Producer's Desk: Neil Kernon

Sep 9, 2010 1:28 PM, By Bryan Reesman



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Given your preference for indie releases, how do you balance things out financially and how do those decisions affect what you work on?
I’ll give you an idea of pay scale. My first solo production in this country was for EMI for a band called Spys in ’82. It was a great, fun record. It was the band’s first album, and they had the Foreigner connection [with two former members], and the budget for the album was $150,000. That was kind of typical, to be honest. That was the budget for a couple of months’ work. Fast-forward to the Skrew album I did in ’95, and the budget was $30,000. Obviously, Metal Blade had never really had huge budgets other than for bands that were a complete dead cert. I think the budget for the first Flotsam and Jetsam record was $7,500. If I wanted to work on it, then I’d have to adjust my fees accordingly. Of course, I had been over the years, from the $300,000 Lynch Mob budget to the $30,000 Skrew budget. If you want to work on something, you’ve got to make it work. I’m more than happy to do that. As long as I’m working on stuff that I like, I really don’t mind how much I make as long as I can survive.

The sixth and latest Nile album, Those Whom the Gods Detest, is your third straight collaboration with them. This one has resonated with many fans who think it is their best-sounding album ever. It definitely is their fullest-sounding record. How did you transform them this time out?
It’s been a process of learning for me and for them. They had done their previous records at the same studio with the same production team. They were getting better and better sounding as they went, but I remember in my discussions with [group leader] Karl [Sanders] they were looking for the sort of clarity I got from Cannibal Corpse and Macabre. They still wanted to be as heavy as they are, but they wanted to be clear.

I had never worked with anything that was as crazily fast and involved in terms of the drumming or the riffing as Nile when I worked on Annihilation of the Wicked. But I knew what we had to compete with because I was also making Cannibal records. Annihilation was a step in the right direction, but I knew even as we were finishing that record that there had to be ways of making it clearer, so the next record ended up being way, way clearer.

The band had lived with the previous one and felt that maybe it was a bit too bass-heavy, so we tried to thin it out and have lots of guitars, drums and vocals, but be easy on the bass. While the second album [Ithyphallic] is definitely clearer and you can hear everything, apart from the bass, it just sounded a little anemic, so this third one needed to have fat low end but super-clarity. This album [Gods...] took 80 days to do—66 days of tracking and 14 days of mixing—with a lot more work and attention to detail. Just getting it right was the key. There was no blurring. We went over and over the stuff. Carl even said in a couple of interviews that I really pushed them on this record. We would get a really good take and keep it, but then we would have another go at it. That music is so fast—there are speeds up to 280 bpm—with insane riffing. We recorded four tracks of guitar, so it’s got to be tight; otherwise, it just becomes so messy. The guys worked really, really hard on what they do, and for me it was a matter of going bit by bit and perfecting every section.

Do you work at home at all?
One end of my living room is where I do my mixing. I do lots of mixing at my house, which is why I can still remain competitive in terms of cost. With Nile, I mixed at the local studio just up the road from here.

But you recorded the last Nile album at Karl Sanders’ house?
Yes. I took all of my gear from my studio down to South Carolina. We did the drums in Florida, and then we moved to Dallas’ house to get the drums all sorted and reinforced. And then to Karl’s house, where we had two rooms. We had a little control room that I spent a day soundproofing and treating so we wouldn’t get weird reflections. Then I set up my Pro Tools rig in that place, and we were there for two months. I mix many albums in my house. I have been using the same monitors and amps for 30 years. Adopt, adapt, improve. This little Singaporean guy once said to me, “You know what you need to do, Neil? Keep your head down and think a lot.” I always thought that was so wise. You don’t wander around clueless. Just make sure that you’re prepared, keep your head down and get yourself together and hunker down. You’ve got to do that, especially in this day and age.

Bryan Reesman is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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