“The Room Was Electric…” - A Chat with S&M2 Producer Greg Fidelman
Greg Fidelman, the man tasked with bringing the aural life and soul of S&M2 to both movie theaters and the forthcoming album. He explains to Steffan Chirazi how he captured the energy.
The S&M2 shows feel so long ago. For those of us who did get to the Chase Center in San Francisco on September 6th and 8th of 2019, these shows were the last live onstage Metallica experiences we’ve had, and they now sit as soFme sort of unofficial marker of the conclusion of the WorldWired era. Of course, the shows had nothing to do with WorldWired, per se, but the fact remains that at this juncture, 10 months on, they are the last live shows on record, so by proxy, they sit in history as the conclusion of three years touring.
The concert film came out quickly, as we know, however the album which was set to follow ended up being delayed and delayed again. From James’ necessary sabbatical to COVID-19, the reasons were abundant. Finally, now the time is right for S&M2 to be released.
Greg Fidelman – who has in some senses become the fifth member of Metallica – had quite possibly his deepest involvement yet in the making of an album. He musically directed Metallica’s material at the Chase Center, working with Edwin Outwater from the San Francisco Symphony (sequestering himself very much in the center of the action in onstage, yet out of sight), and had to harness both the power and sheer number of instruments that were on display those nights to create a perfect musical picture.
“I don’t know how many microphones were in that orchestra, 100 or something,” he chuckles. “Those 100 orchestra mics were broken down into groups; there were two audio tracks for violins, two audio tracks for violas, but we were also recording each mic individually, so somewhere there were 100 tracks of orchestra…”
As that last sentence should clearly articulate, there is some serious discussion to be had about how it all got molded into the piece you will gleefully enjoy. There is another factor lying behind all the S&M2 work Greg has done, which is that a re-edited version of the concert film will also be released. There will be more on that down the road, but for now, we will enter this conversation with Greg discussing the first round of production work he did for that initial movie and potential album, specifically how the approach to the mixes back in September and October were different compared to doing so this year.
Steffan Chirazi: Just for the record, as we have been discussing this off-record, the first mixes you were doing, and really committed to doing and really had to get done for this “album,” were all directed by that first cut of the film that was rushed to get done for the movie theaters. Is that accurate?
Greg Fidelman: Right. Not to get too much into the weeds, but as we were working the last version of the picture that I was mixing to, that wasn’t even the final picture, because as I was doing that, they were making more small changes.
SC: So what you’re saying leads me to think that if we were to listen to “All Within My Hands” or “The Outlaw Torn” from the October movie mix, and we were to listen to one of those on the forthcoming release, we’re going hear two very different mixes based primarily on the fact that there’s two very different film edits.
GF: That is accurate, yeah.
SC: And you’ve not worked like that before, right?
GF: No, this is definitely the first time I’ve had to do anything like that. The version that was in theaters in October, we had to work so fast for that. You didn’t really have time to think much about anything. There’s something about that process that I would say was probably good, since Metallica can sometimes overthink things. We did have to really rely on first thoughts, first ideas, and just go with it.
Still, if it was just the band playing, that would’ve been a less daunting task, but the fact that here we had the band and then this 80-piece orchestra? And then we put the two together? There was just a lot of information.
SC: For this (DVD/Blu-ray) version of the film, the Joe Hutshing edit, was the process a little calmer due to time frames?
GF: When he did his first rough cut – he did like the first three or four songs – he sent it to Lars and to me asking, “What do you guys think of this?” And I remember watching it and thinking, “This feels pretty good.”
Keep in mind, few people have seen it more than I have, right? I had seen the film version of it way more than even Lars had. The scenario with Joe was so different for a couple of reasons. One, both of us had time to do what we wanted, and we had time to work together, back-and-forth, on many, many, many, many occasions. Two, Joe and I worked together a lot on the Through the Never film. Because I had worked on that project with him, there was already a relationship. I knew what to expect from him; he knew what to expect from me.
One of the things I would say was really great on the Joe version, and this has to do with having the extra time too, is we were really able to dig into the orchestral parts of the record. Sometimes I would say, “Hey, Joe, this section here… the current mix that you have, there’s a flute part that should be featured that I didn’t get to and wasn’t able to get as loud as I wanted. Now I’m able to manipulate it and get it loud enough in the mix. Do you have the winds section here? Do you have a close-up of the flautist that’s hitting this part?” We were able to start doing that kinda stuff.
SC: So that experience having worked on an actual movie together was a major factor?
GF: Yeah, I think that’s a huge deal. Having someone with a different aesthetic, different instincts, a different field of visual arts… all those things factor in. Also, for a film guy, Joe seems remarkably intuitive when it comes to music and musical parts. I don’t think he considers himself a musician of any sort, but I know when he was a young guy, music was a very large part of his life. The other thing that I would add is because we had the time, which for me really helped this version so much, I was also able to reengage Edwin, the conductor.
Throughout the entire project Edwin was incredibly helpful, incredibly easy to work with, and he made it fun. He would say, “I think this part here, maybe I would turn the strings down, but if you like it, I get it. It’s not wrong or anything.” I was happy to attempt all his requests, all of which made sense and worked great. And again, this is more orchestral stuff, so it was nice to have somebody who was tied into this project be able to help with some of those elements from the orchestral perspective.
SC: So, assistance and help, but not approval. You didn’t have to get the symphony’s approval for mixes?
GF: No. There was no obligation to the symphony to say, “Hey, we have to get you to sign off on these mixes.” Edwin was on to his next job, and it was never intended for the symphonic people to be part of the post show production of this. But he was really kind in offering his help.
SC: Which is great, obviously. Let me get into some more semi-technical stuff, I guess. How was it coming back to the project after the delay?
GF: The original idea was for the film to come out in October. My team and I were to take literally a day off after the second gig, and then immediately return and wrench on the mix. The way I mixed the orchestra for the film was dictated by the amount of time I had, not dictated by the way I wanted to mix it, and I knew that while we were doing it. We were never really able to do the entire mix the way we wanted, we only mixed for film and surround sound; there wasn’t really even a stereo mix existing in October. So we had to regroup. I don’t want to get too technical because it’ll probably… look, even I won’t enjoy talking about it.
SC: Well, you’ve said a lot by saying that your initial mix was dictated by time only.
GF: Yeah, I mean for instance, there were 80 people in the orchestra, right? I don’t know how many microphones were in that orchestra, 100 or something. So when I mixed for the movie while the show was happening, those 100 orchestra mics were broken down into groups; there were like two audio tracks for violins, two audio tracks for violas, but we were also recording each mic individually, so somewhere there were 100 tracks of orchestra.
SC: Oh, my God. That’s insane.
GF: I had it “on the fly” sub-mixed to 30 tracks so that I could deal with it!
SC: You mean you didn’t want to deal with 100 mics in three weeks?!
GF: Right. Most of the film was done, and we went into “now let’s mix for the album version.” At that point, we weren’t sure that there was even gonna be a DVD or Blu-ray. We knew there was talk about it, but the decision at that point had only been CD, streaming, and vinyl. I had one of my editors go through and any time, for example, the violin player wasn’t playing, we’d mute his track. Because when they’re not playing, what you hear is PA, bleed from the room, and sound from the audience.
SC: You’re having to constantly deal not just with what’s on the mics but the ambient sound that they’re picking up when the musician isn’t playing?
GF: When you’ve got four people, that’s not such a difficult situation, primarily because with only four in a band, they’re all on the mic at some point. But when you’ve got 80, there’s a lot of extra ambient noise being whipped up.
SC: So, one person was simply taking care of ambient sound off unused mics during the show?
GF: Yeah, one person did that for a couple weeks. That person is Billy Joe Bowers. He ended up being the orchestra aficionado to help me with that.
At that point I was feeling like we needed more time, and of course then we’re starting to get up into the holiday area where things get to be very difficult to release. You don’t want to release anything too close to the holiday. It came up that this release might end up getting pushed until the front side of the following year, 2020. Then the dialogue started with Lars about re-editing.
He started making some calls. You know, he and I were talking a lot during this process. Then it was finally agreed upon that this would be pushed into 2020. We were working on it still as we were approaching Christmas, and still Lars felt like it could be better. I don’t think anyone who had their eyes on it disagreed with that. So, we decided to take a break for the holidays, come back in January, and hit it again.
Now that being said, at that point in time, I had already turned in a mix that was supposed to go to vinyl because the production – look, here we go getting technical again! Production time for vinyl, especially vinyl for a show this long, I think it’s on eight sides, takes a lot of time to make. So, we had a vinyl mix based on wherever we were at that point. That was before Christmas.
We came back after Christmas, finished wrapping up the visual edit, and as we were doing that, I was working on the audio edit that married it. When we finally locked the video edit, I spent a few more days buttoning up my stuff, because at that point we were for sure doing a Blu-ray, and Blu-ray has a 5.1 surround mix and a stereo mix. Now I’ve got two mixes, so all the changes I’m making, I’m trying to make them across the board as best as I possibly can. And then, of course, we have to master that. We actually mastered the DVD in January, but all this stuff takes time… and then, you know, the world fell apart.
SC: Oh. That. Yeah.
GF: The pandemic. Time kept whittling away until here we are in June. I understand why it feels like it’s taken forever to work on, but in theory, it’s been finished for a while, and now we’re at a point where it can finally come out. What’s in charge of timing is manufacturing, which of course took a huge hit in March, April, and May. I think they’re back now, but all this stuff gets manufactured all over the world. I think with the vinyl we ended up going to two plants, there’s one in Germany and maybe one on the East Coast. The DVD production was, I think, somewhere in the US, but it mostly got shut down for a while.
SC: That all makes sense. Okay, to the music. Let’s talk about “The Day That Never Comes,” “The Outlaw Torn,” “Halo On Fire,” “All Within My Hands,” and “One.” Seeing as those are the five songs I heard before we started talking, my cheap psychiatry is that those are your favorites?
GF: That’s not entirely accurate.
SC: Okay, good to know.
GF: So, from what I sent you, “One” and “Outlaw” represent the songs that were on the first S&M record and then made a reappearance here with minimal updates.
With the orchestral parts, we worked off the same chart and only made little changes. The intro of “One” was, of course, improvised. “Outlaw” had an intro that we built in rehearsal. And then I sent you “The Day That Never Comes” because it’s a new one from Death Magnetic, I sent you “Halo” because it’s a new one from Hardwired…, and I sent you “Hands” because it’s a new one from St. Anger, and it’s… I want to call it a reinvention. Obviously, we’ve done that sort of arrangement for some of these acoustic benefits over the last couple years – which is what this version is based on – but it’s new to the format of S&M2 and it’s also a reinvention on the band’s part of one of their own songs. That selection covered the most things and gave you the most information.
SC: Is it just me or was there a marked difference between night one and night two? I felt the first night was a little more “charged.”
GF: Yeah, there was for me a pretty big difference between the performances. I think the band was a little more “reserved” or something [on night one]. It felt a little more introspective and not as much of a [rock show] “performance” as the second night. Some of that may have also had to do with the crowd. The crowds were amazing both nights, but night one was amazing until you saw night two, and then night two was like, “Wow, these people love this band!”
SC: We should also remind people just how little prep time the band actually had for these shows. I remember being blown away when I was trying to figure out how they were going to do it, just musically, it seemed impossible given the lack of rehearsal time.
GF: Right, yeah, and add the unfamiliarity with the stage, although we did rehearse on it a few times. But that room was electric, massive and – I mean for me, a little off the topic here – I was sort of taken aback by it all. I was on that stage in rehearsals, I was on that stage at dress rehearsal, the first show day in the empty room, and it felt amazing. When that place filled up with people and it was time for the orchestra to sit down and take their places and we were in the tuning room getting ready, suddenly the energy was insane. They certainly reacted to that.
You know, James doing the solo vocal with the orchestra for “The Unforgiven III? That was especially intense because he was alone out there with that orchestra, no band mates, no guitar. It was a moment, both nights. You could tell he was anxious about it, and you could tell that he felt out of his element. The initial concept of him doing that was all his own making. He threw the ball on the court by saying, “What if we did a song with vocals and orchestra only?” We did struggle with that arrangement, and it was one of the few songs that we went back to arranger Bruce Coughlin with changes. Then there was the lack of time for James to be able to rehearse it with the orchestra. We ran it twice, once at the Cow Palace rehearsal and then show day rehearsal, so it was super intense.
And then the band playing the “Iron Foundry” piece. Even though, on paper, that piece is much easier to play than any of their other songs, the four of them were still really anxious because it’s not something they’ve played a hundred times.
SC: Discuss their respective performances.
GF: I could give you… definitely, I can give you some insight. We have already sort of talked about James, and he was just very open and very positive.
I didn’t have a lot of specific conversations with Kirk or Rob about much of what was going to happen. I worked a lot with the two of them in the control room at HQ. We ran “Ktulu” a bunch of times, just the two of them and me with a recording of Lars playing drums from the tour because I felt like it needed to step up a notch. Rob killed it and had some ideas about changing the bass part. The bass part’s so insane on that thing, if you listen to the album version, it’s one thing, and if you listen to live versions of Jason [Newsted] playing it, we felt we should probably make some reference to that. Rob wants to make it his own, that’s awesome, but Rob is as “team player” as it gets. So, this new version will be the best version that anyone’s ever heard live. It’s got all the best bits of all the best versions that people are familiar with.
Kirk as well. Kirk’s guitar work on that song is pretty complicated. And they don’t play it very often. If it’s like “Wherever I May Roam,” I mean everyone knows how to play that in their sleep. There are a couple songs that I worked with them on that got pretty tight. I think that definitely helped.
Lars and I talked a lot about tempos and how important the cueing was. A lot of times when they play live… sometimes they don’t even know that they’re doing it because they’ve done it so many times, the three dudes take cues off Lars. Not always, sometimes James is throwing a cue. But there’s, you know, the count. Not just count-ins to songs, but even when there’s a hang in the middle of a song and everyone comes back in, they all have Lars in the corner of their eye. So, we were talking about understanding when that’s happening because now, we’ve got 80 other people who need to know that they need to keep that eye on you. At the end of the day they didn’t – Edwin kept an eye on Lars, but Edwin, Lars, and I had to go through all these things.
SC: Lars was really the center point, then. Crazy.
GF: One of the big, big things Lars worked really hard on, and it was really effective, was tempo. Since the Hardwired… record, Lars has used a click track, not to play to throughout the song, but to start songs, so that the starting tempos are pretty consistent. And I think it’s helped. James definitely appreciates it. But in this case with the orchestra, it was even more important, because some of the orchestral parts were fast, like “Day,” “Moth,” “One,” and “Puppets.” There might’ve been a couple others. Those are the ones at the top of my head.
Getting the tempos was so important, otherwise the violins would not be able to play their parts correctly. And that’s inviting a train wreck, which of course we wanted to avoid. So throughout, we were much more in tune with tempos. That’s one of the things Edwin and I spent a ridiculous amount of time on: understanding what the tempos were going to be, and then once the tempo started, still Lars counts it off. Sometimes Lars does a four-count, sometimes Lars does an eight-count. I don’t know if there really is any rhyme or reason to that but it’s always the same. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” they all know it’s four. And another song, they all know it’s eight. They don’t know why it is eight or four, they just know it always is, so we had to make sure Edwin also knew what to expect.
SC: Finally, this band has always moved in stages and cycles, usually that’s anywhere between seven and ten years before another phase hits. It feels very much like this show – or these shows – are the closing of a chapter and that there is a new one to be written. When you listen back to something that you worked on five months ago, does it feel that way more than ever? And I say that with respect to the concert. I don’t say that with disrespect.
GF: Maybe it does a little bit. These shows were amazingly fun to work on, as was this project as a whole. It’s so rare that I’m that keyed into the performance that’s being recorded. I mean, I’ve been involved! I was involved in Through the Never, but this was a much different scenario than that, starting with the length of creative conversations that happened maybe February or March of that year leading into the show. In a way, even for me maybe, it does seem like it’s the last stop on a ride. That’s not just about what’s happened since the shows in Metallica world, but in the world in general. I think I might feel that way about everything.