Ethan Johns would be of note to the recording world if only for his familial ties. Being the son of Glyn Johns and the nephew of Andy Johns, one might assume his entry into studio work was a shoe-in — but not so, as you'll see below. His current work with artists like Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne exhibits an organic approach to recording and a playing up of the artist's strengths that may seem at odds with much of the recording world today, but the success of these records also proves that he is helping deliver albums that people enjoy.
This interview was not an easy one to get. One of my best friends, Luther Russell, (see sidebar) was working with Ethan and suggested we all do an interview for Tape Op. On my first visit Ethan basically said no to an interview. His reasoning? What does one have to offer in this situation? Why would anyone want to read about what mics he uses on what and why would that work for anyone else? After hanging out at his Three Crows Studios for hours talking about music and recording, Ethan and I hit it off, especially when he realized I was a studio owner and record maker too. We did an initial interview about the impressive console his father had given him (see the other sidebar) and a bit of his history with recording. When I returned months later I was able to sit down with Ethan for a longer interview, though, unfortunately, Luther was out on tour. I think Ethan's work is some of the finest record production of our times, and his philosophies of recording and music are a breath of fresh air. Many thanks to Luther for starting the ball rolling on this!
How did you get into recording?
Dad gave me a set of keys when I was a kid and said, "These are the keys to the studio."
To the barn?
Yeah. He said, "You wanna learn about recording? Here you are." And that was it!
Because you had pestered him?
No, no. I'd been playing music on one instrument or another since I was a toddler and I'd always wanted to go into the studio, so he let me, "Go figure it out." His idea about teaching was [that] the best way to learn is to just do it. The only way that you get to figure stuff out is by jumping on it and coming up with your own ideas. When I was sixteen I left school and went to work for him full time for a few months, but he had already showed so much by then. I'd been a "t" boy off and on since and had graduated to tape jockey on a few projects, I knew how to wrap a cable but I'd watched him make records all my life. I think the music and the industry had changed on so many levels by 1986 he thought I should learn how to operate an SSL and monitor on telephones if I was going to support myself in music. He basically fired me and kicked me out of the house. "You wanna go do this? Off you go, fucking go get a job." So just like anybody else I would write to every studio in the country for six months every week until somebody finally said, "Okay. Come and make tea for us."
You did gopher work?
Oh yeah. I mean my first job at a recording studio was two months of cleaning out a storage space that had been basically left to rot for ten years.
You're a 4-track head too, right?
Absolutely. That's how I learned. The funny thing is that I very quickly set up my own recording situation. I had an 8-track in the vocal booth that was my little home.
What kind of 8-track?
It was a Tascam cassette 8-track but I'd had a Porta One for few years. I ended up getting a deal as an artist by accident. I sent a reel, a show reel of stuff, to this A&R guy looking for gigs as an engineer. I had such a small amount of stuff, there were a couple of things on the reel that were my own compositions and he called me up and he was interested in those and I was kind of blown away. I know what it's like to be in a relationship with a major label as an artist and I'm sure it formed a lot of my opinions because it was not the best experience for me.
Did you do a solo record?
I did do a solo record.
I've got to find that.
Well, it was the first batch of songs I'd ever written. The material was lacking. I can't sing to save my life. I sound like a drowning rat. It's a great sounding record. Jack Joseph Puig engineered it. And dad mixed it. It was an amazing experience for me. We supported the Beach Boys, so I found myself on stage without even really knowing what the hell was going on. All of a sudden I'm standing in front of a microphone and I'm going to entertain twenty thousand people at Wembley Arena.
Oh my god.
But again, just to be able to have that experience and know — it helps me understand the artists that I work with. It gives me fantastic experiences to draw on in conversation with them and to help them understand that I understand their predicaments a little better, perhaps. I think my passion for music is all encompassing, from an engineering standpoint and as a player. I love to play and make music on all kinds of instruments. I love playing bass; I love playing organ, doing string or orchestral arrangements, working on compositions. I owe so much to so many people [for] my education, which is still ongoing. I'll do any job. I was Daniel Lanois' roadie for a while. I'll carry his guitars around, just to stand at the side of the stage and watch him perform — incredible performer. I was very lucky to make three albums and tour with Emmylou [Harris] as a musician, which was an incredible experience just to be around her and Malcolm [Burn]. Her ethic is impeccable, her discipline — she's an extraordinary artist and a great writer too. I've been really, really lucky to have people be patient with me and teach me from a very young age. I mean, Charlie Watts was an extraordinary guy to be around, you know, even Eric Clapton, to a degree. I mean, these things stick in my mind because there's a reason why people are still talking about these musicians. Ronnie Lane was an amazing character as well. Getting the opportunity to play with Crosby, Stills and Nash was amazing, there are just too many — but what a combination of people. Holy cow!
You were playing drums with CSN?
I was playing drums with them and a little bit of guitar. Amazing opportunities to learn and get better. I have an ongoing pursuit to be a better record maker, because I'm still basically pretty crap.
When you say you track things live — like with Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams — how live is it? I mean, are we keeping vocals?
So what do you do if they mumble a word or something?
Well, it's not the take or we do an edit if there's dropout.
Overdub a word or something?
For the most part, like on Gold he re-sang one verse because he changed a lyric. Every other lyric, every other vocal on that record was cut live with the track. There was some editing between takes, not extensive at all — maybe cut an outro from something onto another take. But I would say that most of the records that anybody would be familiar with that I've done over the last ten years or so have been live vocals with the track.
With a situation like that are you putting them in an isolation booth?
Sometimes yeah and sometimes no. I mean Heartbreaker was open room, open mics. That was just the two of us tracking, for the most part. If you hear Gil [Welch] and Dave [Rawlings] on the track, they were there on the floor cuttin' live with us but that's primarily Ryan playing acoustic guitar and singing and me playing the drums.
How do you get enough isolation — say, on a vocal mic?
I tend to use the positioning in the room for the sound of the kit.
So where the vocal mic is, how much bleed determines part of how the kit is going to be built up, sound-wise?
Yeah. I think on Heartbreaker it's really evident and I think on the Ray LaMontagne record that's really evident too. Most of the sound of the drums on Ray's record is through the vocal mic and the acoustic guitar mic. And most of the sound of the kit on Heartbreaker is through the vocal mic and the guitar mic too.
How do you re-sing a verse then?
Well, on Heartbreaker we didn't do any vocals over and on Gold he was in a booth at Sunset Sound — we were separated.
If someone is playing electric guitar and singing — the kind of chime-y strum, the kind of sounds that come in, how do you find ways of working with that sound?
I actually happen to love that sound. There's a couple of great examples of that — there's a Tift Merritt cut where I may have even put a mic on the electric to get that. The first time I heard that I remember visiting Jack Joseph [Puig] and Jon [Brion] on Aimee [Mann]'s I'm With Stupid record — they had just mixed the track that Julianna Hatfield sang harmony on. Aimee was playing electric guitar and singing, and I think the amp might've been in a separate room, but you hear that pick on the strings, and it was just a great sound. You know, what it comes down to: the advent of multitrack recording and the idea that everybody has sort of been on this massive quest for isolation and control, can create a discrepancy between the sound that people are making and the sound that you are capturing. I am usually, in my basic philosophy, going to err on the idea of trying to capture whatever is going on in the room. This is something I learned from talking to my father about the way The Band worked live. I remember him telling me a story about recording them at the Isle of Wight, and they were one of the best sounding live bands. I remember him explaining it to me when I was quite young — it's really about the sound that they make as a unit onstage without any kind of significant monitoring. And if you look at a lot of the footage of the early stuff they're playing, they're making a sound...
On the stage.
They're balancing themselves. That instantly is going to create much better musical conversations with everybody because you're listening to everybody and nobody is getting overpowered. If the band is making a great sound you're playing to the sound of the room, and if you're doing that, recording that should be pretty straightforward. It's like setting up the Kings as a rock 'n' roll band — everybody's in the same room — you use amps that are appropriate for the room.
Volume-wise, and you get a fantastic sound. You can't really fake it. It's all about control; it's about controlling ambience. I guess if the sound in the room is happening, you should be able to capture it. I like the sense of openness, I like the fact that the drums are sounding big, or the bass sound on some of those Kings records, the sound is coming through everything and it's just fantastic. You just can't fake that, you know?
I remember trying to track in a smaller room, and trying to do all the instruments live and then the bass plays and the snare goes, "Shhhhshhhhhh." Do you find that using a larger room and being able to pull things apart a little bit, helps some of those problems?
Well, again, I don't really see those as problems, because you're controlling things for the sake of controlling things. I don't think people really care about that. I could be wrong and maybe there are a lot of engineers out there today who would think I'm nuts for thinking along these lines — it's just the way I think. It's the way I like to hear things. I like to capture a moment and if the snares are rattlin' a little bit I can't think of any music fan that's going to be listening to a record and go, "Oh my God, what a terrible job, you can hear the snares rattling!" That's what happens — drums rattle.
Sometimes you hear the "shhhshhhhhshh" and it's this tension-building thing that, when the drums come in, it explodes and you know that it's loud because you hear the snare rattle and that's the cue.
Sure. A lot of it's subconscious. It's like cutting records together. I'll try and space things on the 1/4"to not have any unbiased tape or leader in there. I don't know how many people out there now really listen to albums, but I still love that — putting a record on and listening to the thing as a complete piece of work. I really enjoy that.
What do you think as far as album lengths? Do you have any guidelines?
I think that the 12" LP was a beautiful accident, in a way, as far as attention span is concerned. I remember reading a book many, many years ago — someone I used to know was studying psychology and was at university and was looking into peoples' ability to effectively take in information and how long they could concentrate efficiently and the general consensus is that between forty-five and fifty minutes is the maximum amount of time you can sit and focus on one thing effectively. You sort of get diminishing returns after that. And it's true, you can take a sort of five-minute break at that point and refresh yourself and then you can get back into focus again. Forty minutes is a great guideline for me. I try not to go over forty minutes. I think that's a good amount of time for an album, to say what you want to say. I think CDs kind of screwed that up a little bit.
I think it's a lot to ask a listener — but again, it's like reading a book. You don't read chapters out of sequence unless it's a book of short stories. I like working in the context of creating something from beginning to end. I like taking the time to put on a record. I just think there's more value in it.
Do you find yourself, with artists, trying to trim it down from the beginning? "Let's focus here and keep it at this length so that it's a nice chunk of what you're working with?"
No. I'm trying not to be too precious about it. If someone has an idea and they're inspired to bring in new material constantly, I'm never going to dissuade them from doing that. Sure, you might beat something — that happened on the record I just did with Luther [Russell]. We lost several tracks and replaced them. In fact, we cut a new song three days before the record was finished. We were in there and it was just a mandolin and an acoustic guitar and a hurdy-gurdy and to me, side two was starting to really take shape and it gets simpler and simpler. And, without hearing the record, of course, it's hard to describe it but this track ends up being the penultimate track and it just seemed to be the perfect arrangement at that point in the sequence to come right down to just a couple of acoustic instruments and a vocal. Yeah, it made the record for me, and that came in at the last minute. And again, with Ryan — you never know what's going to pop up with him. I mean, Gold, he had played me a handful of tunes in the hotel before we went in to cut it. Some of them ended up on the record, but he wrote pretty much two songs a day. We'd come in and we'd dick around on a guitar for a couple of minutes and he'd sit down at the typewriter and write something and two hours later we'd have a track and that was it, we'd have some lunch. But then Ry carries a lot of words around with him you know? Different artists will respond differently to an environment. For instance, you may find an artist that needs the structure of going into a studio that is expensive and there is a restriction on the amount of time and it may put them into a really good frame of mind to work. Then there are times that you just don't even want to be aware that you're in a studio — certain people like Ray [LaMontagne], for instance, who is a very.... very inward fellow. He's shy. I like to be able to create an environment of security where you feel like you're not going to be judged on anything that you do, that you can walk up to any instrument and pick it up and nobody is going to be listening, you know? It's difficult to explain but people walk in here and they just feel comfortable. Immediately you're on the right foot. You're creating an environment where they're going to be comfortable enough to deliver a performance and, again, that's the goal!
When you set up to record, say, Kings of Leon, does it book like a project rate kind of deal? You just say it's going to be x amount of dollars and you have this space and it's not like you're billing by the...
No, I'm billing by the day. The studio operates like any other studio; only it's not available for rent outside my projects. But the upkeep and maintenance on this place is phenomenal.
Yeah, I would imagine.
Just the electricity bill alone is pretty considerable but I'm using a lot of gear that requires a lot of attention, a lot of maintenance, so yeah, my expenses are just as real as anybody else's whose space costs a lot of money to rent. The studio hasn't made a profit yet but I didn't build it to make money. I built it to make records and it's certainly provided me with the opportunity to record artists that don't have budgets, which is part and parcel of making music for the sake of making music.
When did you get this space?
About a year and a half ago.
The treatment on the wall, was that here already?
Yeah, it was a sound stage. There was a TV show in here. When I came to see the place they had a suburban house set. I had been looking for a nice, big open space. I like working in control rooms. Being in the same room with everybody else has been really a great challenge. Very exciting.
How do you get sounds, though? How do you know what's happening with the drums if they're playing right here and you're over at the console?
You record something and play it back. I think at this point I've recorded enough kits to know — to get pretty close on the first shot about what microphone I need to put where to get the result that I want to get. The recording process for me, I like it to be as invisible as possible, where often if a band comes in here and we start at eleven, we're listening to takes before lunch and we're listening to everybody. I'm not the kind of guy that will spend the first day or two getting the drum sound. We'll usually have a master by dinner. It's been a long time since I haven't achieved a master take on the first day. We'll be recording before anybody really knows that we're recording, everyone will come in it'll be just a very natural process and everyone is comfortable and all of a sudden, "Hey, guys, come check this out, that was really cool."
How much tape do you go through on projects like that?
It depends. Not a lot — I work on 15 ips, which conserves a lot.
Are you running tape with the IEC EQ?
NAB. I've got that 3M machine — that 16-track there. That's the machine we used for the Kings record, which has really got a great character to it, but my Studer  is a great workhorse it's a great machine. Particularly with the 16-track heads on it.
No Pro Tools?
I don't think necessarily computers are the problem. People have made fantastic records with computers but I think it's a lot easier for people to lose themselves in the process now. It can detach you and prevent and prevent you from getting into a room full of people and letting things fly and not being so precious about it — standing back and looking at things as a whole. I like complete takes.
I gathered that. Even multi-tracking really didn't kick in until '65 or something.
And even then it was so restrictive. The process is always going to be exciting to people. The thing about isolation and computers and so on and so forth is that I think most artistic personalities carry a little insecurity, particularly when it comes to recorded performances. It's healthy to a certain point. I think it is very difficult to get yourself into a position where you are comfortable and confident about what you are putting out there. It can really hold you back. It happens to me. You can get into detail now. I think people do and I think it's very easy to move past that point where the performance becomes secondary to other things. The beauty about live vocals to me — and I think probably why I'm so for it — is from a musician's standpoint I know what it's like to be on the floor cutting with a great singer. I've had so many fantastic experiences as a musician where I know full well that my performance has been elevated exponentially by a great vocal. I can name a hundred different persons, but the one that comes to mind is Linda Ronstadt. I was in a booth with her and Bernie Leadon and I was playing, I think, mandolin and Bernie was playing a dobro and Linda was singing and it was just an extraordinary experience and I know that I played so much better. Now, if she had been doing a guide vocal or if she hadn't necessarily been present or if I had come in to do an overdub — why deny a musician the opportunity to be inspired and to elevate his performance? You see it happen in a room when you're tracking live — when I'm up sitting at a console recording the Kings [of Leon], someone will get the bit between their teeth and it will immediately translate to the room and then that'll fire up Nathan [Followhill] and he'll kick on and then all of a sudden Matthew [Followhill]'s up and leaning in and, 'Wait! They're off. Fuck me!' You know, I mean, that's what you want. It makes my job so much easier. It's like, "Ah, there it is." It's amazing. The thing about those guys is the church element of it. It's so spiritual. I think that's why it's so natural for them to record live because they understand the power of what it is that they do. They're used to elevating a room. That's what they grew up doing. They'd go to a church and they would play to get everyone on their feet and testifying. I mean, obviously Caleb [Followhill]'s lyrics are extraordinary and they're really starting to explore. Musically, they're getting into some interesting territory. Those guys are going to continue to grow.
Yeah, I get that feeling.
Yeah! It's the real deal! To me, just to sort of make a point. There's nothing fucking safe about rock 'n' roll man, if those guys had gone into a computer session and been immediately isolated and been put onto click tracks and had just been focusing on drums, it would've been a different thing. Who knows? Maybe it would've still been fantastic, but to me the unique aspect of being in a rock 'n' roll band — that's what being in a band is. It's about a collaborative spirit. We're lucky to capture those kinds of moments. I think a lot of the records that are classic records that last — a big part of that is because that elevation of spirit is present on those recordings, so I'm going to do everything that I possibly can to create that environment for whoever I'm working with. I guess it's important to say at this point that there's no one way of doing things. If you're inspired by it and you're creative, no matter what you end up doing, to try and improve yourself and to get better as a record maker you're having to try and find new things and so there isn't only one way of working. Nothing is ever wrong if it gets the result. Nothing is ever wrong!
That's why we can do a magazine with so many interviews with so many people because there's no way to say this is right and that is wrong. I'm just so tired of trying to get a vocal take. Maybe it's because some singers can't sing as well as we'd like, or as well as they'd like, obviously, but that ends up being kind of tiring, whereas if that gets done right away it's sort of like this big relief.
I think it's easy to lose sight of the song. And again, because of the techniques that are available to us now, from a multi-tracking standpoint, you can really go off and spend huge amounts of time, stripping things down — which in some instances I think can provide incredible results — but the way I tend to work, if the foundation is not there from a take — but also, that's what I enjoy listening to. I enjoy listening to a take. I kind of feel a little bit cheated when you know you are listening to the same four bars over and over again and you know the first chorus is the same as the second chorus, do you know what I mean? The journey kind of gets boring.
Have you ever tried mixing within a computer?
I have, actually. I tried it. You don't ever want to dismiss anything — you want to explore. Any tool that's available to me to make a record, I'm going to be interested in checking out. I have tried several times to make it work. I don't know how to do it. I know that there are people out there who have learned how to do it. I can't communicate. I don't even use computers when I'm mixing. It's a very organic experience for me as a performance. I like to have my hands on the faders; I like every mix to be a take because it's the last chance that you get to instill an element of performance and excitement into the record. It can elevate the record phenomenally. Being in that moment, being inspired and grabbing hold — it'll translate, and it'll really translate. So, I'm not a big fan of computer-aided record making, but again, that's just me, personally. I know guys that do fantastic things with computers. I used automation on One Mississippi up at Wally Heider's place, mainly because Brendan [Benson] wanted to use it. He was really for it and I got well into it — we had a great time mixing that record and it sounds great, there's nothing wrong with it. And the mixes still have a lot of performance to them. They're very alive, those mixes. He's an amazing artist. It was intense, but then we were all in our early twenties at the time so we had the energy to put in those sixteen-hour days. It was fantastic, though.
What kind of length of days do you work these days?
Oh, not long, but I find that you can stay tuned in over a period of a week or a month if you pace yourself. You achieve more in a shorter period of time. I think the longer days with guys that have been doing it — I've been doing it now for nearly twenty years, it's just an awful long time, really. We'll come in, start at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening — it's time to go home. But we come in rested the next day and we're awake and tuned in. I think it's really healthy for the project. It's very difficult to lay down any kind of a rule for any artist. It's stressful not being a "career producer" or whatever you want to call it, but I don't fret about it. I'm very, very, very content right now. I'm still absolutely in love with what I do and I'm still incredibly inspired and I also consider myself so fortunate to be able to do what I do. I've been so lucky to work with the talent that I've worked with and everybody I've had the opportunity to record. I mean, so much talent and so inspiring. That's the thing: I'm not one of these guys that will hear a demo and go, "Oh, I know what I could do with this. I'm going to make this guy better!" I'm like, "I can't wait to sit down with this artist and make music with him." I feel like you just submerge yourself in these projects, like going in with Ryan, the world just sort of disappears for two weeks and you submerge yourself in the material. It's so challenging and so rewarding because you never know what you're going to get. There's always great music to make. I'm happy. I'm satisfied. I'm in the middle of making three amazing records at the moment. There's no budget so no money is coming in on them but I'm fueled by the fact that these records — everything I do means a great deal to me. I really believe in what I do, so it would be awful if I didn't get another record and I lost all this stuff, but in the end I'd be just as happy with a cassette 8-track and a Tascam, you know what I mean? It doesn't matter what you've got.