Scott Atkins Interview:
"I expected the drum tracks to be very similar to what i’d heard on the mix, imagine my surprise when they were actually really decent...."
Talking to Scott Atkins about working on a recent, very special re-release of Cradle Of Filth's, Cruelty And The Beast, album. We will take an in depth look on what the creative process looked like and what proved to be the biggest challenge on this project. We will talk about the equipment used in the process of mixing and mastering, we will go deep into the process of mixing drums, guitars and vocals, we will also go back to the original version of the album and talk about the differences between its sound and production.
We will also talk about Scott's collaboration with Colin Richardson and Daniel Bergstrand on the 2009 Behemoth's opus, Evengelion. We will talk about the concepts for the sound of the latest Vader album, as well as about the methodology of studio work, mixing and mastering techniques, In The Box and VST plugins, and the philosophy of Grindstone Studio and Scott's recipe for successfully getting into different shoes while working in the studio....
My guest today is Scott Atkins, guitarist, producer, mixer and mastering engineer, owner of the Grindstone Studio, which has been gaining a solid reputation in the modern metal industry since 2005, producing albums for established record labels including Nuclear Blast, Earache and Metal Blade.
Although in his studio Scott is not afraid of digital, and most of his mixes are made with the help of
In The Box environment, his productions are characterized by great, very fresh and instantly recognizable sound. His work ethic is to push for great performances rather than to digitally create them, so that the recording sounds like a living thing rather than a cold, robotic version of one. With the rest, his
discography speaks for itself.
Over the years Scott has worked alongside heavyweight producers such as Andy Sneap and
Colin Richardson on bands like Amon Amarth, Behemoth and Cradle Of Filth. And it is on the subject
of Cradle Of Filth that we gonna talk the most about today, all on the occasion of the recent release of the extraordinary new version of the Cruelty And The Beast album, which, despite some sound controversies, is considered by many to be the band's opus magnum.
We will take a very close look at the individual stages of working on this album. We will analyze the process of mixing and mastering, get to know the equipment base and find out what were the goals and obstacles, We will go deep into the process of mixing guitars and vocals. We will also talk about the drum tracks and try answer the question if it's really the drums were actually the main cause of the controversial sound quality of the original album.
In the further part of the interview we will also talk about other albums Scott worked on, including 2009 Behemoth's opus, Evengelion, as well as the latest album of another metal legend, Vader. We'll also talk about plugins and In The Box environment, about studio work methodology, modern mastering and and the philosophy behind Scott's Grindstone Studio....
Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: Hello Scott, thank you so much for finding the time to talk. I really appreciate it!
Scott Atkins: My Pleasure Adrian Thanks for inviting me here!
There are at least a few reasons why I wanted to talk to you, but the main reason for our meeting today is the long-awaited brand new remix release of Cradle Of Filth, Cruelty And The Beast album. An album that despite controversial production for many fans is perceived as opus magnum of this band. And here I have a problem with defining this upcoming release, because it's not just a re-release, nor a simple remaster.... from what I know, you've re- recorded a few keyboard parts, you've done some extraordinary things to improve the sound of drums, you've supposedly interfered in everything else.... so, you can say it's a complete reboot for this album and the story told on it?
Sony records approached me with the brief of remixing the album from the original master tapes. They had already had the 48 tracks converted from 2” tape to digital wavs, so they sent me a hard disk with everything on. There was no instruction to add anything to the tracks, but we soon found out that some of the keyboard tracks were not there. Some detective work by myself and Dani Filth led us to discover that some of the keyboards were added during the mastering process, perhaps the session was already up to the maximum count of 48 that they were able to use at that time. Anyway, we approached
Les Smith, the original keyboardist, and he used the same gear he used for the album and recreated the parts for us.
Some additional sounds were also added by Martin the current drummer. The idea was for the content to be exact as possible to the original.
The approach to the mix, was that I would work on it in the same way as I worked on the last 2 albums I’ve made for the band. The label and the band wanted a modern version of the album that fell in line with their current releases.
After all, the original is already there for anyone who would ultimately prefer that version. It was clear in the early stages that getting the guitars heavier and more upfront would mean the keys had less room, but it made sense that having the album
sounding more aggressive would ultimately be the main objective.
Speaking of stories, what fascinated you the most about Cradle Of Filth? I guess before you met them you were a fan of their albums?
I wouldn’t say I was a fan, but I did listen to them. I’d seen the band very early on with their first line up, and then on many occasions after. I had a few albums, but listened more to the stuff after Nymphetamine. I was always interested in their
traditional heavy metal musicality and how it blended so well with the heavier riffing. Dani was obviously a star and his trademark high scream was so individual. They just had their own thing going on, so different to everyone else. It was fascinating how people either loved them or hated them.
You're right! There is indeed such a phenomenon, Cradle Of filth often arouses such extreme emotions. Either you love them or hate them! Have you ever wondered what's the reason?
I’m pretty sure it’s Dani Filth's vocal style. His high vocals and his scream have become his trademark and what made him famous. The downside is that people are very much divided on it being either great or let's say, not so great.
I love how they combine elements of beauty and dirt... their albums are also educational. You can learn a lot from them, you know, all these unique background stories and lyrical concepts by Dani, beautiful poetry, and also a
climate, almost film-like, musical climate that builds up the ability to the imaginative imagination. But, going back
to Cruelty... do you think the first sound of this album was really so bad?
I would say the album sounded bad. It’s very unbalanced. From what Dani tells me, the band couldn’t agree on the mixes, and were all competing with each other to change things. It’s very easy to lose sight of the objective when that happens.
I think the album was well produced tho, and it captured the bands essence very well.
I'm asking about it because in my opinion it was just right. You know, perfectly caught cinematic, theatrical
atmosphere.... The album had a soul, and thanks to the sound of drums, it was a canon and a category for itself.
It was a very movie-like, even musical whole. The bigger reverb, in my opinion, helped you to feel the atmosphere and the story presented on the album, which sounded like it was being recorded in a castle, in the context it made
In my experience, talking to fans and general metal fans, the message I got was that the original mix was flawed.
I don’t remember it sounding bad when it was first released tho, and I guess I got used to it, as many others did.
I think that overall, the album was a lot better than the mix. Like there's a much better album in there, but its been let down. Frequency wise, there are lots bothering me when I listen with more of a critical ear. I found that when I got the multitracks,
I was surprised how usable all the sounds were. It strikes me that maybe the sounds were eq’d heavily for the mix.
Drums actually sounded quite controversial, especially considering the genre of music and the function they play in the tracks, but on the other hand it's such a kind of more extreme metal version of, let's say, And Justice For All, whose sound we all love today....
Interesting comparison. The drums ended up sounding very thin to my ear. My guess is that they wanted loads of attack,
and pushing the highs kind of gives you that, but we all know unless its a really hard hit, you don’t get the snap you’re expecting. Its super hard to play fast and hard. I expected the drum tracks to be very similar to what I’d heard on the mix, imagine my surprise when they were actually really decent. The kit was well tuned, very well recorded and none of the mix eq had been committed to tape. I had a pretty decent drum sound I could rely on and I knew I could use less samples on my mix. I didn’t want the kit to sound super modern and triggered, but I did want it to be solid and weighty.
Yes you're right, both the kick and snare, as well as the whole drum kit sounds like there was a lot of around 8kHz pretty hard everywhere. I understand you've used far less of an equalizer on the drum tracks now?
I’ve tried to keep the drums sounding within their natural spectrum of sound. They just didn’t need insane amounts of eq. When you do that, something always suffers.
Since we're at the drums.... Do you know what concept of sound, in the sense of equalization Nick Barker had then? As far as I know, he was the one who was most unhappy with the sound of the album.
I guess the irony is that its the drums that made the album sound so bad. I’m not saying he was instrumental in making it that way, but it makes sense he would have the biggest problem with it. I think at that time, there wasn’t such a clear idea of how Cradle Of Filth should sound. Maybe they thought they were entering a new territory.
How do you look at this album now, when you have finished your work? What this album has gained, and is there anything that this album has lost?
I’m still pretty happy with it. I think all of the instruments are represented well. Its easy to say the keyboards should have ruled the mix, but to me, that means a lack of balance. This version needed to be different. Our vision wasn’t to look at it as ‘what are we going to lose’, it was more a case of presenting the album with a more modern sound that could attract new fans who wouldn’t have given the original more than one listen.
Can you tell me more about the equipment used in the development of this release?
I mix In The Box and only really use some basic plugins. I love Metric Halo Channel Strip on almost everything, and also Fabfilter Pro Q. I use my Distressors as much as possible also when printing tracks.
What about drum compression? Did you use some kind of plugin version of DBX?
I’ve actually been using the AVID Pro Compressor for a lot of parallel compression. Its really awesome.
Are you using some other channel strip plugins except Metric Halo Channel Strip? Something from UAD? Waves? Plugin Alliance?
No I only use Metric Halo. I’m just too lazy to try anything else.
What devices did you use to re-master? Did you try to stick to analog devices or you use some plugins as well?
Maybe it was a hybrid job?
I mastered using my TK Audio BC1-S for the compression. Its got a cool blend dial so you can slam the master hard but then dial the blend back a bit. I like to compress that way, and also the usual way of less compression, full blend, and compare.
I usually prefer the parallel one. I don’t like too much on my master buss. A touch of eq like Ozone or Fabfilter and something like an exciter can posher things up.
It must have been an extremely difficult job, after all you couldn't and probably didn't want to destroy the original shape of the primary sound?
Yes it was difficult. I had Dani around most of the time, and we had the original mix in the session that we could A/B with at any time to refer to. Once the guitars, drums and bass were kind of set, the main job and the bulk of the time was balancing the vocals and keyboards. Dani wanted the vocals and delays and effects as close to the original as possible, so lots of comparing there!
What was your goal? What did you want to achieve, what did you focus on? What did you want to emphasise and what to hide during this process?
The goal was to bring it up to date, and maybe give the album a wider appeal to people who may love the songs but not the original mix.
Did you have moments of doubt or hesitation while working on this release?
Not really. We kept referring to the original every hour. He wanted the vocal mix and blend of the different layers to be as similar as possible, with the same effects. It was quite overwhelming how difficult that was. Dani would listen at home and come in the next day with a list of things he’d noticed.
What were your biggest problems?
The biggest problem was deciding on the vision for the remix. Myself and Dani knew there would be a trade off between guitars and keys. That's always been the case for the recent albums we’ve made together. Once we had that figured out, I had big problems getting more from the guitar tone. I only had the original amp sounds to work with and any re- recording was out of the question. It sounded like the mics were placed right where there was too much fizz, and I spent days trying to clear that away to get more of the tone that was hidden away. God bless Fabfilter. Its so brilliant - you can really dig in, and it has such a narrow Q. Anything is possible for precise frequency elimination!
Since we're already talking about Fabfilter.... Do you use anything else from them besides the equalizer? For example, Saturn?
No I don’t use anything else by them, I should tho, I’m sure they are killer. I often use the AVID Pro Compressor to control freq in the guitars if they need it.
Are you one of those who cut guitars around 2khz?
If it needs it. Its usually around 4.5k where things start to bother me tho.
What else you usually do to build up the guitars? You're boosting the 250hz area?
250 - 400 for sure, but make sure the 160-200 isn’t affected. That's the freq range that needs stabilising with comp as it moves around so much, especially where palm muting is happening.
Do you know if the former Cradle members creating the line up when recording this album have already heard this new version?
I would imagine the record label has kept them informed. I’ve not heard from any of them.
I told you about this before the interview, but let me say it in public. For me you are a very interesting figure on today's metal scene, I value you for a lot of things, but, especially for your work ethos and characteristic recognisable style of sound, which, in my opinion, is characteristic, largely due to the fact that you're not afraid to take on almost every element of the production yourself.... How do you look at it? And right away the second
question.... You have experience in both fields, mixing, mastering, also engineering, don't you have a problem
with separating the different jobs and work stages while working?
I think from the way I entered the recording business, working with unknown bands, there was no option other than me to do everything. There has been occasions where someone else handled the mix, or the mastering. It can go either way on if it works out well or not. My advice when I’m discussing with the bands is this, if someone else is going to mix or master, choose someone top of their game. When I get problems is when bands choose someone who is more of a step sideways
or even down, and I could have done it better. Wearing all the hats, its better when I get time to separate. So if I produced an album, its great to work on something else for a while to freshen the approach before I start the mix.
Today, more and more often, the differences between these two stages are blurred, young engineers treat them as a single stage. Is that a good thing? What impact does it have on the final quality and success of the project when we mix and finalize the project at once. What are the cons of this type of work?
It’s rare for me to do have anything I’ve mixed mastered by anyone else. When I finished Savage Messiah ‘Hands of Fate’ album I had already done a test master but the band were keen to explore other options. In the end we had some tests done and Dave Collins (Metallica Hardwired) beat everyone. He just made my mix sound so much better.
Godspeed On The Devil's Thunder it's an album whose sound is commonly attributed to Andy Sneap, I know you were involved in the production process of this album, as far as I know you engineered and mixed it.
I only recorded 75% of the guitars on that album, Andy Sneap did everything else. Andy had some gigging commitments with SABBAT in the US and asked me to cover for him whilst he was away.
Paul Allender was still in the band at the time. How, now - when he hasn't been in the band for a few years, do you evaluate his contribution then?
I’ll always be a fan of Paul and his playing. He’s a riff beast. Since I made 3 COF albums with Paul I know he chose to write pretty much on his own, I think in retrospect the albums could have been a bit more varied if another guitarist was brought in to write.
His playing style and his picking is quite unique, his right hand is very precise....
Yes Paul has the drilling / speed picking and scrubbing style down perfectly which is the COF sound.
What equipment did you use on this record? What kind of amps, microphones and effects did you use?
I don’t think i actually went into the room where the cab was set up!! I think we tracked with a Krankenstein but i couldn’t say if it made it onto the record.
Tell me something about your studio..... about acoustic adaptation, listening system and your main work environment....
I use Genelec 1031 and Yamaha ns10. I also have a 15” subwoofer under the desk. I can’t say I’m an expert on monitors,
but it seemed like a logical choice as I had worked in other studios in the early days and that's what they were using.
I was very comfortable on these speakers and they complemented each other very well.
My studio is built with inside out walls, so that the plasterboard is next to the brick work of the building, and the internal stud partition is just material stretched over the insulation. Its very dead, and then I just use some harder surfaces here and there to liven things up. A guy called John Sayers has a wealth of information available on his website for people to build their studios with.
It is no secret that Cradle Of Filth is a band of which Dani Filth, has been the only permanent member for a long time. He is not constant towards the bandmates, but when it comes to the recording studio and the chief
engineer it's been quite different for a long time....What do you think Dani Filth values you the most for?
It definitely helps that the studio is local to where he lives. That said, we have a good understanding of each other,
and our vision and standards are very similar. We rarely have a difference of opinion, and are both happy to really dig in and push for the best performances, even if we’ve finished it 2 or 3 times already.
The biggest loss you think that Cradle of Filth experienced? I'm asking about the band members....
There was something very special about the Cruelty line up. I don’t think they really got a line up as pioneering as that again, although they had lots of really good line ups. It’s cliche in that although it was a very creative and ground breaking line up,
it was also turbulent and was destined to implode. The current line up is the closest they’ve got to harnessing a classic metal vibe like they had back in the late 90’s.
Let's leave Cradle Of Filth for a moment, let's go to, I think, also an important album for you, an album which, almost all the media cream in terms of sound, was drunk by Colin Richardson....
I mean, of course, Behemoth's Evangelion album, on which you also worked.
I bet you remember working on that album to this day.... You found yourself in the proverbial mouth of a lion....
on the one hand Colin Richardson, who usually has quite a clear vision of the sound of the album he is working on quite early, on the other hand Nergal, who is also a type of Control freak and likes to personally watch the effect of work... Was there room in such conditions for creative improvisation, for some changes? An element of coincidence?
There was a period at the beginning of the mix where Nergal was in Poland and we were in the studio in London.
It was very difficult to get the mix underway as Colin felt like his hands were tied in which sounds he had to work with.
Apparently you couldn't come to an agreement with the sound of guitars, they were recorded using completely different amplifiers than the ones we hear on the album. Why did you reamped them?
Colin didn’t like the microphone positioning as I remember. The tone had a lot of fizz which we couldn’t get rid of.
Nergal was firmly against reamping, but when he arrived at the studio we talked him round. We got a load of amps in the studio and he chose what he liked.
You used mostly Peavey, right? Everything seems to indicate that then Nergal's relationship with these amplifiers began? All because of, or thanks to Colin Richardson....
Actually no, we used a few different amps, and I remember there were 6 guitar tracks to make up the rhythms. I’m pretty
sure we used a regular 5150, an EVH and a Randall RM100. Nergal was a Mesa Rectifier guy at the time, and it was a lot
of work from me and Colin to convince him of trying different sounds. Once we got going he was very happy. The album sounds killer.
Are there any guitar tracks on the album that are left intact on the mixing stage?
Not sure, i cant remember!
If we're at Evangelion, you can't forget about the drums and the work that Daniel Bergstrand did at the tracking stage. This may be a bit of a surprising question, but how do you assess what Daniel does with the drums and
what he did with the drum tracks on Evangelion? I'm asking because you had the pleasure to hear the drums
before the mix....
I remember we didn’t change the toms at all, Colin thought they sounded killer. Daniel had blended samples with them already, as he had done with the kick and snare. I think Colin added something else to the sounds for the kick and
snare tho, maybe something for attack. On the whole, it was Daniels sounds just mixed by Colin.
On the cover of the album Dormant Heart by the band Sylosis you are signed as mixing and drum engineering,
Tell me more about the drums on this album.
For the tracking I took the guys to the studio I used for Cradle Of Filth's album ‘Darkly Darkly Venus Aversa’. It’s called Monkey Puzzle studio in Suffolk, England. It had a very large live room, and the guys were looking for a very ‘drum room’ type of sound. We placed room mics at various distances from the kit, as much as 10 metres away. I don’t think we used
all of them, but the super far ones may have been used for short sections here and there where they wanted some distance or no close mics at all.
Amon Amarth's, Deceiver Of The Gods, is an album where you played the role of an engineer for a change....
What exactly was your responsibility when you were working on this album?
I basically did whatever Andy Sneap told me to ha ha. To be honest, I helped lighten the workload. I would tune and maintain the drum kit in between takes, while Andy sorted the session and got everything ready. The band were cutting the drum as a band, all playing live together, so there was always something to sort out, like headphone mixes or straightening out the arrangements. If I had an idea I’d throw it in, sometimes it took both of us to convince the band to change something.
There was always too much double kick, and it was quite difficult finding alternative beats to cut that down. Myself and Andy
also recorded the guitars at the same time, I had Johan and he had Ollie. We’d exchange files and got the songs up pretty quickly. I also did lots of pre-mix stuff for the sessions so Andy was ready to mix super quickly.
Can you say something about the outboard gear used to mix Nergal's vocals on Evangelion?
It was just the compressor I believe. It was the Empirical Labs Distressor. I actually bought one right after the session was finished. The rest would have been plugins like Soundtoys Decapitator or some other Lo-Fi stuff.
What did Dani vocal chain look like when recording vocal parts?
I keep things really simple when recording vocals, I really like the Warm Audio range. I use their WA-47 mic and
the WA-412 mic pre. I always track with the Distressor on, usually distortion setting 3. It gives you more of a tape
saturation type smoothness.
How long does an average vocal session last? How big fragments of the track can he put together in one go?
With Dani, we are trying lots of different patterns and layers with different voices. Its very time consuming, we spend at least 2 days a song just on vocals. We don’t over edit because it always sounds worse, so it might be a case of getting the comp together and then replicating that in bigger parts.
How many vocal takes/tracks are on Cruelty And The Beast?
As the whole album was recorded on to 2 24 track reel, they kept Dani to a maximum of around 4 tracks.
What do you think about plugins and all this mastering applications like Ozone or Lurssen Mastering Console?
For me, the second mentioned is more a kind of toy then a serious mastering workhorse....
Whatever works really. Its more how you use them to your benefit. Ozone has most of what you need, as do most of their competitors. It’s all very well having expensive hardware dedicated for mastering, but its important to remember most bands other than established ones have a very low budget for it. At the very least I need an analogue bus compressor.
What about all these one knob mastering plugins? You treat them as an insult ?As a profanation of your profession?
I never use one knob plugins. I’m sure they are for home recordists who need simple ‘it sounds better’ on/off plugins.
You've recently had the pleasure of working with another great Polish band playing extreme music.
I'm talking about Vader. As far as I know, you've just finished mixing.... What, in terms of production, will this upcoming album stand out?
Peter wanted a sharper sound in the guitars, rather than muddy. A lot of the riffs seemed to get lost on previous albums and the drums seemed very triggered. I guess these were the 2 main factors Peter was keen to concentrate on.
Elements you tried to emphasize on this album?
I wanted to spend longer on the vocals, to get Peter to be more of a main thing, and of course to showcase more lead work. The solos are really shredding on this album.
Was there anything that you wanted to do differently than on previous Vader albums so far?
Yes - the main thing was to improve Peters English and his pronunciation. Vader had previously only worked with studio guys where English was their second language and i felt that Peter hadn’t been picked up enough on his wording in his lyrics. Another thing was that Peter had a big love of New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and I wanted a slightly more Marshall classic tone for the sound rather than too modern.
I haven't heard the full album yet, but I have heard some fragments and I must admit that the album sounds more analogue than the last two Vader releases. You also managed to work out a very cool midrange, especially low midrange. I think it's a very important frequency range for this band. Do you agree with me on that?
The thing with Vader is that Peter has a huge voice. He really fills out the middle of the mix, and he sounds great with reverb. I mixed the whole album around that really. Peter has a very thick low mid range and from there you get the snare also being full, then the low chugs in the guitars etc...it all follows from there.
Peter, like the aforementioned Colin Richardson, like to keep his hand on the pulse. Either you're lucky to have such characters or you just attract such strong personalities.... there's also the option that you just have such a
Well, I guess anyone who is a survivor in this industry must be doing something right eh? Anyway, with Vader, I previously worked with James the drummer on a few albums, so he connected me and Peter and we went from there.
I mentioned that the album sounded analogue, but you mixed it In The Box....
I always mix In The Box, but for the album to sound more analogue, you basically just have keep the drums sounding as real as possible. There is a lot of blasting and as such you should never be tempted to use a harder snare hit to make it louder. Its essential to work within the dynamics of what is actually happening in the track. I do use tape simulation and other analogue processing to help glue the mix together tho. Its surprising how a bit of Soundtoys or Distressor here and there can de-sterilise things.
A few words to my readers? Any tips, tricks?
To anyone who wants to work in the audio industry, just get on with it and work hard. Remember to always be polite and listen to the artist!!
Thank you very much Scott. It was great talking to you!
Thank you Adrian, it was a pleasure! Thank you for your interest!
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