Life After Death
The history of music production includes a handful of people who defined the sound of entire genres. Often secretive and protective of their techniques, they created the sounds that others are asked to emulate. In 1989 Tomas Skogsberg defined the sound of Swedish Death Metal, and to this day artists go to him to get that sound. Australian guitarist Joe Matera travelled to Sweden to be recorded by the reclusive Skogsberg, and captured this rare interview.
Situated in the outskirts of a remote town about an hour’s drive from Stockholm, Sunlight Studios is synonymous with the sound of Swedish Death Metal. It was here that the sound of the genre was formed, with Entombed’s groundbreaking debut album ‘Left Hand Path’, produced and engineered by Tomas Skogsberg. Aside from Entombed, Skogsberg has left his mark on recordings from At The Gates, Darkthrone, Katatonia, The Backyard Babies, The Hellacopters and more. Working out of a converted barn with relatively simple equipment, Skogsberg’s approach is more about the attitude than the gear…
Joe Matera: You started Sunlight Studios in 1982. What led you to that decision?
Tomas Skogsberg: I was working in studios with people who were always thinking ‘inside the box’. I would ask them to stop looking at the VU meters and just listen to the speakers instead, but it was hard to get them to do that. So I decided to build my own studio. I started with a two-track tape recorder, then moved to eight tracks, and then to 16 tracks. It took a couple of years before I began to do commercial stuff that earned enough money to make it work.
JM: You’ve been credited with creating what became known as the ‘Swedish Death Metal’ sound, with Entombed’s debut album ‘Left Hand Path’. How did that come about?
TS: I had worked with some bands prior to Entombed who had the same kind of music, but I didn’t find that ‘sound’ until I worked with Entombed. We were like a team. Ulf ‘Uffe’ Cederlund, the guitarist in Entombed, is a very good guitarist and was very easy to work with. We were trying different things using a Boss HM-2 pedal. We would try this and we would try that, and after a couple of hours we had stumbled upon the sound. It was not like, ‘Oh wow! What have we created here?’ It was more like, ‘This is the sound!’
JM: And then other bands came knocking at Sunlight’s door, all wanting to capture this ‘new’ sound you had created?
TS: Yes. Some of the bands said that although they wanted a similar sound, they didn’t want to sound like Entombed. I told them it was not an Entombed sound — it’s a sound that came from here [Sunlight Studios] and it’s the sound I liked. Sometimes the sound they wanted was the same sound as Entombed’s, but they just didn’t want to call it the Entombed sound because they didn’t want to copy another band. The important thing, though, is that you have to play in the right mood to get that sound. Some of the guitarists didn’t handle the sound exactly as Uffe, but many others did.
I would ask them to stop looking at the VU meters and just listen to the speakers instead, but it was hard to get them to do that. So I decided to build my own studio.
LIKE A BOSS
JM: Along with the Boss HM-2, another important element in the ‘Sunlight’ sound is the use of the mid-range frequencies. Is there any specific approach you use to achieve this?
TS: Sometimes I work with the midrange frequencies very much, and sometimes not so much – it all depends on the music. I am not a sound engineer; I am a producer, and the studio is just a tool. I don’t know much about the exact frequencies or the amounts of them. I’m not much into the technical terms or approaches, I am more about tweaking the knobs and listening. I don’t care about whether it’s supposed to be like ‘this’ or like ‘that’; the important thing is that it sounds good. Many times when I work with engineers it is very cool for me because I can focus only on the sound and what’s happening with the musicians, and let the engineer handle all of that tech stuff.
JM: Tell us about the console in Sunlight’s control room…
TS: It’s an old ‘80s desk and the EQ on it helps me very much in creating that sound. Because of this, I don’t want to change equipment.
I have a friend who helps me with some of the electronic things, and there was this one time where he helped me run a little bit more electricity into the desk. I told him, ‘it will sound like how I want it to sound’. But he checked it and said, ‘oh no, there’s too much electricity going into the desk now, so I have to change it’. And he did. But I thought, ‘no, it’s not the same desk anymore’, so I made him change it back. He told me that because there was too much electricity going into it, he was worried that one day it might explode! So I treat it like an old car, I just don’t touch it. Maybe it’s magic or hocus pocus, but I do feel it is something that is good for the sound.
JM: Though your stock-in-trade is primarily death metal, you’re open to working with non-metal styled bands – especially those in a punk and rock vein. Do you use a similar approach when recording these types of bands?
TS: It’s not the same approach, but it’s the same thinking for me because I don’t like mainstream music; it’s all down the middle. I like music from the left side and right sides of mainstream, so I always try to do some things in the sound to make it different. For example, with The Backyard Babies we did the album ‘Total 13’ originally with much more of a punky sound, but the record company didn’t like it. So we had to redo the album a lot more softer and polished. I remember skipping over some songs and the record label called me really angrily and said, ‘how could you skip that song?’ I knew we had to make ‘hit songs’ but I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking more in a punk way.
JM: One of the unique qualities of Sunlight Studios is the fact it is still an ‘all analogue’ recording studio…
TS: My background comes from the analogue world, but these days you have to work within the digital world because there are no technicians who can fix the analogue tape recorders. I still have and use one of the first versions of Logic [DAW] that came out in 1995, but I don’t like the digital sound at all. Sometimes I have to use pedals and things going into it to try to make the computer sound like analogue.
Around the time of getting the Logic program I worked with a band that had recorded their vocals in another place; they came in with a computer and asked if I could fix the vocals that were recorded on it. I spent a week working on it and, although I eventually understood how it worked, I was angry by the end of it. People keep saying, ‘you should try Pro Tools’ but my answer is always “No, this is the thing I am going to use now.” I’ve learnt to use Logic and that is it; I’ve used it ever since.
JM: Any plans to upgrade or go completely digital?
TS: Sometimes I see new stuff advertised in a magazine that will make me interested in trying it out, but in the end I can see and hear that it is not the big thing they say it is in the magazine. Many years ago I read an article about a new piece of gear saying that it would change your life forever. Not so. Sometimes I will have a bass guitarist or guitarist say to me, ‘if you get this piece of equipment it will make your sound’, but it is never like that. I am too old to think in that way now.
IMMERSED IN MUSIC
JM: Next to the studio is a small cottage where those recording at Sunlight can reside for the duration of their recording period. With most modern luxuries forgone, it provides the perfect atmosphere for creating and focusing on nothing but music. Do you think this setting influences the overall recording process as well?
TS: Maybe it does not influence the sound directly, but it definitely affects the recording approach and ‘softness’ to the work because you are in a country place with more of a relaxed atmosphere. I worked in Stockholm for about 15 years and it was more stressful because of the big city and everything else that came with it. I prefer to work in a much ‘softer’ and relaxed place.
JM: From a producer and engineering point of view, how important is it to have an open mind regardless of the style of music you’re working with?
TS: It’s very important to me to listen to different kinds of music, and not have a closed mind to any form of music. One of my favourite producers is Rick Rubin. He’s worked with many different kinds of music and musicians, and he does it very well; always finding a good approach for each album. His approach to the Johnny Cash albums he made was very analogue and very acoustic in the sound, and I think that is the point with that music; to keep that dirtiness inside the frame and not to clean up too much, so you can feel the room. Sometimes if the guitar is a little bit shouting, like feeding back, save it for the moment. Don’t clean it up.