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Did Pantera Ruin Modern Metal Album Production Forever?

by Doc Coyle
music & audio

pantera album production

It feels somewhat wrong to even question Pantera. They are one of my favorite bands ever, the first concert I ever went to, the reason I tuned my guitar down, and even represent my gateway to discover more extreme and underground music. But there’s a question about them that needs to be asked: Did Pantera ruin modern Metal album production?

Before anyone starts warming up to fire off an angry email or comment, let me clarify that I am specifically talking about the phenomena of unintended consequences.

One example includes some people asserting that Faith No More is the main influencer of Rap Rock, and therefore Nu Metal, which is considered a black eye on the Metal world by many purists. Or how about At The Gates’ opus Slaughter of the Soul spawning a decade of generic sound-alikes? You could say the same for the Meshuggah’s effect on today’s Djent and Progressive scenes. The general point is that a piece of work that is initially amazing can create some awfully derivative after-effects.

I should also say that I personally love the way Pantera albums sound.

The production is polished, crisp, and the character and distinctness has aged very well.  As far as I am concerned, the production style introduced with 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, but perfected on 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power, changed the game with the way Metal albums sounded forever.  They completely set the bar for extremely tight sounding performances, introducing that “Metal band sounding like a machine” thing that is so common now.

In addition to the band themselves, who had a legitimate production background, much of this credit should go to mega-producer, Terry Date, who is responsible for some of the best sounding heavy albums of all time, working with bands like White Zombie, The Deftones, Soundgarden, etc.

Drum Sound

Pantera’s main innovative elements were the drum sound and guitar tone. The drums were defined by a “click-y” kick drum sound and even the toms had a very attack heavy emphasis, deviating from the natural more boom-y tone of acoustic drums. I (and the rest of my band) remember being mystified in the mid 90’s as to how Vinnie Paul achieved that drum tone, because I never heard a drum set that sounded like that in a room. There was hearsay and rumors (which I’m sure could all be confirmed or not by now) that he used quarters on his kick drums, or that he didn’t use bottom heads on his toms, or that there were some unheard of micing techniques.

It’s important to note that I’m not proclaiming Pantera as the first band with the “click-y” drum sound, especially in regards to the kick drums. I’ve asked around and done a little research, and often Metallica’s 1988 album, …And Justice For All, gets credit for introducing the click-y kick drum sound.

A band like Slayer, who was really at the forefront of fast kick drumming, maintained a more acoustic thuddy kick sound on the ground breaking “Angel of Death” released on Reign in Blood in 1986. Slayer has gotten more click-y since then, but takes a much more acoustic approach than many of their counterparts.

The truth is there was probably quite a bit of parallel thinking going on at the time. With speedy 1/16th note double patterns becoming more and more commonplace in Thrash and the emergence of Death Metal at the end of the 1980’s, I’m sure there was a bit of a production arms race to best capture this exciting style of playing. King Diamond’s classic, Them, was released the same year as …And Justice For All also had a click-y style drum sound as well.

Another major innovator in this drum production around this same time in the late 80’s was Scott Burns, a legendary producer that was partially responsible for kick starting the birth of American Death Metal out of Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Fl. He produced seminal albums by Sepultura, Death, Obituary, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and many, many more that changed the way Metal albums sounded. Check out all of these examples with click-y style drums all released between 1989-90, so giving Metallica the sole credit for this drum sound may be a little exaggerated.

So despite not creating the sound, I still give Pantera credit for popularizing this drum sound. Metallica’s experimentation with click-y sound only lasted one album as they went for a more boom-y, single kick style on the follow up smash, Black Album, which featured no double kick patterns at all. The Death Metal movement was utilizing a cutting edge production method as a means to an end; the low tuned, heavily distorted guitars had to find a meeting place amongst the technicality and speed of the guitars, bass, and drumming. Pantera made a stylistic choice, and the truth is that they were a platinum selling band that played arenas. Their singular influence was just far greater than that of the extreme music scene, even as a whole.

Guitar Tone

Dimebag had what I would call a, “good-bad” guitar tone. As a young kid, I thought his guitar tone was the coolest thing ever, and I still think it’s pretty damn amazing. It was only when I was in my first professional studio session in 1999 with uber-producer, Steve Evetts, that from an audiophile standpoint, Dimebag had a “bad” tone. The gain was jacked up to 11, the mid-range was completely scooped out, and the low end was so prominent that it didn’t leave enough room for the bass guitar. Dime also used solid-state amplifiers, which at the time were considered to be inferior to the warmth of the tube sound. While the tone was technically “bad”, Dimebag was amazing enough as a player and innovator to come up with something completely unique. He was good enough to break the sonic rules; it was more important to be distinctive than to follow the old rules.

The problem was that millions of young kids heard his tone, and did their best to emulate it with limited skills and resources. They didn’t know that Pantera put out 4 albums before Cowboys From Hell, slugging it out in clubs for years as a cover band, and the Abbott brothers grew up with their father being a record producer. Dime spent those years refining, tweaking, and perfecting this sound. Us kids just went out and bought some $200 Crate combo amp woomf-monster with a Boss Metal Zone in front thinking we were sounding like Dimebag, but we were just embarrassing ourselves and annoying local sound engineers and Guitar Center employees.

Using solid-state Randall amplifiers proved to be extremely innovative in that solid-state amps tend to have more low end, more gain, and be tighter sounding than tube amps. He took something that was viewed as an inferiority, and turned it into a virtue. This tight hi-gain crunch combined with the advent of powerful noise gates, creating absolute silence in the negative space, effectively turned the guitar into a powerful percussion instrument when palm muted low strings are played in unison with kick drum patterns. Pantera perfected this sound, and the Metal world reacted.

Vulgar Display Of Powers impact paved the way for one of my favorite producers, Colin Richardson. Like Scott Burns, Richardson cut his teeth in the world of Death Metal and Grindcore producing such bands as Carcass, Brutal Truth, Bolt Thower, and Napalm Death in the early 90’s. There are 2 Colin Richardson produced albums that were game changers in their own right, but also drew a giant nod from Pantera, with respect to production in drum and guitar sound: Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes (1994) and Fear Factory’s Demanufacture (1995).

Machine Head and Fear Factory were innovators on their own, but the scooped out, mega-gain crunch and click/attack oriented kick drums perfected by Pantera had become a deadly and sought after sonic combo. I know for a fact that Machine Head (Peavey 5150) and Fear Factory (hot rodded Marshall) both used tube amplifiers and the methodology to attain the drum sound had turned to triggering and drum sampling, but the bar set by Pantera was still the gold standard even if the tools had evolved. Both of those albums because instant classics, and Colin Richardson became one of the most sought after producers in heavy music.

Not too long after, Richardson protégé, Andy Sneap made a name for himself utilizing a similar production style producing and mixing Metal heavyweights like Stuck Mojo, Machine Head, Arch Enemy, Trivium, Nevermore, Exodus and many more. You could argue that Andy Sneap and Colin Richardson defined the sound of Metal for 15 years. Almost every band of note and that had an adequate budget would try to get one of them to at least mix their album. Even my old band, God Forbid, got Colin Richardson to mix our 2004 release, Gone Forever. I have to say, he did an unbelievable job.

The time between 1994-2004 was somewhat of a golden era for Metal production in my opinion. The record industry had not yet collapsed, and there were still big budgets. Bands were still recording on tape, and there were still a wide variety of production styles present in heavy music. As Richardson and Sneap were flourishing, Terry Date’s productions all sounded different from each other, and you had Ross Robinson creating an entirely new raw and dirty approach to heavy music with Korn and Slipknot, and even Swedish producers like Fredrik Nordström and Daniel Bergstrand carving their own brilliant path with bands like In Flames, At The Gates, and Meshuggah.

Andy Sneap

Terry Date

Ross Robinson

Fredrik Nordström

Daniel Bergstrand

So, if everything was so awesome for that period, why is the title of this piece, what about that original question: Did Pantera ruin modern Metal album production?

Because right around the mid 2000’s, a handful of circumstances coalesced that began to water down production in heavy music.

First, the dramatic impact of illegal downloading and file sharing had finally hit the Metal world. Although the mainstream, single-based record industry had been hit hard, the record sales for Metal albums was steadfast due to the loyal nature of Metal fans, but this began to wane in the mid-late 00’s. This caused labels to tighten the bootstraps on recording budgets, making it more difficult for bands to be able to afford the Colin Richardsons and Andy Sneaps of the world. This also made it more difficult just to be able to put bands in bigger studios, for longer periods of time, giving them the leeway to experiment or possibly track to tape, if they wanted.

Secondly, the emergence of cheaper and higher quality digital recording equipment and software allowed musicians to side step the traditional studio system, and produce records on their own. Amazing programs like EZDrummer and Superior Drummer made by Toontrack meant bands didn’t have to go spend a boatload of money recording real drums.

Thirdly, and although this is difficult to prove, I believe that Metal bands began to become less creative in how they wanted their albums to be presented. Instead of wanted to sound like themselves, they would go to a specific producer and ask them to make them sound like another band the producer had worked with. All the Metalcore bands wanted to sound like Killswitch Engage or As I Lay Dying. All of the Deathcore bands wanted to sound like Whitechapel or Black Dahlia Murder.

This is a mashup someone did of Caliban and As I Lay Dying.

I’m not putting this here to call out Caliban or anyone, but as a matter of fact, Andy Sneap mixed both As I Lay Dying’s Shadows And Security and Caliban’s The Undying Darkness. I love and respect Andy Sneap’s work, but I think this evidence just shows that we had arrived at a saturation point. I’m sure if you go back to any big, trendy style of music, you will find uniformity in production whether it was Disco, Hair Metal, or Dubstep. This is not unique to Metal, but I feel this trend ramped up into the 2010’s.

At this juncture, I could insert a few YouTube links to bands and records that I think are emblematic of where we are at, or at least how things have evolved with regard to Metal production. But the truth is even those bands and producers bust their ass to make those albums, and I couldn’t do what they do. I’m not here to point fingers. But I have grown tired of perfect sounding, quantized, sterile, over compressed Metal albums with tones that don’t sound like the way those collection instruments actually sound in a room without massive manipulation.

My overall point is that what once was a unique and singular sonic vision by a band called Pantera became in many ways, the default sound for Metal. Kick drums are click-y. The guitars are scooped out and have buzz saw crunch. The bass guitar just gets buried or has to find a place in higher registers. (I could write an entire article on how Phil Anselmo is most influential heavy singer of the last 20 years.) So many people are using the same software and plugins, the same amp modelers, the same drum samples. We have to make an effort to make records that have character. I applaud bands like Mastodon and In Flames for deciding to make different sounding albums from their peers and the status quo.

Did Pantera ruin modern Metal album production? Blaming them would be like blaming the person who invented boats for slavery, but it sure was fun to follow the trail of crumbs to try and figure out how we got here.

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Doc Coyle

Ex God Forbid guitar player. Songwriter. Blogger. Know-It-All. Non-conformist. NY Knicks fan. Coffee enthusiast. Agnostic.