Case Study: Silhouettes

 

 

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Album art for Woe To The Vanquished

Song: Silhouettes
Artist: Warbringer
Album: Woe To The Vanquished
Tempo: Various
Key: Bb Minor
Producer: Mike Plotnikoff

Band members:

John Kevill – vocals
Adam Carroll – rhythm guitar
Chase Becker – lead guitar
Carlos Cruz – drums
Jessie Sanchez – bass

Warbringer are an American Thrash Metal band formed in 2004 in California, the state that gave birth to thrash metal titans such as Megadeth, Exodus, Dark Angel and Metallica back in the 1980s. Warbringer brings with them a fresh yet familiar take on this classic style of heavy metal. It may be no surprise that Warbringer is influenced by the likes of old that are mentioned above, however guitarist Adam Carroll mentions that he is also influenced by Swedish Death Metal bands such as Dissection and Entombed. Previously, Warbringer has also mentioned that they were influenced by American Technical Death Metal band Suffocation, British metal band Napalm Death and New York thrashers Overkill (Metal Injection, 2008). Warbringer hopes to bring the musicianship from their death metal influences to the table whilst remaining true to the crunchy, exciting origins of Thrash.

Producer Mike Plotnikoff has worked on various heavy metal and hard rock bands since beginning his career in 1989 at Little Mountain Sound, a Vancouver studio that has had the likes of AC/DC, Queensrÿche, and Metallica walk through its doors. Mike has personally worked on albums by acts such as Aerosmith, Van Halen, Fear Factory and In Flames.

Instrumentation

Guitars

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Danelectro Hodad DH-1 Mini Amp

In an interview with Dave Pensado, Mike reveals that his favourite production technique for guitars is to get a throaty, energetic tone out of guitars that he records, traditionally with a Shure SM57 through Neve 1073 mic pre-amps, occasionally recording with a Royer R-122 to get some low-end or a Sennheiser 421 to get a higher frequency response around the 4khz mark (Pensado, 2015).

In the intro to Silhouettes, Mike and the engineer, Hatsukazu Inagaki, got Adam Carroll to play the first riff through a Danelectro Hodad DH-1 Mini Amp to get the nasally tone for a fade-in, contrasting with the punchy guitar tone that follows soon after. This contrast helps emphasise the importance of the guitars in the mix. The guitarists from Warbringer also played through a variety of amplifiers and heads depending on the requirements of the songs (Napalm Records, 2016).

For rhythm guitar, Adam played through a Bogner Uberschall or Wizard Modern Classic amp, and for his lead guitar parts he played through an Orange Rockerverb 100 MKIII with overdubs on the Sound City 120 amp. Chase Becker’s lead parts were recorded through a Peavey 5150 amp and a Tube Screamer pedal. Jessie Sanchez uses a combination of Ampeg’s SVT-4PRO and SVT-VR Heads for his bass tone on the album, which is the same setup that he uses for live shows.

Drums

According to the video below, it appears that the drum overhead setup Mike and Hatsukazu used was a combination of a mid-side technique and an XY setup whereby the microphones were angled outwards from the kit rather than inwards. This means that the XY setup would exclude a lot of the direct sound of the kit, and rather capture the room sound. It looks like they’re in a fairly small room, so it could have been a way to get room tone without using an omni microphone that would’ve taken up additional space in the recording area. Meanwhile, the Mid-Side microphone in the centre will aid in making the mix more compatible with mono playback devices as it excludes the side while defining the centre of the drumkit.

While Mike has vouched heavily for the Sennheiser MD421 in the past, and they are usually considered top of the line for tom drums, I do not believe that is what they are using to record Carlos’ tom drums, though they are a similar dynamic cardioid microphone. It is also hard to determine whether Mike has stuck with his preference for the D112 on the kick drum due to the material covering the front of the kick drum which is helping to isolate the sound being recorded from that position.

Vocals

John Kevill’s vocals are iconic of Warbringer’s sound, having perfected the style of shouted angry vocals that are still clear as day with regards to hearing his powerful lyrics. Mike mentions that for metal vocals he prefers to record with a Shure SM7B that is run through a Universal Audio 1176 or LA2A compressor. When dealing with vocal correction he prefers to de-ess vocals in Pro Tools rather than working with outboard gear (Pensado, 2015). Apart from the compression, you can also tell that Mike likes about 150ms of reverb on John’s screaming parts, which makes it sound like John is yelling from a canyon or the like. A smaller reverb time is used for the shouted parts, while a quarter-beat delay is used for the word “ghosts” on the way into the chorus. Mike also triple-tracks John’s vocal for the last six bars of the song, with one performing a scream, one performing the shouted vocals, and a third one that changes from a lower shout to a shrieking of the same line as the shout. While John’s vocals are an iconic part of the band’s sound, they are not the most prominent part of the mix, and this is to do with the style of music that Warbringer plays, which is highly guitar oriented.

Spatial Analysis

 

As you can see from the diagram below, Silhouettes is very compact in regards to its stereo width, with most of the wide elements coming from percussive elements, or the stars of the show, the guitars. Everything is also very forward in the mix, which I will discuss when it comes to my analysis of dynamics.

Sound Field

As a style, thrash metal is very intense and at times claustrophobic, it wants all of the instruments in your face at the same time to create tension, which is emulated with this use of space in the mix. The other important aspect of style in relation to the mix is that it takes great pride in it’s musicianship, and typically shows it off through intense drum rolls or lead guitar parts. In Silhouettes, the lead guitar only really plays when John Kevill stops singing, so the lead guitar is afforded the ability to take the place in the centre of the stereo image and let the audience really soak it in. The drums on the other hand have been approached from another angle, giving them the widest stereo image of the instrumentation to give the audience more clarity between individual drums and cymbals, to show how dynamic the playing is.

 

Spectral Analysis

Due to the compact use of the stereo image, Mike Plotnikoff has had to use equalisation as well as choice of microphone particularly well to make different sections of the instrumentation stand apart from each other. Such choices include reserving 1-1.3khz for John Kevill’s vocal, especially in the scream sections of the song. This provides clarity without the need louden the vocal and drown out the guitars by doing so. It also helps emphasise the grit in John’s vocal in the majority of the song where he is shouting.

Frequency Spectrum

Frequency Distribution during John Kevill’s opening scream

Mike also makes the choice to accentuate the 100hz and 300hz frequencies of the kick drum, while accentuating 200hz on the snare drum, giving each of the main providers of the rhythm an individual point of power in the lower end of the spectrum. The snare’s higher frequencies are sitting at approximately 3.8-4khz, while the hi-hat’s transient sits at roughly 7.8khz, and it fills out the top end of the spectrum (15khz+) along with the cymbals.

The rhythm guitar fits into the mix around the 2.4khz mark, with some high-frequency crunch being added into the mix past 9.8khz, while the lead guitar is most potent at 3.3khz, which at times ventures towards the 5.5khz mark. In a lot of heavy metal, the guitar is accentuated between 1khz-2khz to bring out the sound of the distortion, whereas in this mix the vocal is occupying that part of the spectrum. The result of moving the focus of the guitars up the spectrum is a lot more of a clean and melodic lead guitar, and not such a nail-biting rhythm guitar. Instead the rhythm guitar sounds defined and powerful. Meanwhile, the bass guitar looms between the lowest end of the spectrum and 500hz with a high-pass filter filter applied to ensure the mix isn’t muddied. Key points in the frequency spectrum where the bass guitar is heard with clarity are between 140hz and 200hz, with it’s harmonics and the attack of the playing occupying the slightly higher frequencies.

Dynamics

Unfortunately, you’re not going to find much out about this track by looking at the stereo waveform below, as it has been limited to CD quality with a ceiling of -0.3db. Even the halftime sections of the song, where there is more opportunity for dynamics thanks to the quieter cymbals amongst the less busy guitar tracks, are indistinguishable visually. The only thing you will notice visually is the difference between the wind sample in the intro, which rises to roughly -28db RMS and the heavily compressed opening guitar chugs, which come in roughly 23db louder.

Dynamic Range

Diving deeper into metering, between snare hits in the intro the level of the track drops from an RMS of roughly -10db to -25db and you can see the guitar that is being played through the mini-amp and fading in is slowly closing this gap, so that when the intro gets to one bar before the intro, it is only dropping to -15db between snare hits. Most loud sections of this song come in at -5db, while drops in RMS are typically to about -12db.

From the perspective of looking at the dynamics of individual instruments, you can tell that like many other genres of music in the modern landscape, the kick drum has been very compressed. My assessment would be that Mike has used parallel compression to retain some of the natural release of the kick drum, while compressing the transient to give it the thud and the click that is expected from metal bands. The snare also sounds compressed, which brings out the lower-end resonance of the drum. This is why you can hear the thud of the snare at 200hz as mentioned earlier.

You can also hear the peaks of the screams in John’s vocal performance being grabbed by a compressor with a medium-length attack and release so as not to feel unnatural, the same way you would compress Robert Plant’s vocals on a Led Zeppelin record. The guitars on the other hand, are afforded a lot of dynamic range, and it sounds as though any compression was done through their gear. This excludes the bass, as it needs compression to compete with the loudness of the kick, snare, and some lower-end of the rhythm guitar, which also occupy it’s frequency band.

References

Metal Injection. (2008, July 2nd). WARBRINGER interview with Metal Injection. [Video Interview]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLB9Rt2FO1I

Napalm Records. (2016, December 20th). WARBRINGER – Making Of “Woe To The Vanquished” | Napalm Records. [Mini Documentary]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRSTAR14q2s

Pensado, D. [Pensado’s Place]. (2015, September 12th). Producer/Mixer Mike Plotnikoff – Pensado’s Place #228. [Video Interview]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vu2GEG3R7cM

Plotnikoff, P. (2016). About – MIKE PLOTNIKOFF. Retrieved from: http://mikeplotnikoff.net/sample-page/

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