Back in 1999 Metallica released their first collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony called S&M. Leading up to the performance, the conductor and arranger for the project, the late Michael Kamen, did a deep dive into the entire catalog of Metallica; carefully selecting songs he felt would lend themselves the best to an orchestral accompaniment.
In a documentary about the making of the project, Michael Kamen jokes about writing an arrangement for ‘So What’; an obscene cover song originally recorded by Punk band Anti-Nowhere League.
Interview: Brandon Oberkrieser
It is the last track any Metallica fan would expect to get the orchestral treatment, hence the joke. Valentin The Mad however, is not just any Metallica fan. He decided to take this throwaway joke to a whole new level by composing and ultimately recording his own orchestral arrangement to ‘So What’ to see what it would sound like.
Valentin The Mad is an experienced guitarist and composer, who is no stranger to creating YouTube videos.
One of his previous ideas, titled Boar Metal, was highlighted on MetalTalk and eventually went viral.
For this idea, Valentin composed a brutal Death Metal song and recorded actual wild boars for vocals. The uniqueness, and surprising quality of the final product, has led to a video that has 60,000 views to date on YouTube. Despite his musical background, and his knack for “Mad” ideas, doing an orchestra arrangement was something completely new for Valentin.
As he explained to MetalTalk, “The most I did before was adding some strings\piano\organ to several of the softer tracks from my solo project and even then, those instruments were mostly in the background. So making orchestra arrangements, where the orchestra has a central role was a very new experience for me.”
This process of recording and composing the orchestral part proved to be a tedious experience. “The orchestra parts were made on my PC. I wrote them in midi (basically – when to hit which note and at which velocity) for each instrument and for the sounds themselves I was using a plugin called VSCO 2.
“The community edition I was using has some limitations, but otherwise it offers great samples of classical music instruments.” Valentin continues, “So the process was writing the melodies for the various instruments in each section and then doing the balance for those (which instrument is dominant in each specific part, what is the dominant note in a harmony and such).
“The great thing about it is that you can immediately hear the result, how each melody works, and how it sounds with the band.
“This kind of technology was not available 20 years ago and it is pretty mind-blowing if you think about it.
“As for the writing – there were certain sections where I knew exactly what I wanted and it was mainly a matter of figuring out the details. In other parts I was listening to the track and imagining what could be there or just humming melodies.
“There are many badly sung voice memos on my phone of ideas for arrangements.”
In addition to putting the track itself together, Valentin went through the even more tedious process of editing the video.
Using clips from both ‘S&M’ and the live concert movie ‘Cunning Stunts’, the video was carefully and slowly put together so it would match the orchestral arrangement as close as possible.
“The first step was watching the entire first ‘S&M’ show and saving every moment where the orchestra was clearly visible, without seeing members of the band.
“The next step was going over them and selecting clips that fit best to what the orchestra is playing in my version – whether it is a violin playing a fast passage, or if the focus is on trumpets or a harp.
“For certain sections, like the intro, it took a while to find the right clips.”
As for why he chose the Cunning Stunts version out of the hundreds of live performances of ‘So What’ that Metallica have done over the years, many of which have been recorded in some form or another, Valentin explained: “That DVD features a stereo and a 5.1 surround sound mix.
“In the latter there is a channel that features only the vocals, bass and drums, and two channels that feature mostly James’ and Kirk’s guitars.
“I noticed that in the ‘S&M’ shows, to make room in the mix for the orchestra they mostly lowered the guitars. I did that as well and it helped a lot with the mix.
“I remembered that from a guitar backing track of ‘So What’ I was jamming on years ago. That backing track featured the vocals, bass and drums tracks from the Cunning Stunts show.”
While more orchestral arrangements may or may not be in his future, Valentin The Mad is currently working on a solo track that he describes as “energetic, fast paced heavy-thrash”.
However, he has given himself the name Valentin The Mad for a reason, as you never know where or when the inspiration for another mad idea will come from.
“I came up with the idea for ‘Boar Metal’ while listening to Death Metal and watching a short clip of boars I recorded in my city.
“The idea for this version of ‘So What’ came up after I heard the Metallica guys joke about it with Michael Kamen. I decided to actually go for it about a week and a half later, in the middle of making a cup of coffee.
“So you never know when or how the next weird idea will come, but if I’ll think of something good that is doable – I’ll definitely go for it.”