ost people know Kurt Ballou from his slashing guitar work for hardcore punk legends Converge. However, he has also quietly built up a reputation as a producer and recording engineer. Based in Salem, Massachusetts, his Godcity Recording Studio (built with severance pay from his previous career as a biomedical engineer) has recorded punk and metal luminaries like Converge, Cave In, Doomriders, Beecher, Swarm of the Lotus, and Modern Life Is War.
Picking the best Ballou recording is tough. It could be his beefed-up, richly packaged remixes of Converge's Petitioning the Empty Sky and When Forever Comes Crashing. It could be the gritty desperation of Modern Life Is War's Witness. Doomriders' Black Thunder, in particular, is one of the sweatiest, most electric recordings in recent memory. Ballou keeps guitar tones dirty and drum sounds natural; his talent for capturing analogue distortion brings to mind Steve Albini. In this interview, he sheds light on what goes on behind the boards in a recording studio.
How did you get into the studio side of music?
I think it was a combination of the DIY punk ethic and a genetic instinct for autonomy. My friends and I have always wanted maximum control over our music, and when we were starting out, no one wanted to help us anyway, so if we didn't take control, nothing was going to get done. It’s the same reason Jake [Bannon, Converge singer] runs a label [Deathwish, Inc.], and our former roadie, Matt, books our shows. I never intended to make a career out of it. I just did it all for the love of music and I was lucky enough that things fell into place.
Have any albums been sonic touchstones or records you wish you had done?
I don't know... there are lots of great recordings of bad music out there and bad recordings of good music. I think I just like recordings that capture the right aesthetic. I guess I'm just more into songs than recordings. As far as albums I wish I had produced, do you mean records I think I could have done better, or records I wish I had done that good?
Both, actually. And are there producers that you've admired or emulated?
Hmmm.... as far as albums I think I could've done better, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless is a great record but sounds like shit. I would love to re-record that. A few years ago, there was talk of my remixing the Rorschach discography. I would kill to do that. There have also been a few bands that have made records with me that have later gone on to make records with other people that didn't turn out all that great. Conversely, there have also been bands that have gone on to make better records with other people. But I'm not naming names.
As far as favorite producers/engineers go, I don't know that I have a favorite. I tend to not read liner notes, so I don't even know who worked on my favorite records. I suppose Ken Andrews, Martin Bisi, Fred Drake, Steve Albini, and Don Zientara have all made some classic recordings I admire, but there's got to be a ton of other people I'm not thinking of. There are plenty of people out there who can engineer a great record. I find that when a band has a keen ear, most all of their recordings come out great regardless of who's working on them. Led Zep and Tom Waits are prime examples.
You do production, engineering, and mastering. Can you explain each of these, and which do you prefer?
In a nutshell...
The recording engineer handles the technical side of the recording process. They select, set up, and patch microphones, outboard gear, and the recorder. They solicit opinions on the sound and recording approach from the appropriate parties (band, producer, label, etc.) and do their best to weed through the opinions to achieve the sound the clients are looking for.
The mix engineer takes individual tracks and mixes them down to a stereo or surround format, setting levels, and applying effects, EQ, compression, etc. to optimize the recording for the intended audience.
The mastering engineer takes the mixes, applies whatever additional processing is required (typically EQ, compression, multiband compression, limiting, etc.) to optimize the sound for the final format, whether that be CD, SACD, vinyl, etc. Mastering also arranges all of the mixes in the proper order and ensures that the sound remains consistent from one track to the next. The final master should sound competitive with other releases of the genre.
A producer can find and book a studio, hire a recording engineer, mix engineer, drum tech, guitar tech, vocal coach, etc. A producer can also help a band work out the songs to best get their point across. It could just be some simple constructive criticism or it could be a complete dismantling and reassembling of their material. Members could even be fired and hired. The producer can interface with the band's management and label to make sure that the record stays on budget and is living up to the label's expectations. The producer can also create the right vibe in the studio to get the best performances out of the band. Or the producer can do none of these things. Really, the primary job of the producer is to pick up the slack, figure out what isn't being done, and find a way to get it done.
More often than not, with the sort of music I do, the band and the recording engineer split the production duties, and the recording engineer mixes the record. It's pretty rare for a mix engineer to also master the record. I would consider myself a mix engineer first, then a recording engineer, then a producer, then a mastering engineer. I've only mastered a handful of records, and I don't think I've ever mastered a record I recorded unless it was a demo. I like producing and mixing the best.
Albums these days are mastered louder and louder. What's your take on "the loudness wars"?
I've certainly heard that. But I think people are becoming aware that their stereos have volume knobs. I find myself pressuring mastering engineers not to push it so hard. I've really been making a conscious effort not to squash things. The records I like to listen to aren't squashed; I don't know why people feel like they need to be.
You completely remixed Converge's Petitioning the Empty Sky and When Forever Comes Crashing. What was the motivation behind this? Was mastering the vinyl different than mastering the CD?
Well, we were a much younger, much less experienced band back then. Petitioning was 11 years ago! The recordings were rushed and we couldn't afford to be picky. But our genre of music was much smaller and no one had good recordings back then, so I lived with it. Since then, the quality of our recordings has improved so much that those old recordings were distracting from the songs. So revamping the mixes was done to make the songs shine through a bit more. It's by no means as good as something we could record today, but at least it's not distracting any more.
As far as the mastering goes, Alan [Douches] from West West Side did that. I don't believe he did anything different for the vinyl other than the side breaks. Ideally, mastering for vinyl would be done differently, but at this point, vinyl is mostly released for the packaging, not as a format to listen to.
You've done some hip-hop recordings recently. How are those different from rock recordings?
In the hip-hop stuff I've done, in a lot of cases, I've been drafted into the beat maker role, which is a lot of fun. Even when I'm not beat making, I feel more involved with the creative process on a hip-hop record than [on] a rock record, just because hip-hop is so much more sonically subjective than rock. In rock, you're just trying to make everything loud all the time because everything is competing with itself. In hip-hop, there's a different set of sounds for every song, so the standards are a lot looser, and there's more room for the engineer to be expressive.
What are some unusual studio techniques you've used?
I haven't worked with many other engineers, so I don't know if anything or everything I do is unusual. I think I'm pretty straight up most of the time. But of course, there is the occasional frequency limited, double flanged, low frequency gated, phased, inverted hi-hat or whatever.
Your production has a distinctly analogue feel to it. What are some keys to "the Kurt Ballou sound"?
I don't know. I just do what sounds good to my ears. I guess I'm not afraid to make something smeared and ugly if it works for the song. I like midrange a lot. I certainly don't have any stock things I do every time. I use different mics, different mic'ing techniques, and different outboard gear all the time. I'm trying to never get too comfortable in what I do, because I don't ever want to get bored or stagnant. Honestly, I'd rather the recording process be fun, exciting, and fulfilling than have a great sounding record. And I'd rather a record sound unique and kind of bad, than have it sound good and generic.
What would you do if a major label came to you with a huge budget and asked for a production that sounded like Andy Sneap [who's known for perfectly polished metal albums]?
I'd probably suggest they get Andy Sneap to do the record. Setting out to emulate someone else is a bad idea. That's not to say that I couldn't make a slick, produced sounding record, but only if that's what the band wanted. I've got some friends who record major label stuff and it seems like sometimes the band is the least involved member of the creative process. The label, management, and producer come first, and it's all about marketability. Sure, I would love to make more money, but that's not the way I want to make music.
Selected production and engineering discography
Beecher - This Elegy, His Autopsy (Earache, 2005)
Cave In - Until Your Heart Stops (Hydra Head, 1999)
Converge - You Fail Me (Epitaph, 2004)
Converge - Petitioning the Empty Sky (remaster) (Equal Vision, 2005)
Converge - When Forever Comes Crashing (remaster) (Equal Vision, 2005)
Doomriders - Black Thunder (Deathwish, Inc., 2005)
Isis - Mosquito Control EP (Escape Artist, 2001)
Modern Life Is War - Witness (Deathwish, Inc., 2005)
Ramallah - But a Whimper (Bridge Nine, 2002)
Swarm of the Lotus - The Sirens of Silence (Abacus, 2005)
GodCity Recording Studio