Interview: Greg Collins - KISS' Sonic Boom Producer
Greg discusses how he and the band made a 1970s KISS album in 2009
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I always had this image in my head of old pictures of Gene playing Gibson basses, so I borrowed a couple of different ones for him. We rented two vintage Ripper basses, and in a video they put online you can see him playing one that’s a Sunburst, but on most of the tracks he used a blond-finished Ripper that I found at a music store around the corner from my studio. I went there on a whim one day and it was like fate, because that bass was hanging on the wall right in front of me when I walked in, and when I tried it out it had the most massive sound. I’m mainly a bass player, so I’m particularly obsessive about bass sounds, and I knew right away that this was the one to use. It took a while for Gene to get comfortable playing it, but in the end he was glad he did. It turns out that he actually used to play the “Grabber” model basses. At one point we brought one of those in, but that particular one didn’t even come close to the Ripper.
Tommy played his vintage Les Paul on most rhythm tracks, and a ’61 SG body-style Les Paul reissue on some solos as well. He used a two-amp setup for rhythm guitar consisting of a mid-’70s Marshall JMP 100-watt head—we tried four or five before we found the right one—and his Hughes & Kettner Statesman combo amp. My intention was not to have a too modern, high-gain guitar sound. As a reference point I used the first KISS record, which is probably my favorite sounding of their early makeup era, and also, of course, Destroyer. We also talked about other great classic guitar sounds, like the ones on AC/DC’s Back in Black. Over the years KISS’ sound has evolved toward being a lot more aggressive and edgy than that, but I think we struck a good balance between the sound of the 1970s and something a bit bigger and more vivid.
Again, the thing I was watching out for was to not have the amps too gained out. The typical modern sound for heavy bands is something like a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and boost pedals, and that’s definitely not what we wanted. For rhythm tracks we went cable to amp. The only pedals in line were splitter boxes—Radial Tonebones—so that we could drive two amps at once, and no effects. It’s the pure tone of the guitar and amp. We tried to find the sweet spot on the amp gain, where it sounded rich but you could still hear every note in the chord.
For Paul’s amp setup we used a 1966 Fender Bassman head and a Randall MTS head. The Bassman is a great vintage amp, which is the majority of his tone. The Randall MTS is a modern amp but it has modular plug-in preamps based on older classic amp circuits. We used the one modeled after a Marshall Super Lead. All of Paul’s tracks were done with either a Gibson custom-shop Les Paul or SG into the Bassman/MTS rig.
With Gene, it was the Ripper bass into an Avalon U5 DI box and a mid-70s Ampeg SVT head and 8x10 cabinet. Some SVTs distort in a really good way, but many do not, so it was another process of finding just the right one.
During mixing I also ran the direct bass signal through a Marshall JMP-1 preamp for even more distortion, which you can hear on the song “Russian Roulette.”
What about mics?
On the bass amp I used three mics. I tend to put a lot of mics on the amps and use only one if it has the right sound, or blend them together. The phase relationship between mics and the DI is very important, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be perfectly in phase. Sometimes two mics slightly out of phase can sound amazing, and you can use that blend as a sort of EQ. On the bass cabinet I had an AKG C12 placed two or three feet back from the amp. I used a Shure Beta 52 dynamic and an SM 57 up close on different speakers. The mic pre-amps were Neve 31104’s, which I balanced and mixed to tape through a Vintage 1176 LN compressor.
On each of the guitar amps I also used three mics. Tommy’s Marshall was running through a 4x12 cabinet, and the H&K combo amp is an open-back 2x12. I used a Heil PR30 on the 4x12. It’s a dynamic mic, somewhat similar to an SM57, with a frequency response that’s just great for distorted guitar. I find that it has more clarity and bite than the typical 57. I also used a Royer 121 ribbon mic. What I love about the Royer is that it gives a ton of midrange, and when you boost mid- and high-frequency EQ it always sounds really good. You can really dig in and it never sounds too harsh. It fills things out and sounds thick and full. I also used an AKG 414 for a different flavor. With distorted guitars I don’t compress too much. I used a Neve 33609 compressor, but never more than –3 or 4dB of compression. I find it best to let the amp, and then the tape, handle that. On Tommy’s combo amp I used an old RCA 77 ribbon mic and a Sennheiser 421.
Paul’s Bassman was going through a 2x12 closed-back cabinet with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. For the Randall it was a Colossus 4x12 cabinet and for both cabinets I used the same mics: the PR 30, the Royer and the 414.
Paul and Gene’s lead vocals were done almost entirely with a Shure SM7. For Tommy I used a Neumann SM 69, the stereo version of a U87. For Eric I used a Blue Blueberry cardioid microphone. The vocal chain was an Inward Connection tube sidecar console and an Anthony DeMaria LA-2A-style compressor.
Guitar solos were done half at Conway and half at The Nook. We split the signal into four amps for a little more flexibility in sound between the songs. We had Tommy’s vintage Marshall and the H&K head that he uses onstage, as well as a couple of smaller amps, a Fender Pro Junior and a little toy Orange amplifier [Orange Micro Crush] that runs on AA batteries. You can buy it at Urban Outfitters! It blended in fairly prominently for edgy, buzzy solos that sound ’70s and fuzzy.
How was the album mixed?
We recorded all of the basic tracks on tape, transferred it into Pro Tools, and I mixed it entirely on a 1986 SSL 6000 analog console I had installed in my studio specifically for this KISS record.
How would you summarize the overall experience of making Sonic Boom?
It was amazing, because I was working with people that I idolized as a kid. Over the years I’ve learned that the dynamic in every band is different, and sometimes it can be tough, with politics, egos and however many years of baggage. I couldn’t believe how incredibly healthy the creative relationship is with KISS. Paul was clearly in charge of the record, but he was open to everyone’s ideas. Everything was discussed in an enjoyable, fun way. There was no sense of egos overwhelming the process or anyone being marginalized in any way. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I ever had working with a band.
This doesn’t come as a surprise.
You know, the first thing people ask me is, “What about Gene?” Gene is very methodical and professional … and very funny in a self–deprecating way. He’s also very underrated a bass player. I really loved doing bass overdubs with him. He has a style all his own and it’s a huge part of what makes KISS sound like KISS. Paul has said that no other lineup could have made this record and I believe he’s right. Everyone in KISS is confident about their role in the band. They’re not trying to please anyone but themselves, which is the best way to make music. There was no sense of anxiety, no label, no A&R guy. It was just the band and myself, trying to make the best KISS record we could. It was a completely natural process, and hopefully the results speak for themselves.