Tour Profile: Metallica By Sarah Benzuly

The lights go down and the fans in the packed arena at Candlestick Park (San Francisco) know that, soon, their boys will finally hit the stage. Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, “The Ecstasy of Gold,” booms over the P.A., just as it has before countless Metallica shows before. It is something of a battle cry for this band — a shout in the dark that lets the audience know that for the next three hours, they're at the mercy of screaming, yet melodic vocals, soaring guitars, a pounding drum line and, of course, a slew of amazing pyrotechnics. Coupled with stellar performances from opening acts The Deftones, Mudvayne, Linkin Park — who had such an energetic set that they seemed like they were going to burst at the seams — and Limp Bizkit, it must be said: Stadium rock is not dead.

Ripping through three sets chock-full of “classic” Metallica hits and a handful from their eighth studio album, St. Anger (which had just gone multi-Platinum), the band showed that they eat, sleep and breathe live performances. One would think that bringing in new bassist Rob Trujillo would slightly alter the chemistry formed during the past 20-odd years, but Metallica can still bring a crowd to its knees.

This year's tour marked a new way of working for the sound crew: Instead of relying on one touring company, both Showco and Thunder Audio Inc. were brought in to handle the two stages (each with its own complete production), four opening acts and the headliner. Paul Owen — VP of Thunder Audio and monitor engineer for the band for 17-plus years, as well as head of audio on this tour — says that working with two sound companies has “all of the pluses.”


“When we've done it before, we've used one P.A. company and one P.A. crew that worked all day, flat out,” Owen says. “It seriously exhausts the resources of most sound companies. [On this tour], the main P.A. system is from Showco, and all of the opening acts are being taken care of by Showco. My crew takes care of everything for Metallica. So there is a firm divide, which works extremely well because it means when the crew gets to do Metallica, they're not burnt out. There are 22 sound guys: I have eight from [Thunder Audio] and 14 from [Showco].”


The opening acts rely on Digico D5s at FOH, with a Showconsole at monitor world. Both Owen and Big Mick (FOH engineer who has been with the band for 20-plus years) are using Midas XL4s, as they have since receiving the first ones eight years ago.

“We've contemplated [using a digital board],” Owen says. “But it's still nice to be able to grab something. Because I do so many cue changes with Metallica — they're on in-ears and they're on wedges — by following them around onstage, I can't grab things fast enough. The whole digital concept, in my opinion, works well in multiband situations, but I think it scares a lot of engineers off who are not used to the digital world. I've looked at all of the digital consoles — PM-1D, InnovaSon, the D5 — and they've all got minuses and pluses, but I think anyone who comes out with a digital console where you can actually choose as much analog as you want to — I think that would make it more appealing to a lot more engineers.”

Big Mick always chuckles when people equate Metallica with being “loud.” But in all fairness, he likes to run at about 106 dB A-weighted at the board; C-weighted, it usually runs at about 120 or 122 dB on peaks. “So I try to lean on the low end more than I do on the high end; makes it less brash-sounding and more powerful,” Big Mick explains. “By the nature of the music, it makes the perception a lot louder than it really is. You can't let it just be full-on, it'll be too abrasive, so you have to calm it down a little bit. You avoid certain areas; obviously, anything in the high midband, about 1.8k to 4k. And distorting guitars tends to contain a lot of those frequencies, so you have to keep them tamed a little bit, try to beefen up the other frequencies that are less offensive.”


But Metallica still has a monstrous sound, thanks in part to the P.A. This tour marks the first use of the new Nexo GEO T Line Array. “We've got six a side on the sidefills for the stage; it's pretty impressive!” Owen says. “I think it's the first line array that's come out that you can actually steer with physics, as opposed to mechanics. A lot of thought went into it. I think it's the best line array that's out now, and we've used them all.”

Big Mick has seen the band catapult itself from an opening act at small clubs to selling out stadiums across the globe. And during this time, he has had plenty of opportunities to tweak and refine how Metallica sounds live. For example, Big Mick says that the kick drum has posed some interesting difficulties. “You could never hear when [Lars Ulrich] was playing double bass drum. So you have to have the click in the kick drum in order to hear it. And then, of course, you have to moderate the amount of low end to go with that so that the click doesn't sound too over the top.


“We've also done different things over the years, such as modifying guitar sounds so they worked together. We go to Boogies instead of Marshall, and done an awful amount of work on microphones. With a lot of heavier-sounding acts, it is very difficult to get cymbals heard. If you got the cymbals to where they were loud enough, you had too much guitar across them; you'd have a lot of everything across them. And it was really ugly. Now, I mike every cymbal from underneath with the Audio-Technica 3525. I extend the gooseneck so it goes further to the edge of the cymbal, so the actual overhead mic sits one per cymbal and nearer to the edge than it does to the center, and then I can position it in the mix left and right.

“Another problem we had as we went along was that there was so much ambient noise onstage that to adjust a noise gate's threshold, you actually turn the tom tom off when [Lars] wasn't using it and then for it to turn on when he hit the tom tom was impossible to adjust. We had D-Drum trigger samples about 15 years ago to help Lars out with his snare sound. It never worked out really well, so I got rid of it. However, I did keep the triggers. So I plugged that into the key input of a noise gate, switched it to key input and flicked it, and the gate worked. So then I taped them to all of the tom toms and the kick drums with these triggers, and that's what we do today.

“Mics that are actually sitting open with no noise gates on are the overheads and hi-hats — that's it,” Big Mick continues. “There's no guitar mics onstage; there's nothing. I even gate the vocals because there are 10 of them. With the big reflective surfaces on this particular stage — there are big plastic sheets all around them, which cause vicious reflections — I found that leaving all of the vocal mics wide open just made the whole thing have loads of little echoes within the sound. I don't mean echoes in the sense of a useful thing, I mean it kind of like a slapback that stays as close to the original sound. So we had to start gating the vocals down.

“I've just gone to different microphones on the guitars. I was using Audio-Technica 4050s, but I just got this new mic: an Audio-Technica 2500 Artist Elite for kick drum. It's got a dynamic capsule and a condenser capsule all in one housing. I thought I'd try one on guitar and it sounded amazing. I couldn't believe it. I use absolutely no EQ at all. None. I have four channels for James' [Hetfield] guitar: the condenser, the dynamic/condenser for the one set of Mesa Boogie — he has a Diesel amplifier — the dynamic/condenser again, and then the EQ switched out. It is incredible. I don't mike the bass. I use a pre-DI and a post-DI. We have a DI straight off the guitar, which is the Gas Cooker to beef it up a little bit, and then we have a DI that comes after the amplifier.”

As for Hetfield's vocal, Big Mick doesn't use any EQ switched in. Instead, he sends all eight vocals to two subgroups, and he EQs the subgroups because Hetfield will sing into any of the eight mics onstage. Guitar EQs are switched out, though he does EQ drums.

It was only four years ago, during the orchestra dates with the San Francisco Symphony, that the band first wore in-ears. Owen relates that it was evident that the band truly heard themselves when they went on ears, especially Ulrich. “Lars had always worn thick ear plugs and listened to a huge drum monitor. So a lot of the notes they had never heard. So if James questions him, ‘You're playing the end of “Master [of Puppets]” wrong,’ Lars is like, ‘I've always played it that way.’ It's just because he's heard it now!”


But the switch to UE5 ears wasn't easy and isn't across the board: Hetfield didn't like the isolation of it (he has 12 dB of ambience in his ears), so Owen still uses a full monitor system because the band plays off of his guitar. “They can't work in complete isolation,” Owen explains. “James wants to hear exactly his instrument and where he goes, so you have to follow James' vocal and send it to him. Except you can't have 15 vocals wide open in his ears, and you can't really gate them down: Some guys sing soft, and some guys sing hard. So it's a constant following around. Lars only hears certain parts of James' vocal and certain parts taken out. Same with Kirk [Hammett, guitarist]: He wants to be followed entirely around the 200-foot stage with 24 mixes. Same with Rob [Trujillo, bassist]. Rob had never worn in-ears until he came to Metallica. And he's just on one ear [his left], which is a heavy bass driver. And the rest all follow him around on the wedges onstage, which is similar to what Jason [Newsted, former bassist] was. Bassists are pretty hard to convince to stay on in-ears. They do generate a lot of low end.”

The transition to in-ears is a fine example of Metallica's ever-changing sound. In fact, as Big Mick explains, creating that distinctive Metallica sound has been all about “cause and effect”: “There's a problem; it causes me to think about it, and then I effect a change to try and fix the problem.

“So, basically,” Big Mick concludes, “all we've done over the years is learn how to refine each of the individual sounds to make a cumulative big sound with the topic of music at hand. I don't use any samples at all; the kick drums, snare drums, tom toms, everything is real. I think more engineers need to do more experimenting and thinking about what they're trying to achieve. I just think it is very easy to follow what everybody has always done. If it doesn't work, you have to adopt a plan. I don't mind telling people my plans. It's not a competition; I'm just doing a job. If I come up with a good idea and if everybody can benefit from it, then why not? It doesn't matter. We're all trying to earn a living.”

Mix Online 2003






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