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5 Metal Production Tips: Pantera Producer Sterling Winfield

May 31, 2018

Learn top 5 production techniques for in-your-face metal from producer/engineer Sterling Winfield (Pantera, Hellyeah, Texas Hippie Coalition), including a free download of Sterling’s personal plugin presets for powerful drums, loud & clear vocals and thick guitars.

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5 Tips for In Your Face Metal: Pantera Producer Sterling Winfield

Photo courtesy of Daryl 'Bobby Tongs' Arnberger

“One of the main objectives when mixing is to keep things clear. Nothing should be competing for space in the mix,” says Sterling about his work on heavyweight albums by Damageplan, Hellyeah, Texas Hippie Coalition, and the legendary Pantera. Here are five of Sterling’s go-to mixing and production tips.

1. Go for the Chest: Adding Punch to Metal Drums

For snares and toms, I really like low end. I try to find where the drum is ringing, where it sounds best, and accentuate that frequency.

For that, I like to use two different types of EQs – one for the top, one for the bottom with either the SSL E-Channel or SSL G-Channel. Depending on the project, I’ll let the 100 Hz and 200 Hz really pop through and be punchy. I’m typically only pulling out problem frequencies and that nasty muddy shit between 300-400 Hz. Then I’ll add a little bit of top – 5k, 10k, maybe a little 1k in there.

I like for it to hit you in the chest. For this I like using the Renaissance Bass plugin on snare. I’ll let that low-end ring, and then I’ll tighten it up a little with a gate, or some kind of expander, in order to kind keep the low end wrenched down.

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Go for the Chest: Adding Punch to Metal Drums

2. How to Get that ‘Click-y’ Vinnie Paul Kick Drum Sound

The myths and legends about [Pantera, Damageplan, Hellyeah] Vinnie Paul’s kick drum are everywhere. Some people say it’s a sample of a basketball, which I find totally hilarious – “You used a basketball right…?” No! It was a kick drum!

Vinnie has always been a beast. When you’re working with a good drummer like him, even though he’s knocking the crap out of his kit, he’s hitting it with consistency – and that’s 90% of the sound right there.

5 Tips for In Your Face Metal: Pantera Producer Sterling Winfield

Pantera’s Vinnie Paul setting up his kit. Photo by Sterling Winfield.

But that specific click sound people often ask me about comes from Vinnie’s wooden beaters and supergluing a fifty-cent piece to the head. That way you can add tons of high end to it, but those attack transients are already kind of naturally there.

Back in the days of Pantera, it was before Pro Tools, so 90% of that stuff was on 2’’ tape. A lot of times, we would use the tried-and-true method from recording Vulgar Display of Power – using an AKG 414 with a figure-8 pattern, set just inside the kick drum. With all the mids heavily scooped out, you’d get this super-top-end and super-low-end.

Today, with plugins, I can get that sound using the Renaissance Channel going into the C1 going into the C6 with sidechain:

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How to Get that ‘Click-y’ Vinnie Paul Kick Drum Sound

3. Duck & Dive: Sidechaining the Kick & Bass

One of the things I get asked about the most is mixing drums. It seems to be the most tricky and elusive thing for most people. You have to remember: the backbone of any mix is the relationship between the kick and the bass.

The channels on my kits typically start with the Renaissance Channel through the C1 Gate/Expander to the C6 Multiband Compressor with the sidechain. I love the C6 on my kick as the key input, with the bass guitar sidechained to it: it really cleans up the mix so that you can really crank up that foundation and still keep things clear and groovin’.

Photo courtesy of Daryl 'Bobby Tongs' Arnberger

4. Mixing Metal Guitars: Using Compression as an EQ

Step #1: Know Your Tone!

Dime [Dimebag Darrell] and I were pretty close. I was always on call for him. Every now and then, he would get an idea in the middle of the night and be like, “This needs a proper recording, so get your ass over here, and let’s do this!” We’d sit up and drink and laugh, he’d write these songs and I would record them. That’s where most of that stuff from Dimevision 1 and Dimevision 2 came from. Eventually this would have become a proper Dimebag solo album – but you never know what happens in life; time gets cut short sometimes.

Just about everything Dime recorded with Pantera was two guitars, left and right. Everybody goes, “Nah! That’s more than two guitars, no way…!” And I’m like, “Dude I was there!” I like to keep things simple with guitars. If you get past four guitar layers in your mix, you’re really pushing it. If you get past four and your player is sloppy – man, you’re gonna really hear it!

With Dimebag, every time we went through the process of getting a guitar sound, it always came down to an SM58 dynamic mic on his Randall cabinet. Not an SM57 – a 58! No multiple miking techniques either, or Fredman technique – none of that. It was a 58, two inches off the grill, straight on axis, right where the cone and the driver of the speaker meet each other. It doesn’t get any simpler than that!

Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell laying down tracks. Photo by Sterling Winfield.

But the thing about Dime is he knew his tone intimately. He just knew exactly what he wanted to hear. The sound begins at the source – the musician, not the gear. It begins with the guitarist knowing their tone and their rig.

Step #2: Tame the Beast – EQ and Compression

Even if you have a guitarist who knows their tone, you may need to treat it with some EQ and compression for the mix. As a starting point on guitars, I like this chain of Renaissance EQ going into Renaissance Axx going into the C6 Multiband Compressor. I actually lifted the idea looking at some of Andy Sneap’s work. He’s a monster talent and I love the tones he gets. I learned from studying him that sometimes it’s not about just EQ – it’s about using compression as an EQ… Genius!

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Mixing Metal Guitars: Using Compression as an EQ

5. Mixing Vocals: No Mashed Potatoes!

It’s really funny how recording works. The mic or setup that you think would work best often doesn’t, and then you stumble onto something else by accident and you’re like, “Ooo, wait!”

On Big Dad Ritch’s vocals for Texas Hippie Coalition’s “Come and Get It,” I used this shitty tube mic that I bought for $60 in a pawn shop here in Texas. Just one of those gear finds where you’re like, “You know what? I bet that sounds pretty good.” And sure enough, it worked like a charm!

Texas Hippie Coalition, “Come and Get It”

But regardless of the mic, I have a preset called “No Mashed Potatoes” that I use to start mixing all of my vocal tracks. It’s Renaissance EQ into Renaissance Vox into CLA-76 into Renaissance DeEsser. You can hear it on “Come and Get It,” you can also hear it on the vocal in Dimebag’s “Twisted.” The tweaks will change of course depending on the singer and the song, but it’s a great starting point.

I use this chain to suck out all the nasty muddy frequencies that make the singer sound like their throat is clogged up with a bunch of mashed potatoes – all those nasty high-mids in the 3-5k area that are not pleasurable to listen to.

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Mixing Vocals: No Mashed Potatoes!

Photo courtesy of Daryl 'Bobby Tongs' Arnberger

Final Thoughts

What a lot of people don’t understand about recording and mixing is that unless it’s a synth or something, 90-95% of a sound is coming from the musician. The tone, the sound, the feel are coming from the musician. If your source is consistent, solid and powerful, that’s most of your sound right there. And that’s one thing I learned while working with the guys in Pantera – I learned how to get more from less. I learned how to take what you have and make the best out of it. And I will always be grateful to those guys for teaching me that.

For more metal mixing tips from the masters of the genre, check out these tips from producer/mixer Andy Sneap (Judas Priest).