Immersed in the world of recording since the age of 15, Glenn Brown wears many hats. With Michigan as his home base, Glenn has followed his Midwestern roots and developed an incredible work ethic. From Greensky Bluegrass to Spinal Tap, Glenn has been able to jump genres with ease. Throughout his career he has covered every area of the recording studio. Not only does he engineer, produce, mix, and master records, he also designs studios and recording consoles. Those who have met and/or worked with Glenn can testify on his skills, knowledge, and kindhearted demeanor. I sat down with Glenn to reflect on his recent Grammy win (Billy Strings’ Home for Best Bluegrass Album), and to talk about his journey as an artist in the recording business.
Photo Above: Glenn (L) punches in on the MCI JH-24 while CJ Vanston plays on Oberheim Four-Voice modular synth at Lansing Sound Studios.
How did you get into audio?
I started as a guitar player when I was 9 years old. Somewhere around the age of 13, I was playing in bands, and I became interested in recording. Everybody was hit with The Beatles and all the cool music in the late ‘60s. I got fascinated with the recording process, and I wanted to get a job in a recording studio. My mom happened to know people at the local TV station. She took me down there and said, “My son wants to work in the studio.” They had a beautiful audio studio; there was an 8-track Ampex tape deck and this cool Electrodyne console that Jim Diamond [Tape Op #57] later ended up with. I wanted to work there, but they said, “You’re too young. We can’t hire you.” They recommended I go work with this guy [Bob Baldori, #128] in a local studio, Lansing Sound. I went over there, and I immediately got a job. The first day I raked the leaves. Three months later, I was the chief engineer.
How old were you at the time?
I was 15. I was in a little over my head. It was a 4-track, 1/2-inch Ampex AG-440, and a couple of 2-track Ampex decks. They also had a bunch of other tape machines that we’d use for slap echo. They had a plate and a chamber [for reverb]. It was an interesting experience trying to track records to four tracks with the drums and bass, and maybe even the rhythm guitar, on track 1.
What year would this be?
In 1972. After a year or two of this, I was trying to go into quad mixing – everybody was discovering quad mixing. With a 4-track deck, you can’t really do that. It’d be difficult. I was playing in bands with Bill Laswell [Tape Op #93]; we were in there all the time, trying different experimental recordings. That’s what got me going. After quite a few years, I started my own company. We got a Studer A80 24-track and a Neotek console. It was a good experience to have my own company. Trying to make a living on making records is hard in Michigan. There’s not a ton of work. There’s work, for sure, but it’s definitely not Los Angeles. The music community here in Michigan is cool. There are definitely good groups. People struggle and work hard to get where they’re at. People spend a lot of time woodshedding and getting good on their instruments.
I’ve always attributed that to that Midwestern work mentality. Dig in and get to it.
Yeah, that’s true. The Midwest makes you work hard, and your working mentality is different. When I go to New York, or somewhere else, I’ll see that a lot of people working in those studios are from the Midwest. But that’s how I started. We had that studio for ten years.
Was that in Lansing?
Yeah, that was here in East Lansing. We worked hard to get where we were at. We did a lot of orchestral work and a lot of film scoring. We did jazz, blues, rock, hard rock, and heavy metal. Everything was coming in the door. I was doing a lot of punk. I had a lot of bands coming out to record. The Testors came out from New York; they were a punk rock band from the Dead Kennedys-era. There were a lot of alternative, weird music scenes happening here in Michigan, and we were tracking a lot of experimental music. I recorded bands like Twenty-Two Cave Gods and Tribal Dance Method. There was this whole scene of new music. We were able to survive. We had five employees at that studio. I was working seven days a week in order to pay everybody’s salary and keep it rolling. That eventually had to stop.
Were you into production at this time, or were you strictly engineering?
I would do either one. I considered production a little bit bigger of a deal than somebody simply coming in and scheduling a session and recording. That’s not producing. If somebody wants me to produce, we have to sit down, look at everything, decide how it’s going to work, and spend some time with the songs. We’ll arrange, orchestrate, and whatever we need to do for the particular project. That all led to me starting my own company, separately, and slimming it down to make it more efficient. We had built up a massive amount of equipment over the years. I still have Studer [tape] machines and a huge pile of old tube gear.
I’m sure you’ve had to maintain all of this as the years went on, and you learned that as well?
I had to. If we don’t maintain it, it’s all going to fall into chaos and then it doesn’t work. Then what happens? I’d either have to maintain it, or spend a lot of money on somebody to repair it. So, I learned to repair it. When I was a teenager, I was studying electronics, so it did help to start into that. I spent some time here at Michigan State in East Lansing for a period of time, studying computers, electronics, music, and a huge variety of subjects. Those studies of acoustics and physics at Michigan State were key to helping me with my acoustical design work. I’ve designed hundreds and hundreds of studios now. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve been surviving, as there’s always going to be something to do. It can get a little intense when everything is banging on all cylinders though. All of a sudden, I’ve got six records I’m working on, three studio designs, mastering work, and whatever else, all piled up on top of each other.
You could still work seven days a week for 12 hours a day.
Yeah. Unfortunately, my wife thinks I do, because even when I’m at home I’m sometimes working until 2 or 3 in the morning on the computer. But that’s typical.
Congratulations on your first Grammy award, for Billy Strings’ Home.
Oh, yes; thank you!
I know that Greensky Bluegrass was sort of your foot in the door to working with Billy.
Greensky Bluegrass was the first bluegrass band I heard here in Michigan, where I thought, “Wow, I like these guys!” A lot of the bluegrass bands that I’d worked on in the past were more traditional bluegrass bands. I’d recorded lots of bluegrass and folk. Even back into the ‘70s, I had done a bunch of different bluegrass records that were traditional. I was never huge on straight-up bluegrass, honestly. I was more of a jazz and electronica guy. King Crimson and Yes. I felt like, “Let’s go a little more ‘out,’” right? Can we take bluegrass and do that with it? When Greensky showed up, that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted to run their instruments through amps and put Echoplexes on them. Maybe they’d let me play the Buchla synthesizer. Next thing you know, I was doing these weird, warped-out records that are like Pink Floyd meets bluegrass. It was fun! We did a couple of albums. That led to Billy Strings. He was in the Ionia area, not super far from Lansing. He was a heavy metal shredder when he was growing up, but he had deep roots with his family in traditional bluegrass, a big fan of all kinds of music. His dad brought him up well, playing albums from everybody. Billy could play any of this. He has a natural gift. When Billy came in the door, he had been woodshedding for some serious time. He was playing some songs that were not necessarily traditional bluegrass. Shredding guitar over some bluegrass-y instruments? Nice! That’s where we started with Billy Strings. I did Turmoil & Tinfoil; his first album. It was tracked to tape and pretty much played live. There are maybe only one or two lead vocals that were not done live. The background vocals were done as overdubs. I love that type of tracking. Generally speaking, I do that a lot with blues bands, or bands that can play live.
Ones that can pull it off.
We’ll track live, including the vocal. Maybe we’ll replace the vocal, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to isolate the vocalist. I’ll have them in the control room, if I have to. I’ve done that for years; I always track live if we can. For some other records we can’t do that, so then I have to piece it together. Billy and Greensky play everything live. Maybe there are one or two songs where we isolated off the vocal. It was only because Billy felt it was compromising his performance on the guitar. He couldn’t nail the rhythm track if he was going to sing.
There are a lot of complex rhythmic parts going on there that could throw him off.
It always fascinates me when I have people who can sing and lay back the vocal, yet also play the groove a little bit on top of the beat.
Like Levon Helm [The Band]?
Yeah. It’s always fascinating to me when I hear that, because it’s a two-brain thing. It’s fun to see people do that. That’s no easy feat.
You did the two Billy Strings records. How many Greensky Bluegrass records have you done?
I don’t even know. Maybe six or seven. We’re doing a new one right now; a double album on vinyl. I’m waiting for test pressings, and the CD will be coming in a while. Those guys are on Thirty Tigers [independent label services], so they get distribution and everything.
Were some of their sessions at Echo Mountain [Recording] in Asheville, North Carolina?
Yeah. A bunch of the sessions have been here, too. Even on the new album, we cut the drums here for one of the tunes, some vocals, and a couple of overdubs. We tracked a couple of weeks at Guilford Sound in Guilford, Vermont, which was a beautiful, solar-powered studio. We tracked to Studer tape machines. The band loves to track to tape. A lot of studios aren’t maintaining their tape machines anymore. Echo Mountain has a Studer A800 and Neve 8068 console, which I feel at home on. I love Neve 8068s.
And you had one for a while as well, right?
I had the Muscle Shoals [Sound Studios] 8068. When I bought that on January 5, 2005, they closed Muscle Shoals. I kept it for ten years and then ended up letting it go. Not because I wanted to, but because all of a sudden there was a bidding war going on. Dr. Dre called and wanted it. Tony Bongiovi [Tape Op #127] was calling about it from Power Station. I ended up selling it to somebody in Europe.
What about Spinal Tap, and your connection with them through CJ Vanston?
I met CJ back in 1979. He was the first guy I ran across who was into the same vibe of music that I was into. He was listening to fusion, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and all the prog music. He could play all of it. He’s a badass. Plus, CJ was from this area. When I was playing in a band in the mid ‘70s, we were trying to get him, but he was in a bunch of show bands at the time. I ended up working on a couple of different albums, including a solo album for him, at the studios that I had at the time. We hit it off and did a bunch of work together. We even started my company that ended up being the bigger studio. But I didn’t want to hold CJ back. He was burning to go to Chicago and Los Angeles and try to find his way. I didn’t want to be greedy and try to force him to stay here. He went to L.A., and he was hitting it off with a bunch of people out there. One thing led to another. It was funny, because CJ and I were watching Spinal Tap in his mother’s basement when he’d come back to her place for the holidays one time. We were sitting in the basement, smoking a spliff, watching Spinal Tap, and laughing. About six months later, CJ called me from L.A. and goes, “You’ll never believe who I’m working with right now. Spinal Tap!”
He was working with Spinal Tap. It was the original guys, after the movie had been out for quite a while, and now they were going to record an album [Break Like the Wind] and do some tours. And who’s the keyboard player? CJ! The next time I was out in Los Angeles working on something, C J says, “Hey, do you want to help me with this Spinal Tap thing?” Next thing I know, I’m mixing these pieces for Christopher Guest for some of his movies. It started with [Guest’s remake of] Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. I was mixing some of the underscore music they had done, which was the very beginning of The Folksmen, Spinal Tap’s fictitious folk group. I mixed a bunch of those tracks, uncredited, that are in the film. Then they got me working on Christopher Guest’s next movie, which was Waiting for Guffman. I also worked on his film Best in Show; I finally got credits on that. But then I looked at the credits, and it just said, “Music recorded at GBP Studios,” my studio. In 15-foot letters too.
When they were doing the Spinal Tap Back from the Dead album, I ended up working on tracks for that when I was out in Los Angeles. There was this one song [“Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare”] that they needed an evil laugh for. Christopher Guest goes, “Let’s hear your evil laugh” to everybody, and then everybody did their best evil laugh. He got to me, I did this nice evil laugh, and they said, “That’s it!”
Did you finally get credited with your name?
I did! In fact, the record was nominated for a Grammy [for Best Comedy Album]. That was my first Grammy nomination. Ed Cherney had mixed most of that album, but I mixed the track with my evil laugh on it. That was pretty fun.
How did you get into designing and building studios?
In the late ‘70s, the place I was working at, Lansing Sound, wanted to build a new studio. Even when I first started there, when I was 15, they were doing some construction in the back room, building a chamber and more. I got to be part of the construction process of that. Then the owner decided that he wanted to buy a piece of land a couple of miles from where the other studio was, build a house, and build a studio on it. I got to be involved in the design of that. It happened to coincide with me studying acoustics at Michigan State.
What a great way to learn.
It was awesome. I spent months working on it. My physics professor, Bill Hartmann, came over and he goes, “What are the dimensions?” I gave him the dimensions, and he says, “Oh, that’s pretty good!” He starts reciting the acoustical decay times based on just the numbers. He’s a math genius, and he was calculating all of the axial mode resonances, and all in his head! It was a good learning experience. From there, I started building studios for myself. We built our next studio from the ground up; I designed the whole thing. It was a great learning method to go in and construct it. I saw how walls are framed, and then I could draw framing better. That started a journey where eventually people started having me design their studios. In the ‘90s, it turned into a real career. I wasn’t quite ready to do approvable blueprint sets yet, but I wasn’t far off. Working with a few different architects on projects taught me a lot. I was making my own blueprints, and they started having fewer and fewer red marks on them. I did 25 studios for CBS at one point, over a two-year stretch. Since then, I don’t know how many studios I’ve designed, but it’s hundreds for sure. I probably have done a good six of them this year alone, and we’re only halfway through the year. I ended up doing recording studios for a bunch of places in Detroit. I did Harmonie Park Studios, which then led to Eminem having me design a studio for him. That led to Kid Rock. I started building these studios, and soon everybody wanted one. Producers wanted one, and the people who were working with them wanted one. It’s part of the whole process of how it develops.
That leads us to your studio, Glenn Brown Productions, which we’re sitting in right now in East Lansing.
It’s a small, humble place, about the size of the original Muscle Shoals studio; 1,700 square feet. It’s pretty tight. I’ve got a lot of gear in here. I need a bigger space just to house the gear. I’ve got eight tape machines in my attic. But fixing the machines, and keeping them all running, is always an issue too. Something is always acting up. When I was mixing a recent record, I had a couple of compressors start acting up. The API 2500 Buss Compressor went down, so I had to repair it. That was a critical part of a couple of mixes. In order for it to sound similar, I ended up going to tape instead. I’ve got an Ampex ATR-102 with Flux Magnetics heads, 1/2-inch. I still have a pile of GP9 tape. That’s the key right there; it sounds better than all the other tape.
You’re giving people the experience of how many of our favorite records were made. Is that fun for you?
Oh, yeah. If people want to get a “vintage” sound, a lot of times it’s about having some controlled leakage. Everything shouldn’t be isolated, because that makes a dry-sounding recording. Some leakage and ambience on the tracks can be a real key to that. That’s one of the reasons I like to do folk albums. I put everybody in the room and mic them all up, and there’s leakage galore. If you have a good-sounding room, getting the leakage is a pretty awesome scenario. I work to get the right leakage by picking mics that sound good off-axis. I have to spend a bunch of thought on it to get it to sound good with the leakage. I can’t randomly throw a bunch of mics up.
You have a pretty amazing mic collection here.
Yeah. Part of that is slowly collecting them, being lucky, and having them literally walk in the door. It started out with the [AKG] C12 [condenser mics] that I’ve got. A sequential serial numbered pair. One of my interns showed up, and was like, “Do you know what this mic is?” I saw it was a C12. I said, “Where’d you get this?” He said, “Oh, there’s another one.” I had to buy those. It’s tough on a tight budget, but I was fortunate enough to start doing this before they got totally ridiculously expensive. I’ve amassed a pretty nice collection of mics, no doubt. I love Josephson and AEA mics. Those are beautiful.
Tell us about the console you’re working on with Fred Hill.
After I had that Neve console, the 8068 from Muscle Shoals, I wanted to build a console that would provide that sound quality, but also be a little more reliable, with solid switches and some up-to-date signal path routing. One that might work better for the way I was hybrid mixing; in a workstation environment, going out to an analog console. I end up doing these hybrid mixes that are in-the-box and out-of-the-box. It ends up on the console essentially, through the EQs, channel strips, and compressors, and even using the faders. I can sum it out of the console, or go back and record the stems back into the workstation. That was why I built the console, to try to come up with a simple path to allow better production utilizing a console in a workstation environment. The console is designed to be a standard in-line console, but with a focus to give me features that would work well in hybrid mixing. It has turned out to be pretty cool, because we’re using such ridiculously high-quality components. Gold pins and gold vapor-sealed relays. We can spend $1.50 on a switch, or $9 or $10 on a switch; we’re buying the good switches. It ends up being a lot more extravagant, but also much more reliable for 25 or 30 years. Fred Hill is the guy for that. He’s done so many of the legendary consoles, starting with Leon Russell’s custom-made console that he built back in 1970 for Shelter Records. That console was legendary. He customized Capitol Studios’ Studio B Neve console [Tape Op #114]. What Fred does is modify the Neves in a very simple, clean way. Anybody who works on one of those Neves can hear it and go, “Whoa, this sounds amazing!” He’s cleaned up and simplified the audio path in some of the areas where it might have gotten a bit of a shortcut when originally built.
You created a company out of filling this void?
Yes. It’s called VectraSonics Analog Mixing Consoles. Fred and I decided that we’d go ahead and build three of these, and maybe even set up to build more of them. If people like them, we’ll build more. We’ve got three center sections all done. We’ve got 100 modules built for the three consoles. I’m very excited about it. We built a small console as a test rig, and that sounds fabulous. It’s beat out everything we put it up against, including the 8068, as far as its summing bus. We’re excited about it.
When do you anticipate the first one hitting your studio?
I would have said, “Last year.”
I know you’ve had some parts issues with the pandemic.
It slowed us down. It’s been a struggle to get some of the parts, as everyone else is experiencing as well. Especially for discrete, through-hole parts, which is what we’re doing. I’m hoping that maybe in a couple months we’ll have the first one assembled. It’s not very far.
I know you’ve done lots of parts testing.
To evaluate all the choices of Neve-style amplifiers – with feedback, no feedback, and controllable feedback – set us back a year. The buyer can pick which amplifier they’re going to use, whether it’s a 2520 API-style, discrete Neve-style, or if it’s a hybrid amp that we designed that won our listening tests. We had to listen to ten different transformers. They can pick whichever transformer they want, too.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I’ve worked on all sorts of records, in all these formats of folk music, rock, and acoustic music of all kinds. Back in the ‘80s, we were doing a lot of heavy metal. I worked on a whole bunch of different records. When albums come out, they’d think that I was a heavy metal guy. I worked on a couple records, and then I’d get calls from the record labels that are doing heavy metal. Then the next thing I did was a folk album, and they’d think I’m a folk guy. Then I end up doing this bluegrass record that gets a Grammy, and now I get all these calls from bluegrass people. But what I’m more into is jazz or weird electronica. I always try to do something that’s really tripped out, if I can!