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The Way of the Producer: Twelve Foot Ninja’s Stevic MacKay

Nov 15, 2018

Learn the way of the Twelve Foot Ninja from the innovative band’s guitarist/producer Stevic MacKay. In this interview, Stevic discusses how he systematically crosses genre lines and shares 12 must-have tactics for staying productive in the studio.

By David Ampong

The Way of the Producer: Twelve Foot Ninja’s Stevic Mackay

From their first studio works to their latest, Twelve Foot Ninja continue to push the boundaries of modern metal in terms of arrangement, production and cross-genre fusion. We caught up with guitarist/producer Stevic MacKay during the production of the band’s anticipated third studio release and asked him to show us the way.

Twelve Foot Ninja has amazing range in terms of mixing elements from different genres. Is there a particular musical style or genre that you’ve had difficulty incorporating into a song?

From a production perspective, I don’t tackle genres I don’t have at least a fundamental understanding of or listen to in some capacity. I mean, preparing sashimi is an art form, but I reckon with some fresh fish, a sharp knife, a bit of soy sauce and wasabi I could get it in the ballpark! I reckon IDM was particularly difficult because it is very technical and technology-orientated. It’s like musical sound design.

What are some of your favorite production techniques outside of metal? Let’s say for funk, country, hip hop & pop?

I’m just going to spit out what comes to mind as though I was about to start trying to write in these genres. In terms of funk, I particularly like:

  • 4-on-the-floor kick with the snare on 2 and 4
  • Accented 16th patterns on the hats with open chokes spelling out syncopated horn lines
  • Intricate bass lines teasing out extended harmony
  • Super-tight rhythm guitar ducking and weaving around everything

I’ve been listening to a sub-genre called “gothic bluegrass.” In country music I enjoy:

  • Pedal steel, lap steel, Tele & baritone guitars
  • Secondary dominants to minor-III sounds
  • Train beats on loosely tuned snares
  • Elastic band bass lines emphasizing fifths

Drum sounds define a hip hop vibe for me. As soon as you hear that mechanical flurry of 32nd note 808 or 909 hi hats with a snare on 2 and 4, it’s on its way. Also:

  • Swing kick patterns with snare on 2 and 4; hand claps accenting snare
  • Portamento sine wave synth playing some gangsta shit
  • Bass line catching all kicks with intermittent blues pentatonic lick
  • Vinyl-sampled orchestral parts deliberately cut to sound loops

Pop has become a bit genre-agnostic. I suppose it would be more about a predictable diatonic progression, super-clean production and very minimal distortion. Or, if it was indie pop you just need ukulele, floor tom on 3, a major scale xylophone melody and lots of people yelling, “Hey…!”

As the lead guitarist and producer on all four Twelve Foot Ninja EPs, what role do you play in the production and mixing process? And tell us who’s coming up with all those arrangement ideas…

I spend an exorbitant amount of time experimenting with soft synths, samples and plugins after the key components are in place. I’m not a mix engineer and I hate the responsibility of the final mix because I never know when to let go, so I aim to get the mix sitting right dynamically for whoever the mix engineer is. With that in mind, I love the artist series plugins like the CLA [Chris Lord-Alge] Signature Series and the Manny Marroquin Signature Series, as well as the OneKnob Series as they’re so intuitive and immediate.

The line between production and mixing is often blurred because mixing invariably adds to the overall production. We outsource the mixing and mastering, but we stay heavily involved even during the mixing stage. There’s nothing worse than mixing via correspondence. It’s like trying to tell the hairdresser what kind of bloody hairstyle you want. How do you explain it without accepting inaccurate metrics? I could say turn the bass up +2dB, but most the time it’s less about volume and more about frequency.

Stevic’s 12 must-know tactics for working like an audio production ninja

  1. SAVE your session!
  2. Include the BPM in your session name.
  3. If you’re planning on making an arrangement change, save as a new session.
  4. Try and maintain clean sessions: tidy file management, color and label whenever possible; leave yourself notes to remember settings or sounds, or start saving your presets with song specific titles. You will understand later.
  5. Crossfade edits in slip mode (PT).
  6. Don’t accept vocal plosives.
  7. Don’t accept anything that’s out of tune or out of time unless it’s purposeful. If it is purposeful, ask whether you’re saying it’s purposeful to rationalize a bad performance… Then do it again. Do it again 8 billion times until it’s undeniable.
  8. Aim for dynamic consistency; or, make sure you’re good at automating your mixes.
  9. Invest in the best set of studio headphones you can afford.
  10. Test your recording microphone against your vocalist’s voice. Different mics suit different voices.
  11. A/B interfaces so you can hear how they sound. Your recording quality is dependent on what you’re recording into the box with.
  12. Get a decent mic pre/limiter that’s got a few simple knobs and sounds great. It’s better to have minimal super high quality I/O than a bunch of mediocre I/O you’ll only use to record that high school big band’s heinous rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.”

The Way of the Clock – Stevic’s insights into mixing

This is by no means anything to strictly live by, but I’ll usually start a session imagining the mix as half of a clock. 12 o’clock is dead center, 3 o’clock is hard right, and 9 o’clock is hard left. Just remember that mixing isn’t magic fairy dust that can turn dogshit into apple pie! It needs to be good to start with:

  • Main vocals, kick and snare at 12.
  • Toms mixed as they appear on the kit.
  • Hats around 2 to 12.
  • Bass around 3 to 12.
  • Overheads at 10 and 2, or hard left and right.
  • Heavy guitars doubled. One guitar around 10, the other around 2.
  • Acoustic guitars doubled and either wider or narrower than the heavy guitars.
  • Background vocals grouped where I imagine them in a semi-circle on stage in pairs of two slightly next to each other and positioned out of the way of everyone else.
  • Other instruments wherever they feel good sweeping through the gaps.
  • Whack a mastering limiter on the master fader.
  • Use auxiliary channels for effects to be used on more than one channel. Set the input on the aux to the buss you want to use, then open that buss on whatever channels you want the effect on.
  • Go through ALL of your plugins and try and work out what they do; write down your version of what that is (I have books of cryptic notes to myself).

What advice would you give an aspiring musician/producer as far as attempting to create timeless, priceless music in an age where music continues to lose its monetary value?

That’s the paradox isn’t it? Music is both worthless and priceless at the same time. Irrespective of the impact emergent technologies may have on consumer behavior, the fact remains that people still love music. Creators just have to come to terms with it being available in increasingly convenient ways and in constantly mutating abundance. ‘Coming to terms’ may take the form of diversifying skill sets within a group, accepting something else is needed to subsidize your passion, avoiding reliance on outside service provision whenever possible, and/or simply just working harder.

An idea that I dare say isn’t particularly popular in today’s hypersensitive climate: Harsh truths are better than false hopes. (The operative word is “truth”.) For example: if an artist and their inner sanctum are the only ones wondering why their timeless music isn’t reaching the masses, and are convinced they deserve more exposure, I’d say it’s more likely that the music isn’t actually that timeless versus external factors, or rational for a lack of success. To substantiate this point in practical terms, Erik Qualman’s Socialnomics states, “More people in the world own a mobile device than a toothbrush!” Most mobile devices can record video. YouTube is free and, if it were a country, has the second largest population in the world behind Facebook… Have at it! If nothing happens and no one cares, work harder, get better and consider that your enthusiasm for what you do is not the same as everyone else’s enthusiasm for what you do. It’s liberating to be self-reliant; the victories are greater, and the failures are on you.

Stevic gets fired up after reading a message from a horrific internet troll in the video to Twelve Foot Ninja’s “Ain’t That A Bitch”. Written, directed & produced by Stevic MacKay.

The face of the music industry seems to change faster than the rate of tuning changes in one of your songs. Many people think the electric guitar is on the endangered instruments list. How do you feel about this statement?

I understand it. When a titan guitar manufacturer or musical instrument company hits the deck, everyone starts panicking. But like a lot of problems in the world today, it all comes down to semantic definitions. The electric guitar isn’t dying. It might be more accurate to say that electric guitars designed in the early 50s are losing previously held market share.

People also get old and die, even people who play guitar. Consider over 50% of the world’s population is under 30 years old. That means over 50% of the world’s population were born a minimum of 18 years AFTER Jimi Hendrix died. It’s been 27 years since Slash swaggered away from the lowly church in the dirt, cigarette in mouth and played the guitar solo in the “November Rain” music video; that was the year Ed Sheeran was BORN!

Another theory… Circling back to Erik Qualman, Socialnomics states human beings have an average attention span of 7 seconds. Goldfish have an attention span of 8 seconds! Playing guitar to a professional, functional standard takes dedication and hard work. I think some beginners might get put off when it doesn’t happen instantly, and then what is their motivation? Notoriety? Respect? Fame? Fortune? In saying all that, I started a guitar company a couple of years ago because I love it and want to contribute positively to the ever-changing, modern world of guitar! Where logic fails, passion prevails!

See more artist stories and learn more mixing and production tips from the industry’s top sound engineers, producers and musicians.