Paul McCartney lived in his house for two years. His mother was George Martin's music teacher. He is among a rarified group of five people (including Quincy Jones, Rick Rubin, and Greg Kurstin – Tape Op #135) that have won the "Producer of the Year" Grammy two or more times. Additionally, Mr. Asher has produced thirteen Grammy-nominated recordings and won a third Grammy for his live comedy album, Live 2002, with Robin Williams. He has been awarded 37 RIAA-certified gold albums and 22 platinum albums in the U.S. and many more internationally, working with the likes of the 10,000 Maniacs, Diana Ross, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Morrissey, the Dixie Chicks, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Hans Zimmer, and Billy Joel, among many others. He's managed James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Randy Newman, and was the original A&R person for The Beatles' Apple Records. He also co-founded Indica Books and Gallery, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono first met. As if that wasn't enough, he was also an original founding partner of The Roxy Theater in Hollywood.
Abbey Road Studios
A few months back, several interview opportunities lined up and what they all had in common was Abbey Road Studios, or, as initially known, EMI Recording Studios, built in 1929. John Baccigaluppi, Jenna Crane, and I were lucky enough to receive a comprehensive tour of Abbey Road in May of 2008, courtesy of Lester Smith from the studio's Technical Services Department. It was amazing to see these iconic rooms where The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Zombies, Kate Bush, Radiohead, and so many others had made world-changing albums. We've interviewed so many folks that began their careers at this famous building, and it's an honor this issue to speak with John Kurlander, Sam Okell, and Peter Asher about their experiences at Abbey Road.
Your mom taught music to George Martin?
He was just an average good student of my mother's. She met him again years later at our house. He was my sister's [Jane Asher] boyfriend's [Paul McCartney] record producer. My mom and George immediately remembered each other. She had taught him oboe, but he was never singled out for being a genius oboe player. But I don't think he ever intended to be, either!
What do you think is a key element in making records?
In a general, knowing when to stop. It is very easy to overdo it at every phase of making a record. Whether it is overdubbing, mixing, or recording a live band and you've just had the great take and then you're wasting time doing another ten takes. When you are mixing, and you want to over-tweak or EQ everything, you lose the magic that was there in the first place. Or when you're working on a song; the key is to know the moment when you realize maybe it is the song that is the issue. Maybe the piece itself that you're working on needs be rethought. Knowing when to draw the line is critical.
How do you determine that?
Listen, and don't get too obsessed about one detail. Like tweaking the snare for hours, when the drums themselves are the problem. Look at the overall picture and keep it all in balance. I produced the Steve Martin and Edie Brickell album [Love Has Come for You]. People were saying how well I got a "band" sound. Well, it wasn't done live at all. [laughter] I worked Steve's banjo for many days. We'd already done the arrangements. After we got the banjo perfect, we did Edie's vocals. Then I took everything back to L.A. and overdubbed one instrument at a time, and people were complementing me on the "band feel." So, who knows? The main rule is that there is no overriding rule. It all depends on the artist. Ask the artist what time they like to sing and where they want to record.
Have you done records where the lead vocal was entirely live?
We did some vocals with Linda [Ronstadt] that were live. Some of the best singers – who are stunningly great – are also the ones who tend to most want to re-sing a song to death to get it a certain way. At some point I have to try to point out to them that maybe they captured it pretty well on the live vocal or one of the earlier takes.
What is it that most people get wrong about making records?
I don't know, really. Producers know very little about how others do their job. We very rarely get a chance to watch each other work!
What was your first experience in a studio?
The very first time I was in a studio was the Peter and Gordon session, which included "A World Without Love," at EMI Studios in St John's Wood [later renamed Abbey Road], February 1964. We had six or seven hours to do four or five songs. I was thrilled to be in the studio. I knew I wanted to be a record producer pretty much the minute I entered that studio – [the thrill of] being able to tell musicians far better than me what to play.
What instruments do you find the hardest to record?
Usually something you have never had experience recording before, like some uilleann pipes. Drums traditionally are the ones with the most variation, because you can mic them so many different ways – room mics, close mics. The tom sound on [James Taylor's] "Fire and Rain" is a case in point. We spent so much time trying to get that right. He played it with brushes, but ultimately what was important was how Russ [Kunkel] played it; the feel.
What was the experience recording that song?
I loved the song the first time I heard it. I didn't know if it was a hit. We took a lot of time with the arrangement.
What's the longest session you've worked on?
"You're No Good" [Linda Ronstadt] went on for over 24-hours straight. We started during the day and were up all night.
What's the longest you've worked on an album?
Never years. A few months, at most.
With your work as a manager, how did you know that you would want to spend extensive amounts of time and energy with the artists?
Whenever I heard someone amazing. Like the first time James [Taylor] played me some songs, or I heard Joni Mitchell sing, or when Randy Newman sat down at a piano and played one of his arrangements. I get excited. Maybe that means that I go to one of their shows, or maybe it means that I get to work with them. But there is a genuine excitement.
I worked with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and he had a lot of tales about his influence in the UK between WWII and The Beatles.
It was all about America, at the time. Everybody was singing American songs. A folk fan, a jazz fan, a blues fan. That music was quite hard to get. One shop had Folkways records. I had a huge library of Woody Guthrie and bebop. We would get bootlegs, imports, and 10-inch records. Jack Elliott was pretty big. There was a folk hootenanny night on Saturdays with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. The [Rolling] Stones would play Mondays at R&B night at a jazz club. They were playing all American songs – Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley.
Skiffle was a part of this?
Yes, it was American songs done in a folk style. And the reason that it caught on was because it was so easy. All you needed was a washboard and 3-chords. Everybody had a skiffle band.
What are the key aspects of recording orchestras versus pop bands?
A really great room is the most important thing. And getting the best players. I must confess I do often prefer orchestras in London; the players are amazing. There is a great fixer there and there are a couple of great rooms to record in, whether it is Abbey Road [Studio] One or Lyndhurst Hall [AIR Studios]. We've also had good luck at Skywalker [Sound], because George Lucas built this huge amazing room and we were using the best of the San Francisco and Oakland Symphony. I do rely in a couple of great mics – [Neumann] M 50s. I rely more on them than close mics… and an engineer that knows what they are doing.
What makes a great room then?
The great thing about Skywalker is that it is changeable. Every panel slides in and out, and the room can change from totally dry to a giant, 7-second delay. That is the fun thing about the room. You can fiddle about until it sounds exactly as you want. The first time we took an hour or so trying different configurations. Lyndhurst Hall sounds fantastic. Most of it was built as church – not to be a studio – and then they tweaked it a bit.
Have you had experiences where the orchestra can't cope; that it's taking two or three times longer than it should?
Orchestras never used to be able to play to a click. Classical feel is very different. The conductor is always behind rock ‘n' roll's pace, and the conductor pulls the note out a little late. Now orchestras are capable of playing entirely on the beat. They'll play totally together, and totally in tune. If they have a great first violinist that knows what to tell the others and is leading them, it makes all of the difference the world. If it's a quagmire, you have to do something. You simplify a part, or have some of the musicians play separately. You have to do something, because everybody has their meters running; you've got to get it done and find a solution. If a part is really proving to be insurmountable, you leave it out. [laughter]
How do you communicate with musicians that don't sight-read?
I sing them some ideas and parts. With strings, we have the luxury now of working with samples that at least give the idea of how it might sound.
How much preproduction do you tend to do?
I like to know my way around the songs we are going to do. Maybe not note for note, but I like to know them pretty well and learn to play them. That way I can get a clear picture of what we want to accomplish. There's a lot of preproduction. A lot of it might only be in my head, though.
What are the main differences between studio recording and live venue recording?
I'm not telling anybody anything. I'm just trying to get everything on tape and worry about it later. I'm trying not to interfere as little possible, to be as unobtrusive as possible. In some cases, I'm even recording without letting the artist know; without them even knowing it's happening. For example, I once did a week at the Universal Amphitheater with James Taylor without telling him, since he had a tendency to get so self-conscious. I try to stay out of the way, make sure everything goes to tape, and then sort it out later.
How much editing do you tend to do?
The James Taylor album we did was completely live, selecting takes from different nights. Maybe we fixed one or two mistakes, but it was an entirely live album. There are many live concert albums where people will replace one thing at a time, and by the time they are done there is nothing left live but the audience. But I don't mind how they did it, as long as it sounds great when I listen to it. I don't mind how they got there.
What is your setup for live performance recordings?
I always spilt the signals so that the existing mics went to the truck as well as to the PA. I seem to remember that on some early James Taylor live recordings we added a couple of additional mics, in some instances, for recording only, where they would not be in the way – like an additional kick drum mic, for example. With more recent live recordings there's no truck any longer – we were splitting everything into an interface and a laptop! We did the Robin Williams album that way – one vocal mic and a lot of room mics for the audience – and we won a Grammy for it. The hard part there was not the recording, but the editing!
What are your thoughts on digital versus analog recording?
The biggest change is the infinite number of tracks. You can keep adding. You have to be careful. When we had 4-tracks, we dreamed of 8-track. But no one was dreaming of 5,000 tracks; which you can have now, if you want them. There is an infinite number of everything. It's not always a good thing. Sometimes I take all the plug-ins off, I see where we're at, and then start again. You can get carried away thinking that. Just because you can do something, then does that mean you should do it? I try to be careful. I prefer to have a source that sounds good to begin with going in.
Your recordings feature a lot warmth. What do you attribute that to?
One tries to capture a warmth both sonically and emotionally. I consult extensively with the engineer about which mics we're going to use, as well as the sound. But once that is all set, I focus on the performance, feel, and mood. But I do pay attention to what is going on, as far as mic setups and routing.
When did you make the transition from analog to digital?
Instantly! [laughter] I instantly embraced digital. People say, "Oh, you were so lucky to work in the tape era." If they only knew – carrying reels of tape, azimuth, aligning heads, and waiting for the machine to rewind each time. Then I'd move to another studio and have to carry all that shit around. I am incredibly glad to be rid of it. [laughter]
What pieces of gear are indispensable for you?
I have a [Telefunken ELA M] 251 mic that has been tweaked a bit. I love it for vocals. I have an omni B&K microphone; they made one for me and one for George Massenburg [Tape Op #54, #63]. I usually will take those to whatever studio I go to; but if I don't have them, it doesn't kill me. I'd just use something else. I like [Neumann U] 47s. There are certain old mics that I find hard to live without. But there're some pretty good new ones, too. I have pair of Sanken mics [Sanken CU-44X] I use for acoustic guitars and piano that are amazing. But nothing is indispensable. If somebody said, "Here's all we've got," I'd say, "Fine," and we'd make a record with it.