How to get the Metallica “Master of Puppets” tone

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How to get the Metallica “Master of Puppets” tone

Metallica Feature
Words by Greg Long

The album charted at number 29 on the Billboard chart in the USA and has since been certified 6 times platinum.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Often attributed to Mark Twain, the quote takes on particular resonance when we look back almost 40 years, to the year 1986, and compare it to 2023. Tom Cruise was saving the world in the box office hit Top Gun. Ukraine was almost completely destroyed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and more than 100 bushfires raged across Victoria. The same year saw a trove of milestone releases across the musical landscape. The Smiths released The Queen Is Dead (again, art imitates life). Run-DMC changed music forever with the genre busting Aerosmith collaboration, “Walk This Way” and Metallica bluntly inserted itself into the annals of history with the release of Master of Puppets. Their third release saw the band mature considerably.

Leaving behind the adolescent lyrical excesses of tracks like “Hit the Lights”; ‘No life ‘till leather, we’re gonna kick some ass tonight!’, the eight tracks, clocking in at 54 minutes, instead explored dark themes of control and manipulation. Prescient, I know.  The track “Disposable Heroes” venomously attacked the barbaric futility of soldier life. “Lepper Messiah” takes aim at the hideous excesses of TV evangelists and the band displays considered emotion in the nod to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”. More recently Master of Puppets, the album and song, received a new burst of interest when Eddie Munson (played by Joseph Quinn), of Stranger Things Series 4, ripped through “Master of Puppets on guitar, in an alternate dimension to hoard off a colony of demonic bats (makes perfect sense, when you think about it.) Responding to the culture gatekeepers who stated new fans are not fans at all, the band pinned a comment to a live version of Puppets, “EVERYONE is welcome in the Metallica Family. Whether you’ve been a fan for 40 hours or 40 years, we all share a bond through music.” Solid!

Read up on all the latest columns here.

The album charted at number 29 on the Billboard chart in the USA and has since been certified 6 times platinum. In March 2016 , Master of Puppets became the first heavy metal album to be added to America’s National Recording Public Register. Together with Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Master of Puppets heralded a new era of heavy metal. Whilst Reign in Blood was most notable for its blistering speed and chaotic confluence of metal and hardcore punk, Master of Puppets was a precision work that borrowed from classical musical and progressive rock. The resulting 8 tracks of burn with a masterful intensity, rivalled by few. 

Much has been written about the recording of Master of Puppets, and a search online reveals a vault formation from producer Fleming Rasmussen, including his original handwritten session notes, and mixer, Michael Wagener. Puppets represented a watershed moment for guitar recording and production. The power, aggression and clinically tight performances by guitarist/singer James Hetfield are still marvelled at today. 

In his various forum posts, Rasmussen has clarified the guitars and amps used for the album. The main tone for the album came from a Gibson Flying V, cabled straight into a Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ amplifier head. Secret sauce came from a BB/Aphex EQF-1 equaliser inserted into the effects loop of the Boogie. Long out of production, the EQ is now available as a pedal, “Puppet Master EQ” by boutique maker, Master Effects. The Mk IIC+ was then connected to two 4 x 12” Marshall cabinets. Details on the cabinets and speakers are sketchy, and Fleming has revealed they had a number of cabs in the studio that were auditioned at random. There are no notes indicating the successful candidate and Fleming stated he doesn’t care a great deal about cabs and speakers, rather, he prefers to plug and play until something sounds good.  Further sifting through Fleming’s notes reveals a three mic setup was employed as follows:

  • SM57 Shure in the centre of the cone on one of the lower speakers;
  • 1 B&K (DPA) 4006 omni on another speaker center cone; and
  • 1 AKG gold-tube in a 45 degree angle to the side edge of the cab. approx. 4 feet away.

The mics were EQ’d a little, as indicated in the session notes image below, and each sent to an individual tape track through a Trident A-Range console.

When it came to mixing, Michael Wagner, details his approach as follows: “There was six tracks, three mics from two takes. They were panned: one hard left, the second one (playing the same riffs) to about 11 o’clock. The other two main tracks (playing slightly different riffs than the left side) where panned the same way to the right side, one full the other to about 2 o’clock. Then there were two tracks chugging just the low E string on the actual “chunks” and those were panned hard left and right as well and were responsible for all the low end of the guitars. No compression (a guitar amp compresses enough IMO) and just a little short room from a Quantec QRS Room Simulator”. 

If you ever wondered why the palm mute chugs on this record rattle the fillings in your teeth, now ya know!  

To recreate the sound, let’s use the recently released emulation of the Mesa Boogie Mk IIC+ from Neural DSP (at €99.00 you can save thousands on a second hand head! A 14 day demo is also available.) From the product page “The Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ is a pivotal part of guitar amplifier history. We have replicated every nuance of both amplifiers with unprecedented accuracy to bring a piece of history back to life.” Big promises indeed. 

The plugin is beautifully renders the visual allure of the original amp. First, to capture the essence of the Puppets tone I went straight to the source, Fleming Rasmussen’s production notes

Master of Puppets production notes

Original session notes showing amp and eq settings. 

Using these settings as a starting point, brought me very close to the sound. That said,  as I wasn’t playing a Gibson Flying V and was not able to replicate the mixing desk, speakers and mic set-up, tweaks were inevitable. From the session notes, I started as follows:

Volume 1: 7.5 – “Pull Bright” disengaged

Treble: 7  – “Pull Shift” engaged

Bass: 2

Middle: 4

Master 1: 5 – “Pull Deep” engaged

Lead Drive: 3.75 – “Pull Lead” disengaged

Lead Master: 4.5 – “Pull Bright” disengaged.

Presence: 4.5 

n.b. the Presence control is accessed at the rear of the head by using the reverse button beneath the amp head, in the plugin window. The amp graphic EQ settings were copied from the session notes.

Hiding away at the rear of the amp is a toggle switch that I flicked to the Class A position that helped emulate the power amp stage. After some experimentation, I opted for the first of the three cabs and settled on the SM57 and AKG 412 mics, set slightly off centre.

Neural DSP plugin speakerSelected speaker cabinet, SM57 and AKG 412 mics shown in position. 

After some tweaking I ended up with the settings in the image below.

Neural Mesa plugin

I was closing in, but further refinement was required to capture the sound of the BB/Aphex EQ-1F, inserted in the effects loop during the recording process, along with the mic eq from the Trident desk. To emulate this, I used the 10 band graphic EQ within the plugin. 

Graphic EQ plugin

Further sound refinement using the graphic EQ with the MK IIC+ plugin.

The image below shows the EQ curve of the isolated guitars from the original recording in blue. The emulated sound is overlaid in white. The main difference appears in the top end, above 10kHz. When I matched this with EQ the sound became way too brittle. I put the discrepancy down to tape and transistor noise on the original recording. To be honest, I was surprised by the accuracy of the results. Impressive modelling from Neural DSP indeed!

Neural DSP EQ

Read more about the recording process here.