Andy Sneap interview for wickedworldrecords.com
As an important part of past extreme Metal history here in the UK and now a major cog in the wheel of the modern Metal scene, Andy Sneap has already seen and done a lot in a career that began in the obscurities of the mid-80's Metal underground and ended up with his production style being highly sought after by Metal bands from across the globe. It's Sneap's amazingly clear ear for sound that has begun to define much of what is good about the current Metal scene (Machine Head, Arch Enemy, Killswitch Engage) and has also managed to revive acts that hadn't cut it for years, as his work on the last Exodus album demonstrates.
The main reason for this can be attributed to the fact that Sneap loves Metal. He LOVES Metal. That shines through in his production work just as it shone through his playing on Sabbat's uniquely bizarre 'History of a Time to Come' and 'Dreamweaver' albums.
Here Andy explains how he managed to switch sides from in front to behind the mixing desk successfully, and his thoughts and opinions on all things Metal.

So where does this passion for music come from? Did you come from a musical family, was it something that evolved naturally or did you become more musically aware as you got older?

I don't know really. There's certainly no musical talent within my family, some would argue that's still the case. All I remember was that I was dead set on playing football as a kid, then at the age of 11, my brother bought me a Status Quo single for Christmas. I have no idea why he bought me that single (Don't Drive My Car/Lies double A-side for those that need to know) but it made me want to play guitar. Then I bought 'If you Want Blood...' by AC/DC and just loved the energy of it. I couldn't stop listening to it.
a young Andy I started playing the next year, there was a guy in the year above me at school who used to have a guitar and had Angus painted on his jacket, so obviously- he was cool, he put me in touch with Dave Halliday who was in the Nottingham based band Hell. Basically Dave taught me to play, became a great friend and a huge inspiration.

Presuming that you're a fan of all types of music, what was it about Metal that grabbed your attention initially? What were the first bands that you discovered, and what kind of influence did they have on your subsequent progression into forming bands of your own?
I wasn't really a fan of all types of music and when I was younger I was so set on playing metal. It was the sheer volume, power and excitement of metal/rock. Especially gigs back then. I don't know whether it's just because I'm more grown up now, but didn't Saxon used to put on more of a show than any of today's current trends?
Maiden were a huge influence in their day, Derby Assembly Rooms, May 10th 1982, Beast on the Road tour, that night changed my life! As soon as I'd witnessed that I knew that's what I wanted to do. Local band Hell also, we totally ripped them off (not deliberately , just because they were that big an influence on all of us), and I actually met the other guys at one of their shows in Nottingham.

How important is retaining an open mind to all kinds of music when producing Metal bands, and what kind of elements or techniques if any have you appropriated from other genres?
Do you hear any outside influences in my productions?? mmm I definitely keep an open mind, if it's good. it's good, whatever it is, but you can have too much input if you are not careful. A band has to be focused and know where it's going, have a direction.

It might be said that the majority of the bands you work with favour a more traditional Metal approach - bands such as Exodus, Testament, Nevermore, Arch Enemy, Machine Head etc are all extremely riff based, is that a style you feel comfortably knowledgeable about?
Yeah totally, I mean look at the five bands you've just listed there, all the guitar players are total old school shredders. I love working with guitar players of that calibre, we definitely connect and can have a great time working together because we sometimes don't even have to suggest what's coming next, we know! This is probably me being narrow minded again, but the standard of musicianship in the last 10 years has really dropped, there's hardly any guitarists in the business that can compare to the talents of the Amott brothers, Jeff Loomis and Gary Holt.
Arch Enemy

Are you interested in working with more extreme bands, for example a Black Metal act, or a grindcore band? Do you see them perhaps as less musical and therefore less pliable in terms of the results you can achieve?
I've been asked by some of the biggest names in those genres of music but as much as I try, I can't get into it, and if I can't understand it then I'm probably the wrong guy for the job to be honest. I have to say I'm impressed with Dimmu's last couple of albums, kinda reminds me of old Sabbat stuff a bit and it was funny Cradle doing a Sabbat cover on the Jap version of Midian. You'd think it would be more my thing wouldn't you, but I was always more into the classic rock/metal thing. Thrash was just an extension of that for me.

Explain to the layman the different approach you take to producing an album from start to finish, and simply mixing a record. Can you achieve all you need to with a mix, or is that simply a question of tightening up certain areas? Can you get the same kind of job satisfaction working on a mix as you can with a production assignment?
By the end of a full production I'm usually dead to the world and certainly no fun to be around for a good few days afterwards.
Usually we'll spend a week in pre production, getting familiar with the songs, recording demo's, listening to what works, what doesn't. Trying arrangement, tempo and tuning ideas. Working out BPM's for the click etc.
We'll then track the drums, usually to click and guide guitar, then track guitars, always before bass, as this makes it a lot easier to fit bass tone and tuning in. You'd be amazed how flat you have to tune bass sometimes. Then we'll break solo's and vox up, so we're not trying to get everything out of the singer at the end of the session.
Mixing usually takes 14 days, I like to allow for a day a song if possible, any less and there's a few corners that get cut and that reflects on me. Your average guy in the street has no idea whether an album was mixed in 7 days or 21 days so.......
I actually quite like mixing other people's stuff, it's a bit more of a challenge sometimes, and nice when it comes together. You're not focused on something that happened during tracking, so you are able to be more objective.

Obviously you have a natural ear for sound, but does that have its disadvantages? For example, do you find yourself always listening out for areas to improve, for the not-quite-right? In no sense can any record said to be perfect, so how do you draw the line at the achievable and the things you simply cannot change?
It drives me mad, I can't listen to an album once I've finished it as I'm convinced I've messed up and my career is over. I really put my heart and soul into my work, I always have, even back in the band days. When ever I read or hear negative comments I find it really upsetting as the person making those sort of statements has no idea what's gone into making things work. I find it tough to listen to other records also because I'll find faults, it would be great to hear music as a fan again. At the end of the day, as long as the songs are great, the album has balls and punch, that's all that your 15 year old kid in Portugal who's bouncing off his bedroom wall cares about.

Looking back to your early studio work, can you remember your feelings when taking charge of the mixing desk for the first time, with the responsibility of having to deliver the goods using someone else's money.......how did that feel, obviously was it a buzz or was it a nervewracking experience?
It was nerve wracking the first time in US. Expectations are higher in US definitely. It's good having my own studio because it takes the pressure off. If I decide I'm not happy with something, and it was my call in the first place then it's not an issue to give them the time to sort it out. I work so much better when I'm not under pressure. Dead lines are a good thing though, you need to draw a line in the sand and say this is where the band were at at this moment in time. That's what an album is at the end of the day, a collection of idea's from where the band members lives were at.

Would you agree that the producer's job is much more than simply technical knowledge?
Andy In effect you're being asked to be teacher, parent and best friend all in one, in terms of having to sometimes tell people that things aren't being done right, having to show them new ways that they may be resistant to, and yet keeping the vibe in the studio positive and focused?
I find it such an easy job because I've done the band thing and that's not something you learn from school. I see it a lot, kids that spend god knows how much on going to college when they would of been better off buying a small Pro Tools rig, finding a rehearsal room and offering local bands a free demo service so they can learn how to record. If someone's being resistant to my ideas I get them fired. No actually I'll listen to their idea and see if it makes sense, but very rarely this happens. I'll get people going "can you put an effect on that" and I'll be like "well you must have some idea of what sort of effect, tell me what you hear" and that usually shuts them up. I don't mind ideas as long as they are good and worth the time chasing.

Had you played in any previous band before joining Hydra, and where you at all responsible for the name change to Sabbat shortly after you joined? Was the 'Blood for the Bloodgod' flexidisc your first 'official' release, there's some irony that your debut was made via a format that's remembered for such terrible sound quality, given your later career choice :-) ?
Where have you dug this stuff up from?? Let me shed a bit of light on things here. Martin and Frazer had this band called Hydra back in 84/85. The most impressive thing about the band was the fact that Frazer had already printed some 2 colour t shirts and he had a car! I met Frazer at a local Hell gig in Long Eaton and it turned out they were thinking of getting a second guitarist. I heard a tape (which I still have, it's priceless) of a show they did in a pub in Nottingham and decided to have a jam as I was wanting to get some experience playing, after all I was the ripe old age of 15.
Hell
Two weeks after I joined, the original guitarist quit (i think this was on the cards) and the drummer left (thankfully) after we did our first demo a couple of months later, I think due to me having ago about his girlfriend being in the studio (you see, good work ethic back then!). It was Tim Bowler (the drummer from Hell) who introduced us to Simon Negus. The name Sabbat came from a book on witchcraft, but I actually found some old school books of mine with ideas doodled on them so I'm sure I had some doing in suggesting it, but I do remember we liked the way the word looked in the scrawly type of writing so we went with it. Yeah the flexi disc for white dwarf was an odd one, John Blanche, the art editor painted our first cover so it all came about quite easy, it does sound shockingly bad though.


Sabbat were such a unique entity, Thrash with a real quirky, very British edge......what came first, the eccentric writing style or the lyrical stance? Was the intention to purposely distance yourself from the political, satanic and death-obsessed bands of the time? Can you recall much about the process of creating the 'Fragments of a Faith Forgotten' demo?
Andy Nothing was really deliberate, it just came out that way, I'd just try and write riffs that were interesting to play and Martin would write some killer lyrics and proceed to bark like a pit bull on crack, no great secret I'm afraid. It was all very naive when I think back, I'd love to do it again now and get the same kind of recognition but you can never get the passion back. We actually did the demo where the old Backstage studio used to be, on an old tascam porta one cassette 4 track. Brilliant, cost us 10 quid and we got a radio one session, two pages in Kerrang! and a deal with Noise Records.

How much did the location of the band affect its career path? Certainly Kerrang! magazine championed the band early on despite Sabbat hailing from the unfashionable Midlands - do you feel that being removed from the whole London circus helped or hindered the band in any way? Signing to a German label (Noise) seemed to give the band a grander aura back then.......
I sent the demo to all the labels my favourite bands were on, it just happened that Noise picked up on us. That was kinda fun because we got to go to Europe early on. We had to wait till I was eighteen to sign the contract! The first time we ever went to London was for our first Kerrang! interview, they found it quite amusing the fact we'd never seen a tube train before. I used to, and still to some extent dislike that whole London vibe where everyone is in each others pockets, that's nothing against the people involved, just the way business conducts itself sometimes. It can be very closed shop.

How big a part did the grandoise nature of bands like Celtic Frost have on Sabbat? What were the bands from the contemporary early Thrash scene that had the most influence on Sabbat's music, and did you feel any affinity to the more progressively minded acts like say Voivod, Nasty Savage, Venom etc, bands that made a real attempt to be different?
Martin and Frazer were really into Venom, I was really into Mercyful Fate and Slayer. I remember the day we recorded 'Fragments...', Frazer had that Venom, Exodus and Slayer video from New York and we decided that's totally what we wanted to be doing. Funny thinking that I have those guys asking me to produce them now. Celtic Frost, yeah definitely an influence. 'Cold Lake'.....huge influence.

Venom

In the same way, can you pinpoint bands that made an influence on your production, or rather the way you approached the possibilities and options open to a producer, thinking of the innovations that for example Bob Rock brought to Metallica, Terry Date's work with Pantera, Colin Richardson's relationship with Carcass etc?
I've always been about clarity and power and all three of those guys get the same. I used to like John Cunniberti's work also, it was funny actually, I spoke with John when I was out in San Francisco this last time doing Exodus and we were laughing at the fact that English bands used to fly him to the UK to do Thrash albums now US bands are flying me to America. Bob Rocks still the man in my book though, doesn't matter what you think of St Anger I think the guys a genius.

After leaving Sabbat and then later still disbanding Godsend, was studio work always in your mind as a possible career option? Do you prefer the singular nature of being a producer, rather than the more potentially volatile relationships found within a band?
Yeah, I was so fed up with the constant battle of ego's after Sabbat. I put so much into that band on a business and personal level for over six years and got nothing back, I really gave it everything, so it was time to move on, try something new. I tried the band thing again with Godsend but when you've got to a certain level and have to deal with guys who haven't been there it's difficult. It's a shame because the guys in Godsend were a damn sight easier to get along with, but I wasn't prepared to do everything all on my own again. So when the production thing began to take off I went with it.

What was your big break in getting your foot in the door for producing work? Did you take any courses in studio engineering etc before deciding on it as a career, or where you able to apply your practical experience from being in bands as a springboard?
No, I lied quite convincingly, telling people I knew I could do this and that, though I'd had more experience than most by doing demo's and albums etc. I bought my own little set up and just learnt from there, then started doing some live sound, getting to know the basics.
I went out on the Cults last European tour in 94 doing front of house for the support band Mother Tongue, which was good experience and then did some engineering for Colin Richardson which led to me working with Machine Head. I had my own small studio going pretty well by this time also. That was probably the biggest break as it got me to America to work.

Andy...drunk When recording the Sabbat albums did you have any interest in the way the production was handled, or were all your efforts concentrated on the playing side? Can you compare the advances in recording technology made from, for example, the time recording 'History of a Time to Come' in Hannover in 1987, with working on the latest Killswitch Engage album in 2004?
I always loved being in the studio, it's great hearing it all come together and I still get that buzz hearing it all sound good, clear and tight. Recording has totally changed since 87, I can't begin to explain. You can cheat so much more now than you ever could back then, but it also makes for being more creative in the studio. I remember the History recordings with a lot of fond memories, it was a good time, probably one of the most enjoyable from the Sabbat days. Again, probably because I'd never recorded an album before, it was a dream come true for me.

Do you ever catch yourself in awe of the people you are working with, sometimes it must be hard not to act like a fan rather than the man in charge of the production? Generally do you find bands receptive to technical studio advancements or are some reluctant to deviate from that they know has worked for them in the past - how much of achieving a good production is basically doing the simple things well?
No not really, I find it refreshing to find these guys are still down to earth, to be honest. I gave Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith a lift to their hotel a few years ago, and we sat outside and just talked about metal and what was going on with music in the US. I couldn't shut them up actually. It was cool that people who I once looked up to, valued and agreed with my opinion. Same as with the Testament and Exodus guys, we were all playing around the same time back in the Eighties but it's nice that we're such good friends now. No ego's, we just all have a common love of all things Metal. Its all down to doing the simple things well, and thats why a lot of the older guys are better because you had to be able to play in their day.

How much pre-preparation do you allow yourself before entering the studio? Do you go as far as attending band rehearsals, pre-demoing material? And how far do you extend your advice to bands in terms of arrangements, or do you purely keep your involvement to the sound......for example someone like Bob Rock is known as the 'fifth member of Metallica' due to his heavy involvement with the structure of the tunes.
See question earlier.

Chuck Billy For you, what are the most important parts of a record to get right, do you always aim to make sure that the guitars are to the fore, or is it more important that the vocals have clarity and distinction? What areas are the easiest to 'tighten up' with studio techniques, for example double tracking (or more) the vocals can do wonders for making an average vocal performance sound more convincing?
I always say if your drummers crap then you are really screwed. It's the backbone for everything. You can cheat now, but I know of some cheating on very famous thrash albums from back in the day but I'm not going to tell you which. I'm actually not a huge fan of double tracked vocals, I think it takes the personality out of the voice. Chuck doubles everything, I remember suggesting to him we keep a bit single tracked, needless to say the 6'7" Red Indian got his way, I'm not one to argue....see I went with the artists wishes there ( for my own health and safety I hasten to add)

In any way do you feel that technology has somewhat sterilised the nature of music these days? There is an argument to say that Exodus' 'Bonded By Blood' has more charm and individuality about it than 'Tempo of the Damned' in terms of the simplicity of that recording and probably a less critical analysis of every aspect of the sound. Is it possible to 'over-produce' a record by trying too hard to achieve sonic perfection?
Yes it is possible, we tried to find the middle ground with 'Tempo...' and still did some old school stuff like just two guitar tracks rather than four, and using Gary's old moded Marshalls. I'm sure if we'd done an album that sounded identical to 'Bonded...' now, the band and myself wouldn't have been happy. I wanted to capture everything I used to love about Exodus and give it a nudge into the new millennium and I think we did that.

I guess you find it pretty hard to listen to music impartially these days, has being involved so minutely in the mechanics of constructing albums lessend the ability of music to take you buy surprise these days?
I'm listening to music all day , nearly everyday so something has to be really good or different for me to like it. I enjoy stuff that's well produced of course, that makes an album for me.

Are you ever afraid that bands will pause before you using you as the 'Andy Sneap sound' becomes ever more common and ever more sought after? Over-familiarity did for producers like Tomas Skogsberg, Scott Burns and to an extent Colin Richardson. Do you even consider that you have an easily recognisable sound?
Scott Burns Scott retired, he went into computer programming from what I understand. I get that already, some people don't like what I do but that's ok, it would be boring if everyone was after the same thing. I just mix how I hear things, it's personal taste and that's what gives a producer his sound. The thing is, you have to keep working, because the music business is so fickle you have to be seen as "in" to keep the work coming in. I've seen a few people recently say "the Andy Sneap sound" haha, that's a good and bad thing I guess, but it seems to be a more positive thing. At the end of the day, if people get tired of what I do thats nothing I can change. I just try and do as good a job as I possibly can for the situation/budget thats available.

All things being equal, and history aside, would you be tempted to re-record or tamper with the old Sabbat albums using modern recording and mixing techniques? It might be interesting to apply the knowledge and experience you have know to material constructed in more innocent times.
I wanted to do this with 'Dreamweaver' but they can't find the multi tracks. I really didn't want them to just job it out as a re-issue with extra spelling mistakes like they did with 'History...', so I got onto them and suggested remixing it, because I wasn't happy with the sound of that album. Nothing has appeared in the mail to date. We'd have to bake the multi tracks now I guess, we found some Exodus demo's at Prairie Sun Studios when we were tracking the drums, because of the way the tape sheds the oxide we popped it in the oven for an afternoon so the 2" would play without slipping.

Putting your reputation on the line, can you name the one album produced by Andy Sneap that for you captures best the production standards you set yourself? In addition, as an exercise in vanity select one album from the past that you'd like to have been behind the desk for.....
I can't because I'm never 100% happy when I've finished, and I won't listen to albums for a long time after I've done them. It's my way of saying that's it....done. If I don't I drive myself mad analysing things. I'm not as bad as I used to be, I guess I'm getting more confident in my work.....about time eh?
The new Killswitch Engage has come out pretty rockin', I think I can listen to that now so that's a good sign.An album I would have liked to have done.....the new Priest would have been nice but Z got to it! Good for him.

Roy Z
Interview conducted
by Dan Tobin