Any of us who record rock music are likely aware of Glyn Johns. His legacy in the recording studio spans many years, and includes some of the best bands ever. In the sixties he tracked seminal British Invasion works for the Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces, The Creation, and The Kinks. He even worked with The Beatles near the end of their career. Over the following years he produced and engineered Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, The Clash, Green on Red, Nanci Griffith, Belly, and Midnight Oil. Recent works include Band of Horses, Benmont Tench, Ryan Adams, Patty Griffin, and an upcoming Eric Clapton album. Glyn Johns is the sound of a large portion of rock radio, as well as most of our record collections. In his recent book, Sound Man, he recaps the highlights and adventures over the years, in the studio and on the road. We visited Glyn at his beautiful home in the country south of London, and met a gracious host happy to give us a tour of the gardens and a few hours of his time. I'd interviewed his son, Ethan Johns, in 2005; Glyn and I began talking about him, as Ethan had just been by the day before.
How's Ethan doing?
He's doing great, and he said to give you his regards.
That's great. Are you proud of having a son so talented?
No. Of course I am, you twat! I'm very proud. I'm proud of all my kids.
Luther Russell, who you worked with briefly, is a friend of mine. You set up a recording session for him.
Oh, I remember him. Very, very nice guy.
Your console was over at Ethan's. We hung out and I said, "Ethan, would you want to do an interview for Tape Op?" He said, "No, I don't want to." We ended up hanging out for three hours, and by the third...
He told me the story as you're telling it here. He ended up doing it, and he said it was really cool.
I own a studio; I also engineer records and produce. I'm not coming at this like a journalist. I think that's everybody's fear.
I don't have a fear of journalists. I spent 50 years ignoring the press completely, just purely and simply based on the fact that I figured my career would last longer if I did. The minute you start using the press, they get aware of it fairly quickly, as you know, and they will turn to look to ways of knocking you. They'll be critical and unpleasant, because it makes for better reading. I never had a need to promote anything through the press. I certainly wasn't looking for work. It wasn't like I was having a problem in that area. I never went near them. Actually it worked. For anybody starting now, it would be the first piece of advice I could give them. Avoid it. Don't talk to anybody.
Like you said, their job is to sell newspapers and magazines.
I understand that. I've been really lucky, because I've kept my head down. On the very rare occasion that I get my name mentioned, it's nice. It's very pleasant.
I looked at the press around the time your book was coming out.
The book was the first time I've ever really used the press for a purpose, and I was trying to sell my book. Again, because I'd never done any before, it was relatively simple. Fortunately, none was horrid.
It's a positive tale to tell, at this point.
Well, yeah. I didn't slag anybody off.
Were there times you felt like saying something but didn't?
Yes, you are!
Of course I wrote things to get it out of my system, screeds of stuff that were not particularly complimentary. I took it all out, realizing very swiftly that airing your dirty laundry is not what the book should be about at all. I took pretty much everything out. I'm glad I did. I don't think it makes good reading for anyone, as a punter reading the book. I don't think it's good to sit there and hear someone waffle on in a negative way. I made the book as positive as I could, and that's how I felt.
How did you feel about the reaction to the book, the sales, reception, and reviews, at the end of the day?
I was completely blown away, to be honest. I had no idea that it would be as popular as it is. It's doing really well. It's been a really good reaction to it. Initially it was very strange to me to even accept the fact that everybody was treating it like a book. I'm used to it now.
Has anyone optioned it for a film? Would there ever be a possibility of a movie based on your book?
There's been a lot of talk. In fact, Ethan and I have already started on a documentary based loosely on the book itself. It's not about me. It's about the era, which is what the book is supposed to be about.
Near the end of the book you talk about being really lucky to have been a part of what happened at that time. How do things look to you these days, with the music industry and recording — especially our end of it?
To be honest with you, I'm so far out of touch now. I don't work very much, and when I do, I go in with blinkers and do exactly what I always did. It's not like I'm looking to learn a new technique or anything.
You're not Pro Tools certified?
I won't have a screen in my control room of any sort. I'm not terribly qualified. I've lost touch a bit. I talk to people obviously. Ethan and I have been talking about it a lot. In part of the film that we're making, we're obviously going to go up to date as to where things are, and why and how. We're talking to people who know and are in the business now. As far as I'm concerned, I think it's rather sad that the digital age has taken over to the extent it has. Obviously there are massive benefits. I did an interview on Friday and the same question was asked. I am now where my mum and dad were with me. My mother and father didn't understand one note of any piece of music I was listening to, or the way that people dressed or behaved. It was completely alien to them. Now I'm right where they were. So it's normal. I don't feel upset or anything. I feel a responsibility of sorts, as obviously you do or you wouldn't be doing what you're doing, to encourage the young of today and hopefully pass on a little of the knowledge I've got, so that at least that way of recording is made available. It's very rare... most kids wouldn't know how to record more than one instrument at a time.
Would you ever think of writing a book that was more technically oriented?
Yes. I got approached to do that, in fact. I think it would more likely be a pamphlet than a book. I don't think there's quite enough for a book, to be honest.
Are you sure?
Yeah, pretty much. I've never really thought tremendously about the way I work. I've just sort of got on with it. I probably forgot more of what I've learned over the years than what I can remember now. Anyway, it's been discussed for some years now. I might do it. I dunno. I don't know that I want to do another book, to be honest with you. One was enough I think. I might do a DVD. I think that might be better.
Right. Something more hands-on.
Yeah. At least you can actually demonstrate. You can't always put things down in words easily. Describing sound is not easy to do.
You're one of the few people, after [Alan] Blumlein, to have a mic technique with your name affixed to it, right?
Yeah, which 99 percent of the representations are complete nonsense. That's why I wrote about it in the book. It's the only technical thing in my book.
My friend, David Kennedy in Cleveland, had you come over to Cuyahoga Community College and demonstrate that at the studio there.
Exactly. Somebody filmed it. It's on YouTube. I didn't know someone was filming it.
You can't do anything anymore without it being recorded. One of the things David said to me was that you weren't taking the measuring tape and going from the snare...
Look, here you go. When I was a kid and learning, I was a tape op. The studio that I worked at was the only independent studio in the United Kingdom that had its own remote gear. We did quite a lot of classical recording with symphony orchestras. We'd take a lot of gear out, set up in a venue, and record. I can't remember who the engineer was, which is terribly sad. I was a junior, and I'd slave my ass off from very early in the morning, setting up the symphony orchestra, all the chairs and music stands. Then it comes to mic'ing it. I looked at this guy and was like, "Now what?"
A hundred mics?
He just looked at me and said, "Listen. There's nothing complicated about it. It's all common sense." Mic'ing is common sense. He said we could easily do this with two mics in stereo, and it would be great. He said, "If you think about it, if you know the pattern of the microphone, what the microphone that you're using is actually seeing, and then you figure out the distance, you apply the angle of the capsule to the distance away it is, then you'll know what it's going to cover." We put half a dozen mics up. We rarely used more than that. That was the best lesson I was ever taught. I went back to the studio and got the literature that came in the boxes for all the microphones, and I studied the patterns of all the mics. Most engineers now would not have a clue what a [Neumann U] 67 sees accurately, because they've never looked at the diagram. There's nothing clever about it. It's just common sense. Whatever instrument you're recording, if you go out into the room and are impressed by the sound you're hearing from the musician (which is hopefully the idea), then your job is to try and capture that sound. Unfortunately now, that very rarely happens. First of all, engineers rarely go out into the room. They might send their second out there to move the mic or something. If there's a problem when they lift the fader up, if the sound isn't what they want, they'll immediately try to get clever and reinvent the wheel by employing techniques in the control room to get the sound right, rather than going out and listening to what the guy's giving him in the first place. It almost certainly won't be what he's hearing in the room anyway. I could ramble on for hours, but you know what I'm saying.
I'll shut up, because you already know.
But I'm not learning anything, Glyn! I'm here to pick your brain. I need to be a better engineer. I think also you mentioned earlier that it's instinct, in a way. It's also like when we're good at this, you hear what's coming through the mics, you walk in the room, and you instinctively know what to do.
That's because I've done it for 50 years. For 30 of those years, it was pretty much six days a week. In the early days, it was three sessions a day with different musicians. It was nothing like today. The massive learning curve in the late '50s and early '60s when I got my hands on a console, everything was live and in mono. The client would leave after a three-hour session with songs finished. Done. You had to be on your toes. It's a great way to learn. I still hold that method of recording dear to my heart. Delaying decisions to the end of the process is absurd, and it is the biggest time and money waster altogether that can possibly be. I know it's gone way beyond that where I've left off, with 24-track.
You can have 300 track sessions.
Exactly. It's just absurd. Frankly, all it means to me is that people don't know what they're doing. They don't. They're incapable of making a decision. The net result is that if something is pondered over and farted around with to the extent that it is capable of being done now, digitally in particular, the music becomes clinicized beyond belief. It loses a massive element of substance as a result. To me, music is an emotion. It's an emotive experience to play it, to perform it, and it's certainly an emotive experience to listen to it. The performance of a piece of music by more than one person should be an interaction between those people. It should breathe between whomever is playing it. If you overdub something, the person overdubbing can respond to what's come down already, but they don't affect it other than adding another layer of sound to it. What's happened now is that almost everything seems to be recorded one instrument at a time. Some people are brilliant at it, but some are not. The end results are then farted and fiddled around with to such an extent that it takes all the human element out of it. Some of the best records ever made have mistakes in them; the tempo changes, but there's nothing too horrendous, and it's all part of the process. What won on those performances was the fact that there was an emotive content between the people playing it. That made this magic bloody sound that we're still listening to today. Those records all hold water in some way, and I believe that's the reason why. There are lots of other reasons too, but I feel very strongly about that. Obviously it depends on the music, but to me that is essential for the performance of the piece of music to work for me.
When you work with an artist these days, such as Ryan Adams or Band of Horses, do you have discussions beforehand to say, "This is how I see us working on the record"?
Oh, absolutely. The reason why anybody would want to work with me is because they know the way I work. Equally, if somebody that I really wanted to work with wasn't happy about that aspect, I'd try and meet them halfway because I wanted to work with them. I'm not completely shut up and closed. Obviously there have been loads of cases where I've been forced into a situation where I had to build [songs]. But I don't think it makes for great records. There are certain musicians... Joe Satriani is a classic example. I made an album with Joe [Joe Satriani, 1995]. Joe had previously had massive control over pretty much every note that was played by everybody. He was very strict about exactly what was played. He made a fantastic record with my brother [Andy Johns], in fact. Brilliant record, with the Bissonette Brothers [Gregg and Matt] on bass and drums. Then he comes to me, and I say, "What I'd like to do is put you in a room with musicians that I consider to be as good as you, and I want you to play the guitar. That's it. They'll join in." He wasn't quite sure if he was going to be able to do it; but he did it, bless him, and he did it brilliantly. We only made one record, so he's immediately gone back to the way he's always worked. Obviously that has been hugely successful for him. However, I know for a fact that he enjoyed the experience. That was him meeting me with my suggestion. It was very difficult for him to do, but he's gone back to the old way.
Yeah. Ryan Adam's record [Ashes & Fire] is completely live. Well, maybe the strings were overdubbed, or a keyboard part or something. He might overdub an electric guitar part, but we could have easily released everything we cut without one single overdub on it.
You really know if it's happening that way.
Well, of course. It's so much better for all the musicians if the singer's actually giving you a performance while they're playing, because they react to it. That's the point.
I had a band send me the rhythm section to start laying down a song. I thought, "Where's the rest of the band? How do I produce this? I don't even have a demo."
There's something quite fun about building [songs]. It's like being given a couple of bricks, and then the next day, two more arrive.
It is different, and it can be fun. I could wang on for hours. I think people waste so much time. Look, I've probably overdubbed on every record I've ever made in some form, either percussion or a vocal thing, or somebody in the band wanted to play another instrument. Lots of times the vocalist obviously needs to become more familiar with the song [in order] to enable him to sing it the way he really wants, so he'll do a guide of some sort. Very often with the Stones, the lyric was never even written. It was just mumbled, or Mick [Jagger] just made noises. But it made a huge difference. If it wasn't there at all, or if there wasn't any kind of structure to the melody that everyone was hearing. It makes a massive difference.
I know. Time marches on, and it's "progress," but there are a lot of changes that I feel have been detrimental to certain recording scenarios. I hate to say, "That's not the way to make a record," because there are so many different ways.
No, that's just from my perspective. I respect all the other genres. I'm not saying I don't. I don't particularly like the results, but I accept the fact that it's me being a boring old fart. Things move on. It's fine. Good luck to them. Certainly there are some of those records that I think are really clever. The recording process was invented originally to capture the performance of a piece of music. That's what it was there for. Unfortunately now the tail's wagging the dog a little bit. People don't write songs the same way because of the recording process, and they certainly don't make records the same way. It's sort of taken over. Some people would argue that it's given us far more opportunities to be sonically inventive. Okay, I don't argue with that. It's just not my cup of tea.
Picking the right producer is important.
Let's get to that. That's an interesting point. I think the most difficult choice any artist ever has is picking the right producer. I wouldn't want to be an artist for all the tea in China if I wasn't experienced, or hadn't actually had the opportunity to work with the producer before. It's all very well, someone having a reputation, and you liking the records they've been involved with; but you never really know, as an artist, to what extent and what type of influence the producer had on the record. I've made loads and loads of records where I was just lucky to be in the room, no question about it. I wouldn't want to take any credit, at all. The artist takes the credit. There are very few where that isn't true actually, if I'm honest.
Especially in the UK, you were really one of the first people to transition from engineer to producer and freelancer as well.
I was the first freelance engineer in the world, I think, for some years actually. It's very strange. I don't know why that was. I've never really paid much attention.
But making that transition, being seen as an engineer and then saying, "At times, I'm producing." Sometimes people get confused about what a producer is — it's the ultimate question that's always impossible to answer.
This is from the foreword of my book: "Someone asked me the other day, 'What exactly does a record producer do?' My answer was, 'You just have to have an opinion, and the ego to express it more convincingly than anyone else.' Every time I start another project, I wonder if I'm going to get found out." That's pretty much how I feel about it. There are so many different types of producers, as you know. All of them, most of them that I ever worked with, specialized in one aspect of production, maybe two, but very rarely all. The one aspect they specialized in was strong enough to give them the gig. They all had an opinion and were capable of pronouncing it in a convincing way. Some guys were not really musical, but they had a good idea about song picking. Mickie Most was a classic example of that. He could pick a song and put it with the right artist. I engineered a session for Mickie Most years and years ago, and he read the paper. He didn't say a word. Other guys were all over it like a hot cloth, interfering with it on every level. Wrong. It's somewhere in the middle. The idea is to provide the environment for the artist that allows them to be who they are and create in a happy and healthy way. My responsibility has always been to the artist. It's their career on the line every time they go into the studio to make a record. I'm very much aware of that. I try to find out from them what exactly they want from me, and I try to provide it. In a lot of the bands that I've worked with, different individuals in the band want quite different things, never mind the whole band.
That's a learning curve.
It's a massive learning curve. Being an engineer for so long, working with so many different producers, I learned a tremendous amount of what I liked about what they were doing, as well as what I didn't like.
Early on you were working with Shel Talmy on some iconic recordings for the British Invasion years. What kind of things did you learn from working with Shel?
He was a classic example of somebody who spoke with authority. You would never have a question about what his opinion was. He certainly was involved with what I was doing. He commented constantly about the sound I was getting, or the balance. I don't ever remember him specifically getting involved with arrangements, but then again the acts we were working with were pretty together; The Who and The Kinks, in particular. He was impressive; that's all I can tell you. He and I were incredibly close friends for a long time. I engineered almost every record he made for a long time.
Did you work on The Creation albums with him too?
Yeah. It's funny; that came up in conversation yesterday. Great band.
I always assumed you worked on that, but there're not a lot of credits.
Engineers did not get credit for anything then.
Right. Those are some wild sounds, like the violin bow squealing on the guitar. You were banging these songs out. Three songs in three hours or something?
Three or four songs. Maybe just an A and a B side, if you wanted to cut a single. People weren't making albums then.
You got an album, if the singles did well.
Basically you got to make an EP. If you had a hit single, you were allowed to make an EP. If you got any bigger after that you were allowed to make a 10-inch album. And then, eventually, if you were really good and making fortunes, you could make an album. Nobody bought albums, in those days.
What kind of album projects intrigue you now, and what makes you want to work on a record with somebody at this point?
It's based on their personality, as much as anything else. Then their musical ability, obviously. My feeling about working has never really changed. If I'm intrigued by what the artist is doing musically, then I'll meet them. If I get on well with them, then we're off. It's never changed. The last record I made quite a while ago was with Benmont Tench [You Should Be So Lucky]. I did that record for nothing, along with everybody else.
Really? Just because it would be a good experience?
It was bloody marvelous. We had a great time.
The album feels like that.
People were queuing up to play on it, absolutely. That gives you an example. For some years, it hasn't been a question of being terribly worried about income. I've never been motivated by the possibility of the buck, at the end of the day. I've been very fortunate to hit on some artists who have created reasonable sales, but that wasn't the reason I started.
I'd assume there are royalties still from albums you've been a producer on.
Yeah. It's good. It's ridiculous, really. But I'm not complaining.
No. One of my favorite records you ever worked on was, of course, Who's Next. I know that had the origins as the Lifehouse story. Pete Townshend came in with things very well demoed. Then you had to take something that was huge and conceptual, and make a single album out of it.
From Pete's perspective, he'd written music for a film and the film wasn't going to happen. It would have been ridiculous if the music had gone to waste as a result of the film not happening. It was an obvious thing to point out the fact that we should just make an album from the music.
Yeah, the songs are good.
It wasn't a problem at all. It was very easy to do. The demos were so self-explanatory. He's just extraordinary. He's a very good engineer, on top of everything else. I think probably the major problem we were confronted with was some of the grooves were not necessarily typical of what Keith [Moon] and John [Entwistle] would play. I felt that they needed to be slightly more conventional in the way they approached a couple of the songs. That was what I proposed.
Like on which material?
I don't remember which songs. I'd have to listen.
But to kind of slow down a little bit on Keith's fills?
No, it wasn't even to slow down. It was just being more conventional in the way the groove was played.
I'm always amazed how by solely using your typical amount of mics that you hear all that activity on his kit, as well as the power of it. How can I do this?
Well, the reason you have all the activity of it is because of the mic technique. That's exactly it. Simplicity, Larry.
Yeah, but if I don't put all those mics on the toms, the drummers comes in and says, "I can't hear the high tom enough!"
Tell them to hit it harder then. Real simple.
Very, very simple.
I wish people could do that sometimes.
Could do what? Hit it harder?
Listen to instructions.
Oh, well if they won't listen to instructions, then it's their problem that they can't hear the tom. Look, think about it. Drums are designed obviously to project sound, right? They're meant to be heard from a distance of a few feet, or even further, depending. But they're designed to project. The sound of each drum actually comes into fruition a good three or four feet away from the actual drum. It depends how hard it's being hit. It's the same with any instrument amplified; acoustic guitars, strings, or whatever you're talking about. No musical instrument was invented to be heard from six-inches to two-inches away. The minute you put a microphone right up against the skin of a drum, or a microphone right up against the hole of an acoustic guitar, you've got a problem because it doesn't sound like it's supposed to. Maybe you don't want it to sound like it's supposed to — that's another thing. But let's say you're trying to get a really good drum sound. I don't know about you, but when I've got session musicians I'll book a particular drummer, not just because he can play well, but because of the sound he gives me and the way he tunes his kit. It's very much a part of who he is. It's the same with a guitar player. If they get a really good sound and have a good comprehension for sound in different styles of music, you want them in the room. You don't want to have to start telling somebody what sort of sounds you require. You want their instinct.
You've got a mic that's an inch away from a drum, so it sounds like shit. It's gotta sound like shit. It doesn't sound like the drum. So you then have to get clever and fart around with it [in order] to try and make it sound like a drum. You're in trouble, but you've created the problem yourself by putting the microphone there. You multiply that by 12, or however many microphones people use on drums now. You've got phase problems, and it just goes on and on. One: the sound of the drummer has got nothing to do with what you're hearing, at all. Two: the dynamics in what he's playing goes [away] immediately. Basically, it's an insult to the drummer. You could say, "It's your job to provide the dynamics of what you're playing, not mine; so it's in your best interest for me to mic it from a distance. Then I can hear absolutely the sound of your kit." If the snare drum doesn't sound right for the song, that's because it's the wrong snare drum, or it isn't tuned correctly.
"Let's change the snare drum; let's get things feeling right. Tune your drums."
Yeah. Of course if it's a band, you're not choosing the drummer. He's in the band. You help him. You might suggest the way you think the drums should sound. But to be honest with you, we could talk about this for hours. It's horses for courses. Again, I've been really lucky. Everyone goes on about my drum mic'ing technique. You know the story of John Bonham really well. This man got the greatest drum sound you'd ever heard in your life. If it hadn't been John on that session, I probably wouldn't have discovered that technique of stereo mic'ing because he is so amazing. Prior to that session, I'd always done drums in mono like everyone else.
What had been your technique there?
The same mic setup. Identical. But what I discovered on the Led Zeppelin session was putting one microphone on one side, and one on the other to create stereo drums.
How do you feel about your brother Andy's work with them after you? It also sounds fantastic. Was it fun to listen to his perspective on recording?
If I'm really honest with you, I never have.
Never listened to them?
No. I don't even own the Led Zeppelin record I did.
You were busy. What about Andy's work in general though?
Genius. Absolutely brilliant. No question. He took what Led Zeppelin started, the heavy rock side of things, and sailed off into the sunset with it. Fantastic. I wouldn't know where to start.
Were you guys on a similar track when you were young?
No. He was much younger than me.
How much younger?
Eight years, nine years maybe.
That's a substantial amount when you're young.
When he was at school, I was doing the Stones. He got interested in what I was doing, and then when he left school, I got him a job at Olympic Studios as a trainee. It was pretty obvious he was going to follow in my footsteps. He was a very different sort of guy than me. Completely different personality. Astonishing engineer. Completely different approach to recording than me. Perhaps there were similarities, but absolutely brilliant. Brilliant.
Phill Brown [Are We Still Rolling?] assisted you on some of your Small Faces sessions and other assorted projects way back. He told me he felt that the engineers he learned the most from ever were Keith Grant and you, working at Olympic back in the day.
That's very nice of him. I like him a lot. Very nice young man.
He was young then!
He's not young now, of course! Keith was doing a completely different type of material than me. A really fine engineer, Keith. Fabulous engineer.
Were there any engineers that you learned from along the way? You were mentioning IBC Studios.
When I started at IBC in '59, the senior engineer there was a guy called Eric Tomlinson. He was an astonishing engineer, absolutely brilliant. He left there, went into film music and did really well. I learned more off him than probably anybody. We had a huge staff at IBC, and they were all really damn good. There was a guy called Ray Prickett who was really good, and then there was a young guy called Terry Johnson. He was younger than me and left school illegally at 15. He got a job at IBC at 15 years old. When I started, I was 17 and had left school. He was 16, and he was doing sessions! This was in 1959. He was just a complete natural. He and I became really good pals, and I seconded for him for a year, or however long it was. We were sort of like a team. Between the two of us we learned how to record loud electric music, because no one had ever done it before.
You're looking at this era where all of a sudden you've got louder drums and louder guitars.
Yeah, and also the music was different. The senior guys at the studio didn't understand. They didn't want to know about it, so we got the opportunity. Thank god.
One of your earlier productions was The Steve Miller Band.
I produced Steve Miller in 1967 [Children of the Future]. That was the first album he made. For three or four years before that, I'd been working with a lot of producers, and I'd been contributing to the production of the records quite happily. I was very happy to remain being called the engineer. It wasn't that big a deal, but there just wasn't anyone else in the control room. I was in the chair, so I could make suggestions directly to the artist rather than via the producer. The transition was great. It was like being let out of a cage, because I had lots of ideas that I'd been saving.
We see you transitioning from engineer to producer. I think, at that point, we hadn't seen a lot of people making that switch.
No. In fact, up until that moment, it had never happened. Engineers just were not considered to be anything other than that. The idea of any of them becoming a producer was abhorrent to everyone. It only happened for me because of the situation with Steve Miller. He retained me to engineer his album. After a month of recording, we hadn't got anything. He'd just been fooling around. I went in and just said, "Look, I've only got two more weeks, and I'm bored rigid. I'm wasting my time. I don't want to do anymore. This is my last session with you." He said, "What can I do?" I said, "You need a producer. Somebody needs to take the reins here." He asked if I would do it, and I said, "Yes." I talked myself into the job. We made Children of the Future in a couple of weeks, after having farted around for a month.
What was the difference? Obviously you took the reins.
The difference was, "Sit down and play the song. That's the take. Moving on!"
There were songs to play but they weren't getting done?
There were songs to play, but he was experimenting and there wasn't anybody in charge. That was all that it needed.
A couple of times in your book you talk about situations, like with [the Rolling Stones'] Their Satanic Majesties Request, where it's a mucking about session. There's a disparaging tone.
I love Satanic Majesties; but some of it is so boring, and some of it's great.
If you think it's boring to listen to, imagine how boring it was to sit there while they were recording it. The Stones never thought of me as a producer. I was an engineer.
Right, that's what I mean. I think that transition...
Even years later, they never saw me as a producer. It's fine. I understand.
Well, at least they didn't think of you as a tape op.
No, probably now they'd think of me even worse than that!
Part of this is a service industry. If you're working in the studio and someone comes in, you try to get the job done and get them on their way. Being able to step back and have an opinion about it is important. Even if someone says, "You're just the engineer, Larry," I want to guide the project to help with a better result.
Of course you do. But if you're not being employed for that purpose, you best keep your mouth shut. People will very often feel that you're interfering and that you're out of order. I've mentioned that when I was helping producers that I was making suggestions, but I'd never do it if I felt they didn't want to hear from me. With most of the people I worked with, we had a great relationship. We had mutual respect, let's put it like that. That's why they were working with me, and why I agreed to work with them. I enjoyed their company and thought they were good at what they did.
Can I ask you some technical questions?
Of course you can. I don't know if I'll be able to answer them. I'm not very technical.
John Paul Jones and John Entwistle are two of my favorite bass players. The way that they both sound on the records, and what you've done to reproduce them, you hear them regardless of what you're listening on, even little tiny speakers. You hear them in a car. What was your technique of recording them?
No different to anybody else. The reason those two examples sound like they do is because of John Paul Jones and John Entwistle. It's nothing to do with me, at all. It's their sound.
Right. But what kind of mic'ing would you use?
Same things I used on everybody. Same thing I'd use if you were a bass player now. It was almost certainly a [AKG C] 414. I don't ever equalize the bass. Do you put equalizer on the bass? No. The bass is the most critical instrument of all to touch.
I'm a bass player.
You know exactly what I'm talking about. Changing the sound from the amp will make a big difference. The biggest difference is going to come from the instrument itself, its inherent sound, and the touch of the guy. I never limit or put anything on the bass. I put a microphone on the amp and I lift the fader up. If it doesn't sound quite right, I'll talk to the bass player.
That's too easy of an answer.
I'm sorry! My favorite bass sound, for years and years and years, was Paul McCartney's bass on [The Beatles'] "Paperback Writer." Astonishing. Years later I got to work with him at Trident Studios in London. For some reason, that sound came to mind. I'd never asked Paul anything about what they'd done in the past before. I asked, "Okay, how'd you get the bass sound on 'Paperback Writer'?" He thought about it and said, "Oh, the mic was about a couple of feet away from the cabinet. The cabinet was a Fender. It was a [Neumann U] 67." I'd never used a 67 on bass. I thought I'd give that a go. I thought, "Fair enough." If you're going to put a 67 on an amp, I'd never put it any closer than that, depending on how loud the amp was. For Pete [Townshend], on occasion, I'd use a 67 with his Hiwatt stack and I'd mic it from that distance.
To let the sound develop?
Yeah, exactly. We're back to that. If it's a big amp, the sound's got to develop out of it. There's no point in mic'ing it at the bloody cabinet. Anyway, I did this whole thing all meticulous, and it didn't sound anything like "Paperback Writer." But of course the reason was because the part was different and he was playing it different. So there you go.
Different song, different day.
Same bass player and same bass, interestingly.
You used to have a studio. Was it set up out here?
I had a studio at the other end of the county. I had a farm, and I converted one of the outbuildings into a studio.
Is that where you worked on The Clash's Combat Rock?
You had that Helios console?
It wasn't a Helios.
What was that wraparound console?
The shape was a similar shape to what Dick Swettenham built at Olympic. Actually most of the Helios consoles were in a straight line.
That was the one at your son Ethan's place later?
Yeah, I gave it to him when I moved from that house. I ripped the studio out and sent it to Ethan in L.A. It's a great console. A guy called Jim McBride actually built it. Here's what happened. Chris Blackwell approached me when he wanted to build [Island Records'] Basing Street Studios in London. I initially helped with the concept of the studio. I suggested for the consoles (there were two studios) that we get Dick Swettenham. We set Dick up in business with his own company, because it was the only way we'd get him away from Olympic. Chris financed Helios. The three of us were partners in Helios, initially. Dick had gone from Olympic and now had his own company. After about a year, I fell out with Dick because I didn't like the way he was doing what he was doing. I didn't want him to build my console, so I found someone else. I got Jim McBride, who had taken Dick's job at Olympic. We built that console. I designed the layout and he designed the interior.
Was there an ergonomic concept with the wraparound?
Well, it just makes it much easier physically to operate. I've never really liked the idea of having a producer sitting next to me. I had to put up with that for so many years.
It's a good way to get out of it!
"Go and sit over there."
Now I know how to run a session.
There is some good stuff about that console. It's been in storage for years now.
When you had that studio set up in the outbuilding, were you doing full band productions out there as well as albums?
When was that?
It was probably middle '80s, early '90s, maybe. I can't remember.
How many records did you do out there? Quite a few?
Yeah, lots. We did a Who album [It's Hard] there. Also The Midnight Oil album [Place Without a Postcard].
Oh, right. Was it a residential set up?
We had that facility. The people didn't always use it.
I knew that you had a place to work out of, but I've never read much about it.
It came about by a sort of convoluted situation. Jerry Moss [A&M Records] and I decided to go into business at a studio in London. We bought a cinema in London, and we were going to convert it. I had the console built for that. I bought some tape machines and whatnot, but then there was a change of heart. Jerry decided he didn't want to do that anymore. I thought, "All right, I'll do it myself." I went and bought this farm that had these outbuildings. The ball was rolling, and I was quite looking forward to the idea of having control over the equipment I was using, rather than having to settle for whatever was available. It worked pretty well. The acoustic space didn't really work out. I tried to fit a square box into a round hole, really. The building was a bit limited. But the control room worked really well. We did some good stuff in there.
Did you like mixing in there?
Yeah, I did. I did lots of different projects.
Did you have someone help manage you? How did you run your career? How did your career work with becoming a freelancer so early on?
Pick the phone up. And then say, "No," or, "Yes."
I'll have to learn this. Well, you know there's always the thing of management.
No, it's essential I think. It's become essential and it's been that way for quite a while. A&R men who, to a large degree, assign producers to a project were too lazy to figure out who should do what. For this entity, a management company appeared out of nowhere that had a roster of engineers and producers. They would hit on the A&R man and ask what they were looking for. The manager would go, "How about this bloke." It got to the point with me where I wasn't really fitting in anymore in the '80s. I'd had a good run, and my sound was dated. I wasn't getting what was going on with '80s punk and all that. A good pal of mine who's in the business said I'd have to get a manager. He said if I wanted to get anymore work, I should do it. Long story short, I finally met somebody who I felt could represent me fairly. I wouldn't mind him being in the room representing me. It was quite difficult; I have to tell you. Actually he was a great guy, but it didn't do me any good.
I'd imagine you'd still get work, based on reputation and word of mouth.
Yeah. From the beginning I had a lawyer to help me with contracts. I don't even use a lawyer now. I can read, and I have plenty of pals I can ask advice from.
Guys like you and Phill Brown hated the punk movement when it showed up. Why?
Well, it wasn't musical. It didn't have anything to do with music at all. It was [about] violence and a sort of unpleasantness. Unnecessary.
Then you did work with The Clash.
I did, and they taught me a lesson. Believe it or not, I'm very blinkered. It's a great story, actually. Muff Winwood was head of A&R. I've got a lot of time for him — he's a really good guy. I'd never done anything for him, but he called me up out of the blue and said that The Clash album had just been delivered and that it wasn't what they expected. He asked if I could I take it to be remixed. I said, "Oh, you've got to be joking. The Clash?" He said, "Take a listen." Then he sends me down this double album.
Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg?
Yeah. I listened to it and thought it was really interesting. It was self-indulgent and boring in parts, but there was a sense of humour there. I thought it was fascinating. I said, "Okay, let me meet them." They arrived at my house. It's Joe [Strummer], Kosmo Vinyl, and their manager, Bernard Rhodes. Very nice fellow. They get out of the car, and this guy Kosmo Vinyl introduces himself. I thought, "We're in trouble here. Kosmo Vinyl?" Then Joe gets out, terribly polite. We have a cup of tea and talk. I was won over instantly by Joe. He's just fabulous. I agreed to do it. I had not had so much fun in years. He was brilliant. He was open to any suggestion. He allowed me to make it a single album and not a double. He did not disagree with one thing that I wanted to do. We became really big pals. I made him re-do a couple of vocals, and it was brilliant.
So were you having to edit the multitracks, or were you mixing down parts?
I don't remember. More than likely a bit of both. I probably edited the multitrack. I can't remember. They just needed an objective opinion. We're back to what a producer does. That's really what they're there for.
The previous record was Sandinista!, which was three LPs!
I didn't know that. I'm sure Clash fans loved it!
Many did. I saw them on the Combat Rock tour actually; one of the dates they were in the States but not playing with The Who.
I recorded them with The Who.
Those got released, right?
Eventually [Live at Shea Stadium]. Not my mixes though. I just recorded them as a favor. I was there to do The Who.
Have you ever had situations where albums have been finished without you that you've been unhappy with?
No. I did make an album [Street Angel] with Stevie Nicks a few years ago that she was unhappy with after the fact. She seemed quite happy with it, but then changed her mind. She went back in and redid it. They might have taken some of what we did and overdubbed it. I don't know. That was an unfortunate experience. As far as I'm aware, nobody's ever remixed or mixed anything I've already done. Well, that's not true. Recently I made a record with a trio called The Staves. They're really, really amazing. Three sisters. Fantastic sounds and harmonies. Ethan and I produced it together, but it wasn't a happy experience. They didn't really like where we were trying to take them. We finished their record, with their approval to finish it; but they were never really happy with it, and they fiddled around with it afterwards. I know Ethan remixed some of the stuff after me; and possibly Dom Monks, Ethan's genius engineer, did some as well. Other than that, I've been really lucky. Nowadays, because it's a common practice, I make it very clear at the beginning that if anybody is approaching me to make a record that I won't have that. If there's a chance that they'll want someone else to do it, then they should go somewhere else.
I've had a contract drawn up for myself because I'm tired of things getting pulled out of my hands.
It's not fair. It's awful. Ethan's had it happen to him too. It's disgusting, is what it is. This came into my mind yesterday: Ethan and I spent the entire day filming for this documentary. We talked about all kinds of stuff, like how things had changed. I remember IBC Studios had two cutting rooms in the building that worked all day long. Invariably you'd cut your album in a day. Four songs in the morning, four in the afternoon, four in the evening. They were done, finished. The next day you'd come in, and they would master it. It'd be in the shops a month later. If you cut a single in the afternoon, it could be mastered the next day. There was a constant turnover of projects. The process of mastering, in those days, was just literally the technical situation of getting what was on the bloody tape onto a disc. There weren't equalizers and limiters in there. There was a tape machine that had a pre-head in there to provide information to the Neumann cutter, or whatever it was you were using. You cut the disc, and that was it. The guy got it on as loud as he could, end of story. Now they master CDs. It still goes through the same process. Of course a lot of producers use the mastering process to achieve what they actually require, but to me that's criminal.
What have you done lately when you've turned in a record, as far as overseeing mastering and all?
I'm very lucky. I go to Bob Ludwig. He and I know each other really well. The first few times I used him I went to Portland [Maine]. We have an understanding, and we talk on the phone. He sends me a flat cut. I'd go for all the [mastering] I did with Doug Sax for years and years. I have a great deal of respect for Doug, bless his heart. You know he died.
He was on my list to visit and interview in the next year or so.
I actually stopped by to see him in Ojai [California] about two weeks before he died. I missed him; I hadn't seen him for years. The reason I used Doug was because his equipment was capable of reproducing what I had on tape. Simple as that. I never wanted anything else changed. Maybe there might be a level change that might happen between two tracks because one had more apparent level than the other, but it was really simple. He'd probably add a little bit of 15 kHz on the [vinyl] inside track, because it loses a bit of top end on the inside. Very rarely he might say something could use a bit of 2 kHz, or whatever it was. We'd argue about it, and he'd win. Minuscule stuff. Same with Bob. Bob cut [Ryan Adams'] Ashes & Fire for me. He sent me a limited version, and a non-limited version. It's the custom now for everyone to run things through a limiter when they master so that it can be louder. My opinion about that is, "Turn it up. Just turn it up." You don't have to limit something and alter the sound of it substantially as a result. I must say that Bob's limiters are pretty amazing. They don't affect anything too much.
You don't hear it.
Unless you compare it to something that hasn't been limited. You can notice the difference. I'm sort of insecure about it, so I always choose the one that's not limited. He does nothing else. With him, his equipment's so superb that it's a matter of finding the right heads. To be honest with you, most records that are made nowadays you wouldn't know the difference one way or the other really.
They're also not coming off a tape master many times.
No, of course not.
Have you mixed from tape to Pro Tools and to a half-inch or such and checked out how they sound different?
No, I don't need to. There have been cases where I've had to use Pro Tools. Very rarely. I know exactly what it does, and I don't like it. I have no reason to ever go anywhere near it. None. There isn't one.
When you've had to use it, did you have someone there operating it?
Of course. I wouldn't know how to work it. Yes, I have an operator; a very competent tape op.
My feeling is that as every generation that follows us, once they have access to moving a drum beat easily or such, they will ask for that. Do you find yourself in situations where they're asking for things and you say, "Just relax. We don't need to do that"?
I haven't really put myself in that situation; but if I were to, the question would never really come up because it would be quite obvious. Frankly, there's very little that can't be done in the analog situation. I can't reproduce a chorus and pop it in somewhere else without losing a [tape] generation, but I wouldn't want to. I wouldn't want two parts to be identical. If a drumbeat is badly played, or a note is badly played, re-record it. Do another take. Or just play the bridge again where the mistake is and I'll edit it in. It's not that big a deal. Just play the thing again! By the time someone's sat down, identified it, done something clever, and felt that they were marvelous, you could have just played the thing.
It's like someone opened Pandora's box.
That's the problem. One point I'd like to make is in reference to what we were talking about earlier with overdubbing. The biggest problem with overdubbing is that it's unrealistic from the point of view of the producer and, if it's a band, the other people in the band. One guy goes out there and all everybody's listening to is what he's playing. It's like there's a microscope on what this poor guy is playing. He feels that too, of course. It's entirely different from playing with everyone else where you can get lost in the crowd and the onus isn't entirely on you. You're in a completely different situation. Yes, the guy might feel comfortable if he knows he can sit there for three hours and play a solo over and over again until it's probably a lot worse than the first thing he ever played. Equally, if you've got that number of tracks, you can keep this many and assemble a performance out of it. Are you a musician? Are you a singer? "I want to do one line at time. I want to do one word at a time. Can I do that verse again? Can I now listen to the last six takes and can we comp it?" Well, you're supposed to be telling a story here. It's supposed to have some flow to it. Nobody else knows. The punter doesn't know anything different. Nearly everything they're hearing now is a puzzle that's been put together by somebody. But all the great vocal performances that you and I ever heard were sung with maybe the odd line put in because someone was flat or whatever.
I see it as both, sometimes. Being able to save six different takes, and pick and choose, sometimes opens up that creative door too.
I don't see that at all. Who's creative? The person putting it together?
But you're trying to catch the magic as it goes by. Maybe someone's a bit erratic. I knew we could get into an argument here.
You've made more records than me. I should shut up.
No, you shouldn't. I mean, I'm very set in my ways. I feel very strongly. Listen, of course a vocal performance is probably the most telling, because that's what the listener's focus is on. I'm sure that very few of the vocals I've ever used on any song are an entire take. I might well have dropped in a line here or there, or had two takes and dropped in a line from another take. I probably would only use two or three tracks when I'm doing a vocal. That's the difference between analog and digital: having as many tracks as you want. What happens is the performer knows, because you've said it. You've said, "I've got two or three tracks, and that's all I've got. You're limited to that." The mindset changes automatically. It's not like, "Oh, I could be here for three years, sing this a hundred times; and we could sit here and listen to each take, analyzing what I did didn't do." If you've only got two takes to use, you can't get that complicated. You make decisions as you go along. We're back to that.
I think, almost even more so now, in the recording climate and the way music is these days, there should be more emphasis on a producer helping guide something by limitation.
Isn't that what they do?
Well, I feel like a lot of times artists take control of their own situations, and some aren't maybe that capable.
Listen, ever since artists started writing their own material, the onus changed entirely. The A&R man was the producer before that. He worked for the record company, and he'd provide the material for the singer to sing. That was it. The minute they started writing their own songs, clearly they had an entirely different investment in what was going on. It wasn't just the sound of their voice, or the way they could deliver a song. It was their song. Of course they got involved more with the way their song was being presented. Some relied more than others on the producer helping them do that. Some producers helped more than others. Very few hindered, in my view, but there were varying degrees. Each artist has a degree of assistance required. Most of the people I work with have very little, because they're great songwriters. I've always worked with great songwriters. I'm really, really lucky. You'll know fairly quickly how much they're relying on you for what, and what you can do. There's a very fine line between the artist coproducing with the producer, and I will not ever do that. I will never put myself in that situation. I want the artist to walk in the door of the studio as the artist, and leave the responsibility of all the dross that surrounds the process to me. The idea is to provide an environment for them to work in and facilitate what they want. That can be very much their taste, obviously. It's their record. It's their life on the line, after all.
Very few people can really produce themselves. I think it's very, very difficult to do. You do need an objective opinion on occasion. Interestingly when I'm mixing, I'd much prefer to have the artist there. I can't consistently, because it's not always possible. The reason is that obviously it's their record, again. I'm doing something, and they're judging it. It has to be what they want.
Sometimes I feel like if they're there, I can just feel them twitch if I do something they don't like.
Listen, the major reason is that when you're working on a mix, you get it to a certain point when you're ready to go and you want to know if it's okay. Very often you're not back where it was when you'd just finished recording it, and you're missing something. That's the reason. Then I'll do two or three passes that I'm happy with. I'll play them the three, and they can pick the one they like.
When you've done mix sessions where they aren't there, are you uploading songs?
Very, very rarely. Only a couple of times. Just because it holds me up. You don't want to set a mix up, do it, and have to wait four hours for someone to download it. It doesn't work.
I do this a lot.
Jesus Christ, it would drive me mad.
I start prepping the next song and waiting around.
No! I don't use a computer at all. There's no recall, or anything like that. I wouldn't want to anyway. If it's wrong, you start again.
I'm using a console and mixing Pro Tools through that. I can listen to the tracks of the next song but cannot touch the console. I've got to wait until they approve it. "Don't touch the compressor."
No, no. That's so inconsiderate to you. It's ridiculous.
I enjoy it more when they're there. I agree with you, absolutely.
There's got to be some interaction. The first time I ever mixed without the artist being there was [The Band's] Stage Fright. That was weird. In those days, people didn't mix other peoples' stuff. It was unheard of.
Do you know why you were chosen to mix that?
Because Levon [Helm] liked my work. It was Levon's idea. Todd Rundgren had recorded it, and Robbie [Robertson] wanted Todd to mix it, which was completely right, and Levon wanted me to. Todd came to London with two reels of masters. I got one and he got the other, and then we swapped reels. It was very odd. I'd recorded The Band backing [Bob] Dylan. That was when I met Levon.
On Stage Fright, did they use some of your mixes and some of Todd's?
Yes, and I've no idea what they used. I don't care. I just did the job! I have no idea.
I know you've mentioned recently that you love studios like British Grove and Sunset Sound. Are there any other current studios around that you really enjoy?
I'm sure I would enjoy most of the studios I have worked at, but British Grove is the studio for me in England now. And Studio 3 at Sunset Sound is my studio of choice in America. Ocean Way has always been good, but I haven't been there in quite a while and it's probably changed quite a lot. Allen [Sides] doesn't have it anymore, but I'm sure it's still good. It's a good acoustic space.
What do you have going on in the future, session-wise?
I have a couple of things brewing, and one definite. I'm making another record with Eric [Clapton]. That won't be until the autumn.
There's an American artist and an English artist I'm thinking about. But I don't really want to work this summer. I want to garden.
I don't blame you. I'd like to hang out here too.
I've been on the road promoting the book a lot, and this is really the best time of year to be here.