he use; what’s the vocal chain? I ended up setting up two kick-ass vocal chains, one from Back in Black and one from what AC/DC did on the Rick Rubin stuff. I had Jim do his [excellent] Brian Johnson impersonation on the mics before Brian came in. I couldn’t wait. He finally shows up, and I tell him that I’ve got an amazing sound for him that he will love.”

Caggiano’s main vocal chain for Johnson would’ve been a U87 into a Neve 1073 and finally into a classic UREI 1176. That’s based on what Johnson (probably) used when they recorded Back in Black years ago. However, when Johnson walked into the studio and found out that there were a couple of mics set up in the live room for him: “Brian says, ‘I am not going out there,’” explains Caggiano. “‘I am singing in the control room with you lads!’ I had to re-think the whole thing on the fly, and that is what we did. I used a Shure SM7 into a Vintech 500 Series, and then into the Purple Audio 1176 copy—all of which was very easy to patch into quickly. We cranked up the tune and Brian sang into the handheld SM7. That’s when I realized that it didn’t really matter if he was singing into a tin can— it would always sound like Brian Johnson! The vocal tracks have tons of bleed, but it doesn’t matter; still sounded great.”

Caggiano’s typical guitar recording path features a Shure SM57 through a Neve 1073 mic pre or a Universal Audio 2108. For heavy rhythm guitars, his preferred method is a 57 in conjunction with a Sennheiser 421 or Audio-Technica 4050 placed on the edge of the same speaker. He keeps them phase locked and does not combine the tracks, keeping them separate throughout the process.

“With Volbeat, [rhythm guitarist] Michael Poulsen and I both play rhythm when we record—Michael on the right speaker and me on the left,” he explains. “I wanted to capture that classic two-guitar player vibe á la Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. Michael and I play off each other really well, so I think it worked out perfectly.”

For guitar solos, interestingly enough, Caggiano treats them the same way he does the lead vocal when tracking. “I would usually use an SM57 straight on the center of the cone, into a Neve pre and then into an 1176, which is basically the same thing I would do with the vocal except for the mic choice. I want the solo to cut through everything,” he says. “Even when I write my solos, I look at them from a vocal perspective, and I think of them as ‘songs within songs.’”

With his hectic travel schedule, Caggiano is always on the go with his trusted mobile rig, which features Metric Halo ULN-8 converter mic pre’s, a MacBook Pro, Universal Audio 2108 mic pre, Neve 1073s, and UREI 1176s. “No plug-ins,” he clarifies. “I don’t do a lot of mixing, and I prefer to use hardware for tracking. My setup allows me to get top-quality results wherever I am, anywhere in the world.”

His tactile approach to music tracking is supported by his producing philosophy: “Technology has killed music as much as it has helped it,” he explains. “With Pro Tools, it is very easy to make things perfect, but music is not supposed to be perfect. That lesson came with experience, learning every step of the way. It does not have to be perfect, but it should always have magic and it should always feel good. That’s the important stuff.

“A lot of records today in the metal genre are 100-percent quantized to the grid and cut, copy and pasted all over the place,” he concludes. “At the end of the day, you might as well as put the computer in the band photos! Imagine if Zeppelin IV was made like that? Pink Floyd’s The Wall? That’s what I mean—it’s very easy to suck the soul and magic out of music with technology if you’re not careful. I’d also like to add that a lot of producers out there these days have their own sound and formula that they apply to everything they work on. Not me! I strongly believe every band and record should have its own unique voice. It’s own magic. That’s what making music is all about.”