Metal and Mettle: The Rise and Rise of Mark Lewis

In just over 15 years, producer and guitarist Mark Lewis has run up one of the most enviable — and loudest — discographies in rock. He has tracked, mixed, produced, and/or mastered records for a spectrum of metal’s heaviest bands, including Trivium, Bury Your Dead, Whitechapel, Chimaira, Battlecross, Cannibal Corpse, Megadeth, The Black Dahlia Murder, Carnifex, Havok, and many more. He recently sat down with us to discuss his humble beginnings, his career since, his tone-crafting techniques, and how Celestion speakers have been there through all of it.

What was your point of entry into metal and heavy rock?

For starters, I grew up a guitar player. I started at age 12 and went to college for music performance. I eventually went to Full Sail in Orlando, Florida, and have to say I didn’t enjoy the experience all that much. I loved the scene there, though, and wound up meeting Jason Suecof, who was just an up-and-coming producer at the time. He had just produced Trivium’s Ascendancy, which would turn out to be a gigantic record.

Was that the classic “big break” moment?

Yeah, we hit it off and became friends. When I got out of school was right about when he was starting to get in-demand and busy. He needed help in the studio, and the stars kind of aligned.

Shortly after that, you engineered a Trivium album, The Crusade.

That was in 2006. The first thing Jason and I did together was the Roadrunner All Stars in 2005. We had done Bury Your Dead’s Beauty and the Breakdown and a couple of records for the Victory and Metal Blade labels. Sometime at the end of 2007, Jason told me, “I’m not going to hire you as an engineer anymore. You’re going to pay me rent, work out of this studio, and I’m going to build another one.” I guess he thought I was ready to leave the nest. I was terrified, but it turned out he was right.

In your own work, what are your go-to drivers for various applications?

I have a perfect story. For so many years I used the Vintage 30, which I might call Celestion’s flagship. I eventually went down the rabbit hole of different models and revisions. We took in a big shipment of Celestion in July of 2019 when I was working on the Havok record, V. We took a clean D.I. in and planned on re-amping. We had a great tone going on — an Engl cabinet with a Peavey 6534 tube head. I was trying that Engl because it had a sound halfway between a Mesa and a Marshall, and most of my clients want one or the other.

Normally our go-to would’ve been the Vintage 30, but we took literally a day to go through all the speakers and try them in the Engl. We had Lynchbacks, we had G12-H series, we had Redbacks, we had V-Type, we had Creamback 65 and 75, and I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out. The band unanimously decided the Creamback 65 was their favorite. Things quickly went from being — I wouldn’t say a stock Vintage 30 tone, but a familiar sound — to a real standout. The 65 isn’t as popular as the 30, but I now believe it’s every bit as good.

Would you say the Creamback 65 is your new go-to?

Let me put it this way. On the records I’ve done since that big speaker tryout, I’ve usually sent clients a few tracks of guitar sounds and asked them to make a choice. Only, I don’t tell them which track uses what gear. There has been an overwhelming preference for the Creamback 65. The Vintage 30 still has a strong role, of course, for when we know we want that sound. On the last Whitechapel record we did, we used Marshalls with the driver that Celestion makes just for them, which I think is called the G12 Vintage.

Can you speak to how Celestion drivers interact with your favorite amps under the high-output demands of metal?

A lot of producers are scared of low end in guitar tracks. I’m first to admit I’m the other extreme — sometimes I’ll take some back out when we’re mixing. One thing that stands out about the Vintage 30, its Mesa and Marshall variants, and the Creamback 65 is, I can hit them with all the low end I want from the amp and the speaker reacts properly. I’m looking not just for boom like a cheap car subwoofer, but for the speaker to interact with the amp in a certain way that’s musical. This is apparent on the Havok record, where there was a lot of energy from 80 to 100 Hertz. I use the Celestion models because I know they’ll deliver this and not s*** the bed. I can’t say that about some other brands.

Tell us about your miking techniques and signal chain.

I almost always use a Shure SM57, almost always through a Neve 1073 preamp or high-end clone. I use Avid HD I/O, Apogee, or Black Lion converters. But that mic/preamp combo is always the basis for heavy guitars. I may add an older Sennheiser 421, but I’m very conscious about not complicating things with too many mics. Even with just two, I’m checking for phase issues so we don’t lose transient information and things like that. I start with the mic dead center, pointing at the dust cap of the cone, then may move it left or right, which removes more 10kHz the more you go. You want the right balance between not too bright and not too dark.

Have you ever used new Celestion drivers to bring a vintage acquisition back from the dead?

Recently, in fact. I just scored an amazing deal on a ’74 Marshall model 1960. It had a mixture of Greenbacks and some other original Celestion drivers. One had been re-coned by someone who did a terrible job. I replaced them all with a combination of Vintage 30s and G12s, and now this is my favorite cabinet, hands down.

What would you say is your desert island amp head?

That might be my Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, revision F. Or maybe my Driftwood Purple Nightmare. That brings up something I’d like people to understand. Yes, I have a lot of gear, and these days there are a lot of songwriting tools like plug-ins that model every option imaginable, but you don’t need every option. When bands like Metallica started, they had what they had. Not a million options. And where you lived at the time or your financial abilities had a lot more to do with what was available to you, so metal bands got their tones based on what was ready at hand. They made their gear limitations into their identity. When I’m working with a band, I try to start with what they know and what excites them in terms of tone.

Carrying that theme further, what would you say is the most valuable thing you didn’t learn in music school?

That you just need to do the work. No degree is going to put you on the street with the ability to get a big record. When you’re first out of school, studios and labels are going to expect you to work cheap or for free to get your name out there, and that’s not always bad. Live as minimalist as you can for as long as you can and invest in good gear. When I started, I was often sleeping at Jason Suecof’s studio and making maybe 800 bucks a month. I had a roof and could eat, but I didn’t have money for anything else. Fortunately, I didn’t do anything else.

You have to work up to where producers and artists trust you. That’s what happened with me. When Jason got busy, bands were like, “We loved working with Mark so maybe he can just do the record?” Of course, I wasn’t getting paid what he got, but you work your way up. Don’t be afraid to work with bands who need development, just like you do as a producer or engineer. You’ll learn together. That’s the thing that’s going to be your college.