In The Studio: Mayorga, Philips, and Bottrill

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In May 2011 Stone Sour was performing at a festival in Des Moines, Iowa, when, as Roy Mayorga describes it, “someone pulled a plug out of my back and everything stopped working.”

The band had just completed its set and like all good musicians, were about to hit the backstage tent for some well-earned libations and luxury. Avenged Sevenfold were hanging out, too, and the bands began to exchange war stories. But as soon as Mayorga entered the funfest area, he suddenly lost control of his legs and hit the ground, face first. His left eye wouldn’t focus, and the left side of his body was going numb.

“The guys from Avenge Sevenfold picked me up and asked, ’Roy, are you wasted?’ Then I fell down again. I took some Advil and went to sleep on the tour bus. The next morning it seemed like the bus was moving way too fast. But someone told me, ’Roy, the bus isn’t moving.’ That’s when I knew something was really wrong.”

A trip to the emergency room revealed that Roy had suffered a stroke. A combination of intense head banging, throwing his body into the music and a very low sitting position had put extreme pressure on the arteries in his neck, causing them to dislocate.

“The vertebrae in my neck pinched the artery and broke the inside wall lining and cut off the blood supply to the cerebellum which is where all your motor skills are.”

After months of recovery Mayorga could barely walk, and forget about playing the drums. He was told that if he moved too quickly he’d literally die from internal bleeding. But with plenty of rest he eventually recovered. With careful head and body management, Mayorga began tracking what would become House of Gold & Bones, Parts 1 and 2.

“When I made the demos for the records, that was my therapy,” Mayorga explains from L.A. “I approach the drums a little differently now. At first I had to really think about it when playing. But now I am back jamming again. I do move my head a little bit but not violently like I used to and now my playing is better because I don’t move as much, and I sit higher. Thank the universe. I am very grateful to still be here and able to do this.”

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Red-Light Therapy

House Of Gold & Bones, Parts 1 and 2 is a victory lap for Mayorga and Stone Sour, and not just because the drummer has returned at full force. It’s perhaps the best-sounding recording of the band’s career, and definitely the best sound Mayorga has ever achieved on record. Engineered by Mike Philips and produced by Dave Bottrill – winner of three Grammys whose credits include King Crimson, Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, and Coheed And Cambria – House Of Gold & Bones is a slam dunk of song-crafted metal crunch that defies contemporary metal production. The drum sound is punchy, sample-free, and as warm as hot honey dripping over succulent skin.

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“We really wanted that organic feel,” Dave Bottrill explains. “So many records in that genre have that sample-heavy or mechanical feel. We wanted the natural feel over the electronic feel. For some songs we fired up the 2” tape machine and tracked the drums at a faster speed, then slowed the tape machine to the tempo of the song to capture that analog feel, rather than using a digital plug-in to do it. It gave us that fat roundness without any digital aliasing. I’ve done that for years.”

“We used the Studer tape machine’s Vari-speed function to slow things down and get some dark boomy drum effects in places,” adds engineer Mike Philips. “We even went to half-speed with the tape machine at one point [heard in the segue between ’The Travelers Pt 2’ and ’Last Of The Real’].”

“I am a fan of real raw drum sounds and not such sample heavy drums like you hear so often these days,” Mayorga says. “On a lot of recordings now it’s typically like a 70 percent sample/30 percent real drums mix, but we did the opposite approach. I love the drum sounds that Dave Bottrill and Mike Philips got on these two records. They really have great ears. Plus, with Jay Rustin mixing, he really kept the true nature of the sound of my drums. It’s the best drum sound I’ve ever had in my career.

“I grew up listening to music that didn’t have any samples,” Mayorga continues. “I was into Zeppelin and The Who. So I am used to more natural drum sounds. Not to mention I do a lot of articulation and ghost notes that in the past, with this sample-crazed production, got lost. Half the time I would listen back to my drumming after the mix phase and some of my attitude and character would be gone. But now it’s really great to finally hear my drumming on record the way I hear it when I am playing it.

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Mike On Mikes

Tracking with Stone Sour at SoundFarm studio in Jamaica, Iowa, Mayorga recorded on his DW Collectors Series kit and a DW custom “Bonham”-styled kit that mirrored the exact dimensions of Bonzo’s ’70s-era Ludwig set. As an added bonus, the drums were tuned by famed John Bonham drum tech Jeff Ocheltree, who lent Mayorga Bonzo’s actual Ludwig Supraphonic 402 snare, which, along with the “Bonham kit,” appears on “Tired,” “Taciturn,” “Do Me A Favor,” and “The Conflagration,” as well in as the live drum loops that were used in strategic places throughout the record.

Engineer Mike Philips, with his great expertise and gear selection, runs down the entire signal chain, from mikes to compressors to tape machines to reverb units. “Roy hits the drums like a monster and uses excellent gear, which makes my job that much easier,” Philips says. “A drummer that hits with consistency and confidence, coupled with a good-sounding room, is most of what makes a good drum sound.

“For Roy’s main kit, I used this setup: For kick in mike (about 8" from the inside drumhead in his 24" x 18" kick) an Audix D6. It has a wonderful point and presence without being too ’clicky.’ There’s a good amount of bottom end without being boomy and its midrange curve naturally filters out a lot of the mud that is found in the lower mids. This mike instantly makes your kick sound like it should. On the outside of the kick, a Neumann FET 47 placed in the center of the outside kick head. It adds a nice roundness and low end presence to the kick when blended in subtly. Then for the low kick sound, a Soundeluxe ELAM 251. This became a low end secret weapon on this record. I placed it about 4' away from the kick on the floor. It was mainly a room mike, but definitely accentuated the kick sound remarkably well, giving it space and dimension.

“On snare top and bottom,” he continues, “a Shure SM57 placed very close to the drum heads and strainer, positioned directly in line with each other, and flipped out of phase. I’ve tried many different combinations of snare mikes, but this one seems to be the one that works best 90 percent of the time, especially for big rock where you want that snare to cut through in the mix. Also on snare top, a Heil PR-20. Hi-hat bleed into snare mikes seems to be a constant battle when recording drums. We did a shootout between the Heil and the Shure. David, Roy, and I listened to both options. In the end, I put the 57 back, put the Heil on a different stand, taped them both together to make sure they would be in phase at all times, and recorded both. In the end this combination worked beautifully to capture the tone and attack of Roy’s various snares.

“On toms, 57s on top and Sennheiser 421’s on the bottom across the board,” Philips says. “Placed near the rim, pointing slightly in toward the middle of the head, about a finger’s width from the heads. Directly in line with each other, and out of phase from each other, mixed together and bussed to one track per tom.

“For hi-hat, a Sennheiser 451 placed facing away from the center of the kit, about 1.5' above the cymbals. Ride cymbal: a Sennheiser 451 placed facing away from the center of the kit, above the bell, but pointing away from it, about 2' above the cymbal. Overheads: Neumann KM84’s in an X/Y setup about 2' above Roy’s head with the snare as the center [negative] focal point in the middle of the X/Y.

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“Room mikes were ribbon mikes!” he exclaims. “A pair of Royer 121 ribbon mikes placed as far away as possible near the corners of the room about 15'—18' away from the kit, with the snare as the center anchor. I also used a pair of Coles 4038s along the sides of the room, about 10' away from the snare on each side. These form the basis of a good room sound for me, so I included a bunch of mono room mikes at various distances from the kit as options for mixing as well. A Heil Heritage ’Elvis’-style mike was closest, about 8' from the center of the kit, at about chin height, pointed slightly down towards the kick. This was the ’trashy room’ sound. Also an SM58 about 15' away near the window to the control room. And another 58 right by Roy’s face. It kind of gives a good perspective of what the drummer is hearing while he plays.”

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The “Bonham” Kit

“For the Bonham kit, I placed an Electro-Voice RE-20 close to the middle of the outside kick drum head and moved it around until it sounded the best. For the kick beater side, I used the Heil PR-20 due to its 57-like characteristics, but superior off-axis rejection. Of course, there was still tons of bleed from the snare and hi-hat, but with some careful filtering and compression, this bleed was used to our advantage in creating the whole-kit sound. Snare top was a Shure SM57 placed a bit further away from the drum than it was for the main kit but still hanging over the rim and pointed towards the center of the drum. Snare bottom we used an AKG 414. This mike sounds great on the bottom snares. The natural frequency response of this mike is very favorable to capturing the snap and rattle of the snares. Toms: same kind of setup as above (57s and 421s), except these were pulled back further from the heads, as it allowed for a more open sound.”

For an album that seems to scream “close miking,” Philips used a very detailed overheads and room-miking setup.

“For overheads I went with Neumann U87s placed over the extreme left and right of the kit,” he says, “again with the snare as the center reference. I tend to use the snare as the center rather than the kick, because I usually filter out a bit of the low end from the overheads and let the kick mikes provide most of the kick sound [along with the rooms]. The 87s work really well on a big, ’tone-y’ drum sound, whereas I like to use pencil mikes as overheads for more aggressive and precise drum sounds. The 87s were placed fairly high over the kit so they were more like true overheads. I used the same mikes for the room sounds on the ’Bonham’ kit, repositioned around the room. Since we were jumping back and forth between both setups, I documented settings and used masking tape on the floor and walls so I could move the mikes back exactly where they were for both setups.”

What kind of compression did Philips favor tracking Roy’s drums?

“I tend to use only a little compression on drums while tracking,” Philips replies. “I used a tiny bit of Distressor on the inside kick track, just to control the attack a bit. On the snare 57 tracks, I used a couple of UREI 1176’s. Usually if I track with an 1176, I’ll use a bit of Distressor in the mix, or vice versa. I also like to use Pultec EQP-1A on kick and snares while tracking, just to give a bit of low and high boost and tube warmth on the way in. I did not compress the Heil snare mike, nor did I compress the toms or any of the close cymbal mikes. The overheads got a gentle squeeze with a stereo Manley Var-Mu Opto Compressor, more for the tube warmth and beautiful tone than any noticeable gain reduction. The Coles room mikes went through a Neve 33609 with slightly more aggressive settings to get a pumping room sound, whereas the Royers were left alone. It’s all about having different options and textures to combine for that perfect sound. Everything else was left alone, except for the Heil Heritage trash room mike, which we went nuts on. I generally have a really midrange-y room mike which I compress the crap out of, or put through an SPL Transient Designer to get some crazy effect. Mixed in just a little, it can add a really aggressive presence to the drum sound!”

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The Preamp Question

A battle rages in pro audio on the relative merit of every expensive, vintage mike preamps versus off-the-rack everyman units. In this case, Philips sides with the former camp. “As far as preamps go, you usually can’t go wrong with classic Neve 1073s, 1081s or 1084s,” he says. “API 512s sound great on some things as well, and, in a pinch, SSL pres work well too. In this case, we were all set to go with a combo of Neve, API and SSL pres, but called Slipknot’s Shawn ’Clown’ Crahan, who had a bunch of Chandler TGI preamp/EQ strips. I used those for the kick drum mikes and the kick immediately jumped out of the monitors and sat in the mix way better than it had with the Neves (which were a bit spongy in comparison). The majority of the drums (snare, cymbals, overheads, and most rooms) were tracked through Neve 1073s and 1081s with the exception of the Royer room mikes and a couple of spot mikes on some cymbals and percussion elements, which were tracked through API preamps.”

And as for the standard practice of using tape to create warmth, Philips credits microphone and preamp choices – and well-tuned drums!

“It’s a combination of the mike choices [ribbon mikes for the rooms], Neve preamps, proper sounding and well-tuned drums, and of course, the large live room itself. The room itself was so large and so live that we actually had to go to serious lengths to dampen it. After a few days of rehearsal and preproduction in the studio, we had Stone Sour’s guitar tech, Martin Connors, bring in their massive stage backdrop from their Audio Secrecy tour and hang it over the back wall of the studio to cut down on the liveliness of the room. Before that, the room sound was actually bleeding heavily into the close mikes. Had we not done that, this would have been a very different-sounding record!”

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Strong Foundations Make Strong Houses

Philips hates “the sound of digital reverbs on drums,” and prefers a classic EMT plate if needed. And he has plenty of advice for achieving an overall solid drum sound.

“The way to get the best sound, though, even with a small Pro Tools setup, is just to track it as best you can right from the start. No number of digital tricks will sound as good as this combination: Good drummer on a good drum kit with proper drumheads properly tuned in a nice room using the best available mikes and the best available preamps. When I was just starting out I would try everything I could to get a killer drum sound. Then I got to work with some killer drum engineers like Sylvia Massy and Matt DeMatteo, and they taught me that less is more. Just track it properly from the beginning using as little gear and tricks as possible, and it will sound amazing.

“Another thing that is helpful in a smaller Pro Tools setup, if you’re forced to mix in the box, is to stem your tracks out multiple outputs using a good summing mixer or even a small console. It’s not going to make a massive difference, but at least you will get a bit of analog warmth and you won’t have to rely on your DAW’s internal mixer exclusively.”

Of course, it all begins and ends with the drum tracking, and Roy Mayorga is a pro of epic proportions. But he credits Dave Bottrill with helping him to loom large on his own personal comeback trail.

“Dave had great ideas for drum parts,” Mayorga says. “He’d make me do a lot of takes on each part to get a certain attitude on some versions and mix and match them and edit them later like you would edit takes on tape. He’d take the best of the beginning and the end of a song, maybe a drum fill from a take, and then ask for my most off-the-wall drum fill and comp them together. You’re creating something that will last forever – you want it to be right. I am huge fan of Peter Gabriel’s Passion Sources record, which Dave Bottrill worked on. I put that up there with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Passion Sources got me into a lot of tribal drumming and world music, rhythms from Morocco and Egypt. So I was so happy to work with these guys on House Of Gold & Bones.”