De-Woofing Muddy Metal Guitars

As metal guitar has gotten heavier and more low-frequency intensive, it has started to usurp the sonic territory of the drums and electric bass. This situation was painfully apparent as I sat down to mix a project by Cloakwheel. Suddenly, I was in a Ragnarök-style battle of the bass gods with three instruments vying for low-end wallop. The challenge was to separate the instruments sonically, while still maintaining the beefy chunk desired by modern metal guitarists.

It all started during the recording process, when Cloakwheel guitarist Vic Carreiro wielded his Jackson KE2 (armed with DiMarzio Air Norton/neck and Super Distortion/bridge

humbuckers) through a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV head and Boogie 4x12 cabinet. We miked the cabinet with a Shure SM57 and a Sennheisser MD421 positioned on opposite speakers, and pointed straight at the cones. The tone coming off Carreiro’s rig could have ripped the head off Malibu Barbie at 20 paces. It was intense. But when we dropped those roaring lows into the mix with the bass and drums, the guitar lost all definition and character.

We tackled the problem in stages. First, we separated John Deutscher’s electric bass from the pack by cutting all its frequency content above 7kHz. Then, we set up a compressor that was triggered only by a specific frequency (700Hz), rather than a signal-level threshold. These actions moved the electric bass to the very bottom of the band’s frequency spectrum.

Our next problem was Pete Deetscher’s double kick drums. Between the woofiness of the large drum shells, and his relentless 16th- and 32nd-note patterns, there was no place for the guitars to live. Our solution was to roll off the bottom end without neutering any impact. We split the two kicks to two separate stereo tracks. Using a Waves EQ 10 on the first pair, we cut everything above 61Hz, and then boosted 61Hz by 3dB. This gave us all of the important overtones from the shell without the woof. On the second pair, we cut 100Hz by 11dB, and then slightly boosted 5kHz and 9kHz. This clarified the attack of the beaters on the kick drums, while simultaneously carving out enough space for the guitars to breathe fire.

Now, we proceeded to pump up that guitar. Our first stop was a vintage Urei 1176 compressor, where we set the input to 28, and the output to 16. A heavier input signal works the 1176 harder to achieve a more aggressive impact. We also set the 1176 to a fast attack and release—which squashed the signal while still allowing Carreiro’s dynamic phrasing to come through—and set the ratio at 4:1. To give the guitar enough bite and crunch to really jump out of the speakers, we used a Digidesign EQ III to boost 3.4kHz by 6dB. This gave us all the teeth we needed, and our tonal Ragnarök abated without destroying the world—or, more importantly, Cloakwheel’s tracks.