The history of recording music is half folklore. Tales of insinuation and glory have us turned around to the point where we don't know much about what really happened during most of the great recording sessions. Are those who don't know history doomed to repeat it? If only we were so lucky. We'd all like to make Sticky Fingers, we just can't seem to. True enough, most of us haven't had the band or the songs to get that kind of fierce air moving in a room in the first place. But let's say we did. What would all that sound become without the right person there to catch it, just so? Missed opportunity. Brilliance off-center. So how do we not miss these golden opportunities? Whom would we go to, to learn how to get music to stick to tape? Well, okay.
From the first minute you talk with him, Andy Johns is quite a charmer. After five minutes, it's readily apparent why anyone from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin would want Andy along for the session: He's a rare marriage of intelligence, quick wit and knowledge, with the even rarer quality of seeming non-hierarchical in his attitudes. Since he doesn't pull any punches, it's easy to see why you'd trust Andy in a critical situation. How lucky then that he's also a brilliant engineer. While he probably wouldn't like this terminology, let's face it: Andy Johns is a legend. He's recorded many of the records that modeled rock 'n' roll. "When the Levee Breaks", "Bitch", "Marquee Moon" and an array of other tracks containing some of the sounds that are touchstones for a whole generation of sound-recordists. And he did a lot of it while he was in his twenties. In spite of his prodigious output, it's quite possible Andy will never get his due. His older brother Glyn is also a legendary figure who cast a shadow over Andy in the public's eye early on. This abundance of family talent, a history of less-than-explicit album credits and eclectic producing jobs have made the Andy Johns saga an enigmatic one.
I woke Andy up in the middle of the afternoon with a "bit of a cold". While he said he was feeling not "quite chipper", he then talked affably with me for a couple of hours. He was candid, to say the least, but never with the touch of malice that you often find in people who have been doing it for over 30 years. As the past fades, it might be impossible for any one of us to sort through all the lore. Everyone writes their own biography sometimes fashioned more for entertainment than history. Andy can't help being entertaining, but he knows his craft, and, in his own way, tries to set the records straight.
You started off as a tape op at Olympic?
Yes, in 1967. My brother, Glyn, who was, like, the first freelance engineer in England, ended up doing a lot of work at Olympic and got me an interview there. I was lucky to start off at Olympic because it was extremely popular with rock 'n' roll bands. In the course of a week there would be sessions with Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, Manfred Mann, Mick Jagger producing something. At the same time during the day there would be orchestral sessions because they did a lot of movie soundtracks. I learned a lot from that, too.
Did you move quickly to engineering?
Yes. Now it's awful. I see guys now — they're janitors, then they're assistant engineers after a year or something and then they can stay doing that forever and ever and ever. Back when I started it was, "Hello", sit in on a session and then in two days they were putting you on dates. There wasn't as much to know back then and the engineer did a lot of the patching and stuff, where nowadays assistant engineers really do everything, which is fine with me! So, as soon as they saw you could get away with it, they'd put you on sessions as an engineer. Back then when new clients called up they wouldn't ask for a specific engineer, they'd just book time. They would show up and you would say, "Hello my name is __ and I'm your engineer," and they were none the wiser. Then, if you impressed them they would ask for you again. So, because the competition wasn't very strong back then, within a year of me starting to do engineer sessions I had a pretty solid clientele. I had already done some pretty big bands — Blind Faith and Humble Pie — so I was able to go out on my own and make a little bit of money, which was great at 19 years old — to have some cash. At 19 you don't have any responsibilities, but then I spent 360 days of the year in the studio!
So you didn't have much social life...
The only people I met were people at the studio. In fact, my first wife, I married her because she was about the only girl I saw for two years! She was the receptionist at a studio, so that's how glamorous it all was!
It's funny you say that, because one could credit you and your brother for making engineering a glamour profession!
Well, let's not forget Uncle Eddie Kramer as well! He made sure that he was noted. When I came along they had just started putting the engineer's name on album covers. Because, as much as anything, of Sgt. Pepper's... The general public realized there was a lot of hocus-pocus that went on in the studio and it kind of validated that part of the profession, and you got your name on the record and you didn't have to ask. But I used to like to get my picture on, too, if possible. That's how awful I was back then!
Did you meet Eddie Kramer at Olympic?
Eddie Kramer sort of trained me on the Axis: Bold as Love sessions. And he was somewhat of a taskmaster. But I learned a lot from him. Eddie is very clever.
Now, did you work on Physical Graffiti together?
You're both in the credits...
The reason I'm on there is probably the reason Eddie is too. They [Led Zeppelin] were working with Ron Nevison at this point. I'd had my falling out with them but there was stuff left over from previous sessions. There were two or three tracks that were credited to me as engineer but they were probably from the third or fourth album. Maybe they did work with Eddie in New York.
I heard a rumor you did a mix of Tommy at the age of 19.
No, I'd been actually engineering things for about three months and I hadn't got a clue. Kit Lambert shows up wanting me to mix "Pinball Wizard". I put the tape up and it didn't sound very good. The studio that I worked at, you know, sometimes the tape didn't sound very good because sometimes you take a tape from one place to another and its not compatible. So I put Tommy up and it didn't sound very good and I said, "This is ghastly work! Who did this? I can do much better. Bring the band tomorrow and we'll see what a real engineer can do!" or something dreadful like that. [laughs] And they showed up the next day, and it was the worst session I've ever done. I couldn't get a sound on fucking anything! It was a total and utter nightmare. And then it started snowing and we all got snowed in. While we were waiting for them to dig us out, I was the butt of all the jokes. So that was a good learning experience about ego and how you shouldn't do things when you don't know what you're talking about! I did little bits with them later — Keith Moon liked me so he'd row me in on a few things — but The Who were my brother's territory.
But you worked with your brother a lot.
Yeah, there were several albums from about '69-'73. I would do some and he would do some. That's how it was back then.
What kind of gear are we talking about in the Olympic era?
In 67-69 it went from 4-track to 8-track, then by '71 everyone had 16-track and the theory then was, "Golly gee, with all these extra tacks there's going to be a lot more tape noise," so everyone bought Dolby. No one had really thought the problem through, of course. You don't really get more tape noise with extra tracks because it means for each track you add you turn the others that much down. After one or two projects we threw the Dolby away. The best thing about Olympic is we had this guy Dick Swettenham who built their mixers and later started the company Helios. He built these absolutely brilliant mixers. It was the first time you saw mixers that you would recognize as the basic format for a mixer these days. Simple stuff that you wouldn't think was that innovative. Back then having a pan pot on every channel was a big deal.
It was all left, right, center.
Yeah, or you don't use two channels, I mean stereo. Really, people didn't mix much in stereo to start with. That was because people didn't have stereo systems. So it was L-R-C and if you wanted to pan something, they gave you a pan pot. I'll never forget at Sunset Sound mixing Zeppelin stuff and I said, "Excuse me, I need to pan something." And the guy went, "Oh, hang on," and he got on the phone and said, "Bring Andy the pan pot"! [laughs] And they brought this thing in the size of a woman's handbag, very proudly, a big knob on a gurney, and presented it! So yeah, he had inserts on every channel, you could EQ the midrange — unheard of! And it was all laid out ergonomically, very pleasantly, and it all sounded great.
Your first Stones record was Sticky Fingers?
Gee, it's such a long time ago. Some of that stuff was from Muscle Shoals and I mixed it. And some were Glyn's recordings and I mixed it and then I recorded four or five songs on there, the more rock 'n' roll things. "Moonlight Mile" I remember I recorded because it was the Stones' truck and I did the very first sessions on the truck [RSM] — that was about halfway through the album.
Glyn had been doing it for longer than you had. Did you feel sort of like Mycroft Holmes?
Well, yes. It was always, "Well, hello you're Glyn's younger brother," and that went on forever and ever. Now I'm 52, I don't get that so much. But that was one of the reasons I was more comfortable working over here, because it was, "Hello, you're Andy Johns," not "Hello you're Glyn's little bother." Because after a few years I got fed up with that. I was doing pretty good work on my own and it wasn't a case of 'Screw Glyn' but, you know, "Screw you."
Had you yet developed a particular way you liked to record a band back then or was it more dictated situationally?
Well, I suppose I knew which microphones I wanted to use. And, from very early on I liked experimenting with different surface areas and getting things livened up, because what people were doing back then — which was pretty silly — was building things deader, deader and deader. With the theory being, "Wow, we got all this great new gear, we can get the sound with the gear," which is totally ridiculous. Because the sound doesn't come out of the mixer, the sound comes out of the room.
So they'd baffle more and you'd have to work harder to get tones.
Yes. I was happy to do this thing with the Stones' truck because that was big education for me and I got to do my first album in a house as opposed to a studio. The house that we used, Stargroves, was ideally suited because it was a big mansion and a kind of grand hall with a gallery around with bedroom doors and a staircase. Big fireplace, big bay window — you could put Charlie in the bay window. Off the main hall there were other rooms you could put people in. We did stuff like "Bitch" there, and you can hear on "Moonlight Mile" when Mick is singing with the acoustic, it sounds very live, because it was! Four or five in the morning, with the sun about to come up, getting takes. It was all very heady stuff for a young chap!
And you continued on with them, including going to the south of France to do Exile on Main Street.
Yes, that was actually pretty soon after finishing that record.
Well, tell us about Exile... by all means!
That record changed the way I thought about things. Up until that point I was extremely fast — that was one of the qualities people admired. If they could do a run through with five or six or eight pieces and you had your sound by the end of their run through, because you never know — "They-may-never-get-it- the-same-again-and-they're-artists," and all that — so, I was very quick, BUT Exile... actually took a year. I grew up as a person and was less intimidated by the musicians and all that, and I started taking my own sweet time a bit more after Exile...
Jimmy Miller was producing.
Jimmy Miller was the one that got me in with the Stones.
What would he do?
Jimmy, when he first worked with the Stones, had some cool ideas, especially as far as getting grooves — that was Jimmy' s forte. He would play a percussion instrument on the basic track to get Charlie in the pocket and he was quite innovative. I learned from Jimmy about getting tracks that felt great. And he also was very interested in getting new and different sounds. As it went on with the Stones, they started listening to him less and less and in time he got shoved to the side and it fucked him up. Because you sit in the room day after day with people who treat you as if you are unimportant, it will get to you after a while.
He wasn't going to leave the gig because it was so prestigious but it got to old Jimmy and it didn't get to me because I could be whatever I wanted with them. I could sit there and take the abuse or I could tell them to get fucked or I could come up with ideas or not participate for two or three days and then participate.
They did a lot of arranging in the studio?
Yeah, they would come in with just an idea.
A lot of people would say those Stones records from Beggars Banquet to Exile... are it. That's the best run.
They were doing the blues-based rock 'n' roll troubadour thing then, which is my favorite form of music to start with, so, yeah, being on the sessions for what ended up being a little over three or four years. I couldn't have been happier, especially because Mick Taylor was perfect for them. He was just a marvel.
Also, after a little while I got my sea legs with them and they'd let me make fairly solid suggestions to them even as far as with the material and stuff. It was a good learning experience for me after I got over the fact that they were The Rolling Stones. It prepared me for later on when I started producing exclusively.
What a lot of new producers lack are the people skills — getting the performances out of the artist.
Well, that's an acquired art. When I was a kid I thought, "Oh, you have to be such a psychiatrist." Well, it's not true. If there's something wrong in the arrangement you just have to figure it out and then you have to quite quickly explain it. Like the drummer or someone, if you're trying to change his figure. If it doesn't work then you look like a bit of a chump, but it's only rock 'n' roll, you know, and it's fairly obvious what it should be! So once you've done that once or twice, you've now gained the man's confidence, because it makes him sound better — it makes everything sound better and, you know, off we go! So you don't start by taking huge risks the first few days. I learned a lot of that from watching Jimmy and then by the time we go to Jamaica to do the Goats Head Soup record, I'd gotten to know all of them fairly well. I was spending a lot more time with Mick and Keith while they were sitting fiddling around writing things. I was really watching that stuff so I was able to get a bit more creative on my end instead of just putting an amplifier up a chimney or something! [laughs]
How long did you work with Led Zeppelin?
Zep II, there were two or three songs I did the basic tracks for and some overdubs and then they came back and wanted to do a third album. I'd known Jimmy Page since I was about 14 or 15. Now, according to Jimmy, the third album [III] was done all over the place, when in fact the whole thing was done at studio 2 at Olympic. I remember for sure, then I got them to go to Island where we did the mixes. And that went pretty well. They used to work very quickly. So, we had done the third album, which was received okay, you know — some people liked it, some people didn't. There are some good things on there. And then I got the call to do the fourth album ["Zoso..."], and I had used the Stones' truck on several things, so I suggested to Jimmy that we go to Mick's house, Stargroves, and use the Stones' truck. When we found out that Mick would actually charge for the house as well as the truck Jimmy says, "No, no, no. I can find somewhere a lot cheaper than that," and we ended up at this other place, Headly Grange, which was a great place, too. That's where I got the "When the Levee Breaks" drum sound.
Ah. One of the biggest legends in drum sounds. Two Beyer M160s?
Correct! Two M160s.
But... it's the drummer, not the gear?
Well, I don't mind taking some credit for it. Bonzo, the way he tuned his kit — it sounded fabulous. And you would stand next to Bonham and wonder, "How can I get this damn sound?" But even if you got a good drum sound in the more formal approach, oh well, yeah, you knew it was alright, but you knew he wasn't particularly blown away, because it wasn't as good as if you stood in the room with him. I'd been experimenting with distant mic'ing by this time but there was really no way to get the drums in a separate room where you could get the mics a distance back from them. Where are the other musicians going to go? I hadn't figured that out yet. And at Headly Grange we started recording in the main living room downstairs where they could all fit. And we got a couple of things in there, the "Rock and Roll" song and some other stuff, but outside when you walked in the front door there was the main hallway, which was square, more or less, and there were three floors and stairways going up to landings. A bit like a hotel. They went to go to the pub or something and I asked Bonzo, "Can you stay behind? Let's put your drums out in this hallway." "Oh, okay," and I got a couple of M160s and out the steps up the first staircase, and then just compressed those and we had a Binson Echorec, which Jimmy Page had brought, which is like...
A drum and wire echo unit...
You know about them, they're great! And I just put some of that on Bonzo and brought it up in the compressor as well, and bingo! And I thought, 'Fucking hell. He's really going to like this, this is really something!' 'Cause really, we had never heard anything like that before and everyone came in and was very excited, but the funny thing is that it didn't occur to me back then that I should do this all the time, even though it worked so well! And I didn't start using room mics all the time until years later, because then they went on to do "Kashmir", which Page obviously mixed the sound, and fair enough. Why not? It worked perfectly. Unfortunately, the song we were doing wasn't that tempo where the compressor is breathing with the room sound. It wasn't until the middle '70s that I realized you should put up some room mics and figure a way to get the amps out of the room.
Which compressors were you using on "...Levee"?
The board compressors, the Helios ones. Lovely compressors. So there you go, that's the story of "....Levee Breaks".
Your work has a very natural sound. It wears well. A lot of modern recordings don't. They are too fatiguing to listen to over and over. Did you set out with a specific sound in your head you always tried to get, or is your style more an evolved product of the way you were taught to do things?
Well, I suppose it's just the way I like to hear stuff because in those days no one really taught you to do anything — the only lessons you really got were making the musicians happy. A lot of the situations I was in, there was no producer — there was the band and there was me. And my job was just to keep them happy and obviously you want to keep yourself happy as well. You're not doing it just for money or because it's better than watching TV, you're doing it because you love to do it. The engineering thing was mostly something I fell into, anyway, it wasn't something I set out to do — I was going to be a rock star like everyone else! And just working in the studio I thought would be a good stepping stone, meeting a lot of musicians, and I started doing some engineering and all of a sudden people wanted to work with me. So I didn't set out to learn any stuff or read any books, I just kind of picked it up, you know? And as far as the thing sounding natural I suppose it's because I've always liked rock 'n' roll bands, so my idea, even if I've done a lot of overdubs and put a lot of things on the tracks, is really to integrate them so it sounds like you're at the best rehearsal the band ever did. Just like one big lovely noise.
Instruments sound like instruments and it sounds like people are playing them...
Yes! People playing as opposed some fucking sample repeating itself over and over.
It's sad that some people will grow up never having heard that "people playing" sound.
Yeah, it's good for me, though. It means the competition's thinning out! [laughs]
You worked with Rod Stewart when he had come to America. Now, the Faces' records seem to have a very English sensibility, particularly in their sense of humor and looseness. Is it fair to say he was trying to Americanize his sound?
Well, he hooked up with Tom Dowd. And Tom took him to — I don't know what studios they did that shit in — but Tom was a very American producer and he had musicians he liked to use, so that Atlantic Crossing album was basically Rod Stewart meets Tom Dowd and his buddies. But when I first worked with Rod...
...Foot Loose & Fancy Free?
Yeah, that's probably right. Rod got me in specifically because he wanted to get the sound that I got and told Dowd to leave me alone. Rod sits me and Dowd down in a room and says to Tom, "I don't want you interfering with Andy," which was, "Thank you very much, Rod," because I had admired Tom's work for years and I'd met him all over the place and "Mr. Dowd" I called him almost, you know? So, obviously Tom, who had the ego the size of a fucking house, didn't like that much, but he shut up about it for a couple of years. And I was lucky because I learned a hell of a lot about arranging from Tom. He was just brilliant at it. I learned from Tom that if there's a problem, all you've got to do is sit down and keep bearing away at it, and you can figure out what it is. So thank you very much, Mr. Dowd! So Rod wanted me there because he wanted the more raucous rock 'n' roll-type sound that I would get, and by this time he had an English band, except for Carmine [Appice] and the bass player...
Yes, who was Chinese-Jamaican but was really from England. So the humor and the practical jokes — which sometimes almost got out of hand — I enjoyed all that because I had been working with Americans all the time, now it was fun to hang out with the limeys now and again and have a bit of a booze up and play some practical jokes on each other. You know, humiliate people and bring them to tears, you know, that sort of fun!
So you were more or less left alone on those records?
Well, yeah. Tom would get in on the mixing and stuff and we had some battles. Tom fucking hated me deep down inside, I think, resented me, and I don't blame him. But I'm still glad I worked with him. Like I said, I learned a lot and I remember being very impressed watching what he could do and thinking, "Well, fucking hell, if he can do it so can I." Tom was very clever and had been doing it forever and ever. I remember being at RCA studios doing something and I picked an RCA 44 and it said "phase standard changed" and the date was February 1950 or something, and Tom went, "Oh, I remember when we did that," and it was the year I was born! And I thought, "God, he might just know a little bit more about certain things than I do." I got him in on an Eddie Money album, because there was no way they would let Eddie Money and I go off and make records on our own because they knew that the studio would burn down, more or less.
One of my all-time favorite records is Marquee Moon. It feels great and it doesn't sound like any other band or record in the word. Did you enjoy that one?
Well, it's funny, because when you said that for second I went, "Oh yeah," but when I was doing that record I didn't have a very good time and I hated it and I hated them and I hated everything! But looking back on it I have some fond memories. They were this serious punk band. I got the phone call to go to New York and it was for Elektra, whom I liked. I hadn't heard any of the music and in those days you didn't really, there wasn't all this getting together to see how you'd get on and all that crap. I showed up and they just sort of turned around and said, "Oh you're here," and then turned around and went back to work! It wasn't the sort of, "Oh Andy's here hooray!" meeting I'd expected.
So, not the collaborative effort you were hoping for?
Tom Verlaine was very serious, and in the tracking sessions it was really tough to get the grooves happening. They were like The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones could play very poorly and then all of a sudden it would click and it would sound great, and they were a bit like that. I must admit Tom Verlaine made me work a bit harder than I might if he hadn't been there. I did this playback session toward the end where it all came together, sounding fucking great. I made them play perhaps a little tighter than they would have and double tracking things and vocal performances and stuff, but quite honestly it's such a long time ago. I don't want to take more credit than I'm due.
Where did you track it in New York?
A & R studios, which was fairly primitive. I think we did all the music there and went to Atlantic to mix — they had this very strange mixer there, one of Tom Dowd's "brilliant ideas" to have the faders upside down! So the theory being you pull the sound towards you and you push the sound away from you and in those day before computers, you'd just be going along and go, "Oh, I hate this," and in one fell swoop, bang! You'd pull it all down.
I still do that!
So I blew up the speakers in the control room! The theory did not catch on!
I notice for a while you've been doing a lot of "hard" rock and some metal. Is this a choice on your part, a taste issue?
No, it's actually annoying and unfortunate for me that people just associate me with that kind of music. It's fine, I enjoy doing that and I'm familiar with it, but I've done all kinds of other stuff. I guess it's because of Zeppelin.
Some of the second and third generation hard rock bands latch on to you for that "magic" then?
Well, that how I ended up with Van Halen, because they wanted the drum sound, Alex wanted the drum sound.
And how did that go?
That's what I said to Al. [laughs] I said, "I'll get you a drum sound that's better than anything you ever heard before but it ain't going to be that one." And it looks like I'm about start work with them again.
Did you enjoy working with them?
Yeah, I had a great time. The one studio album [For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge] I worked on took a year, you know, so it was a little arduous. I wanted to change the way they worked just a little bit. Get them a sound that actually had some bottom end to it for a change.
That would be nice.
At least that!
That record did well
Yes, it won a Grammy and the MTV video awards and all that and I got a drum sound of the year award, which was fun, but I didn't get on with Sammy [Hagar] that well. Sammy didn't like me that much and I didn't really care for Sammy much. I did a live album for them and Eddie and I did little things on the side, but that's about it. I still see Alex and talk to Eddie now and then.
Is Alex a bit deaf?
Alex, like a lot of drummers, doesn't have as much top- end as he was born with, but you do learn to compensate. I've lost some hearing in my right ear, but my mixing hasn't suffered. But there are a lot of drummers, because of the cymbals.
Or standing right next to them!
It's ear infections that got me. Last year the right ear was so bad when I went back to work I had to sit off-center! But after some time it kind of went back to normal and I've done some mixes since that I've been really happy with. I just don't think about it too much because it's too fucking scary! [laughs]
How do you work in the current world of Pro Tools, console automation, sampling, over-compression and people generally screwing up the sound of music entirely?
Well, the Pro Tools thing, this LA Guns record I just worked on earlier in the year, I'm very happy with. I didn't realize it sounded as good as it did until the last day. I sat and moaned and complained and pissed people off because it was on Pro Tools the whole way, and I've done things on Pro Tools before and, you know, the damn mouse and all that, fuck off. And when you're mixing, every time you put a plug-in in, the phase moves one or two degrees, which can be really awful because I like to mult little things — I might like to have two snare drums, so you can't just do one thing to one snare or they go out of phase. There's ways around that, so if that's what's there and they haven't got money for anything else or we're at someone's house, hey, there's an upside to it: the editing.
The editing is very convenient, though it's allowed for a lot of conveniently bad edits on records these days.
Well, what are you going to do?
People are dumb.
People are fucking idiots. [laughs] I think always in the recording industry! Actually, I think people way back took it a bit more seriously and they were a bit more mystified by it. Now there are so many people, when I'm at Cherokee or wherever, I go in and check out what other people are doing sometimes, and there are two guys sitting there with screens in front of their faces. Seems like the musicians only play for half an hour a day and then the rest of it is "music by typewriter".
Well, they do it because they can.
You can only tell people so much. I got a bit fed up when the sampling first started because they would say, "Andy, let's do the backgrounds once and then we'll fly them in," 'cause at the time I was using lots and lots of tracks to do backgrounds and it would take a long time, all because of "Mutt" Lang, you know. Everyone wanted that sound. But it's not the same thing as just having the guys do it all the way through. And then here comes Pro Tools and it's like "Look, I only have to play the verse once," and it's like "Oh yeah?" Whatever happened to the guys playing for five minutes and you could hear the guys playing off of each other? That's the thing that I like, supposing "Hey Joe" had been all fucking loops?
Well, Bob Ohlsson had discussed here previously how he learned the virtue of complete takes by riding the fader on Levi Stubbs, breathing along with him.
There's nothing like the take of the night, or it might even take three or four days. That's something I learned from the Stones, about waiting to let it happen. Things like "Tumbling Dice" and stuff like that — that would be two weeks.
Well you know, you're in the south of France — no one really started doing anything until 10 or 11 at night, and you weren't doing more than four or five hours of work a day and getting everyone to sit down and play at the same time was virtually impossible. I don't mind doing edits, the outro from one take or the usual stuff like that.
Do you think people have lost this skill of getting the takes?
Well, I don't know anyone that's coming up that's learned how to do it. People my age know how to do that, but there's a lot of guys now that have never even used a tape machine, which is fine, but this record I made on Pro Tools I made as if I was doing it to tape.
Readers will of course want to know some technical things. For instance, on any songs you'd want to pick, a basic type of set up, mics you might favor, etc. We know it's more about music than mics, but that doesn't mean people aren't curious!
Sometimes there's something to that. There was this producers' book and when I read the Geoff Emerick chapter I was very interested to hear what he had to say about the gear that he used with The Beatles.
EMI-built consoles and such?
Well, he was talking about putting everything through the Fairchilds and also how they got the bass sound by putting a [Telefunken] 251 in figure of eight about six or eight feet away and then just EQ-ing it on the Vox head. I've only ever tried putting the mic that far away on bass. Usually when you can't get a bass sound, you start trying silly stuff. I went out and tried that, literally the next day, and it worked great! Why don't I give you a standard setup if I was doing a date tomorrow?
Well, I would probably want to be working on an API mixer or a Neve, but I prefer the APIs. With Neves you never know what you're getting. I remember trying out two V series at the Hit Factory and one was alright and the other one wasn't all right and they were both the same model. I think the caps go quickly on those for some reason.
But you like API 550 type EQs?
I like everything they make! So let's say it's an API, and if I was working somewhere else and I wasn't too happy with the mic amps, I would get some old Neve pres, just for the drums, at least.
When you say Neves, you mean 1073s or something like that?
One of the four-band things, I don't know numbers so well, you know. The four-band things, they sound pretty good. And then for mics, I like to have two mics on the bass drum — one inside and one outside because I like the front head to be a proper head, not with a hole in it. I like to put a [Sennheiser] 421 on the inside and [Neumann U] 47 FET on the outside. On the snare I use a [Shure SM] 57, but it's not sticking over the rim of the drum, it's just about two pencils-width back from the rim of the drum looking across the head, that way you pick up the strainers and you don't have to use another mic underneath, which never sounded very good to me. And then I'll use 421s on the toms probably, unless [AKG] 414s sound better — it depends on the room really, or the drums. For overhead mics I'll use a couple of [Neumann U] 87s. But most times those don't end up in the final mix. I'll use a couple of [Neumann U] 67s or maybe a couple of 414s or something like that for room mics, and that's where the cymbals come from.
So the 87s are more of a safety?
Yeah, you never know! I mean, I have used as many as 30 mics on drums, I mean that one Van Halen record, because we had such a long time up there, I ended up using two mics on all the toms and he had a lot of them, and a mic on nearly all the cymbals and he had a lot of them, and four or six rooms mics. Mics all over everything! I must have had 30 to 40 mics. It was insane!
What made you do that?
Because he'd keep complaining about things and I'd put up some more mics! And because I had the time, and it ended up sounding bloody marvelous.
It's a phase nightmare though, isn't it?
Well, I think if you do it properly it's not so bad. You've just got to check what you're doing. I used to think that it was this phase nightmare unless you really did things almost as if they were on a protractor, but in actual fact that's bullshit because unless the microphones are the same distance from whatever it is, it's all just a fuck up. They've got to be the same distance, so if you've got a mic on the snare and a mic on the tom and they're not the same distance it doesn't matter which way they're pointing. So then, when I mix — and this is kind of important — what I'll do is mult the bass drum and one of them I'll compress a little bit with an [UA] 1176 or something just so it's nudging. More often than not the guy's not going to be playing the thing very evenly, so that helps. And then I mult the snare and on one of the mults is put on a Kepex Two, or if I've got to use a Drawmer or something more sophisticated I will, but I like the Kepex. Also an 1176 to get some snap and to get rid of some of the bleed. And EQ them with whatever I want and then sneak that up under the regular snare channel to get some punch and clean it up. Then put the right sort of compression on the room mics. I usually use an AMS reverb, and up until recently in combination with an EMT 251, but it's so hard to find an EMT 251 that works these days and I never bought one. So I'm kind of screwed on that one, but they've got so many other fucking things, I don't even know what they're called. You can get what you want. For the guitars, my standard set up is using two 57s on whatever speaker I've chosen, one pointing straight on and the other one at a 45- degree angle. And that way as long as you position them so that they're equidistant from the speaker they're in phase and one of them will give you all the high end you want and the other one will give you the bottom. With bass, usually a DI and a 47 on the amp. And then what I do with the direct is I run it through a delay line so I can pull it back about 3 or 4 milliseconds so it's in phase with the amp. Or more in phase than it was!
They make a box for that now, you know. Little Labs make a variable phase box [IBP].
That's smart. I've been doing it for years and everyone was saying, "Ooh" and "Ah" and "How clever", so I guess it was just a matter of time before someone figured out how to make it. And 87s or something on the vocals and that's it, the basic setup.
And the kind of rooms you like to work in?
Well, the mixer isn't as important to me as it seems to be for some people. If they've got the kind of mixer I like, then that's good. But the first thing I do when I walk in is check the monitoring, and play something that you know.
What monitors do you like?
I like to have a set of big monitors that work — I grew up with that. A lot of studios now they haven't bothered to put them in or they haven't bothered to maintain them. Something with a 15 [inch speaker] and a horn.
So you can hear some low bass...
So you can fill up the control room and do a bit of dancing. I like tracking like that. Obviously, when I mix I spend a lot of time on whatever small speakers I'm using. Those new JBLs are okay and I still use NS10s.
The "real world" speakers?
Well, this mystifying thing happens to the human brain when you're mixing. It's so easy to just sit there and convince yourself that everything is just fine. I remember doing this years ago with an Eddie Money album. He had finished it without me and I said the mixes sounded bad and he should let me mix some of it. I'd done four or five mixes, I was behaving myself, and I decided to have a little playback session. I had a couple of drinks and a cigarette, and I went, 'Fuck me, there is no bottom end on this thing.' But because this sounded a little better than what they'd been getting, and they got used to me playing it back like this, the whole band and Eddie and I were convinced that it was the shit. So ever since then I do kind of experiments so that won't happen again. I'll have the big speakers and a pair of small speakers and then I'll set up medium-sized living room-type things. I still have 4312a JBLs, I like those, and I'll set a pair of those up in the main room on chairs or something. Listen away and you learn from those three sets how to get the bottom end working and how not to get the tambourine too loud and the usual sorts of things. Then I'll make a DAT and I'll run up to my house and, sure enough, every time I'm going to hear something that you haven't heard at the studio. "Oh, when it goes to B the bass disappears." You'd have thought you'd notice something simple like that, now you go back to the studio and your brain is armed with this information and, sure enough, at the studio on these other three sets of speakers you hear the same thing and you correct for it. You know how the first time you go into a new studio you sit and listen and you think, 'Sure I could work in here, this is pretty good.' But it takes you a week or ten days for your brain to figure out what's coming out of these speakers and your brain kind of calibrates and adjusts so you're no longer hearing what's coming out of the speakers but what it will sound like in the outside. And it does that on its own without being asked to. So there's that involved: 'Is it doing that well today?' And you haven't got any control, so that's why you have to be so damn careful. 'What's your brain decided to do on its own today? I don't know, we'd better check.'
People often don't take this time to figure it out, whether it's the gain structure of a board or the monitoring.
Yeah, and sometimes you get lucky, but other times, if you don't spend the time to do that you get a record that sounds like shit and then you have to live with that forever, and I've done that long enough. I can listen to something I worked on 30 years ago and if it's no good it's been pissing me off for 30 years and it's no fun! Having ruined a lot of records when I was a young guy — I did my share of records that don't sound the way I would have liked them to — so I try and avoid that.
What kind of work would you like to do that you don't get to do?
I don't know, really. I suppose if Cat Stevens made another album I would like to work with him. I engineered some stuff with him way back when. I like doing those kinds of things as well. When the grunge thing was going on I was never considered for any of that because everyone thought, 'Andy Johns, he's got to be some old geezer. He wouldn't get this,' which of course is ridiculous because music is just music. Whatever comes my way, man. As long as they can play and the songs are okay, I really don't mind. Whatever keeps me from just sitting there with a book and a remote control in my hand. Get me out of that mode and into the studio!