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Interview: Greg Collins - KISS' Sonic Boom Producer

Interview: Greg Collins - KISS' Sonic Boom Producer

Greg discusses how he and the band made a 1970s KISS album in 2009

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 [2006] 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.

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.