It takes time to make a rock album. A lot of time.
That sounds deeply obvious, but unless you’ve made a full-length album, it’s hard to process just how many man-hours are involved.
Let’s say you’re starting from scratch. You’re just some kid who dreams of being in a band. First, you have to get your hands on an instrument: an urge that summer jobs are made of. Then you have to practice until you reach competency, which can take years by itself. Then you have to either find competent, like-minded bandmates or learn some more instruments. Then you have to write and rehearse good songs, though many bands skip this part because it’s too hard. You probably want to get some live experience under your belts at this juncture too.
Then you have to find some way to finance your recording session — by convincing a label to sign your band, or scraping together the necessary dough out of pocket, or begging your friends and family. Then, once you’ve found an engineer who’s within your budget, you spend a week or so actually recording the album. Then you spend another week or so periodically mixing it. Then, typically a few weeks or a month after you’re done mixing, you get your album mastered. Then, several weeks or months after that — definitely the latter, if you want vinyl — you finally get to hold a copy of your album. Congratulations! Oh, and by the way: you were probably going through high school and/or college while all happened, so it’s taken you between five and ten years. It gets easier after that, but there’s a reason why it takes so many rock musicians until their late ’20s or early ’30s to put out a worthwhile debut LP.
Now let’s throw another wrinkle into the process: Let’s say you want to record the album yourself. And you don’t want to just half-ass it in Garage Band either; you want it to sound good. To pull this off, you have to do about as much work as you did on the band side of things. You need expensive gear; you need loads of practice and background knowledge; you’d stand to benefit from formal education; you the mental fortitude to handle the boards and your own performances at the same time. Again, it’s a massive amount of time and hard work.
This is why Colin Marston, at just 31, is already a minor legend in metal and avant-garde circles. He’s known first and foremost as a musician in four critically lauded bands: the instrumental freakout-metal units Behold The Arctopus and Dysrhythmia, the oddball black metal act Krallice, and the progressive death metal legends Gorguts, whom Marston helped revive after a long hiatus in 2009. All four bands are technically demanding, which means that they’re far more work-intensive than your average rock act. On top of these acts, Marston has engaged in a variety of other concerns: his solo project Indricothere, the ambient project Byla, the noise-collage act Infidel?/Castro!, and the large-ensemble collaboration Sailors With Wax Wings. Between them all, he has some 20 LP credits to his name.
If that insane recording pace weren’t impressive enough, Marston is also an extremely prolific audio engineer. His Queens, NY studio — dubbed, with jokey bombast, Menegroth: The Thousand Caves — has become an international destination for bands metal and otherwise. Aside from engineering most of his own output, Marston has contributed his considerable expertise to a laundry list of other people’s projects, including such diverse artists as Liturgy, Glenn Branca, Jarboe, Atheist, Extra Life, Origin, and Sabbath Assembly. (To give you an idea of his prominence, he worked on three of our top 50 metal albums of 2013: Woe’s Withdrawal, Castevet’s Obsian, and Gorguts’ Colored Sands, which he also played on and which took the #2 slot.) Though the progressive bent of his clientele means that he works with a lot of bizarre sounds, he’s known as something of a naturalist among metal engineers — his mixes capture live, human sounds with austere clarity.
Taken together, the time and labor involved in building this résumé is hard to ascribe to a human being. And indeed, Marston kinda looks like an alien at times. I vividly remember the first time I watched him play. It was a Behold The Arctopus gig at Philly’s First Unitarian Church in the mid-aughts; his whip-thin frame twitched away behind a freakishly huge 12-stringed instrument called a Warr guitar. (Marston is equally confident on traditional guitar and bass, and has a good grasp on synthesizers and drum programming.) At the time, he also had an under-cut Skrillex haircut, years before Skrillex would adopt the name, and wore a perpetual scowl onstage. In short, he looked as freakish as BTA’s music sounded.
In conversation, you can tell why Marston has done well in a field that involves a great deal of customer service. He’s affable, receptive to questioning, and prone to geeky jokes; he keeps an old Nintendo console set up in Menegroth. But even brief work sessions with him reveal the monkish discipline that allows him to sustain his pace. A vegetarian who’s perpetually brewing another cup of coffee, Marston once responded to a suggestion that my band had over-practiced a segment (we too are among his clientele) with a quizzical look and an admonishment that “there’s no such thing as too much practice.”
Such is the work ethic of the man who has made the nerdiest metal cool. And if he could work more, he would.
STEREOGUM: You work every part of the audio engineering process: you’re a tracking engineer, you mix, and you master. For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, can you explain what they mean?
MARSTON: Tracking is simply the process of recording. Mixing is the balancing and processing of each signal (or track) that has been recorded to create the desired sonic picture. Mastering is the finalizing stage that prepares mixes for their desired format. This finalizing typically involves adjusting the tonal/spectral and dynamic characteristics of the mixes (usually in the form of a stereo recording at this point) to make them sound as good as possible on their own, and in the context of the album or collection they are to appear on.
Mastering has by and large become something much more narrow-minded in modern times: more of a standardization of comparative perceived loudness and EQ than a corrective, improving and reactionary process.
STEREOGUM: A lot of musicians are also engineers and vice versa, but you’re a rarity in that you’re both technically accomplished and successful in each realm. Do you have a formal educational background in either field? If so, what and where did you study?
MARSTON: Accomplishment and successfulness are purely subjective, but I’ll take your compliment — thanks! I studied recording and sound engineering at New York University, and that education included some classical music theory, but the focus was definitely on recording. I certainly got a good foundation in acoustics, signal flow, and certain pieces of gear, but most of my skill comes from practice (and observing a few awesome engineers over the years).
STEREOGUM: Your studio, Menegroth / The Thousand Caves, has become one of the metal world’s go-to studios for both tracking/mixing and mastering. How did you establish your client base?
MARSTON: Like many other engineers, I started out by recording myself and my friends. Gradually, friends referred me to other friends and so on. Recording my own bands and then going on tour playing music from and selling those records has helped spread the word too. Working for dirt cheap at the beginning helped me get some work under my belt without much financial risk to the musicians being recorded.
STEREOGUM: The music media often paints your engineering work as an antidote to some of the more ‘artificial’ trends that have arisen among metal-oriented engineers over the past decade or so — excessive compression, heavily sound-replaced and quantized drum tracks, and so forth. Do you think that assessment is accurate? Do you actively avoid such techniques?
MARSTON: I don’t mind that assessment one bit. I will say this though: music and audio recordings are art — there are no rules, no standards, and no inherent value in any creative techniques. So in recording, anything goes. Excessive compression can work, so can no compression. Heavily sound-replaced drums mostly sound like utter garbage to me, but sometimes they’re so stupid and ridiculous that I like them. I also often make heavily effected experimental recordings, but when it comes to the core “acoustic” (I’m including electric guitars in this) instruments, I have a tendency to prefer making records that are minimally processed and edited.
Most modern recordings are so sharpened and evened-out using isolation, EQ, triggers, and compression that they lack depth and weight. 99% of extreme metal records end up sounding tinny and thin to me in an attempt (I think) to sound clear and defined or, worse yet, perfected. I’ve never quantized drums before and hope I never do. Often I’m directed to do much more editing than I would if it were my project, which is totally fine, since my job is fundamentally to help the musicians make the record they want to make. Because of the tendency towards super cleaned-up recordings in metal, I often find myself only enjoying lo-fi demo recordings or almost experimentally horribly mixed records, such as Cremation or Malicious Onslaught. At least those recordings have a vibe or an attitude, in spite of their obvious shittiness.
Sound-replaced drums, amp simulators, and loud mastering, on the other hand, remove uniqueness in favor of uniformity, often in the spirit of competition. Competition is for sports, not music.
STEREOGUM: Do you find it more difficult to record your own bands?
MARSTON: In general, I would say it’s easier, if anything. When it’s my music, I’m intimately familiar with the parts, and I’ve been thinking about the sound of the recording in my head from early in the compositional process.The part of recording my own bands in the past that’s been annoying, especially when working on 2″ tape, is hitting record in the control room and then running into the live room, throwing on headphones and being ready to record live with the drummer. That aspect of it was a little nerve-wracking, but also kind of fun!
Recording the drums and mixing for Skullgrid by Behold The Arctopus was the only horribly difficult album to make, because the drummer and I had almost opposite ideas about how the record should be tracked and mixed. For the most part, my bandmates are a joy to record. Years Past Matter by Krallice was one of the easiest, most fluid recording processes I’ve ever done. We did it live and then doubled the guitars; everything was a first take with almost no editing except for track 4, which was a 2nd take.
STEREOGUM: You’re best-known for your work with metal bands, but you record all kinds of music. Approximately what percentage of your clientele consists of metal? What other styles do you record most frequently?
MARSTON: Metal makes up maybe 40%-60% of what I work on — that includes a fair amount of grindcore too. I record a lot of free and semi-improvised music from the likes of Weasel Walter, Tom Blancarte, Brandon Seabrook, Peter Evans, Jon Irabagon, Dan Peck, Nandor Nevai, Oneida/People Of The North, and Kid Millions. I also work on a lot of “prog” or experimental rock. A little less frequently, I get to work on chamber music/classical and ambient music. A lot of the music I work on is hard to classify.
STEREOGUM: What do you consider your greatest strength as an engineer? Which project of yours do you think came out best, sound-wise?
MARSTON: I always attempt to let the music speak for itself without excessive “help” from the studio. It’s not that my mixes aren’t involved — I do use automation quite a bit to enhance clarity and push or pull different aspects of the sound, but I try not to over-mix and polish so that the character of the instruments isn’t destroyed. So maybe my greatest strength is that I strive for something “good,” rather than something perfect. I know that’s vague. It’s a tough question!
I am always improving as an engineer, and I often feel like my most recent work is my best, so my favorites are always changing. In the last couple years, I think these recordings came out really well: Passing Through The Wall by Zevious, the Geryon album, Qurotenthrough by Ocrilim, Test Of Submission by Dysrhythmia, Falling To Death Through Times And Space by Radiation Blackbody, Colored Sands by Gorguts, and 2 by Period — this just came out but was recorded about 5 years ago — still one of my favorites.
STEREOGUM: What was the most demanding or complex recording project you’ve engineered?
MARSTON: Almost definitely Regressions by Cleric. That album took years to complete — it even stretched across the move from my first studio to my current one. I’m pretty sure it includes the most everything: most time, money, number of tracks, recording techniques, processing, mix drafts…you name it! It was also one of the most fun records to work on. Those guys really know how to run with a crazy idea and actually see it through. I’m always really excited when I meet people who have gotten into that album — it deserves to be experienced!
STEREOGUM: How often do clients ask you to lay down a guest appearance on their work?
MARSTON: Every now and then I’ve played a guest solo on a friend’s album. Mostly I have a “no session musician work” policy, but I’ve bent that rule a few times for friends.
STEREOGUM: What’s your prize piece of engineering gear?
MARSTON: My left ear.
STEREOGUM: Between running a popular studio and playing in several professional-level bands, you seem to be doing a few people’s worth of work at any given time. How do you maintain your energy level? What keeps you going?
MARSTON: Hold the phone — “professional-level bands” implies that they make money. The last Behold The Arctopus tour netted a cool $10 (to be split amongst 3 people). The last Dysrhythmia tour lost about $300. Gorguts is the only band I play in where there is money at the end of tour; however, with the exception of one tour out of about ten, I still haven’t made enough to cover my regular monthly expenses. If you take into account the time it takes to write, learn, practice, and deal with logistical stuff, I probably make one cent per day.
OK, regardless of how much I’m exaggerating, the point is that these are labors of love, absolutely not professional enterprises. The studio is the only thing that keeps me afloat. Every time I go on tour, I watch my bank account start to disappear. Every now and then there is an anomaly, such as a festival or local show with low expenses, but those are rare.
This is the only way I know how to have a fulfilling existence. There are too many things I want to do musically to get everything I need from one band. Even four bands doesn’t seem like enough, but I really value working with the dudes in those bands: Kevin and Jeff (Dysrhythmia); Mick, McMaster, and Lev (Krallice); Mike and Weasel (Behold The Arctopus); Luc, John, and Patrice (Gorguts) … so I’ve been trying to keep my other musical projects as loose recording-only deals. If money wasn’t so necessary in this world, I’d probably spend a little less time engineering and more time making my own music, but constantly engineering for other people keeps my chops and ears in good shape. I’d also like to petition for a 30-hour day. I think I could get a lot more done with an extra six hours every day.