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Producing Modern Metal Hits with Kevin Churko

Sep 27, 2018

Grammy-nominated producer/engineer Kevin Churko (Disturbed, Five Finger Death Punch, Ozzy Osborne) discusses working with some of metal’s biggest bands and shares personal insights on mixing everything from death-defying guitars, powerful drums and screaming vocals to the delicate ‘Sound of Silence.’

By David Ampong

Producing Modern Metal Hits with Kevin Churko

“As a producer, my job starts with a conversation between myself and the band. I’m there to help the band do what they want to do and try to and rise above any expectation they have had.”

Kevin, take us behind the production of Disturbed’s The Sound of Silence: How did this departure from the band’s signature sound come together?

The magic of Disturbed’s The Sounds of Silence is that it crossed all sorts of genre boundaries. We decided that the song didn’t have to be so Disturbed-like. Dan [Donegan], the guitar player, really wanted to keep the track moody and guitar distortion-free. I thought that was really brave and not something one hears often from metal guitar players! I began playing the piano with the singer, David [Draiman], in order to find a good key and we just kind of ran with it from there. I think they really enjoyed that process, of having a bit more freedom from what they typically do. I believe thinking outside the box would be a helpful influence on any band these days; it gives the band a little bit more leverage for the next record to do even more different things.

The most important aspect of that song was David’s singing. This is the first time David sang in that really low register. So I did a lot of EQ automation all the way through from start until end, almost syllable-by-syllable, just to make it sound that way. The Renaissance EQ was a big help. His vocals then go into a compressor, which I used the MaxxVolume plugin for; and then the DeEsser – which is particularly for me just perfect, easy, simple…bam!

The goal is to get every word heard. His performance goes from very quiet—almost a whispery low note—to really high, loud and powerful. I set up a separate parallel track where I really slam it with the L2 Ultramaximizer! I pump the quiet notes without having to automate the volume so much. So, by the time you get to the loudest notes (probably a 12 dB discrepancy), it’s not too overpowering.

Disturbed – “The Sound of Silence”

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There’s a definite, ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ contrast between the vocal production heard on recordings by Disturbed and Five Finger Death Punch. Can you shed ‘The Light’ on working with two completely different singers in the studio?

It’s not only about recording or engineering. It’s about accommodating and adjusting to who you’re working with, and how you can pull from them the very best vocal performance. These guys, to their credit, were patient and pleasant enough to experiment with me. It’s not just a, “Let’s get a good tone on the vocal mic and then see what happens…!” You have to try to capture moments and emotions as much as you can.

If you take a song like “Jekyll and Hyde” for example the ‘Oh, wee-oh, wee-oh there's a demon inside…,” those parts are meant to be crowd chants. Ivan [Moody], started off by singing the main melody. Once we had a good version, I got him in to sing the same line in different ways and styles, giving a different character texture for each take.

I got him to sing eight different variations. And because my voice has a much different texture than his, I got on the mic and mimicked what I felt were different people in a crowd. I then blended that into what Ivan did. So, there could have been up to 24-32 tracks total, not all panned hard left and right – in order to make it sound not just like a crowd, but almost like a slight ear reminder of a crowd. I try to never make the vocal dubs and backups distract from the impact of the lead.

Five Finger Death Punch – “Jekyll and Hyde” (music begins at 1:25)

On the Disturbed song “The Light”, on the choruses, you’re hearing a little bit of left-right vocal doubling, tripling and delays. For that song, I also used the Doubler plugin, and then there was probably four delays each with different timings that I write in as the song goes. I’ll automate delays on the ends of certain words; sometimes there might even be an awkward silence on a vocal line, or in the middle of a phrase – I just kind of boost the delay to where it gets my stomach feeling good. And that’s the kind of thing that gives it a little bit more dimension, and almost kind of wraps the vocal around you like a warm blanket.

Disturbed – “The Light”

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How do you get the drums in your mixes to sound so alive, punchy and powerful?

The mix on my drums isn’t necessarily a static mix all the way through. Sometimes it’s hard to get articulation out of big drums, which is why I’m always boosting the high end around 6-10 kHz on individual close mics just to get more attack on them. I want the kick to be pretty punchy for the type of bands I work with. A lot of it is double kicks, so it’s really about cleaning up the bottom end and rolling off from 125 Hz down. If there’s extra bottom on a channel that I don’t need, it doesn’t help the drums or the overall mix sound better, so I’m actually just taking it off. And that’s kind of how I’m able to get drums sort of crispy and beefy at the same time.

In terms of reverb, I try to get it from the room and from the mic’ing. I like to bring up the room mics without causing phase problems with the kick. If I need a reverb, I generally have the IR-verb [IR1 Convolution Reverb], handy and ready to go.

One my newest finds is Torque [Drum Tone Shifter]. I’m using that on my drums to change the pitch a little bit, and to kind of enhance. I can use Torque on an individual snare or kick drum, take the pitch down, and it just seems to do something that makes me feel warm inside. I used it a lot on And Justice for None.

Five Finger Death Punch – “Bloody”

How do you articulate guitar tracks and get them to fit properly with the lead vocals in the mix?

I know historically guitar has always been at the forefront in metal. But still, if the guitar is too bright for even the vocal then it doesn’t work for me. To me, popular music all comes down to the vocals and everyone has to support that vocal; that means guitar too!

Zo [Zoltan Bathory] and Jason [Hook] of Five Finger [Death Punch], are very different from each other; they kind of give me the yin and yang of guitar players. There’s a lot of drop-tuning and fast picking, so I’m always trying to make it audible and pleasing without being too bright and ear-piercing; and without getting in the way of Ivan’s vocals.

With Five Finger, I found I get a more chunky and powerful guitar sound if I’m boosting 1-3 kHz, rolling off more top end, and just chopping off the stuff on the bottom between 50-80 Hz that I definitely don’t need. I’m usually dipping the 125 Hz area, where there’s a little bit of woof. What that does is it puts a little more articulation in the guitar too. And the articulation sometimes comes from boosting in the 2 kHz range rather than the 8k range; I mean, some guys really like to boost up 8-10 kHz, especially the really metal guys.

Five Finger Death Punch – “My Nemesis”

Any final advice?

To me, production boils down to what you can do to impact what the listener hears. All the technical stuff doesn’t really even matter as long as that person gets that feeling or gets that excitement from it. I’m constantly trying to think of things to improve, or techniques to spread out over different genres.

From my point of view, I’m always trying to understand what makes people like something and what makes them not like it. The listener doesn’t need to be conscious of all the stuff that’s going on in the mix, they just need to hear the song and either like, or not like it.

And in order to do that, it can’t just be a chance. It can’t always just be, “Oh, let’s try this, this time! Let’s try that this time!” I mean there’s definitely principles that I adhere to almost always, and there’s a reason behind each one of those things that I do. It’s also just the fact that the bands I work with are great bands, and they’re bringing in the stuff. I just have to try to make it better.

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Thank you, Kevin!

Learn more about metal mixing & production directly from the masters of the genre. Check out these tips from producer/engineer Sterling Winfield (Pantera, Hellyeah, Texas Hippie Coalition)..