PARKWAY DRIVE’S GAMBLE
Parkway Drive took a ‘gamble’ by asking their live sound guy to produce their last record. The success of George Hadjichristou and his brother Dean’s meticulous, hard-hitting approach turned a gamble into a sure thing.
Story: Paul Tingen
Photos: Chady Awad & David Bichard
Three years ago Byron Bay metalcore band Parkway Drive took what they called “a gamble”; instead of continuing to work with big-name producers, they decided to record their fifth studio album, Ire, with two relatively unknown names. Well, one name, two people. Installed at the helm as the album’s producer George Hadjichristou, and his brother Dean took to the controls as the recording engineer. While the Hadjichristou name might not ring a bell for most, it has a longstanding affiliation with the Parkway Drive camp. George is the band’s live front-of-house engineer. “We thought it was more important having someone we are super comfortable with, knows our sound, and knows what works live,” commented drummer Benjamin Gordon, at the time.
“Getting super-comfortable” is not typically a recipe for excellence, but the “gamble” paid off, and Ire became Parkway Drive’s most successful album at the time, reaching number one in Australia. Last year, when it came to making the band’s sixth studio album, working with the Hadjichristou brothers was no longer a gamble, but the obvious thing to do. Once again, the chemistry worked, as Reverence turned out to be even more successful. Reaching number one in Australia, but also the third spot in Germany and number 14 in the UK.
Reverence is sonically adventurous, stepping out of the confines of metalcore to incorporate musical influences like folk and orchestral. George Hadjichristou didn’t only produce, but brought a collection of talents to the table like piano, string composition and arrangement. The album features some real strings, as well as synths and all manner of samples, atmospherics and other non-standard sounds in the metalcore genre. Going full loop, bringing George’s FOH perspective to the album-making process has delivered enormous-sounding albums that not only cement the band’s ascendancy in Australia’s heavy music scene, but helped them climb to the top of many live festival bills around the world.
HADJICHRISTOU’S ANALOGUE EDGE
Unfortunately, while George was eager to talk, he had just started the band’s European tour, and couldn’t find any space in the midst of his 24/7 schedule. It was up to Dean, the elder of the two, to spill the beans for the Hadjichristou brothers. Firstly, that name. “It’s Greek!” explained Dean. “We were born and raised in Greece, and 24 years ago my parents moved to Canada, wanting to make a fresh start here. I was 14 at the time, and George 11. We have been musicians all our lives. As we grew up, we were always in bands, with me playing drums. With regards to audio engineering, I started in radio broadcasting, and then studied Music Recording Arts at Fanshawe College, in Ontario. That was at the beginning of this century, and we still had to work with two-inch tape and a full console for a year before we were allowed to touch Pro Tools! I also did a postgraduate program at the college, which focused on post-production for films and mastering.”
Hadjichristou says his analogue education at Fanshawe gave him “an edge. Kids today are really spoilt working with non-linear DAWs and plug-ins, and gain structure not being as important as it was then. However, most of what I’ve learned has been the result of working in my studio on my own, every day, in the real world for the past 10 years. There’s that saying about having to learn the rules before you can break them, and that’s what I did. These days plug-ins have become really good and I’m mostly in the box, but I still occasionally miss analogue. There’s something magical about tweaking an EQ on a console, and compression is the one thing I think still doesn’t work as well in the box.”
SURFING THE WAVE
Hadjichristou’s “real world” studio in Ottawa, Canada is called All Buttons In. It’s where Parkway Drive recorded Ire and Reverence, a million miles away from the surf of Byron Bay. Dean began the studio back in 2001, but today there’s a full Pro Tools system with a Control 24 control surface, JBL LS305 and PreSonus Sceptre S8 monitors, a small collection of outboard like a UA 1176N compressor and API 512c preamp, and quite a few microphones. The list of visiting artists is extremely varied and includes quite a bit of folk and country.
“When you run a commercial studio you don’t choose the genres you’re working with,” remarks Hadjichristou. “I’ve worked on many country records, on my own, and with my brother. Recently, we work together less frequently, as he’s moved to Arizona, and is often on the road with Parkway Drive. Still, heavy bands gravitate towards recording here, and I love that!”
To date, Parkway Drive is the biggest name that has come through the doors of All Buttons In. Hadjichristou avidly remembers the first time they arrived in the beginning of 2015. “The band knew that George and I work on records together, and after a South American tour they came here, to record a demo for a song called Vice Gripe, which became the lead single for Ire. We had such a great time that they came back to do the entire album, and subsequently, Reverence. This despite notching up record-breaking temperatures of -45°C while we were recording Ire! The Australians did not like that! Luckily, the weather was beautiful when we recorded Reverence.”
The process of making the new Parkway Drive album involved demoing all songs, not once, but twice. While some artists prefer to avoid demo-itis by limiting their demos to Garageband sketches, apparently recording advanced demos during pre-production is quite common in metal.
Hadjichristou explained the process: “Jeff Ling, the band’s lead guitarist, starts a lot of the music, and he records his ideas at a small studio in his house. Ben, the drummer, and Winston [McCall], the singer, will also get their ideas down at his place. Over a year their demos kept evolving and, when they were advanced enough, George and I flew out to Australia. This was in July 2017, and we spent a month at a studio called Byron Hive, in Byron Bay. It was a comfortable and easy place to meet up, where George would work with them on the final arrangements, while I recorded everything in Pro Tools. Plus the band could go surfing during time off!”
DRUMS FOR DAYS
By the end of the time at Byron Hive, everyone knew “exactly what we were going to do,” said Hadjichristou. “We then recorded the band in Canada, one member at a time. The singer doesn’t need to be there while we are getting snare drum tones, for example. We did two weeks in August recording drums and piano at the Warehouse Studios in Vancouver, which is Bryan Adams’ studio, and then spent the next 10 weeks at my studio, recording the rest of the material. The order we recorded things in was drums, bass, rhythm guitars, lead guitars, vocals, group vocals and then all the support things like strings, anything MIDI, and synths pads and effects. It was a revolving door of rock stars coming in and out of my place! It would be my brother and I and one band member at a time in the studio. Everyone trusted us to go with the game-plan and get the right tones, so there wasn’t a lot of communication with the band members who weren’t there. We only asked for approval from the others if something changed.”
Recording one instrument at a time affords the Hadjichristou brothers a clarity of focus producers and engineers don’t typically get when recording an entire band at once. Dean began breaking down the detail that went into recording each instrument, starting with the drum sessions at The Warehouse. “We used the pre-production scratch tracks as backing for the drummer to play to in Vancouver,” he began. “We had already been experimenting with different recording techniques. On two of the songs we wanted to record the drum shells separate from the cymbals, and we also wanted a lot more room and space around the drums. We recorded the drums in Studio 2, which has a Neve 58x24x32 console originally commissioned by George Martin and Geoff Emerick in 1977 for Air London studios. It has 31106 EQs inside, and it’s my favourite console to work on. It adds just the right amount of colour to drums, so all the mics went through that.
“Because we had the time, we spent three days setting up, AB-ing every microphone and drum kit you can imagine! I ended up with an Audix D6 on the kick inside, and an RCA 77-DX on the outside. Because I knew the sessions would go to an external mix engineer, I wanted to give him some different snare options. We taped together a Beyerdynamic M201, Shure SM57, and AKG C451 so the capsules were phase aligned. There were six toms, each with an AKG C414 condenser, and I also brought my own CAD M179 mics for the upper toms. The ride and hat mics were Neumann KM54s, and the overheads were Manley Golds — we tried the Telefunken ELA M 251, but didn’t like them.
“The rooms was where the fun happened, with Coles 4038 mics going through UA 1176 compressors, and Neumann M149s as the far room mics going through an amazing Pye compressor. I also sent a mono hall mic through a Distressor. Plus, we set up a PA in the room and blasted the kick and snare through a big sub, which beefed up the low end. The Warehouse Studio 2 live room sounds very aggressive and bright, which can be amazing, but we wanted to steer it a bit more towards the sounds of the kick and the snare. While we were at The Warehouse, George also played piano parts on the Yamaha C7 piano there, which I recorded over the hammers with AKG C414s set to omni, and the same room mic we had used for the drums.”
ALL BUTTONS IN
After the sessions in the Warehouse were complete, the Hadjichristous decamped to Ottawa for the bass overdubs. “We used a Kemper amp simulator for both the bass and electric guitars, so there were no mics involved. I recorded the bass DI via the A-Designs REDDI, which is a great red box with a tube inside, so we got a bit of character from that, and we used a UA 1176 on the way into Pro Tools. We split the DI signal to the Kemper for a cab sound, and that signal was split again to an analogue Sansamp for some distortion. I prefer analogue distortion! So I ended up with three bass tracks. I also AB-ed a Burl Audio B2 converter with my Apogee Rosetta 800, and for some songs we chose the Burl. Once we found a bass sound we were happy with, we stuck with that for the entire album. We did that with most sounds on the album.
“We sent the Kemper line output into my API 512c mic pres to get some of that mid-range, and the lead guitars went through a Neve 1073 or a Tube-Tech CL1B, to give them a bit more glue. During demo-ing we’d created loads of guitar amp profiles in the Kemper, and also bought some profiles. We basically took four days sculpting the sounds of different amps on the Kemper and how to blend them together. I made a bunch of bounces of a guitar part of a certain song, with the different amp options unlabelled, so the band didn’t know what was what, and then we all listened on headphones to see which we liked best. Once we decided on a blend, that’s what we used at my studio. I grew up miking cabinets, and I still love doing that, but I have to say these Kempers sound pretty good!
“Recording the vocals was fun, because it was back to my grassroots… analogue style. For most of the record we used a Neumann U47 FET, because it can take Winston’s volume. The chain was U47 FET to a Neve 1073 mic pre, to a UA 1176LN compressor, then a CL1B, then the Burl converter into Pro Tools. On the previous record we spent many hours getting the right attack and release settings and gain structures, and I kind of replicated those for this record. We sometimes switched microphones, which obviously changed the gain structure, but the attack and release settings remained the same. The other microphones we tried were the Peluso 2247LE for what we called the ‘wizard vocals’; basically anything that wasn’t very loud, mostly spoken word. When we were doing vocal stacks for choir-ish sounds, I used all sorts of microphones — like the Avantone CK7 — to get different textures and keep them out of the same sonic space as Winston’s main vocal.
“We recorded a small string section in my studio, which has worked pretty well in the past. I had to make the sound a bit bigger using digital reverb, which is pretty convincing. In a track like Shadow Boxing, we reinforced the strings with individual violin and cello parts, and some MIDI strings. I recorded the strings with the Neumann U47 FET on the cello, and Peluso CM6s on the violins, plus the Avantone CK7 as a stereo pair, and a Peluso 2247LE in the middle for a centre image. These mics went through Neve 1073 and API mic pres, and I only compressed the centre Peluso. The rest went into Pro Tools without compression or EQ.”
During the entire recording process, Hadjichristou had also been mixing. “It’s a tough balance as a recording engineer, because you always try to keep your system running as smoothly as possible while recording. At the same time, everyone wants to have a clear idea of what the final result will sound like and when things sound more slick and finished it inspires everyone. The entire band came over to Ottawa when we recorded the final stages, to make sure they were happy with the additional layers we put on, like strings and keys, and also to judge the final rough mixes.
“Then everybody left, leaving me with a million files to prepare, backup, comp, and send to the mixer, Josh Wilbur! I made sure I sent him the blends we had decided on, and printed any processing we wanted to hear. The recording session for Shadow Boxing would have been 150 tracks, but I reduced that to 65-odd. The string session alone would have been 30 tracks, which I mixed down to two. We’d recorded 20 channels of ‘war drums’ in Vancouver, and a mixer doesn’t want to deal with all that, so I also bounced those to stereo. I mix other people’s sessions, and I hate it when every single decision is left up to me. I don’t need 16 tracks of one guitar pass. Decide the blend, and just send me two tracks!”
A few thousand kilometres south-east from Ottawa, in his home studio near Los Angeles, engineer, producer and mixer Josh Wilbur talked through his mix process for Reverence, which he says was the easiest he’s ever done. “They sent me exactly what they wanted to hear, which made the entire mix process very smooth. It was an unusual way to work, though. Normally I have tons of communication with the producer, and sometimes the band, but I did not talk very much with them. I did one trial mix, they reacted to it the next day, which was the fastest response ever, saying, ‘your mix is on the record,’ and then I mixed the rest of the album using that first mix as a template. When I was finished they sent me very detailed and organised comments, which I incorporated, and that was it.”
Wilbur is a studio professional of impressive pedigree. Born on the US East Coast, he played drums in bands as a teenager and obtained an associate’s degree in audio engineering from New England School of Communications. Following this he moved to New York, where he worked at Soundtrack studios assisting the legendary Andy Wallace, and also with hip-hop production team Full Force. For a few months he even worked with pop production icon Max Martin. This wide-ranging set of experiences shows in his credit list, which includes LCD Soundsystem, P!nk, Avril Lavigne, Steve Earl (Wilbur won an engineering Grammy Award for Earl’s Washington Square Serenade album), Leona Lewis and many others.
However, a substantial part of Wilbur’s credits are in the metal arena, with names like Avenged Sevenfold, Gojira, Trivium, Megadeth, and Lamb of God (which netted him three Grammy nominations). “I like everything from pop to hip-hop to R&B to metal,” remarks Wilbur. “Working with Full Force, Max Martin and Dr Luke, taught me a lot of about song writing and production, while I obviously learned a lot about engineering, mixing and production from Andy. If truth be told, making a metal record is very similar to doing a hip-hop record, because both are all about phrasing and cadence and less about melody.”
Getting married and having kids pushed Wilbur to live in Los Angeles, where he has a studio in a building behind his house. It has a substantial amount of outboard, which he only uses for tracking. When he mixes he’s all in the box, using Pro Tools, Genelec 8351 and Yamaha NS10 monitors, and the Dangerous Music Monitor ST, and an Apollo I/O. Contrary to many engineers and mixers who claim that moving into the digital-only realm was plain sailing, Wilbur admits the change-over — which he made around 2010 — was “rough.”
“The last full album I mixed on a desk was Lamb of God’s Wrath (2009), and when I went in the box I didn’t realise how much I had been relying on analogue circuitry,” he explained. “When you’re mixing on an SSL E- or G-series you always see the channel lights overloading. You’d boost things from there, and it’d sound great. When I went in the box I’d boost EQ on, say, the snare, and it’d hurt my ears, despite me making the same moves I was used to making on the SSL. I think it had a lot to do with gain staging, which I had to learn to control in the digital realm, and I also learned to mostly apply subtractive EQ, rather than the boosting I was used to. I had to learn to focus on removing sounds I don’t want to hear, rather than change what’s there. That relates to a more general issue as a mixer, which is that you sometimes just have to accept there are certain sounds you may not like. Rather than try to change it, you need to leave it alone, and just balance it and make it fit.”
Wilbur’s mixes for the Reverence album didn’t contain any sounds he had issues with. The ease of his mix process was not only due to well-organised sessions, but also because they sounded great. “When I start a mix, I first listen to the rough and with Parkway Drive they just sounded killer! The guitars in particular sounded fantastic, and at that point rule number one is not to ruin the production! They had done a great job tracking, and all I had to do was make sure you can hear everything and find other things to improve. Again, that was often a matter of using subtractive EQ to make space, so everything is more audible.
“In general, Mixing metal is a matter of mid-range management, because everything lives there. I love deep bottom end, and have a reputation for really deep sounding records, but the focus in metal is on the mid-range and especially on the guitars. When people ask me how I approach the bass when mixing metal I say that I’m trying to get it to sound like the left hand of a piano. The low keys of a piano are my reference, and I try to get the same shimmer at the top, so it’ll cut through in the mix.
“I also always start my mixes from scratch. The only template I have is a bunch of delays and reverbs and doubler aux tracks that I start with at the bottom of a session. It’s similar to the way I used to work on a desk, when I had my effect tracks on the right. I still run Pro Tools very similar to a console. I prefer to use sends for my reverb returns, and not to put them on the actual audio tracks. When I get sessions to mix there’s often a reverb and delay on every single vocal track, which seems unnecessary to me. I tend to take these off, then I can dip into my aux tracks to see what the vocals, and other tracks, need.”
DRIVE TO THE FINISH
“When I received the Parkway Drive sessions I started with the guitars, which is unusual for me, because I generally start with the drums. I liked the guitar tones they had, so it made sense to use them as a foundation to work from. I applied some EQ to the guitar tracks, using the stock Avid EQ3 7-band, which is still my favourite EQ, as it doesn’t have a large graphic representation. You don’t want to EQ based on what your eyes see, which is the reason I switch off the graphical representation on the FabFilter Pro-Q2, my second go-to EQ. The guitars had the EQ3 and a Waves LA3A, because they make the guitars chop. It makes them hit harder on the entrances.
“The Metric Halo Channel Strip is my go-to for the drums. It sounds more like an SSL than any plug-in modelled on an SSL! I used EQ and compression on all the individual tracks. I also added some drum samples, using the Massey DRT to create MIDI from the audio, and then I use the Steven Slate Trigger to trigger the audio. I do it that way so I can audition sounds very quickly. Some guys use the same drum samples on every record, but I don’t work like that. The snare sample I added on the Parkway Drive album was never used on another record! I then print the samples. There’s a lot of reverb on the snare, by request, mostly from the Valhalla Room, one of my favourite plug-in reverbs, and also a little bit of Lexicon chamber.
“I tend to use distortion on the bass to get it to cut through, though that is a delicate balance. I often receive a fuzz bass track, and that’s so difficult to work with. The type of distortion is key. I’ll often copy the clean bass track and send the copy through the Sansamp plug-in, to get some grind. I then suck some mids out of the clean track, and only use the mids from the distorted track. Parkway actually sent me a distorted bass track, so I regularly used that. It comes in and out in the songs, depending on where it’s needed. I ride the volume on the distorted bass sound as well and will EQ both bass tracks differently for different parts of the song.”
“On the vocals, I had the EQ3 7-band, FabFilter De-Esser, Waves 1176, and on some tracks the SoundToys Decapitator. I use the latter as a tape simulator, to do what the console used to do. I don’t crank the drive on it, I just use the stock setting with A pressed in, which I believe stands for analogue tape modelling. I do that quite often. It’s that or the UAD Studer A800 plug-in. Reverbs on the vocals were dependent on the song or the part, and would often be the UAD EMT plate. I also often used the SoundToys Echoboy for delay and the SoundToys MicroShift. These are all part of my standard settings, as is the Eventide H3000 Factory. I then find combinations of them that work.”
Wilburn said mixing the Parkway Drive albums was, “a pleasure. I wish all mix projects were like that!” For Hadjichristou, meanwhile, it was “an extra bonus to have worked on a high-profile record, as it gives me a bit more credibility. George and I have worked together for 15 to 20 years, and I’ve been busy for 15 years in a business nobody is supposed to survive in, so it is not defining my work. Still, I’m very happy to have worked on these Parkway Drive albums, as they up my profile a bit, and bands I work with have more trust in me.”