Producer/engineer/mixer Joe Barresi (QOTSA, Slipknot, Bad Religion) talks returning to the studio with Tool for their long-awaited album Fear Inoculum, and shares his approach to recording, mixing and experimenting with the band.
By David Ampong, Waves Audio
Tool is a band of its own genre, taking you on a hard-edged journey of meditative grooves, polyrhythmic melodies, odd time signatures and compelling vocals. After a 13-year hiatus, they returned to the studio with “Evil” Joe Barresi, veteran producer and engineer of all things heavy, to record the follow-up to their previous album 10,000 Days.
Joe has worked with some of rock’s heaviest hitters such as Soundgarden, Slipknot, Chevelle and Volbeat. He got his nickname ‘Evil’ while working on a Judas Priest record, from drummer Scott Travis who called him that in reference to the Racer X song “Evil Joe.” Despite his moniker, he’s actually a super-nice guy and was cool enough to discuss with us his recording, mixing and production techniques on Fear Inoculum.
Joe, does Fear Inoculum pick up where 10,000 Days left off? Or was the approach totally different this time around?
There were some similarities—recording to tape, using the same guitar and bass amp setups that we fine-tuned on the previous record, etc. But the songs on this album are a lot more involved and the band was more willing to experiment, so we were able to pursue many different avenues.
Danny [Carey]’s drums were recorded this time through Neves and not APIs. We also experimented with two of his drum kits—cutting between his main Sonor kit and an original Ludwig Stainless Steel kit he had from when he was a teenager.
On both guitar and bass we experimented with different strings for sections that involved fingers, (as opposed to using a pick). Where we needed less string noise, we would test out ground versus roundwound, or smoother strings versus regular texture. We also used a single bass on the right and single guitar on the left for sections where Justin [Chancellor] and Adam [Jones] played off of each other, not just stereo guitar throughout. We did loads of pedal experimentation as well for both guitar and bass (and vocals too).
How did you record Maynard Keenan’s vocals for the album? How do you treat his delicateness versus his heaviness in the mix?
We recorded most of Maynard’s vocals at his home studio in Arizona. I had four chains set up. Maynard’s mic into a Neve/1176 standard setup. We used my U67, an SM7B, a Soyuz Tube mic and also some handheld options through various preamps and compressors in different parts of the room so I could get different sounds.
Unlike all the tape machine manipulation I did on 10,000 Days, on this record I got more creative with his vocals after the fact via hardware and software effects.
I spent quite a bit of time on each song trying to get the vocals to sit nicely and feel right with effects. The softer stuff I wanted to float in and out of the music, while the heavier stuff needed to be more aggressive to cut through. Some of that stuff got filtered, either with a plugin, running it through amps or using a handheld mic instead of the full fidelity expensive tube mics. There was a lot of printing; delay, reverb, distortion and modulation effects, mostly through pedals and manipulated in real-time to the track. I used GTR3 Stomps on the odd vocal part that I may have wanted to distort or effect when a small amp didn’t do what I needed it to.
What’s the secret behind Adam Jones’ guitar colossal tone? How did you record and mix his rig for the album?
Adam’s guitars were cut on a Neve desk at United Recording to a Studer A827 tape machine. Some guitars (mostly solos/overdubs) and some bass were done at my studio and cut through Neves to a Studer A800 and monitored on my SSL 4000.
Once the tracks were done on tape, they were transferred into Pro Tools. The first track with his main Diezel VH4, the second using a Marshall Super Bass, and the third track had a combination of a Bogner Uberschall and a Rivera Knucklehead. In mixing, I had the SSL E-Channel plugin on each track. I then blended those down to a single output from Pro Tools back to my console so it was more manageable. 90% of the delays were printed, but I used some H-Delay on the guitars if we didn’t actually print the Boss delay from the pedalboard.
I’ve heard that you’re not a big fan of EQing bass. So how did you record and mix a virtuosic bass player like Justin Chancellor?
I try to get the sound right from the start. I’m not saying that I don’t use EQ on bass, but it’s far from a flat sound that I have to deal with later. It’s tweaked until it’s right at the tracking or overdub stage; and in-fact, we ended up using a decent amount of the live tracking bass on the record. Justin’s main setup for the album was a Wal bass through an extensive row of pedals, and then into two Gallien-Krueger heads—one is set to clean and the other dirty. The clean signal goes to an 8x10 MESA cabinet and the dirty signal into a 4x12 MESA cabinet; each miked separately. There’s also a DI to fatten the low end, which was usually compressed with the CLA-76 in mixing.
No re-amping either. We just spent a lot of time getting different sounds for the different sections of the songs, and making sure it fit. Sometimes that involved a different bass, a different set of strings or a different balance between mic/DI, even different mics on the amps in different sections.
Danny Carey’s intricate drumming and obscure percussion provide a voice of its own. What insights can you share as far as combining the multiple elements in his kit to produce a singular voice?
Danny’s kit is quite massive and since the bed tracks were going to a single 24-track tape, I had to keep him on seventeen tracks max. This meant committing any multi-miked instruments and making sure the panning and sounds were good as I couldn’t really undo them later. The committing of the tracks also meant that phase and levels were sorted on the way to tape.
I paid attention to what Danny played in different parts, so if he didn’t use his Wavedrum for instance, I might suggest replacing it with another tom so he could get more expressive on fills. That meant paying attention to the phase of the new piece added in the overall picture and panning it where it made sense in the kit. During mixing, there were a few options. The drums went through a PA while we tracked. So, besides the natural room sounds closer-up, I had some decent aggressive rooms coming from the speakers pumping back drums into the room. Also, supplemented in mixing with some hardware and software reverbs for different sections. For instance, I did use an occasional instance of H-Reverb on the snare if I needed a different sound or more reverb control.
When checking the phase relationship on drums, what’s your reference point? Kick, Overheads? Snare?
First, it’s snare to overheads, then kick to overheads, kick to snare, hi-hat to snare, and toms to overheads. I’ll then introduce the main pieces to the room mic tracks to see if it’s making them sound bigger or smaller. In the case of recording Fear Inoculum, we had quite a few spot mics on cymbals and three overhead mics that all went to 2 or 3 tracks, so it was particularly challenging to get the placement right. I also tried to ride the mics when Danny wasn’t playing to keep some leakage off the committed mics.
Since most DAWs don’t have a phase switch, how can I improve phase coherency using visual waveforms?
There’s no substitute for your ears! Looking at two waveforms and matching up the peaks and troughs can be a visual guide, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best place for sound. Sometimes the fronts of the waveform are out of phase, but the body of the waveform is in phase later on, and it sounds better. So, you really shouldn’t zoom in too close!
Sometimes phase cancellation can actually make a sound poke out better. Theoretically, when the drums are the most in-phase, it sounds fatter, but if fat is making the mix sound bloated, then a skinnier sound would help the part cut through with less EQ.
In the end, you should let your ears tell you what sounds right, instead of worrying about things being ‘correct’ or conforming to some textbook rules!
Want more? Watch free rock mixing tutorials by Joe Barresi.
Also check out Joe’s prosoundworkshop.com and joebarresi.com.
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