Interview: Dan Swanö of Unisound

Incantation’s Vanquish in Vengeance was one of my favorite albums of 2012. Not only is it a strong record musically, but it also sounds great. Dan Swanö’s “mixtering” in my eyes, played a vital role in articulating Incantation’s trademark sound scape and made a strong release even better. But with Dan at the helm, this should come as no surprise to anyone! He is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist who has been part of a number of legendary bands like Katatonia, Bloodbath, and Nightingale to name just a few, and the musical mastermind behind the critically acclaimed Edge of Sanity project. He has also been a guest musician and vocalist for a multitude of amazing records including Dave’s album of the year, Bilocate’s Summoning the Bygones. You probably already knew all that, and if you didn’t, shame on you!

But did you know that Dan is also founder/owner of Unisound where he produces some of the best sounding metal records on the planet? We checked in with Dan to talk a little about the new Incantation record, the art of “mixtering,” and past and future projects.

MFi: Unisound mixes and masters hundreds of bands. How do you get involved in each one? Do they normally come to you with a sound profile that are trying to achieve or do they rely on your expertise both as a mastering engineer and musician?

Dan: Most bands get in touch with me through the Unisound website. Of course I have an amazing amount of returning customers and they have had my email since way back in time!

I always ask for a reference record, since the definition of a “fat sound” can vary a lot. Some bands ask me to go on my own vibes, but I seldom do that any more, since there’s been too many “It sounds excellent, but it’s not what we’re after…” etc. and s few days are completely lost!

MFi: Do you believe being an accomplished metal musician yourself gives you a better handle on what the final product should sound like?

Dan: Absolutely. I know what metal should sound like, and I can also be very specific in sound-details from the various sub genres like Seven Churches delay, Leprosy snare, Left Hand Path guitars, etc.

MFi: How did you get involved with Incantation to master/mix (“mixtering”) their 9th full length, Vanquish in Vengeance?

Dan: I did some mix and mastering work for John’s record label, and then I got involved in mixing some live stuff for Incantation for a movie, and then I mixed their side project Funerus, and then they asked me to do the Incantation full-length album, and of course I agreed!

MFi: Incantation has a certain signature aural trademark, how do you capture that in the mix? Do you listen to prior records as sort of a reference sheet or do you have your own vision for the project?

Dan: There was a bit of trail and error before we agreed on a sound scape. John wanted the guitar sound from one of their previous albums, and I nailed that pretty quick. The drums took a bit longer, but in the end everyone was happy!

MFi: I notice on a lot of modern death metal masters, bass guitar typically gets overwhelmed in a mix, but on Vanquish, Sherwood’s bass really shines. Is this a factor of the way you mix or the way the bass tracks were recorded?

Dan: His sound was pretty hard to get to the front, because it was recorded pretty dull. I had to do a lot post-processing in order to get it to sound natural in the mix. It’s all about how you, as a listener “get” the sound and most of the time, what sounds cool “solo’ed” is not heard through the wall of guitars and bass drums. So you have to be pretty mean to get a fingered bass to be heard on a metal record.

MFi: What in your eyes, are the most important aspects of mixing and mastering a metal record like Vanquish? Are there aspects of recording and mastering metal that are different than other genres of music?

Dan: The most important thing for me is that the band is 100% happy with the outcome. I am more like a handy-man. I have my skills and my toolbox. What I shall “build” is up to the band. I need my drums recorded with a massive attention to detail. As much as possible mic’ed up with as little spill as possible, close to the source. Drummers hit the cymbals pretty loose when they play fast, or complicated stuff, and then I need to add the signal from the close-miked stuff with automation etc. etc. In normal rock the drummer just lay the beat, and most likely hits those drums hard all the time.

I remember that a friend of mine, Jens Bogren, once asked a very famous Swedish engineer how he’d deal with the spill from the hi-hat into the snare, and he just looked at him like he was crazy, like “what spill?” But I guess, when you work with drums that play with a closed hi-hat and bang the shit out of the snare, that is never a problem. If you asked this engineer to mix a blast beat driven death metal album, I think he’d get what Jens meant!

MFi: Dan, you list the TT Meter as a software tool that you use in the studio, so I have to ask, what do you think of the “Loudness Wars” and the increased usage of extreme levels of dynamic range compression?

Dan: Yeah. I have made some of the loudest, undistorted mixes in the universe, but that was before I had anything like the TT meter to go by. In the old times I just cranked the stuff, and when I heard distortion, I dealt with it – when I didn’t hear it, it wasn’t there! These days I try to keep around -6 dB RMS dynamics. I plan to mix some of my own records with a lot more headroom for the CD, and include a pre-encoded MP3 320k version with -6 dB RMS for iPods etc. on the CD as ROM.

MFi: A dynamic range of -6 dB RMS is quite brickwalled by most standards. I mean with that level of compression, getting highs to really shine must be somewhat challenging. Do you feel you need to keep it that low to satisfy customers who generally feel louder is better or do you believe that is the minimum threshold you can achieve a high quality product? As you stated, it seems strange that we have all of these wonderful tools in the digital age and the majority of mastering engineers choose to distort, rather than enhance the final product.

Dan: I am not saying that all my mixes are -6 dB RMS. Some bands actually request more dynamics and are aware of the fact that they might have to use the volume control on their Hi-Fi or whatever, to actually be at level with some other records of today. If I get a reference track mixed at -8 dB RMS, then my mix will be -8, because there is no way to emulate another sound if it’s got to be louder. But still, most of the time, after delivering a -8 mix, the band ask gently “Can the CD please be a bit louder?” and of course it can, and if they don’t value or understand the dynamics I have given them, and rather have a few dB less dynamics, and be on level with the loudest stuff out there, then so be it. It is their choice, not mine. So these days I actually make sure the mix sounds awesome at -6 and if they want more dynamics, it’s only gonna sound even better the more I back off. Barren Earth is actually one of those bands where I delivered 2 different masters. One good and one loud, and they used the good one! Well done guys!

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