What was it like being in the studio with Metallica as they recorded some of their earliest albums: Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and … And Justice For All? Producer Flemming Rasmussen knows. Tapped by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton in 1984, Rasmussen was hired to produce Metallica's second studio album, Ride the Lightning. The thrash classic followed the band's 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, and brought the band to Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they connected with Rasmussen.
On the 30th anniversary of Ride the Lightning, Flemming Rasmussen visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, during a trip to the region to deliver a keynote speech and master classes at Capital University's Music Technology Workshop. While in Cleveland, Flemming donated studio photos to the Rock Hall's Library and Archives, and sat down to talk about recording three seminal heavy metal recordings with 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Metallica, including the recording of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Master of Puppets," and what he believes is the best Metallica recording.
Rock Hall: How did you first start working with Metallica?
Flemming Rasmussen: I think what happened was that Metallica was, they recorded Kill 'Em All in New York on a small independent label. They were looking for a studio in Europe because the dollar was very strong there, and they found out that they could get twice the amount of studio time in Europe compared to what it costs in the states. So what they did was: they listened to alot of albums because they wanted a studio with a good in-house engineer, and they wanted to hear what different studios sounded like. So they would listen to a lot of different albums. They picked up on the albums I'd done with Ritchie Blackmore – probably mainly Difficult to Cure with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow – and actually they contacted me. I hadn't heard about the band before that ever. I didn't know they existed. And since Lars was from Denmark it was a good opportunity for him to come back and say 'hi,' to some of his friends and family. So that's how that came about.
Rock Hall: Tell us about recording "For Whom the Bell Tolls" from Ride the Lightning...
Flemming Rasmussen: That's probably a bit special because that was one of the only songs that wasn't written, when they came to Copenhagen to do Ride the Lightning. We worked at night doing Ride the Lightning, in the winter, it was cold. Lars was in a big warehouse building–like room to get the huge ambient sound. So we heated that with gas heaters, but I think they actually wrote that in the studio. I'm not totally sure but in my recollection they wrote that in the studio. And that's the first song ever with Metallica that's recorded to a click-track because I wanted it to be that tight.
Rock Hall: What about recording Master of Puppets and its title track?
Flemming Rasmussen: That was epic. That was really good. That was one of the really good tracks to record... I remember it as being somewhat effortless, because it more or less played itself, because that song is so well-written and the parts are so well-linked. The whole Master session was actually just one big smile. We had that positive energy thing where 'this is going to be the best album we've ever done; this is going to blow 'em all away,' and we all excelled, I think. That's a really, really good album.
I did stuff on "Sanitarium" where ... they would play the guitar, and I flicked some of the effects from mono to stereo. Stuff like that is all on the tape because, you know in those days, because of limitation of the techniques, I did a lot of stuff in the recording process, so like once you took the tape off you didn't have to sit and push 10,000 buttons, it was already there.
Rock Hall: Takes us into the studio during the recording of ...And Justice For All.
Flemming Rasmussen: ... And Justice was just hard to get because there were such intricate parts. The thing with Metallica is, in my opinion, they've always set the bar really high; and in those days they weren't as skilled as they are now, but they wanted that level of performance and the only thing that was hard with that was that it took time. It just involved doing it a lot of times till it was nailed ... basically because they set the bar so high, it was tough, and it took time. There were a couple of the drum tracks on ...And Justice, the whole album, that were kind of difficult; and strangely, what I would have thought was the most difficult part of all, which is the machine gun part of "One," that was all done in one take. Lars just nailed that.
Rock Hall: Do you have a favorite Metallica recording, one you're most proud of?
Flemming Rasmussen: I would say "Sanitarium" on Master Of Puppets is probably one of them. That's the one with the mono-stereo – and I'm a sucker for that kind of shit, you know, when you sit with headphones and you go, 'what the hell was that?' ... There's a lot of those, I think theres a lot of songs on all three albums that I'm really proud of. I think "Creeping Death" on the first one was probably where we really nailed the Metallica sound. That whole epic kind of thing. It's also a very, very good song – that of course has something to do with it.
We all had this feeling where what we were doing, we were going to go a long way. We were going to change music history. And I think that was the project from the beginning. Also, you know, we think about it and they had their own thing going, and they had this tremendous energy, that kind of is a trademark for the band. They don't want to rely on MTV to play their videos, so they didn't make any videos, because they didn't care because that wasn't important to them. It's been like that with Metallica always.