METALLICA's '…And Justice For All' Album Mixer Thought LARS ULRICH's Drums Sounded Like 'A**'
January 4, 2022
In a new interview with Dean Cramer, Steve Thompson, a prominent music producer who has worked with a vast array of rock icons, including GUNS N' ROSES (on "Appetite For Destruction"),KORN (on "Follow The Leader") and SOUNDGARDEN (on "A-Sides") spoke about the mixing sessions for METALLICA's classic 1988 album, "…And Justice For All", and the criticism that record has received for the bass parts being nearly inaudible.
While "...And Justice For All" is considered one of METALLICA's classics, it has been panned almost since the day it was released for the lack of any bass guitar on the record. Jason Newsted's playing is virtually buried in the mix — and many fans feel that drummer Lars Ulrich, who had very specific ideas for how he wanted his drums to sound, is to blame.
Thompson said (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "We did the project up at Bearsville, New York — we worked on an SSL [console] up at Bearsville studios. And Lars originally came in with a whole EQ setup chart of how he wanted his drums to sound. So Michael Barbiero, my partner, says, 'Why don't you work with Lars and get the drums [sounding the way he wants them to sound], and then once you do that, I'll take care of the rest.' So he does that. And I listened to the sounds, and I said, 'Are you kidding me? I think this sounds like ass.' So anyway, I kind of re-EQed all the drums a little bit just to make 'em a little more palpable — it's in the ear of the beholder. Then I brought the bass up, which I thought the bass was a great part because… You know what was great about [Newsted's] bass? It was a great marriage with [James] Hetfield's guitars; it was, like, they needed to work together. It was perfectly played.
"So I got the whole rhythm section together, vocals and everything like that, and then I felt, 'Okay, now's the time,'" he continued. "Hetfield was in there, [giving] thumbs up and everything like that. Then I brought Lars in. First of all, Lars hears it for about five to ten seconds, and he goes, 'All right, stop right there.' He goes, 'What happened to my drum sound?' I basically probably said something like, 'You were serious?' [Laughs] So I had to rearrange the drum sound to get it to where he wanted it again. He goes, 'Okay, see the bass?' I go, 'Yeah.' 'Drop it down in the mix.' I said, 'Why? It's great.' 'Drop it down in the mix.' 'Okay.' So I did it as a joke. [I] dropped it all the way down. He goes, 'Drop it down another five or six dB' from there, which could hardly hear it — you couldn't hear it. I said, 'Seriously?' And I think I turned around to Hetfield, and he just went like this [raises both hands]. And then I remember having a conversation with Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch who were managing them. And I basically had a conversation, I said, 'Listen, I love these guys. I think this band is fucking amazing. I don't agree with what they want me to do with this. And I understand, it's their record. They should get whatever they want. We were hired to get them what they want. But I just can't see doing this.' And we wound up giving 'em what they want. Again, it's not my record — it's their record — and you have to respect their opinion. I hated it personally, because I'm a bass guy. I love bass. When we're recording, we record the fattest basses in the world."
Last year, Newsted told Metal Hammer that he was "fucking livid" when he heard "...And Justice For All" for the first time. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "I was ready [to go] for throats, man! No, I was out of my head, because I really thought I did well. And I thought I played how I was supposed to play."
Newsted went on to say that METALLICA's sound always revolved around Ulrich and Hetfield. "Lars and James were the original garage band duo, as far as that goes," he explained. "They always made the records that way, from [1982 demo cassette] 'No Life 'Til Leather', it was Lars and James, guitar and drums. On the original 'No Life 'Til Leather' cassette — if you happen to ever see a real copy or a photo of a real copy — in Lars's handwriting, in ink pen, on the label of the cassette, [it reads] 'Turn bass down on stereo.' On 'No Life 'Til Leather'! They mixed it how it was supposed to be mixed: there's the bass and there's the guitar from all the way back. But Lars didn't want [that] because it messed with his drums somehow, so when he sends the demo out to fucking Combat Records and wherever, [his instruction is] 'Turn the bass down before you even listen to this.' Before you even get it going, just turn the bass down. Right from the get-go. Before you even start. That's where he's been his whole goddamn life, so why would it be any different when it came to ['…And Justice For All']? They made 'Kill 'Em All' that way, they made 'Ride [The Lightning]' that way, they made 'Master [Of Puppets]' that way, all of them. Those two guys in a room [mimics drum beats and playing], that's the way it always happened. [For] the most successful metal band of all time. So you argue with this shit? I'm not really sure. Now it's become the best garage band album ever [for artists such as] BLACK KEYS, WHITE STRIPES, DUO JETS, the different ‘power duos' of garage stuff."
Three years ago, Hetfield defended the sound of "...And Justice For All", saying that he and his bandmates simply "wanted the best-sounding record" they could make. "It was not all about, 'Fuck [Jason]. Let's turn him down.' That's for sure," he said. "We wanted the best-sounding record we could make. That was our goal. We were burnt. We were frigging fried. Going back and forth [between touring and mixing the album]. Playing a gig. No earplugs, no nothing. You go back into the studio, your hearing is shot. If your ears can't hear any high end anymore, you're gonna turn it up. So we're turning the high end up more and more and more and all of a sudden, low end's gone. So I know that played a bigger part than any hazing or any ill feelings towards Jason, for sure. We were fried. We were burnt."
Hetfield also addressed some of the criticism leveled at METALLICA by Thompson. In a 2015 interview with Ultimate Guitar, Thompson suggested that Ulrich was the culprit for the lack of any bass guitar on the record, claiming that Lars wanted his drums to sound a certain way — even if it meant cutting out the bass.
"We wanted it tight," James explained. "We wanted it fucking tight. That's what we wanted. We wanted the snare, we wanted the guitar, we wanted everything up front and in your face and really tight. And we thought we got it. And, you know, we kinda know what we want to sound like. Can we sit behind a desk and make it happen? No. We ask people to do it, and they do it. So [Thompson] did his job. He's got nothing to apologize for or point fingers at. No one's to blame for 'something.' It is a piece of art. It happened and it ended up the way it is for a reason. And for reasons we were just talking about. We were burnt. We're traveling, we're playing a gig, our ears were fried. We were not sleeping. He doesn't need to defend himself. He was a part of an awesome album in history, so I think he should be maybe be a little easier on himself."
James also once again dismissed calls for METALLICA to remix "…And Justice For All" so that Newsted's contributions are more audible.
"All this [bass discussion] is after the fact, and it's, like, who gives a shit, man, really?" Hetfield said. "And why would you change that? Why would you change history? Why would you all of a sudden put bass on it? There is bass on it, but why would you remix an album? You can remaster it, yes, but why would you remix something and make it different? It'd be like… I don't know. Not that I'm comparing us to the Mona Lisa, but it's, like, 'Uh, can we make her smile a little better?!' You know?! Why?"
In a 2008 interview with Decibel magazine, METALLICA guitarist Kirk Hammett attempted to explain the lack of bass on "…And Justice For All", saying that "the reason you can't hear the bass so well is because the bass frequencies in Jason's tone kinda interfered with the tone that James was trying to shoot for with his rhythm guitar sound, and every time the two blended together, it just wasn't happening. So the only thing left to do was turn the bass down in the mix. It was unfortunate, but for some reason or another, that album is known for the low end being there without the bass being very high up in the mix. It was an experiment, too — we were totally going for a dry, in-your-face sound, and some people really like that sound. A lot of the newer-generation bands, especially, think that album sounds great. But at the end of the day, it was an experiment. I'm not really sure it was 100 percent successful, but it is a unique sound that that album has."
In the Ultimate Guitar interview, Thompson said that he spoke out because he was tired of being blamed for the lack of bass. He remarked: "They flew us out [to METALLICA's Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2009] and I'm sitting with Lars. 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 shit for the lack of bass."
Ulrich told The Pulse Of Radio a while back that fans were extremely vocal about the sound of the album at the time of its release. "I mean, it was unbelievable, you know, '...And Justice For All', " he said. "People were saying, 'That's the worst-sounding record, where's the bass, and it sounds like it was recorded in a garage, and...' But, you know, listen, you do the best you can in the moment and then you move on."