A wee while ago, I had the opportunity to send a few questions to the legendary Dan Swanö of Witherscape and Unisound studios. Dan’s produced some of my favourite albums and as such, the interview leans more towards the album production industry.
Some of the stories he has are rather entertaining, in particular one about armed police and a particularly hot day…
Huge thanks to Nina at the Noise Cartel for organising and Dan for his time :D
You’ve just about to release the new album, The Northern Sanctuary. Are you excited for it?
Hell yeah! It’s the best metal album I have been a part of, so yeah, I am excited!
With regards to the recording of the album, was it done any differently to the previous album?
The recording itself was pretty similar. I did the drums at my place in Germany, the 1st one had the drums done in Sweden. That is the only big difference apart from some locations where we did the stuff is not quite as unorthodox as one the 1st one, such as the kitchen from the rehearsal room complex we used ;)
You’re reasonably well known in the metal scene for not just your music but also your production skills from your studio, Unisound. What made you decide to go into the recording industry?
It kind of happened. I did the sound for my own bands and people just assumed I ran a professional business because of the results. I remember someone asking how many channels I had, I said “4” and he said you mean “24” no I said “4” – I record to a Yamaha MT2X cassette porta-thing. They were shocked since I got a better sound on that than they did at their local 24 channel studio ;)
And all of sudden I found myself spending the weekends recording all kinds of bands from like a 2-3 hour driving distance and before I knew I my brother offered me some kind of deal using his brand new Fostex R8 with 812 console and with that stuff I did Katatonias first demo, Marduks first demo and much more… Then I bumped into some local christian dudes that needed a place to record their hymns and I could use a 16 tracker, so we joined up for a while until I got the money to buy my own Fostex E16 machine.
I still remember handing over 30.000 SEK in an envelope to a complete stranger at a par stop close to Brahe hus along the E4 in Sweden. I had no idea if the machine even worked, but it kind of did. All the meters were broken, but apart from that it could punch in and out in feedback without and snap, crackles and pop and my method of recording by punching in and out ’til perfection was thanks to that machine! R.I.P.
Enough history for now though…
What made you decide to start this band in the first place as outside of the band you’re quite busy with your studio?
I felt like getting back into the whole “band thing” again, but starting out with a duo line-up. At the time of WS creation , I hadn’t written a decent tune for a lot of years and I felt that Ragnar had some really good ideas and it kicked my own writing and arranging spirit back into full overdrive.
Given that there is only two of you in the band, does it make the process of writing music easier or harder?
Well, there are times when 5 fully fledged writers of awesome ideas could come in handy, absolutely, but the problems are to find as “egoless” people as Ragnar, who doesn’t have a problem with my, sometimes ruthless, way of ripping riffs apart and use the best bits and add my own stuff, and that kind of stuff..and all of sudden have the riff removed all together because it “didn’t work any more”. I have Witherscape in my life so that I can hear this kind of metal, since I like it.
I am not really too interested in what other people will think, I just write for me, and that is how the best stuff happens. If I were to think too much about what other people might wanna hear from me, I don’t think I could write a note.
Getting onto the soundscape of the album, there’s some rather interesting sounds in there. Outside of the traditional guitar, drums and bass, what other instruments did you use?
Acoustic guitars, both standard stringing and “Nashville” stringing (only using the light strings in a 12 string pack..Google it for more info!) There’s a music on there, grand piano, “selfmade” Nord Stage Lead sounds, Various choir stuff and ambient blobs from Omnisphere 2, And some string stuff from Reason. And not to forget the almighty PSS-270 “home-synth” that was lurking in a corner at Ragnars tracking place. We just had to use some of its immortal presets :)
Your last release was an EP that sort of followed on from the first album. Do you have any plans to do something similar in the future?
I am not really sure where to go from here with this project. It has kind of come to a “full stop” for me. This album is everything I ever wanted Witherscape to be, just like “Unorthodox” kind of “did it” from me with Edge of Sanity, after an exploratory last album. So at this point, we have to figure out what we can do to move forward, and that we don’t just try to repeat the new album, but actually widen our sound even more.
I have some ideas, mainly about the line-up, which may not be so extremely obvious in the end, but I’d love to work with studio musicians of top class for more complex stuff on acoustics, drums and also for keyboard stuff. We’ll see what that can bring to the table :)
If my sources are correct, you used to work full-time in a music store. What made you decide to quit your job and go into recording/making music full time?
I never thought that I could make the necessary money every month just mixing and mastering stuff, but after a while I had developed the necessary skills to build a big returning customer base and it was actually problematic to juggle 2 full time jobs…so I wanted to quit the shop earlier on, but my boss did an exception to the rule and let me stay on half time in a shop that only do full time.
So I stayed for some more years working 3 days a week 10am-6pm selling gear and getting hilarious % off stuff, so I could buy a lot of nice things for sometimes less than half the retail price and then lift the VAT as well.. and once I became so “big” in the mixing world that I just couldn’t cope with all the work, I had to quit and go full time mixing and I thank the wonderful world of metal every day that I can still make a good living doing what I do…thanks guys!!
You’ve worked with quite a few bands now, what would you say has been your most memorable/project that you’ve worked on?
They are all memorable in their own right, once you get a memory thrown your way to get you started down memory lane. But there are so many albums done that it would be impossible to evaluate them all to find the best. But some stuff I remember, which have some kind of weirdness to them is:
1. Recording Dark Funeral, and I had just bought a brand new digital desk that costed a lot of money. We were tracking and all of a sudden a stream of white-looking water is falling from the roof (Unisound was in a cellar full of pipes and shit back then) and the stream ends like 20 cm away from the right side of the console and luckily just pours down onto my track sheets and stuff…
And before any one of us understood what kind of thing that was we just sat/stood there and looked…then panic!! Aaaah! Water+Gear=Shit!! The dude that rented the place upstairs had installed a washing machine there for the first time in maybe forever and nobody had ever checked if everything was well with the pipes. And it’s a lot of water being “thrown out” of a washing machine and somehow the whole system collapsed and Unisound became a swimming pool…
2. Recording Godsend. It was the worst fucking thunderstorm ever outside and since Unisound was located in a cellar it meant, below ground. And what happens when it rains a lot, real long…yep…the water need a really good place to go..and the place outside the door into Unisound just wasn’t that place any more. The well (or whatever you call it) that is supposed to take care of the rain just didn’t function and in the middle of a take we all just saw this flood of water coming from under the door, towards us…and again…we just sat/stood there, like our brains short-circuited and I remember us trying what ever to ge the water away. Shovels (!!) buckets, blankets…and it all just kept coming at us.
Luckily its power only made it reach half of the place, so the floor where all the equipment was didn’t get all soaked. And only a few years earlier the whole place was totally renovated because of a….you got it….flooding of water!! That time you could actually swim in there…
3. and last. Allegiance was at the studio, now moved to a tower in Örebro. The studio was on the top floor. Really high up. we’re talking certain death when falling down from the recording room, which was inside the black tower!
Anyhow. As you can see, the arrows points at the location of the control room and since it was one of the hottest days ever, and the iso-booth had no air condition at all, it made it hot as a sauna, when it was cold out side…and you can imagine how hot it was when it was hot outside…just didn’t work..So Bogge, the singer took a hand-held mike and came into the control room with me and sang in there, and the heat there too was unbearable, so we opened the windows and on with the headphones and we went at it. Allegiance sang in Swedish with a lot of references to evil things and after a while it rang on the door and I opened the doors (remote controlled, since the studio was at the end of a long corridor) and in stormed a bunch of police men in full “attack gear” armed with weapons a bunch of read-to-strike dogs! We all just froze and thought…fuck, you guys have got the wrong number!
But it turns out that a woman from across the street, living in that brown house thought a woman (!!) was being killed at the studio, since she heard things being screamed in Swedish that might be what someone begging for their life would scream…so she called to police!! it took a while before the police believed us- But we played back the music we had recorded, and Bogge might even have done a solo performance of his awesome screams, can’t remember..
We got off with a warning and a firm “shut the fucking window” but we were all shook up and I never opened that window while doing vocals again, that is for sure :)
Getting back onto the equipment, what sort of gear did you use in the creation of this album?
Ragnar played a Hagström Viking with EMG81 for rhythms and most solos, Fender Strat for the clean stuff and some solos I think. “Marionette” had a Squier Baritone because of the strange and very low tuning. The bass was a Fender Precision, except for “Marionette” that had an Ernie Ball knock-off 5 string for the low tuning.
For drums I used a Pearl EXR drum kit with 1 kick, 1 tom, 1 floor tom and a PDP snare. Assorted Paiste, Sabian and Turkish cymbals including a vintage 24″ Paiste 2002 China! I sang into a Shure SM7B and a 22 years old ATM 4033TM. Acoustic guitar is a cheap Yamaha, miked with DPA 4091. Synths were hardware Nord Stage Ex and Yamaha PSS-270.
Software wise, we used: Omnisphere 2, Reason, Wavestation, M1, Dexed DX7 VSTi (for the Queenryche tubular bells in “God of Ruin”) Oberheim OBX, JP6K, and some free libraries or Kontakt etc.
What’s your go to plug ins/outboard gear when your mixing/mastering?
Hmm. I never really discuss that kind of stuff..But I can name you some brands that is a part of my tool kit for my work!
Hardware: Yamaha, SPL. TC Eletronics, AKG, Frost, RME
Sofware: Steinberg, Universal Audio, Melda, Har-Bal, FabFilter, Sonnox, Slate, Apulsoft, TSE Audio, Kuassa, Waves, TBPro audio, HOFA, Voxengo, Sound Radix, Toontrack, NI, Brainworx, Peavey, IK, Antares, Celemony, Pro Audio DSP and lots more
Some of the musical ideas expressed in this album are a little outside the ‘norm’ of the genre. What would you say were your main influences when writing the music?
The first album is the main influence and then we expanded the sound and writing a bit in every direction. “Marionette” is inspired by Slowdive’s “Just for a Day” album. That is a bit new to the sound. “Divinity” is inspired by Voivod’s more “rocky” songs, on the albums after Nothingface. There are a few more metallic parts that I find inspiration in for example Symphony X for.
Do you have any plans to tour with the band?
Nope. 100% studio this one.
What advice would you give to a band that is just starting out in this industry?
To write as good sons as possible, and make sure they stick out and hit the audience in the face even in the worst possible PA conditions. Edge of Sanity had a terrible rehearsal room, small and boomy, and it made me, who usually never sang at rehearsal, just “observed” simplify the tracks until I could hear what was going on, even in those dire conditions. And when we played live people would come up to us and say “The sound sucked for the other bands, then you came on and it sounded excellent” and we never had a sound man…so it was all in the music being designed to be played live, and be specious in itself without constant
double kicks clouding everything with its booming. And riffs that doesn’t sound like a mess, already when played on 1 guitar alone..
And Finally, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into the recording/production industry?
Always do your best, even with trials etc. First impressions last and remember that “Mixing is a service profession” ©Joe Baresi
Witherscapes’ new album The Northern Sanctuary is available now via Century Media Records.