Tore Stjerna: The Soundtrack of Hell
Brian Marshak, June 2015

Sweden may be a small country, but it's colossal in the world of extreme metal. Swedish bands like Bathory and Entombed were forerunners in the black and death metal genres, and today a band like Watain sells out tours worldwide. Producer and engineer Tore Stjerna and his Necromorbus Studio has been a vital part of the scene over the last 20 years, as a large number of the blackest metal bands have recorded their work with him.

Tore Stjerna, the mastermind of Necromorbus Studio, is a busy man. In the midst of in-studio production work, doing live/front of house sound, and working with bands such as Watain, Funeral Mist, and Ofermod to craft their own unique tones, he spoke with me about the roots of his studio, the metal genre, it's modern classic tones, and his views on the benefits of pre-production.

I used to wonder what the whole fuss was with Pultec-style EQs, but after trying out the Tube-Tech PE 1C and ME 1B I really got what it's all about. It just puts things where you want them without complicating things.

Since Necromorbus began as a demo recording facility, explain how the studio has grown over the years and become a well-established studio for metal recordings. What was the turning point?
When I started out in the mid 90's, the scene, especially black metal, was pretty limited in terms of recording studios and budgets to do much other than DIY. There were some bigger bands doing bigger productions, but for the most part it was a small movement with limited interest from the labels. The same was true for death metal at the time, but more because that thing seemed to be on the way out, with labels mostly being interested in this kind of death/rock crossover while the more "classic" sounding death metal bands were being overlooked.

So there were a lot of bands doing demos at the time, and I was one of the few specialized in extreme metal. The studio was very small scale and I didn't charge much, so it catered well to this group of bands. At the same time, there were a chosen few bands in the Swedish scene that I worked with who were taking black metal in a bit of a new direction. It didn't cause a big splash immediately, but they were signed and the releases were reaching out to a wider audience and slowly but surely started to get a foothold.

Tube-Tech CL 1B is a great all-round compressor that works in many situations and it acts how I predict it will, no matter how hard I drive it.

With time the black metal scene was really growing, bands got signed and bigger productions started coming in. As the quality of my productions got higher, so did the demand. Eventually labels also seemed to understand that the fad was not the death metal of old, but rather what it had turned into. The more old-school kind of sound was coming back in fashion, which was the sound I was aiming for. So in the end, what happened was that I managed to spot an underground movement that eventually grew, and the studio grew with it.

Do Necromorbus productions have a specific sonic quality or do you tend to approach each band and session as individual and its own unique situation?
My goal is always to give each band a sound that fits for them specifically. What I like with the metal albums I listened to back when I was a teenager is that you can usually very clearly identify which band it is. Things have moved so much towards a very homogenous sound when it comes to metal that nowadays I will already know exactly what an album will sound like before I even put it on, and I find that intensely boring. So I'm trying to combat that in a way.

I'm also very much into finding a kind of "authentic" sound; if a band plays early 80's heavy metal, I want to give them a sound that could fool the listeners into thinking it's from that era, rather than to "bring the sound into the 21st century" so to speak. Bands don't really come up with a "new sound" these days; they're basically repeating what has been done in the past (and I don't mean that in any negative way at all). So what's with this fear of doing something that might sound "dated"? I love diversity in sound and I think there's a severe lack thereof nowadays. I sometimes hear bands that, musically, offer something cool but the production just sounds like it could be anything from the same year.

1176-style compression is something I find invaluable, and Softube have done a great job with the FET compressor. It stands out from all the other similar plugins I've tried in that it can really distort the signal in a very cool way.

I have been accused of having a bit of a "signature sound" though, but I've worked with many bands that play pretty similar styles and some of them request a certain sound akin to earlier productions that I've done. So go figure.

Where do you see the genre of metal going in the next 5-10 years and do you feel as though metal is hurt or helped by having so many sub-genres?
Sub-genres are just a way for people to describe a certain sound or style if you ask me, so that in itself can't really make any difference. When it comes to extreme forms of metal, I do think that you kind of take the edge off when it becomes too accessible, and in doing so it loses its appeal. But the thing for me is that it doesn't really matter in which direction the metal scene goes because I'm kind of stuck in what was going on 10-20-30 years ago. And since there are plenty of others with the same kind of ideals, there's not exactly any shortage of bands that play what I like to hear. And considering how huge metal has actually become—all in all—there will be something to satisfy anyone's taste.

That said, I don't really listen to new metal releases anymore, the few I hear are the ones that I've been part of. As I mentioned earlier, what comes out nowadays is mostly interpretations of what others have done before. And I have no problem with that, but I have enough old albums to listen to already, and if I discover something "new" nowadays it usually dates back at least 30 years.

As a guitarist, I got excited seeing your wall of Marshall JCM800s, Mesas, 5150s and Orange amp heads. Tell me your ideal guitar sound and how it's evolved over time.
It's very genre and era specific I'd say. I had a period when I used the 5150 with a Mesa cab because that's what people were kind of doing. But it felt like it turned into a factory situation; the result was good but homogenous and predictable. So my goal with my amp collection is to be able to create the sound that pops up in my head when I check out a band that I'm going to work with. Going back to my ideas about an authentic sound, I usually try to use whatever might have been used at the time of the creation of the sound I have in mind. Every amp I have has been chosen to accommodate for a rich variety in sound.

I managed to spot an underground movement that eventually grew, and the studio grew with it.

How do you approach the bass guitar in a metal production?
This is an area where people work in vastly different ways. Bass, for me, has a huge role in the final sound, and it's kind of sad to hear records where it's just hidden somewhere in there. On the other hand it depends a lot on the player and what's being played, and sometimes it really fits with a way more laid-back kind of sound, with the bass mostly creating a foundation for the guitars to build upon.

It's all a careful balance, and to give the bass more room something else has got to give way. Same with if you want a really big drum sound—it means that the rest needs to take a lesser role. The bass sound I use will differ vastly between different albums, sometimes it's distorted beyond recognition, other times it's squeaky clean. It all depends!

From your website you say that you often work closely with the band even before the recording phase, giving tips and pointers on what "works" in the recording session and what might be good to look over or to think about to get the best possible result. Please explain this in more detail.
It's a pretty classic approach, but probably less so in metal. I used to not get into that bit at all, but rather focus on what was going on in the studio. Then, after trying it out I saw the benefit it has on a production and nowadays I see it more or less as a necessity for a production to run smoothly.

The idea is to weed out as many issues as possible before the band enters the studio. The best option is if I can get the band in for a pre-production demo so I can really see what might be problematic during the recording session so the band knows what areas to improve. In absence of such luxury (can be budget restrictions or working with a foreign band), I ask the bands to send me some material so I can get my head around it. It can be home recordings or rehearsals, as long as it can give me an idea of what they are going for. I might also attend some rehearsals, which also lets me spot potential problems and lets me work in a very direct way with the band.

The other aspect of this is to make sure that the songs really work and are up to their full potential. There can be odd arrangements that might need some tweaking or maybe some parts that are a bit sloppily played. Spotting that well in advance before a band enters the studio can save a lot of valuable time. My goal is to be able to capture the right kind of performance with the right feel and groove. Not having the opportunity to prepare can instead lead to 50 takes of parts just to be lucky enough to get a take where no mistakes are made. It's demoralizing for the bands and it can kill the creativity. So this kind of preparation is extremely important to me.

I love diversity in sound and I think there's a severe lack thereof nowadays.

Tell me about working with Watain.
I've been working with Watain from more or less when they started. I've recorded all of their albums and we've had a very tight co-operation over the years. As they have developed musically, I have developed in terms of production skills. It was also with them that I first started the whole thing with pre-production and realized how important it was. We've also had a very good exchange of production ideas, which I've learned and gained a lot from.

For several years now, I've also been doing their live sound. When I started out with the studio, I never really cared about live sound and I couldn't see myself working with it. More than anything, the idea kind of freaked me out since it seemed so easy to mess up, and you only get one shot! But at the same time, it kind of annoyed me that we were working our asses off creating a certain sound for the band in the studio, and then they'd go out performing these songs and the result was just a matter of chance. So once there was enough of a budget for them to have their own FOH tech, I jumped on it and haven't looked back. To me it's such a natural thing that it wouldn't make sense to do it in any other way. This has also lead to me working with a select few other bands live as well, and at the moment it's more or less 50/50 studio work and live work for me.

Drum editing is another service that you offer. Obviously metal drumming is intense and in the forefront sonically in modern metal music production. What sort of editing and production goes into getting a kick to cut through a sonically dense modern metal mix. Are you layering in samples, and helping to build a sound or tightening up performances to make the music razor sharp?
My goal with drum editing is, first and foremost, to keep as much of a human element as possible. I'm a drummer myself, and I think that has contributed a lot in how I approach drum editing. It's way too easy to make something sound machine-like and stiff, but I think many people don't notice or don't care when they're working with it.

Talking about the kick drum sound specifically, I will try to keep as much of the acoustic sound as I can, as long as it actually sounds good of course. I'll then (if needed) blend in either a sampled sound of the same kick, or I'll find something else that fits. My choice of samples have shifted a bit over the years, but the most important thing is to always find something that compliments the acoustic kick well and that will fit in with the overall sound of the drums. I never worked with layering samples. I keep reading about people doing it, but I never found that I had to resort to it.

Which are your favorite Softube plug-ins, and what do you like about them? In what situations do you typically find yourself using them?
The one I use the most is probably the Tube-Tech CL 1B Compressor. I think it's a great all-round compressor that works in many situations and it acts how I predict it will, no matter how hard I drive it.

My goal with drum editing is, first and foremost, to keep as much of a human element as possible.

Next up would be the Tube-Tech EQs. I used to wonder what the whole fuss was with Pultec-style EQs, it didn't make sense to me to paint with such broad strokes. But after trying out the Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer and ME 1B I really got what it's all about. It just puts things where you want them without complicating things. I have a Pultec-style outboard EQ from WesAudio that I use all the time, and having the same functionality in plug-in form is something I do not want to be without these days!

1176-style compression is of course also something I find invaluable, and Softube have done a great job with the FET Compressor. I like it for two reasons mainly. First, it compresses in a very natural sounding way, which is exactly why I use 1176 to begin with. Some people may bicker over if it perfectly imitates an 1176 in that aspect or not, but I don't care. It does what I want it to do. Second—and this is where it stands out from all the other similar plugins I've tried—it can really distort the signal in a very cool way, which I've found very useful on vocals, especially when you want a bit of extra grit.

Freelance guitarist, recording and mix engineer, pro audio writer.