The Rocking Dead
Secrets of the Masters: Rob Zombie's "Dragula"
Specializing in mix re-creations for so many classic rock tracks, I can’t help but to be extremely critical of how a lot of these well-known songs were recorded. I know that those engineers would never imagine that their audio would be audited so long after the album was mixed and mastered, but new technology has exhumed the old reels to reveal the mummified state of those sessions much the way they were shelved so long ago. Sure, I factor in the technological limitations of the era, but sloppy documentation, poor edits points and other evidence of carelessness are inexcusable given the caliber of artist they were recording.
We Jammit engineers have had the opportunity to not only hear the “imperfections” in those raw, unprocessed audio from truly legendary songs, but we are often able to get our hands on the original 2 inch tape reels. Yes, we piece together clues from old track sheets, tape boxes and scribbled notes that were inserted with the mix recall notes—all to aid in the understanding of what really went on during those recording sessions.
I guess it was only a matter of time before the tables were turned and some of my past work was put under the same microscope as the other “approved for Jammit” multi-tracks we’ve handled. Such was the case with Rob Zombie’s biggest hit to date, Dragula.
This song was the first single released on Rob’s debut solo record “Hellbilly Deluxe” in August of 1998. The production was headed up by Scott Humphrey, who had already accumulated a significant whack of high profile credits back then. For me, it was and still is one of my most notably engineered projects. The thought of revisiting these tracks felt a lot like going to a high school reunion—but without the alcohol and anti-anxiety medication to get me through it!
It’s not really insecurity as much it is the feeling that over a decade of additional experience must have advanced my craft to a place that would make any previous work somehow inferior. As it turns out, I was pretty off-base with this assumption. These tracks held up remarkable well. Hellbilly Deluxe has a sonic character that is tough to compare to anything else past or present—even subsequent Rob Zombie albums. By performing an audio autopsy on the individual elements of “Dragula” we can take a closer look at the anatomy of this modern rock milestone. Maybe this will jog my memory enough to give you some unique insight into how this record was created.
Hellbilly was recorded in an awkward era where computer-based digital audio recording was not yet embraced as an industry standard, but for Scott Humphrey, he had it in a headlock. Back then Scott’s digital artistry was very transparent, being credited as a digital audio editor on huge records by Metallica, Bon Jovi, and Motley Crue when most people didn’t even know what that meant. He had pushed the boundaries of primitive DAW and was instrumental in the development of Pro Tools features like Beat Detective and batch cross fade processing. So when it came to Hellbilly, that same inventive mentality went into its production.
The Chop Shop was Scott Humphrey’s laboratory so-to-speak—apropos for the how this album was literally pieced together. Even though he was an accomplished musician, Scott’s main instrument was arguably the computer. He maxed out the then state-of-the-art Power Mac 9600 and ran a full blown Pro Tools TDM system that required constant maintenance. We would joke that you’d spend more time behind your gear than in front of the screen. While Rob Zombie explored the prospect of severing ties with White Zombie, he and Scott brought in players like Tommy Lee, Danny Lohner and Riggs to play what couldn’t be looped, sampled or chopped into place with Pro Tools. While Dragula and most of the other tracks on this album were the result of a sincere effort to get a big, pro-sounding record, what actually happened is more of a makeshift, unique sound from experimentation rather than purely expertise. I remember other audio professionals would tell us that we couldn’t make a record on Pro Tools and that the Chop Shop was an unsuitable mix environment. Hellbilly was tracked entirely in Pro Tools (transferred to 3348 digital tape only for archive) and some of the final mixes were even done in-the-box. It seemed we all had a lot to prove with this record as we were all transitioning from one position to another.
Dig Through the Ditches
To say that Hellbilly was constructed unconventionally is an understatement. There were no basic tracks. Scott and Rob “wrote” the songs from recycled riffs and loops and those tracks were built upon through trial and error and became final masters. Dragula consists of combined drum loop elements supplemented with kick and snare samples, layers of heavy rhythm and high drone guitars, electric bass infused with synth bass, Polyfusion modular synth (Scott’s specialty) and Rob’s stacked vocals.
The Chop Shop was an anomaly in the Hollywood Hills just minutes away from the heart of the Sunset Strip but isolated enough to be able to make as much noise as we could produce. We had converted the garage into the tracking room and ran audio cables through the floors and through pretty much every wall in the house (even the concrete cinder blocks) to have makeshift reverb chambers, remote amp cabinets and mic tielines on all three levels. I can’t say that we always knew precisely what we were doing, but it all seemed to make enough sense at the time. Incidentally, Rob was always a good sport through all construction, deconstruction and experimentation at the Chop Shop—even when we made him sing Dragula in a stairwell storage closet.
Axes of Evil
The guitars of Hellbilly were, like most other elements on this record, a communal melting pot of
“whatever works” in the mix. There was nothing sacred at the Chop Shop. The integrity of any particular musical performance was ignored and subject to radical editing and processing. It wasn’t uncommon for guitar parts to be “Pro Tooled out of recognition” or replaced entirely without warning. Rigg’s guitar parts may have been layered with Danny Lohner’s-- there are even some rhythm guitars that I ended up playing in the choruses of Dragula.
The in-house guitar rig consisted of a Diezel VH-4, a Mesa Triple Rectifier and a Marshall 25/50 Silver Jubilee head through various Marshall vintage 4x12 cabinets. The main tracking guitar was a Les Paul standard with a P-94 pickup in the bridge position. All in all, the guitars got mashed together to function. They certainly weren’t played with the precision of Zombie’s current guitarist, John 5, but they did have a vibe.
How to Make a Monster
Over the last 12 years, recording digitally has become the standard and technology has caught up with the high demands of high track count sessions. Taking this trip down memory lane really did highlight the significant progression in DAW recording systems but all these advances don’t necessarily guarantee a more compelling end presentation. Today most engineers would turn their nose up at the rig that created Hellbilly Deluxe, and even I initially had apprehension over revisiting those tracks. I’d like to view recording as more of a snapshot in time for which there should be no apologies. Dragula was one such still frame and I’m pleased to be able to format this song and others like it into a piece of software that allows everyone to view that picture from a slightly different angle.