interview by: Roberto Martinelli
If youíre a self-proclaimed metal fan and havenít heard of Andy Sneap, youíre either downloading all your albums based on what other people on your hub are burning, or you think the last killer metal records were by Anthrax and Slayer.
And even if you fall in the latter category, you have no excuse, as Sneap was in one of the most cult thrash bands ever, the British Sabbat. (Ask our staffer Chaim Drishner for a lesson.)
Still scratching your head? Ok, ok. Grammy-award winning Andy Sneap is one of, if not the, biggest names in producing in metal today. His most famous work has come with Arch Enemy, Killswitch Engage, Opeth, Machine Head, Soulfly, and most recently, Exodus and Nevermore (compare the original and Sneap re-mixed versions of Nevermoreís Enemies of Reality to get some instant appreciation for the manís talents).
Sneap is very forthcoming with all of his tricks and techniques. You can read up on them on his message board at www.andysneap.com, the site for his now-famous Backstage Studios in the pastoral countryside near Nottingham, England. Weíll let the man tell you first hand about his career history and some specific recording techniques.
Maelstrom: How did you get started in producing?
Andy Sneap: I did three albums as a member of a band called Sabbat, a dodgy English thrash band from the late Ď80s. We signed to Noise back in the day, which was the same label that had Helloween and Celtic Frost. By the time the band split up in the early Ď90s, I was so fed up with the egos and the battles that were always going on with other musicians. I got out of the business for a couple years, and then started doing demos at the old rehearsal studio. I used the money I made from the band to buy a little eight-track set. Iíd also started doing live engineering. Iíd always seem to be getting better at guitar tones on the demos, so I took the route of doing some small album projects with smaller bands. I built a bit of a reputation up, started doing some live sound, and started working at a bigger studio in Nottingham. Colin (Richardson), who was doing Machine Head and Fear Factory, came through the studio, and I ended up working with him on a couple of projects. I ended up with him in the States in Ď96 to do the second Machine Head album, The More Things Change.
Maelstrom: Oh, man, and his Bolt Thrower records... Colin Richardson is the sixth member of Bolt Thrower as far as Iím concerned.
Andy Sneap: Hahahahaha! Iíll tell him that! Heíll be really pleased about that one! Hahahahaha! But his Carcass Heartwork album was groundbreaking in the guitar sound. Colin and I got on well because we were into the same sort of music. From then on, I made a lot of good contacts out in the States, and started working with Century Media, Roadrunner and Nuclear Blast, and it just kept going, really. When they find someone who works well, does things on time and within budget, theyíll keep coming back.
Maelstrom: What would you consider your biggest successes in your career?
Andy Sneap: Well, we got a Swedish Grammy for the Opeth album Deliverance, which was nice. The last Killswitch Engage album, The End of Heartache, got nominated for a U.S. Grammy. That album is up to 500,000 units sold, so thatís probably the most successful thing Iíve done, sales- and press-wise. That second Machine Head album did pretty well, as well.
Maelstrom: Thatís public acclaim, which is certainly worthwhile, but how about on a personal level?
Andy Sneap: I think probably the first Blaze Bayley album that he did after he left Iron Maiden. You know, everyone had written him off. He was a real underdog; he had a rough ride with it. No oneís going to replace Dickinson in Maiden, so youíve got a losing battle from the word ďgo.Ē And although I never really had the public respect for doing those records Ė I did three albums with Blaze, plus a live album Ė the fact we made a really strong record after his ousting, with music written more for his voice... once he was pushed, he could really find his place within his vocal range...
It was a bit of a task and a great achievement to make everyone sit up and sort of go, ďoh, yeah. Thatís alright!Ē I actually had Steve Harris turn around and say, ďoh, yeah, that album turned out good, didnít it?Ē almost surprised about it, you know... So I was like, ďyes, Steve. Itís pretty cool.Ē (Laugh)
With anyone, you have a few days in pre-production, where you have to get on their level, try and connect with them and try to make them feel easy in the studio, really. Thatís what we did with Blaze. Heís got a reputation for being a bit of a madman, but heís actually one of the sweetest guys you could wish to work with in the studio.
And the whole Maiden thing... I donít think anyone even produced him on the two albums he was on. They expected him to go in there and deliver like Dickinson does, but sometimes you gotta steer the ship a little bit more.
Maelstrom: How much technology is too much in producing, and will technology be the downfall of a bandís being honest and true to how good they really are?
Andy Sneap: I think itís already gone past the point of bands being honest in the studio. I mean, as soon as we started dropping in on guitar solos with a machine that didnít make a click when you dropped in and out, thatís when the honesty went out the window. But at the end of the day, itís whatever it takes to get the job done. Youíve got a certain amount of time; a certain budget, and if you have to cheat to get the job done, then itís up to the band to deliver it live after that. If itís the case of going back and rehearsing it for two months to be able to go on the road and play it properly... they shouldnít be writing the riffs that they canít play. But a lot of these guys, when they realize what you can do in the studio, will go beyond their means. But people know their limitations, and as a producer Iíd rather hear a slow and melodic guitar solo played well than someone whoís trying to play blisteringly fast and canít do it.
There is definitely more ways to cheat now.
Maelstrom: Always new ones, it seems.
Andy Sneap: Well, there is, isnít there? If youíre going to be honest about it, youíve got Beat Detective, youíve got Auto Tune... or the guitar player is in fact the producer! HAHAHAHA! I wonít tell you how many albums Iíve played on! Hahaha!
Back in the day, there were session musicians. Like, youíd hear stories about session musicians on Kiss albums.
Maelstrom: Thatís hilarious! Like itís so hard to play, or something.
Andy Sneap: Yeah, I know. But once youíre under the microscope, youíd be surprised. From a very early age, when I was playing, when I was totally into the thrash thing and the accuracy of playing... some of the early thrash players where some of the best that have ever been in the metal scene. Just the sheer technique, the tightness of the playing... Back in the mid- to late-Ď80s, you had to be able to play well. When I work with someone like Gary Holt from Exodus, itís so apparent that heís such a killer player, where some of the kids that are coming up now just havenít got the feel.
Maelstrom: Yes, Paul Bostaph was saying how Gary Holt is the best rhythm guitarist heís ever played with.
Andy Sneap: Heís an absolute animal, Gary is. Itís hilarious to watch him while heís playing: it looks like his headís going to explode. Heís holding his breath and his face is bright purple. But heís still alive, just. Eric Petersen of Testament as well. Heís totally got it down. Youíd be surprised at how little gain these guys actually need to use to get that crunch out of their amps. Itís actually all in the hands, the way they scrape the strings.
You donít have to cheat with the old-school guys, because they learned the craft. Itís almost like kids are trying to run before they can walk now. I think as a producer, you have to draw the line a little bit: use technology as a tool, tidy bits up and knock it into shape, but be realistic. If a band is really struggling on a part, say, ďwell, look, guys, are you going to be able to play this live?Ē But at the end of the day, you have to be able to deliver a product within deadline and budget, and if cheating a little bit helps you do that, and you know the guys will be able to play it with a bit more rehearsing, then itís the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the album has to be THE definitive version of the songs, doesnít it?
But editing has always been going on. With 2" tape, people were always chopping it up and inserting different parts in; itís just a lot easier now. Weíre not using $150 [of material] for 15 minutes of music.
Maelstrom: What can a drummer whoís never had experience with triggers expect?
Andy Sneap: It can be a weird thing sometimes when a drummer has gotten used to playing acoustically; [using triggers] can bring out a lot of inconsistencies. Obviously, [triggers] make the mix a lot punchier Ė it gives a lot of clarity to the kicks Ė but it can highlight timing errors, in there are any. So you have to be careful with them. Thereís quite an art to getting them to sit in the mix properly without it sounding too drum machiney.
I usually replace the kicks 100 percent with a sample, but Iíll mix the snare sort of 50/50 with the natural snare [sound] to try and keep a bit of realism there. I sometimes trigger the toms Ė sometimes you canít get away with it: the real fast stuff sounds too artificial sometimes. Thatís where a bit of common sense comes in.
Maelstrom: What module do you find yourself using a lot for the kick drum sound?
Andy Sneap: Iím actually using it all within Pro Tools now, so Iíll throw my DDrum transducers on the kit, and Iíll use either Drumagog or Sound Replacer within Pro Tools. Iíve actually got a DDrum 4 and an Alesis B4, which Iíve used in the past. There are pros and cons to both those units. The B4 is a lot cheaper, but itís a slower unit. The response time is 13 milliseconds, where the DDrum is seven milliseconds. Itís one of the fastest. This time difference doesnít really matter live, because with all the amplification and slapback, you donít notice it. But if youíre recording, and especially if youíre using the natural sound as well, you have to slide the audio back in time. I remember when we were using 2" tape, we had to fire it off the repro head and use a decay unit to get it back in time. Itís always been a bit of a fine art, that one.
Maelstrom: As you were mentioning, triggers are used mostly on bass, less on snare, and even less on toms. Itís odd; do you think the technology hasnít improved enough on toms?
Andy Sneap: Myeahhhh... well, with multi-samples now, youíve got units Ė again, within Pro Tools Ė where you can trigger five or six samples per drum randomly, so it doesnít sound like the same sound every time. Thatís a good trick. It makes the ear think itís more natural. Obviously, with really fast double bass stuff, if thereís no alteration to the sound whatsoever, it sounds like a machine gun going off in the background. This is for toms as well: you get a totally different nuance with each hit (especially with floor toms and buildup); and with really fast rolls on toms, itís really difficult to get the triggers to sound right
So what Iíll do at the start of each session is sample each kit Ė when it has fresh heads on it. Iíll record each drum, so I have a good, natural sound, so if Iíll need to replace a hit (say, if thereís a lot of cymbal bleed on a tom hit, which undoubtedly there will be with some of the faster metal stuff, because youíll get a guy playing his cymbals right next to his toms, so he can get to them quicker) I can use the natural sound as opposed to having to find one in the database.
Maelstrom: You mentioned about triggers bringing out a lot of drummersí inconsistencies. What do you mean?
Andy Sneap: I wonít mention any names, because Iíll get myself in trouble, but I mixed a lot of the old school guys, as well; you go back and listen to some of their old recordings, especially the earlier thrash albums where everyone was thinking, ďthese guys are killer!Ē
But you canít actually hear the bass drums that clear... itís more of a low rumble going on. I guarantee you, if you put a sample there youíd be quite surprised to find out whatís going on with peopleís feet.
Although triggers have made it easier for a lot of guys in terms of not having to hit quite as hard, itís made people more accurate with the hands and feet. Youíll really notice if someone isnít landing exactly on the snare and kick. Youíll be getting flams all over the place, which is something you could get away with on just an acoustic kit, because there isnít the sharpness to the attack of the sound. The sample will make each hit very clear, so people have to focus on their timing.
Maelstrom: People talk about the problems of double triggering. What is that?
Andy Sneap: You can get cross talk, like when one tom triggers the second tom, or the kick triggers the snare. When I do a session, I have to go back and listen to every kick drum track and make sure the sample is on with the kick. Itís a good two days of watching the screen and making sure there are no mis-triggers. Live, again, you probably wonít notice it, but when youíre doing the recording side of things, you want everything to be deadly accurate. A lot of time and patience, really: you go through and notice if the ghost notes on the snare are triggered, and that the fills are all there; a lot of the faster, buzz rolls that youíll do on a snare, a lot of the time the trigger wonít pick up every single hit. You have to go back and make sure every hit is in there. Itís a very boring job, but...
Maelstrom: You get paid for it...
Andy Sneap: Hehe. Exactly. It annoys me when people donít do that. I get sent a lot of sessions to mix where the engineer phoned me up and said, ďdonít worry, itís a clean session. Iíve gone in and edited all the tracks for you; tuned these bits; everythingís triggered...Ē And Iíll be like, ďyeah, ok.Ē (Laugh) And Iíll still spend two days going through it. Youíve got to be really careful with it. Thereís no fast route to do this.
Maelstrom: Itís inevitable to have overbleed from one mic to the next when recording acoustic drums. Is it possible for the vibration of one drum to trigger another?
Andy Sneap: I use the DDrum transducers that clip on to the hoop. You wonít get any cross talk with those. Iíll record that through a mic pre right into Pro Tools, and not even bother with the DDrum brain. Say I have a five-piece kit. Iíll have a mic on each part of the kit, but Iíll also be recording one of these transducers from each part of the kit. And you can imagine, you soon end up with 24-32 tracks for your drums. But itís good, because you can actually see where every tom hit is. You can actually see that trigger into the side chain of the gate as well, to open the natural sound. That works pretty well. You can trigger straight from the spikes that it gives you within Pro Tools. Thatís the most accurate way Iíve found of doing this.
Maelstrom: Tell us more about this Drumagog program you use. This means people no longer have to invest in a physical drum module to get triggered sound?
Andy Sneap: Thatís right.
Maelstrom: Does it come with Pro Tools, or is it a separate program?
Andy Sneap: Itís a separate program. Itís only just come out for Pro Tools, actually. Iíve been beta testing it for them for about six months, but itís been out on the market for Cubase. Itís been a VST plug-in for quite a while, now Ė for about two years. Within Pro Tools, I had been using Sound Replacer for the past three or four years or more. Itís an audio suite plug-in. Itís ok. Itís a bit old hat now. The actual timing of it is pretty good Ė itís better than the old days of having to use MIDI and sync up the old Akai sampler or the old TC unit.
Iíve found Drumagog to be pretty much sample accurate: you can multi-sample Ė layering samples up Ė and you do this random sample with it. Thereís another program called Drum Rehab thatís about to come out. Theyíre still having a few problems with it.
Maelstrom: Since technology turns over so fast, do you find that it lends a facet of obsolescence to older recordings because they donít sound as good as new ones, whereas something like an acoustic drum kit will always sound classic?
Andy Sneap: Yeah, itís weird. The last recordings I did on 2" tape were about four or five years ago. I was listening to those a few weeks ago, thinking that I was really going to notice a difference. But I was pleasantly surprised with how tight everything was back then. Iíve been triggering since 1990, on an old Akai that you would link the old S1000 sampler up with. Thereís always been a way to do it; itís just a question of making it more convenient.
I think with Pro Tools, you spend more time looking at the screen and less time trusting your ears. Back in the day, it was literally on the fly, whereas today things are more accurate... itís nice, but you do tend to do things by the numbers: youíre doing it half the time without even listening to it.
Maelstrom: Is that something that irks you?
Andy Sneap: No, I donít mind. Iím actually a big fan of Pro Tools. A lot of people who invested money in the older gear are still paying it off: youíve got a lot of studios that spent a quarter of a million on a piece of equipment, still paying it off, and then everyoneís coming in wanting a Pro Tools rig in there. Youíve got a lot of the old-school guys that are steadfast in the old way being better, but I think that a lot of people havenít moved with the times. Iíve always tried to keep one step ahead of things, and I came along with my studio just when the digital side of things took off. Iím quite fortunate that I went with the Pro Tools route when I first came out.
Itís become second nature to me, but I still try to apply the method of listening to the music. Iíve had certain guitarists in the studio who would literally look at the wave to see how tight the playing was. And I was like, ďlisten to it.Ē What does that tell you?
An interesting contrast would be Rob from Machine Head, who had never used Pro Tools until the last album, Through the Ashes. On the first day in the studio, I set up with him, and by the time I saw him a couple weeks ago, he had seen the power of what it can do and totally came around to it. I figure the trick is to use it as a tool and not to cheat.
Maelstrom: I see you like DDrum triggers. The people Iíve spoken to so far this weekend also seem to prefer them. Is that because you donít like other companies so much, or just because itís what you have?
Andy Sneap: Itís really what was available at the time. I remember hearing good things about the Roland stuff Ė especially the mesh head pads. Iíve also got a set of mesh heads that you can put on a standard acoustic kit, and that works pretty well, too.
Maelstrom: Flo Mounier of Cryptopsy was saying how the companies who make these products, and the magazines that push them arenít really catering to the right crowd; that the drum magazines are mostly for the rock, blues and pop scenes, but the people who really want to use the triggers are the metal people because of the necessity of it. But beyond metal, would you recommend getting triggers for any other style?
Andy Sneap: I wonít use triggers on the slower, rock stuff I produce Ė itís really just the faster metal stuff, where youíve got to get the clarity to the playing. And the way guitar sounds have gone now, where youíll have four guitars that are really thick Ė and youíre trying to get a good low end for everything Ė and if you try to use a natural kit on that, youíll never get the clarity Ė the smack of the high end from the kick drums. So I donít know if triggers would really apply to other styles... then again, youíll see the jazzy drummer on the ďDavid Letterman ShowĒ with the whole DDrum set up, wonít you? Thereís that side of things: the session guy that needs to set up quick and get a good sound out of things.
Maelstrom: When was the last time you didnít use triggers?
Andy Sneap: Oh, God... *didnít* use triggers... ummmm... I did an Opeth DVD about a year and a half ago.
Maelstrom: Oh, the <Lamentations> DVD?
Andy Sneap: Yeah, thatís right. They did the acoustic set and the heavy set. On the clean set we didnít use a trigger at all.
Maelstrom: Sure, Ďcause the guyís playing slow.
Andy Sneap: Itís right for the music and you want that natural ambience to the kit in all its variations. It does apply to this type of music. On the new Nevermore album, there are acoustic parts where you want [the drums] to sound natural. If you put triggers in, it sounds so fake. But when itís heavy, [the natural sound] doesnít work. Not for me, anyway.
Maelstrom: I find it really ironic when you have drummers like Nick Barker, who have multi-thousand dollar, top of the line kits, and then trigger everything. Itís like, why not get yourself a $500 drum kit and trigger that instead? Itíd be just as good.
Andy Sneap: Yeah... well, you know... thatís Nick. I nearly made him sick at this festival the other day. Iím quite proud of that. (Laugh)
Maelstrom: What? You drank him under the table?
Andy Sneap: (laugh) We were heading that way.
Maelstrom: I havenít heard you talk about triggering cymbals.
Andy Sneap: Itís something Iíve never had a great deal of joy with. I did some pre-production with a band down here that had an entirely electronic kit, which was quite good. But the cymbals never quite sound natural. I did the latst Biomechanical album for Earache... thatís actually a whole MIDI kit on that Ė we used Battery within Pro Tools. They actually recorded the whole album in John (the singerís) front room. We got a pretty good sound, I think. You never get it quite there: youíve got so much separation... you canít pan your cymbals hard left and right, because theyíll sound so fake. Think about it: youíre not getting any bleed on the cymbals. You have to bring everything in a little bit. Also, with the hi-hat, where youíve got a lot of variation (youíll never get two hi-hat hits the same), and if thereís a lot of fast hi-hat patterns going off, thatís always very difficult to program and get right.
Maelstrom: Even with that random program that you were talking about earlier?
Andy Sneap: Yeah, you can do the same thing on Battery. You can never get it quite right. Think about it, when you play a proper hi-hat, the cymbals are in a different position every time you hit it, with them all swising around. So to get that natural feel to the cymbals is really difficult with MIDI.
Maelstrom: Letís talk now about the virtues of recording using an amp modeler as opposed to miking an amp the traditional way. Now, Line 6 is about the biggest producer of guitar amp modelers. They put out a variety of product, the most expensive of which is more expensive that a lot of guitar amps out there. A lot of people are recording direct nowadays. Iíd like to hear your thoughts on the topic.
Andy Sneap: Iím a bit dubious about the whole amp modeler side of things. Iíve never really heard them sound that good, until the POD XT Pro came out. I started getting a few mp3s up on a forum, that kids were doing. I started checking them out and they sounded really good, so Line 6 sent me one. Iím actually really impressed with it. I still wouldnít put it above a good amp with an SM 57, and a good cab with Vintage 30s. But if youíre in a postition where you canít make a lot of noise, or youíre recording at home, the POD XT Pro is definitely the way to go. Iíve got programs like Amplitube and Amp Farm, and I havenít found any of them that sound as good as that POD, but then again I havenít found anything that sounds as good as a Peavey 5150 or a Boogie with an SM 57 in the right place.
Maelstrom: How many microphones do you use when you mic your amps?
Andy Sneap: Usually itís just one SM 57. Itís straight in the middle, and maybe Iíll move it off to the side to get rid of some of the really harsh top end. But only very slightly. Iím taking half an inch. Sometimes Iíll throw another mic (another 57 or a Sennheiser 421) on there, but itís very, very slight in the mix, like about 20dB down from the main mic. Iíve found that the actual speaker makes as much difference as the amp we use. I always used to use (Celestion) Greenbacks, the 25s. But Iíve gone to the (Celestion) Vintage 30s more recently. It depends on the player a little bit more, and the tuning as well. If the bandís in the more regular 440 tuning, sometimes you find that the 75-watt Celestions work a little bit better.
Maelstrom: How did you record the guitars for Arch Enemyís Anthems of Rebellion?
Andy Sneap: That was two tracks of Peavey XXX going into a Marshall vintage cab with Celestion 30s in it, wide to 8 ohms. We also did two tracks of Peavey 5150 the same way. There was also probably an Ibanez Tube Screamer (the old green one) in front of the amp as well... not with the gain on, but just to tighten the sound up a little bit.
Come to think of it, some bits on the new Nevermore (This Godless Endeavor) were done with POD. Not the main rhythms, but there are a couple of whammy solos. Weíll record a clean DI and the amp modeler as well, and feed that back to the main rig later.
Maelstrom: The whole idea for this article was born because I interviewed King Diamond, who told me he didnít bother miking an amp anymore, and jsut goes direct through his old POD, and...
Andy Sneap: And have you listened to his albums recently? Hahahahaha!
I actually mixed one of his tracks last week for the Roadrunner 25th anniversary album coming out, with 50 Roadrunner musicians on it. I got the King Diamond track. I was quite pleased about that. Iím an old-school King Diamond fan. But I know what heís saying: the way people are recording now, there arenít the bigger budgets of what there used to be. The POD is an easy way to get a good sound, isnít it? You just plug in and go. I feel that if you work a little bit harder, with the right mics and if you know what youíre listening for, you can get a much better result. And I think thatís where people like me and Colin Richardson are still in the business, because we know what weíre after. There is that extra 10 percent that you can get out of the guitar amp, if you work at I. I donít think amp modelers are the do all and end all. There are a way to get a good, workable tone very fast. At the end of the day, it is an imitation of something.
Maelstrom: How about daisy chaining the POD into the amp to affect its sound?
Andy Sneap: I tried that all out. I was running it literally straight into the Boogie. Itís ok; itís quite convincing. I think if you were a guitarist that needed a lot of tones, it could work for you quite well. But when you put the real think side by side with the imitation... itís close, itís real close, and I think youíre getting real value for money with these units, but if you want the actual deal, thereís only one way to get it.
Iím not putting the units down. I use them and like them: if you need something particular in a mix, like a Box AC 30, thereís no point in going out to a store to get one just for that.
Special thanks to Rob Bursiago for having the presence of mind not to throw away the printout of this interview that I had given him in January of 2006. Thanks to his pack-rattedness, I didn't have to re-transcribe the whole thing after it became apparent that I had erased the interview from my hard drive. Cheers!