In the studio with Foo Fighters: how to produce hit records
13 Mar 2017
Interview kind: text
· Reading time: 27 minutes
How can you stop someone like Dave Grohl? Like he said: “I was in f***ing Nirvana, dude!”.
And if we decided to end our story here, that would be fine. Enough said.
But picture this: it’s summer 1994 in Seattle, WA, and just a few months have passed from Nirvana’s final break-up following Kurt Cobain’s tragic death. Kurt wasn’t just a close friend to him, but he was the person with whom Dave had built that “little” piece of history called Nirvana.
And all of a sudden, everything had ended. Dave was 25 at the time and had been on the road since he turned 18: he was now living an intense period of his life, with very few certainties. One of these certainties was, and has always been, music.
Dave figures out that the best way to overcome his loss is to carry on making music and decides to dust off some old demos he recorded on his own when he was touring with Nirvana. His biggest concern was being pictured for the rest of his life as “that guy from Kurt Cobain’s band”, so he decides to start a new project called Foo Fighters (the name came from what American pilots called “unidentified fireballs”, spotted over Germany during World War II).
Let’s discover how “the nicest band in rock” worked in and out of the recording studios.
Foo Fighters (1995)
Dave started recording some demos in the basement of the house he shared with his friend Barrett Jones, on a Tascam 38 ½ inch 8-track tape machine with a Carvin MX2488 mixer.
In October 1994, Dave booked a six-day session at Bob Lang’s studio in north Seattle to record 15 tracks entirely written, arranged and performed by himself, except for one guitar track on X-Static, which was recorded by Greg Dulli.
The recording session was set up so that everything was in hand’s reach and ready to be recorded.
Dave used his Tama Artstar II “Nirvana kit” with a 8x14 birch snare and a combination of guitars and amps: a custom Les Paul and a red Gibson Trini Lopez going through some Pro Co RAT 2 for effects. He mainly used a Marhall JCM 900 for the “grunge” guitar sounds, as well as a battery powered Marshall Amp placed inside a gas can (nicknamed "the can”).
Some of the distorted vocals on Podunk and Weenie Beenie were also recorded through this signal chain.
He would usually start recording the drum track (of course) and a few basic guitar lines. He would then start humming the vocal part with some lyrics, and once that was at a good point he would overdub the guitar parts, add the bass line and nail the vocals. Dave was very insecure about his voice and didn’t really want to be a lead singer: that’s why all the vocals on the album aren’t doubled, but quadrupled.
The final tracks that made their way through the rough mix were sent to Rob Schnapf and Tom Rotchrock to be properly mixed at “The Shop” studio in Arcata, California. The album was mixed on a 32 channel API DeMedio console custom built in 1972 with a Stephen’s 24 track 2 inch tape machine used for playback.
The two engineers used an Eventide Omnipressor compressor for vocals and guitar solos and an Alan Smart stereo compressor for both the drum bus and the master bus. Other well-known compressors were used on different elements, like the UREI 1176 and the LA3A (check the full list at FooFightersLive).
12 of the 15 recorded tracks made it to the master tape, while the remaining were kept as B-sides. The first homonymous Foo Fighters album was released through Dave’s own independent label “Roswell Records” and got him signed to Capitol Records as a major distributor.
The Colour And The Shape (1997)
Being a solo-recorded album, Dave started looking for other musicians to get a real live band together. He relied on bass player Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith from the recently broken-up band Sunny Day Real Estate. He than gave a tape to guitarist Pat Smear (from The Germs) who had also played with Nirvana. He was right on board and after their first tour as a band, they moved to Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Washington and started working on what Dave calls his first “big, proper rock record”: The Colour And The Shape.
He choose Gil Norton as a producer because of his previous work on The Pixies' 1991 album Trompe Le Monde; the recording sessions started in November 1996.
It was immediately clear that Norton’s production methods were not quite the ones the band was used to. He demanded absolute perfection and every performance had to be at its best. The tension between the members started to rise and culminated when the band got back to work after a long Christmas break in February 1997.
This time they moved to Grandmaster Recorders in Hollywood, a much cheaper studio than the previous one. Dave wasn’t happy with what had been recorded up until then, especially with the drum parts played by Goldsmith. He decided to personally re-play all of the drums on the album without telling anything to the other drummer; this obviously caused an instant break up with him.
Norton re-recorded the remaining songs together with Grohl, Mendel and Smear with a Neve 8028 console on a Studer A827 2 Inch 24 Track tape recorder.
One of the most iconic "Foo" songs, Everlong, was written by Dave during the Christmas holidays.
After Goldsmith left, they contacted drummer Taylor Hawkins, who at the time was touring with Alanis Morissette to join the band.
There Is Nothing Left To Lose (1999)
When The Colour And The Shape tour ended in 1998, many things had changed: Pat Smear had left and had been replaced by Franz Stahl and the band decided to quit Capitol Records. Instead of looking for a new record label, they decided to produce their third studio album independently: There Is Nothing Left To Lose.
They contacted producer and engineer Adam Kasper: he had already worked with Soundgarden and on a Verbena album Dave had produced in mid 1997. While the two of them were working together on this project, Dave started coming up with the idea of building his own recording studio in his basement. And this is exactly what he did: he applied some very basic soundproofing techniques made out of sleeping bags hanging on the walls and hardwood floors.
Joking aside, the list of equipment featured a Neve console module and Allen Sides’ personal API custom console that came out of Ocean Way Nashville. They went for a complete analog approach to the production, recording and mixing everything on a Studer A827 24-Track 2" Tape Recorder (no Pro Tools was needed). The outboards they used included some UREI 1176 Peak Limiter compressors and DBX compressors, along with a mixture of Manley & LA Audio tube amplifiers.
With Adam’s help he managed to get everything up and running by spring 1999 and the Foos started recording in a relaxed and positive-minded environment.
“It was so great," said Grohl. “We were in a basement in Virginia with sleeping bags nailed to the wall. There's no record company, there's no suits knocking on the door, there's no one telling you what's good or bad. It was four months of the most mellow recording.”
Differently from the previous album, the production was approached with a more “live” mindset. The songs were all written by Dave on his acoustic guitar, Taylor would lay down a backing drum track together with Nate’s bass line and finally all the massive guitar overdubs were tracked.
As amplification for the many different guitars they used a Vox AC30, as well as a Fender Twin Reverb, a Marshall JCM 900 and a Mesa Boogie Maverick, all mic’ed with a simple Shure SM57. The Vox AC30 needed tube replacement, but, in the end, they never fixed it because the “jangly tube rattling in the background” became part of the sound.
The Gibson Trini Lopez guitar (Dave’s number one pick) would usually go through an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Pedal and straight into the amp and on the choruses they switched to a Gretsch Duo Jet and Pro-Co RAT effects pedal.
An old Gretsch drum kit and a Drum Workshop kit were played by Hawkins and, since the basement didn’t have a giant live room, Adam used some old tube mics placed next to the kit and quite low. If he needed a more "roomy" sound he would simply crank the compression of these mics up.
The vocals were recorded switching between two Neumann tube mics: a u67 and a u47, sometimes adding the Echoplex straight away before the signal hit the tape. On the track Generator Dave used a Talk Box, a vocal effect controlled by the mouth that can shape the sound of the guitar (as seen onFooFightersLive)
After the songs had been recorded, the band moved to Conway studios in Hollywood for mixing. Producer Adam Kasper was in charge of this process, but the band actually came up with a couple of new songs while he was mixing and so they recorded them “on the go”.
One of these was (and still is) one of their most iconic songs: Learn To Fly. The album was mixed on a Solid State Logic SSL9000 console in a state of the art control room.
One by One (2002)
After their brief experience with Franz Stall they called a new guitarist to join them on their upcoming One by One album: Chris Shiflett.
The band recorded the songs in their new Studio 606 between 2001 and 2002 with engineer Adam Kasper and producer Nick Raskulinecz. They moved to Conway Recording Studios to finish the tracking in January 2002. During this period of time tensions started growing to a point in which the band decided to take a short break.
At the time, Dave was also playing and touring with Queens of The Stone Age and during his time off he made the tough decision to re-record most of the material in Studio 606 and in Taylor’s house. The other two members, quite surprised by this unexpected turn of events, were called to join them at The Hook Studios in LA to record the parts that Dave had entirely re-written for them.
Both Mendel and Shiflett recorded their parts with producer Raskulinecz at the end of May and the results were mixed with the recordings made by Grohl and Hawkins earlier in the month. The album was mastered and released as One by One in October 2002.
In Your Honor (2005)
The preparation for In Your Honor, their fifth album, started as soon as the tour ended in 2003. Before hitting the studio, Dave “retired” in his house and started recording a large amount of demo tracks with a very basic Pro Tools setup in his Studio 606. He would come up with an idea, record a basic guitar and voice line and then layer all the instruments on top of it. This made everything faster and more coherent.
At that time the band had gathered an enormous amount of instruments, amplifiers and outboard gear, so they decided to move all of their equipment to a much bigger place they had found in Northridge in North West LA. Studio 606 was stripped out of Dave’s basement and transferred to this new facility.
The classic Neve 8058 console was hooked up to a Neve BCM10, a 10 channel analog mixing console and a 32-input desk that came from the previous studio in Virginia. They had an analog-digital hybrid set up: they recorded everything on 2 inch tape and then bounced it to Pro Tools to handle overdubs, editing and mixing.
Nick Raskulinecz handled the production together with engineer Mike Terry. The main innovation for the team was making a double LP: together with a first well known Foo Fighters hard rock record they added a second acoustic album. For recording most of the acoustic guitar they used a Soundelux 251 positioned near the hole and an RCA 77 near the 12th fret. They sometimes changed this setup, placing the 77 over Dave’s shoulder and a Cole mic up high in the room; on Friend of a Friend they placed the 251 close, a pair of Royers on each side and an even wider pair of Earthworks all pointing at the same source (as seen onFooFightersLive).
Cold Day In The Sun was the first song entirely written and performed by drummer Taylor Hawinks behind the mic that made its way to the final master with Dave Grohl behind the kit following his instructions (more or less).
In Your Honor was released in June 2005.
Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007)
The 2005-06 half-acoustic tour led the band to record a live acoustic album released in 2006: Skin and Bones. After a two month break in early 2007, Grohl started pre-producing some new raw material. From the early writing stages he started working with producer Gil Norton (The Colour And The Shape). You can definitely hear the “soft acoustic experience” the band had gathered during the previous album combined with Norton’s mechanical hard rock approach to the production.
Like Dave said: “On the last album we split the acoustic side and the electric side into two albums. Here, we've split it into one song”.
By the time they stepped into their 606 Studio, the band had plenty of material to be recorded. After a month of intense tracking, the band took a 10-days break. During this time, Grohl came up with an idea for a song and recorded a demo with the others. When they returned to the studio they started working on that demo, that eventually became The Pretender.
Most of the greatest Foo’s songs were written by Dave during these “break times”. Cool, isn’t it?
In an interview for SOS, engineer Rich Costey speaks about the mixing process on one of the most successful alternative rock albums in the history of American music.
The material that was handed over by Norton was already in very good conditions. A certain amount of processing was still necessary, but is was more focused on maintaing the dynamics of the recordings and doing “loads and loads of fader rides”.
Most of the album was mixed at The Pass in LA on a Neve 8078 console with 40 full in-line channels with EQ and 32 monitor channels. The Pretender had nearly 70 tracks so he had to sub-mix some of them to make sure everything fitted on the board. He speaks about how he handled the massive drum sounds: “I don't compress all the drums at the same time, I'll compress individual parts and mix the compressed sound in with the natural sound of the drums. There was relatively little compression implemented on the drums in this song, because the band didn't care for it. They wanted the drums to sound more raw”.
He used different side-chain compressors on the drums, usually set with a medium ratio and a fast recovery, like the Smart C2, the Neve 33609, the Urei 1176, the API 2500 or the Empirical Labs Distressor together with the SPL Transient Designer on toms.
The bass was recorded on three tracks: one going through an Ampeg SVT amp, one trough a 4x12 Marshall cabinet and one through a SansAmp. Rich added tons of top-mid range to the overall bass sound to make it cut through the mix.
Dave and Pat's guitar sounds were treated differently, one being more distorted than the other. The right amount of separation between the parts was achieved through EQ and panning: rhythm guitars were hard panned (100% left or right) and the melody guitars slightly inside them.
The vocals went through a Mercury EQH Tube EQ and then a couple of vintage UA 175s. He used some DeEsser plugins and a Reel Tape Saturation plugin to warm them up and make them a bit more crisper. Some plate reverb was added together with the room mics to give the voice enough space in the mix.
Rich applied two EAR 660 limiters and a Manley Massive Passive on the master bus and printed the mix on half-inch analog tape, ready to be sent to Brian Gardner for mastering.
Wasting Light (2011)
When the band decided to start working on their seventh studio album, they were fed up with the traditional workflow of the big recording studio. Even though they already owned Studio 606, this huge state of the art recording facility in LA, the team decided to move everything to Dave Grohl’s house in Encino.
"I thought,” Grohl says, "rather than just record the album in the most expensive studio with the most state‑of‑the‑art equipment, what if Butch and I were to get back together after 20 years and dust off the tape machines and put them in my garage?”
And that’s exactly what they did. Dave hired Nevermind's producer Butch Vig and his former Nirvana bandmate, bassist Krist Novoselic. Who knew better than those three how to produce a grunge-hard-rock album in a garage? There were two main rules concerning the production methods: everything had to be recorded in that house and every piece of equipment had to be analog. The main live room was set up in Dave’s “shitty little rectangular room”: the sound pressure in that garage was insanely high and drums sounded really tight, so it was perfect for what they were looking for.
They recorded everything through an API 1608 console, with an extension to 32 channels, onto two Studer A827 24-Track 2" tape recorders. Butch Vig set up his Barefoot MM27s for monitoring together with the “must have” Yamaha NS10s.
The list of outboard compressors features two Chandler Little Devils, two Dramastic Audio Obsidians and five Universal Audio LA3As. Two GML 8200s and two Manley Massive Passives equalizers were installed. A part from the board’s preamps they used a mixture of APIs and Neve 1073 racks from Studio 606.
They planned “a-song-a-week” workflow and they stuck to that, building everything from scratch.
Taylor Hawkin’s kit was close mic’ed with a Yamaha SKRM100 Sub-kick and an AKG D112 on the kick itself. A Shure SM57 on both the top and bottom of the snare, an AKG 452 on the Hi-Hat, a pair of Josephson ES22S on the toms and an AKG 452 on the ride cymbal. Recording engineer James R Brown spent a lot of time experimenting the best position for the room mics, since he was looking for a nice natural ambience with as little cymbal splash as possible. Eventually he placed a Violet Designs Stereo Flamingo and a Shure SM58 as overhead mics, a Neumann M49 for drum kit ambience, a Violet Black Finger for overhead ambience, a pair of Soundelux 251s at knee level against the garage door for main ambience and a pair of Crown PZMs for floor ambience.
Bassist Nate Mendel recorded his Lakland Bob Glaub Signature through an Ashdown ABM 900 EVO II head with an Ashdown 8x10 cabinet. Krist Novoselic played accordion and bass on the song Only I Should Have Known, using his Gibson Ripper plugged into a Hi-Watt amp.
Along with the already well known “Marshall sound” they switched between the Vox AC30, a Roland Jazz Chorus and a cheap Peavey amp Pat Smear brought with him. The amps were mic’ed by a Shure SM7 and some Shure SM57s together with a Royer R121 and two RCA BK5 ribbon mics. The more “gnarly tones” were gained thanks to Pat Smear’s crazy pedal board which featured the usual Rat Distortion Pedal.
Dave’s vocals were captured with a Bock Audio 251 tube condenser mic which went through a Neve 1073 preamp and equalizer into an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor. The more distorted vocal parts were obtained by plugging an SM57 mic straight into a Pro Co RAT distortional pedal then sent to a Roland JC-120 Amplifier. Being vocals the last instrument that was recorded, Dave usually had just 4 available tracks on tape.
The band was able to record 11 songs in 13 consecutive weeks and brought in engineer Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, the Killers, Them Crooked Vultures) to get them mixed. He started working at Chalice Studios in Hollywood, but he quickly realized that something wasn’t working. Maybe for the fact that the SSL console had a bit less top-end presence than the API or maybe for the fact that those songs belonged to Dave’s garage.
He brought the reels back to Encino and completed the mixing process. He slightly bent the analog-only rule by adding an Eventide 2016 digital reverb, two Lexicon PCM42 delays and an Eventide Eclipse for further vocal doubling.
Engineer Emily Lazar took care of the mastering and had to deal with some issues of "a lack of low end". Wasting Light was finally completed and released to the impatient public in April 2011 for RCA.
Sonic Highways (2014)
For their eighth studio album, the Foos decided to do something big. And they did. The eight songs on Sonic Highways were recorded “on the road” in eight different studios around the country: Electrical Audio (Chicago), Inner Ear Studios (Arlington County, Virginia), Southern Ground Studios (Nashville, Tennessee), Studio 6A (Austin, Texas), Rancho De La Luna (Joshua Tree, California), Preservation Hall (New Orleans), Robert Land Studios (Seattle) and The Magic Shop (New York City).
The main issue for producer Butch Vig and recording engineer James Brown was going on this long “studio tour” which lasted from September 2013 to July 2014 was making sure every facility fitted their production and recording methods. In fact, every session was attended by an in-house studio assistant who provided the necessary technical backup.
In a radio interview, Dave explains why every city had a different impact on the single song. It was a matter of the atmosphere in the studio, of the people they met around the city and the culture behind each music scene. Another challenge they had deal with was playing with the many special guests that featured on each song: in New Orleans, for example, they performed together with the whole Preservation Hall Jazz Band, an important part of the city's musical history. These collaborations pushed the band to experiment new arrangements and composing methods.
The production of this album was fully documented by an HBO Tv series which follows the band across the country.
So, this is basically it. Much more could be said regarding the Foo Fighters' productions history, but we prefer letting their music speak instead.
What made them such a big name in the music industry was not just the distinctive sound they developed, but the image they were able to create around themselves.
Who else would decide to do a private tour of their fan's garages after a multi-platinum award winning album (also recorded in a garage)?
The good and the bad experiences they had with the different producers made them who they are and their appeal to the public has earned them the title of "nicest band in rock".
And Dave Grohl just can't get enough.
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