EDITOR’S NOTE: Phro gets serious. Using Jesper Zuretti’s recent opinion piece as the inspiration, he interviews budding producer/engineer Sean Golyer, and the result is one of the most informative and articulate interviews we’ve published. You’ll see references in the interview to Oak Pantheon’s 2011 release, The Void. We’ve written about that EP a couple of times, most recently here. To hear more of Sean’s work, he has a SoundCloud page at this location.
Phro’s note: A few days ago, Jesper Zuretti provided No Clean Singing with an excellent opinion piece on the song quality vs recording quality debate. (Or maybe he sparked the debate?) I noticed some comments written by Sean Goyler (producer for Oak Pantheon’s excellent The Void) and was interested in getting a different perspective. This interview was conducted via e-mail, so if some things seem out of place, my apologies. While I don’t think Sean is deviating all that greatly from Jesper’s main points, I do think he has some great things to add to the conversation.
Is there anything about yourself that you think readers should know to help us get a better view from your perspective?
I’m just another Midwestern American guy who really loves his metal. I grew up on classic rock and folk in the suburbs of Minneapolis, MN and was turned to the dark side of music during my latter years of high school. It started innocently enough with power metal and sludge but has since taken me into the realms of extreme metal, doom, post-metal, crust, and countless other genres and sub-genres. Around the same time in high school I was introduced to some friends who would later come to form Oak Pantheon, a small independent metal band that released its first EP in July of 2011 and is currently working on our debut full-length album.
How did you become a producer? Did you have any formal training, and if so, to what extent do you feel that your training was “worth it”? If not, do you wish you had formal training?
I did have some production experience. There is a difference between the two, but often those jobs bleed together and sometimes fall on the same person. A producer is more of somebody who always has the big picture in mind and helps keep an artist focused. They work with them to help better craft their songs and typically have a decent understanding of music theory. If labels are involved, a lot of the time they work for the label and essentially are trying to achieve an end product that the label wants. Whereas an engineer facilitates the technical aspect of the recording, such as setting up microphones, cabling, board operation, etc. They know all the ins and outs of the gear (pun intended) and how to use that gear in a way that benefits the sound of the recording. They are artists in and of themselves if you ask me. My job with Oak Pantheon in particular floats somewhere between the two. I got involved with the project since I briefly played bass with the same two guys back in high school. My very first recording was with them and our silly progressive power metal band “Omega Messiah”. Google it for some laughs. I think there’s a couple Youtube videos as well, but that was after my involvement.
While each band is obviously different, what do you generally consider your role to be as a producer? How often do you feel like you get to be the “fifth Beatle”? Do you enjoy that role, or do you feel as if you’re imposing?
Oak Pantheon is currently the only project where I’ve really felt like that “Fifth Beatle”. Most often I take more of a quiet engineer role, or when I was interning at a studio in St. Paul I would be more of an assistant/shadow. Occasionally I would be asked my opinions on the sound or a particular take, but OP has really been that sort of breakthrough for me. It makes it worlds easier that we’re all friends outside of the project. I’ve engineered and produced for a number of smaller projects with colleagues and clients at the studio I interned at, but none as closely as OP. I enjoy the role quite a bit and I’d love to take on more projects of similar caliber. My only problem is that I have neither the space or personal equipment to facilitate proper recording sessions for any type of band.
What kind of band (not genre-wise, but personality-wise) do you most enjoy working with?
First and foremost, a fun band! If you’ve got a bunch of stiffs or otherwise to work with, it makes those long nights even longer. On the same token you don’t want a bunch of die-hard party-boys either. It’s amazing how fast some shots can derail an otherwise productive night. But after that I’d say talented artists. That sounds cliche and obviously is subjective to each engineer/producer, but it’s true. It’s so much more fun to work with an artist who knows exactly what they want, is ready and rehearsed to record, and knows their instrument(s) like another limb of their body. It also makes my job way easier, haha.
What, to you, constitutes good or high production value? If it’s different between genres, what are the differences between them? Are there aspects which overlap?
I think production values can sometimes be a little hard to quantify. Like any artistic endeavor it’s all subjective. I think, in terms of numbers, a lot of modern pop recordings may have “high production values”. A lot of care and money will go into making the cleanest, loudest, most “perfect” sounding record possible. But I’m not sure that really means anything to me or anybody else reading this. To be honest, I’m really bored of that overly clean, punchy, perfect sound, no matter the genre. Technical death metal and djent often fall into this category. That doesn’t make them bad records or artists or any less fun to listen to. It’s just a sound I’m personally bored with. High/good production values to me is when a label or artist chases after creating a unique and meaningful aesthetic. There’s always those bands that just have “that sound” you immediately recognize the second you start listening. That to me is a testament to the band and the recording engineer and mixer’s art. That to me is production value, creating something that is special and unique to the artist, a totally cohesive piece of work. And of course all the visual accompaniments are important as well, whether that’s the album art, packaging, videos, posters, etc. It should all piece together perfectly to set you up for the music.
I purchase most of my music digitally (via Bandcamp and Amazon MP3). Do you think I (and people like me) are missing out on an essential part of the music listening experience, in terms of the full product? (Album art, etc.)
A little bit, yeah. Some artists put a lot of time, money, and effort into finding just the right artist to design all the album art and packaging to complete what I like to call the “full album experience”. Not every artist does this and a lot of the time the artwork and packaging are pretty meh. But you can tell which bands/labels put the time into making something special for their fans. Obviously, the music is the most important part. But there’s just something about flipping through a well designed booklet and reading the lyrics, looking at the so specifically chosen artworks and photographs while listening to the album. Even I feel left out sometimes since I don’t have a vinyl record player. I really want one but I have no idea what to look for. I want to have that vinyl experience as well, it would be something totally new and cool to me.
What, in your opinion, is the most over-used or poorly used production technique in contemporary music (metal or otherwise)?
The first thing that comes to mind when it comes metal is the rampant use of the Drumkit From Hell plug-in. Those samples are something I can recognize before anything else and it’s gotten to the point where if I’m listening to a band’s genuine EP or album and not a demo and those samples are still there, I just turn it off. It might not be entirely fair to the band, but it’s not entirely fair to the listener to be subjected to the same drum samples incessantly either. Or maybe I’m just crazy.
Like anything, that plug-in is an awesome tool on its own. It’s allowed a lot of bedroom guitar composers to achieve a sound close to what a band would sound like had they had one. It’s also really useful for pre-production recordings and demos. But it’s not something I’d ever recommend an artist to use if they’re planning on selling their music in any capacity. It’s just a real cop-out. At the very least, try the more “complete” version of the plug-in (Superior Drummer) and play around with more samples and kits. Mix it like you would real drums. Mess with the timings (quantization) and velocities of the MIDI notes to make it feel and sound more realistic and less robotic. Just spend more time crafting something more unique and interesting rather than copying everyone else.
I’d like to see the djent genre (is it a genre?) do more interesting things as well. I get it, the Engl and the 5150 sounds great with syncopated palm mutes and chugs with poly-rhythmic drums. But please, be more creative! I don’t mean more technical or proggy either. I want to see what some more experimentation into other forms of metal and music djent can bring. Also more varied sounds and some different approaches to the production. I’ve yet to hear a djent band that felt really “alive”. It’s all so calculated and perfect sounding. There’s nothing dirty or messy or human about it and I can guarantee you that on none of those albums are the band playing live together. You’d be pretty amazed at how much more time is spent editing guitars and drums to a perfect grid rather than spent on making a great recording. It’s still a relatively “new” thing in metal, so I’m willing to give it time before we start to see some really crazy genre fusions. Just as long as it doesn’t involve dubstep. (I’m looking at you, Korn.)
I haven’t actually heard of the Drum Kit from Hell plug-in before, but I’m curious to know how you feel about “digital” music. By that I mean music that is produced on a computer or otherwise without a traditional instrument? I feel that many members of the metal community look down on anyone not using “real” instruments. Do you agree with that attitude? Why?
Well, you may not have heard of it but I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Mirrorthrone uses it. But like I’ve said before, the computer is a tool. It can be used for good and bad. Now of course if I had a choice I would always choose the real thing over a plug-in. But I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret if you haven’t guessed already. Oak Pantheon’s EP was pretty much entirely digital. The amp’s we used were plug-ins. The drums are fake. No outboard gear was used at all. We simply don’t have the appropriate time, space, or money for real gear at this point in time. We make due with what we have. I always feel that that’s when you get the best art though, when you have to work in confined circumstances. Art through adversity, you make the best of what you have at your disposal. And if the metal community wants to hang us from a tree for being poor bastards with no good amps, rooms, or microphones that’s fine. We still have made something we can be really proud of, and that’s what matters the most to us.
Djent is, for lack of a better term, a weird animal. While I personally am not a huge fan, there is something fascinating about watching a genre grow and develop before one’s own eyes. NCS has a resident djent-head (I just made that up) in TheMadIsreali, and he often brings really good music to our attention. As a producer and someone who is familiar with the amount of time required to produce a hyper-clean album, what do you think about bands who sound super clean? Do you feel that they sound sterile, or as a producer, do you feel they’re simply putting in the extra time necessary to “sound good.”
It’s definitely a matter of preference for how you want an album to sound. Like I sad earlier, I personally am just bored with that hyper-clean, sterile sound. That doesn’t mean I think they’re bad artists or that the genre is an abomination. It’s just not my thing. And honestly for a genre as technical as djent, I don’t know how else you could record an album without all the parts being very distinct and isolated and the drum hits really clicky. But that’s what I’m waiting for, I’m waiting for a band to really break the mold and start thinking outside the box. I’m waiting for that band to prove me wrong and make me and my assumptions look like an idiot.
Do you play any instruments? If you do, how does that ability affect you as a producer? If not, do you wish you did or do you think it would help you as a producer?
I dabble in playing bass guitar and keyboard. I really only know the very basics though. I couldn’t pick up a piece of sheet music and start playing by any means. I have a pretty basic understanding of music theory as well. That’s honestly one of the more important things to know as a producer working with an artist in solving a musical issue. You can pick up whether notes don’t fit in the scale or key they’re playing or discuss in musical terms what you’re hearing or want to hear. I can say things like “I want the rhythm guitars to be played more legato” or “You should try playing that harmony as a tremolo instead” and have them know exactly what I’m talking about. I do wish I played and studied music more. Bass guitar is definitely something I’m looking at taking up seriously for reasons that I can’t yet discuss. 😉
What do you see as being the future of music creation and distribution?
That’s a great question. I remember that question being asked back in college and I think for the most part that future is now. You just have to look in the right places. I can’t speak for any form of pop music, but I see the underground and independent releases of any genre gaining a whole lot more attention these days, all of it deserved. People have amazing tools at their fingertips today in the form of digital workstations, plug-ins, websites like Youtube, Bandcamp, and CD Baby, with the internet as your audience. More and more people are finding creative DIY ways to record spectacular sounding albums from their basement and reaching out to fans across the globe. Bands like Sioum or the artist Cloudkicker immediately come to mind. With the help of smaller, more niche-focused labels popping up everywhere it seems like the playing field is finally being leveled for all involved in the industry and the next decade will see the popular rise of a lot more independent and small artists. The internet is a powerful tool whether it’s used to distribute music, learn an instrument, teach yourself recording techniques, or anything you could imagine. Use it!
Personally, I am a huge proponent of DIY recording and distribution. Do you think that many (or even most) self-produced bands are over-estimating their abilities and actually really need a producer/audio engineer to capture their sound?
I hate to say it, but yes. I don’t mean to say that they all suck and need to hire somebody per se, but having an extra trained ear helps out a lot. And eventually they’ll start recognizing what a trained ear looks for and be able to do things on their own. Some self-produced bands just need to be a bit more critical. They shouldn’t settle for less than the best they can achieve. They need to step away from their work and listen to it from an unbiased perspective and truly analyze and ask “does this sound good? Is this the sound we’re looking for? What can I do to improve this?” To disconnect yourself from your own art is a really difficult task though, and it takes time to recognize when you’re doing something wrong. It just helps to have that trained opinion. Even though I’m a producer/engineer for OP, I’m very much attached to their work from start to finish. It can be tough for even me to take a step back and listen to what I’ve mixed and say “this sucks, I need to start over”. It’s something that only time and experience can bring.
Considering the amount of money and equipment necessary to be a full-fledged producer, do you think that a bedroom or garage band could effectively produce an album well on their own?
Honestly, the barrier for entry is pretty low. It all depends on what you deem as “necessary”. If necessary means all vintage analog equipment, bouncing down to tape, and recording everything in an expensive acoustically treated room then maybe it’s not so low. For me though, it’s entirely possible to record a bedroom EP or album and have it sound comparable or close to what the big shots can do. That’s why so many big studios are going out of business. Why spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on studio time when you can achieve something comparable at home for a fraction of the cost? Again I’ll use Cloudkicker and Sioum as examples. Both of those artists have put out some pretty impressive sounding albums. I still find it hard to believe that Sioum recorded their album in a basement. The sound on their album I Am Mortal, But Was Fiend is really something I admire and hope to achieve some day. That, and it’s just a really fun album to listen to, you should check them out. Not your typical post-metal/rock band and they could use a bit more recognition.
Considering the growing number of bands who live in separate areas, how do you see the role of the producer evolving in the increasingly digital era?
The digital era makes it pretty easy to swap sessions through the internet and work with bands from long distances. It’s not ideal, but it’s becoming more and more possible. I’d love to start receiving mixing projects from bands all around. As long as it was done in Pro Tools, I could mix it. Producers could even offer just basic analysis of demos and recordings and give bands back constructive criticism on what they’re written. There’s a huge range of possibilities that I haven’t even thought about really. It’ll be interesting to see how things will evolve and change over the next decade or so. I’m excited regardless!
Are there any particular bands or trends that you can see rising in popularity in 2012 that people may not expect?
Trend spotting is probably one of the hardest things to predict until it’s already happened. Like anything in human nature, it happens organically and seemingly at random. In recent years the sheer amount of diverse black metal that has sprung up has been really fascinating to watch and listen to. I think it’s a genre that has pushed so many of its inner boundaries that I think we’ll continue to see more and more diverse black metal acts becoming more commonplace in metal. Agalloch is already immensely popular (if we’re speaking in terms of black metal) and other artists like Wolves in the Throne Room, Abigail Williams, and Altar of Plagues have left a significant mark in the genre. Up-and-comers like Embers, Oskoreien, False, and Deafheaven most definitely have big things in their future.
Now, to change the subject a little: The Void by Oak Pantheon is an incredibly diverse album, with a beautiful mixture of heavy distortion and quiet melody. How much of a role did you have in shaping the “sound” of the album? Do you feel like you left a special mark on the album that might not otherwise have been there? Do you think that producers should try to “leave a mark” on albums?
I think I definitely had a role in shaping that sound, but I certainly wasn’t the only factor. The awesome thing about working with Oak Pantheon is that they’re at a point now where they can almost produce themselves. They know what they want for the most part. They’ll hit a bad note or a string will be slightly out of tune and before I have time to stop the recording they already know what I noticed was wrong and we go again. With The Void though it was honestly one big experiment. We were learning stuff as we went and there wasn’t a whole lot of consistency in our work until much later in the process. We often looked to our namesake (Agalloch) as inspiration for how to structure the recordings. We pulled a few of our favorites and really analyzed how all the different pieces were put together to make a particular sound. I learned back in school that it’s better to emulate before you innovate and I sort of took that to heart since this was our first serious recording. Of course as a mixer I was also looking towards other albums from many different bands and tried to piece together in my head ideas from each and try and bring them into an OP mix.
I distinctly remember listening to some really dirty tremolo picking on the song “To Drown” that sounded like it came from some old, crappy amp and thinking “I want that sound!”. So I played around with the guitar sound on the tremolo parts on “Architect of the Void” until I got something close but still fit in with the rest of the production. I’m still incredibly satisfied with the end result, going from that huge crescendo of arpeggios into that dirty black metal part with Sami’s first vocals screeching in “From the top of this tower…”. Still gives me chills. Then when the other two tremolo guitar tracks come in on the line “Refuge of loneliness…”, it all just worked so perfectly to create that huge, messy wall of sound I was looking for. I think I went through about 10 or 11 test mixes of “Architect of the Void pt 1” before I finally had something that we all liked and could agree upon. From there I used that mix as a basis for the rest of the EP. That tremolo sound was also later used in one section of “Architect of the Void part 2” and at the end of “In the Dead of Winter Night”.
Now, I’m not so sure I “left my mark” since I’m not quite sure what that might be in my career so far, but I definitely finished that project as something I can really be proud of. There’s some things I think I could have done better, but I don’t dwell on it too much. What’s done is done and at the time it was my best work. And I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think producers or engineers “try” and leave their mark on an album, they just do that without even thinking about it. They do what comes naturally to them and how they feel things should sound. That’s what makes their portfolios as unique as the artists they work with. For Oak Pantheon, it’s really more of a collective mark we’ve left. A big part of that is layers. Layers, layers, and layers of guitars and melodies. And there’s a whole lot more where The Void came from, I guarantee you that.
When you listen to good music that’s been poorly recorded, do you find it difficult to enjoy? Do you feel that albums with poor sound quality reflect poorly on artists or is it a matter of priorities/taste?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It really depends on the song. A great song will always be a great song no matter the recording quality. Of course even I have boundaries. I’m not so sure Dunkelheit would have the same effect if it was recorded on a cell phone. I definitely feel like it’s more of a taste thing on the listener’s part though. I have to hand it to Jesper Zuretti by making a great point: a lot of people “hear” a recording but don’t really “listen” to it. They just take it at face value and can’t get beyond that, which I think is really too bad. I actually feel a little sorry for those people who are missing out on some great musical journeys just because the sound isn’t what they’re used to. Poor sound quality only reflects poorly on artists if their songs suck too. In my opinion, a good song will still be a good song whether recorded to a cheap 4-track or on the latest Pro Tools HD rig with all the analog and digital bells and whistles. But a shitty song will still be a shitty song no matter how good or bad it might’ve been recorded. That being said, there are times when a good song can be taken to the next level if it’s properly recorded and mixed. It’s just not really a requirement for me.
What genre or “sound” do you think is the most difficult to produce? Are there some genres which require more planning or extra effort on your part?
Honestly, the two ends of the recording spectrum are the hardest: the hyper-technical bands that need every instrument to be isolated and recorded on their own and edited to perfection and the bands that want to have everybody playing simultaneously together in a live setting. Both are daunting in their own right. A lot of work in the technical bands involves a lot of time spent in post-production, editing things to perfection, re-amping guitars to achieve the sound they want, etc. And with the live bands every instrument needs to be recorded simultaneously and as perfectly as you can get it in one big take. Mic placement is paramount. There might be a few overdubs afterwards, but what you record that session is what you get to work with. You can’t re-do some instruments on their own if somebody screwed up since there’s so much sound bleeding from every other instrument in the room. Metal in general is probably one of the tougher genres of music, period, to record outside of classical.
Is there anything you’d like to add, related or not to the discussion at hand?
Take in each new musical discovery with an open mind. Don’t let genre, recording quality, or description deter you from listening to a band. Even I catch myself rolling my eyes or scoffing every time I hear the words “death metal”, “progressive” or “technical”, or “insert dislike here“, and it’s quite silly. You really don’t know what you could be missing. Even if you end up not liking it all that much, there might be something in there you can take from it. Maybe it’ll grow on you. I can count on one hand how long I’ve actually been listening to metal in general. It’s just something that over time I slowly began to enjoy and appreciate more and more. It was even more recently that I became a huge listener of black metal. All it takes is that one “gateway band” to convert you. Once you start hearing things in a new way, it can open you up to so many more enjoyable releases. What was once stale or uninteresting becomes a goldmine of discovery and it’s just really exciting to go back to bands you dismissed before and just indulge in their awesomeness.