Mark Lewis on remixing Megadeth’s debut album: “it was marred by terrible production”

American hard rock and heavy metal producer, mixer and engineer Mark Lewis has worked with bands including Bury Your Dead, Whitechapel, Battlecross, Cannibal Corpse Havok and Megadeth, and shows no sign of slowing down – recently completing mixes for death metal bands, Dying Fetus and 200 Stab wounds. Originally from the Southern Maryland area (via a stint in Orlando, Florida) he wound up being a go-to metal guy based out of Nashville, Tennessee. He explains why Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine didn’t like his re-mix of the band’s 1985’s Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! at first, and by how not trying to preserve the original was the best thing for it.

When people look at your heavy metal credits, they might be surprised to hear that you’re based in Nashville, the home of country music. How did you end up there while specialising in heavy rock and death metal?

I moved here about five and a half years ago. It’s probably the best town in the world to make records in. I tell people all the time that are thinking about moving here, firstly, if they're in audio, it's even better than New York or L.A. 

Here, if something breaks, like if one of my old mics or preamps goes down, I have a replacement in 30 minutes. Whereas when I was in Orlando, if something broke it was either wait three days, or just find something different to replace it. 

Every piece of gear in the world is here and everybody wants to help you. It's such a different vibe of work – the competition is just low. Maybe because I'm a metal guy in a country town!

As far as how I relate to Nashville, it's amazing how into heavy metal these people are. I meet a lot of country guys that play gigs here and they seem to almost seek me out. It's extremely flattering because they're like, ‘We love this stuff. We would love to do this for a living’. But I guess they like those cushy country gigs and I don't blame them. Long story short, the respect is really high for what we do here.

It's a great town for that and it's not what you would expect. I'm also seeing a lot of the pop and country guys cross over into the heavier stuff and they're hiring metal guys to play in their bands and they're making their shows heavier. It's not what I expected, for this stuff to be so pop culture, but here we are!

I'm a metal guy in a country town!

Were you always into heavy rock growing up?

I was drawn to it from a very young age. My sisters showed me Metallica – inadvertently – it was in their tape collection. I'm 39, so it was vinyl and cassettes when I grew up. 

They showed me Megadeth, and then it was Black Sabbath and Slayer, Judas Priest – everything that I could possibly find. Then it just went sideways into death metal and it was very much a plan for me to be in a metal band. 

I didn't think I was going to start making records… until I was in a metal band. I realised that I was the one doing all the technical things – even the guys recording our demos were saying to me, ‘You should probably think about getting into that side of it’.

Dave Mustaine said: I don't care how long it takes, make it sound like we're on fire.

In a full circle moment, you ended up working with Megadeth when your career took off. What was that experience like?

It was amazing. I got an email one day from my manager that literally said, ‘Megadeth’, and I opened it and he more or less said, ‘Are you interested in remixing their first album, because they were never happy with the original remix’. 

Well of course I was going to do this; I didn't believe it was going to happen! I spoke with their management a couple of times, and they were like, ‘We feel like you'd be a great guy for this’. I said, ‘I can't believe Dave Mustaine knows who I am!’ They said he's familiar with my work. 

Then a hard drive showed up with the tape transfers of that record.

If Megadeth's record had sounded like this in 1985, it would have been as important as Master of Puppets or Reign in Blood.

What did you feel needed attention when remixing 1985’s Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! in 2018? (Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! - The Final Kill)

It was crazy just to pull up those files – it was a record I was already very familiar with. It was insane how that all came together, especially hearing the sources themselves. It wasn't the mess that I thought it would be. It was a mess, but there were some really obvious mistakes that I can't believe were never picked up on. 

It was some phasing stuff with the drums where nobody ever thought to just flip the phase on the right overhead, and it made the whole drum kit come into focus. It wasn't even done on the second remix, which I didn't understand.

Then there was some stuff we fixed with some kick drum edits in Mechanix, which is a very famous song. Also The Four Horsemen by Metallica, but which is a very famous Megadeth song – there were some kick drum edits that were bad. I don’t think the tape got chewed up,

I think they tried to edit the kicks and they screwed it up because the kicks kind of disappeared in that part of the record. We were able to fix some of that and some phasing, and then a little bit of timing shift and some of the room mics. Really, we just made the whole thing come alive.

It really came alive once I had Dave Mustaine's blessing to not preserve it.

I sent the first mix to Dave Mustaine and he came back with a very short email, and was more or less not happy. He's like, ‘The low end is too big and this and that, and you're really not getting this’. It was a very short comment. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it hurt! [laughs] I was like, ‘Damn’, but about 10 minutes later, he goes, ‘You know what, that email was kind of short. Can you call me?’ I said, ‘Of course I can call you, Dave Mustaine’ – you're my hero. We got on the phone and he was super cordial.

He said, ‘I see what you're trying to do’. I'll never forget this, he goes, ‘You hearing these tracks is probably like me pulling up the tracks to Led Zeppelin IV. I was like, ‘Okay…it sounds incredibly pretentious to say, but he's right’. He's just a confident guy. 

He goes, ‘This isn't about preserving what's there’. He said, ‘Figure out everything that's there and make it sound like we're on fire; like we're the Megadeth of today’. He goes, ‘I don't care how long it takes you guys, just do it. Just make it sound big and good and tight – and modern’.

It took me another week. My assistant, John Douglas, and I went back and forth a lot of things and it really came alive once I had his blessing to not preserve it. I'm thinking I'm going to have to add drum samples and things like that, and it didn't really end up like that. 

I did augment with some things but it came alive naturally once I really spent the time on it, and he was thrilled. It was a really cool thing to be a part of. Especially uncovering some of those performances that had got lost in the editing. I couldn't believe how tight the band was. It was mind blowing that they were doing that stuff in 1984.

When it comes to making heavy metal records, we are blanketing our record in white noise – high gain guitars are the hardest thing to mix around.

What do you mean by that?

Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer are my favourite bands of all time in terms of that stuff, but what Megadeth was doing at that point in time was so far beyond what Metallica and Slayer were doing in terms of technicality and speed. 

Especially once we polished that up, it was like, ‘Man, if this record had sounded like this in 1985, when it actually came out, it would have been every bit as important as Metallica’s Master of Puppets or Slayer’s Reign in Blood. But it wasn’t, it was marred by terrible production.

It makes you understand maybe a little bit about Dave. if I was him, I probably would have been a pretty angry dude had I made an album like that and then had it come out sounding so shitty. But maybe I'm reading far too far into it. Maybe he didn't care. Maybe he was like, ‘Oh, it is what it is’. 

But he obviously did care at some point to have me re-mix it. I just couldn't believe what I uncovered, even having known the songs so well. Honestly, it was all there. I don't know why nobody ever connected with it.

A lot of people see hard rock as a wall of sound, but there’s actually a lot of intricacies to this style of music; what would people be surprised to learn about what goes on behind the scenes when creating heavy metal tracks?

I've been very outspoken against YouTubers saying that certain things don't matter – whether it be the wood your guitar is made out of, or the tools you're using in your amp or whatever. 

The reason I get so passionate about that stuff is because when it comes to making heavy metal records, we are blanketing our record in white noise – high gain guitars are the hardest thing to mix around, period. That's what people don't understand.

I see a lot of people conducting tests with clean guitars or slightly dirty guitars – no. You can't hear a difference. People don't realise that high gain guitars are like a freakin’ electron microscope or the Hubble telescope – we can see millions of light years away, it's so highly compressed, so it brings up the details so much.

The one thing I would say that people understand is that we're fighting with guitars and how important that is to the sound of a record. People don't realise how much time we spend getting guitars right, or having to mix drums around guitars or mix vocals around the guitars or whatever it is. It's so detailed.

We may spend three days or a week getting a guitar sound, and people can't even fathom that. The country guys just put up a ribbon mic or a condenser in front of a combo amp, and it's there, and the guitar is an accompaniment, whereas we are focusing so much on guitars and gigantic drum sounds that it really takes an incredible amount of time.

And I'm not patting myself on the back, it's just what we do. I didn't realise for a long time how different my job was than a lot of other engineers. It's just the detail – I might spend two days tuning the toms on a drum kit, getting them exactly right to cut through the riffs how I want them.

It's a very detailed and thankless job, and that's okay [laughs]. I mean, I love what I do, and the bands thank me more than enough. In heavy metal, every little bit counts and that's why I've got so crazy with guitar sounds and drum sounds and collecting the gear that I have.

Speaking of your gear, you’ve got your own studio in Nashville. What is some of the kit you could not engineer these heavy metal tracks without?

I have Genelec 8351s and two 7071A subs – they’re huge. I can't work without Genelec in terms of engineering and mixing. I started on 1031s almost two decades ago. I originally started using KRKs and then heard a set of 1031s. I thought they were the best thing I'd ever heard! It just made sense to me. Then I went to the 8050s for a while, then I had 8040s for a little bit and then the 8351s.

Genelec is a decade ahead of other speaker manufacturers with The Ones series. There's nothing that sounds that clear, and has that small amount of distortion – I can work on these speakers so much longer than other speakers, and I know that’s because of how they designed it with the low distortion. They're great.

Genelec is a decade ahead of other manufacturers with The Ones series.

How do they help you get around listener fatigue while working on such heavy tracks?

It's just the lack of distortion in the sound of those monitors. They are three way, which is something I had never worked on before. So there’s a coaxial driver and it was just the way they tuned it with the amplifiers and how they did the crossovers. It's just so clean.

I am very much of the opinion that distortion will fatigue you much faster. If I'm working on an old set of NS10s with an underpowered power amp, I feel like my ears just go incredibly quick. With Genelec, I can work much longer.

Now it’s not mid-day when I feel like my ears are just toast…maybe at the end of the day when I'm actually tired and maybe my glucose drops or something from being hungry, or I'm just worn out, that's when I'm like, ‘Okay, I need a break!’ And that's mentally when I need a break – it's not my ears are hitting the breakpoint before my brain.

I can't work without Genelec in terms of engineering and mixing.

More on Megadeth:

How an intern ended up working on Megadeth's The System Has Failed by a complete fluke.