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Reducing Creative Compromise
Starting at Trident Studios in the late '60s, and hitting his stride at Island Studios in the early '70s, engineer/producer Tony Platt has built up an impressive resume. He worked his way up as an assistant engineer on sessions with Traffic, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and later as an engineer with Free, Paul McCartney, John Martyn, Sparks and Mott the Hoople. As one of the engineers on Bob Marley and The Wailers' Catch a Fire and Burnin', he helped bring reggae to a wider audience, and went on to work with Toots & the Maytals on Funky Kingston as well as records for The Harry J All Stars, Aswad and The Cimarons. In his early days as a freelancer, he recorded demos and singles for seminal punk groups The Stranglers and The Adverts, and similarly for Thin Lizzy. Becoming an engineer for Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Tony worked on AC/DC's classic albums Highway to Hell and Back in Black, as well as Foreigner's 4 and The Boomtown Rats' The Fine Art of Surfacing. He joined the Zomba Management producer roster in 1980, producing artists like Samson, Iron Maiden, Krokus, Motörhead, Gary Moore, Cheap Trick, Billy Squier, The Cult and Marillion. During the '90s he engineered and co-produced sessions for Buddy Guy's Damn Right, I Got the Blues and Feels Like Rain. More recently, jazz-related sessions have popped up with Jazz Jamaica All Stars, Soweto Kinch, Abram Wilson and Juliet Roberts. Tony still keeps working full time and maintains a small studio in the Strongroom Studios complex in Shoreditch, London, which he shares with Haydn Bendall (a former engineer for Abbey Road Studios). Current and recent projects include Ellie Williams, The Razzle, singer/songwriter Natalia Dusso, slide player J.D. Smith and Tom Mansi & The Icebreakers.
What is the secret to capturing a great band in the studio?
What you have to remember is that records like Highway to Hell, Back in Black and Led Zeppelin II - any of those records that have that energy and freshness to them - really all of that is generated by the band. The band is in a position and a time in their career and life where they're creating that kind of energy in the music that they play. Really, what I did was NOT do something - what I didn't do was lose that. What I was able to do was recognize what the excitement was, try and capture that excitement and take that forward. I don't think you can engineer musical excitement into a record. I think that you can create some kind of audio excitement, but it's a different kind of excitement - the sort of excitement that you get from a Prodigy record, which is just as electric, just as exciting as some of those AC/DC records, but it's generated in a different way. It's generated from the beats, the tempos and the intensity of the sounds and then augmented by the excitement of the vocal. But it isn't organic like an AC/DC record.
What could get in the way of capturing the excitement of a great band?
It's not as simple as having the band play live while you capture it. You hear a lot of artists say they're great live, but they've never been able to capture it in the studio. Part of the reason is that they've not taken the time or trouble to prepare their music to be recorded. If you want to make a live recording, then make the live recording. But, you have to remember that it's going to have to be twice as large as life. If you take away the visual experience of the live performance and the intensity of it being live, then all you've got is the music. At the end of the day it's got to be a pretty damn good performance. If you then try to take that into a studio and you don't adapt the music to contend with the environment you're recording in, you're probably not going to end up with a particularly good recording.
It's not as simple as throwing up some well-placed, high-quality mics?
I think that most of the important choices that make a successful recording should be made before you get into the studio. The choice of the studio room that you're going to go into has a huge effect on how the artist will react to being in the studio. You can put the most exciting artist in the world in a really bad environment that they don't respond to, and they're not going to play very well. If they don't play well, you're not going to get much of a recording. If you have a good environment with good musicians who are capable of playing well, it makes me sound good.
I wanted to ask you about working with Bob Marley and The Wailers.
I did all the overdubbing on Catch a Fire of [John] "Rabbit" [Bundrick, keys], Wayne Perkins [guitar] - all those extra overdubs - and then I mixed it. Then I did a larger portion of the recording on the Burnin' album and I mixed some of it. The Catch a Fire recordings were all done on 8-track [in Jamaica]. On a lot of songs, I had all the drums on one track or the drum top kit on one track, the bass drum and the bass on another track and the guitars and keyboards mixed together on one track. There were a lot of things that were fixed the way they were. It was a recording that we just added bits to - very straightforward. People have said to me, "Did you know it was a classic album when you were making it?" Of course you don't. It's kind of a ridiculous question in a way. It sounds strange. I suppose that there was so much great music that we were privileged to work with at that point in time that you get slightly blasé about it. There was all this stuff going on around you - great musicians that were coming in and playing on each other's stuff. Rabbit was almost part of a house band that existed at [Island's] Basing Street Studios. He was playing on loads of different projects. He was always around the studio and so were these other great players. When I got to record the Burnin' album, I was scared because I'd never recorded any reggae music the way that they recorded it in Jamaica. I was aware of the fact that there was something about the bass sound that was quite special, so I asked Bunny Wailer, "How do you record this stuff in Jamaica?" He said, "We put the drums in the middle of the room and point everybody at it." Suddenly it dawned on me that they actually used the leakage in the different instruments to good effect. I still have a copy of a multitrack of one of those recordings - when you listen to just the bass sound by itself it sounds absolutely terrible!
The bass track?
Yeah, on Catch a Fire's "Stir it Up," the bass track sounds horrible. It sounds like a rubber band. But you put the drums and the other instruments in, and the little bit of bass that's coming from those other instruments all of a sudden starts to fill it out, and then eventually you realize you've got this massive bass sound that's coming right across the whole stereo spectrum.
How would you normally go about tracking bass? More of a DI or a mic?
Always a blend of the two. I have this tendency to record bass with three microphones, or two microphones and a DI. I like to keep them on separate tracks. That started with Thin Lizzy. Phil Lynott had this bass rig where he had a massive, great Acoustic 361 amp, a 4-by-4 cabinet with a Hiwatt head and a Rickenbacker stereo bass. He took the two bass outputs and put one of them through the big, low bass rig and the other one through the guitar one. He'd overdrive the guitar rig so that you'd have all this bottom end and then you'd have this biting middle going on - I just thought that was so cool. It was so much easier than having one amplifier and one microphone. I started experimenting with putting two microphones on a bass cabinet in different positions and how I could treat them differently and get different aspects of the bass. It's so much easier to take two microphone sources that are presenting me with the parts of the sound that you'd really like to have and mixing those two together, rather than taking one microphone source and EQ'ing the hell out of it. It continually reinforces my belief that you need to start as close to the sound that you want to be achieving most of the time, if you want to get those organic sounds. If you want to move into the area of sound design, then you're talking about different construction.
The energy that you're talking about that you can capture when a band is excited and playing live in a room together - that's the beautiful mystery of a great band.
It's a moment. The reason I think the environment is so important is if a band is in a room, they are playing and they're feeling good in that room, and what they're hearing in that room, whether it's through the earphones or acoustically, is giving them a buzz. Most musicians - if you ask them, "What are the best moments?" you quite often get the answer, "When I'm up on stage and the gig is going really, really well, and I can hear everything that's happening. That lifts me. Then I play better, and because I'm playing better, then everything sounds better." If you can hit that cycle, that just becomes self-fulfilling.
I heard AC/DC didn't like to wear headphones in the studio.
They wore headphones. There are so many myths. It's very much this kind of searching for this secret key that will unlock these recordings. I sometimes find it very difficult thinking back to these recordings, because I certainly wasn't paying enough attention - I was just doing it. For me to go back and analyze precisely what it was about them is almost impossible. My recall is that there would be some songs where they might wear their headphones and some songs where they wouldn't wear their headphones. Cliff [Williams, bass] and Phil [Rudd, drums] would have headphones on most of the time. We obviously did for overdubbing vocals.
How did you get the drum sounds while mixing AC/DC's Highway to Hell?
I didn't do the basic recording for Highway to Hell, but it was done in a very dead studio [Roundhouse Studios]. The recordings were very good, but they were very dry, and there was no leakage between the drums and guitar - there was a lot of separation going on. What I really needed to do was stick the elements together. We put a couple of Altec speakers up in the studio - something that I'd done before - and I just used those instead of using chambers or echo plates. We used that to create a room sound.
For everything or just for the drums?
Mostly it was just some of the components of the drums, but I put bits of guitar in there as well.
What room was that?
It was Island - Basing Street Studio Two. I did most of my early recording in that room.
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It's a pretty big, ambient room?
It's a small room, but it's a room where a lot of great rock records have been made. Free had done quite a lot of recording in there. Spooky Tooth, Traffic, The Grease Band, Black Sabbath, Stephen Stills and Jimi Hendrix had recorded in that room. It was a great little rock room - had a tight, ambient sound, and it was identifiable that it was a space.
That's true - it doesn't have that unusable room mic sound that you can get in a lot of big rooms.
I've just been mixing an album that has lots and lots of ambient tracks available. It's very tempting to shove those ambient tracks up and it sounds absolutely huge. You put everything else in and you realize there's no real relationship. You've got a drum kit that was playing in isolation to everybody else - sometimes it's better to control that ambience a bit more.
With AC/DC's Back in Black you were in on it from the start, and you were Mutt Lange's right hand guy, right? Were you in on pre-production?
No, not really. I was working as Mutt's engineer, but while pre-production was going on for that record we were recording another album. A lot of that was just Angus and Malcolm. I would get a lift from Mutt to the studio in the mornings, and we were listening in his car [to the] various things that they were doing in pre-production. I had control over the recordings. I was able to say, "I really want to have this ambience." We recorded the guitars in the same room as the drums, allowing the amount of leakage that we wanted between instruments to take place. We recorded Back in Black on an MCI machine and played it back on a Studer. The MCI recorded fantastically, but played back really badly, and the Studer played back incredibly. You got the best of both of them.
You've said The Alarm's hit "Rain in the Summertime"  was just a little fragment of a song and you built it up with a drum machine.
I worked with John Porter on that - great guy. He was [one of] the bass players in Roxy Music, and he and I worked together on the Buddy Guy album, Damn Right, I Got the Blues. He's a really cool producer. We were working on this Alarm album [Eye of the Hurricane], and we really needed to get a single out of it. The Alarm kind of saw themselves as the Welsh version of U2 I guess, so it was very difficult to find something that was going to be pointed in the right direction. There was one song that we had called "Rain in the Summertime," and John and I both said, "This is the one." It had this very cool guitar riff that went through it and I thought of using repeat echoes on it, like we did on "Urgent" for Foreigner. We started constructing this, but it was very difficult. We couldn't get the consistency out of the guitar that we needed. It needed to be very hypnotic, so John and I programmed a drum rhythm on the LinnDrum and we recorded some different bits of the guitar. Then I used two multitrack machines and we got the bits of the guitar that were tight with the drum that we put down. It was like two multitracks doing cut and paste, because we didn't have anything else. I just kept locking these multitracks together with offsets and dropping in and built the guitar track up like that. We made a bass track up from a bass part that John played on a Casio MIDI guitar, and we then triggered various synths to create the bass sound. We got some drum fills out of the drummer and I then triggered samples of the drummer's drums from the LinnDrum pattern that we had. We basically constructed this whole track from bits and bobs. We were using [Steinberg's] Cubase on an Atari ST. It was pushing the technology that was available at the time. That turned out to be the hit. The record company, for some reason, didn't manage to get it out before the summer was over, and so we had a song that came out 'round about Christmas time called, "Rain in the Summertime." It should have been a big summer thing.
I didn't even know Cubase existed back then.
Actually, I think it may have been Pro 24 - Steinberg's precursor to Cubase - because I was using that for sample triggering. There was an album I did at Enterprise Studios in Los Angeles with a band called Lillian Axe [Love + War]. There was a massive control room there, so we had the drummer in the control room with triggers on his drum kit, and I recorded his drum performances into the computer using MIDI triggers. Then we put the samples on that and overdubbed the cymbals. It meant we got this absolutely tight, very '80s sound.
The thing that's interesting to me about it is that it's the complete opposite of a lot of the other work you've done.
Yes, but I needed to explore that way of doing things because so many artists were starting to do it - I needed to know the advantages and pitfalls. In any case much of the album was organic, and the guitar was recorded live. All of the sounds that we used were real sounds - well, most of them.
It sounds like a very different approach.
I think there's a lot of synthesizer music that sounds perfectly organic. I think the way that you use sequencers and that kind of technology can determine how successful you can make something in terms of it being organic. It's laziness quite often that causes things to sound very synthetic. I think it's how you combine things. We used loops back in the '70s, and they were literally loops - pieces of tapes that went halfway around the control room and down the corridor. It wasn't unusual to do little things like that, but it's what you combine with it that makes the significant difference. A lot of it has to do with dynamics. People will program drum kicks, and they'll have the same kick drum at the same velocity all the way through [a song] and the same snare at the same velocity. If you're going to make something sound realistic and organic, you need to have quite a few of the snare drum hits be a slightly different pitch, because the rest of them are going to be played on a different part of the snare drum and at slightly different velocities. The same with the hi-hat - you can't have that as repetitive. Of course then you start to program these things in, and it takes a lot of time. You've stopped being creative musically, and it's time for being a mathematician, which is particularly unrewarding. You arrive at a point along the way with that where you start thinking, "Wouldn't this have been much, much cooler if we had somebody playing?" If you're going to do the programming thing, you have to have a good, creative reason for doing it rather than trying to make them sound organic.
I know you also worked with Foreigner.
I did all the basic track recording on Foreigner's 4, a bit of the overdubbing and all of the editing. I spent the best part of five or six months on that record. By that time I'd been taken up for management by Zomba, and they had an album for me to come back and work on in the UK. It was only supposed to take four months for the Foreigner album, and by the time I was into the fifth and sixth month, I was running out of time. I recorded all the basic tracks and early overdubs at Electric Lady Studios. That was a good time to hand it over to Brad Samuelsohn.
On the Buddy Guy sessions [Damn Right, I Got the Blues], didn't you have an extra mic in the same position as the vocal mic just for ambience?
Yes. We were going to let him jam on songs, basically, and he was going to sing at the same time as playing guitar. I was able to put his guitar amps in a room with these sliding doors right behind him. Having put those in there, I could control the amount of leakage that came out into the room. Richie Hayward was in the middle of the room with the drum kit and Buddy was about six feet in front of him, facing him, singing into a Shure SM58. I realized that there might be occasions where we'd want to overdub a vocal. We were getting a great vocal sound on Buddy's voice.
You can make a Grammy-winning record with an SM58 as your vocal mic?
Oh yeah. It's not about the microphone - it's about Buddy Guy's voice. He has the most astounding voice. He could be ten inches from that microphone and then he could be half an inch from the microphone and his voice would still sound as present. I knew that it was likely we might have to do some overdubbing, so I put another microphone up in front of the drum kit - far enough away that it wouldn't pick the vocal up, but it was picking up a similar ambience to the one that the vocal mic was picking up. When I put in the overdub vocal, I would switch in this spare microphone - the dry overdub vocal plus the spare ambience microphone replicated the sound of his live vocal. The perspective of the drums didn't change.
That might sound simple, but if you don't prepare for it...
On the Buddy Guy record - a lot of planning had to go into that. We knew that we were going to have to jam with these things, so he was likely to be playing up to 10, 12 or even 20 minutes of music, and then we edited it down from there. Pro Tools wasn't a viable platform at that point in time. The other part about Buddy's playing was he would play very, very loud and then he would play almost nothing, so you had this massive dynamic range. I was very concerned that when he played extremely quietly, I wouldn't be able to pile enough level onto the tape to get it clearly above the hiss, so it was obvious I was going to have some kind of noise reduction. Dolby SR doesn't work very well if at all at 30 ips. I discovered that it worked really well at 15 ips. So I decided, "We'll use fifteen inches per second with Dolby SR, and we won't hammer the tape too hard." I think we used AGFA 468 - a good, quiet tape. We banged the tape machine in, recorded the first tune, I listened back to it and I thought, "Oh, this is incredible. There's all that bottom end that I normally lose." I got really excited because it was a choice that I made for a particularly different set of reasons that paid off in spades. It enabled that warm, really solid bottom end that the record has. It's great.
It would seem like having worked on some of these records lead your career down a certain path.
All these records have contributed to things that I've done subsequently - not that I've necessarily thought about it, but I've certainly taken those things forward. It's so interesting, I find, that the way these records were made, the attitudes of these records, the way that people perceived these records - how it still maintains now. A while ago I was introduced to the guys in The Bad Plus, a particularly bizarre, improvisational jazz trio from the States. They're incredible virtuoso musicians who are totally off the wall. There are a lot of original compositions, but they also do these great versions of rock classics, like Bowie's "Life On Mars?" I was introduced to them by a mutual friend at a gig. The drummer turned out to be a big fan of AC/DC, and just suddenly said, "We should get you to do our next album!" We had a blast doing this, because so many of those techniques of capturing a band's essence were what they wanted to access. We made this record [Prog] at Pachyderm Recording Studio [near Minneapolis] where Nirvana made In Utero - this great space with these fantastic microphones and incredible players. These things kind of come back around. Those experiences that I had, those methods and techniques are still relevant. It's great to bring them to bear on something like that with great musicians. It proves that it still works.
Do you find that a lot of recordings you do are with people who know your work and know that you're good at capturing a live band?
Yes. Prior to this, Trevor Wyatt (who used to work at Island [Records]) called me up. "Here's a band that I have. They're a 30-piece big band that plays big-band adaptations of reggae tunes."
That sounds fun.
They have a very renowned jazz bass player, Gary Crosby, who formed this band called Jazz Jamaica All Stars. He said, "They need somebody who can record 30 musicians all at once, and I immediately thought of you." That led to a relationship with Dune Records that led me on to do more albums with Soweto Kinch, Abram Wilson and Juliet Roberts. That gave me a whole profile in the jazz world, which I'd not previously had. Of course the jazz world was why I was at The Bad Plus gig. All of those things lead through from one thing to another.
What projects have come along recently?
I mixed this album [Archeology] for a New York band called The Lizards. It was actually a really interesting collection of covers that they'd done with a good, hard rock edge to them - great playing, well recorded. They chose a whole bunch of tunes - Free, Uriah Heap, The Babys and John Lee Hooker. They wanted to capture the British rock edge, and they asked if I could mix that. I had a ball doing it, and as far as I could gather they seemed pretty happy with the results.
What's your take on changing recording formats and technology?
It's a funny thing. When we had 8-track, everybody moaned about 8-track. When we had 16-track, everybody moaned about 16-track and talked about how wonderful 8-track was. Then we got 24-track, and everybody moaned about 24-track and how wonderful 16-track was. Then Pro Tools came along and everybody moaned about Pro Tools and talked about how wonderful analog was - and so it goes. We're a fickle bunch of people. All of these things have a place. Analog sounds fantastic, but it's the practicality of analog that we're really stuck with right now. You have a whole generation of musicians who are used to saying, "Can we just move that a little bit?" or, "Can we take this solo off and put it onto that take?" Their expectations aren't necessarily prepared to be compromised by what analog recording requires you to accept. I don't think that Pro Tools 192 sounds bad at all. I think my [iZ Technology] RADAR sounds fantastic. Haydn and I went through loads of converters before we chose the Prism ADA-8 for our Pro Tools upgrade, because it does everything we expect of it and more! Part of my philosophy is that one of the things we do as recording engineers is try to overcome the compromises of the whole recording process. When we were recording analog, we had to overcome the problems and compromises of the signal-to-noise ratio, the hiss, the harmonic distortion, the compression and all the rest of the vagaries. We did that and we found ways to actually use those to good advantage. The best thing is to do the same with the digital media that we're offered now - accept the fact that they're going to have some advantages and some shortcomings and try to make the shortcomings work to our advantage. DAW platforms are trying to be as transparent and uncharacteristic as they can be, so now it is more important to consider the signal chain before it gets to your chosen recorder, and the value of wonderful mic preamps like Neve and API has become more obvious. There is some really exciting new hardware around now to complement the software. I think what you're trying to do is give yourself a set of tools when you're recording that reduce the creative compromises you might have to make.
Geoff Knoop lives in San Francisco and is a musician and studio owner/engineer/producer.