Inside The Hidden Art Of Mastering Metal And Hardcore

Famed mastering engineer Alan Douches talks about producing some of rock's heaviest music.

Inside The Hidden Art Of Mastering Metal And Hardcore

You probably have a vague idea of what mastering an album actually means -- but like most people, vague idea is about as far as it gets. The truth is that while mastering is a vital part of the production process, many people don’t know what it entails, or how it improves an album’s sound. And unlike a lot of producers, the people who master your favorite records aren’t household names among most music fans.

Alan Douches has probably mastered one of your favorite records. With a client list that includes Converge, Motörhead, Cannibal Corpse, High On Fire, The Dillinger Escape Plan, New Years Day, and Every Time I Die among dozens of other famous rock and metal bands, Alan is a legend in the industry whose name you might not have heard before today. And yet for famed producers like Kurt Ballou, he is a go-to mastering engineer, whose work on albums gives them the unique atmospheres that fans remember forever.

On the phone, Alan is relaxed, funny, and not at all bothered by being part of the ultimate behind-the-scenes art in music production. At the same time, he’s aware that mastering is an unsung art form in production -- but his breadth of experience has shown him how vital it truly is.

“There’s an unseen problem in the world of mixing and mastering in metal and hardcore,” he says from his studio, West West Side Music, in upstate New York. “There’s this idea that everyone should mimic the same style of production to get that ‘perfect’ sound, which in turn begins to take away all the art from it. We’re all getting so much of the same style of mixing and mastering onto a project, that we’re embracing the concept of fitting in too much.

“The records you think outside of the box are the ones that end up going further,” he continues. “One record isn’t going to make an artist, you need that repeated listening.”

Kerrang!: To take a step back and to approach this topic from a tech-dumb perspective: in my mind, mastering is basically ironing the final wrinkles out of a finished album. Is that accurate?

Alan Douches: Sure, ideally. The format requires something slightly different. Streaming, downloads, CDs, all of them should sound the same to the listener. Or maybe if the band wishes, they could be different based on the format. With vinyl and cassettes, that’s a different experience than streaming. The dynamic experience would be different.

How often does an album come to you where you either only need to make minor tweaks, or you’re in there as long as any other part of production?

I’d hope the mastering never takes longer than other parts of the production, but sometimes it’s true. Indie bands on a budget have labels putting more pressure on getting it perfect. The other part of all of this is relationships. We sometimes preview the music the band records beforehand, which makes the whole process easier.

Do you ever get a mix you don’t agree with, but have to leave it up to the band because it’s their record?

I always start from the assumption that the mixing is right. During the process, I may make a new decision that I will consult the band or mixer about it. These days, bands seem to get their mixes done pretty well often, so there really isn’t any startling results. Mastering should just be the final 10% or 15% of the polishing of the record, and it doesn’t need to be super shiny. Mixers know they need to lead some dynamic room for us to do our final shaping.

Looking at just the last four years of your work, the variety there is astounding. The first album that jumps out at me is High On Fire’s most recent record [and Grammy winner] Electric Messiah. How much did you communicate with them, and what was the approach in mastering that?

I’ve had some history with them, and it’s a lot easier on getting started. We kind of know what everyone’s rules are, and their mixer, Kurt Ballou, always sends me preview mixes along the way. Sometimes the band doesn’t give you the technical answers that you want, so you just want another voice in the field that’ll give some suggestions. Not everyone just wants to get molded, even if we all trust each other. There’s initial conversation about where it’s going, and with a band like that, you understand the fanbase. [High On Fire’s fanbase] is one that likes listening to the records all the way through, so you need to work on leaving a lasting impression.

Do you prefer to work with someone you know so you know what you’re getting into, or do you have a love for going into the unknown?

There isn’t really a preference. I love the unknown. People will question the creativity of mastering, but it’s also not so much about my creativity as it is about the band’s. When they come through in their early stages, it gets so exciting. Starting from the perspective that the mix is right, it’s almost zen-like. Some think of mixing like it’s about fixing the problems, but I think of it more as enhancing the awesomeness.

Another band on your client list that jumped out to me was Zeal & Ardor. What was your experience working on their record?

Once again: Kurt Ballou. Kurt had trusted me with this, and sent me their rough demos to get my head in a place to know where this was going. That Zeal & Ardor record is about depth and dark. Everything has to be clear and defined in their arrangements, and their depth and darkness should not be overlooked. When you’re listening to a band’s performance, you’re not hearing high end, low end, or anything like that. You’re hearing performance. That’s what is the most crucial part of these bands, and you want that to shine. This is also where the problem of sounding “just like” comes from. These iconic records don’t sound like anything else! Nothing sounded like Calculating Infinity at it’s time. Nothing sounded like Jane Doe at it’s time. That’s what the kids loved.

That’s interesting -- so often, studio magic seems to be about talismans of your favorite records. Like, We want to use the amps that were used to record Paranoid, or that sort of thing.

The thing is, part of that isn’t wrong at all. I have a friend who was mixing a record on one of the classic rock consoles. Everything sounded great, but he went to ask me what it was about the console that was so great. I just said money. The same is true for amp heads and cabinets. We get too focused on what some band used. When I was a kid playing guitar, I had a 1973 gold top standard Les Paul guitar. I sold it and bought a first year B.C. Rich Mockingbird, because I was stupid. Actually though, I wanted a different sound. I wanted my own sound. I didn’t want to sound like Jimmy Page or anyone else. The B.C. Rich had all these buttons and knobs that made my own sound. I get it’s not so easy to be original, but I think we need to start looking into our industry, and embrace new ideas.

Is there an album recently in your career where during the process, you recognized the band was doing something unique, and you were excited to be apart of it?

The one that really exemplifies this, that may be outside of your average viewer, is Sufjan Stevens’ album, Illinois. I’ve done records with him before, but with Illinois, Sufjan played me rough mixes, and I was completely wowed. It was amazing. Everyone recognized it! 15 years later, people still recognize how amazing it is. When I was working on the track John Wayne Gacy, Jr., I stopped working on the song to just listen to it. It was easily one of contemporary music’s best songs. Again, for me, it’s never about what’s wrong. It’s about what’s right. What can drive the project to full fruition.

It’s good to know that even with bands that want to mimic a sound, you can pull out something that’ll give them a bit more character.

Right, and part of that now is that there’s just this really strange thing happening, which is recording studios are decreasing and artists are doing it themselves. For an artist, it’s awesome to be able to save that money and do everything yourself. However, the sense of teamwork is lost. As bands are all in the guitar player’s basement doing it on their own, nobody else is there. We’re no longer really making records as a team, so now mastering is sort of mystified.

So there, bands will pass [their record on] onto a mastering engineer, and then we start taking on the other roles. When this happens, sometimes, the band puts their best song as the second to last track. I get surprised to see them do this, and then I will suggest they change this. This isn’t mastering, but because they’re coaching themselves, they don’t make the best choices for themselves. There’s a little twist going on with mastering where it’s become more of a sense of feedback that bands need.

Have you ever worked with a band where it was going all well until you got a call from the label or administrative folks, going over their heads?

You always hear the horror stories where the A&R guy wants to add reverb to the mix or just to remold it into what they need. If you’re working with an A&R or manager or producer, why would you work with someone you don’t trust? If you disagree with them, they aren’t going to push your record. If we aren’t all on the same page, the record is doomed. The A&R guy is only thinking of the first four weeks of the record’s release. That’s how it happened then. They’d get together, playing records in a conference room, and whichever one left the biggest impression was the one that got the most marketing.

Okay: I’m as green as a musician as possible, and we’re recording our first album. Do you have any initial advice?

Trust your feelings. If you become successful, you’re going to be asked to do it again. If the first time you became successful, you were copying or guessing, then you aren’t going to know what you’re going to do. If you trust your feelings, you are going to know what to for the future. Because as time progresses, we find the albums that were iconic. When Converge releases another record and we see how iconic it is, they trust their feelings. It’s not about their equipment, even though Kurt will be the first to show you all the high tech stuff he has. The band trusts what they do, and the results show.

To contact Alan about mastering your album, go to West West Side Music's website.

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