Phill Brown has had a 30 year long career as an engineer, something most of us are barely even capable of imagining. And not only has he been working for a long while, he's worked with some of the greatest artists in the world. The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, Traffic, Bob Marley, Brian Eno, John Martyn, Joan Armatrading, Throwing Muses, Talk Talk...Talk Talk, really. If you're thinking Talk Talk was a silly electro-pop band in the early 80s, think again. They turned into real artists, and their last two records, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are among some of the most amazing sounding records you will ever hear. And Phill was there. We caught up with Phill in Seattle while he was recording the next Walkabouts album, of which Chris Eckman is a member, and we got together for breakfast [thanks to Carla] and a nice little chat on recording.
Phill: Those Talk Talk records we were making, we were doing everything in real time. So we were using five slaves for every song. Every song had five, twenty four track, slaves which you could use depending on what you wanted to record. So that, some of the simplest things that became incredibly hard with that because of how much information you need. To change one of the lengths of one of our songs... .
Larry: Splice all the tape?
PB: And redo the coding, I mean the whole thing becomes a nightmare.
They had that with Elliott Smith's record. They started splicing the master, and then all of a sudden the slaves were jumping. It can be a real nightmare...but you know, you can work it out, it just takes time.
Yeah, there are ways. On one of the Talk Talk records we had to make one of the songs longer, which is even harder. I think it did take a couple of days to put in these extra five bars. We had to start with a new master... We mixed to the Mitsubishi [digital deck] as a final master and we had all these analog slaves of what we recorded. So we copied and made new masters to the point where we had to elongate it and then offset things in. At the time Mark [Hollis, Talk Talk leader, vocalist, etc.] went, "I need this five bars longer." Nobody thinks about the reality of it.
So you copied parts of it?
Some of it was copied and others were flown in to recreate a bass part from the bars we had, put the drums in, and build it up. Once you get those extra five bars you basically lock up everything that you have and copy the rest of the song. It is a lot of fiddling about work. This was 4 months into working on the album.
Those records, Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden took a while to record didn't they?
A year to make each. In the dark.
What was Tim Friese-Greene's role in making those records?
Tim was co-writer and producer and one of the keyboard players. He's a very important part of it.
Was he an original member of Talk Talk?
The first two albums were done with other producers and other writers but I think it was their second album that they were trying to finish and Tim was brought in for a remix situation and he mixed the album and got on well with Mark. Tim's been there from Colour of Spring on. I came in just after that.
What was your official part in making those records?
On Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock it's purely an engineering credit. There's been a bit of discussion on this new solo album I did with Mark because another person originally produced it and Mark got rid of him and rid of the album and we started afresh. I got what he wanted and I kind of imagined that I would be credited as co-producer. We'd talked about that and that was the agreement. Then, he thought about it a lot, and although he's given me a producer's percentage of the royalty, it's down as engineer because that's how he wants it to look.
Hopefully you still get on with him okay...
Oh yeah. We may work on a project together later this year. He's slightly tricky. I can deal with that kind of tricky because that's artistic. When it comes to doing business and all of that, the music business really pisses me off...
I wanted to ask you about that. You started as a tape operator in Olympic Studios in London and you've had to work your way up. For some sessions you get to produce stuff and for others you engineer. What do you see as the difference between those terms?
I guess I see my trade as an engineer. Even though I produce things and co-produce things I see what I do as an engineer. I tend to work the same whether you give me credit as an engineer or a producer. It's hard to say. The kind of producers I worked with originally were people like Jimmy Miller or Steve Smith (who did a lot of the early Robert Palmer stuff — we did an Elephant's Memory album together) who were producers who set up a situation and controlled things but they were vibe merchants. Jimmy Miller was this incredible kind of energy and drive and force. He made the session feel like you wanted to be there and make music. But he wasn't a hands on producer... Growing up in the '80's the kind of Chris Hughes [Tears for Fears] or Trevor Horn sort of production. I always think that they're making their albums. They're making what they want to do for themselves. I'm not saying they're not good producers, but I think that's the biggest change in production. There was more of an overall control, a bit of a vibe. They're not so much into deciding which hi-hat and which beat and all that. That was left up to the musicians and the engineer. I worked with Shel Talmy and those kind of guys. They didn't touch the desk [mixer]. It wasn't part of what they needed to do. They'd tell you what they wanted. When I worked at Island [records] in the early '70's the vocabulary was very much into "brightness", "harsh", and "trashy". No one talked in frequencies. That all came later. I still don't talk in frequencies now.
It's all relative anyway.
Exactly. What works one day may not work another. I was working with Little Feat years ago, in the '70's, doing a Robert Palmer record, and they were the band. We were having trouble getting guitar sounds and Lowell George came in and said something like, "Three at one point eight." He left the control room and we fiddled around and he came back later and said, "So, did it work?" And I said, "No, actually it's three at two point one." He looked so puzzled. A week before he'd done a session and gotten a great guitar sound and said, "How'd you do that?" and the engineer got into the one point eight or whatever. I don't really think in those kind of frequencies. It's much easier to talk in terms of things needing to be brighter.
The term I use a lot lately is "throaty" which isn't describing a frequency...
You can run aground if you start thinking of everything in frequencies.
Chris: A lot of engineers seem to treat tracking as everything having to be pure sound and then at the end you mix. I've noticed with you that even at playback you're triggering delays and dropping the drums out where don't think they should be. It's a more playful kind of approach.
On these tracks [the Walkabouts] I'm trying to think of what... When we come to mixing it will obviously be kind of fast so to have some time to try some things out is good.
I remember when Pell Mell were working with Tchad Blake [Star City]one of the comments they had was that he set up like a mix during every tracking session.
I think it makes it a little more playful. Everybody feels more comfortable because you're getting closer to it.
I do stuff in England with this guy Rollo, a producer, doing a band Faithless. We work with the SSL in mix mode and you also record. You're still overdubbing but as each thing's done it's put in to its place, reverb might be added. We've done tracks where we started in the morning with nothing but a drum loop and at 11 PM put down a pretty good rough mix. All you need to do a few days later is to recall and tweak a few things you really don't like and you've got it. At first it was a mindfuck, I tell you. It's so confusing. And even now there are days where you've got 56 channels of SSL in this configuration and you go, "I hope we don't have to track anything down" because it sounds good but what's doing what? You have to be very careful about how things are routed.
I take notes for ideas on my track sheets on effects ideas or mutes but sometimes I forget to look at the notes. I always worry that with the recall boards that we're gonna lose some of the spontaneity by working in this fashion. When you do come back to work on a song where you've saved the mix you're gonna still be working in the same mindset. You might not have an accidental fader up that might sound good.
That's one of the main problems with digital gear. They're bringing out a new range of it now which is more analog with pots and things that you really change. I think that doing a mix on the old manual desks in the '70's — you definitely work in a different way. Things happen which you'd never recreate. We're into an era, the '80's more so than now, where perfection is something they're after. Perfect timing, perfect tuning.
Over the period of time that you've been recording have you seen people's sense of rhythm, or the concept of what a rhythmically happening track is, change?
If you look back to the kind of drumming style of the '60's, since '79 onwards the drummers I've worked with are tighter. They're learning against click tracks and computers and I think everything, like it is in all of life, is just geared up a few notches from what it was in the '60's. Back then everyone was starting to open up but now it's much more efficient really.
But not necessarily better.
Well no. When something's perfectly in time or perfectly in tune... there's something about a record where the drums speed up for the choruses and slow down for the verses that still feels quite natural.
It worries me that over the years music is losing it's feeling in many cases.
Sometimes you stumble across some guy playing in a bar and appreciate what music is all about.
It becomes a context thing. It seems there are some kinds of music where that really works. To have this very regimented beat. Like Faithless or Massive Attack. You don't want it to feel loose.
I see popular music as becoming way too sterile but maybe that's been the case in one way or another over the years. I think all of us have worked on many things that haven't become popular though.
We just won this Grammy [best album in Norway for the recent Midnight Choir album that Chris and Phill produced] but in '72 I won this award in England from NME for best engineered record of the year. In that year I'd worked on Nilsson's "Without You" and I immediately thought, "It's gotta be that." I thought that was one of the best things I'd done at that point in time. I got the award for this little pop record by Sweet which was this little glam record...
Which song was it?
"Co-Co". Not one of their best. In perspective you kind of go, "Well, what are awards? What do they mean?" "Did it sell more?"
One thing about spontaneity. I think a lot of people have this perception that if you're gonna go to 48 tracks and use a lot of reels that what you're doing is making a Def Leppard record. Like you're working everything to this fine, fine point. I've noticed with you, that you use the slave reels, like in the Talk Talk sessions, to open it up to more spontaneous creation. You're not having to distill a track down to the essence of what it is. Instead it's like, "Let's track seven takes of the harmonica" and in the end we'll go back and compile something very odd out of it.
I think once you get past 48 that should be everybody's reason for using that many tracks. It's a sketchpad to try out stuff. Also, it's that mentality of every time you put the tape machine into record you get a potential master, something that you could use. We all got screwed up in demos, things that we never could recreate, and it was after Colour of Spring that Mark said, "Never will I make another demo." Part of that thing is that you can always be in record. It eats up a lot of tracks that way.
How were the tape decks set up for those records?
Everything was recorded to analog, 24 track Studer, but once we had all the backing tracks down we made up Mitsubishi 32 track digital masters. Everything was slaved up and you could take it from wherever you wanted to take it Anything that we really wanted to keep was on the Mitsubishi. Then we always recorded onto analog. We would do eight tracks of whoever came in and then bounce it to the Mitsubishi. We had five slaves per song but it was really to give us that amount of freedom.
But you wouldn't have all five decks running at once.
No, but we would have the "Mitsi" and two Studers so we'd have the 32 track and 48 analog. That's around 70 or 80 tracks. It's a lot of channels. That's the other brilliant thing. If you'd walked in on any of the Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock sessions and looked at the SSL, you'd see 50 reels of 2" and all the slaves are going and all the monitor faders would be up but you'd have just two mics up for days. We were using drum mics 20 feet away. Everything was very distant. You'd have just one mic up but at the desk you'd be changing all these different slaves.
The interesting thing is that on those records, as detailed as the sound is, the records sound very simple and open.
Like a band playing in a room. That's why I brought this up, because I get really tired of this knee-jerk reaction that if you're gonna use multiple machines and lots of tracks that somehow you're making this completely absurd "Celine Dion" record.
"Pour Some Sugar on Me".
I just think that's bullshit. It's just how you use the tools. The other thing, about how you overdubbed those records, people wouldn't hear lots of the other stuff that was on them. You would build these disjunctive creations.
It is tricky. Part of the problem is that when you describe some of the ways we did the Talk Talk albums people just think, "Well that's bullshit." "800 tracks." Like it's crazy arrogance. But the band often didn't even meet the musician and the musician didn't even get into the control room. They'd be kind of shown into the studio. We worked in total darkness so they were really out of their element. We had oil projector lights going and strobes, there was no normal lighting. We could send them anything in their cans [headphones] like the shaker and an organ. We might say, "Play to this." Of course no one knows what the structure is since there's no melody or lyrics. We would just piece together those kind of performances. Sometimes note by note. The record ends up sounding like five guys running through the tunes in the studio. It almost sounds like it's five or six mics just capturing these five guys. On a lot of the tracks that sound like that we used 80 or 90 tracks for background atmospherics. Drums on one track, bass on one track. When people hear that it was a year in the studio with 80 or 90 tracks they immediately think it must be...
It can be.
But can you make a record like that... I've had these discussions with Al from Midnight Choir, the band that we worked with, I argued with him that you can't make a record like that in a standard kind of four week block.
Maybe a year is too much...
I think you could probably do it, in the right environment, in three or four months. But the whole nature of working that way... you're almost saying you have no time limits on it.
You just need the time to experiment, really.
To record that amount of things and not have fixed ideas and really work out which things you want to keep. Sometimes compiling can take a while. With a lot of stuff we would record things in two or three hours; eight takes of whoever it was, on a track. It might take us two days to sort and choose and actually put together what we want to use. On "After the Flood" we had Danny Thompson come in and play bass and we gave him eight tracks, top to bottom, and we went through and sifted his bass we kept three bass notes. They weren't even together! We then brought in Joni Mitchell's ex-husband, Larry Klein, and he played. Loads of bass players came in and they were all playing different instruments. Some upright bass, some guitarron. The bass track on that, the feel is great, and it was made up some four different basses. In theory you think it wouldn't work. I think you could do those kind of records in, maybe, three or four months if you're not quite as much of perfectionist as Mark.
It seems a lot of the creative process becomes initial conception and then sorting.
We wanted to do those along the lines of chance or accidents but not coincidence because I don't believe in coincidence. But whatever it is, that just happened. It's a fairly unique way of approaching it.
What was your initial impetus for working this way?
For Spirit of Eden, when I first met Mark we were talking about my background and I was talking about Olympic in the '60's and working with Traffic and Spooky Tooth. He'd left and I didn't know at that point whether I'd be working with him and as we left I dropped him off at the tube station. As he got out of the car he said, "What sums up Olympic in the '60's for you?" I said, "It's got to be one o'clock in the morning, November 1967." It was a Traffic session I did. I was 17 years old and it was a new job. That particular night we were doing "Mr. Fantasy" and there was just this fantastic atmosphere with low lights and people were a bit out, wasted. I mentioned this to Mark and he said, "Oh, cool." After a few weeks I got a phone call saying he'd like to get involved. And we met up and went into the studio Mark said, "Let's set this up as if it's one o'clock in the morning, November 1967!" So we then used only equipment that was around prior to 1967. We didn't use Dolby or anything, apart from the Mitsubishi. We actually bypassed the SSL and just used it as a monitor. We went through Neve units and some things were plugged straight into the tape machine. That was, in a way, how that kind of got started. When EMI remixed some of the tracks from Colour of Spring it was deemed that the only way you could stop the record company from remixing your track was if all you put on there were things that were so decisive that they couldn't make any changes. That was really why the drums ended up being one track. If we just had one track of drums the record company can't remix the bloody thing. That's kind of the mentality behind it.
That's one of the best drum sounds I'd ever heard and I was a bit disappointed when I heard that it was one mic.
Well, truthfully it is two mics because there is a bit of bass drum mic in there. But that caused problems as well. Once we ended up with this one mic, thirty feet away from the kit, but there's this 20 millisecond delay from when he plays to what we hear so you can't feed him that in the cans. So you've got to close mic to feed him but for all the musicians playing with Lee [Harris], we had to delay 20 ms to put them in time with the drums. So the whole thing that initially seems so simple... But with Laughing Stock, there was no verbal, "Let's set it up like this." It definitely metamorphed into that way of working from the drum sounds.
Initially didn't you like their sort of pop records?
Well we've just gone full circle. I loved Colour of Spring. I saw a gig in '86 at the Hammersmith Odeon. As it turned out it was the last Talk Talk gig, but it was one of the best gigs I'd seen. I was really bored at the time. I was working on things I didn't particularly want to do. I saw them and I said, "That's the band I want to be working with." Literally a few weeks later I bumped into Tim Friese-Greene in a studio and I congratulated him on this album and he was totally shocked that anyone would say this was a great album. Even Mark, as difficult as Mark is, he doesn't have that ego. "Well I'm good." Two months later Tim called me up and said,"Are you serious? Come out and meet Mark." And I just mixed that gig that I saw in '86 as a live album. It's kind of full circle. A 14 year period.
You mentioned the record label remixing stuff from the Colour of Spring. Did they remix the album?
Quite a few things were taken off that and given to different producers. The album came out as it should have been. Then we did the Spirit of Eden album and that's where it all started to go wrong. We did it, the record company hated it, and they sued the band and me for "Technical Incompetence" because it wasn't commercial. It got thrown out of court. The judge was wonderful. But they changed the British production contract. It now says you must deliver masters that are "commercially satisfactory." I think that's even worse. The good thing might be that they couldn't sue you until a year after it came out! It's such a dubious clause. It's bullshit. Mark's attitude to the music business changed drastically after that.
After that you did the Mark Hollis solo album.
When we came to do Mark's album, he actually wanted it to sound like a '50's jazz album. I was sure that they basically used one mic in those eras. That's what we wanted to create. We just updated it to stereo. We set up a pair of Neumann M49's, old valve mics, cross cardiod, head high in a good sounding room. We brought the whole band in, all the people we were gonna use, which was a whole woodwinds section, percussionist and drummer. brought everybody in and played around with everybody's position. We eventually came up with a piano on the right, harmonium on the left, and marked everyone's positions and they all went home and we did everybody one at a time so we had control; well, we did the woodwinds as a section actually. But these mics were not touched; no level or EQ, they were just left there. Everything we recorded went down as a stereo pair. That ate tracks, obviously. The drawback is that, because they're valves they're not the quietest of mics. If you had everybody in there [live] and two hissy mics with nine people the hiss to volume ratio would be a lot better. We just built up a lot of valve noise.
Don't you start that album with 17 seconds of tape hiss?
The same thing with Spirit of Eden. It had so much background noise that we actually had to put in a hiss level.
Laughing Stock was pretty quiet. we used SR Dolby on that. Mark's album, we didn't use Dolby. We compiled stereo pairs. You do ten vocal tracks and then you start to compile. That's why I bought those headphones, to check that the vocal was in the middle. Things like that slowed us down. We lived in headphones a lot. That's where we lost time on that album.
Do you feel like that worked really well?
Yeah. It's interesting. It was designed, also, to play at a really quiet level. We tried loads of things. We wanted the record to always sound quiet...
You are running the opposite of the record industry!
We spent two or three days trying to find ways to make it stay quiet.
What techniques were you trying?
By making it incredibly mellow. No spikes; no leaps of dynamics. We came up with something that was actually quite good but we played it on another set of speakers and it was crap 'cause it was so extreme. We came up with the conclusion, in the end,that was either put on it, "Please play quietly" or, as I tried to point out to Mark, that you've got to leave people to their own resources. If you play it at a low level and sit about ten feet back it feels like they're in the room. It feels real to me now. It's all acoustic instruments. On all these albums we didn't use any effects as such. There's an EMT plate echo if we needed any and a DDL [digital delay line]. That's all we've ever used on those three albums. All the weirdness is created in the room at the source.
Is that fairly typical?
It's typical of the way I work. I use effects for an effect but I don't like things being in there all the time just taking up space. If you're making like a real pop record you can get away with ten different types of reverb and effects. We're working with a vast amount of air and space anyway. You don't need to put it in a space. One trap we found is that reverb added on a room sound never sounds right. It sounds kind of odd. The whole room is trailing off. You set up a different type of atmosphere. I think it's kind of more a real vibe.
One thing that it requires is that you need a good room.
That is very important. It's amazing how well a drum kit will balance in a good room. When you move the mics in closer and separate the kit into nine tracks that's usually when all the problems start. Then it doesn't sound anything like a real drum kit.
The thing with room micing, when you're really relying on it, is that the drummer really has to mix themselves. The burden is on the player. We can't fix it in the mix.
The other way, close mic'd, you can cheat more. You can even drop things in. If you go back to records made in the late '50's and '60's they had no effects back then. They had plates and chambers and spring reverbs but there were no other boxes around. Abbey Road built the first ADT [automatic double tracking]. They were always building little boxes then that had two knobs on it. "Try this out." They built little Leslie speakers to put things through. This way of working is moving backwards in a way. It's too easy to dial up these digital effects. I'm not a great lover of digital reverbs because it never goes off right. Digital ones always fragment to me when they get to the end of a fade. Tape loops, they're just fantastic. I'd forgotten that anyone would actually put something like that together. I remember in the '70's standing there with a pen.
When you're doing a loop for a long delay.
Why'd you do that?
There was no other way. I did a lot of things with Eno, after Roxy Music, which were all done with loops and he'd bring in one's that would just go around the capstan and the playback head. Other's would be huge things...
What record was that?
It was a whole mix of things. I worked on Here Come The Warm Jets and side projects of Eno's in '73. He was so experimental after leaving Roxy.
What is the mic you travel with and why do you bring it?
It's not as if it's the greatest mic in the world, but I have a Sony C48 which I bought about 15 years ago. I just love the mic for acoustic instruments, room mic, overheads. It's kind of a remake of the Sony C37. I just really like the mic. It has a quality to it that really works, especially for distant micing. I'm surprised that more studios don't have them. Most studios have the same collection of boring mics.
Tell us about the John Martyn guitar sound you got on One World.
Chris Blackwell has this house in England that's surrounded by this big gravel pit out west of London and we did the John Martyn album out there in '76. He has these converted stables which are little flats. We set John Martyn up in one of these with his guitar pedals and amps and everything with splits all the way through there after every gadget and the guitar. We had seven or eight feeds of choice of his guitar. We then got a large PA system and we pumped the guitar out across this lake, this old gravel pit, and then mic'd up the lake basically.
And you close mic'd him too. It's this very bizarre sound. You get this very direct sound but then there's this... It's very unsettling.
I've always described it as coming from another universe. This was 4 o'clock in the morning and the lake would go almost silent. We got birds and lapping water. One of the tracks, "Small Hours," is just one guitar with a few lines of vocals but it's such a full sound.