1 Inside Disturbed's The Sickness: Producer Johnny K Thu 05 Aug 2010, 12:29
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Johnny K clearly remembers recording and mixing Disturbed's debut album, The Sickness. He also remembers the sense of relief when it was done. "We finished the last mix in New York City in 1999 on New Year's Eve," he says. "We were flying back that day and there was a terrorist alert. They were afraid something would go down, and we were happy to be leaving."
The Sickness was a groundbreaking album for both band and producer, selling millions of copies and launching their careers. Johnny K made two more albums with Disturbed, and the band still tracks at his Groovemaster Studios in Chicago. Since then, he has produced the biggest names and heaviest guitars in rock—Staind, 3 Doors Down, Avenged Sevenfold, Drowning Pool, Black Tide and so many others—and received a Grammy nomination as Producer of the Year in 2008.
Earlier this year, Disturbed re-released The Sickness as a 10th anniversary limited edition. In this Guitar Edge web exclusive, Johnny K looks back on his relationship with the group, capturing Dan Donegan's signature sound, and offers some advice for recording guitars.
How did you get started in production?
I was a guitar player and songwriter on the South Side of Chicago. I got my first four-track, a Tascam Porta One, when I was 19, and I fell in love with it. I asked the guy in the music store, "You can record a track and record another track over it?" I was hooked. I started recording my own stuff and collecting gear—a mic, drum machine, keyboard—and I learned to bounce, edit, and layer tracks on my own. I grew into production. As I became more accustomed to recording my own stuff, it gave me insight into what I have to do to make it sound good, giving songwriting and arranging advice to make good records with bands. By the time Disturbed came around, I was ready for that challenge of being a full-on producer.
When did you open a studio?
It happened gradually. I got out of college and I was working at my dad's coffee shop on the South Side. Whatever I earned, I used to buy gear. I got my first production gig with a band. It went well, they had friends who wanted to cut some demos, so I quit my day job and began recording demos for local bands. Disturbed was one of those bands, and right off the bat things clicked for us. I got a 24-track Tascam machine, bought a broken-down, 1000-square-foot, fixer-upper house on the South Side, put a board in the living room and bands would record there. I started doing business that way for $25 an hour. Sometimes I would make $100 a day, whatever I could get, and sometimes I did it for free. Enuff Z'Nuff would come there after their Arista deal fell through. They were from the neighborhood, had heard of me, and they would bring bands they were producing. I would record Enuff Z'Nuff for free, and they'd get bands they were recording to pay extra to make up for it.
After a couple of years, I realized that not a lot of people were going to come to a small house on the Southside. I wanted a better studio and better sounds. I found a nice factory with a musician landlord, rented space on the top floor with a nice view of the city, and started building my dream studio, which is Groovemaster. It took about five years to build, with my hands and the hands of other musicians and friends, some of whom traded construction time for demos. We were still recording bands in an open room until I got a control room. Disturbed was one of the first bands to record in it.
How did you meet Disturbed?
I went to high school with [Dan Donegan's] brother. I would bump into him in clubs and he'd tell me, "My brother is a great guitar player; you should do something with him." Dan's brother is a pretty straightforward guy and I believed him, so I went to see Dan playing in Loudmouth. They were signed to Hollywood Records and I demoed them, but Dan had left the band. They were a five-piece and he was one of two guitar players. Then he started Disturbed. I recorded their demos, and The Sickness was actually our fourth time working together.
They insisted that you produce The Sickness. The fact that they stood by you speaks highly of their loyalty.
They fought hard to get me to do their record. They didn't want to go to LA and make a record that wouldn't be any better than their demos. I felt that with a budget and time, I could make a record everyone would really like. I told them, "If I demo you, I want you to go to bat for me [with the label]," and they did with no contracts or production deals. It was a great thing and I can't say enough good things about them. It's your break, everyone wants one, and they made it happen for me. We all worked really hard to make the record as good as it could be. I pushed them as hard as I could, and we felt successful before it sold one copy. All of that hard work, and the fact that they are such a good band, made it easy for me to get other jobs. People liked it and would say, "Who did the Disturbed album? Let's get him."
Was it a given that you would produce their second album, Believe?
I don't know if anything's a given. I'm sure there were other name guys considered. I would see the guys every once in a while and let them know it was personal to me and I'd work as hard as I could. Given the success we had with The Sickness, I think I was one of the frontrunners. They wanted to be in Chicago, and things worked out so well the first time that at that point I was a safe choice.
Over the course of your work with Disturbed, is there a track that stands out for you as far as guitars?
"Down with the Sickness" stands out as really having fun recording the guitars. We were looking for sounds, layering the choruses, and we went to some unlikely places. It was a combo amp, a Fender Princeton, a mic in front, a foot pedal, a stomp box. We overdubbed the chorus and it sounded massive! Danny and I looked at each other and we were laughing about how heavy that overdub was. Part of that chorus, not the main guitar sound, was an overdub sound.
What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?
That's an interesting question. I'm not sure technology has helped us out in this regard.
The effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?
Right. The guitar effects and availability, especially in Pro Tools, are cool and fun to play with, but they do the same thing foot pedals did and it can be as random. You can run a guitar through an Evantide or find the same kind of harmonizing in the computer and add it, but there is nothing like a real amp. I'm amazed at how good the guitar amp sounds are [in amp modeling plug-ins], but it's a challenge to pull up a sound, and there's a 100-millisecond delay. My trick is to turn the computer down and listen to the electric guitar acoustically when recording D.I. sound. I can hear the guitar itself and not delayed sound from the computer.
Technology will improve up to a point. Some people will eventually make records with no instruments. They'll use a guitar and no amps or drums and will make a record that sounds like vintage analog in the computer.
How do guitarists get themselves into technical trouble in the studio?
Usually with tuning or they're not set up, but I'm a pretty good guitar tech, so it's not much trouble. If you tune really low, at a certain point the strings get so heavy that they don't respond right. It's basically having the right setup, but we have so many guitars here that we usually don't get in trouble. I take a glance at the guitar, the neck, the amount of bow, the nuts—manufacturers sometimes put out guitars with the nuts high and the first couple of frets tend to be sharp. I tech the gauge of the strings' intonations and make sure everything is right so that technical issues are avoided for the most part.
Bassists and drummers always talk about being "in the pocket." Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?
Usually a little bit ahead of the pocket! So much that it almost becomes the sound of rock. When guys play on time, I wonder if I should push! In the years before Pro Tools, if you listen closely, there's a stop in the song, and when everyone comes back in you hear a pick scrape first. Guitarists are more excitable, more on top. I like it, though. It has to be within reason, but I like guitarists that push, who add push to the music.
Several years ago, Dann Huff told me in an interview, "It's not about a piece of gear, or everybody would have a good sound."
I think a lot of sound is in the way the guy plays. I've worked with guys who just have a sound—how they hold a pick, how hard they hit the strings. It's not about amps or mic pre's. Danny's approach to his guitar, his technique, identifies him as someone doing something his way. Once that is established, the recording process of the guy who is putting the sounds down can take it to the next level. The sounds are in the hands, for sure. Good guitar players know if it doesn't sound or feel right or respond right when they're playing. You have to keep working on your sound.
Is there one studio horror story you would like to share?
What comes to mind was having a studio assistant knock a Les Paul off the stand while cleaning it, and a chunk of the neck popped out. The neck didn't break in half; a chunk of wood popped off the side of the neck. I had never broken a guitar. It wasn't highly collectible, but I'd had it a long time. I tried to be reasonable and not lose my temper, but I was bummed. I sent it to have it repaired, and the Gibson Custom Shop over-sprayed it and it didn't match the finish. I waited forever to get it back and they put it back wet, so fuzz from the case stuck to it. This was a few years back. I paid a lot for a bad repair job. I used to play that guitar live. It sits in its case now and bums me out. It feels bad to even talk about it.
A band I worked with years ago had a great-sounding SG and sold it to another band even though I wanted it. I saw them play and at the end of the set he smashed it in front of my face. I was horrified! I had asked to buy that guitar. That was a bad day. If I had to choose between the SG and the Les Paul, I would have taken the SG.