One of the great big mysteries of …And Justice For All was why the bass mix was so low, or perhaps even non-existent. For years, the rumors were it was either done in tribute to their fallen bassist, Cliff Burton, or as some sort of frat-like initiation for new bassist Jason Newsted. But now, we have a clearer picture.
Ultimate-Guitar.com recently conducted an interview with sound engineer Steve Thompson who has worked on a lot of big records including this landmark Metallica release. When asked about the lack of bass guitar on the album, Thompson points the figure at Lars Ulrich as the reason why the music sounds the way it does:
When you mixed the tracks for Metallica's "…And Justice For All" album in 1988, was that a totally different experience than working on the "Appetite For Destruction" record?
Well, what I wanted to do and what Lars wanted to do was totally different, which kind of upset me a little bit. I loved Metallica and was very familiar with them. I said, "These guys are cool." We got the call to do it and went up to Bearsville Studios in upstate New York and the guys were on the Monsters of Rock Tour at the time. So what they would do is fly in by helicopter, a day here and a day there just to go through things.
Did the band know what kind of album they wanted to make and what they wanted it to sound like?
Lars knew exactly the sound and the parameters of everything he wanted on his drums. So he would actually bring his photos of a Klark Teknik's EQ [parametric equalizer] setup because he had a certain way he wanted the drums to sound. I said, "Michael [Barbiero], why don't you work with Lars and get the drum sound he's looking for? Call me when he's happy."
What did you think when you finally heard them?
They called me in and I listened to them and I said to myself, "These sound like a-s. Terrible sounding." I chased everybody out of the room and redesigned the drum sound and brought the guitars up. Jason [Newsted] killed it on bass. Perfect marriage with Hetfield's guitars.
Tell me about some of the gear you used with Metallica?
We mixed the album at Bearsville Studios in New York. The console was an SSL G Series with Ultimation. We used Neve EQs; Pultec EQP and MEQs; AMS delays and reverbs; and we used Lexicon on drums. All the Pultec LA2A and LA3As. Mixdown was definitely 48-tracks so there were two Studer multi-track machines and quite possibly they were A800 machines. We used a Studer A80 1" for mixdown at 30ips. When Lars recorded the drums, he used a Clark Tekniks EQ parametric.
Was James happy with what you were doing?
I'm putting all the other stuff up and everything like this and Hetfield gives a thumbs up. Lars comes walking in a couple minutes later and listens to about a minute of it and goes, "Turn that off" and I said, "What's the problem?" He said, "What happened to my drum sound?" I said, "You were serious?" or something like that.
Lars was not happy?
We had to get the drum sound up the way he had it. I wasn't a fan of it. So now he goes, "See the bass guitar?" and I said, "Yeah, great part, man. He killed it." He said, "I want you to bring down the bass where you can barely, audibly hear it in the mix." I said, "You're kidding. Right?"
He wasn't kidding?
He said, "No. Bring it down." I bring it down to that level and he says, "Now drop it down another 5 db." I turned around and looked at Hetfield and said, "He's serious?" It just blew me away.
What did you do?
I called my manager that night and I think I talked to Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch[Metallica's managers] and said, "I love these guys. I think they're amazing and they've created a genre of their own but I do not agree with the direction Lars is pulling me in. My name's gonna go on it so why don't you find somebody else?" My manager wouldn't have anything to do with that or Burnstein or Mensch.
But you were ready to walk away from mixing Metallica?
They talked me into being there and my only regret is that we didn't have enough time to at least mix it the way we heard it. I wanted to take "Master of Puppets" and blow that away. That was my sonic direction for "… And Justice For All." It was all there but I think they were looking for more garagey-type sound without bass. And the bass was great; it was perfect. I remember when Metallica got elected to the Hall of Fame, they flew us out and I'm sitting with Lars.
Did you talk to him?
He goes, "Hey, what happened to the bass in "… Justice?" He actually asked me that. I wanted to cold cock him right there. It was a shame because I'm the one getting the sh-t for the lack of bass.
It's hard not to believe him here when Metallica did produce St. Anger. I would have loved to hear the album with some bass in it. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is by user-generated remixes:
Speaking of …And Justice For All, we recently published a great piece looking at the landmark artwork of the album, which you can read here.