Sterling Winfield is angry. Not from the years of hanging around with Pantera as their engineer, producer and tour tech. Not because Dimebag is gone. It’s the haunting feeling that the way Dime and the band did things is dying.
He has plenty of evidence to back this up. From his days as an engineer at Dallas Sound Lab in the early ‘90s through his work with Pantera on the Grammy-nominated albums Reinventing The Steeland Far Beyond Driven, Sterling had a front row seat to the way metal albums used to be recorded.
Today Winfield works primarily from his own studio, Boot Hill, with a broad spectrum of artists, including hip-hop, R&B, country, blues, choral, jazz and orchestral. Among his recent projects, he produced and engineered metal band Texas Hippie Coalition’s latest release, Dark Side Of Black, produced and mixed Canadian hard rock band A Rebel Few’s new album, As The Crow Flies.
He also collaborated with Erykah Badu on the track “Maiysha,” her contribution to Robert Glasper’s Miles Davis tribute album, Everything’s Beautiful. So his perspective isn’t exactly that of a “metal guy” insulated from the rest of the recording world.
While he was co-producing War Paint, his seventh album with progressive rock band Vangough, I had a chance to dive in with him on the metal world’s dangerous creep into DAW massaging and the way things used to be.
You once said, only half-joking, that the three trends in metal production were “1. Laziness 2. Pro Tools 3. Laziness.” When did this become the way of the metal world?
I wasn’t kidding at all. First, let me stress that this is nothing new. I remember when console automation was still considered “cheating.” As technology advances, so do our needs and wants, and the world bends toward whatever they’re handed.
I’m as guilty as anyone else of crossing that line and abusing technology. The difference is that I want to offer some solutions instead of just bitching about it.
So yes, I see “Laziness and Pro Tools and laziness.” A lot of projects are still recorded without digital audio workstations. The guys jam and there’s no editing. But I see a lot of cut and paste in the metal world. It’s really sad. It’s homogenizing the music.
There are a lot of situations where engineers and producers are making the music for well-known bands. Put together some of the things in metal that have the same sonic and songwriting qualities, and chances are they’ve been produced by the same person. The band may have three riffs, and the producer turns that into an album as the main writing force behind the whole thing.
We think of metal as the antithesis of programmed, pristine recordings. If it’s cut and pasted, how is it different from the fabricated pop music that metal fans despise?
You just nailed it. It has splintered off into too many subgenres to count, so it was bound to happen.
It has become what it was rebelling against. Extreme? Yes. Rebellious? Don’t make me laugh! I could name three-dozen bands that sound just alike in the screamo and emo categories.
They sing out against and trash pop stars, yet some of them are just as bad, if not worse, about putting it on the grid and Auto-Tuning their vocals. It was bound to happen, but when it hit, the music business wasn’t ready.
Two conflicting things happened: the business side of the industry wanted to stay in what they call the “good old days,” while the technological side wanted to advance. So it didn’t just level the playing field for artists and studios and labels. It completely obliterated it, and now it’s a mess. Until we find a solution, it’s going to continue devaluing music. All music, including metal.
You stated that you “could name three-dozen bands that sound just alike.” Let’s look at Pantera, with whom you made classic, award-winning metal albums. They didn’t sound like anyone else, and they certainly didn’t suck. Metal bands still cite them as an influence. What should they learn from that legacy?
Here’s the number one rule: Write good songs. It can’t get much simpler. Write from your heart. Influences are great, but you’ve eventually got to be yourself.
Before Cowboys From Hell , Pantera was a cover band. They did exactly what everybody else was doing. At some point, something snapped.
Their last independent album, Power Metal , was their first with Phil [Anselmo], and man, even that was starting to turn the corner. They had a lot more brutality and heaviness in them than they gave themselves credit for.
They grew up and away from the tutelage of Dime and Vinnie’s dad, got real honest with themselves, and wrote from the heart. They started writing songs with groovy, heavy, badass riffs.
They found their niche after ten or fifteen years of doing covers in bars. They toured the country in a van. That will make your attitude and your music heavy. They were turned down by every major label, including the one that eventually signed them [Atco].
Their work ethic was off the charts. I gained a lot of my work ethic from watching them stay the course. One of their mottos was “Whatever it takes.” We’d get into situations that seemed impossible, but we all pulled together and made it happen.
There’s not a lot of that anymore. It’s a guy in his garage or his basement, and all he knows is Pro Tools. Or the engineer says, “You only have to play that riff one time, or sing that chorus one time.” And it’s cut and paste and fly the rest. It doesn’t leave anything unique. It doesn’t lend any tension to the song.
That’s what a lot of music is missing — there are no emotional highs and lows. Big metal bands still use Vulgar Display of Power as the measuring stick, and that album is 24 years old. What does that tell you?
It tells me that if you want to record metal songs that don’t suck, and you don’t want to sound like everyone else, ask yourself, “WWDD: What Would Dime Do?” But doesn’t that mean you’re trying to sound like Pantera?
No. There’s a difference. Asking yourself what somebody else would do comes from a philosophical standpoint, not a mechanical/technical standpoint of “He would have played this chord this long and then slid down here and done this.”
That’s not why you’re asking that question. You’re asking that question because you’re at a crossroads and you need to know if you’re being honest with yourself. Stop trying to please other people and stop worrying about what they think. That’s a waste of time.
I like “What Would Dime Do?” It’s awesome. Dime would tell you straight up. It may hurt for a minute. It may sting. But it’s honest. Dime would have done it his way.
His approach was organic because he taught himself how to do things. He was self-reliant. A lot of it came from experimentation and knowing exactly where he wanted to go. He could hook up ten effects pedals in a row, it would be complete cacophony, and he would come up with the most glorious batch of noise that totally fit the song and worked perfectly.
Dime owned everything he did, good and bad. He owned it 100 percent. Not a lot of people can say that in this day and age.
One of the biggest things I miss about that cat is how honest he was. I ask myself “What would Dime do?” quite often. It’s helped me through a lot of situations since he passed away. I think about him all the time.
But he was needed elsewhere and I got through that, and I’ve been happy to see a lot of other people in our camp move on with their lives. It’s a growing process. It does get better. But it doesn’t make any of us miss him any less.
What is the producer and/or engineer’s job in this process? How has it changed?
It hasn’t changed much. What has changed is that one person wears more hats. There’s more multi-tasking, but the job itself hasn’t changed that much.
The producer’s job is still to keep the train on the tracks. Help somebody when they’re in a musical rut. Help them step away and re-evaluate. Help them find what they’re looking for musically and keep the project from derailing. Keep it rolling with minimal outside distractions.
Technology has made my job easier in some aspects and more difficult in others. Some of the projects I’m doing right now would have taken two or three years on 2” tape. They would have taken 96 tracks. So that’s easier.
But, at the same it, it has instilled a hurriedness that wasn’t there before. If we don’t have instant gratification, it’s not worth doing. Art should not be hurried, and if you have to be reminded of that, then you’ve been sucked into this vortex of cheap, disposable music. Look at the catalog albums that keep selling. They’re timeless, and they weren’t done in a hurry.
We need to get away from wanting to do things quickly and perfectly. We need to get away from the need for perfection.
But … but …I thought you could fix it in the mix!
Them’s fighting words! Engineers have to ask themselves, “Why do we need to ‘fix it in the mix’? How are you leading these people and guiding them through the process?
At my crotchety old music age of 46, I’m too old to sit here and fix things for bands that can’t play what they write. Go home, practice with a metronome, and call me in six months.
If I “fix it in the mix,” I’m no better than the people I’m complaining about. “Fix it in the mix” was around long before I came around, and I got a good dose of it as an assistant engineer in the jingle world.
Of course, most jingles now are done in the box by a guy at home with his DAW and keyboard.
During one of our conversations in advance of this interview, you summarized the state of recording as follows: “Give someone enough rope and they’ll hang everyone but themselves.” Explain.
There is something called “Six Phases of a Project: Enthusiasm, disillusionment, panic, search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and honors for those not involved.”
That’s recording an album with a major label.
In the end, all the people who had nothing to do with it take all the credit. You give them the rope — an inch of rope and they take a mile — and they’re going to hang you and everybody else.
On that optimistic note, any closing words of advice?
For bands: Be good musicians, love what you’re doing, come to the table with good material that speaks to everyone in the room, and most certainly it will translate.
For producers and engineers: We get put into a lot of situations where we feel we have to do something to make the label happy or get past a bad situation. We do have that capability, but anyone worth their salt just wants to let the band be the band, sound like what they’re going to sound like, and not have too much influence over what they’re trying to put out there.