Man and Machine: The Making of Judas Priest’s “Painkiller,” with Scott Travis and Attie Bauw
In 1990, the heavy metal world was accelerating into a supernova. Between the thrash uprising, death metal from Morrisound and Sunlight Studios, and the grind/death cocktail being poured out of Earache Records, metal bands were pushing their virtuosity to the limits.
Technology and recording techniques needed to evolve to accommodate that new intensity. New guitar amplifiers would offer more gain, drummers would summon the quickest double kick imaginable, and bassists now had to pick the strings so fast that notes could become an inaudible sludge. The glossed-up production styles of the 1980s could no longer capture the sound and nuance of a heavy metal performance properly.
One of the architects of metal itself, Judas Priest, solved the problem in their own way, and the result was Painkiller. It's an album that sounds wholly unique, one that paints a flattering portrait of a band at the height of their technical ability -- and yet, it's a record that refuses to separate the musicians in the name of clarity, gluing them together with air and depth. Painkiller is a sonic tour de force, a treasure trove of creative experiments, unorthodox techniques, and straight-up blistering performances.
It's the dream record for metal musicians and engineers.
As I recorded and engineered a variety of musical projects in the last year, I gleaned minor insights into the making of this record. I hit the point where I needed to consult the sources as best I could. How could I capture my artists, or even my own performances, with the kind of honesty, force, and atmosphere that Judas Priest did on Painkiller?
I started by calling drummer Scott Travis -- his job as the timekeeper was the first variable that changed in the Judas Priest world before Painkiller came to be. Though it's been a full 30 years since his recording debut with the band was released, his memory of the era is crisp. But we begin even farther back, to his encounter meeting the band for the first time...
"Priest had played Hampton, Virginia. It was their Screaming for Vengeance tour and I was a fan of the band," Travis remembers. "And so, I went to see the concert, and then afterwards, like a lot of fans do even to this day, I tried to track a band member down and ended up going into the bar at the local hotel next to the venue, and happened to see Glenn Tipton sitting in the bar with another gentleman and chatting up the waitress, and I went over and sat down next to him and asked him for an autograph."
"I'm not an autograph person. I didn't really care so much about that, but it was a way to break the ice. And I had pictures of my drum set. So you can imagine how ridiculous that sounded. I didn't even have like a cassette tape or any sort of audio recording. I just had pictures of my drum set and thought I should be in the band, basically, and asked him how he liked playing with Dave Holland. And he said, 'It's fine.'
"So I was just looking for that little break, I guess, where he'd say, 'You know what? We don't like Dave. We're thinking about getting a new drummer and are you available?' Here in Virginia, some kid we've never met and I'll go home and get my drums and be back in about an hour and load them in the truck and let's go finish this tour. I told Glenn that story years later, he didn't remember it, of course, but I was just another fan that comes up asking for an autograph. But that's literally the first time I met him and that must have been 1981 or 1982."
Travis pokes fun at his dreams, but as history shows, he earned the final word on the story. Within only a few years he moved to Los Angeles, joined the technical speed metal outfit Racer X, and was then referred to vocalist Rob Halford by then-bandmate Jeff Martin. He came to his audition prepared with a handful of Judas Priest warhorses, bits and pieces of the new material, and even songs that the rest of the band weren't expecting their 28 year-old fire-footed drummer to bring to the table, like "Exciter" and "Tyrant."
"It's really weird because I did the audition for Priest in November of 1989. So it was only another seven or eight years later that I actually got to audition for the band in Spain. That was November of 1989 and then we ended up starting the recording for Painkiller in January of 1990. They had given me five classic songs to learn that were going to be part of the audition. I remember '[The] Green Manalishi' was definitely one, '[You've Got] Another Thing Coming,' I think 'The Ripper...' -- then, part of the audition was they gave me a cassette tape of some of the demo stuff they were working on for Painkiller and a little cassette," Travis explains.
"I think I had a Walkman at the time, and they said, 'Go study this and listen to it for as long as you need and let's come back and jam on it.'"
On Ram It Down, the band had already begun experimenting with drum machines and returning to double-kick parts, even if they were synthetically performed. Songs from the record remain rarely performed by the band, with only "I'm a Rocker" and "Blood Red Skies" making their way to the stage in the last 30 years. But in Travis, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing now had a drummer that could truly play the parts they wanted to hear.
"I wasn't a super fan of that album, Ram It Down," Travis concedes. "And to me, as a drummer, I thought, 'Wow, this sounds really not real.' In other words, drum machines were becoming popular then in the late 1980s. So now living in LA in 1988, I was much more aware of studio processes and call it trickery or just whatever… I was familiar with what drum machines sounded like. And on that Ram It Down album, I thought it sounded very drum machine-y. And plus, I'd seen Dave Holland years earlier with the band and I was like, 'I don't think he's playing.' He just didn't seem to be that guy."
From here, I would've thought to reach out to Chris Tsangarides, the credited producer of Painkiller. A veteran of metal, Tsangarides engineered classic albums for Anvil, King Diamond, Thin Lizzy, Y&T, and a variety of others. Sadly, Tsangarides passed away of a heart attack in 2018; before his passing, though, Tsangarides was a prolific interviewee and his techniques were well-documented. The engineer had his start in the recording world as an assistant engineer on Sad Wings of Destiny, Judas Priest's landmark album where the sound of heavy metal had taken off to new heights.
Painkiller was the culmination of his oddball recording techniques, built up and tweaked from his work throughout the 1980s. But it was a hair metal band whose music has now been lost to the ages that caught his old friends' attention.
"They'd seen a video of a band that I had done from Minneapolis called Slave Raider on MTV," Tsangarides told Tape Op in 2009 (link is partial paywall). "They were like, 'Wow! Check that sound out.' Then they found out it was me. 'Bloody hell, it's our Chris. Fuckin' great.' [They] called me up and said, 'How did you get the bass sound?' Well, I just double tracked it with a Moog. 'Can we do that?' Yes you can. That's what we did on Painkiller."
The band reunited with Tsangarides at Miraval Studios in France, where the band tracked the drums, bass, and scratch guitars. Travis, Tipton, Downing, and bassist Ian Hill recorded live as a unit, with Travis writing his signature intro to the title-track in the studio as Tsangarides and engineer Patrice Roullion were testing microphone placements.
"We were set up at the studio… Studio Miraval in Nice, France." Travis recalls. "The drums are all set up and they're in a big room and then, of course, the control room is at the other end of the studio, and I used to just go and warm up first thing in the morning and just work on the next song we were gonna do the next day, and just start playing it with my own headphones on. It was just a cool place, very comfortable to just go and play whatever you wanted. I knew we were gonna be working on the 'Painkiller' song and it was meant to be a fast paced upbeat song. And I was just messing around doing the intro type stuff."
"I don't know what those notes I play with my feet [are called]… between my feet and my hands. Technically, it's four with the feet, one with the hand. So it's not a quad but I don't know, septuplet, quintuplet... Shows you how educated I am on drumming, right?" he quips. "[I was] just out there messing around, doing a flurry of things like that, exercises and whatnot. I had the 'Painkiller' idea in my head and they really liked what I was doing and they said, 'Hey, just do some more of that, some stuff like that.' And I just kind of whipped it up…
"As a young drummer or just as a drummer, period, I always… I don't wanna say dreamt because that sounds corny, but I always was hoping that I could come up with a signature drum intro, and I think every drummer wants that. Rarely does a drummer get to do an intro and especially one that really sticks. Given the fact that it exists now, I'm kind of blown away. It's cool."
In 1990, drum triggering and sampling were slowly making their way into the recording world. Given the nearly-industrial drum sound heard on the album and the sheer throttling consistency of his double-kick work, it wouldn't have surprised me if Scott Travis had employed the early technology. To my astonishment though, Travis reveals the secret, or rather lack thereof. The drums on Painkiller were captured without sound replacement with the exception of one song. Compared to the robotic synthesis heard on Ram It Down and Turbo, or even the echoing chasm where Defenders of the Faith staked its claim, Painkiller's real and unaugmented playing was a breath of fresh air for both the band and their fans.
"I think the only thing we kind of sampled and fattened up was a snare drum in 'A Touch of Evil,' Travis remembers. "And obviously, that was a slower song and we wanted a fatter, Def Leppard-y type snare drum on that one song. And it's ironic too, because when I listen to that song, there's some drum fills… especially like the breakdown, the halftime breakdown section with the keyboards and whatnot... it's just one of those funny things you listen back and you go, 'Dude, what happened to that fill?' And by fill, I just mean it's a few notes that are missing. But that was back in the day when we first started sampling stuff and triggering. And so you didn't always pick up every single note. You didn't pick up all the nuances of the ghost notes."
With drums, bass, and throwaway guitar laid down, one of Tsangarides' secret weapons was now primed and ready. While the band was still posted up at Studio Miraval in France, the producer brought in keyboardist Don Airey to contribute to Painkiller. Though Airey's atmospheric synthesizers take the lead on "A Touch of Evil" and their mechanized cries reverberate through "Battle Hymn," his work is actually contained throughout the entire record. Airey's contributions were the key to obtaining the low-end that Judas Priest hired Tsangarides to capture, accomplished by recreating Hill's bass parts on a Moog sequencer and blending the two sounds together.
"Now, try and get a low end on something as fast as Painkiller," Tsangarides explained in the Tape Op interview. "It's either going to be a big old mush, or it's not going to be a bass -- it's so damn fast there's not enough time for the thing to speak, for the sound wave to do its thing. It just doesn't happen. The slower the song, the bassier you can get it. The faster the song, the thinner it's going to be. By using the Moog, we could use the attack from the [bass] guitar and the lows from the Moog."
With basic tracks finished, Priest and Tsangarides relocated to Wisseloord Studios in the Netherlands, and recruited Attie Bauw to record the vocals, guitar solos, and special effects, as well as drive the mix for Painkiller. It was Bauw's first metal project, but not his last. Rob Halford would continue to hire him as needed for the bands Fight and Halford, and Priest as a reunited unit returned to Bauw to work on their 2008 concept double-album, Nostradamus.
I reached out to Bauw, and, as it turns out, Painkiller is still fresh on his mind. Whether it's due to its 30th birthday or not, Bauw still recalls that record as a particularly special one in his career.
"I really think it's a masterpiece," Bauw says warmly. "They were so professional. It was like, they're so dedicated to their work and to their skills. They were constantly walking around with the guitars and practicing and getting it serious. Just like top athletes are, you know. You do it... you take your full dedication and you do it with 100% or nothing. And they did it really 100%... So especially with the guitar dubs and the solos, they were like… it's almost like 24/7 having a guitar in your hand and staying athletic. You have to do that with that kind of guitar work. And they were really on top of it."
"Chris was really the captain there," Bauw says of Tsangarides. "He was really the guy with the vision and the ideas. I was assisting him to my best ability. But then, he had a back problem. So, towards the second half of the session, he really had a back problem. And he had to lay down, so then I was sort of taking over a bit to help him out. He gave me a lot of freedom and I respected that freedom."
After spending the latter half of the 1980s experimenting with synth guitars and brighter, more processed tones, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing were ready to return to their roots. Specifically, back to the days of Sad Wings of Destiny when they had first met young Chris Tsangarides. What began as a happy accident became a signature of Tsangarides' arsenal and by the time Painkiller came to be, he had perfected the sound: "the vortex technique." On Priest's high-octane metal megalith, one can hear the vortex on all of the guitars, both rhythms and leads. The result is certain notes in the solos bouncing across the speakers, and the rhythm tracks nearly shaking in place with energy. Tipton's solo in the title track is the easiest example of the vortex in action, with certain notes and their delayed copies flying across the stereo field musically.
"[The vortex] is a microphone technique I happened upon when I was doing Sad Wings of Destiny," Tsangarides told Ultimate Guitar in 2011. "I used it on the solo for 'Victim Of Changes,' K.K Downing's solo, which was actually the first thing I got to record as an engineer. I have been using this technique ever since.
It utilizes the room acoustics and the amplifier. Basically one side of the stereo image is the close mic of the amp and the other side of the stereo image is the room mic. Depending on where you put that, it achieves the tone you want. There is no rule as to where you put that mic. You put it wherever it sounds the best. You'll find that depending on where it is, and what key the song is in and a few other variables, you'll find that when one play's the lead guitar solo for example - and you have the balance right -- you'll notice this random panning going on between notes. This is because they are canceling themselves out with the phasing and because of the same frequency. And so it gives this really fantastic life to the solos. And it makes it that much more exciting."
"You put a direct signal from the close mic to one side, and you put an ambient signal to the other side," Attie Bauw explains to me. "Then instead of having the ambient mic in the line of the guitar amp, you block it with a screen. And then when you double [the guitar], you do it the other way around. I must say, that gives some kind of size to the guitars. When you listen with headphones, you want... you need something on the other side. Otherwise it feels like you're deaf in one ear."
As we chat, Bauw pulls out the recall notes for Painkiller, and I sit astonished. On analog mixing and recording consoles, settings had to be written down by hand if they needed to be recreated after the fact. You could not press "save" on a session and return to it months later, perfectly reproduced. The sheets, still pristinely preserved, bring Bauw back to his time tracking Halford's vocals at Wisseloord, capturing the most piercing shrieks of the singer's career.
"We were encouraging that," Bauw says of Halford's shredded wails. "But he knew pretty much what he wanted. And Scott's drumming was so much more energetic... it was Scott's first album as well. And that's why Painkiller… when you put the record on it starts with Scott, with the drums. And so that was like a statement. And the whole song structure, it had so much energy. You can't do soft vocals with that. It should be really like on the top of what you can do to match that. So Rob really... he was really on the top of his game."
"He likes to sing with chewing gum," Bauw says with a nostalgic smile. "Always has chewing gum in his mouth. With Rob, it's amazing. He liked the U67 [microphone], he'd keep it in his hand. We broke a few mics, because of that, his voice is so intense. He broke the capacitor. The 67 just blew up," he says laughing. "When you are with him in one room it's like, crazy. Something happens, you know. I had a fantastic working relationship with Rob doing vocals, it was fabulous."
"Rob wanted to have this. On the SPX90 [effects processor], he had a favorite harmonizing setting. Like six cents down on the left, six cents up on the right. We used it a little bit on his voice. But there was actually a lot of stuff going on in the mixing. A lot of stuff. Glenn had ideas about it," Bauw remarks. "Glenn was more or less the leader of the band at that time as well. Usually it's Glenn who's got the production vision, very precise and worked out. I think he knows exactly what he wants. It was just a very easy working flow, but very dedicated. It was like 24/7 that we were working constantly on the album."
As the apocalyptic hellscape on Painkiller makes itself apparent, the special effects become more and more obvious. Attie Bauw, with his background in synthesizer programming, was able to bring those sounds to life with an early computer workstation called a Fairlight CMI. Artists like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush used the Fairlight to produce electronic beats and other synthesized sounds for their records. Judas Priest used it for explosions in "All Guns Blazing," bells that kick off "A Touch of Evil," crashing hammers that punctuate "Between the Hammer & the Anvil," and other machine-like noises that add to Painkiller's atmosphere.
"I did some Fairlight programming on [Painkiller]," Bauw explains. "And there are some anvil sounds and some metal sounds you hear throughout the album. And that's what I did; I programmed it, played on it, and I mixed it in. But that gave a little industrial layer sometimes to the sounds. That was definitely the thing. I mean the Painkiller [character] is such a fantasy, you know. It's like, you try to… you try to make him alive. That's what the album is. You create the fantasy, make it alive. So in that process, you can use a lot of effects. But it's not only because of the effect, it's just to give a realistic... it's almost like making a movie. You wanna make it believable. Because all the flying around with effects we have from the guitar dives and from like the anvil from the Fairlight and some little sample guitar. We created our own guitar samples a bit, and then worked [them in]."
Though the band, Tsangarides, and Bauw barreled ahead with mixing in the Netherlands, troubles were already rearing their head. As Painkiller was being mixed, Judas Priest were sued by the parents of two teens who attempted to commit suicide, blaming a supposed backwards-message hidden in their song "Better by You, Better Than Me."
"They were already… I mean getting really nervous for [the lawsuit] and it was really crazy," Bauw remembers. "So they were already mentally preparing for that. It was already while in the mixing stage. It was really terrible I think... It was really heavy. They were doing the court case, yeah, more or less right after we were finished. It was a big thing on CNN. It was really heavy for them, I think, to be accused of something like that. I felt terrible for them. I mean they are such dedicated great musicians and really skillful. And with the best intention when they make their music. So it was like, completely weird."
Even though the lawsuit is one of the more infamous elements of the Priest's early 1990s history, it's easy to forget an event that the band had little to do with around the same time: Operation Desert Storm. In August 1990, Iraqi forces invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait. Painkiller was released only a month later in September, and the public had little reason to pay attention to a veteran metal band attempting a creative resurgence when the world was on the brink of war.
"I was hearing mixes before it was mastered and final mixes and stuff like that. And dude, I was… I mean, I wanna say I was blown away so I'll say that," Scott Travis admits. "I was proud and just honored that we were all making this great record called Painkiller. I couldn't believe that I helped being a part of making this new great record which hopefully was a renaissance from the Ram It Down and the Turbo stuff earlier. Of course, nobody knew if it would be successful or fans would like it or whatever. And it turns out, to be honest, I don't think it was an overnight success. The fans I believe liked it but if you remember too when the album got released… we're talking the 1990s. It got released in September of 1990, and it's right when the Gulf War, the first Gulf War had broken out."
"We were all consumed," Travis says sternly. "We Americans -- and really, I guess worldwide -- everybody was consumed with this new war. Keep in mind, America hadn't really been in a war since Vietnam... My point is, it was kind of bittersweet because we have this great record, we're releasing Painkiller but yet, it's during a freaking world... not a World War but a conflict, an international conflict."
Upon the completion of two world tours in 1991, Rob Halford left the band and Judas Priest mostly disappeared from the public eye until the release of Jugulator in 1997. Without a regular presence from the band for even diehard fans to enjoy, Painkiller slowly faded into the rearview mirror. The album would only be reappraised as Priest finally made new records. From the over-the-top pummeling on Jugulator to Nostradamus' grandiose schmaltz, their subsequent albums were forced to stand in the shadow of their 1990 masterwork. The band's affirmation of their own achievement finally occurred upon the production of 2018's Firepower, where Judas Priest recreated the live recording style they had last attempted on Painkiller 28 years earlier.
"I think you can get too complicated and try to get too cute with technology and think that everything can be made perfect and made better. And I think that did happen for a while with all kinds of music and then I think now, we've gone full circle," Travis says of Priest's latest album. "Richie [Faulkner] wasn't there obviously at Painkiller but Ian was and I was and Glenn was and Rob, of course, was too and then we wanted to go back to that because it seemed easy in the sense that it wasn't a struggle. I mean, the album just seemed to go really, really smoothly.
"Here's the thing. For me to tell you the story, man, I'm telling you my version of my story but it was my first album not only with Priest but it was my first album in a real studio with a real budget and where we could really spend time with a real producer and all those things. So to me, it was great. Everything went smoothly. I mean almost sounds like Kumbaya, like people are like, 'Yeah, no, it couldn't have been that easy or fun or good,' but it really kind of was. There was no stress, no drama."
As Travis says, the story he tells me is his version of the truth. A wide-eyed young drummer playing for a band he loves, asking Don Airey to play him classic Ozzy Osbourne and Rainbow licks and messing around in the nicest studio he's ever been in, located thousands of miles away from home. But regardless of a potential rose-colored vision of the past, even he knows that Painkiller did not find acceptance in the metal lexicon right away.
"It has taken a long, long time and I think that's also the tribute to the album itself. In other words, it wasn't an overnight success like a [band like] Cinderella and I mentioned Def Leppard who sold a gazillion records right out of the gate back in the late 1980s and early 1990s," Travis explains. "But Painkiller, it's still around, it's still considered one of the, I guess, top five best releases and that makes me enormously proud. It's still relevant."
Where Scott Travis maps Painkiller's place in the catalog, Attie Bauw provides how it got there. He looks back on that record fighting for its place in Judas Priest's history, and proving itself as an archetypical example of the band's power, aesthetic and sound.
"I think it's still one of their best." Bauw says of Painkiller. "Every sound was organically made in the studio. It was all very natural. And I kind of loved that, with the old-school intense metal. When you use library sounds, or MIDI sounds on drums, then you lose identity. It's convenient of course to use it. But I find it a bit of a shame, I find that really a shame because you lose a bit of identity with that. And what I find in Painkiller, maximum, is identity."
Though the technical secrets behind this album were revealed to me, my journey to work on a record as sonically blistering and honest as Painkiller ultimately ends with Attie Bauw's last word. The vortex guitars, Moog bass doubling, natural drums and Rob Halford destroying a $7,000 microphone with a scream are tools in the service of identity: implements in the quest to capture a band sounding only like themselves.
"I use the example of when I heard Ram It Down and I wasn't an educated studio person by any stretch but I was like, 'This doesn't sound right. This doesn't sound like real Priest anymore,'" Scott Travis remembers. "But when it comes to metal music and your fans have been following you for 30, 40, 50 years, that's kind of what they expect. And they can hear it."