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Metallica producer Flemming Rasmussen visits Rock Hall, teaches master class

I always pored over album liner notes as a teen (still do), even when the technical details were compacted into squinty-eyed fine print inside the cassette J-cards of the ‘80s. When I first scanned the name of Metallica’s producer—Flemming Rasmussen—amongst the credits for one of the metal mavens’ celebrated albums, I suppose I pegged him as an eccentric,bearded elderly aural guru. There was no accompanying photo after all, and given the nature of Metallica’s cudgel-heavy, piston-pumping music (and perhaps how much Rasmussen phonetically reminded me of Rasputin), I leaped to fanciful conclusions. Such is metal.

Noted Metallica producer Flemming Rasmussen toured the Rock Hall in Cleveland and reviewed old Sweet Silence Studios logbooks with staff.
Ron Claus on behalf of LC Media, LLC
Flemming Rasmussen won a Grammy for his work on 1988's And Justice for All
Elektra Records

But Rasmussen was never eccentric—and was barely older than James Hetfield and the boys (early 20s) when he met the San Francisco bay bashers some thirty years ago. Today, the baby-faced, bespectacled Flemming (now in his 50s) hardly resembles the warlockian studio sage conjured by our hyperactive pubescent imagination. But when it comes to technical savvy, behind-the-board brains, and musical mentorship, the Danish producer is a veritable Yoda.

To those not hip to Rasmussen’s resume, he’s the fellow responsible for making Metallica’s best albums sound like they do. Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All introduced Hetfield’s now legendary dry, crunchy right-hand riffs to the world and gradually widened the quartet’s audience around the world. By the end of the ‘80s, they not only ascended into the hallowed halls of heavy metal Elysium; they kicked opened the gates for everyone else, too. Thanks to Metallica's Rasmussen-annointed efforts, bands like Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax enjoyed huge upticks in popularity. Metallica themselves were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2009.

Remember “Creeping Death,” “Fade to Black,” “Escape” and “Trapped Under Ice?” Flemming recorded those. How about “Battery,” “Disposable Heroes,” and “Sanitarium?” Rasmussen captured those Puppets anthems for posterity. “Blackened,” “Frayed Ends of Sanity,” and “Harvester of Sorrow” were likewise tracked under his benevolent supervision. Rasmussen won a Grammy for his work on the Dalton Trumbo-inspired “One,” the staccato-fast antiwar head-banger that saw Metallica shoot its first music video.

But Rasmussen had been employed at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen for several years prior to (literally) bottling Metallica’s lightning. He became co-owner of the studio with founder Freddy Hanson in 1980 and recorded Rainbow’s Difficult to Cure album a year later. The pristine sound of that LP turned drummer Lars Ulrich’s head; his tennis playing socialite father put him in touch with Sweet Silence. The rest, as they say, is history.

Flemming took over as sole proprietor of Sweet Silence in 1999 but closed the facilities (now demolished) a decade later and relocated. His work continues.

The Jedi Knight of Heavy Metal Know-How made a rare visit to Ohio last week, dropping by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on March 27th to chat with Director of Education Dr. Jason Hanley—and present staffers with some rare Metallica photos and memorabilia. Rasmussen also toured the Hall of Fame’s off-campus Library and Archives at Cuyahoga Community College on Woodland Avenue, rubbed elbows with local producers like Dave Piatek (who adjuncts at the Tri-C location’s Recording Arts department).

From there Rasmussen headed south, to Capital University in Bexley (outside Columbus) for a keynote address to students and curious onlookers at the school’s 2014 Music Technology Workshop. Funded by the Jim and Carol Davis Conservatory of Music Guest Artist Series, the free (with reservation) day-long program saw industry veterans mingling with and imparting knowledge to eager pupils in Capital’s Music Tech program. Marquee speaker Rasmussen followed up his chat with a pair of “master classes” with several lucky participants.

But Flemming also made time for youngsters. Earlier in the day, the producer swung by Hilliard City Schools’ McVey Innovative Learning Center for a private session with local high school students—many of whom were glad to waive Spring Break status for an opportunity to tutor with the titan. Rasmussen listened to the kids’ “rock band” demo songs, then guided the musicians and would-be engineers through a hands-on recording and mixing phase. Many of the young singers and guitarists were amazed when Flemming pointed out the imperfections and nuances they hadn’t noticed, and thrilled as he walked them through a rigorous equalization process.

“Our students and young alumni at Capital University had an amazing experience attending the master classes,” said Nichole Johnson, Capital’s Director of Media Relations and Publicity.

Johnson—who checked in with us via email—described Flemming’s visit as a sort of "School of Rock" experience: “The students were completely blown away when Rasmussen started working on the recording they had just finished.”

We weren’t able to rendezvous with Rasmussen or make the trek to Columbus, but we caught up with Flemming via email prior to his Cleveland stop. We queried the Architect of Aural Awesome about the old days with Metallica. Some of his responses were telling. Elsewhere, he remained diplomatically tight-lipped. We’d like to thank Lisa Claus of LC Media, LLC for facilitating our friendly Q&A.

PETE ROCHE: Your relationship with Sweet Silence Studios began in 1976. Back in the pre-internet days, how would British band like Rainbow learn about a Danish studio and venture there to record?

FLEMMING RASMUSSEN: Rainbow was on tour, and had a day off in Copenhagen. They asked their promoter to find a good studio, and he chose Sweet Silence Studios. They needed to record an instrumental B-side to the single "All Night Long,” which in the end was called "Weissheim."

PETE: What was it like working with Ritchie Blackmore and Joe Lynn Turner on “Difficult to Cure?” Were they receptive to your guidance?

FLEMMING: Yes and no. I had a big say in the sound, as the reason they chose Sweet Silence was the fact that Ritchie loved my guitar sound. But, all musical guidance was done by the producer, Roger Glover.

PETE: How’d Metallica hook up with you for Ride the Lightning? I know Lars is Danish; had you two known each other before, or was he familiar with your previous work?

FLEMMING: They were familiar with my work. Actually, the reason they chose Sweet Silence was because they wanted a good studio, with a good in-house engineer, and they loved the sound of the Rainbow album :-)

PETE: “Fade to Black” never gets old. Your Metallica album triumvirate is classic, but that tune is one of several golden cuts. Any memories of laying tracks on that one? It was James’ first real foray into “singing” a ballad-type piece as opposed to the snarl he developed on [Metallica debut album] Kill ‘em All snarl, no? Was he reluctant / eager to take that approach?

FLEMMING: No comments. What happens in the studio, stays in the studio :-)

PETE: What kind of guitars and amps were used, and how were they mic’d up?

FLEMMING: Well, big problem. James liked the sound he had on Kill ‘em All, but the amp he played on that album was a modified Marshall, and nobody knew what modifications were made. So I got hold of almost every Marshall amp in Denmark, and we tried about 10 amps, with 10 different cabs, before we got a sound we liked. I close-miked 2 cabs with Shure SM-57 or SM-7's and also close-miked with AKG GoldTube's, And then in an angle of 45 degrees, from the edge of the cab to approx 10 feet away, I put up Brüel & Kjaer 4006's. These were all mixed to two tracks.

PETE: How about Master of Puppets? Metallica came back to you following the success of Lightning. How much had they written before entering the studio for the follow-up? Was there any palpable pressure on you and the band to surpass what you’d already done?

FLEMMING: Metallica has always made great demos and rehearsed intensely before going into the studio. So, all songs and arrangements were ready when we started to record. The atmosphere on that recording was very cheerful, and in good spirit, and we just did our best to make the record, the best we'd ever done. Hard work, with a common goal.

PETE: Puppets had another “Call of Cthulu”-like instrumental opus with “Orion.” Can you talk a little about how James arranged that, and how you captured it?

FLEMMING: I'm not sure, but isn't “Orion” a Cliff Burton song? I remember it was a Cliff favorite.

PETE: Any fond memories of Cliff? By all accounts he was a great soul, a charismatic player. Was he easy to record?

FLEMMING: Lot of fond memories. He was a fantastic person, and is surely missed.

PETE: How’d things change behind the console on …And Justice for All, what with Metallica’s decision to go with long-format songs on the entire disc? Did you encourage (or perhaps discourage) doing a full LP of 6-plus minute tracks? Not that I minded; I’m used to listening to 20-minute tunes by Yes!

FLEMMING: No again, all songs were composed and arranged by the time I got on the project.

PETE: Again, another instrumental epic (with a spoken verse) on Justice with “To Live Is To Die.” I’d read somewhere that the piece was en homage to Cliff. Can you reflect on the guys’ mental health while recording Justice, coming off such a loss?

FLEMMING: Yes that was a homage to Cliff, and we went all in to make Cliff proud. By the time we recorded this, they were missing Cliff, but had gotten on with project Metallica. This was another instrumental Cliff co-wrote, as with “Orion.”

PETE: Even by James’ guitar-tone standards, Justice sounds drier, crisper to the ear. What kind of changes (assuming there were any) transpired with his gear, and your processing of it on tape? Is there a “secret” to Hetfield’s trademark tone, which can be traced to the three LPs you did?

FLEMMING: Yes, but I'm keeping that to myself :-)

PETE: What kind of changes were there for you when miking acoustic guitars for songs like “Fight Fire With Fire,” “Fade to Black,” “Battery,” “To Live is To Die,” etc) as opposed to the full-on ESPs, etc?

FLEMMING: Two different setups. Can’t compare.

PETE: Did Kirk [Hammet, lead guitarist] usually just come in later to track his solos and leads (if any not already done by James)?

FLEMMING: Yes, Kirk came in after we'd done the rhythm guitars to do his solos, and always with me and Lars.

PETE: Are you at liberty to confirm or deny the decades-long rumors that [former bassist] Jason Newsted’s input was limited (beyond writing “Blackened”) on …Justice, or that his bass was suppressed in the mix? Others have argued that his bass IS there, but is dynamically similar to James’ guitars and is so in-synch with them as to be subsumed. Regardless, I love that album.

FLEMMING: I have no clue what the dynamics in the band were, as I was only with them in the studio. But in the studio I saw him as a full member of the band, and the bass is there, just not that prominent.

PETE: Was Lars as confident drummer back then? Any challenges miking his kit over the years?

FLEMMING: Lars was always very confident, but got better and better from album to album. Miking was pretty much the same on all albums.

PETE: Given how young Metallica were in the ‘80s, were they well-behaved young men who set to the task at hand, or did they get unruly at times, late nights, partying, etc?

FLEMMING: No comment!!

PETE: Any truth to the story that Evile sent their proposition for Enter the Grave to you in jest, not thinking you’d actually respond?

FLEMMING: Yes, I think that is true.

PETE: Can you explain to U.S. readers who [Copenhagen band] Sort Sol are / were, given that your work on the 1993 disc Glamourpuss was a highlight for you all?

FLEMMING: The album was a revival for the band and as I recorded their first album in 1977—a punk album under the name of Sods. It was coming back to the basic good songwriting and powerful music!

PETE: What were some of the challenges of transitioning from analog / tape-based technology to digital /pro-tools and PC-based recording in the ‘90s and ‘00s?

FLEMMING: Lots. First you had to learn and understand a new medium, and then you suddenly had all these options, and opportunities.

PETE: What are the advantages of working digitally from start to finish?

FLEMMING: The ease of the workflow.

PETE: To your ear, is one “better?”

FLEMMING: Basictrack (Drums, Bass, rhythm Guitars) on analog, transfer to ProTools and edit and mix from ProTools.

PETE: Does any of the original Sweet Silence location still exist in Copenhagen?

FLEMMING: Yes, part of the first Sweet Silence is apartments today. Control room is torn down. Sweet Silence 2 is torn down :-(

PETE: While interviewing [Madonna guitarist and metal songwriter] Monte Pittman about his new album, The Power of Three, he said you had leftover tape from some Metallica sessions, and let him use some of the same mics. Was he putting me on, or is that true?

FLEMMING: No, that's all true. I have a safety copy of Ride the Lightning on 1/4" tape, and most mics are the same!

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