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Greg (left) with Tommy Thayer and Gene Simmons in the studio
“If you had asked me when I was a kid if I thought I’d ever work with KISS, I would have told you that you were completely crazy,” says Greg Collins, co-producer and engineer of Sonic Boom. “I wouldn’t have dared to dream that would happen.”
Collins played an integral part in the making of the new album. When Paul Stanley expressed his desire to cut a “classic” KISS record, it was Collins who suggested they do it the “classic” way: on tape. From first rehearsals until final mix, he worked closely with KISS at Conway Recording Studios and his own studio, The Nook. His technical expertise, coupled with an understanding of KISS that can only come from a longtime fan, helped create the album that diehard KISS supporters had clearly been waiting for: Sonic Boom entered the Billboard Rock Albums chart at No. 1 and the Top 200 chart at No. 2.
In an interview with Premier Guitar, Collins described his working relationship with KISS and how he captured that “classic” sound.
Was this your first time working with KISS?
We did a series of re-recordings of their classic songs two years ago, ostensibly for use in licensings and syncs. It went really well, so they decided to release it in Japan last year as Jigoku-Retsuden and included it in this new package release [as KISS Klassics] for Wal-Mart. Prior to that, I mixed Paul’s  solo album, Live to Win. That was my introduction to Paul.
How did that project come about?
I was recommended to Paul by a few people. Victor Intrizzo, an amazing drummer who plays with Alanis Morrisette and was in Beck’s band, played on Live To Win and he put Paul and I in touch. Paul and I talked on the phone and we hit it off. I’d been a lifelong KISS fan. I remember the Christmas I got my first record player and five KISS records. I was obsessed from then on. KISS and the Beatles were my first musical obsessions. I’ve come full circle, co-producing this record, for sure.
Why did you choose to use tape?
Paul and I talked, and he basically wanted to make a ’70s-inspired KISS record, a “makeup KISS” record. That was the first description he threw at me, and I was very excited about that idea. To me, that meant doing it the way records were made in the 1970s, and that meant tape.
If you have the time and the budget, working with tape is great for a few reasons. First, the whole process is more paced. You have rewind time and reel changes. When I started working in studios in the early 1990s, we still did most of our recording on tape. Most of it was analog, but digital tape formats like the Sony 3348 machines were also just coming in. As an assistant engineer, I learned from some of the best—people like Ed Cherney and Jim Scott—how to edit tape, work with slave reels, and fly background vocals using sync offsets between two machines. There is actually a mathematical formula for that. Now it’s a lost art that went away with the advent of computer-based recording, but some of those techniques are still ingrained in my brain. I miss certain things about that process, which was much more organic and human.
With digital technology we’ve all developed a form of Attention Deficit Disorder because we expect everything to happen immediately. Results are expected right away. With tape, the band plays, the tape rolls, you stop the machine and there is a moment of, “Oh, I hope it’s still there,” and then you hear the playback and it’s kind of magical.
The second benefit of using tape is the noise floor it creates. The hiss that’s inherent with tape recording, I believe, is a good thing.
Third is compression. Tape shapes the transient peaks of the drums, so it softens the hard edges and makes things a little easier on the ears. Recording engineers have often used that as a tool. You hit the tape really hard for certain tracks and it comes back sounding compressed. You can’t really get that particular sound out of a piece of outboard gear.
How involved were you in the rehearsals?
I was present for most of them. We spent some time figuring out what guitar/amp combinations we liked during the first round. For the rest of the rehearsals I would mostly just observe and provide occasional feedback. If something sounded like classic KISS to me, I’d usually jump up excitedly and throw two big thumbs in the air. It was fun just to be a fly on the wall during their writing process.
We did the record in a few small batches. Paul would call and say, “We’ve got two or three songs, here’s our window, see what we can do.” We would go to the rehearsal studio for a day or two, the band would get the songs arranged to a certain point, then we’d go to Conway and bang them out. After a couple of run-throughs for sound and arrangement tweaks, it was usually two or three takes and that was it. There were no click tracks and very minimal editing between takes.
Which room did KISS use for recording and how was it set up?
We actually used two studios: Conway Studio A for tracking, and my own studio, The Nook. Conway A is my favorite for tracking because the live room has amazing acoustics and the main monitors are among the best I’ve ever heard. It also has three big iso booths, so I can put every amp in its own space without too much leakage. The main room is great for drums, but because we wanted to go for a “seventies” sound, I put Eric’s drums in one of the booths so that I could get a drier sound where appropriate. I also kept the doors of the booth open so that the sound would spill into the live room, where I had a stereo mic that provided a nice, big room sound. You might notice that “All For The Glory, “Never Enough,” “Animal” and “Say Yeah” feature a more roomy sound than the rest of the tracks. While mixing, I tried to use a minimal amount of reverb and stuck to a vintage plate and chamber. Again, I was trying to use things that would have only been around in the 1970s. Everyone in the band has gear endorsements and lines, and we used their signature-model guitars on the re-records, which sound great, but for Sonic Boom I was adamant that we use old vintage amps and instruments—Eric used the first drum set he ever owned as a kid to make this record.