Interview

Dan Klein

Drummer, producer and studio owner on working with bands, drumming for hire, and the importance of pre-production before starting a session.

The Rock Spot on the south side of Chicago was a meat packing plant in a previous life, but today it’s home to a large number of musicians and artists. Deep in the building’s labyrinth of hallways, Dan Klein has turned a 400 sq ft concrete room with tall ceilings into a comfortable single-room studio called Iron Hand Audio where he’s built a reputation for crafting organic, old-school thrash, death and black metal records. The debut album from Chicago’s Nucleus was one of the first things from Iron Hand to catch my ear, and Dan’s since had his hands on a number of releases from the likes of Cianide, Profanatica, Diocletian, Cardiac Arrest, Disinter, Lividity, La Armada, Metalucifer and his own (sadly, now defunct) band, FIN. Shortly before this interview, the album he produced for Vimur, Triumphant Master of Fates (Boris Records) showed up on PopMatters’ 20 Best Metal Albums of 2019 list. In addition to his tracking, production, mixing and mastering work, Dan also puts his first love to good use by freelancing as a session drummer. Best of all, with everything combined, he’s actually making a living from it.

I recently stopped by the studio for a visit and we ended up talking for over an hour about everything from his background to drumming for hire to the virtues of preproduction and the humble click track.


When did you start all this?

Probably about 11 or 12 years ago, when I went to school in Phoenix at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. I think I was 20, turning 21. It’s a nine-month intensive program, more of a trade school than a college, really. They teach you what the tools are, how to use them and some techniques, but you learn a lot more in the real world.

I got out of school and went straight into an unpaid internship at Rax Trax, which was with Rick Barnes, Kendall Stephens, Mike J. (Mike Levine), I was working mostly under Kendall and Mike J. for about a year, just hanging out with those guys and assisting on those sessions, learning from those sessions. Neil Kernon was there at the time too. I was around Jeff Loomis‘ first solo record, and when one of the Nile records got mixed.

And after a while, they started paying me sometimes. I found myself in this position where I was still there all the time, but I was only getting paid some of the time. After you start getting paid and then you’re not getting paid but you’re still there, you start to feel a little bit like you’re stagnating. So I moved on from there after around a year, maybe year and a quarter. I was working other part time jobs to to make ends meet, like cleaning gutters in the north suburbs for a while, which was good untaxed income but hard and dangerous work. After falling off a ladder twice, I quit because I need my limbs to be a musician.

Smart.

Making money where I could, I started to acquire gear pretty much straight out of school, one piece at a time. This 16-channel Allen & Heath Mix Wizard was one of the first things I got because I knew I needed at least 10 mic pres to record a drum set. So I got this along with my Digi 003 and aside from microphones, those two things are all you really need to record a band.

After Rax Trax, Tim Pearson, Dan Macias and I opened up a studio. Tim Pearson is one of my good friends. I’ve been in and out of bands with him since high school. I was in Relentless with him, did the European tour with them. Tim went to Flashpoint Academy, which is an audio school, downtown Chicago here. Dan Macias just partnered up with some guys — Lubeck Studios. But the three of us opened a studio in Niles [Illinois] when I was like 23. With a kind of conglomeration of our three budding gear collections, we could have a studio, and we were lucky enough to have the use of Dan’s father’s plumbing shop, which was a sizable building with areas of it that weren’t being used. We were able to build a control room and have a live room that was shared with his father’s band’s practice space. We were there for I don’t know, not long…a year, year and a half, before that all kind of fell apart. I think it was because his dad was selling the shop or something like that and we just had to get out.

After that, I was just buying more gear with every spare couple hundred dollars I had. I moved all of my stuff into my friend Teddy’s basement, not far from here. I was down there in him and his mom’s basement making records for at least a year. You know, which is what it is. Plenty of people do that. Obviously, the low ceilings aren’t desirable for drum tracking, but you can you can mix your ass off and make almost anything sound good.

That was a situation where I was like, “Man, I gotta get a better setup.” And after that, this place opened up, The Rock Spot.

The building as a whole or this particular room?

The building as a whole, as a rehearsal space, artists studio, whatever you want to do with these rooms. There’s a number of facilities like this around Chicago.

What year are we talking?

I want to say like seven or eight years ago. I was one of the first people in this building along with Tim, and that’s when he and I crossed paths again, kind of serendipitously. He had a room across the hall. He’s got a different room across the hall now, actually we share a room upstairs as well where Berator, the new active band we’re both in rehearses. I acquired this space with the primary purpose of recording bands and having a step up from my friend’s basement. It’s got 13 foot ceilings, which is nice for drums and pretty much anything, really.

But I’ve been making a living doing this. The last day job I had, the last full-time employer I had aside from myself was five years ago. I’m in the middle of my fifth year, now. September next year will be six years.

That’s great.

And, you know, just doing that and being a musician… I was in a pretty active band called FIN for a while. We did some European tours and went all over the place. That band is over now, though, unfortunately.

You were a drummer first, right?

Yeah. I always had an interest in drums. I’ve got career musicians on both sides of my family. My mother’s father was a jazz drummer and the jazz columnist for The New Yorker for 40 years or something crazy like that. He’s actually kind of famous, Whitney Balliett is his name. He’s written a number of books because he was around for all that original, old New York jazz scene stuff. I don’t even know what year that was. But he was a drummer. And then on my father’s side of the family, his brother, Doug Klein is a drummer who plays like bluegrass and stuff like that; he’s from Tennessee. So, I don’t know…does music travel in genes? I think so. Why not, you know…tendencies. I don’t know if you want to toss the word “talent” around, or “aptitude…”

And just having it in the house. Receptive parents who let you do it.

Yeah. I first started when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I started playing on buckets and pots and pans in my room. My friend had a drum set, so I was always over at his house, playing his drums. He was taking lessons. I didn’t have a set or lessons at the time. 

I didn’t get an actual kit until a few years later when I was around 16 I think, which is this old Yamaha Stage Custom. It was originally just a five-piece. I’ve got the eight-piece version; the other kicks are over there. Those are made out of mostly mahogany, which is not how they make them anymore; they’re lighter now. These are very heavy, deep sounding drums; they record very well. I’d say at least 50 to 60% of people that come in here use those, because they usually have new/newish skins on them, I know how they sound in this room and they sound better than most people’s drums. When you present the idea of not having to reskin, retune, and bring in your own drum set, drummers are kind of delighted by that.

But yeah, I pretty much, I’d say I officially started playing drums when I was 16. Because that’s when I first got a kit I was actually allowed to practice on that in my parents’ basement, which is also where I technically started recording after being in a band or two. I think that’s how most musicians get started with recording — the desire to record yourself and be able to cut your own demo, or just try to figure out how to get sounds you hear on these records that you grew up on. “How did they do that? I want to try to do that…”

When I was around 18, I got tendinitis, a torn tendon and some nerve damage in my foot and had to quit, which was kind of devastating to me at the time because it’s like by that time I was in thrash bands, death metal bands, playing Slayer songs and like that was my life. It made me extremely depressed. But you could call it a blessing in disguise I guess because that’s why I picked up a guitar. I wrote a handful of songs and around the post-Rax Trax time, I recorded my solo album called Nocturne“Ave Noctem” and released that under Chicago’s Do or Die Records, which was actually Tim Pearson’s label and distro.

After the injury with my foot, I kind of had to, like, slowly reteach my whole right leg how to play drums with a different group of muscle memory, it’s kind of weird, it’s still difficult to maintain certain slower and mid paced tempos, because of the…I don’t know if it’s because of the scar tissue or just the actual tendons that are missing that’ll never really grow back that control the plantar flexion, all that stuff up on the front of your leg that stretches from your knee to your toes that controls all that, or the nerve damage… But you know, I can manage. I’ve been keeping very busy as a drummer. Right now, I have five projects that I’ve played on that are unreleased and/or unfinished, between bands that I’m in, session drumming — mostly session drumming. I usually play on at least two albums a year of some kind.

When you do a session, is that usually for people you know locally or is it remote?

It’s both. I recently played on a funeral doom project, which was very interesting and challenging in a new way because I’ve never played stuff that was deliberately that slow and so spread out while also trying to maintain a certain level of creativity. Walking the tightrope of creativity but also tasteful minimalism with that style of music. That project was from New Zealand, which is actually Marcus from Diocletian’s funeral doom project. 

I got that gig because FIN did three weeks in Europe with Diocletian and I got really close with those guys. They’re actually some of my best friends now. I got the mix and master on the new Diocletian record because of that as well, and they’ve asked me to go back to Europe to do sound with them in May, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to because of everything else going on here, and another big gig I got asked to do — a live gig that I’m not really at the liberty to talk about just yet. But as that unfolds, I don’t know if I’m gonna have time to be going back to Europe at that time.

Do you rehearse with the band before doing the session?

Mostly not, I’ll either get the client to send me a tempo map with scratch guitars, and a rough mix of programmed drums, or i’ll help do the tempos and scratch guitars here prior to drum writing and tracking. Sometimes they’ll do the keeper guitars first and that’s usually better just because they sound better. If they have programmed drums that they built the whole thing to, I’ll ask for a separate track of programmed drums so I can see what kind of feel they want and where.

Is having the programmed drums helpful?

It is, especially if I’m tracking and writing drum parts unattended.

If I just get clicks and guitars with no drums, I draft songs with the client. Like, I did session drums for a band called Invasion from Northwest Indiana. It’s their fourth full-length, military-themed death metal, like World War II stuff, kinda like Hail of Bullets. He sent me scratch guitars and tempo maps that he did at Bang Recording with John Hehman, and I wrote drums to it, auditioning different beats for each riff, seeing how they flow, saving every take, and mixing and matching them if necessary, and sending the client daily drafts. And they’d be like “Oh, for this riff, that’s supposed to be a thrash beat and for this other one, lay back on the double bass…” Just little things like that. But most of what I send people they love, you know, which is nice.

Looking at your setup, you’ve got your desk here with all of your rack gear and your drums are about 10′ away. If you’re doing a session and you’re trying to punch in, is it a lot of getting up and coming over here and then sitting down, or do you have a remote somehow?

The way I used to do it, this whole rack with my interface, headphone amp, and mic pres is on wheels. It was a pain in the ass, but I used to wheel this over there with my MacBook Pro, so I could see all my meters and Pro Tools, and have my pres at my fingertips so I could adjust things and get sounds just sitting there, hitting drums with headphones on, adjusting pres.

I’ve actually gotten more gear since; there’s more pres over here [in a second rack], so I can’t really do that anymore. And I’ve got this Mac Pro tower. It’s like a 2009, dual quad core 2.8 ghz processors, 20 gigs of RAM. Old, but still a workhorse. These are like the industry standard for studios. A bunch of people still have these in their studios. They’re built like tanks…

I used to have one. The insides are a work of art. They’re gorgeous.

Yeah. And it’s easy to do upgrades and maintenance on them yourself, surprisingly as far as Mac goes…

So, with this computer, I got this nice Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I take the keyboard, mouse, and this monitor over there [by the drums], put it up on top of that PA speaker, and a 15′ HDMI cable goes to that from the tower. It’s about a two-minute changeover.

As far as tones, if I’m by myself, yeah, I’m doing some walking back and forth, but once you get the sounds, all you’re doing is navigating through Pro Tools over there by yourself. I can usually get one to two songs done per day, written from scratch and tracked.

Do they typically have bass guitar when they send you scratch tracks?

I would say more often than not, there’s no bass yet. And people will often want to wait till the drums are there to write the bass lines. That’s sort of like a push and pull thing. If the bass was there first, I might be more inclined to hone in on what the bass is doing during certain parts, but it might be more conducive to a good song if guitars and drums are in and then the bass locks in with each of those dynamics after the fact. If you have a laid back drumbeat or a thrash beat or a blast beat, I think absolutely, that should dictate what the bass is doing. Whether it’s a tremolo bass thing, or if he’s just laying back on quarter notes, I think the bass should follow the drums.

When a band comes in and they want you to do the full production, are you doing live scratch tracks? Do you have to worry about bleed? Because we’re all in one room. It’s a control room and live room…

Yeah, I’ve actually done a lot of live recordings in here. They come out great as long as the band does their job and plays well with good instruments. Those three baffles are 8″ deep with 5/8″ MDF wood, filled with rigid fiberglass. I isolate a 4×12 over there and make a little box out of the baffles, which is surprisingly thorough isolation, considering it’s right next to the drums. You can have a 4×12 loud enough. With these 100 watt heads, I usually don’t track with the volume louder than 2 or 3, to be honest. That’s just enough for the speakers to break up.

Amps galore.

Are you going for final takes or is it all scratch to be redone?

If we can. It helps because there’s a tiny bit of bleed, particularly in the drum room mics. To get the big, organic, John Bonham drums, you crush the ever-living life out of your room mics and get them kind of breathing and pumping a little bit, depending on the nature of the tune. Compressing them that heavily, you’re going to get some of that cabinet bleed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — you have that little ambient vibe during breaks, you can hear the guitar sustain just a little bit in the overheads and the room mics. Not necessarily a bad thing, if you ask me.

But yeah, if I can, I try to keep the live takes. That also depends whether or not they’re using a grid. A lot of people come in here like, “Nope, no click. Absolutely not.”

How do you feel about clicks, being both a drummer and a producer?

I prefer to use them just because you have exponentially more control. It’s a safety net, concerning ease of editing if necessary. And if you’re doing multiple takes of songs, everything is in the same place. Say you have a 2-bar count-in, eight clicks for this song — every take you do is going to be in the same place.

Even if it’s a full band take, I’ll do drums, guitar one and sometimes the bass will be DI’d. The only thing that’s being amped in real time is the guitar. I’ve got that other set of wood and 10 inches of rubber rigid fiberglass baffles that I could put a bass cab in, so we could do that if we wanted to, but I usually just go direct in and then I’ll re-amp the bass later.

Is there an artistic compromise as a drummer, using a click?

I’ve done both, I appreciate both, and I’m down to do both.

On those last two FIN albums, Charles and I tracked live with no click, whole takes only, no punch-ins.

That’s a pride thing, a purist thing. If you mess up, we got to do it again. It’s the way music used to have to be recorded. Some of the songs on the last record, “Arrows…,” I did as many as 10 takes [to get the drums], but every single note on the record was a whole take. Guitars, we’d go back and overdub four rhythms. We would do two takes with a high-gain, trebly black metal tone and then two takes with a more middle-y, almost muddy tone on like a 2-channel dual Recto with the treble at zero and the guitar on the neck pickup, or something like that, just to get as much of that low end body as possible because FIN had no bass, and we were in E standard. So you’re trying to get low end from wherever you can. Most of the low end on those records comes from the kick drum. And it comes out sounding surprisingly full.

Berator, the band I’m playing in now, we just did a six-song EP the same way. That was me and Richard, tracking the organic foundation with guitar one and drums, full takes, no click.

But most of the session drumming I’ve done, that’s all clicks. You kind of have to do it that way if it’s people sending things between cities, between countries. You need a map.

If I have a client here, I prefer to have that safety net and things usually come out sounding more solid that way. Even if you leave the performance unedited, the fact that you had that click cracking the whip behind the whole recording makes everything sound more solid.

But you know, having said that, I’ve had bands come in here and do it live without a click and absolutely kill it. If you have good players with good instruments, and I do my job and track everything well, it all comes out great and organic. I think there’s something to be said for that, because people didn’t always use metronomes, and unless you got a show that’s on rails, with a click, people don’t use clicks when they rehearse, people don’t use clicks at shows. It’s supposed to be organic, but it’s also more difficult to get a slick-sounding recording without a click.

If a band comes in and they want you to produce something and they’re not used to using a click, do you force the issue?

I wouldn’t say force. If we reach a point where I think the project would greatly benefit from a click, I’ll gently suggest it. It’s happened a few times, where we’ve planned to live track, and the band comes in, we set up, get drum sounds, get guitar sounds, get bass sounds, press record, and I’m listening to songs that I’ve never heard before because we didn’t do preproduction, and the nature of the songs is so fast, and it needs to be tight, and if we don’t have a grid, that’s going to be really hard to do. Any time that comes up, you have to be very diplomatic. A lot of people are set in their ways and have a certain vision of how they like to work and how things should be. But also, people hire me because they want a certain quality and product. And I just explain to them that there’s a number of ways which we can reach that end. Especially concerning today’s standards for heavy music — most of it’s pretty perfect sounding, unless it’s intentionally raw. “If you want the best product possible I think a click would would really help us and everyone will be happier in the end.” If they all agree, great. If not, we continue on and try to make it as good as possible without a click.

A lot of times, I feel this job is a little bit more like a psychiatrist or something. It’s like you have to figure out a way make the musician comfortable enough to play well, no matter what the circumstances. And I know it’s weird, but when you hit the record button, people get nervous. And when they hear that click, you kind of have to say something to them to get them to be comfortable.

Especially if they’re not the person at home, recording their own demos If they’re more of a live player…

I think there’s something to be said for spending hours by yourself, recording with a click. If you do that in your own home, you’re going to be fine in here. But a lot of people, the only time they hear a click is every couple of years when they record an album.

To me, as a drummer, it’s kind of fun because it lets me know exactly where I am. It’s kind of like playing a video game. When you’re in that pocket, the click disappears because you’re on those transients, and it’s satisfying knowing you just got a badass take as close to a machine as possible because you were following a machine. A lot of guys hate it, though. And a lot of guys, I don’t really understand this, but they can’t even do it. You know? And it is what it is, and you do what you can to work your way around it and make the record or finish the record. With guitar players, usually there’s one rhythm player that’s more solid than the other guy, either because he wrote most of the songs, or he’s just a tighter rhythm guy. Sometimes I’ll have to diplomatically suggest, “Maybe Guy A does all the rhythms, for the sake of the recording. How do you guys feel about that?” And sometimes it’s met with, “No way, bro. I gotta play on my own record,” and I totally get that. You try to get the best performance you can, maybe get more takes out of the more solid guy so you have a little bit of a safety net with rhythms for the record.

A lot of this job is diplomacy, hosting, and caretaking, because you have to be perceived as — I use this word loosely — the “coolest” guy in the room. Everybody has to trust you and feel comfortable around you. You’re the one behind the reins, making all the moves to get the sound that they want. That’s the only thing they care about. That’s why they’re in this room. There’s a lot of customer service. At the end of the day, this is a service industry. And you gotta do what they want, and keep them happy.

When a band hires you to do their record, what should they come in with on day one?

If it’s the full treatment, I prefer to have a day or two of pre-production a minimum of two weeks before the first tracking date, ideally a month.

Is that here?

Yeah. Whoever wrote the songs comes in with their instrument or instruments, and we go over every song, one riff at a time, writing the clicks. “That riff feels a little slow at 135.” “Alright, let’s try 136.” And we’ll play riffs over and over again, write all the clicks with scratch guitars, usually plugged in direct, running through an amp sim in Pro Tools.

Ideally, we have the whole band here for that. The drummer is playing on his lap or whatever, the vocalist is making sure he’s not going to be rushing or singing his parts too slow. If you do it with just the guitar players, sometimes tracking day comes around and the drummer’s like “Oh, that’s fast….”

At the end, I’ll make a bounce with clicks and guitars and another bounce of just clicks and tell them to go home and practice with them on their own. Run the clicks through their PA, practice with them as a band, just get the clicks into you. And more importantly, make sure these tempos are correct. Often after the pre-production day, it’ll be like, “Yeah, there’s a couple parts that are, kind of messed up.” If it’s only two or three riffs, that’s no big deal; we can we can fix them as we go on the drum tracking day.

After that, the first tracking will usually be drums, which is usually two days for a full-length. I’ll try to load in, set up, and get sounds the night before, because that’ll take 2, 3, 4 hours if you’re taking your time getting drum sounds. That’ll be a Friday night and then we’ll start Saturday at noon so people come in fresh.

Do you try to record song one, song two, or do you do all the drums, all the bass, all the guitar…?

I usually do the one-instrument-at-a-time thing. I’ll do drums and then ideally, maybe a week, next week or even two weeks from then we’ll do guitars, bass, that way it gives me a chance to edit the drums which you know can be very time consuming in this in this profession with the particular genres of music I tend towards.

Would you say that most of the drums get edited? Like does anyone come in here and just go straight to the final product, or does it all need editing?

Again, total transparency here, I’d say most drummers need some editing. Even if we’re using a click and the drummer’s good and the drummer’s on, drummers have a tendency to rush, as much as a 32nd note, just right in front of the click the whole time. You could almost chop entire sections and just nudge them a certain amount of milliseconds and the whole thing would be more on. That’s what I would call light editing, not like chopping quantizing every single drum.

Do you do heavy editing for some things, like technical death metal? Would you quantize all that?

Yeah, depending on the project. I mentioned today’s standards of metal production. At the very least, it needs to be a perceivably perfect performance, aside from wrestling with the mix itself. You have so much else to worry about while mixing metal — you’ve got these double bass blastbeats, extreme drums, you’ve got distorted bass, distorted guitars, all tuned down to something like B, you’ve got growling vocals and often distorted vocals, and just making a mix sound large and clear and heavy and coherent like that is challenging enough without having stuff not be tight, you know. So everything needs to be pretty airtight.

Having said that, though, I try to leave everything as organic as possible. I kind of pride myself on getting a mostly organic drum sound, not like 100% samples or anything like that. I mix my room mics as high as possible. And that’s basically how you get a recording to sound like a dude in a room playing drums, is pay attention to your room mics.

Do you use samples, like replacing the snare and enhancing stuff?

I use them as reinforcement. I’ll mix the organic mic a good bit higher than the sample, and the sample is just a little bit of help. There’s entire records with MIDI drums, MIDI cymbals, everything, which I don’t like. I’ve never replaced cymbals. I very rarely replace toms or even mix samples with toms. It’s mostly just a little kick and snare help with a sample in the mix, just kind of under the organic snare just to help with that crack or that thud or whatever it may need during during certain parts.

With things like kicks…you know, a death or thrash metal record’s not supposed to have an organic kick drum. It’s supposed to be punching you in the chest every every hit. And most guys don’t actually play like that. If the drummer’s playing some stompy AC/DC beat, you’re gonna get that big, thuddy kick in your rooms because he’s stomping on it. Then the next riff has 16th note rolls on the kicks, those strokes aren’t going to be as strong as the AC/DC beat. So as far as building a mix goes, as a sonic picture, they may need a little bit of help.

When a band comes in to record something, what can they do to make their life here easier? And your life easier? What do you wish bands would be doing before they set foot in the door?

Their own pre-production. Meaning they have some sort of DAW where they can build tempo maps and record guitar. In this day and age, I don’t really see a reason anyone should not be able to. You could probably do pre-production for a full album on a phone. Even Guitar Pro — you can transcribe your guitar parts, then send someone that for pre-production.

That’s what the Nucleus guys do and I so greatly appreciate that. Dave comes in here with the MIDI scratch guitars, which is actually superior to an organic scratch guitar because it’s inhumanly perfect; you know exactly what the riff is supposed to be, when and where. And then another MIDI file with the tempo maps that I can just import into Pro Tools, and bam, there’s my session. We have the whole record laid out before us, with a scratch guitar as a guide, and we can just begin tracking.

The Guitar Pro thing, I’ve done all of that, but I never thought of using it as pre-production for a session. That’s really smart. If you’re doing complex music, you’re probably going to write out the tablature anyway, so just spit those things out and and you’re ready to go when you walk in.

Yeah, I think that’s a lot of how Dave writes. The Nucleus guys are always great with recording. They come in very prepared, well-rehearsed to their own clicks that they write and practice to without me even asking them.

Tracking drums for Nucleus.

Is there any one thing that you invested in — and by “invested” I mean, money, time, sweat…anything — that really paid off?

As far as gear, I would say my Cascade Fat Heads. Very affordable dual element ribbon mics that come with this wonderful XY mount. They’re pretty much made to be drum rooms. I learned about these at Rax Trax. I think you can get the pair for $400-500 bucks, new. They’re dual element, figure eight polar pattern, meaning they pick up from both sides of the mic, so when you have them in XY, they’re essentially picking up 360 degrees of sound, which is why they’re good for drum rooms. I mix my drum rooms high to get that that big, organic drum sound, and oftentimes 60-70% of the drum mix is these two mics.

And they’re probably on everything you do, just about…

Oh yeah. I used to put one of these on guitar, too. You put a [Sure SM-57] and a [Sennheiser] 421 or something like that right up on the cone, an inch away or right on the grill, whatever, on-axis / off-axis, but then a ribbon, you can’t really put it any closer than 6 inches because ribbons, while they can handle SPL, they can’t handle wind; that’ll damage the ribbon. And when a speaker is moving like that, you bet your ass it’s going to kick off some some air movement. So if you have a 57 [close] and a ribbon mic [farther back], they’re going to be pretty far out of phase. So you try flipping the phase after you tracked or while you’re tracking, and usually you have to mix it at a considerably lower volume, just barely under because it’s so far out of phase. Maybe it does something cool, maybe it adds a little bit of low end to your guitars, maybe it adds a little bit of mids. I haven’t done that in a while, though. I usually just do either one or two 57s or a 57 and a 421; kind of a less-is-more approach. If I’m using two close mics like that, I do make sure that they’re in phase when I’m tracking because if they’re not, what’s the point?

Are you controlling phase with mic placement or nudging in the mix?

It’s all placement. Usually you can hear it right away when you open the guitar up and then it’s like you mute one and listen to the other. The volume should double if you have them at the same level. And then I will also zoom in and just look at the waveforms.

Do you phase align all your drum mics?

Not really. You’re talking about like in post-production, scooting tracks around, aligning them to the snare? Not only is that extremely time consuming, it also phase aligns certain things, but knocks other things out. Say you’ve got 12 live mics in a room, if you’re lining everything to the snare, that might make your snare sound better, but it might make your toms or your cymbals sound worse. I’ll flip phase obviously. I’ll flip phase on a bottom snare mic. I usually flip phase on my room mics, because they’re 10-12 feet away from the kit. What I’ll notice is when I flip the phase of my room mics, the kick gets a lot more boom. Just stuff like that, you know? But I don’t really do the phase aligning thing. It’s always just kind of freaked me out a little bit.

Are bands here for mixing? Do you want them here?

Usually the only attended mixing I do is late stage mixing. I prefer to do most of the mixing on my own because a lot of that is boring, especially if you’re starting a mix from scratch and soloing up snare and snare bottom, and cueing everything and getting compression and experimenting. It’s almost counterproductive to have the client around in the early stages of the mix, so I’ll usually mix and reference them in my car before I show the client anything. Send them something that sounds really good so that’s the first thing they hear when they’re giving you notes. “Sounds really good, but can you do this here, here, here and maybe a little bit, you know, less of this…”

If anything, I’ll schedule an attended final mix session. Everyone is mostly happy and we’re all sitting around discussing different production ideas so to speak, like vocal effects, guitar effects, delay throws, things like that.

Sometimes I’ll do attended car referencing. We’re sitting around doing what we hope are final mixes, and then we burn them, go to the parking lot, listen, come back in…

What about mastering? Should bands be around for that?

It’s same kind of thing, really. I think a lot of people don’t really understand what mastering is. Usually, I’ll have the dynamics vs. loudness discussion with them. And some people want the dynamics. All right, great. This gives me license to mix and not worry about slamming everything to the ceiling. And some people want it as loud as possible, which is also kind of cool in its own way and presents its own challenges. I oftentimes will try to kind of get the best of both worlds: as loud as possible without compromising dynamics too much.

Do you like mastering your own mixes?

I do, but at the same time, I always tell people “If you can afford it, by all means outsource; just make sure you pick the right guy.” To me, I feel like outsourcing mastering is a 50% toss up, whether or not I think the mastering engineer made an improvement upon the product. Sometimes it’s like, “Man, he destroyed my mix,” and sometimes it’s like “Wow, that sounds a lot better.” Either way, you’ll get my master included because I’m going to do whatever I think should be done to make it sound good. And that’s included in my flat rate. If you want to spend more money, outsource it.

Do you charge flat rate for the whole production or per song?

I usually do per song.

So the price of the recording is going to be determined by how many songs they have.

Oh, yeah. You’ve got to be flexible. Back to the psychologist thing, you’ve got to feel people out. Some people are A,B, or C type personalities and you gotta keep them happy. Sense of humor is very important. Being able to make someone laugh is the most accessible way of making anyone in the world feel comfortable. Even if you never met them, you’re making them feel good. It helps people relax. If you can keep people laughing and in good spirits while they’re in the studio, that helps enormously.

It’s funny, for a genre that’s so “tough,” we’ve all got egos and it’s really easy to get them hurt.

Yeah, it is. And maybe you don’t have what it takes because you don’t have the social skills. Maybe you’re not able to cater to their personality in tandem with their artistic vision, and whatever you need to do to meet both of those ends.

People go to school to learn so much technique and technical stuff and yet this stuff is probably as important, if not more so…

Yeah, it is. And maybe you don’t have what it takes because you don’t have the social skills. Maybe you’re not able to cater to their personality in tandem with their artistic vision, and whatever you need to do to meet both of those ends.

Okay. I have two more questions. One is about producing. So when you go work with some big name, producer, and they’re clearly a producer, people know going in that they’re running the show. If a band comes here, do they understand that you’re in charge, that you are going to produce them? Or do some people come in thinking you’re here to track them and that’s it?

Yeah, that’s a conversation I used to have more. More often at the beginning of the project, like in the pre-production phase. “You’ve hired me to record your product and turn atmospheric pressure into a physical tangible form in some way. But I would also like to extend my services as a producer, this means me being the fifth or sixth member of the band making artistic suggestions and even decisions in order to make this the best piece of art possible, perceivably to the most amount of people possible. Would you like me to do that?” And most people say yes. It’s really cool to be able to have that relationship with a band for that short amount of time. That’s an extremely unique relationship that most people who aren’t music producers ever get to experience in their life — to have the honor of a band putting their blood, sweat, and tears into your hands and say, “Do the best you can with our art, make this the vision that we’re looking for,” and to be accepted as a sort of member of that artistic process. It’s pretty cool.

My last question was going to be “What’s your favorite part of this,” but I think you just answered it.

I’d say mixing and having the band be happy with it and have it be beyond their expectations is what’s most existentially rewarding to me. That’s kind of what I live for — at the end of a project, listening and knowing without a doubt that it came out kick ass. Mission accomplished.

Posted by Jason Muxlow

Founder of this here publication and guitarist for Witchcryer (Ripple Music) and The Living Fields (Candlelight Records). Also ex-Earthen Grave (Ripple) and Wintering (RIP, little death metal band). Michigan born, Chicago aged, and currently residing just outside of Austin, TX.

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