Interview: Tom Allom & Jack Ruston (Judas Priest, Producer)
Like many heavy bands in the 1980s, Judas Priest made a stylistic shift in the mid-80s in order to expand their audience. The result was Turbo, a record that has aged surprisingly well over the last 30 years. If it’s difficult to hear the quality of the songwriting on Turbo due to the production trends of the time, the album’s new reissue may just fix that. The two live discs that are appended to this new version, entitled Turbo 30, aren’t simply fun bonuses for the hardcore fan; they nearly rewrite history. The slick, stadium-level performances heard on 1987’s Priest… Live! have been swapped for a stark and lethal assault from the band, impeccably produced and mixed to emphasize their onstage punch. Judas Priest sound both massive and personal on these discs. Unleashed in the East offers the best versions of Judas Priest’s untouchable 70s material, but the bonus discs on Turbo 30 make for the definitive live document of their time as arena-packing superstars in the 1980s.
The engineer in me just had to get in touch with the folks that worked on this project: mix engineer Jack Ruston and producer “Colonel” Tom Allom. Ruston also mixed their latest live video Battle Cry while Allom produced every Priest release from Unleashed in the East through Ram it Down, along with several live records since then. As a young engineer, he also worked on the first three Black Sabbath records under producer Rodger Bain. Allom and Ruston were kind enough to answer some of my questions about Turbo 30 and the other projects they’ve worked on with Judas Priest.
What roles did each of you play in the mixing process of Battle Cry and Turbo 30? How has working in-the-box changed the roles of producer and engineer compared to the days of tape and analog desks?
Jack Ruston: I drive, Tom navigates. I tend to work the details - I worry about the specifics, the technicalities, whether we need this eq or that one, how many dB, the gain structure, the reverb, settings. We’re in the box, which makes it more my operational domain. Tom comes in every day and makes sure that the ship is steering the right course. We take care to preserve his perspective - it’s so valuable to have this sort of daily ‘check in’ with all Tom’s experience of not only mixing in general, but of the band and catalogue - he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of their work. At the beginning, we will go through everything we’re given and identify what is and isn’t there, what sort of broad tasks are required, the direction. Tom will then leave me to get a basic balance together, a shape if you like. He won’t sit there through that process because he’d then lose the ability to have a gut reaction to it. If I had to identify the most important thing about our working relationship, it’s that division of labour between the micro and the macro. Neither works without the other. As the process continues Tom will then start to assess the mixes in different environments - his home, his car, other studios that he visits. He’s the barometer.
Tom Allom: I think that’s a very good description of our working relationship. I’m lucky to have found an engineer who allows me to achieve the results I want without having to be ‘hands-on’ the equipment. Good advice to a producer - keep your mitts off the equipment and use your ears!
With the bonus discs on Turbo 30, those tracks were freshly mixed in the present day. How many and which tracks did you have at your disposal? Were they well-recorded and were the tapes in fine condition? What limitations, if any, were there from having to work with tracks recorded 30 years ago?
Ruston: We were given the multi’s for the entire show, and we mixed the whole thing as a single entity. We didn’t pick and choose tracks.
Technically speaking there were challenges: The show was recorded across two 24-track tape machines. There were some differences between the recordings on each machine which needed to be identified and corrected in order for the files to sit on the same tracks across the session. There were several points in the recordings where some microphones had gone intermittent, cutting in and out, crackling or distorting. Some elements were printed together to a track, or effects printed with the source, which affected our scope for rebalancing.
A major issue we faced was that the Turbo record represented quite an experimental time for the band in terms of the use of synthesisers, guitar synths and drum modules. The drums were acoustic, but also fitted with triggers, feeding additional sound modules - there were sections where those either failed to trigger, or triggered incorrectly - went crazy, basically. We took the decision to go for an acoustic drum sound, based on what was working in the recording, and what we felt most ‘Judas Priest’.
It’s always tricky when you have these sorts of technical errors in an old recording. We need to be mindful of the respect that we owe the recording, while at the same time trying to present the performance - a band like Judas Priest have an incredible live energy. That’s the key, and we are constantly asking ourselves in these situations ‘Are we showing the listener the performance, the energy?’ I don’t want to reinvent the performance, I want to reveal it. If I have to use modern tools to reinvent certain aspects of the sonics for technical reasons, then that’s a compromise that I need to make to bring the band’s energy to the listener.
Are there any sounds or techniques from the time period (i.e. the large reverb on the snare, synths etc) that you two felt the need to employ for the Turbo 30 release?
Ruston: Not specifically. Yes we used reverb quite a bit but in honesty not because we were trying to match production techniques from that time period, but because it’s necessary when you’re mixing close mic’d sources in a live recording. You’re trying to take the listener to that show, and some ambience is part of that.
Battle Cry was mixed in both 5.1 and stereo. Is the stereo mix a fold-down of the 5.1 mix? What considerations go into a 5.1 mix that one wouldn’t need to think about for stereo?
Ruston: Actually it’s the opposite - Battle Cry was mixed in stereo. We then underwent a process of adapting that to 5.1 using a combination of surround panning and up-mixing. I made quite extensive use of the ADL Penteo plug in. For example I used that to create a 5.1 version of the stereo audience mic’s. I wanted the audience to wrap around the listener and it was amazing for that. I also created an LCR bus with Penteo which was fed with various ‘on stage’ sources. So it was a combination of various approaches.
We actually ended up with three separate sessions in the final stages of the project. A stereo DVD mix, a 5.1 DVD mix, and a stereo audio mix, which was basically quite similar to the stereo DVD but a different edit - it would not have made sense to have identical gaps on the CD, as the listener can’t see the things that the band are doing between songs. Furthermore, the CD simply wasn’t long enough to accommodate all the tracks, which explains the slight difference in track listing on the CD.
Video footage asks you to do things as a mixer that don’t always make sense without it. For example, if we see a fan going wild in the front row, we want the viewer to hear that bit of audience feedback. But on audio CD, without the visual aspect, it might be a really odd place to suddenly shove the crowd mic’s. So the end result of all this is that you wind up with similar, but not identical mixes. It was actually logistically tough because once you ‘break out’ to those three sessions, any change you make in one needs to be mirrored in the others. Except of course the change might not apply in the others. The sessions were enormous in Battle Cry and we spent a great deal of time on those sorts of organisational tasks.
Jack, by the time you started engineering, Pro Tools had already been released. How did you learn the art of recording and mixing? How did your training differ from Tom’s? How do your different backgrounds affect your working relationship with each other?
Ruston: Well, my first proper studio recording experiences were in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s. Pro Tools existed, and was tucked away upstairs on a computer, but the studios were typically using either analogue or digital multitracks at that time. So while I worked with tape as a musician, I actually never did as an engineer. I didn’t work for a studio at any point in my early career. I started on my own - a portastudio and a sequencer. Quite quickly that became Pro Tools, and then Pro Tools and a large-format desk, but fundamentally I have spent most of my career working within the computer to a great extent. Now, in an environment where that’s really a requirement for a lot of jobs, I’m totally comfortable with that. I mix in Reaper these days, but most of my tracking is still Pro Tools.
There’s a vast and increasing wealth of freely-available information out there for the taking. It’s just that it’s clouded with a lot of nonsense which needs to be filtered out. Overall it’s a long way round, but it’s increasingly the only way round for a lot of people.
Allom: I learnt to engineer on a 12-in 4-out console with almost no EQ, and no outboard equipment, other than an EMT plate, which gave you very few options. The early learning procedure was far easier when you compare it to the virtually limitless options that exist now. I started with four-track, then we were treated to a second four-track machine. Then eight, sixteen, twenty-four, onwards and upwards. It was a gentle learning process. It was so much easier then.
Ruston: Well perhaps simpler, but easier? I mean you must have had lots of logistical challenges that wouldn’t exist now - where to find another track to record that missing tambourine!
It’s interesting to hear Tom’s perspective on that. I increasingly find that the less you do, the better - the fewer mics, fewer tracks, fewer processes. A single equaliser might be doing a lot, but I increasingly avoid having hundreds of them doing tiny bits.
Being that you didn’t work on the original Turbo, in what ways do think these live tracks show the songs from Turbo in a different light? Did you have to reference the studio tracks at all in order to mix these live recordings?
Ruston: Well not really in that way, no. If I needed to understand something about the records, I was able to turn around and say “Colonel! HELP” and he would explain to me exactly what a part was all about, whether it should be buried under the kick drum or slammed to the end stops, and often how it was recorded, by whom, and at what time of day.
Tom, you’ve focused mainly on live recordings lately. What makes a live album special?
Allom: OK, well it’s delivery, on a plate, of what you’d like to achieve in the studio - i.e a performance. When you’re making a rock album, you’re always trying to capture the same kind of energy that the band delivers live.
Do you think YouTube has done any damage to consumers’ interest in that format?
Allom: I don’t know, but I suspect ‘yes’. If you don’t have to buy a product then it’s going to damage sales of the format. How much damage there really is will depend on the individual band. Judas Priest have a fan-base who see the value in owning the physical product.
I remember reading that the kick drum recording on Unleashed in the East suffered from much bleed. If you were to remix those recordings now in 2017, would you use techniques like sample replacement to address those issues? Would you remix that album if given the opportunity?
Allom: There was more vocal from the monitor wedge than there was kick drum in the kick drum mic. Yes, one would certainly use replacement these days, but I don’t expect there will be an opportunity to remix it! I don’t expect the multitracks still exist.
Some of your earliest days in the studio were spent with Black Sabbath. What lessons did you pick up from Rodger Bain as a producer?
Allom: Well I’ll tell you what I learnt from Rodger Bain - to know your band, and to know what they’re trying to put across - to understand their music as they do. And incidentally, he persuaded me to record the drums in stereo, which I had never done before, and which was very rare in those days. After that I never recorded drums any other way than in stereo. I always felt that Rodger was grossly underrated as a producer. He was never given the credit for the work he did with Black Sabbath, particularly as none of us had ever heard music like that before. He really got it.
Since the heavy metal genre was effectively being invented on those first Black Sabbath records, you didn’t have a real reference for what the albums should sound like. With that said, what were the kind of tones you were looking to achieve when tracking those albums?
Allom: I was looking for the kind of tones that made us happy - bearing in mind that we didn’t have much scope for shaping tones in those days. We listened to the instruments in the room and tried to capture them as they were. I never thought that those early Sabbath guitar sounds were nearly as fat as I’d like to hear them today. When I listen back they always sound very thin to me. But you know, they have a place in history.
From a producer’s perspective, what kind of direction did Judas Priest need in the ‘80s? How involved were the band with the engineering of the records you worked on?
Allom: They dictated their own direction because they knew what was needed to satisfy the hundreds of thousands of fans that they were attracting. That’s maybe true of all great bands. They got the feedback from their audiences - they knew what their fans liked from playing in front of them. The band were not particularly involved with the engineering per se, but they knew when they heard something that they liked - something that was sonically in the direction that they were happy with. So you could say that they had input on that level. Again, that should be true of any good musician.
The drum tones on every Judas Priest record you worked on vary greatly. On British Steel the drums are dry and crisp, on Point Of Entry they’re very live, warm and natural and the later records feature the gated reverb sound. How did you know which approach to take on each album? Were those tones at all influenced by the other production work of the time and the evolution of heavy metal throughout the ‘80s? In particular, do you remember the work that went into getting the snare drum tones on Point Of Entry and Screaming For Vengeance?
Allom: Well the answer of course to that is that you are influenced by other sounds from records you’re listening to at the time - the gated reverb became all the rage in the 80’s. When I hear it now, I hate it. [Laughs] The drums on both Point Of Entry and Screaming For Vengeance were recorded in the same stone room that we constructed within another larger room, at the studio in Ibiza. No samples on the snare drum!
Ruston: From an engineering perspective the room has a huge influence on the drum sound, and thus the sound of the record you’re working on really. Even if you only used one microphone, close-up on the drums, the sound would still be greatly influenced by the room - the surfaces, how they’re reflecting and how those reflections couple with and interact with the direct sound. This might go some way to explaining how that environment may have shaped the tones on those records.
Sonically speaking, what is your favorite Judas Priest studio album that you have worked on? What makes the sound on that record special to you?
Allom: British Steel. It was a very natural-sounding album. There was very little treatment of the sounds other than the rooms that the instruments were recorded in. Drums in the marble hallway with mic’s on the landing above. One guitar in what was John Lennon’s White Room (which was no longer white) and the other guitar in the large library. Because it was recorded naturally, it remains timeless in a way that it wouldn’t have done if we had used a lot of heavy processing.
The 30th anniversary edition of Turbo will be released February 3.