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Deeper than Studio: How to Make a Record with Vhöl pt. 1

Photo by Sarah Brady
Photo by Sarah Brady

This is the first part of a three part series.

So you want to make a metal record. You’ve blazed through dozens of local gigs, you and your bandmates have become a tight unit and you’ve got songs that you’re all beyond proud of. It’s time to hit the studio and realize your vision, to put the sounds you’ve always heard in your head on a plastic platter. You don’t just want the everyday homogenized digital metal production though; you want it to sound real and natural, like your favorite records did as a kid.

Problem is: you don’t even know where to start. Your song arrangements are sloppily scribbled on a whiteboard in the rehearsal space and you don’t know the first thing about engineering or production, let alone the analog vs. digital debate. You also don’t have much cash to burn; bills and gear take up enough money as it is.

Those are feelings that John Cobbett of Vhöl, Hammers of Misfortune and Ludicra first experienced decades ago. After twenty-odd years of recording full-lengths, he’s finally nailed some kind of working formula. He and his working-class bandmates in Vhöl have managed to make their new record Deeper than Sky on their terms and on a budget, one that sounds true to the performances and only becomes more massive as you crank the volume up.

Cobbett and engineer Nick Dumitriu of Light Rail Studio walk us through the process of creating Deeper than Sky from mental ideas to a finished master. This isn’t the cheapest or easiest way to make an album, but it’s one that can result in a focused and sonically immaculate record without going bankrupt.

Songwriting and Demos

Every band’s songwriting process is unique. Some members contribute whole songs, others collaboratively piece riffs and melodies together in rehearsal and others still manage to fuck around until it sounds okay. In Vhöl, Cobbett is the primary songwriter and begins by pooling from an ever-growing library of riffs. “If a riff gets stuck in my head, then I know it’s good,” Cobbett says. “Some riffs naturally seem to go together, or they’re joined by things like the key or tempo. But the most important thing to me is how they transition from one to the next. One will sort of call, the other might respond and then they start turning into songs from there.”

After accidentally teaching himself intervals—the tonal spacing between two musical notes—Cobbett formalized his musical instincts with piano lessons. It’s something that he recommends for any aspiring songwriter. “It always amazes me when people say, ‘Oh I don’t want to learn theory, that would limit my creativity.’ No, no, no- it does the opposite, it unleashes your creativity,” he claims. “If you’re stumbling around in the dark looking for the right note, you’re going to come up with the same one way too often. You’re going to keep repeating the same stuff over and over without realizing it. If you know some theory, you can see this whole spectrum of notes in front of you, all of which would apply in different ways. You can pick and choose with your eyes open.”

Cobbett and Dekker going over basics Photo by Cobbett
Cobbett and Dekker going over basics
Photo by Cobbett

Now that you have your riffs, you want to save them to memory. And by memory, we’re talking about computer memory: home demo recordings so you don’t forget your own great ideas. Thanks to modern technology, recording electric guitar tracks at home is now a possibility. Cheap audio interfaces such as products by MOTU or Apogee allow you to plug right in to a computer, run your guitar through an amp simulator and record the direct-in tracks on software such as Logic Pro or GarageBand.

By this stage Cobbett’s already thinking of tempos. “On the demos I’ll write some basic drum patterns, but I’m not writing fills or anything. I just upgraded to Logic Pro X, and now I’m just using the drum sampler in Logic,” Cobbett explains. “It’s not supposed to sound realistic or believable, as long as I can bounce it down to MP3 and email it. ‘Here’s the song, this is how it goes.’”

Cobbett allows the members of the band to put their own stamp and sound on his skeleton—he begins with one of his longest-serving collaborators, drummer Aesop Dekker. “Once you get Aesop going on a drumbeat, he just does his thing. All I’m looking to get across is, ‘This part does this and that, and it’s this fast.’ Aesop takes it from there- let it be known that I don’t write his drum parts!” Cobbett says.

While Dekker learned the ropes by way of punk, bassist Sigrid Sheie grew up a classically trained musician. If you’re lucky enough to have a player with that kind of pedigree in your band, getting material together can be easy. After composing parts and saving it in a digital audio workstation (DAW), you can assemble sheet music readable by a properly trained musician. “You can mouse the parts into the MIDI grid in Logic and then go to the score view. It’ll convert it to sheet music. [Working with sheet music] saved us probably tens, maybe even hundreds of hours,” Cobbett contends. “That’s the nice thing about playing with trained musicians. You can say, ‘Here’s a song,’ and they can play it back to you. You don’t have to go, ‘Put your finger here. Now put your finger there.’ It saves a ton of time and effort. If they want to expound on the music from there, that’s their call, but the song itself is right there, legible and ready to play.”

Sheet music printed from a digital audio workstation. Photo by Cobbett
Sheet music printed from a digital audio workstation.
Photo by Cobbett

Rehearsal and Pre-Production

“Rehearsal and pre-production are the most important part,” Cobbett states. “You need to be able to play the songs with your eyes closed going in, or else you’re in for a miserable and expensive recording session.” After taking the songs home and learning them beforehand, rehearsal now becomes a lot more meaningful. Hours of your weekly lockout at the practice space can now go toward tightening arrangements and perfecting parts instead of learning songs from scratch. Most importantly, the talents get to add their own spin on things. “We’ll get to the rehearsal space and we’ll murder it, tear it apart and put it back together,” Cobbett says. “Then I’ll go home and redo the demo. Everything sounds totally different when you go into the space and hear it with real amps and actual drums.”

Scheidt and lil' Shie-Cobbett Photo by Cobbett
Scheidt and lil’ Shie-Cobbett
Photo by Cobbett

Mike Scheidt, who sings in Vhöl, lives out-of-state and joins in after the songs have been written. Friendly visits become weeks of intense rehearsal as he works through vocals with the band. “We had Mike come down twice, fly down here and stay for a week. He’d throw ideas down on the demos vocally. We’ll sit here [at Cobbett’s computer] and make notes, ‘I have this idea and this idea,’ and then he’ll sing over the demos so I have vocals in my session,” Cobbett says. “We’d take it down to the practice space with the whole band, sing over the songs live and this would change all of the arrangements. We had to go back and rearrange the songs again because once you hear them with vocals they sound totally different. Pre-producing the vocals is a huge step. When you go in to record, you should have a clear idea of what the vocals will be doing and where.”

—Avinash Mittur

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