Dino Alden is one of the greatest producers and sound engineers around. He worked with artists like Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Tony MacAlpine, and Vinnie Moore during Shrapnel Records' high point in the past, and recently he has been involved with the amazing technical prog metal band Zero Hour. Sea of Tranquility Staff Writer Murat Batmaz talked to Dino Alden about his career, his thoughts on music production, and Zero Hour.
SoT: First of all, could you talk a little about how you got into the recording and mixing business?
Dino: I had a band at the end of 1983, beginning of 1984 called "Childhood's End". We wanted to record a demo and our lead singer, Brian O'Dwyer, knew Mark "Mooka"
Rennick who owned Prairie Sun Recording Studios. We went there and as we began the process of recording our demo we wound up firing our singer, and then a little later our guitarist quit. Meanwhile, while we were in the studio, I just kept asking Mooka what all the knobs, outboard gear, and patch bay did and he was more than happy to show me. After we fired our singer, Mooka introduced me to Peter Marrino (Le Mans, Cacophony, 9.0) to sing on our demo. I liked Pete's singing and he and I personally got along well. It wasn't long before he introduced me to Jennifer Hall who was also a great singer (and Pete's girlfriend at the time) and Mike Varney who owned Shrapnel Records. Some time at the end of 1984 Pete's band Le Mans got signed to CBS and both Pete and Mike wanted me to re-record Pete's vocals with a different singer. We were happy to have Jennifer replace Pete because we always knew Pete had his own project and Jennifer was a fantastic singer. But then, while we were having our EP manufactured, my dad (Don Alden) was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. My dad was a great operatic singer and the biggest reason I was in music. Sadly, my dad passed away about 6 months later on December 24, 1985. Anyway I wasn't really doing much after his passing, just a little bit of assisting in the studio and singing background vocals during the first half of 1986. Then one day while I was going with Mike to a show, he told me about a project with Tony MacAlpine, Rudy Sarzo, Tommy Aldridge, and Rob Rock. I asked if I could assist and told him I'd do it for free. Mike couldn't resist my price and thus, my career in the "biz" had begun.
SoT: How long have you been doing this?
Dino: Professionally for about 22 years. But I actually started experimenting with recording at around the age of 12 years old with my folk's cassette deck. My friends and I would write fake radio shows complete with commercials, and sound effects, and
I would record the shows as well as perform in them. Geeky yes, but hella fun!
SoT: Do you consider yourself more of a producer or sound engineer?
Dino: For me, being that I had been writing and performing for a few years before getting into recording professionally, production and engineering seemed like a natural,
integral component of the overall goal of creating music and committing it
successfully to a playback medium. So I have always seen them as intertwined.
SoT: Are you self-taught or did you do any training as an engineer in studios?
Dino: It was all just on the job training, fast and furious. No time for reflective, cerebral, audio introspection. It was just "I'm going to show you this once, so I hope you get it" or "you should already know this" type of experience. Actually, it was quite exciting, and fun! I totally dug working with Steve Fontano and, on a lesser number of sessions, Mark "Mooka" Rennick. They were my formative mentors and I learned more from them than they know! I also voraciously read everything related to recording and acoustics that I could get my hands on, and recorded as much on my
own as I could.
SoT: What were the first bands you worked with?
Dino: After completing my band's demo, I started doing little assisting/ helpful type things for Shrapnel Records. I loaned some bass cabinets for Billy Sheehan to use for recording the bass on Tony MacAlpine's first record "Edge of Insanity". I would help setup cabinets and amps for some of those sessions and then I would quietly watch Mike and Steve produce and engineer Tony's record. A little later, I sang (uncredited) background vocals on Chastain's "Rulers of the Wasteland". After vocals, I would spend the rest of the night watching Steve do his thing. The first band that I work for as an assistant engineer was M.A.R.S. Project: Driver. The first group that hired me as their engineer was a punk band called Attitude for their EP Kein Sclauf Bis Deutchland. After that I was hired to re-mix some tracks off Vinnie Moore's Mind's Eye for live clinic performances. My first full album was Marty Friedman's Dragon's Kiss.
SoT: What type of music interested you the most when you started producing? Have your tastes changed over the years?
Dino: Well, amusingly enough, I remember being totally into classical music at the time, particularly Grieg, Sibelius, Copland, and Shostakovich. But I was still heavily into Rock and Prog, mainly Def Leppard, Priest, Rainbow, Queen, Yes and Peter Gabriel. As far as my tastes changing, I would say yes. I still enjoy everything I have in the past, but without doubt my tastes have broadened. For example, lately I've really gotten into Exotica/ Lounge, specifically Les Baxter.
SoT: Can you talk a bit about your experiences with Marty Friedman? How did you hook up with him and what was the extent of your work? Did you just mix or also produce his solo albums?
Dino: I met Marty and Jason Becker when they were doing pre-production for Speed Metal Symphony. They were both the nicest guys and so incredibly talented! I was amazed at what they were playing. In fact here is a little tidbit, they played me some of their demos when we met and afterwards Marty asked what I thought and I said something like "that's the most amazing cacophony of notes and shredding that I had
ever heard"! Thus, a band name was born! Anyway, I got along great with both guys and spent a fair amount of time with them. They even played some lead guitar work on some of my demos! When it came time for Marty and Jason to record their solo records concurrently, Marty asked me to engineer his record because he loved the heavy rhythm guitar sound I got on the Attitude EP. The schedule for those sessions were Marty and myself from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and Jason and Steve from 6:00pm to 2:00am or so. Often Marty and I would stay a for Jason's sessions too, although I would leave after a few hours, and Marty would stay longer. At that time Marty was addicted to Hostess jelly filled powdered doughnuts and we would down at least a box or two everyday. Marty never put on weight but I certainly pudged up a bit---bastard! But even though I did not get production credit for "Dragon's Kiss" I was very much involved with many "production" related issues such as performances, tones, harmony layers, etc. It just goes with the territory. However, make no mistake, Marty made the final decisions, but he also clearly appreciated my input. For Music for Speeding I mixed five of the songs with Marty in my studio. For Loudspeaker I mixed the entire record at my studio and sent mp3's of the mixes for review to Marty in Japan. For Future Addict we did the same -- I mixed 10 songs here and sent mp3's to him in Japan for review. For all of these CDs, Marty gave me a pretty clear idea of what he wanted before hand, and just trusted me to deliver the goods.
SoT: From a producer's point of view, can you explain us what constitutes the stages of pre-production, tracking, mixing and mastering?
Dino: Pre-production is actually the most important phase. It is also the phase that is most neglected and squandered. This is the stage where the song choices, musical arrangements, lyrical content, performance approach, and sonic vision are explored and reflected upon before you start to spend serious money. Many labels, particularly smaller labels, don't even budget for this anymore. This is also a time to be used for getting everyone in the band on the same page and really getting the goals of the recording into sharp focus in everyone's mind. If you give this part short shrift, or can't do this comprehensively because of time, money, or geography, you will pay for it later! And it could cost you in ways that you have no idea it could, so really take advantage of pre-production! I can't stress this enough!
Tracking is when the rubber meets the road. If it isn't there, it REALLY isn't there. If your playing is weak, and your singing reeks, there's no plug-in to save you, nor should there be! Good god, am I speaking Seussian?! Also, take the time during tracking to craft the tones that you want. Always keep the end vision in mind. Don't let yourself off the hook by saying "we'll fix it in the mix". Yes, you can change tones quite a bit during mixing but it is always better if you're close to start with. Mixing is when you exploit the symbiotic relationship of all the elements in the recording to the song itself. To create the sonic world in which all the elements will have the necessary space and texture to not only interact effectively but synergistically with each other, where the sum really is greater than the parts. Mixing is when you can finally reveal the complete musical world that you have created. Ideally, Mastering should be whatever you need to do to prepare the material for replication with as little lost or changed of the original recordings as possible. However, Mastering is usually approached as another creative step, where you can put on that final polishing touch to the recordings so it sounds as good as you think it can. On a side note, I'm not a big fan of mastering in the same studio room that you mixed in. I prefer to master in a dedicated, designed from the ground up mastering room with a real mastering engineer. You can't replace that kind of gear and experience.
SoT: In your opinion, what is the most difficult thing about being together with the band in the studio?
Dino: My wife would say "having the band in our house". Correspondingly, I would have to say "my wife"! Just kidding!! Seriously though there is really only two scenarios that can create difficulties in the studio and that would be a personal conflict within the band that has little to do with the actual recording or a lack of focus and discipline that creates divergent goals and conflict. Very rarely are there any personal conflicts, but occasionally a band will show up for a recording and it will feel like a couple that has been fighting forever and instead of breaking up or getting a divorce they decide to have a child in the hopes that that will bring them together. A little more common is when the various members are not on the same page in what they wish to achieve artistically. Then of course a power struggle will occur, horse play will turn into tears, and the next thing you know someone's panties are in a twist. That's when you, as a producer, must delicately unknot the wedgie before there is irreparable harm!
SoT: As a producer, do you throw them new ideas as to how a certain melody should be constructed or how the tone of the lead guitars should sound or do you leave it up to the band most of the time?
Dino: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes a group might be a little reluctant to try what I, or another producer, may come up with because it might be too far outside their comfort zone. But you always have to at least make the suggestion. As far as tone selection, unless the artist has written a part with a very particular tone crafted for it, or where the tone itself has dictated the part, I will explore the sonic possibilities together with the artist.
SoT: Without doubt your greatest work has been with Zero Hour. How did you meet them?
Dino: They contacted me through Prairie Sun, and we hit it off immediately! They were just so cool! They had always loved "Dragon's Kiss", so when they had some material that they wanted to have re-mixed they contacted Mooka at Prairie Sun to get a hold of me. However, by that time (around 1995) I really wasn't doing any sessions at Prairie Sun any more. And while Mooka acknowledged that I was good, he did tried to dissuade them from contacting me, encouraging them to use him instead. To Jay and Troy's credit (and my eternal thanks!) they stubbornly refused and insisted on using me. Mooka acquiesced and the rest, as they say, is history! As another testimony to Jay and Troy's loyalty and confidence in my work, about a year or so after we started working together, Mike Varney was interested in signing Zero Hour before they were finished with what would become "Metamorphosis" and, among other changes, suggested to them not to continue working with me, that he would get them a "real engineer". Stuff like that happens all the time in this business. Like that old April Wine song "Rock and Roll is a Vicious Game", so you better have your grown-up undies on!
SoT: Talk a bit about the creative process of their The Towers of Avarice album. How was that masterpiece conceived?
Dino: Well, Zero Hour has always been quite disciplined, and they are very well rehearsed before they come into the studio. They always make pre-production recordings on their own and they work very hard at getting the arrangement that they want for each song. They also always send me their pre-production cds so that I can get a feeling of the stuff and give them my 2 cents. This was how it went with "Towers". As I recall, Troy, Jasun, and Mike came up on a Friday morning we set up the drums, bass, and guitar and were tracking that afternoon. The drums were finished in a day or two. The bass and guitar were completed the next time they came up. Eric however wanted to track his vocals himself on the bands adat system. Even though I showed Eric how to record his vocals using their equipment, things changed of course, and the vocal tracks were technically all over the place. But his performances were brilliant so I didn't mind fixing the eq and compression variances. Then during mixing, I was in the midst of rebuilding my studio and upgrading my ProTools system. Unfortunately, neither was ready for me to utilize during mixing, so I had to set up my old 16 track ProTools system (that I had used on "Metamorphosis") in my living room. I also only had one small 1 or 2 gig hard drive at the time, so I had to use my data tape drive as a working drive. "Towers" was a very interesting challenge. On one hand the tracking sessions were very fun and quick, and the actual mixing itself flowed easily. But on the other hand I had a host of technical nightmares. One was one of the DAT 2 tapes broke in the middle of mixing. Of course, as these things go, I didn't have a backup for this tape! So with breath held and prayers said, I sent the tape to Doug Owens at Data Recovery in San Diego. He was able to recover the data, and we didn't have to re-cut what would have been lost! Also, my old ProTools system could only play 16 tracks at any one time, so I had an enormous amount of stem mixing to do which is very much a 2 steps forward 1 step back kind of thing, but at least I was always making progress. Ah, the good old digital days!
SoT: It seems Zero Hour is getting heavier and heavier. Is it just the band's wish to pursue this direction or did you have any influence on that as well?
Dino: That has just been Jasun's and Troy's own desire to explore heavier textures. It was partially born out of necessity in that they were having a heck of a time finding a permanent keyboard player during the recording of "Metamorphosis". After they completed that album, they simply got tired of looking and said "screw it, we don't need a keyboardist". The next album was "The Towers of Avarice". It has just sort of continued from there as they have developed their musical voice.
SoT: You also sang backing harmonies on their new album? Was that pre-planned or did it just happen on a whim?
Dino: When we started to track, we wanted a certain texture to the backing vocals that you just can't get with only one, or the same, person singing. Jay and Troy did a little background work too. You know, they both have very good voices, and I'm always bugging them to develop their vocal chops more!
SoT: What musical territory do you think Zero Hour will explore next?
Dino: I think that they will continue to explore the blending of more extreme technicality with a more determined sensibility for accessible melodies.
SoT: When you're contacted by bands to mix their stuff, do you just tell them to go record on their own or with a different producer, and get mailed the tapes so you can work on them?
Dino: I tell them that I prefer to do the tracking as well as the mixing for quality control reasons. But sometimes that is impossible, so you just cross your fingers and hope that the tracks they send you won't suck.
SoT: It seems some people associate good sound quality with being a good producer. What do you think?
Dino: Well, it starts with the song. If the arrangement is good, you'll have more room to exploit bigger tones. From that stand point a good producer is key to great sound, but the shear quality of the sound of the final product is more up to the engineer and mixer. Mastering also has a major impact, both good and bad.
SoT: What do you do if you're totally unsatisfied with the recording of an album? Do you mix it anyway or do you contact the band to apply necessary changes?
Dino: Unfortunately, you usually have to make due with what you get because there is no more time, money, or energy left to re-track anything. In addition to that, a lot of stuff I get is from clients too far away to execute a quick retouch to whatever it is. Now, if the band is relatively close to me, I will suggest re-tracking if it is necessary and feasible. I like to say "if it ain't fun it ain't done", and what I mean by that is if the track isn't entertaining, fun, or exciting to listen to, then obviously something isn't right. Assuming that the song itself isn't DOA, it has to be a performance issue somewhere in the track. Additionally, whatever is sabotaging the song might not only need re-tracking, but may need to be re-tracked using a different performer or performers.
SoT: Do you mix the stuff together with the band or do you mix the material alone?
Dino: When I started at Prairie Sun, you use to have to have at least one or more members of the band with you when you mixed because there was absolutely no automation. Sometimes you needed as many hands on the board as you could get to perform the mix moves in real time. It was like for the first few years in my studio too. But all that changed with the advent of the ubiquitous DAW. With virtually limitless automation afforded by DAWs, you simply didn't need everyone there for mixing anymore. Besides, most people can't tolerate the tedious, repetitive nature of mixing for very long anyway. It is one thing if you've got something to do, but if you don't, hanging around a mix can become quite mind numbing surprisingly fast! For at least the last eight years or so I've been mixing alone until the mix is about 95-99% done. At that point I have the band come up (or send mp3s) to listen and critique it. I prefer it this way, because I love to get the artists reaction after they have been away from it, when they are fresh. The responses are immediate, visceral, and pure.
SoT: Is there a certain sound you try to coax when working with a group or do you let them push you to a desired point sound-wise?
Dino: During pre-production I'll get a sense as to where things need to go sound wise. I will also have discussions with the band to see what they envisioned. I'm always trying to think of ways to introduce some individuality to the sound of the bands I work with that is organic to what they do. But I also try to remain truthful to the songs.
SoT: What is your take on putting a stamp on the albums you produce? Do you like giving the music a Dino Alden touch sound-wise or do you like making each record you produce sound different?
Dino: The more you do this, the more you develop your taste and sonic vocabulary. You begin to develop an intuitive sense of how things should sound and interact, but it doesn't mean you're locked into a certain signature sound. In fact, I like to explore different vistas within a familiar boundary every time I work. Look at the records I've done with Zero Hour. Yes there are similarities, but Metamorphosis doesn't sound like Towers which doesn't sound like A Fragile Mind etc. Same with the records I've done with Marty Friedman. I've never really liked doing the same thing over and over again, it just get too boring to me. I just hope I'm in tune, no pun intended, with the material in that moment in time.
SoT: Where do labels stand in all of this? Do they ever make demands on how their bands' music should sound once they've worked out a deal with you?
Dino: Generally, labels (and bands) totally trust me with the soundscape. I've only been asked once to re-mix a record by the label because they disagreed with the soundscape realized by me and the artist, and that was with Marty Friedman's Dragon's Kiss album. Truth be told, Mike told me that he felt that he couldn't even release the mixes Marty and I had originally delivered because they had "way too much rhythm guitars"! I still have those mixes (on cassette only) and I still think they are superior to the released mixes because they are heavier and more "modern" sounding! But, ultimately, the guy (or gal) who pays the bills calls the shots! Mike also wasn't too happy with the remixes and told me at the time he thought it was the worst sounding record from his label! In fact, Mike never hired me again after "Dragon's Kiss". Oh well, C'est la vie!
SoT: The sound of Zero Hour, especially The Towers of Avarice has been called "cold and clinical" by some. What do you think makes a record sound cold and warm?
Dino: I don't know, does a "cold" record have a lot of treble and a "warm" record have a lot of bass? Beats me! I totally disagree that Zero Hour has a "cold and clinical" sound, especially if they are implying that the sound is abrasive, strident or overly bright. I believe that people who say that are more likely responding to the tight, technical, sometimes unrelenting aspect of the arrangements as opposed to the actual "sound". I've never looked at any record as being "cold" or "warm". My own lexicon for sound revolves around terms like "girth", "punch", "depth", "dynamics", etc., and to that end I've always strived to make each Zero Hour record as fat and punchy as I could. Now cds can certainly sound harsh and fatiguing if they are overly multi-band compressed and made freakishly loud during mastering, but we (myself, Jay and Troy, Ken Golden, and Alan Douches) have always been quite careful about that with the Zero Hour records.
SoT: What was it like working with shredders like Tony MacAlpine, Cacophony and Racer X? Looking back, are you pleased with the records you did with them?
Dino: It was a blast, and I'm very proud of all the records that I did with them! I mean, I got to be right there in the room with some of the very best guitarists, bassists, and drummers in the world of rock and metal. Not only be there, but participate, assist, contribute musical parts, whatever. It was just great, and I knew then that it was a special time and that it wouldn't last forever. I'll always be thankful to Mike Varney for letting me be a part of it!
SoT: What is the work you're the most proud of from a production standpoint?
Dino: God that is an impossible question because as an artist I don't think you're ever totally satisfied. I often vacillate between knowing I've got a pretty good handle on my craft and being convinced that I suck big green donkey dicks! Nonetheless, I'm quite proud of many of the CDs I've done, particularly with Zero Hour and Marty Friedman, because each presented unique challenges that were conquered and the end product turned out sounding pretty darn good, if I do say so myself! But actually the work that I'm most proud of is that of my own stuff, particularly a demo that I did back in the mid-nineties. Melodic rock stuff with huge Queen like vocals and Brian May/ Tom Scholz multi-layered guitars all done on a Fostex 16-Track tape deck and a Studiomaster Pro Line 24 channel mixer! It was the most hellish, fun, frustrating, satisfying project ever for me.
SoT: What do you think of the following producers/sound engineers: Neil Kernon (Nevermore, Spiral Architect, Nile), Andy Sneap (Nevermore, Opeth, Blaze), Dan Swano (Opeth, Katatonia, Edge of Sanity), Sascha Paeth (Kamelot, Angra, etc.), Tommy Newton (Conception, Ark, etc.), Terry Brown (Rush, Fates Warning, etc.), Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Opeth), Devin Townsend, Michael Wagener (White Lion, Skid Row, etc.), Kevin Shirley (Dream Theater, Iron Maiden, etc.).
Dino: I consider Neil Kernon one of the greats. The fact that he has made such fantastic sounding, defining records with people as diverse as Hall and Oats, Queensryche, and Nevermore speaks volumes to his artistry and skill. I love Andy Sneap's guitar
sounds, some of the very best out there. I'm not really familiar enough with Dan Swano's work to make any comment. I love Sascha Paeth's work with Kamelot, rockin', ballsy, dramatic stuff. I liked what Tommy Newton did with Helloween quite a bit, but I'm not up to speed with what he's done currently. Terry Brown is also one of the greats, good, clean, punchy records that stand the test of time. Steven Wilson has done some good, solid stuff with Porcupine Tree and Opeth. Devin Townsend is just brilliant, Ziltoid, The Omniscient is just so much fun! All Hail Ziltoid!!! Michael Wagener is fantastic; I remember hearing the rhythm guitars for "Monkey Business" and thinking "Oh my god, that's one of the best guitar tones ever". I've enjoyed Kevin Shirley's work quite a bit, including his work with Aerosmith and Rush.
SoT: Do you have any favorite producers who work sets an example for you?
Dino: Absolutely! I've always loved what Sir George Martin and Geoff Emerick did with the
Beatles with the limited equipment they had. Huge bass, snappy drums, sound effects, reverse guitars, the works! Roy Thomas Baker and Mike Stone were very influential to me for their work with Queen. Oh, those gorgeous vocals, fat drums, and the liquid, orchestral guitar of Brian May! Of course, Robert John "Mutt" Lange and Mike Shipley and their genre Def-ining (sorry, couldn't resist) work with Def Leppard.
Man, those backgrounds, and of course those drums! I also have always dug the stellar, yet under-rated work of Nick Blagona. His records always have fat bass, big guitars, and punchy-tightass drums. But for me the person who's "do it yourself" production work that inspired me most is Tom Scholz of Boston. Fantastic everything, vocals from heaven, the coolest harmony guitar sound, scratched strings from hell, and the amazing Hyperspace pedal!
SoT: What bands have you worked with this year? Are you working on anything these days?
Dino: I mixed a bunch of songs for Marty Friedman's "Future Addict" CD at the beginning of the year. Right now I'm working on my own stuff with my good friend, guitarist Cleve Cox, who has some of the best musical instincts and taste that I've ever worked with.
SoT: What are some of your favorite progressive rock and metal releases in general and what 2008 discs have you enjoyed so far?
Dino: Over the years some of my favorite prog rock and metal albums have been… In the prog realm---Yes The Yes Album, Fragile, Close To The Edge, Relayer, Drama and 90125; Crack The Sky Crack The Sky and Safety In Numbers; Genesis Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway; Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (Melt); Saga Worlds Apart; Rush 2112, A Farewell To Kings, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures; Dream Theater Images And Words; Zero Hour Metamorphosis, Towers Of Avarice and Dark Deceiver (yeah, I'm biased!). In the metal realm---Led Zeppelin 2, 4, Houses Of The Holy, Physical Graffiti and Presence; Queen Queen, 2, Sheer Heart Attack, Night At The Opera and News Of The World (look, I know many will say "Queen is not Metal" -- but for these early records I say, bull feathers!); Boston Boston (are you kidding me? Just listen to those guitars!); Judas Priest Sad Wings Of Destiny, Stained Class and Hell Bent For Leather; Rainbow Rainbow Rising, Long Live Rock 'n Roll and Straight Between The Eyes; Black Sabbath Paranoid, Masters Of Reality, Sabotage, Vol.4 and Heaven and Hell; AC/DC Let There Be Rock, Highway To Hell and Back In Black; Def Leppard On Through The Night, High 'N Dry and Pyromania (believe it or not, they started out as a metal band); Metallica Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and Metallica; Iron Maiden Killers; WASP W.A.S.P.; Testament The Gathering, Killswitch Engaged The End Of Heartache. Unfortunately I've hadn't had much opportunity to pick up a lot of cds this year, but lately I've really enjoyed Les Baxter's "Tamboo!" from 1956 and "Ports Of Pleasure" from 1957. I got turned on to Les Baxter because of my son's obsession with all things "Godzilla". The soundtrack to the movie "Son of Godzilla" is very much a Polynesian/ Exotica style of music which reminded me how much my folks loved that kind of music when I was a little kid in the late 60's early 70's. To my surprise, I thoroughly dug it and had to investigate the genre further, which led me to the source, the brilliant Les Baxter. Plus, Les scored (among other cool, campy horror films) the great Boris Karloff film "Black Sabbath". Now that is METAL! ;-)
SoT: Thanks a lot for this interview!
Dino: You are most welcome!