In the Studio With Nickelback
Nov 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Bryan Reesman
Sometimes, things just don't go the way you plan them, and that can be a good thing. When the Canadian hard-rock quartet Nickelback set out to create The Long Road, their follow-up to the quintuple-Platinum release Silver Side Up, they planned to bring in producers to work on the key singles. But instead, their self-admitted procrastination and their label's enthusiastic response to their demos encouraged them to produce themselves for the first time. While recording commenced at Greenhouse Studios in Vancouver, frontman/lyricist Chad Kroeger, tired of the hour-long commute and wanting his own personal recording facility, bought all the gear in the A room and moved the production into his renovated barn.
“He got a design for the studio, called up a contractor and gave them 30 days to do it,” reveals engineer and co-producer Joey Moi. “The guys worked around-the-clock; people were pulling favors left and right to make sure that it happened.”
The band kept “before and after” pictures of the barn upstairs, and they chronicled a dramatic transformation. The upstairs mixing room — complete with a vocal booth and a view of the sprawling acres behind the studio — was once the hayloft, while the downstairs rehearsal and recording facility originally comprised horse stalls.
A massive SSL console now inhabits the mixing room, but there is still plenty of space for other gear and even a sofa. A neatly groomed, longhaired cat roams the premises, and for some odd reason, the cat can tolerate sitting between the monitors while they are blasting out intense hard rock. The adjacent room has been converted into a lounge with a full kitchen, a well-stocked refrigerator and a couch facing a big-screen TV. One might wonder how Kroeger's neighbors have tolerated the high volume levels, but considering that the renovated structure is located on an isolated farmland in rural British Columbia, there probably aren't many within hearing distance.
Nickelback spent the first two-and-a-half months recording The Long Road at the Greenhouse. After a week break during the facility conversion, the last few weeks were spent at Kroeger's rural Mountain View Studios. The construction took just 35 days, after which, someone from Greenhouse transplanted the gear into Mountain View.
The transition did not seem to hurt production. The finished version of The Long Road finds Nickelback getting heavier, as evidenced by the aggressive track “Flat on the Floor” and the ultrahard “Because of You,” a stomping rocker in the vein of Metallica. Like its predecessor, this album has its reflective moments, such as the acoustic guitar-laced single “Someday,” a tune that Kroeger calls “the anthem for lost promises.”
Nickelback's music is direct and immediate: There are no extended preludes or codas to be found in their repertoire. They eschew lengthy solos or overt displays of virtuosity, preferring heavy, detuned guitars for power. Still, the group does put a lot of time into making their music.
“The one thing we really got to do with this album that we didn't do with any other album — because we had time to do whatever we wanted — was [to incorporate] layers and textures,” says Kroeger, as we sit on the patio outside the studio's second-floor lounge on a warm, late-summer day. “Lots of layers and textures, and recording tons and tons of stuff. We would record everything and listen to it all. There's a mandolin on ‘Someday,’ but you'll never hear it. But it's sitting there. I love it when you can feel something, and you're not sure what it is you're feeling but you can't hear it. You can't pick it up and know exactly what it is.”
The singer says that “Someday” is the song the band focused on the most. It contains over 100 tracks of audio and features a dry acoustic guitar cutting through the heavy mix. A Gibson Jumbo acoustic was recorded without amplification through both a Coles ribbon mic and a Neumann M147. And it doesn't get buried. “You have to be very aware of what the song requires and what it calls for,” expounds Kroeger. “If you just do everything balls-out, you're not going to have the dynamics that you're looking for.”
For this album, Nickelback recorded live to Pro Tools in the studio. “We set it up so they had a full P.A.,” says Moi (whose last name rhymes with his first). “We made it like they were onstage: They all had monitors and good headphone mixes. They would just go in there and jam, and I would sit in here and have tape rolling [figuratively] the whole time that they were rehearsing and coming up with ideas. That's how we would start: Get a good performance of the song that way, and then if the guys play the song well enough — there's a good tempo and a good vibe — we'd start overdubbing drums on top of that.”
Naturally, bleed-through becomes an issue when recording drums over pre-existing live tracks. “When the guys play downstairs, it's all bleeding and really loud,” confirms Moi. “But when we record it up here, we use a program called Amp Farm from Line 6. We just take a split off of their guitar amps so we can have everything modeled as though they're playing live, but we just sneak an extra cable in there that comes up to the computer. We have the amp-simulator program and record a direct, clean guitar tone — the same with the bass — with no leakage, DI'd into the mixing board and then into the computer, which then processes it. You create the amp sound in the computer and it records it. You can simulate any amp you want [with Amp Farm]. It sounds good. When the drummer re-tracks the drums, he plays to the clean guitar tracks, which don't have any leakage in them, and a click.”
One song that did not include the entire band playing together is their testosterone-fueled interpretation of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin hit, “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting,” which includes vocal contributions from Kid Rock and guitar work from Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell. Due to time constraints and schedule conflicts, Nickelback sent music files to each of those guests, and they added their parts in studios in Michigan and Texas, respectively.
While that song required a bit of preparation and arrangement, particularly as it was a cover, the originals on the album often flowed from studio jamming. Some songs developed from rehearsals or demos, but this was nothing new for the band. The hit “How You Remind Me,” which helped propel Silver Side Up to multi-Platinum status, was practically the original demo, according to guitarist Ryan Peake. “We just put a few more things on top of it, but most of tracks were from the demo on that one,” he says.
The band now has a nice studio to play in. Kroeger also owns a famous SSL console: Aerosmith's Pump, Mötley Crüe's Dr. Feelgood, The Cult's Sonic Temple, Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet and parts of Metallica's black album were all recorded on it. The board originally resided at Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock's downtown Vancouver studio, Little Mountain, which was relocated to suburban Burnaby and renamed Greenhouse Studios.
Four songs from the new album were recorded at Mountain View: “Flat on the Floor,” “Believe It or Not,” “Should Have Listened” and “I Need You.” While the gear was essentially the same as at Greenhouse, it took the studio crew a couple of songs to adjust to the new environment. “It was different, but we got used to it really quick,” says Moi. “At the same time, we were putting up baffles and treating the room and making it better. The process went relatively fast for getting the studio to an acceptable level. [Moving the gear] took the least amount of time. It took a day, and the room was pretty much ready to go. At the same time, the guys were working on new tunes.”
The engineer miked the guitarists' amps with SM57s. The amps included a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier with a 4/12 cabinet, Peavey Triple X amp with a 4/12 Peavey cabinet, Vox AC30 and Fender Twin. Moi used one mic per cabinet. “We had one performance on either side,” he says. “We would record one mono track and then record another mono track. It makes it really thick. We'd blend all of the amps down into one track and record two tracks: a left and a right. Then, when the chorus comes, you get them to do it four times and have two guitars on each side.”
Recording Mike Kroeger's Spectre bass (with CompTortion compression/distortion pedal) was similar to that of the guitars. SM57s were used to mike a Peavey GPS Power Amp, Peavey Pro Bass 500 amp and Peavey Triple X combo. “We would record a direct signal, straight out of the bass, and then we would combine a bunch of amplifiers down to one track, as well,” Moi explains.
As for the drums, Ryan “Nik” Vikedal has got “a huge kit,” Moi says. “Normally, we don't have to use this much. A modest drum kit is a kick, snare, two toms, a couple of cymbals and a hi-hat.” But Nickelback's skinbeater has two snares, four toms, two hi-hats and a surplus of cymbals. To record Vikedal, Moi says they placed one mic inside and outside of the kick (a combination of a D-112 inside and Neumann M147 and NS-10 outside), plus one on top and below the snare (an SM57 and a RØDE NT5). They used SM7s on the hi-hats, two KM184s on the Zildjian cymbals, a RØDE NT5 on the ride cymbal, two RØDE NTKs as overheads and 421s above each tom with SM57s below them. Room mics included two RØDE NT1000s and a Coles ribbon mic.
Vocals were recorded in the upstairs vocal booth with a simple setup of a RØDE NTK tube mic running through a Neve 1084 preamp, UREI 1176 compressor and Avalon 737 SP mic processor. “If I'm screaming, we need to be able to have a diaphragm that's going to be able to handle the screaming and is not going to gut out some of the stuff,” explains frontman Kroeger.
“He's got one of the loudest voices,” declares Moi [a notion that Peake quickly seconds]. “He's like a weapon. He can destroy microphones quickly. We used the same one the whole time. He would turn it away on certain syllables, like ‘p’s and ‘f’s.” Kroeger evidently became very adept at his special technique.
Vocals were recorded mono; for choruses, they were doubled. “It all depends on the song,” says Moi. “Some songs need all those layers.” Some of the mono harmonies were later treated with stereo effects (such as chorus or reverb) by Randy Staub during the mixing process at The Warehouse in downtown Vancouver on an SSL 4072 console. George Marino later mastered the album at Sterling Sound.
While The Long Road ultimately features a few songs with dozens of tracks layered on top of each other, the album does not feel like a bloated production. “I'm glad that it sounds like that, because there are a million things going on,” says Kroeger. “There are a lot of things you cannot hear that you can feel. It adds to the song. We made sure that everything we left on tape was only adding to the song and wasn't just something extra that was sitting there.”
Ultimately, Nickelback's philosophy is best summed up by these words from Kroeger: “Every cake we bake has the same ingredients, it's just how much stuff we decide to throw into the icing.”
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