Heavy guitars haven’t gone out of style. Churko shows us how it’s done at No.1.
Story: Paul Tingen
There’s been a worldwide flurry of high-charting heavy metal albums recently. In one week, the top three best-selling albums worldwide were by Bring Me The Horizon, Slayer, and Iron Maiden. This trio of high-flying metal successes came hard on the heels of two other very successful metal albums, Disturbed’s Immortalized and Five Finger Death Punch’s Got Your Six went No.1 and 2 respectively.
Both those bands operate in a similar metal vein, with low-ish screamed vocals; tuned down guitars and basses; busy, hard-hitting drums; and, most of all, monolithic walls of distorted rhythm guitars, at times overlaid by virtuoso guitar solos.
The similarity in sound is not entirely coincidental, as both were engineered, and in varying degrees co-written, mixed and produced by Kevin Churko. From his hideout, Churko shared his expertise on how he went about recording, mixing, and producing the red-hot rhythm and solo guitars on Got Your Six and Immortalized.
Kevin Churko works from his own studio, The Hideout, in Las Vegas, which is Pro Tools-based, and also has a healthy amount of mics and outboard, used purely during the recording stage, and M&K 2510, Meyer Sound HD1 and Yamaha NS10 monitors. The Hideout is a bit of a family affair. Churko is helped out by engineer/producer son Kane and studio manager daughter Khloe, while his wife designed some of the studio’s aesthetic.
The Canadian cut his studio teeth working with the legendary John ‘Mutt’ Lange from 1999-2003 clocking up credits like Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Britney Spears, Celine Dion and The Corrs. Churko first stepped into heavy-metal terrain after going independent, in 2004, when working with Ozzy Osbourne, and has since become one of the world’s go-to heavy metal producers.
4 RHYTHM GUITARS BETTER THAN 1
Churko: “FFDP were the first band I started doing four rhythm guitars with because they always brought in demos with four rhythm guitar tracks. Now I do it with many of the heavy metal bands I produce.
“I have the guitarist play the same part four times: twice with one sound panned left and right, and twice with a slightly different sound, again panned left and right but not quite as wide. This really widens the rhythm guitar and makes it sound huge across the audio spectrum. One sound will be brighter and pointier, the other will be warmer and fatter. I blend these sounds according to what the song needs. Of course, the guitarist has to be exceptionally precise in his playing! It’s all about articulation, and the guitarists play a lot lighter than many people assume. It also takes a lot of work. It’s not like recording a band in a room, live with a few mics. You’re building a wall of sound, brick by brick.”
Churko: “Disturbed brought great demos to my studio recorded at [guitarist] Dan Donagan’
s and [singer] David Draiman’s home studios. Dan played all his rhythm guitars through the Kemper Profiling Amp, using one patch that came with the Kemper and one patch I had created at my studio.
“This is my fifth album with FFDP, so I know what they like, and I know what has and has not worked in the past. Zoltan [Bathory] tracked his rhythm guitars at my studio, and I go to Jason [Hook]’s studio to record him. I tend to record guitar cabinets with a Shure SM58 and a Royer 121, sometimes a Sennheiser 421, and then a Vintec 500-series mic pre, and API 550b and Radial Q4 EQs. I DI the guitars as well, just in case we want to reamp them.
“Of course, you first set up the amp and the sound coming from it. In that situation you’re also hearing the ambience in the room, and when you stick mics close up, it sounds very different. I don’t use ambient mics to record rhythm guitars. The rhythm picking styles are very immediate, very tight, and you want to be able to hear all that fast picking.
“Where I place the mics is still a little bit of trial and error, but usually what works best for me is to place them close to the circumference of the cone, slightly facing in with a little bit of angle. That will give me a little bit more attack and articulation. If you put a mic directly on the cone, the sound gets smoother and warmer, but you lose a little bit of articulation. I want to pick up enough of that brightness and articulation without it sounding overly bright.”
Churko: “While recording guitars I’m already thinking of the big picture, going for a good guitar sound, but also making sure it will fit in with the rest of the arrangement. The EQ I use during recording is usually cutting low end and high end over 10k and boosting mid-range. At the recording stage I’m mostly just trying to take away problems, because I will be EQ’ing again later on in Pro Tools.
“I’ll EQ each mic separately and record the two mics on each amp to one track. I could, of course, record each mic to a separate track, but that would double my track count. It just gets messy and running Pro Tools becomes an administration job. Sessions get complicated enough these days. I like to commit to one awesome sound from one amplifier! I don’t really compress guitars during recording, because the guitars already have so much overdrive on them. If you add compression, they’ll just sound smaller.”
DEALING WITH LOW END
Churko: “Recording and mixing bands like Disturbed and FFDP can be quite challenging, because there is so much going on in the low mids and low end. I struggle with that constantly. In the old days everyone was playing in the key of E, and maybe they dropped the low E string to a D, but now the lowest strings of both the guitars and basses are dropped down to A. This can make it hard to even get a tone, because the string is rattling and loose. The drums are also tuned low, and altogether it makes maintaining definition in the rhythm section a big issue.
“Urban music has a big bass, but other than that there’s nothing going on down there, so bass drops will sound awesome. You can’t really hear bass drops in the bands I work with because the sonic space in the low end and low mids is already full. Because the guitars today tend to be in the range where the bass used to be, I have to make them brighter and add more mid-range. Many riffs are played on the bottom two strings and the only way to get definition is through brightness and distortion.”
RECORDING LEAD GUITARS
Churko: “Recording lead guitars is different. The solos from most of the bands I work are very musical, melodic pieces. It needs to sing, with enough sustain for long notes to be hanging for a bar and a half, so the guitarist needs to play with more gain and distortion. At the same time you also want to be able to hear every note when he’s playing fast, so you also want articulation and clarity.
“The solo is the brightest thing in the production, and you don’t want to hide it. It’s all about making the solo sound good. I tend to record the lead guitars with the same mic chain as the rhythm guitars, the main difference in the sound comes from the guitarist turning up the gain or using an additional pedal. But when EQ’ing on the way in, I’ll again cut the low end, but I’ll boost higher frequencies.”
Churko: “I mix as I go, all in Pro Tools, using only plug-ins. I’ll get them in their final shape very quickly after recording. I like them to sound the way I want them as early on as I can, because everything is interactive. I may have a great bass sound and a great guitar sound, but the most important thing is that they work with each other. I want to know what I have almost immediately. With a lot of the bands I work with, EQ is both technical — as in being able to hear every note — and artistic, in the sense that I may want it to sound more nasty here or more abrasive there. I may want the listener to be almost angry when listening.
“In general, you EQ things so that everything can be heard. If rhythm guitars are too bright, they are trampling all over the lead vocals in these two bands. Luckily they both have singers with voices that really cut through, but I still often have to cut holes in the guitar frequency spectrum to make space for the vocal. Strangely, you don’t have to make the solo guitar brighter than the rhythm guitars, because it is naturally higher, brighter and louder, so what you tend to do instead is add more body to the lead guitar, which helps it to poke through the mix. Overall, the effects I use on the vocals often also work on the lead guitar. This can include things like doublers and delays.”
Disturbed: Rhythm guitars in Eye Of The Storm
Churko: “This track mainly consists of a washy bed of rhythm guitars with a lead guitar over the top. It took five guitar tracks to get the rhythm guitars right. The inserts on the first rhythm guitar, which is a DI track, are the Line 6 Pod Farm 2, McDSP Channel G, and SoundToys Microshift. The EQ is taking off all low end and notching at 400Hz. It’s a lo-fi sound to go with the ‘Dollar Store Cassette’ Pod patch. The Microshift spreads the guitar in the stereo field, acting like a glorified chorus effect. The sends are the Pitch, which goes to an aux track with the Waves Doubler, and two Manny Marroquin delays, because I wanted the guitars to be lush and musical.”
Disturbed: Solo guitar in Eye Of The Storm
Churko: “I used the Sonnox Oxford Suppresser DS on the lead guitar to take out some grouchy high-end frequencies that were hurting my ears. The Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines soften and widen the guitar tone, and the McDSP Channel G EQ mainly takes out high and low end. The Pitch and Delay sends go to the same aux track as the rhythm guitars. I tend to use pretty similar delays in each song, so I prefer to have them as sends, rather than on the inserts, because I figure that if I use it on one track, I’ll use it on other tracks as well.”
FFDP: Solo guitar in Jekyll & Hyde
Churko: “The Virtual Tape Machines plug-in adds a little bit of saturation and bottom end, in a subtle way. It smoothes the rough edges at the top. The Channel G again rolls off low and high end and takes out the nasty bits. I rarely boost with EQ. To me it really is about subtractive EQ. I’m trying to be true to the natural sound of the instrument and amplifier, and just remove frequencies that get in the way or threaten to overwhelm the song. The Waves L3 MultiMaximizer is used to make the guitar as loud as possible. As with the Disturbed track, the Pitch send goes to the Waves Doubler. The vocal also goes through that. It’s very simple, a delay of 20ms on one side and 40ms on the other, panned left right with a little bit of top end added. The Manny Marroquin delay is the ¼-note delay.”
Disturbed: Rhythm guitars in The Vengeful One
Churko: “I got the sound mostly right with the McDSP G Channel EQ, taking out low and high end, and boosting a bit at around 8kHz. When it came to the mix I felt it was still a little bit too abrasive, so I notched out some really biting frequencies with the Eiosis AirEQ, and added a soft overall boost in the same range. The four rhythm guitar tracks are all sent to the aux track, just above them, which has the Slate Digital Virtual Channel on it.”
FDDP: Clean chorus guitars in Wash It All Away
Churko: “The intro clean guitars are similar in sound, but took eight guitar tracks to get right. The clean chorus guitars consist of just four tracks. They have another G EQ, cutting out low and high end and boosting at 3.5kHz and 10kHz. The clean sound was a little bit dull, which is why I gave it a boost with the EQ. The P&M Tremolo Pan is like a tremolo on a Fender Deluxe. P&M do a bunch of plug-ins that do very simple things very well, and it worked great on this track. Like the other tracks, the Pitch in the send goes to the Waves Doubler plug-in, also here on a 20ms/40ms setting and adding high end. One side is tuned down and the other tuned up, so it also acts like a chorus. Finally, the Manny Marroquin delay shown here is the 8th note one.”