Kit Wolven on Heavy Metal
HM from the control room chair.
John Harris investigates the recording techniques and philosophies of Kit Wolven during a break in a session at The Old Smithey. With an impressive track record that has encompassed some of the top names in rock, Kit started his career by being thrown in at the deep end.
Although Kit is at heart a heavy rock producer/engineer best known for his work with Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy on the albums Chinatown, Adventures of Thin Lizzy, Solo in Soho, Live and Dangerous and Black Rose, he has also worked with Jon Anderson, David Gilmour, David Bowie, Hazel O'Connor and Magnum, which makes him into a bit of an all-rounder. However, Kit kindly agreed to concentrate on the art of recording Heavy Rock...
Although, originally a guitarist, I'd always been fascinated by the recording of songs, so I was really lucky to meet up with Tony Visconti whose Hammersmith studio was, at that time, just around the corner. I expressed an interest in the recording side of things and he said 'Any time you want to, just drop round'. In fact I went round virtually every day until finally he asked me who I was working with because I seemed to be in his studio the whole time! I told him that I was trying to copy all his tricks so that I could get into production and he replied by saying that he wasn't going to teach anybody tricks who wasn't employed by him. That started our recording relationship. We eventually had to part company when I started doing more work abroad.
Thin Lizzy were one of my very first bands. I think I knew about how half of the desk worked! The engineer who usually worked in the studio had gone on holiday to New Zealand and somebody had booked Thin Lizzy in and I was simply told to get on with it. Although I was very inexperienced the session did in fact go very well, and became the first of many. At the time Tony was producing them, but when we were in Paris doing the Black Rose album, Philip said he'd like me to do the next album. Not that they were unhappy with Tony, it was just a case of trying a change in approach.
How has the approach to recording Heavy Rock changed since you started?
Quite dramatically really. Virtually all rock bands now start off with a click track of some sort, just for the sake of timing accuracy. Obviously the advent of new technology forces change. With rock bands though, you've got to capture the liveness of the performance on tape, because that's where it's success lies. With Lizzy we used to stick the drums, two guitars and bass up and just go for it, and very often the spill we used to get down the cymbal mics became an integral part of the sound. Of course then we never used to open the drum sound up so much, so spill was never such a big problem. The mid to late 70s had a very much closer drum sound although with Lizzy I never used sound booths because of the importance of eye contact to the performance. A plate reverb was used on the toms then the snare leakage down the tom mics used to give the snare a little extra brightness. Now I crank loads of reverb onto the snare, gated reverbs and things like that, with maybe a different room sound for the toms.
So basically to capture this live feel you have to record a live rhythm track?
Yes, but the modern approach is a little different. Once I've got a drum sound together I put down a click track and go for a live take with guitar, bass and drums together. For the guitar I'd probably use a Rockman for convenience and the bass would be DI'd because really they're both disposable, you can replace them later. What I'm after initially is a good drum track and so the guitar and bass go straight into the desk to avoid spill when you start using the room mics to open up the sound of the kit. If we're lucky enough to get a great guitar or bass track down, all well and good, I'll use it. I just tidy the track up if there are imperfections.
Do you think that this captures the same energy you'd get if there were just three people playing in a room?
I believe it does; it's only the way you achieve it that's different. It's worth remembering that musicians as well as the record buying public are more educated now and expect to hear a better quality sound. A guitarist might say that he wants the guitar sound that Dave Davies had on some of the early Kinks records (for example), so you get a sound which is really raunchy and ballsy. He says that that's not the sound, so you bring an old Kinks record in and try and match it up. But when he actually hears it again, it's not anything like he remembers it to be. Memory seems to update old sounds and bring them into line with the sounds you rate now.
In the days when we didn't use a click track and people just went out and did it, the most exciting tracks were invariably those which were most in time. Now when a drummer puts down a drum track and he's absolutely in time, it's much easier for a guitarist to make his part more exciting because of the simple fact that when everything's bang on, the whole track becomes really punchy. If you are worried about losing feel, one thing that can help a lot is the way the click track is done. I don't use a cow-bell or something that sounds hard because it tends to split the poor drummers head apart, and if all the rest of the band are on the same foldback it can lead to no end of problems with relative volumes. Also it's very mechanical for a drummer to play with so I tend to put hi-hats doing fours and shaker doing eights in stereo so you haven't got that splitting sound going down through your head all the time. That allows the drummer some leeway to move slightly within the beat so he keeps a good feel and will only become aware of the click-track if he goes out of time.
The snare is a really important part of the heavy rock sound, how do you go about achieving a good snare sound?
If the snare has a big, good hard sound to it you're made. It's the same with any instrument; if you get the sound right at source it's so much easier. A lot of drummers still have no conception of tuning, and this never ceases to amaze me! When I do have problems, say the snare sound is too small for rock, I'll find a sample and use the snare I've got on tape as a trigger, but I do combine the two, otherwise the original dynamics get lost. Sometimes I also trigger a Linn snare if it needs to be fatter, or if there needs to be more actual snare sound. As far as damping goes, it varies from band to band. If the toms ring badly every time the bass drum is hit, obviously something needs to be done about it. I can't say that I use a definite technique; I just try and approach each group as a separate entity and handle any problems that are there in a way that I feel would benefit that particular band. Sometimes it's nice to have toms that ring, and I certainly tend to avoid gating anything onto tape apart from the under-snare mic (which is standard practice). Naturally you have to have a signal to open the gate, therefore the gate must open after the very first signal it hears, and no matter how fast it is, you're bound to lose a little bit of the beginning of that signal, so you might as well gate it on playback if you're going to gate at all. I use a pre-signal from the sync head to open the gate fractionally before it would otherwise have done. You can do this more precisely by taking a key off the sync head and delaying it using a DDL to open the gate only just before the sound appears at the play head.
Do you have any preference in mics for the kit?
414's are very nice for overheads and snare, and RE20's are effective for bass drum, but I still like to use Shure Unidynes on the toms because expensive mics tend to pick up lots of the overtones and I then have to try and get rid of them again on the desk. Some people spend ages getting a drum sound, but I think if you start taking more than about three hours there's something wrong with the drum kit.
As far as the guitar is concerned most people's image is of a guy with a huge Marshall stack in the studio. What do you find yourself using?
"Because music is a display of emotion, it comes out in the music if you're having a good time. There's nothing worse than being stuck in the studio with miserable musicians.
Usually a huge Marshall stack in the studio! Actually I sometimes use a combination of Rockman as well. If a guitarist has an amp they prefer, then obviously we try to use that. Dave Gilmour for instance has a very good set-up incorporating lots of different amplifiers and speakers, which he can configure as he chooses via a patching system. If I'm miking up wall to wall Marshalls I only use one close mic and one ambient mic otherwise phase problems occur and instead of getting a fuller sound it gets thinner. A big stack has a sound to it that a combo cannot produce and this is captured by careful placing of the ambient mic and its interaction with the close mic sound.
I personally prefer DI'd bass but if the player wants the sound of the cab I'll use a split. In most cases the DI sound is far superior. I also tend to go for fairly severe compression, the ratio being dependent on the player. If the sound is jumping about all over the place you just use a heavier compression to keep it under control. It's important to have a reasonably slow attack time because a fast one will attack the wave form of the bass and introduce distortion. I also like to put a bit of top in the bass sound to give it definition.
So once you've got an exciting rhythm track, does it naturally follow that the vocal performance will match it in terms of energy?
A great backing track will certainly help a lot, and of course it's in the singer's interest to do his best otherwise he's not going to sell records. I take a lot of trouble to get a good monitor mix for the singer, because if what he hears in the headphones sounds really great, then it's going to make him feel good when he's singing and he's going to really enjoy it. That's half the battle. Recording should be fun. Because music is a display of emotion, it comes out in the music if you're having a good time. There's nothing worse than being stuck in the studio with miserable musicians. Anyway to return to my point, I'm very keen on stereo foldback because it's horrible singing with all that sound in the middle. With a good stereo foldback mix the singer can hear himself much better.
I can often tell just by hearing a vocalist speak what type of mic might be suitable. Sometimes I use a Neumann U87, although I'm not a big fan of that particular mic because I always find that I have to roll out somewhere between 700Hz and 900Hz to get a good sound. My favourite is the AKG tube, but as usual you have to be flexible and use what suits the voice. We did some vocals with Bowie a while back and I used a mic I'd never have thought of using previously: a Beyer 201 I think. It just suited his voice because it had a very warm sound.
Do you think that sampling has a role to play in Heavy Rock, which is after all a fairly immediate, live style of music?
It's very handy for things like flying or spinning in, like when you get the band to do one chorus really well, put it into the Fairlight and wack it back into the mix for every other chorus. You can do this in half a day or less rather than spending all day trying to get all the choruses done individually, and possibly not as well. It can also be very useful if you've got a singer who has difficulty getting a high note, because if you get one good one that's enough. A lot of people see this as cheating but it's not really, because the role of the producer is to show off a band and their songs in the best possible light. Whether the band are actually capable of recreating that performance live or not, I don't think matters because what really counts is that they thought of the song in the first place. The concept is there, and it's really your duty as a producer to make it sound as good as possible.
What about conventional synthesisers in the context of heavy rock?
They're good for reinforcing bass sounds and often, if you imagine the music as a picture, you can get a transparent string sound to act as a backdrop. It would have to be the sort of thing that you wouldn't notice until it was taken away and everything suddenly became very stark.
I hear that you like to use AR18s for monitoring. Aren't they designed as a budget hi-fi speaker?
I started using them during the Magnum album On a Storyteller's Night. I didn't get on with the large monitors we were using at the Dep International studio so I started using their near-field monitors which were standard AR18s. Later when we came to cut the album I had it cut flat and it came out sounding great! I was really very pleased with it so I've stuck with them since. They give a very good bass and top end response which I find comfortable to listen to, although others find them a bit bright. They're also very accurate in that they enable you to hear your EQ work clearly which is great for setting up sounds and for mixdown. The speakers I'm using now are the AR18 BX series which have an improved top end response and everything I've mixed on these monitors I've cut absolutely flat. The only problem is that I tend to blow the tweeters quite often because they are basically a domestic speaker!
Do you find that you have to mix heavy rock loud compared to other styles of music?
I tend to mix at a fair old wack, but only after I've listened to it a few times very very quietly to check that it still has power at a low volume. If it sounds good then, it'll sound great wound up. Compression is an important factor in making things sound powerful at low volume. If you want to compress the whole mix though, it's better to do it at the mixing stage rather than leave it to the cut because very often, depending on the degree of compression, the balance of the instruments can alter. Compressing while mixing does allow for this, but this would of course be impossible on the cut where you're working with a ready-mixed quarter or half inch master. It's not essential to compress but it certainly helps...
At that moment Kit, who was in the middle of a recording session with a certain Italian heavy rock outfit, was called back to the confines of the control room. As I left the studio, from outside I could hear the aggressive strains of a lead guitar through a miked up Marshall, harmonised and treated with Klark Teknik DN370 room simulation, being monitored at excruciating volume through the AR18s. Before they had a chance to blow themselves to pieces, I beat a hasty retreat.
Interview by John Harris
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