Some people are in the right place at the right time. Johnny Sandlin has been a player, producer and engineer since the mid-sixties. Members of his early bands went on to back Elvis Presley and to create the Nashville scene of the late '60s and '70s. Other bandmates included the young, undiscovered brothers Gregg and Duane Allman. Sandlin worked with the team at Muscle Shoals at the height of their popularity and went on to work with Phil Walden at Capricorn Records. He is a gracious man and an example of the complex reality of the musical South — a white boy whose soul was stirred by black R&B, a Southern gentleman with hippie credentials to die for and an engineer who has seen it all twice and remains rooted in home and family. Sandlin recently produced Beautiful by Bonnie Bramlett, for his label Rockin' Camel. He was kind enough to give Tape Op many hours of his time at his Duck Tape Music studio in Decatur, Alabama. His story is mind-boggling and his perspective on audio is invaluable.
What made you want to be a session player?
The first real band I was in was The Impacts, and it lasted through most of high school, but I had a pivotal moment in the tenth grade. I was friends with a sax player named Charlie Campbell who told me there was a band called The Mark V playing at Decatur High School. The band had a reputation. The piano player was David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan was the drummer, Norbert Putnam played bass, Jerry Saylor was the singer/sax player, Dan Havely played trumpet and Marlin Greene played guitar and sang. Every musician was the best I'd ever heard and it was awe-inspiring. I'd never heard musicians like that and I got to meet them after the gig. The Impacts had done a couple of tracks for a 45 over at Spar Studio, where Rick Hall first worked. I guess he must have heard about me from that. I got a call that Rick needed a guitarist over at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. I played with Dan Penn, Norbert, Jerry and David. I was fortunate to start at the top even though I wasn't nearly as good as a musician as any of them. I'm still friends with all of them today.
So your first time walking into a real studio and having to perform was with Rick Hall?
Of course I didn't know who Rick Hall was. When you worked for him you did it exactly the way he wanted it done. He would tell everybody what to play and insist that they played it the way he heard it. It was like a doctor's waiting room. He'd bring in three guitar players. If one guy didn't get it right away it'd be, "Next!" What gets you mad about it is that he's usually right. He has this way of embarrassing you in front of everybody and then being right about it.
You were in the right place at the right time.
During that period I met and worked with a lot of great people in Muscle Shoals. Spooner Oldham is a great piano player and writer. Dan Penn, who wrote "Do Right Woman" with Oldham, "The Dark End Of The Street" and "I'm Your Puppet" — ever since I've known Dan he's been my hero. Singer, writer, producer — you name it — Dan is the best. I met Donnie Fritz and Earl "Peanut" Montgomery, and eventually I got to play in a band with Roger Hawkins. It rivaled Nashville in quality, although maybe not in quantity. There was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section of Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson [see issue #26] and Barry Beckett. And a lot of great guitar players — Pete Carr, Tippy Armstrong and Eddie Hinton.
How did you meet Gregg and Duane Allman?
We were at the Spanish Village in Pensacola, Florida, playing for adults inside every weekend, and one weekend The Allman Joys were outside on the patio playing for the kids on the beach. From the first second you saw them you knew they were stars. They were so thin — it was almost unhealthy. Gregg was the best singer I had ever heard, Duane was the best guitarist I had ever heard and I knew then that I wanted to play with them. Eventually Duane called because their band had broken up, and we put the conglomeration together called The Hour Glass. Duane was just one of those people to whom everybody looked for answers. They lost their dad when they were very young and Duane played a father figure to Gregg. But Duane was magic — there are no other words to describe it. Country, jazz, whatever — he just always played in context.
How did you develop your ears?
I was crazy about listening to music and once I had my own record player I started buying 45s — Sun Records and Elvis. I could tell even back then which records sounded better to me. Some had a kind of distorted sound, and sometimes that was exciting. Others had a real clarity, and obviously that had its place too. It went with the label — Capitol's records sounded very different than Sun's records. I didn't have any idea why. It was just obvious to me — the way each instrument sounded different.
What made you transition into engineering?
I did as much session playing as Rick Hall wanted, but I was not one of Rick's top-dog players. I'd be out there playing guitar and obviously wouldn't be playing what Rick wanted. So he'd tell me to try the part on one of those Danelectro six-string basses — back then it was real popular for the six string to double the upright bass. I'd try that for a while and he'd say, "Why don't you try acoustic guitar?" Then finally he'd say, "Johnny, why don't come up here and help me listen?" I guess you could call that my introduction to engineering. Eventually I really wanted to produce. I felt like if I could engineer, I could control how the record sounded. I quickly learned that the sonics of the record were about who was playing and how open it was. Spaces are such an important part of music — there have to be spaces. A lot of what I hear today is just incessant. It never lets up. [laughs]
How did you learn the basics?
I learned from Jim Hawkins in Macon, Georgia. The first time I really tried to engineer was when I moved to Macon. Jim was cutting some tracks and I wanted to hear it done a little differently. He told me, "Here, turn these 'til you get what you like." The more we did, the more I wanted to mix it. Like everybody else, I came to hear it by overdoing it — it's the best way to learn. I would stay after sessions and practice mixing stuff. I could listen and see what happens when you over-compress something — how it changes the dynamic and how that instrument fits in the song. Listen to the loud parts. Does it vary it or does it let it sit on top of the mix? The only way is to do it wrong a couple of times and learn from experience. I knew nothing about compressors. You hear the mistakes and try not to make them again. The board we had in Macon was very simple. It was 16 inputs, about three or four outs and it was set up for three-speaker monitoring. You had left, right and center. I chose to monitor on just one speaker. I learned about equalizing, which was essentially a bass and treble control on the old Universal Audio modules. Eventually I got to where I could engineer a session by myself. I learned a few things about the tape machines. It freaked me out, watching somebody cut tape, but I learned to do it. I was fortunate enough to work with Tom Dowd. If there was ever a question that I just couldn't figure out, I'd call him and ask about it. He'd always have an answer and a workable solution. Eddie Offord lived in Macon for a while and he'd show me things the English engineers used to do, involving phasing and flanging with tape machines. But I'd always listen, and that's the big thing.
What do you listen for now?
Ideally, I get a visceral reaction. It hits me emotionally. I get excited or want to dance. That's the best way to hear it. Sometimes there's a song strong enough that that's my first reaction — and I love it. But then I take it apart and find out what makes it do that. I listen to the drums, then the whole rhythm section, the interaction in the stereo field, the sound and placement of vocals. I love good sounding records with great grooves. I'll perk up and enjoy even a bad sounding record with a great groove. But the song is the most important part. If you don't have that, you need to move on.
What do you look for in a session player?
Technique first, but attitude really — being able to get excited and interested in what's going on. Personally it may not be their favorite song, but I want them to approach it like it was — putting forth that effort. That's why I hire people. You'll come across people who will be great musicians, but are so hard to deal with that it brings down the quality of the session. Being passionate is one thing, and I understand their not wanting to compromise and I don't expect them to, but I expect them to look at alternatives. And it takes good taste.
You work in Nuendo now. What has the move to digital meant to you?
I started engineering on 8-track. In the old days you had a typical track sheet with drums on one track and bass, piano, guitar, vocal and background vocals on individual tracks. That left two tracks for overdubbing and whatever else. You had to prepare in order to bounce down. Background vocals, horns or strings would be cut on several tracks and bounced down to one track. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined having virtually unlimited tracks. The most popular and the biggest selling records I've done were on sixteen tracks. My favorite one, [Gregg Allman's] Laid Back, had everything on sixteen. It was only about five or six years ago that I realized I was going to have to use computers. Tape is in short supply and is expensive. My first experience recording on a digital multitrack was a short-lived one. I was cutting Widespread Panic in Nashville at Emerald [Sound Studio] on a 32-track Mitsubishi. I thought, "Thank goodness. I've got more tracks that I can work with." They rigged it up where I could record to both formats. I recorded the same song on the Mitsubishi and to a Studer machine. There was no comparison. The analog sounded musical, like what I'd just listened to. The digital sounded several generations down. It was like the life had gone out of it. The bass on the digital seemed to go deeper; but bass was more present on the analog. That was 1991.
Do you think digital has closed the gap in sound quality?
Digital sounds good enough now. I no longer have a multitrack machine, but I still mix everything down to tape. It kind of puts the digital mix back together, smoothes over some of the edges and makes it more musical. That doesn't close the gap, but it helps. I've been able to A/B a tape and a digital mix that have been all the way through the mastering process. I sent a 1/4-inch tape and an 88.2 kHz digital copy to Jonathan Russell at Masterfonics. There really wasn't much comparison — the tape sounded much better.
How have CDs affected your work?
Back then we were doing things in mono. We were cutting R&B records to be played on AM radio. When the LP was the final medium we had to take things into consideration that no longer matter. With a record, to have a good loud sound, you were limited to 40 minutes. The length for ideal volume was about 37 minutes. A lot of the Capricorn label's records were done with that in mind. When you master an LP, as you get closer to the center of the disc — say cut six on a side — the high frequencies are compromised by the inside groove. So certain songs sound better if they were not placed near the center. With two sides and a nine-song album you had to shuffle them around to where it made sense. The first CDs were pretty alarming. But the biggest change is the excitement. It used to be, "I've got a record coming out!" Now it's, "So what?"
Do you fuss over mixes?
With Bonnie's album I'm to the point that I can go back and listen to it now. I knew it sounded good at the time because I spent an inordinate amount of time mixing and listening — in the studio, in the car, on a little jambox. The great thing about computers is that when I am fatigued and don't want to listen to it any more, I can put it away and come back to that point. That's a huge advantage. I recently did some mixes the old way through the console. I have good sounding console, but it's not automated so I used some of the automation in the computer, as far as levels and turning things on and off. Mixing through the console sounds good and it's like a performance when you do it right. But there is always something that you want to fix and you can never get back to that point. With the computer you can program your mix, which is kind of a cold-blooded way of doing it.
You have seen some changes with recording equipment.
Nowadays most people don't even have a proper console. They have a collection of mic pres and a control surface, some kind of patching facility, the computer, converters and a clock. Even though I don't use my console all the time, I use it when I am cutting tracks. But for mixing it's hard to nail everything down at once. Back in the old days you just didn't have back ups. There was one mic to a track. The early live tracks I did with The Allman Brothers were done to 16 tracks. But I've made good albums on good consoles and I've made good albums on not-so-good consoles. You can use really inexpensive gear if you know what you're doing. You need a good song and need to make sure everything is recorded properly. But I guess improperly can work too. There are some good records by people who "kinda" had a good day. But there is something about having everything up in a good console. There's just a cohesiveness to the sound of a Neve, Trident, API or Quad-Eight.
Cheap technology has created a wave of novice engineers who do a lot of preproduction at home. How has that changed your world?
The worst thing I hear is lack of space. So many records are loud at the beginning, loud in the middle and louder at the end. There's never a dynamic shift and it just wears on me. Certain guitars can lie out for a section and come back in at the chorus. An instrument can be in one section and then left out for a section to call attention to it. Have places where not much of anything is going on, if it's appropriate. It's like whispering — people's ears perk up. It's one of the main things you can do to make it more appealing and interesting. But on the engineering side, it's people over-recording things — trying to make them too loud. I remember in the old days wanting everything to be louder. But as loud as it is now, everything gets lost. I do less in trying to push everything to the maximum level. The more you do that, the more uninteresting the song becomes. With every hit of the snare drum either you are being punched or you expect the punch and it just sort pillows itself away as it's grabbed by the compressors. Sometimes I like multi-band compression to fill things out a little bit, before it becomes obvious. You can always find something else to screw with, but it doesn't always make it better.
What advice do you have for inexperienced engineers?
Young people tend to think because something is there, that you should use it. Tom Dowd taught me that you don't do anything. If it's a guitar, you mic it. If it doesn't sound good, move the mic around and listen to it in the studio. If the amp doesn't sound good then find the place where it does. People should start out just trying to record the instruments and make them all fit together. Once that all works, once you can pull up a mix without any effects on it, then you can try peppering it up with things you think it needs. If you do it that way first it will make everything you do sound so much better. If it sounds good in the room, then it should translate to the audio you hear through your speakers. When you start piling a bunch of effects onto things you get lost. A lot of times you end up making it sound worse. I still catch myself with a bunch of plug-ins on something, tweaking it here and there. Then I'll decide that it's not sounding right, so I'll take them all off. Getting something to sound good at the source is the main thing.
Anything you do consistently for drums?
If drums don't sound good in the mix, is probably the tuning. If they aren't tuned well to begin with, chances are they'll never sound good. I have ways of tuning that ensure plenty of low end and punch in the bass drum. I look for a throaty, bright sound from the snare. You need to have all three of your top drums tuned so they sound like they belong to the same kit. We've all heard drum kits where you hit one drum then the next sounds like it's from a different kit. Most drums have a resonant frequency at which they're really happy. If you take them too far out of that they won't sound good.
I try to discourage their use wherever possible. Cymbals don't translate well digitally. I can't prove it, but I know it's true. When we were recording analog they did sound good. Tape used to smooth over the transient, whereas digital just kind of hits you in the ear with it. I've tried every kind of processing tool, including bouncing them out to my 2-track and bringing them back in, which is a pain but it can work. A lot of drummers just play them so much. When I came of age we played what I call Ringo style. It looked like he always had the hi-hat cymbals open about a half inch, just bashing the eight notes. But now, especially on FM radio, it's just awful.
What about guitars?
One of my favorite engineers that I met out in L.A. was Tom Flye. He said when he was coming up he asked somebody about guitars. They told him, "Nobody knows what they're supposed to sound like. Do anything you want with them." I think that's still true. I don't know how to explain what I look for in an amp's sound. I know it when it's not there. Acoustic guitars are always tricky, but I'm in the boat with most people where you mic it at about the 12th fret and a foot or two back, depending on the room. You try to get as much of the hole as you can stand until it gets boomy. I like the [Shure] SM81 for acoustics — also the [Audio-Technica] AT4051 and the [AKG] 414. But a lot of times it's the closest mic to the guitar!
What effects do you like?
I am fortunate to have one of the old hardware [Roland] Dimension Ds. I also use a really good UA plug-in version of it. I use slap back or tape echo — I have one of the old Roland tape echoes. I also have the plug-in, which I love for convenience. My favorite keyboard is the Wurlitzer, and I am blessed to have three of them. You gotta have tremolo on them — it's just a great effect.
I noticed that you use plug-ins pretty frequently in mixing.
IK Multimedia's AmpliTube is a good sounding effect for electric guitars. If there is something lacking in the amp sound it makes it easy to run a direct through it. It can add what's missing from the amp — a growl or some distortion. You can run your amp's sound to one side and the direct through the plug-in to the other side. PSP's VintageWarmer is a great sounding plug-in. To me it's more of a high fidelity sounding limiter and it's good for the overall track if you want to touch it just a little bit. You can mash stuff with it too, but I don't ever use it that way. I use it and the UA Precision Limiter. It seems to get the same effect with EQ plug-ins, you have to do more. My board EQs seems more responsive. I've compared the plug-in to the analog EQs, but they're not the same. Those URS plug-ins sound good, but they never have sounded the same to me. They just sound different. Putnam's UA stuff was the sound of the '70s. I like the UA plug-ins, but I started on a UA console — so back to the future.
Tell me about working in FAME.
Dan Penn put this better than I could ever put it. There is something special about things recorded at FAME. It's like they wanted to jump onto the tape. It just sounds good. And I've seen it set up in quite a few different ways and you think, "This shouldn't sound this good." The drum booth there is tiny, the same with the organ. The piano is no nine-foot Steinway. But everything in that room just sounds good. Some of the old Dan/Spooner demos recorded there still sound good. They have the characteristic of the time in which they were cut — but they still sound musical. People should listen to the new Jimmy Hughes collection [The Best Of Jimmy Hughes]. That's the early days at FAME. So the equipment has changed, but the studio itself has not changed much — except maybe the old echo chamber. People came from all over the country to size it up, but it's a storage area now, at least it was last time I was there. But they built Studio B in 1969, and that sounds good. The space itself is just magic. It's a rectangular room with a high ceiling, which is a plus for a good sounding room. The control room is built up some stairs, so it's about five feet up above the studio. But I can't see what would make it sound that spectacular.
But the house band left in 1969.
Originally Rick's first band was a great band with Norbert, Jerry, Terry Thompson, Earl "Peanut" Montgomery, sometimes me, Spooner and David Briggs. Most of them left him and I thought, "Losing that band... what's he gonna do?" But man, it didn't bother him or if it did, he went ahead and put together another one with Jimmy, Roger and David and Barry Beckett who came to be known as The Swampers. They didn't miss a lick. I love Rick to death. Everybody will tell you playing for Rick made you better and he's had more hits than anybody I know. It wasn't always pretty, but it worked. However, even when I worked for him later as an engineer, it was extremely trying. So Jimmy, Roger, David and Berry left in 1969 to form Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. By then people knew who the rhythm section was. And Jerry Wexler helped them open Muscle Shoals. I think he'd had a falling out with Rick. The original studio was a small room. It had a little drum area where Roger Hawkins would set up with a couple of low baffles built in around him and an area for the bass. Sometimes Duane would put his amp in the bathroom for attempted isolation. The place just sounded good. Funny thing, the restroom was right in the middle of the studio area where the band played. So if the secretary had to go to the bathroom, she had to wait for the band to quit playing. Some famous people carved their name on the wooden door to that bathroom.
What about sessions at Criteria Recording Studios?
The thing so special about the room at Criteria is the people who were there. In those days it was all MCI and Ampex. When the Capricorn Sound Studios were new, I recorded a Cowboy album in Macon and mixed it at Criteria. Actually Tom Dowd mixed several of those cuts there. Later I mixed [The Allman Brothers'] Eat a Peach in Studio B. Tom would have the faders backwards, those closest to you were all the way up. It always drove me crazy. He had a theory though. He said, "If it's something you want to hear, then you pull it towards you. If you don't then you push it away." You know it makes sense. Hell, he worked on the atom bomb.
And Capricorn Sound?
In the beginning we had a console built out of Universal Audio mic pres and line amps. Jim Hawkins put all of that together and built the patch bay. It was big and had the big rotary knobs, but it sure did sound good. We had very limited outboard with maybe four compressors — just a little EQ, with bass and treble controls on the mic input. The monitors were [Altec] 604Es. Those speakers really worked. You wouldn't think so because they were limited, especially in the bottom end, but if you got things right on them it would translate to any kind of system. I think we used the same speakers later when we had the MCI 16-track machine and MCI JH-416 console. I cut Gregg's Laid Back and The Allman's Eat a Peach on that. Eventually that was all upgraded to 24-track. The final incarnation of the studio had an API console and Studer machines and they all worked. We had a big space for the players and a great piano that had come out of Carnegie Hall.
Now you have Duck Tape Music.
In 1980 I had moved back here thinking I was on my way to Nashville. But I was born here and my folks were both ill, so I ended up staying around. I had to have some place to record. Originally the building I use for a studio was built for rehearsals with The Hour Glass, but at the time I also had in mind it would be a good place for a studio. I went from an 8-track Tascam to a 24-track Otari MX-80 when things started to get a little better in 1989. I had an old MCI JH-416 with some mods to it. It all sounded great, but it was a little troublesome. I augmented the MCI with an old Quad-Eight 16-input sidecar. Eventually I got this one, which is a later Quad-Eight, and it sounds good. In the early 1990s I went from 2" 24-track to ADAT. Then about six years ago I went to the computer.
Given the state of the music industry, would you try to open a studio today without your resume and your reputation?
I probably would. But that's not to say that it's a smart thing to do. [laughs] This is all I've done since I was a kid and I don't know anything else. Mac McAnally once told me, "If it wasn't for this we'd all be unskilled laborers." It's true, and I'm lucky to have a gig. My sympathies and admiration are with anyone that would open a studio now. It's hard without a track record, and I'm not as busy as I want to be a lot of the time. Now I'm involved with Carl Weaver in a record company — Rockin' Camel. We knew at the beginning it was going to be hard and it is. But we sure have made some good records. There has got to be a way to do it and we're going to figure it out. You can't make it on music alone these days. Unless you have a multi-million seller download, it's hard to make any money. I did major label records into the '90s. In the old days we thought it would never end. We never made any plans for anything. You know, "We'll just cut another hit record after this one." But of course all of those things do come to an end, much sooner than you expect. [laughs] And now very little of what I do is major label. Most of the work is self-generated through my partner, Carl Weaver and Rockin' Camel Records.
So the business has gotten considerably more difficult?
Right now it's not a very rosy outlook. At Capricorn Records I was vice president of the company. People catered to me and it was a wonderful time. Now you have to do all of that yourself. I am fortunate enough to work with my engineers, Jeremy Stephens and Andrew Hull, and they are nice enough to look after me. But there is more recording going on now than there ever was back in the old days. Every band you know of, even if they've been together a week, have at least one CD.
You have to be so driven and focused. The late Phil Walden, your friend and president of Capricorn Records, exemplified those characteristics.
I was predisposed to like Phil because he managed Otis Redding and a bunch of the other black acts that I liked. While I was working on sessions in Miami, Duane called to say that Phil was building a brand new studio in Macon and that he needed a band. So I went to take a look at it, and around July of 1969 I went to work at Capricorn. Between Phil and Duane, it was where I wanted to be. The studio was called the Otis Redding Memorial Studio before it became Capricorn Sound. Phil was magic. He had the most upbeat, positive personality of anyone I have ever known. He had good taste in music and he would find people and get you so excited about them that you would give them a chance. The people he had to prove things to, especially Jerry Wexler and the people at Atlantic, he would get them all excited about stuff. They were not excited about The Allman Brothers at first — they just couldn't see a band in which the singer wasn't out front. Gregg was hidden over behind the organ and the star of the band was the guitarist. Phil spent a lot of money at the time, and I know for a fact that he was about out of money, but he sold them. He convinced them that the band was going to happen. The last time I talked to him he wanted to put Capricorn back together. He had the city of Macon interested in it and investors lined up. Even when we both knew that he was too sick for that to happen, he never lost that inspiration, that fire. I think it was part of his success. Phil was a fighter.
Who else was important in your development?
Eddie Hinton. He explained to me what it meant to be a record producer. The first credit I ever got was a co-production with him and he got me my first job playing drums on a session. Of course Muscle Shoals had Roger Hawkins, so they really didn't need me, but Eddie would book two drummers on a session, using Roger and me. I was honored to do that. He was a good friend to me all his life. He'd have these songs with all these words that you thought were ad-libs. I wanted to cut a version of one, so I got him to write the words out. I didn't understand all the words on the vocal, even with the multitrack. When he wrote it out, without listening to it, every word was the exact word that he sang. Every, "Oh yeah." It was all there. It freaked me out that it was so accurate. Eddie wanted to sound black. He was white boy-sounding, but he wanted his voice to get rougher. I just love black gospel singers — there is a special quality to their sound. Otis Redding had it and Eddie got it. I think the definition of rock and roll is white boys trying to get that sound. Phil told me about the Monterey Pop Festival. Otis and Jimi Hendrix were the stars of that. You know he booked Otis on that, and he said to me, "You can put soulful music anywhere." I watched Otis' performance again recently and it's incredible. [laughs] You can't listen to it and be still unless you're dead. And of course there was Duane Allman. I can't imagine life without Duane. He inspired you to be your best and not worry if you had a bad night. He was a good, kind friend I could count on.