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A conversation with Big Mick Hughes, Front-of-House Engineer for Metallica

“I love Audio-Technica mics. The vocal mics sound stunning. You can definitely tell an Audio-Technica gig as soon as you walk into it. Absolutely. Cleaner, crisper highs." Big Mick Hughes

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Metallica’s legendary front-of-house engineer took time to sit down with us for an interview at Tokyo’s Summer Sonic music festival.

A-T: I hear this all the time: “Big Mick does this, Big Mick does that.” How does it feel to be a mentor?

Big Mick Hughes: What it is, I think, is I’m afforded the luxury to try pretty much anything. When you’re working for a smaller band that doesn’t have as much funding, so to speak, they have to kind of settle with what they can scrape together, whereas I have the opportunity to try many things, and because Metallica is at the level that they are, a lot of the manufacturers want to help, and want to be involved. So I’m very fortunate that I get to try a lot of different things—things that you normally wouldn’t have the time or funding to do.

I had the prototype of the AE2500. I put it on guitar immediately after the kick drum, and found that worked really well. So then I just tell everybody that I come across, but it's only because I’ve had the luxury (and spare desk channels) of being able to try it.

Yeah, but the reason you’ve had the luxury of being able to try it is because you’re a hell of an engineer.
That’s always hard to say—after all, sound is subjective. Engineering is just a job that I do, and I just do it to the best of my abilities. In 1984, I was asked to engineer a band I had never heard of called Metallica, and that’s just what I did, and somehow still do.

Why did they ask you to do it?
I already worked for the management company, QPrime, from New York, engineering a band called the Armory Show. I’d worked for these guys for about a year and a half. Then QPrime signed Metallica. But they dropped the Armory Show—and said to me, “Would you do one of our other bands?” And I went, “What you got?” They say they have this heavy metal band from San Francisco called Metallica. I went, “What’s heavy metal?” And they say, “Do you want to do it?” And I say, “Of course.”

So I started in November of 1984, we went out to Europe, there was a guy called Pete Russell with me. I did house sound and set up the PA and he did monitors and set up the monitors. There were only two of us, but we only had one truck of gear. At the end of that tour, the band said, “Well, we get on with you—do you want to be our engineer?” I’d only ever really done tours for PA companies up to that point. I’d never really been a band’s engineer. I said “Well, what does that involve?” They go, “Well, it means you come with us. If you want to come with us, we start in January in America.” I went, “All right then.” That was the Armored Saint and Wasp tour with Metallica. We went out and did that for a few months and it went really well, and it just snowballed from there, and here we are in 2006 from 1984. So, pretty much a rollercoaster ride, to be honest with you.

If you’re going to hang your hat on a band, man.
But you wouldn’t have thought so at the time!

If you’d have come to me in 1984 and said, “Would you like to put 10 percent of your wages in the pot and own ten percent of the band later on?” I’d have said, “No, give me the ten percent!” In all honesty, maybe that’s not quite true, because it was the first time I’d worked for a band that when we turned up at the show in the morning to set up, there were fans already there. Some of the clubs in America, there was a line around the block by lunchtime. And that made you go—you know, there’s something a little different going on here. Because with most bands it was either half empty or there was hardly anybody in there. You kind of noticed something was happening. The band, they didn’t really know what the deal was then. They were 19 years old and quite new to the industry. I was 25, the old guy. Now I’m 48, they’re all married with kids—it’s all changed a lot.

Apparently at the end of the last tour somebody actually worked out that the band had played 1580 shows, and I’ve done 1,540 of them.

So you’ve only missed 40 shows.
They’d done 40 shows before I joined them. So in 1,540 shows I have turned the knobs for this band. So I think I’ve pretty much tried most things. A lot of the microphone positions and choices and things like that have been borne out of the fact that I've listened to something and thought, well, that could be better. There must be some way to make that better. And this is all it’s ever been. I’ve looked at an application. A lot of people stick to what they always do, but I’m looking for innovation. I want it to move on.

You were definitely one of the first to use the AE2500 on a guitar cabinet.
As soon as I heard it on a kick drum, I just knew that would do amazing things on guitar cabs.

How did you know that?
Just because of the tonality of it on the kick drum. The thing I like about the 2500 is its purity in the midrange band. It has a massive, huge midrange sound, which is wonderful for guitar. But also equally important for a kick drum.

You developed an innovative approach for miking cymbals.
A long time ago, I got on the path of spot-miking each cymbal. That’s when I put an ATM35 underneath each cymbal. When you put the microphone very near to the center of the cymbal, it gives you a parabolic mic effect; as the cymbal swings, you get [whishing sounds] as the ambient sound is focused into the mic. And also you lack a bit of the stick hitting the cymbal sound—that attack. So by moving the microphone out more to the edge, (extending the ATM35’s gooseneck) to just underneath where the stick hits it, I can get the noise of the stick hitting the cymbal, and the swell of the cymbal without it sounding like a gong. This position also helps alleviate the parabolic effect by moving the mic away from the focal point of the cymbal.

What do you like about Audio-Technica microphones?
I love the mics. The vocal mics sound stunning. You can definitely tell an Audio-Technica gig as soon as you walk into it. Absolutely.

How is that?
Cleaner, crisper highs.

You want a testimonial to A-T microphones? We’re still using them. We don’t use things we don’t like–you’ve probably gathered that. We only take what we think is best for the band. Just the fact that they’re still here is testament to the microphones’ quality.

On a technical side, I think we’ve pretty much said everything we could ever say about each individual microphone choice. We’ve had this mic package for four years now. The Artist Elite series. We’ve roared tonally about the 2500. We’ve roared about the 4050s prior to that. I don’t think there’s much more we can say technically about the microphones. They’re all really good and they sound really, really nice.

How did you get started with sound?
I was always into sound in school. When there were mics hanging down from the ceiling in school plays—I was the guy who said, “I’ll sort this out.” I did electronics and went on to college. I had friends who were in small bands—I’d help them out. The first band [I worked with] was a band called Judas Priest. The bass player was a guy called Bruno Stapenhill who actually came up with the name Judas Priest from a Bob Dylan album. I went out carrying gear for them and helping out and of course as my electrical qualifications progressed I became more useful for these small bands because I could fix the amps, I could make the lights work, I could get the sound working. I became a little bit indispensable. And it soon went from there, but the whole time, I was working in normal industry. I worked for British Steel Corporation as an electrical engineer. I was totally set to continue with this, but of course British Steel Corporation went bankrupt and I was made redundant.

And Paul [Owen, Monitor Engineer for Metallica], believe it or not, when we were 16 years old we were in the same industrial training school. I was doing electrical and Paul was doing mechanical—welding and fabrication.

So that’s how you guys met?
No, I didn’t know Paul then. It was only years later when we were sitting on a tour bus and we were talking, I said, “What did you do when you left school, Paul?” He said, “I went to this training school.” And I went, “Well, I went to that training school for two years too.” And it turned out we were there at the same time. So we were both doing the industry thing together. ‘Cause that’s what you did in England when you left school, in ‘73, ‘74.

If British Steel had been alive and well?
I might have continued there and not even bothered with the band thing. It might have just literally been a bit of a hobby.

How do you protect the health of your ears?
I don’t know. I must be really lucky or something. Obviously I have hearing checks. If I have a frequency missing, I want to know it’s missing, because then at least you can make an allowance for it. I’m nearly 50 years old. 4k has obviously taken a hit because of age onset, but that’s about it.

Do you wear hearing protection at all?
I can’t. It makes me really nauseous. I can only wear headphones for a certain amount of time. I will put earplugs in a little bit now if I know I’m going to be in a really noisy environment. But then I have to keep leaving the noisy environment so I can take the earplugs out. They make the inside of my ears sore. I have all the molds, obviously I have all the filters…I just can’t wear them.

But you would probably suggest that other people wear them, right?
Of course. But for me, I try to limit contact, limit exposure. I think that’s probably why I’ve managed to keep my hearing—I don’t subject myself to extremes for unnecessary periods of time.

If you think about it, it’s the club engineers who should be careful—really, really careful.
The ratio of PA to size of venue; if you look at the size of PAs in some of these small clubs, they’re absolutely enormous for the size of the room. They have the power at their fingertips to be incredibly, unbelievably loud. When you’re in the bigger environments, it’s impossible to get that ratio of sound to the environment. With Metallica, we’ve had a lot of support bands over the years, some of them have been new, up-and-coming bands, and the engineer has been with them a while and has carried on with the band from their club days. There’s a learning curve there when you switch from clubs to bigger venues—you have to learn there’s a difference in the way it’s going to sound. We’ve had guys who come out and try to make an arena or stadium sound like a club, and they don’t realize it—that’s red lights everywhere.

What you can do in clubs and such, is you can make something sound big by the pure force of it, the volume of it. Wow--what a huge kick drum. No, it’s not a huge-sounding kick drum, it’s just so … loud. But when you move into big environments where you can’t have that awesome amount of power, then you’ve got to make things tonally sound big; it’s more important that it sounds big, not necessarily that the volume makes it big.

Now this is what Audio-Technica microphones give you the facility to do, because they’re so open in the high end and they go so low. They help make things sound bigger than the actual volume.

For many years, everybody thought, Wow, Metallica’s the loudest band in the world.
No, it wasn’t. We were definitely not the loudest band. I know how loud it’s been for the entire 20-odd years, because I’ve always measured the volume, and it’s perceived to be louder than what it is. That’s part of what you have to learn. That’s the trade, the skill, if you like. You have to learn how to make something sound big with a reduced volume.

I have a couple of pet hates in this world. I am single-handedly trying to educate the entire audio world to stop putting [a certain industry-standard instrument microphone typically used on snare drums] on guitars. Because never has there been a single microphone that suffered with proximity effect more than that mic. It’s horrendous. It’s great on a snare drum—adds all that fat low end. But when you put it on a guitar, and you’ve got it right up against the grille (closer than six inches), it suffers maximum proximity effect. It’s the worst choice of microphones to put on a guitar, and loads of people do it. I do some club shows for my mates when I’m at home. …I normally take my Audio-Technica mics, because the number of times I walk in and there they are, I say no, we’re going to change this.

That and engineers not EQing and sorting out the vocals first, when sound checking. So many of them do drums first. Channel 1, because it’s channel one, you got to start with number 1, right? They get this enormous sound, and then they try to add the vocal mics. The vocal mics add another ambience. As soon as you bring the vocals up … all that high end (from guitar, cymbals etc) is coming through the vocal mics. So why not start with the vocal mics first and leave them turned on. Because they’re going to be on for the show. Then work backwards. I do all the ambient mics first, all the vocals, then the six overheads, hi-hat and then I start with the more direct dry sounds.

And then I can control the ambience that’s about. I do a little bit of teaching these days and this is one of the main points. Especially in clubs. You can always tell when you go in these clubs and the guy’s got vicious feedback on the vocals, he’s pushing them over the band. He didn’t start with them. He’s got everything else crushing and loathed to turn that down a little to get more [vocals].

But the drums, that’s like a badge of honor. People come up and say, ‘Oh your drums sound great.’ Everyone wants that.
Exactly. People come up to me and say how do you get that amazing kick drum sound? It’s like, did you think the vocals are good? I guess I kind of championed the cause of kick drums, though.

You put the snap and the click in the kick drums.
Yeah, I think we started that. It was only after the fact again…you couldn’t tell what was going on between two of them. So I thought, better make them brighter and hence more audible. All right, that works. And we went on from there. I guess it kind of stuck. It’s pretty amusing, actually. Something done out of necessity, and it started a trend.

A-T microphones on tour with Metallica

AE2500 dual-element cardioid kick-drum microphone—kick-drum, guitar cabinets

ATM23 hypercardioid dynamic instrument microphone—snare top

AT4053a hypercardioid dynamic condenser microphone—snare bottom, hi hat

ATM35 cardioid condenser clip-on microphone—rack, floor, cymbals

AT4050 large-diaphragm multi-pattern condenser microphone—miscellaneous

AE5400 large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone—voice